Tracks Across Borders

By Eilene Lyon

On a recent camping trip, I took the opportunity to discover portions of Colorado’s newest scenic byway (which continues into New Mexico). Called “Tracks Across Borders,” this byway follows the historic route of the narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande Railroad between Chama and Durango.

(I’m one of those people annoyed when state lines are called “borders.” Borders are between countries.)

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad at the station in Silverton, Colorado. (E. Lyon 2015)

The D & RG was the country’s longest narrow gauge route in its heyday. Most of the track has been pulled up. The rails never reached as far south as the founders intended—Mexico City—but it did circle through the San Juan Mountains and into New Mexico as far as Santa Fe.

The two sections remaining today are the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (Chama, NM to Antonito, CO) and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which anchor the ends of the new byway. It appears that the creation of this scenic route did not come with any funding for interpretive signage, so if you follow the route, don’t expect to find any, at least not in Colorado. Maybe New Mexico did a better job.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad at the station in Chama, New Mexico (E. Lyon 2013)
Riding the Cumbres & Toltec, the highest narrow gauge railroad in the country. (E. Lyon 2013)

If you ride either of these historic trains, having ridden them both myself, I highly recommend shelling out for premium tickets. The basic fare will get you uncomfortable seats and access to open cars and the snack stand.

You can follow the byway starting at either end, or somewhere in the middle. I took Trujillo Rd. (Archuleta County Rd. 500) south from Pagosa Springs, a graded gravel/dirt road that follows the unspoiled, rural San Juan River all the way to Navajo Reservoir. You will pass the Trujillo Cemetery. Later, where the county road heads westward, you can continue south then east, past the Juanita Cemetery and on to Dulce and Chama, the New Mexico portion of the route. In poor weather, 4WD is recommended between Juanita and Dulce.

Old railroad bridge along the San Juan River, west of Juanita. ( E. Lyon 2021)

After a brief drive through Juanita (mostly a private ranch, the cemetery, and some abandoned buildings), I turned around and continued on toward Navajo Reservoir. Some old railroad bridges still exist along this stretch, where the Navajo River merges with the San Juan.

Soon you will come to Pagosa Junction, where Cat Creek Rd. meets the Trujillo Rd. There are numerous abandoned buildings, many associated with the rail stop here. I can’t call it a ghost town, exactly, because there are some residences nearby, as well as this church. The area is all part of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation.

Railcar in Pagosa Junction. (E. Lyon 2021)
Collapsed water tower in Pagosa Junction. (E. Lyon 2021)
Church in Pagosa Junction (this is as close as you can get). (E. Lyon 2021)

When reaching the intersection with Hwy 151, you can make a side trip northeast to Chimney Rock National Monument, part of the Chacoan cultural network (be sure to check for open dates ahead of time). Turning south will take you to Arboles and Navajo State Park (Colorado side). There is plenty of camping available at the park.

The twin spires of Chimney Rock National Monument. (E. Lyon 1990)
An abandoned church in Allison. (E. Lyon 2018)

Stay on 151 heading west through Allison until you reach Tiffany. Take La Plata County Rd. 328 south for about a block, then turn right onto County Rd. 321. Though not officially on the byway (which follows the highway), the railroad came this way. Just north of Tiffany is a part of the Old Spanish Trail (not accessible). You can visit a church on the state historic register and see several original town buildings nearby.

Iglesia de San Antonio in Tiffany. (E. Lyon 2018)
Interior of Iglesia de San Antonio in Tiffany. (E. Lyon 2018)
Old Tiffany townsite buildings. (E. Lyon 2018)

(On this map, blue is the driving route, purple is the Old Spanish Trail, red is the historic railroad route.)

County Rd. 321 leading north out of Tiffany. La Plata Mountains in the background. (E. Lyon 2018)

County Rd. 321, a graded dirt/gravel road, will take you all the way to Ignacio, the next stop on the byway, but you might want to pause at Fox Fire Farms. They have a wine-tasting room with lovely gardens, farm tours, and sometimes live music. Though I’m partial to reds, my favorite Fox Fire wine is their summer Riesling.

Herd of buffalo (bison) along County Rd. 321 between Tiffany and Fox Fire Farms. (E. Lyon 2018)

In Ignacio, be sure to visit the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum and perhaps the casino (I’m not an advocate of gambling, but they have restaurants and a nice bowling alley, too). From Ignacio, you follow Hwy 172 and Hwy 160W to Durango and the narrow gauge railroad in historic downtown. There are many other things to see and do in the area, so plan to stay several days—and say “Hi!” when you get here.

Feature image: Rails and siding converge near an abandoned railroad bridge in Pagosa Junction. (E. Lyon 2021)

P.S. The Putterer is back home now, so I probably won’t be on WP much for the next couple months.

Sources for more information:


37 thoughts on “Tracks Across Borders

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      1. From what I hear camping has become so popular since the pandemic began, the stores that sell RVs and campers cannot keep them in stock and the campsites are booked months in advance. You were lucky to get away with nice weather to boot.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s true! Same with bicycles. Totally crazy with the pandemic. I tried to buy a bike last summer and the stores were sold out. We almost didn’t get the van (it is a used rental and the prices kept going up, up, up!). Here in the Southwest, sunny weather is almost always a given. Question is will it be hot or too hot?

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      3. I heard that not only buying bikes, but also repairing them was taking forever as well. I know that rental cars and van fleets were partially sold as no one traveled in 2020 and now it’s difficult to get any rental car. Crazy! While I don’t like our hot and humid Summer, I’d like having warm, even hot, temps all year around, especially for walking. A friend of mine and his wife just retired in New Mexico about 4-5 years ago. He researched the city with the most sunshine year around and he and his wife moved to Las Cruces, NM

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Great photos. A number of years ago (2016, I think) we drove from Denver to Santa Fe, taking back roads for a good portion of the trip so we could see more than the highway. I wonder if it overlapped at all with this route (although if I remember correctly we were in NM for almost all of the non-highway portion). Your photos remind me of the scenery we saw along the way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your line about borders vs. state lines brought a smile to my face. My dad, a career Navy man, always corrected me if I made the mistake of calling a state line a border, and today, I get irritated when I see or hear anyone else mixing up the two.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Any time someone mentions an historic railway, I instantly just picture Michael Portillo sticking his fat Tory head out the side and blowing the whistle. I can’t remember if he made it to either of those on one of his American series, but I’ll keep an eye out for them and try not to let him sour me on them if so. I have a bit of a love/hate thing going with Great British Railway Journeys.

        Liked by 1 person

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