New scenic byway proposed for Southern Colorado

New route would trace historic Denver and Rio Grande Railroad

The northwestern section of the proposed Denver and Rio Grande Railroad scenic byway designation, ending at Durango, in the top left corner.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Combine 2,000-year-old Native American culture with early Spanish explorers, trappers and mountain men, then add in a dash of railroad lore and a sprinkle of mining legends and you have a perfect recipe for a classic American history tale.

One of those stories played out in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, where the Rockies meet the high desert, and where a long-running advocacy effort may pay off with a scenic byway designation for the historic route of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. The goal of the designation is to preserve and promote some of the last surviving remnants of the historic narrow gauge route that was integral to development of the region’s mining, logging and ranching industries.

Railroad water tank and bridge at Navajo-2. Photo courtesy Robert McDaniel.

The Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway Commission this week voted unanimously to support the designation, spurring formation of a support group to  help with the nomination process and with an inventory of the cultural and scenic resources located along the route. The designation process is rigorous and proponents of Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Narrow Gauge Scenic Byway is looking for public support.

“We will be conducting an inventory of the historic and scenic qualities of the route, identifying travel needs and requirements and will summarize the findings in a written nomination,” said Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad president John Bush.

“The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad would like to recognize and thank the Durango & Silverton Railroad for their financial support in this important project.  We look forward to working with all interested parties to help us get the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Narrow Gauge Scenic Byway designation established,” Bush said.

A proposed new scenic byway would follow the historic railroad route between Chama, New Mexico and Durango, Colorado.

The byway route along existing roads between Chama and Durangoconnects the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad and the Durango & Silverton Railroad — the   last surviving segments of the original narrow gauge rail route that served the mining, logging and ranching industries of the San Juan Mountains.  Both railroads are National Historic Landmarks. The automobile byway will use existing roads that people can drive today.  The anticipated designation date is August 2014.

A byway designation could boost tourism in some of the most remote and undiscovered parts of Colorado and New Mexico.

“Establishing a Denver and Rio Grande Narrow Gauge-themed byway is important as it will help people understand the vital role the railroad played in the development of Northern New Mexico and Southwest Colorado,” said Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad commissioner Dan Love.

“Providing the missing link between the two surviving railroads will enhance people’s experience while adding greater appreciation of the West as a significant part of our nation’s heritage. The Chama-Durango route gives the traveler a chance to step back 130 years to a time with no automobiles, when the railroad provided the connections between Chama, Durango and the outside world.”

The proposed 110-mile byway will pass through beautiful wild country along the Navajo River, and through the lands of the Southern Utes and the Jicarilla Apaches. Potential stops include ghost towns, old railroad structures and scenic vistas in wildlife-rich areas.

In New Mexico, the route will go from Chama to Dulce on US Hwy 64 for 44 miles and from Dulce to the state line for 10 miles on Jicarilla 9.  In Colorado, the byway will go from the state line to Navajo Reservoir on Archuleta County Road 500 for 25 miles; from the Reservoir to Ignacio on Colorado State Highway 151 for about 20 miles; from Ignacio to Oxford on Colorado State Hwy 172 for 10 miles and then on to Durango in another 10 miles.

Jill Seyfarth, Cultural Resource Planning, Durango, Colo., was appointed May 5 to lead Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Narrow Gauge Scenic Byway project.

Seyfarth said the designation would be a high point in a career dedicated to preserving the historic places that helped give shape to today’s cultural and human landscapes.

“I look forward to helping tell that story for future generations,” Seyfarth said.

The National Scenic Byways Program is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. New Mexico and Colorado each have 25 state-designated byways.  Of the 25 in each state, New Mexico has eight of the 126 Nationally Designated Byways, known as “America’s Byways”, and Colorado has 11.

Since 1992, the National Scenic Byways Program has funded 3,174 projects for state and nationally designated byway routes in 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. The U.S. Secretary of Transportation recognizes certain roads as All-American Roads or National Scenic Byways based on one or more archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is jointly owned and operated by New Mexico and Colorado.  The National Park Service recently designated the railroad as a National Historic Landmark.  It is the highest and longest steam-powered, authentic, narrow-gauge railroad in the U.S. The passenger railroad travels over its historic route between Chama, N.M. and Antonito, Colo.


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