Trail of the Month: October 2006
Cloud Climbing Rail Trail, New Mexico
Located in the pristine Lincoln National Forest of south-central New Mexico, the Cloud-Climbing Rail Trail network boasts a rich history in geography, engineering feats and volunteer organization. Four segments comprise the Cloud-Climbing Rail Trail: Trestle Trail (2.5 miles), Switchback Trail (3.2 miles), and Grandview Trail (1.3 miles) with a little help from the Cross-Over Trail, the project of a local Eagle Scout.
The allure of the lumber in the Sacramento Mountains brought the railroad to New Mexico before the area was even mapped. The Alamogordo & Sacramento Mountain Railway traveled between Alamogordo and Cloudcroft and was built 13 years before New Mexico became a state. Though primarily used for hauling lumber, passenger excursions could be purchased for $3 round-trip from El Paso and the money supplemented the income from hauling logs.
Moving at a slow crawl for much of the trip, trains pulled passengers and cargo up steep 6 percent grades and through hairpin curves. The trains traveled 26 miles over 58 trestles and climbed to 8,600 feet, making the A&SM railway the highest standard gauge track of its time. Throughout the years, the introduction of internal combustion engine trains and a state highway led to the decline of the railroad and in 1947, the tracks were torn up and sold as scrap.
For 50 years the right of way lay unused. Then, in 1990, Tom Springer, a former physicist with Rockwell International in Los Angeles, retired to Cloudcroft and remembered the trains of his childhood summers. He sought to create a trail that would provide access to the stunning vistas along the right of way, and with the formation of New Mexico Rails-to-Trails Association (NMRTA), he achieved his dream.
The Cloud-Climbing Rail Trail begins as the Trestle Trail in the Trestle Recreation Area in Cloudcroft. From there, it winds upward through crisp firs and pines, making way for breathtaking panoramic views. The White Sands dunes glisten in the sun 30 miles away and even farther away, the sun sets spectacularly against the San Andreas Mountains. This trail also offers stunning views of the two most prominent trestles: "S" Trestle which is 338 feet long and 30 feet high; and the Mexican Canyon Trestle at 323 feet long and 60 feet above the canyon floor.
Several miles and 800 feet below the Trestle Trail lies the Switchback Trail. These two trails are separately accessible but also connected by the Cross-Over Trail.
In the lower hills of the Sacramento Mountains, the Grand View Trail winds through the Grand View Curve where trains would have slowed to a crawl, allowing passengers to view the 360 degree panorama. It is not formally connected to the upper trails, but you can use the highway right of way to walk from Switchback to Grand View.
The recently hand-reconstructed Salado Canyon Trestle completes the lowest section of the trail, tracing the train's path around a double-horseshoe bend. The NMRTA is currently working to acquire the Tinley Trail which would formally connect the Salado Canyon Trail to Grand View Trail and take the trail past views of a spectacular 45 foot waterfall. Together, the four trails cover vastly rugged and unique terrain, including five different climate and vegetation zones from desert to sub-alpine. Interpretive signs showcase the native wildlife and the history of the railroad. Along the way, there are shelters, benches and picnic areas.
Cloudcroft offers a variety of places to stay when you come to explore this hidden corner of New Mexico. There is the historic lodge which features the restaurant Rebecca's. There are rustic cabins tucked away amongst trees, and the Lincoln National Forest has 10 campgrounds in and around Cloudcroft for those that like to rough it.
When the railroad was discontinued, highway construction obliterated some sections of the right-of-way and others are privately owned, but little by little, Tom Springer and the NMRTA are piecing much of the railbed back together into a vast network of trails. They hope to eventually finish a 65-mile loop from Cloudcroft down to Alamogordo and back.
Thanks to Katie Bruhn, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy intern, for contributing October's Trail of the Month.