by Gregory Raven October 1999
Being a fan of the Narrow Gauge, I have collected about all of the books that I could find that cover the DRGW 3 foot lines. I have 3 books on the subject of "The Chili Line". I have always been intrigued by the Narrow Gauge branch from Antonito, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
For some reason I am most interested in Taos Junction and Barranca Hill. Taos Junction was primarily to serve the town of Taos a few miles to the east. A stage line brought passengers to and from the station. This stage line must have been a wild ride, especially since it had to dip through the Rio Grande Gorge.
Barranca Hill was one of those legendary 4% plus grades on the Narrow Gauge. About 10 miles south of Taos Junction, the edge of the Rio Grande Gorge is reached. The grade plunges over the edge of the canyon and makes its way to the bottom of the gorge, finally reaching the railroad's namesake the Rio Grande River. This hill is the stuff of many stories of runaway trains and wrecks.
Since I visit the Northern New Mexico area almost every year, I decided to plan an expedition to find and explore these locations on the old DRGW branch line. My father, who lives in the Sangre de Cristo mountains during the summer, provided transportation in the form of a brand new SUV. I think he enjoyed exploring the railroad almost as much as I did.
Here is a log of our expedition. All of the links are to images taken with a digital camera. Use the "back" button on your browser to return to this page. I hope you enjoy our story.
Tres Piedres is the starting point of the adventure. Not only was this a stop on the Chili Line, it also has a major Ranger Station for the Carson National Forest. First stop was to check in at the Ranger station and ask about the road from Taos Junction to Barranca.
One of the employees (don't know if he was a Ranger) showed us the road on the map. He said it was easily passable. Also I asked about Barranca hill, which is outside the boundary of the National Forest. Actually it is located on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. Thus a hike down Barranca Hill would not be on private land as I had previously believed.
A new Carson National Forest Map was purchased for $4.00. This map shows some sections of the Chili Line grade as a dashed line.
A fairly well preserved water tank remains at Tres Piedres. Horses enjoy using it for shade:
A nice smooth paved highway somewhat follows the grade of the Chili Line to Taos Junction. Looking through the Pinon trees to the east side of highway 285 you can occasionally see the grade.
Taos Junction is about 19 miles south of Tres Piedres. Look on the west side of the highway for "Maria's Taos Junction Bar and Cafe". We stopped inside to ask Maria the exact location of Taos Junction, and she said "over there on the other side of the highway". After purchasing some beverages for later consumption, we drove a short distance south to the junction of Highway 285, Forest Road 567 (paved and heads due east), and Forest Road 557. #557 is the road we were told would take us to Barranca.
Exploration of Taos Junction
Backtracking from the highway junction, the remains of Taos Junction were
found. Not much is left. I hope someone can identify this structure. It is a
rock rectangle that was adjacent to the track, perhaps ten yards long by two
yards wide. Here is the best image that I could make. Weeds obscure most of the
Stone Structure at Taos Junction
Perhaps a coal loading dock or the foundation of the water tank ?
A few yards north of this structure is a telegraph pole. I believe this
marks the location of the depot. "Maria's" can be seen in the
Telegraph Pole at Taos Junction
In very close proximity to this pole, a few bricks and some pieces of
chimney were found on the ground:
Remains of the Taos Junction Depot
The entire area was covered in black coal dust.
Driving the Grade to Barranca
Leaving Taos Junction south towards Barranca was a pleasant surprise. Forest
Road 557 follows the railroad grade ! This has to be one of the smoothest and
straightest Forest Roads you will find anywhere. Here is what it looks like as
you pretend to be a Chili Line extra chugging south towards Barranca Hill:
Forest "Road" 557- You're on the Chili Line !
This road is easily navigable by car IN DRY WEATHER ! There are a few ruts here and there, but most of the route is on soft sand. I don't think I would attempt this in a 4WD vehicle during the monsoon season, or anytime after a heavy rain. It was very, very, dry on this trip so it was a very pleasant off-road and on-grade experience.
The trains must have made good time on this section of the railroad, as it
is a very light grade with practically no curves. This continues for almost 10
miles. Finally you clear the trees as the approach to Barranca begins. Note
that this is a junction of roads 557 and 557G. 557G follows the grade the rest
of the way to the Hill.
Clearing the Trees
I had to put another image of the grade here. Why ? Look at the tracks in
the road. They are literally black with coal dust ! Coal is everywhere along
the grade, mostly small marble size chunks, but we did find a few larger
Driving on Coal
There was a bit of confusion as we approached the edge of the Hill. An east-west fence seperates the National Forest from the BLM land. We followed a road along the fence for a few yards before realizing we were no longer on the grade. It turns out that the grade turns downhill very close to a large steel corral. You can't miss the corral. Also the corral provides a convenient ladder for hopping the fence.
Down Barranca Hill
Barranca Hill is much more impressive than I had imagined. You really have
to hike the hill to understand. From a flat plain you plunge into a lava cut
that makes you wonder how this was ever done with primitive tools. The upper
part of the hill was literally hacked through lava boulders. A bit further down
the hill, the boulders were used as fill. Here is an image that just doesn't do
justice to this incredible monument to early railroad building:
Starting Down Barranca Hill
A bit further down the hill, you can see how the lava rocks were used as
fill to make the railroad grade:
The original builders must have found this hill a perplexing piece of
geology. First they had to drill and blast through igneous rock, and then
through pure sand ! Here is one of the expedition members entering a large cut
Railroading through Sandstone
Numerous artifacts were found scattered along the downhill grade. Here's
some metallic pieces that were found lying on the grade:
A few steel artifacts
Few critters were seen along the way. I would guess that most species are
nocturnal in this very dry region. Here's one critter found blocking our path:
Can anyone identify this snake ?
This harmless creature was about 4 feet long, white with two black stripes running down its length. More about snakes later.
Two wooden drainage pipes were found. Here's one of them:
Wooden Drainage Pipe
About a half mile down the hill the remains of a missing trestle was found:
The First Trestle
Very little of the bridge timbers were found. Were these trestles burned ?
This spot was good for photographing the grade as it makes its way towards
Embudo. This image is larger format, so it may take some time to view. The
grade is seen on the right, following the canyon wall as it makes its way
towards the Rio Grande River:
Looking Downgrade towards Embudo
A second trestle ended our hike. Here you can see some bridge timbers on the
opposite side of the gap:
The Second Trestle
Another artifact was found near the bottom of the trestle, this time a
narrow gauge tie-plate:
A tie plate still spiked to a tie
Hiking back up the hill it becomes apparent that this hill is REALLY STEEP.
It is hard to imagine the mighty struggle of the little engines as they barely
made it up this section of the hill. I've got to believe that this hill was the
equal, if not more difficult than Cumbres. This larger image attempts to
capture the steepness of the grade, but you really can't get a feel for this
stretch of the railroad without standing there wondering why in the hell they
decided to do this:
Steep Grade from the lower right to upper left
Searching for Barranca Station
Barranca actually had buildings and (I believe) a wye for turning helper engines. We did a ground search near the corral for evidence of foundations or other indications of these structures. Not finding any, we got back in the SUV and started for home. Back at the junction of 557 and 557G we noticed a flat area covered with much coal. I will have to check my books later to confirm that this was the actual site of Barranca Station.
A Quick Side Trip
The forest service person had told us that a road from the junction of 557 and 557G would lead us to the edge of the Rio Grande Gorge. So we decided to have a look. Sure enough, about a mile east we found the edge. We were able to stare into the gorge and see the Rio Grande River, and further south the village of Pilar. A very ancient trail was observed starting at the rim of the gorge and spiraling down towards the river. Before leaving I decided to walk this trail a few yards to assess its condition.
Only a few yards down the trail a swift moving blur and a loud buzzing sound announced the presence of Mr. Rattlesnake. I commenced to break my personal record for vertical jump, but there was no time to record the new mark. This snake was extremely healthy and highly aggitated ! I yelled for my digital camera, which was back in the SUV. Dad found it and quickly delivered it to my in my fully stunned state. Dad said he thought he heard one of Mr. Rattlesnakes serpentarian buddies, but (fortunately) he was not seen.
Mr. Rattlesnake was told to pose for the camera. He did remarkably well at
this. In spite of my trembling hands, his portrait came out quite nicely:
Advice for Chili Line Reconaissance
Hiking down Barranca Hill requires good boots. There are some sections where you will be required to walk over lava rocks. In fact, just down the hill an avalanche requires you to hike around the grade over some rough terrain. If you hike past the trestle locations you will have to descend and ascend some steep rock strewn hills. AND as the incident above makes clear, POISONOUS SNAKES LURK IN THE ROCKS ! I've heard heavy denim blue jeans can not be penetrated by the average rattlesnake. I have no intention of testing this theory. Hiking shorts are RIGHT OUT ! Snake-bite resistant chaps would be good insurance.
Of course the usual precautions of carrying adequate drinking water, first aid kits, etc. as needed in back-country travel are recommended. Railroad spikes were found in the road (railroad grade) which could easily penetrate the most robust steel-belted radial. Be prepared !
This little adventure far exceeded my expectations. The exact location of Taos Junction was located. It was a pleasant suprise to find 10 miles of driveable grade between Taos Junction and Barranca. The grade was lost at the top of Barranca Hill, but was quickly relocated by following the trail of coal dust ! The hike down Barranca Hill was awesome.
Comments on the above are welcome. I'm sure there are things that we missed. Surely some others have visited the same locations. Let us know what you think !