Rocky Mountaineer Colorado
by Jessica Pook | 28 June 2022
The royal blue-and-gold carriages look familiar, as do the crisp sky-blue shirts and neat waistcoats of the train's welcoming team, and I recognise the same palpable sense of excitement and anticipation over the journey that lies ahead.
But this time I am not joining the Rocky Mountaineer train in Vancouver, Canada, but stepping aboard in Denver, Colorado.
I have been invited on the second running in 2022 of the iconic train's first-ever route in the USA.
Over almost two days, the Rockies to the Red Rocks trip will take us around 354 miles from the Mile High City to Moab in Utah.
After a short bus ride from the Crawford Hotel in Denver's Union Station, we arrive in the trendy River North (or RINO) part of the city, where the Rocky Mountaineer's gleaming carriages are waiting for us.
Cheers to the adventure
Zach, the train manager, welcomes us with a toast and a breezy "Let's all say cheers to our adventure" while August, who we later discover will be our on-board host of many hats – narrator, historian, geologist and occasional sommelier – pours us a glass of sparkling wine and orange juice.
As we pull out of Denver, Amtrak's California Zephyr rushes by on the adjoining track, heading from Chicago to Los Angeles, a journey that will take in Yellowstone National Park.
"We will be travelling at a slower 'Kodak speed', to capture the amazing scenery along the way," says Zach, a reference to the camera and film company that perhaps goes over the head of the younger travellers.
That ever-changing backdrop features canyons, rivers, fertile valleys, mountain vistas, prairie grasslands, red-sandstone cliffs, winelands, orchards and deserted frontier towns that once thrived on the promise of gold and uranium riches.
We view this from the comfort of the train's reclining leather-padded seats and through glass-dome windows as we rumble over tracks laid between 1902 and 1907 by the Denver and Salt Lake Railway.
It's an engineering feat that required carving a steep route through the Front Range of Colorado's Rocky Mountains.
Unlike on Rocky Mountaineer's Canadian journeys, there are no GoldLeaf carriages on this route – the glass domes are too high to fit through some of the tunnels along the way. Instead passengers are divided into Silver Leaf or Silver Leaf-Plus carriages, with SilverLeaf Plus offering various extra levels of comfort such as wine parings with meals, access to a small viewing area between carriages and a lounge car, which on our trip featured a funky cocktail list devised by Kendra, who was also the train's chef.
Climbing the Front Range of the Rockies, a 13-mile section of track passes through 28 tunnels that were hand-blasted through solid rock, on the way up to the Continental Divide, the spine of perhaps North America's most famous mountain range.
The longest, Moffatt Tunnel, is six miles long and was built to bypass 10,800 degrees of dangerous mountain curvature. It takes 16 minutes to get through.
It is late April and there's still plenty of snow in the foothills of the mountains. As we pass Winter Park ski resort, a handful of skiers are meandering down to the village.
Following the Colorado River, at Lower Gore Canyon where the river narrows and widens with little bursts of white-water, we spot rafters on a leisure trip.
On wider sections of the river, anglers are fishing for brown trout and, on a tiny spit of sand, we spot a vulture feeding on the carcass of an elk. We are told to look out for big horn sheep, black bears and mountain lions, which all prove elusive, but we see bald eagles and prong-horned antelope – the fastest land mammal in North America – munching on the sagebrush.
Our first day on the Rocky Mountaineer ends around 17.00 when the train pulls into Glenwood Springs, a town that developed on the back of its natural mineral pools and is still a world-class wellness and health destination. We head up to Iron Mountain Hot Springs, for a relaxing hour in a series of thermal pools ($34 for 2.5 hours).
Overnight is at the Denver Hotel, which dates back to 1915 and whose famous past guests include Doc Holliday – a legendary Wild West American gambler, gunfighter, and dentist – and Clark Gable.
The next morning we gather on Glenwood Springs station at 6.30, just as the cliffs that ring the city are turning a burnt orange colour. The morning unfolds at a leisurely pace. The hillsides briefly turn green again as we pass through a fertile river valley. Near Pallisade, rows of vines signal the start of the Colorado Cellars Winery, the state's oldest and largest winery.
The distant mountains now have flat-tops, which August tells us are home to 'mesas' (Spanish for 'flat-top hills'), which he says are adorned with flower-filled meadows and lakes. When we reach Ruby Canyon, we are suddenly in the desert. The red sandstone cliffs of the canyon walls hug the railway tracks and someone has painted the words 'Utah / Colorado', marking the border between the two states.
We are far from the nearest road now but among the sagebrush we spot an occasional campsite used by intrepid rafters or hikers.
The Colorado river has changed colour, from its sparkling blue to a murky brown hue, caused by the oxidised red sandstone crumbling into the water.
Around 13.00, we come to a halt, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But a welcoming party of cowboys and cowgirls signal that we have reached the end of the line, 12 miles from the town of Moab, Utah.
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