“You’ve never seen Glenwood Canyon quite like this.” Over lunch in Salt Lake City, my guide Shawn Horman explains the special treat of riding a train through one of Colorado’s most spectacular scenic drives.
“Glenwood is a nice drive,” he continues, referring to the swath of I-70 that snakes through the canyon. “But it’s pretty hectic – busy, winding around curves.” If you’re driving, he says, you have to keep your eyes on the road. On the train, you can sit back and relax and watch the mountains pass by.
I’m in Utah to board the inaugural trip of the Rockies to the Red Rocks train route, traveling from Moab to Denver. For the next two days, I'll travel over 350 miles through towering canyons, historic towns and desert buttes. It’s the only US route by Rocky Mountaineer, a Canada-based company that also runs train trips from Vancouver to spots like Whistler, Jasper and Banff in British Columbia. Known for its luxury services and glass-domed train cars, Rocky Mountaineer has run train routes in British Columbia since 1990.
Shawn’s here to show me around Moab, Utah – he’s with Southwest Adventure Tours, the company Rocky Mountaineer contracts to manage pre- and post-trip excursions. From Salt Lake City, we drive to Moab, a haze from wildfires out west lingering over the city skyline and surrounding Wasatch Mountains.
An inaugural voyage is not without its hiccups. Record rainfall has led Union Pacific, which owns the track, to request that all trains slow to a speed of 25 miles per hour, cutting the usual speed of the Rocky Mountaineer in half. Rocky Mountaineer management has decided the slowdown would put us off schedule. Instead of boarding just outside Moab as planned, we hop on a tour bus to ride an hour north to Cisco, a ghost town in eastern Utah.
The detour eliminates most of the route in Utah, and boarding amid the derelict shacks of Cisco is an inauspicious start to a luxury train experience. (There are signs of life in the local general store called the Buzzard’s Belly, however.) But the passengers are nonetheless jubilant, ready to sit back and relax as the train winds through the Rockies.
The other passengers appear to be mostly retirees, although I do spot the occasional younger couple looking to see the Rockies from the comfort of a train car.
The car is spacious and comfortable. Reclining, pleather-lined seats have plenty of legroom, and every one is a front-row view of the passing landscapes. Tall windows that curve up to the top of the car provide unobstructed views of even the route’s deepest canyons.
The journey begins
As the train scoots its way out of Cisco and begins the journey east, our onboard host, August, describes what's on the menu. Dinner is a choice of roasted chicken breast with fire-roasted corn and poblano salsa, ale-braised short ribs with pearl onions and foraged mushrooms, or a vegetarian option consisting of seasonal vegetables and roasted San Luis Valley potatoes.
On the Rockies to the Red Rocks route, service is split between two classes: SilverLeaf and SilverLeaf Plus. The latter features access to a lounge car, which has additional seating and a full bar with a better beer and wine selection than found on the SilverLeaf car. The extra lounge car also has the effect of splitting the passengers between the two cars – once we’re off, most of the passengers head into the lounge for a drink, leaving much of the main car virtually empty. I take advantage of the emptiness to watch the landscapes pass on both sides of the car.
Absent on this route is the GoldLeaf service, which features a two-level passenger car and a galley, where food is prepared fresh. The tunnels on the US route were too small to fit the GoldLeaf cars, so Rocky Mountaineer added the lounge car for its SilverLeaf Plus service, something unique to this route.
Cruising through America
In the lounge car, I order a pilsner from Denver Beer Co. and watch as the Colorado River comes into view, brown and full from recent rains. Trees line the banks. In one, a bald eagle roosts, looking for prey.
I meet Linda Speakman and Gloria Foley, retirees and longtime friends from Martinsville, Virginia. Regular travel companions, this is their first trip since the pandemic began. They have a familiar, easygoing demeanor, sharing inside jokes behind the rims of their gin and tonics.
“We’ve traveled by boat together before,” Gloria says. “Then we decided we wanted to see more of the United States. We have not been disappointed.”
Indeed the Rocky Mountaineer’s services have the luxury trappings of a Viking River cruise and the type of clientele that prefers to see the world from the comfort of a lounge area while listening to the informational announcements from an onboard host.
“I have seen more of Europe and Great Britain than I have ever seen of the United States,” Linda adds. “So now that I’ve gotten old, I am working on the United States.”
They’re part of a group of six who, like me, arrived in Salt Lake City earlier in the week. Their trip was filled with weather delays and other travel hiccups. But as longtime travelers, they take each delay in stride.
Behind the bar, a prosecco bottle pops, and their group hollers with glee.
Dinner is served
Dinner arrives – I ordered the chicken – and it’s good. The lack of a galley car means the food is prepared offsite and reheated on board. It’s not exactly airplane food, but it’s close. The catering service that Rocky Mountaineer contracts to prepare its dining experience also provides high-end private jet food in Denver. It’s attractively plated, with the corn and poblano salsa layered over the chicken and a sprig of fresh rosemary on top.
For Shawn Richard, director of operations for Rocky Mountaineer, food is part of the experience. “What we want is to replicate Colorado and Utah for folks who are traveling. We try to get beers from Denver, spirits from the area.”
“In Canada we’re known for storytelling. We’ve tried to build the story in here,” he says, pointing to the menu.
Overnight in Glenwood Springs
Later that evening we arrive at the night’s stop: Glenwood Springs. A longtime travel destination known for its hot springs and access to the surrounding Rockies, Glenwood Springs has seen visitors like Al Capone, Doc Holliday and Teddy Roosevelt. The town has retained a bit of the Wild West vibe with its main street of low, brick buildings and various saloons.
I head over to the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort to deposit my things before walking down to the hot springs pool, a gigantic swimming complex of one large heated mineral pool and a semi-heated lap pool. Steam rises into the air as night falls.
Train travel in the US has seen better years, but signs of life are on the horizon. The industry is abuzz with excitement about the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, which has $66 billion (initially $80 billion) earmarked specifically to improve rail. President Joe Biden is a bit of a train fan himself, taking the Amtrak about 8000 times during his career as a US senator.
Most of that infrastructure bill is slated to go toward passenger rail in the Northeast, as well as addressing Amtrak’s wish list of maintenance items. But still, rail travel seems to be on the cusp of a new age.
Luxury train travel like Rocky Mountaineer is perhaps the perfect fusion of cruise travel’s best qualities – access to incredible destinations, high-end service and informative hosts – but without the uglier side of cruises, like overburdening port towns with demanding tourists or spewing tons of carbon into the air and destroying fragile ecosystems.
Rocky Mountaineer’s sustainability credentials are indeed worth noting (and, ahem, the reason we selected the company as the best sustainable train journey in last year’s Best in Travel). Rocky Mountaineer has upgraded the dishwashers on its GoldLeaf with models that reduce water usage by 20% over previous models. Additionally, to honor the work anniversary of every employee, the company plants a tree with Tree Canada. Since 2008, over 13,500 trees have been planted.
The company has also set goals to reduce carbon emissions of their trains and divert 90% of waste from landfills by 2023, and it is exploring alternative fuel sources to power its trains.
Departing Glenwood Springs
The next day, I head out early to catch a glimpse of the train as it arrives in Glenwood Springs. Other passengers mill about, filling paper cups with fresh coffee from a large thermos on a table outside the station. Moments later we hear the train horn blow, and the locomotive appears from behind a bend in the track. Passengers snap photos as the train squeals to a stop.
The boarding process has significantly more pomp than the day before: American and Colorado flags are unfurled and placed in mounts outside the car. A red carpet is rolled out.
As we find our seats, August welcomes us aboard, saying there will be a minor delay while another train ahead cleared the tracks. Breakfast service would begin shortly; our options are a frittata or a golden waffle.
Breakfast arrives as the train travels through Glenwood Canyon. Stretching 16 miles along the track, Glenwood Canyon is one of the more spectacular sceneries we pass through, with rock walls that reach more than 1300ft. The sky is clear save for a few small clouds, and the sun appears over the canyon ridge, bathing the brown cliffs in morning light.
Last year, the canyon experienced some of the worst wildfires on record, burning 32,631 acres of forest and lasting four months. August tells us that the fire destroyed a lot of vegetation, breaking up root systems that hold the hillsides together. The result is a higher incidence of rockslides. In July, a rockslide tore through a portion of the Glenwood Canyon, dumping rocks and debris across I-70 and damming the Colorado River. It took weeks for crews to clear the roadway and reopen the interstate.
We pass a work train, a series of open-top cars with a backhoe used for clearing the tracks. August says crews were clearing a smaller rockslide earlier this morning. The train pulls to a stop while another train moves out of the way ahead.
After about 30 minutes, we’re off – trundling through the canyons, watching rafters navigate the rapids on the Colorado below. Sustainable and luxurious, sure, but not immune to delays.
Connecting Colorado rail
When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, it almost entirely avoided Colorado, instead tracing the northern border across the North Platte River and connecting in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Denver officials were pretty miffed about this, so they spent the next few decades connecting the city and the rest of Colorado with the newly established national rail network.
In 1902, the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railway incorporated with the intention of linking up the Mile High City and Salt Lake. Initially the route followed the winding path over Rollins Pass, which topped the Continental Divide at 11,689ft, making it the highest mainline railroad in North America at the time. But snow delays could stretch on for weeks in the remote mountain passes.
A few years later, American financier and industrialist David Moffat had a solution: a tunnel through the Rockies. He began raising money for the project, but he died before it came to fruition. In 1927, the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel was completed, with the first train passing through later the next year. Finally, there was a direct train route between Denver and Salt Lake.
Today the route is known as the Central Corridor. Amtrak’s California Zephyr, a passenger train running between Chicago and San Francisco, also operates along this route. But the level of service found on Amtrak is far different from that found on Rocky Mountaineer. Amtrak lacks the informative hosts and bottomless drinks, and there is just one observation car, where the windows are essentially the same as what’s found next to every seat on the Rocky Mountaineer train.
As we leave the canyons and peaks of the Rocky Mountains and begin our descent down the Front Range, Denver’s skyline appears through the haze. I head out into the open-air vestibule connecting two cars, where it’s just me, the wind and the view. The train snakes down toward the city, and I think back to Shawn’s assurances that the view from the train is a special one.
Eventually we arrive in Denver, the train coming to a stop in the fast-developing River North Arts District (ambitions are to pull right into Denver’s historic Union Station, but agreements have not been finalized). The railyard is a dense collection of rails stretched out like sheet music ledger lines in each direction. Passengers load into coach buses that will take them to their hotels for the night. Construction cranes loom in the distance, paused for the weekend on a Friday night. It’s a fitting end to our journey, a future being built, after a brief delay. But still on track.
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Alexander Howard traveled to Utah and Colorado with support from Rocky Mountaineer. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.