Stacked layers of creamy white, apricot, lime and cocoa brown stone stretched like giant, multicolored taffy candy across the cliffs in front of me as we neared the state line dividing “Colorful” Colorado and “Life Elevated” Utah. This vivid rocky plateau was just one of many diverse landscapes I beheld while traveling aboard the new Rocky Mountaineer luxury passenger train last October.
A new rail journey in Colorado? Yes! While our state benefits from a number of great and scenic historic train rides and railway journeys, this is the first two-day, exclusive passenger train linking Denver to Moab. Not only is it a first for Colorado, it’s also a first for Rocky Mountaineer, the renowned Canadian luxury rail company, which debuted this trip late last summer. The “Rockies to the Red Rocks” route includes an overnight stay in Glenwood Springs.
Before embarking on my journey, I spent the night at one of my favorite boutique hotels in Denver, The Oxford Hotel, which is easy walking distance from Union Station. As a history buff, the legendary property ticked a number of boxes for me. Founded in 1891, The Oxford hearkens to the golden age of railroad expansion in Denver, when the city served as a hub to Colorado’s network of mountain and plains mining operations. I met other passengers for morning coffee near the lobby fireplace where we admired the charm of the 19th-century ambience.
Since 1990, the Rocky Mountaineer rail line has offered train journeys that explore some of the most beautiful spots in western Canada and the Canadian Rockies, including the Banff/Lake Louise/Jasper national park areas. When the company began scouting for a route in the United States, it discovered underutilized passenger rail tracks linking Denver to Moab.
Although Amtrak and other commercial rail lines use a portion of the tracks, Rocky Mountaineer opened up 20-plus miles of underutilized track winding through red rock canyons providing views never seen by passenger rail.
Our rail car host regaled us with entertaining and educational stories of Colorado history and geology that included a few wild tales. I learned about the origins of the taffy-colored rock that I admired. “The green rock layers you see were formed by peat bog when the area was a tropical jungle millions of years ago,” our host shared. And I was surprised by the origins of the creamy white stripes: “The white rock were actually sand dunes.”
Thoughts of Colorado as a steamy, tropical jungle took a while to sink in, and soon the train entered another realm of unimaginable beauty: Utah’s distinctive gateway to Arches and Canyonlands national parks. The cinematic experience was nonstop. I was thankful for the oversized windows that allow passengers to take in the moving picture show. Occasionally, like prairie dogs popping out of their burrows, my fellow passengers and I jumped up to snap photos or scurry to the open-air windows between cars to breathe the fresh air and marvel at the staggering views, from the peaks of the Continental Divide to red stone cliffs of Ruby Canyon.
Although I wasn’t compelled to leave the comfort of my leather, reclinable seat, I walked to the lounge car which features a clubby vibe, complete with cocktail-style table seating next to the windows. It’s a great place to chat with friends, family members and fellow passengers over complimentary wine, beer or cocktails and gaze at the ever-changing landscape. With my cellphone fully charged (thanks to plug-ins near my seat — nice touch), I was ready to test my photography skills, too.
As we passed Gore Canyon, our host reminded us to watch for wildlife. “The pronghorn is the second-fastest animal on Earth; the first is the cheetah.” Heads swiveled as we peered out the expansive windows to see three of the fleet creatures race across a wide valley. They proved too fast to catch with my cellphone camera. But later on, I succeeded in snapping an image of a bald eagle perched on Ponderosa branches alongside the Colorado River.
From Denver to Glenwood Springs, the train averaged 30 mph, allowing ample opportunities to enjoy the luxuries of the SilverLeaf service. Meals were served at our assigned seats. Locally sourced foods inspired by the region were creatively prepared and presented on white linen cloths set on drop-down trays.
Wine, beer and non-alcoholic beverages were offered to passengers before the first course: a green salad tossed with Manchego cheese, cranberries and walnuts. The California Chardonnay was a luscious choice to go with my steamed Koho salmon on a bed of quinoa. Lemon bars and coffee with Baileys followed as we entered the Gore Range. Winding through Gore Canyon alongside the river (up to Class V rapids) was a thrill and a privilege, as there are no roads along some of this stretch.
Further along, the river calms into what our host dubbed “Moon River.” A few boaters were visible on the water. “We call it that because some boaters like to salute the passengers — with their backside on full display,” our host said. Although we did not receive a “full moon salute,” one passenger joked, “Now that’s what I call a meal with a show!”
The train passed through the towering walls of Glenwood Canyon late in the afternoon. After checking into Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, I quickly made my way across the street to the “world’s largest mineral hot springs pool.” Any cares that remained melted away while soaking in the heated water. The earliest known people to “take to the waters” here were nomadic Utes seeking healing of an assortment of ailments. It was the perfect way to cap off a day filled with wonders as dusk began to darken the sky and the ambient glow of lamps illuminated the pool.
It already felt like I had been gone a week, we saw so much. I was relaxed, energized and looking forward to the next leg of my journey. Having completed the Rockies part of the trip, the morning signaled the start of the Red Rocks portion. Greeted with coffee from the crew upon our early morning departure, I was hungry, looking forward to the prickly pear pancakes.
The sun rose as we exited Glenwood Springs, as if the curtains was lifting to reveal another spectacularly cinematic day of train travel. Cameras were clicking nonstop. “I just can’t stop taking pictures,” one passenger said. An attendant walked by refilling coffee cups. “Beautiful, isn’t it? That’s what I like about this trip, you see something different each time,” she said smiling.
The sandstone buttes and mesa tops started coming into view. And then those fascinating, candy-colored stripes created over eons. As we approached the state line, our host said, “We are making history, this is the first passenger train route to Moab.” It was also my first trip to Moab, where I planned to visit the national parks before flying home. I couldn’t imagine a better way to get there than a journey through “Colorful Colorado” aboard the Rocky Mountaineer.
The “Rockies to Red Rocks” railway route is set to run April to mid-October in 2022. You can ride one way, or round-trip. Each direction includes a night in Glenwood Springs. Hotel stays and activities — and extended excursions to Salt Lake City or Las Vegas — can be added for a custom trip. rockymountaineer.com
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