For my birthday this year, Hubs decided we should take the Canadian Rocky Mountain Railway from Denver to Moab. Canadian Railways just opened this route this year and it’s proved to be enormously popular.
Spoiler: some of these a pictures not taken by me!
After flying from Raleigh-Durham to Atlanta and then to Denver, we stayed in the mile-high city in a hotel that had been created from the old railway station. The rooms were commodious and comfortable and the original vast waiting room had been converted into a comfortable waiting room with sofas and chairs, with various restaurants and bars surrounding it. It was a fabulous place to people watch and when they came in to get a drink or coffee or just sit to talk.
We left by bus the next day from a remote railyard, where they laid out the red carpet for us. Our bags were sent ahead by truck to that night’s stopover in Glenwood Springs, so we just brought a small bag with things we thought we might need.
The view from our car was spectacular. While not completely glass-topped, it did have a partial glass roof, and our vantage point for everything was vista-like. And the food! They plied us with a breakfast and a lunch fit for a king, plus all the drinks we could possibly want.
The haze is the smoke from the CA wildfires
When gold and silver were discovered in the Rockies in the 1860s, railroad lines were built between canyons and over high passes to connect all the mining camps in the state. These lines connect and were the basis of the rail line we to. The first climb we made was up the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies and is an engineering marvel with the tight 10-degree radius of the switchback curves to keep the grade to 2%.
We discovered there are a lot (30) tunnels over a 13-mile segment of rail that were hand-blasted through solid rock on the way up to the Continental Divide. No pictures, just blackness!
We passed the beautiful Gross Reservoir that holds water piped from the western side of the Continental Divide and supplies Denver and the agricultural Great Plains to the east. The Continental Divide, which separates water flowing west into the Pacific from those flowing east into the Atlantic, runs from Alaska to the southern tip of South America. It runs through the heart of Colorado for 650 miles crossing many of the state’s mountains’ peaks. I checked the direction of the water in the rivers/ streams we encountered just to make sure.
My view and the reservoir
A ten-mile-long tunnel, called the Moffat Tunnel, was built by David Moffat, a Denver banker, and cost him his entire fortune. It eliminated 10,800 degrees of curvature, replacing the rail that looped dangerously over Rollins Peak. It is an incredible feat of engineering, ingenuity, and persistence.
Although the final cost of the tunnel was $23,972,843. The project excavated 3,000,000,000 pounds of rock over the five-year project, and construction was intensive with 800 men working around the clock for three and a half years.
The Colorado River began as a rather narrow stream that widened as we passed westward from the Continental Divide and followed on the left or right side of the railroad tracks. Byers Canyon, 13 miles long, is the first of many carved by this river on its march to the Pacific, and was followed by Gore Canyon, which is bordered by cliffs 1,000 feet high. We saw rafters and kayakers in the white water of the Colorado in this canyon. Then we saw Burn Canyon, sheathed by red sandstone, and then the Dotsero Cutoff where the Eagle River joins the Colorado.
Byers Canyon, top, and Gore Canyon, bottom
Towards the end of the first day, we traversed Glenwood Canyon, the largest of the Upper Colorado and one of the most scenic in the US. The canyon was formed relatively recently in the Pleistocene era by the rapid cutting of the Colorado down through layers of sedimentary rock. The canyon was hit with a devastating wildfire in 2020, which burned 30,000 acres and led to rock and mudslides the following winter that closed I 70 and the railroad tracks for about ten days. There was evidence all around: burned and charred trees and piles of boulders and mud.
We ended the day in Glenwood Springs, originally called Fort Defiance, but renamed by entrepreneur Isaac Cooper after his wife’s hometown. Frankly, I like the original name. Cooper and silver baron Walter Deveraux make the town into a world-class hot springs destination with the arrival there of the railroad in 1887.
It is still renowned for its hot springs and was a real Wild West town with visitors such a Buffalo Bill Cody and Doc Holliday. Holliday is buried in the town’s Pioneer Cemetery. You will recall John Henry “Doc” Holliday (1851 – 1887) was a gambler, gunfighter, and dentist. He was a close friend and associate of the famous lawman Wyatt Earp and is best remembered for his role in the events leading up to and following the gunfight at the OK Corral.
We were booked into the Hotel Denver, built in 1914, and decided to walk to the cemetery. Little did we know it was about a mile uphill from the hotel with another half-mile straight up a mountainside (final altitude around 6000 feet). The walk, which would have been manageable by us at sea level, nearly flattened us.
Next: On to Moab and the La Sal mountains!