Does riding a train west from Denver count as a type of mile-high club membership? The Rocky Mountaineer began operating its Rockies to the Red Rocks route between Denver - nicknamed the Mile High City due to its altitude - and Moab in August 2021. That means the number of rail aficionados who've experienced the alluring day-and-half journey into Utah remains fairly exclusive.
The Rocky Mountaineer is a luxury travel company based in Canada. Its first train rolled between Vancouver and Banff in 1990 and soon came to be regarded among the world’s top rail experiences. Journeys encompass viewing rugged scenery from cars with panoramic windows and comfortable leather seats, onboard fine dining and frequent offers of complimentary drinks by hosts with a talent for conveying details about aspects of heritage, geology and nature along the way.
The franchise now operates three routes in western Canada and one in the USA. Back in 2017, I travelled between Vancouver and Banff on the two-day First Passage to the West route and experiencing the Rockies to the Red Rocks route appealed to me as soon as it was announced but Covid-related travel restrictions were in place at the time. Thankfully, two years on, normality has returned and the USA is again proving a popular destination for British travellers.
Ahead of the rail journey, I flew into Denver a couple of days early. Touring in an electric rickshaw, similar in design to the three-wheeled vehicles that operate on streets of South-East Asia, proved an environmentally friendly way of orientating while seeing places of interest in the Lower Downtown, around Union Station, and RiNo – the street art adorned River North Art District. Then from Denver Art Museum’s rooftop terrace, I gazed towards the Rockies.
In Canada, the Rocky Mountaineer’s GoldLeaf Service features double-decker, glass-domed cars: the upper decks hold spacious leather seats while the lower decks are for dining. As I settled into my seat in Denver, Lacey, one of the hosts, grabbed a microphone and explained that those cars are too tall to squeeze through tunnels arching over track in the Rockies. Consequently, single-deck SilverLeaf cars are used on the Rockies to the Red Rocks route and meals are served at passengers’ seats rather than at tables in dedicated dining cars.
Around 80 miles into the journey we began following the westward flow of the Colorado River. Soon we were presented with the dubious honour of what locals term ‘the Colorado salute’: a fisherman nonchalantly turned his back, dropped his pants, bent over and bared his bum in our direction. Intermittent salutes subsequently distracted us, prompting guffaws, as we rolled through magnificent canyons and valleys whose stratified and expansive scenery prompted passengers to reach for phones or cameras.
Arguably the most dramatic stretch of the first day’s scenic journey was the craggy Glenwood Canyon just outside of our overnight stop, Glenwood Springs. The Coloradan town’s hot springs have attracted tourists since a railroad connection was established in 1887. One of the great names of the American West, Doc Holliday, is buried in Glenwood Springs’ Pioneer Cemetery.
Less than 12 miles into a second day that saw us board before daybreak, we passed through New Castle. The small town was founded in 1888 and, like its near-namesake in northeast England, coal mining played a key role in its history. A host explained that an underground fire has burnt in the area since a deadly explosion at the Vulcan Mine in 1896.
From the open vestibule between cars, I breathed in the fresh scent of the cool morning air and clicked reflection-free photos of the sun rising over the steaming water of the Colorado River. That spot proved ideal for capturing arid landscapes further west that reminded me of the scenery from cartoons in which Wile E. Coyote repeatedly attempted to thwart the beeping Road Runner.
Arriving in Moab presented opportunities to tour the nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, where erosion has sculpted landscapes of dramatic beauty, and to participate in outdoor adventure activities. A sunset Hummer tour, thrashing over hills and through desert above Moab proved a thrilling final journey with a handful of the people I’d got to know during the memorable rail journey west.