Fresh tracks

Rocky Mountaineer, the Canadian luxury rail travel operator, just introduced a Rockies to the Red Rocks itinerary, its first route that takes place entirely in the U.S. The journey provides a novel way to experience the American West.

The Colorado River snakes its way 2,000 feet below Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab, Utah. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

The Colorado River snakes its way 2,000 feet below Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab, Utah. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

The Colorado River snakes its way 2,000 feet below Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab, Utah. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Everybody should take the train,” said Linda Speakman.

Speakman, a retired nurse from Martinsville, Va., is an especially exuberant fan of rail vacations.

“My children know there’s no inheritance,” she continued. “I’m spending it as I speak.”

And on a recent 350-mile Rocky Mountaineer trip from the red sandstones of Moab, Utah, to Denver, I began to understand the basis for her enthusiasm. A stunning, brilliant sky, enhanced by a narrow ribbon of clouds, sat just below a nearby peak as we pulled out of Glenwood Springs, Colo.

The Glenwood Hot Springs pool on a summer morning. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

The Glenwood Hot Springs pool on a summer morning. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

The Glenwood Hot Springs pool on a summer morning. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

I felt lucky to be aboard what was just the second run of that particular route by Rocky Mountaineer. Inaugurated last month, it’s the first all-U.S. route (it runs westbound, as well) offered by the luxury train service that has, since 1990, ferried passengers through Western Canada and the Canadian Rockies.

Over the course of a full day, the train mostly followed the course of the Colorado River, working its way slowly through four canyons and past a seemingly endless string of spectacular mountain vistas. Eventually, as the track crossed the Continental Divide, the route shifted, following along east-flowing rivers and creeks, before emerging into the Rockies foothills overlooking Denver and Boulder, Colo. 

The Gore canyons of central Colorado are among many scenic sections of the Rocky Mountaineer journey. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

The Gore canyons of central Colorado are among many scenic sections of the Rocky Mountaineer journey. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

The Gore canyons of central Colorado are among many scenic sections of the Rocky Mountaineer journey. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Along the way, I took in all those views from the car’s oversize dome windows, including many that I, a Colorado resident, could never have seen from a car. But I also sat back and enjoyed the line’s service offering, which includes multicourse meals, in-seat table service, free drinks, storytelling about sights along the way and at least three staff members assigned to each rail car. 

Rocky Mountaineer hadn’t intended to inaugurate its Rockies to the Red Rocks itinerary until next year, but the timeline was moved forward after the Covid-19 pandemic forced a shutdown of its three itineraries between Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies until July 5. Seats on those journeys are mostly filled by Americans, Australians and U.K. guests, all of whom were precluded from visiting Canada until the country reopened its borders to fully vaccinated Americans on Aug. 9, with reopenings for vaccinated residents of other countries slated for Sept. 7. 

The company will operate the Moab-Denver line through Nov. 19 of this year and then begin a 2022 season on April 17. 

Veterans of Rocky Mountaineer’s Canadian routes will notice significant operational differences on the Utah-Colorado circuit. Chiefly, the company isn’t offering its higher-end GoldLeaf class, where travelers sit upstairs in a two-level domed car with windows that are almost wraparound, then take their meals in the lower-level dining car.

Rocky Mountaineer had intended to offer GoldLeaf on the U.S. line, but their domed cars proved to be six inches too high to fit through the famed Moffat Tunnel that cuts for six miles underneath the Continental Divide just east of the Winter Park ski resort. 

Instead, Rockies to the Red Rocks customers can choose between the line’s standard SilverLeaf service and a new SilverLeaf Plus option that gives each car of passengers access to a separate lounge car, though that carriage isn’t elevated. SilverLeaf Plus customers also enjoy upgraded alcoholic drink offerings and get a fourth host per car. 

Meals, however, are offered at your seat rather than in a dining car. And offerings are less expansive because the train doesn’t have the full galley facilities that can be found on the Rocky Mountaineer trains in Canada. 

Staff members are taking the changes in stride and putting the best face on it. 

“I love that this route has its own unique service, one you can’t find anywhere else on Rocky Mountaineer,” said Wendy McMichael, train manager for the Rockies to the Red Rocks line. 

Advertisement
Rail cars on the Rockies to Red Rocks journey feature the operator’s signature oversize windows. (Courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer)

Rail cars on the Rockies to Red Rocks journey feature the operator’s signature oversize windows. (Courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer)

Rail cars on the Rockies to Red Rocks journey feature the operator’s signature oversize windows. (Courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer)

Rocky Mountaineer is also working to tailor its culinary offerings to the local area. Dinner on the Moab-to-Glenwood Springs leg of our trip, for example, featured short ribs braised in Escape to Colorado IPA from Denver’s Epic Brewing Co., pearl onions from the famous farming town of Rocky Ford in Eastern Colorado and dessert prepared by the Aspen Baking Co. 

Sean Richard, director of onboard operations for the new line, said that he’s working to expand the local food and spirit offerings as the line settles in, possibly to include items such as elk and buffalo, as well as additional local produce and local liquor and wine labels. 

“We don’t want to replicate Canada in the U.S. We want to bring Colorado and Utah to other Americans and other visitors,” he said. 

Christen Perry, the owner of the Birmingham, Ala.-based agency Classic Travel Connection, said that experiencing and seeing this spectacular region of the U.S. is the primary draw of the Rockies to the Red Rocks line. 

Perry made the trip from Alabama with her husband, Rob, to experience the new Rocky Mountaineer product firsthand. Many of her agency’s clients, she said, have booked the line’s Canada trips in the past. 

Christen Perry, owner of Classic Travel Connection in Birmingham, Ala., enjoys the ride through Glenwood Canyon with her husband, Rob. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Christen Perry, owner of Classic Travel Connection in Birmingham, Ala., enjoys the ride through Glenwood Canyon with her husband, Rob. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Christen Perry, owner of Classic Travel Connection in Birmingham, Ala., enjoys the ride through Glenwood Canyon with her husband, Rob. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

The couple flew early to Las Vegas to join a pretrip package to Utah’s Mighty Five (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches) national parks that’s offered by Rocky Mountaineer, in partnership with Cedar City, Utah-based Southwest Adventure Tours. The six-day package also included a night in Denver at the end of the trip.

“We’ve traveled the world, but we’ve not necessarily taken the time to explore our backyard,” she said. 

“Having the time to see the national parks and also Dead Horse Point in Utah, it was just beautiful,” Perry added, referencing Dead Horse Point State Park, which sits adjacent to Canyonlands and offers a magnificent view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below.

“I think the product is great. [Rocky Mountaineer has] a lot of potential here domestically in the Red Rocks to Rockies area. Like any new product, there are some kinks and bumps in the road that need to work out, and they’ll do that.”

Advertisement
The Colorado River is a near-constant companion for most of the journey between Moab and Denver. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

The Colorado River is a near-constant companion for most of the journey between Moab and Denver. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

The Colorado River is a near-constant companion for most of the journey between Moab and Denver. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Rocky Mountaineer pays commissions to travel advisors at various rates, starting at 10%. The company also offers an online training platform called Tracks. Once advisors complete the free, approximately one-hour program, they receive logos certifying them as a Rocky Mountaineer Specialist, which can be used in marketing collateral. Specialists also become eligible for the company’s travel advisor discount program and fam trips. 

Working with Southwest Adventure Tours, Rocky Mountaineer offers a variety of pre- and post-trip packages starting in Las Vegas or Salt Lake City that typically include bus tours of iconic spots such as Utah’s national parks and Lake Powell, a night in Denver and often a Colorado River boat excursion in Moab. The packages also typically include a half-day free in Moab, during which clients have the opportunity to book an additional adventure, such as kayaking, a Jeep tour or a guided hike. 

“The Rocky Mountaineer clientele are primarily senior travelers, so the tours are designed for that clientele,” said Shawn Horman, head of group sales for Southwest Adventure Tours. “They like to do some walking, a little bit of hiking, but mostly sightseeing.”

Cost for the two-day train ride, including lodging at one of three partner hotels in Glenwood Springs, starts at $1,100 per person. Packaged trips can range up to more than $4,000 per person for a seven-day journey that includes pre- and post-trip options. Rocky Mountaineer is offering early bird pricing on four-, six- and seven-day itineraries for 2022 through Oct. 8. 

During my own trip last month, before boarding I had spent two nights in Moab at the pleasant, mid-end Hyatt Place Hotel. My excursion day included a three-mile, roundtrip hike to Delicate Arch, which is the most iconic rock formation at Arches National Park. After Arches, our bus headed on to Dead Horse Point for lunch with an unbelievably beautiful view. Rain quashed a planned jet boat ride on the Colorado that night. 

Caprese salad served as part of full meal service, a highlight of a Rocky Mountaineer trip. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Caprese salad served as part of full meal service, a highlight of a Rocky Mountaineer trip. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Caprese salad served as part of full meal service, a highlight of a Rocky Mountaineer trip. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

In quaint Glenwood Springs, I stayed a short walk from the train station at the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort. The train arrived in town slightly behind schedule.

I nonetheless had enough time for a 45-minute dip in the nearby hot springs pool, which is the largest such pool in the world, letting the mineral water soak into my sun-parched skin and happily imagining the food, spirits and vistas that I might enjoy on my upcoming ride onto Denver.

My imagination, it turned out, was no match for the reality that awaited.

Advertisement

Denver’s Crawford hotel a perfect complement to rail trip

DENVER — The natural landscapes of Utah and the Rockies are the primary focus of the Rocky Mountaineer line, but passengers also have the opportunity to enjoy the burgeoning urban scene of this city’s LoDo (short for Lower Downtown) district that is home to Union Station. 

Rocky Mountaineer is partnering with five boutique hotels located within a half-mile of the train station. 

The Rally Hotel opened this year in the shadow of Coors Field, home to baseball’s Colorado Rockies. The Oxford Hotel, just a half block from Union Station, was originally opened in 1891 and today blends modern updates with a historical feel. The Maven Hotel is located within Dairy Block, a recently redeveloped marketplace of shops, restaurants, bars and working space. Hotel Indigo is the Denver installment of IHG’s boutique brand. The fifth of those hotels is the Crawford, located within Union Station itself. 

The Crawford is located inside Denver’s Union Station. (Courtesy of The Crawford Hotel)

The Crawford is located inside Denver’s Union Station. (Courtesy of The Crawford Hotel)

The Crawford is located inside Denver’s Union Station. (Courtesy of The Crawford Hotel)

During a recent hosted stay at the Crawford, I was struck by how truly different it is than any hotel I’ve stayed in as well as how genuinely fun it is. 

The centerpiece of Union Station is the Great Hall, which features bars and restaurants surrounding a central gathering area of comfortable couches, tables and lounge chairs, all the product of a renovation that was completed in 2014. Amtrak has an office there, too, and on the day I checked in, Rocky Mountaineer had set up a promotional table.

The Crawford melds so seamlessly into the Great Hall that it would be easy to not even realize it is there. In fact, after checking in, it was necessary for me to cross through the hall to get to the elevator on the other side.

In the room, the clamor of the working rail station gave way to a stately, high-ceilinged design with massive picture windows overlooking the rail platform. The room was also quiet despite all the nearby activity. 

Rooms at the Crawford are quiet, despite the bustle of Union Station below. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Rooms at the Crawford are quiet, despite the bustle of Union Station below. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Rooms at the Crawford are quiet, despite the bustle of Union Station below. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Back in the Great Hall, I took advantage of partnerships the hotel has established with Union Station vendors, including enjoying a free craft beer at the Terminal Bar. While sipping away, I challenged my companion to a game on the shuffleboard table in the center of the station. The next morning, I took in the Great Hall scene from above, peering down as I waited for the elevator. 

Passengers waiting for a train can pass the time playing shuffleboard in the station. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Passengers waiting for a train can pass the time playing shuffleboard in the station. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

Passengers waiting for a train can pass the time playing shuffleboard in the station. (TW photo by Robert Silk)

For rail junkies, or anyone who enjoys the action-packed setting of a transit center like Union Station, the Crawford is a can’t miss. —R.S.

Advertisement
Advertisement