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On the Rocky Mountaineer Train, Seeing the West—and Taking It Slow

By Sebastian Modak

Oct 1, 2021

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Photo by Sebastian Modak

Aboard the new luxury train that travels through some of the most scenic landscapes in Utah and Colorado.

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Cisco, Utah. The internet tells me that this ghost town, all graffiti-laden buildings and hollowed-out cars, is now home to a prestigious artist residency, but I see very little evidence of any current human habitation. I am on a bus waiting to get on a train and I have the urge to make a run for it. Outside, flat scrubland the color of an aged paperback extends as far as the eye can see. Raindrops chase each other down the windows. Why are we still sitting here? My trip to the American Southwest—one centered on a new train whose whole appeal is taking it slow and scenic—hasn’t even begun, and already, I’m losing my patience. I feel wary of the structure and slow pace of the cruise-ship-style excursion I’m on and start to worry that being around so many strangers during a pandemic was maybe a mistake. But then it is too late to flee.

I follow the line of passengers out of the bus and force a smile behind my face mask as a crew member welcomes me aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. On board, after another half an hour of waiting, the train hiccups, hisses, and starts moving—steadily, intently—through the last stretch of Utah desert toward Colorado. In 350 miles, we’ll be in Denver.

Rocky Mountaineer guests have the option to tack on activities before and after the train trip, like visits to Dead Horse Point State Park, which overlooks Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah.

Rocky Mountaineer is a Canadian luxury train operator known for multi-day, all-inclusive scenic journeys between its headquarters in Vancouver and resort towns in the Canadian Rockies. In operation since 1990, the company only began looking south of the border fairly recently. After spending years scouting various potential scenic corridors across the U.S., the company chose the winding 350-mile stretch between the rocks of Moab, Utah, and the mile-high plains of Denver. 

The Rockies to the Red Rocks route, as it’s known, travels in both directions. (Unexpectedly, we didn’t leave from Moab, as scheduled: Heavy rains meant we had to skip a section of the rail, taking a bus to catch up with the delayed train.) The package deals start around $1,200 for the two-day trip—one night of accommodations in Glenwood Springs, where the train stops along the way, is included. It’s not exactly your average one-way train fare, and the price goes up from there, with day-trip options on either end of the train journey, along with packages that include activities and lodging in Moab, Las Vegas, Denver, and Salt Lake City. I flew into Salt Lake City and was scheduled to take the train from Moab after spending a day exploring its otherworldly desert landscapes with tours put on by Rocky Mountaineer’s on-the-ground partner Southwest Adventure Tours.

On board, booze flows freely and meals—the kind of elevated reheated fare one might associate with a decent premium airplane cabin meal—are provided. Unlike its Canadian cousin, the Rockies to the Red Rocks does not have a “GoldLeaf” class: double-decker cars with even more window coverage and full gourmet kitchens. (One particular tunnel on this stretch of rail was a handful of inches too short to accommodate the taller cars.) Instead, Rocky Mountaineer has introduced a SilverLeaf Plus class—which I was traveling in—along with its standard SilverLeaf class. Instead of the cooked-from-scratch meals and outdoor viewing platform, SilverLeaf Plus customers get a dedicated bar car, reminiscent of standard dining cars around the world, but with easier access to higher-shelf alcohol than in SilverLeaf. Meals, however, are still eaten at your seat, airplane style.

The Rocky Mountaineer is not your typical long-distance train outfitted with overnight shut-eye in mind: There are no bunk beds or private sleeping cabins. On the Rockies to the Red Rocks route, the train only runs during daylight hours, hence the overnight stop in Glenwood Springs. The point is the journey and that journey is purposefully slow. It’s not about getting from one city to another as fast as possible; the drive would take a comparatively speedy five and a half hours. This is a train that is all about what you see and experience along the way. For anyone conditioned to value efficiency and expediency above all else—and that is so many of us—it can feel counterintuitive. 

Train cars include large, arching windows that offer panoramic views of the passing scenery.

Leaving Cisco behind, the train—equipped with plush pleather seats, ample legroom, and thoroughly wiped windows that curve toward the train car’s ceiling for maximum viewing—rolled through the desert before crossing into Colorado. Soon after, the landscape began to transition from browns to greens, and the train pulled into the resort town of Glenwood Springs for the night. There, we had the evening to explore the small town, most of us opting to spend the majority of our time soaking in the hot springs that give the town its name. The next morning, the train left, hugging the rapids of the Colorado River as it cut through a series of canyons—Ruby, Debeque, Byers, Gore—that would make the most seasoned geologist giddy and rock-hewn tunnels that would do the same for any engineer.

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As the train moved—often at a jogger’s pace and never exceeding 50 miles per hour—a crisply dressed host in each car offered commentary over a handheld microphone, a mix of railroad history, geology, and place-specific trivia. They told us when we had transitioned from one canyon to the next; what wildlife to look for; and warned us about the “Colorado Salute,” a tendency for rafters on the river to greet trains with their pants at their ankles and their butts in the air. Hosts wore face masks and reminded passengers to do the same when not eating or drinking. (No proof of vaccination or testing was needed to board my train; however, for the Canadian routes, both proof of vaccination and a COVID-19 rapid test are required.) 

When I had enough of the window view, I walked to the vestibule between cars, miniature viewing platforms where the windows are kept open and you can step out of the air-conditioning and into the breeze. On a bullet train or in the fast-lane, there are times where it can be hard to focus on the scenes closest to you. Try as you might, your eyes can’t dart at the speed at which the landscape flies past. There was no such problem here, as I drew my attention away from the epic rock formations along the horizon and toward the details: bunches of wildflowers lining the rails, piles of mud and rock from recent rains, a pair of butterflies somersaulting over each other as if dancing to the incessant rhythm of our chug-a-chug movement. 

The two-day train trip includes an overnight stop in the historic resort town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

In the storytelling that surrounds the newest Rocky Mountaineer route, there is an emphasis on discovery: a thematic throughline that would make anyone who knows the violent history of colonization and settlement in the American West uncomfortable. Marketing materials promise the train will allow passengers to experience the “unseen West.”

Of course, there are many who not only have seen these lands, but who did so long before America was invented. Members of the Ute Indigenous tribe, for example, have called the Southwest home for hundreds of years. Even discounting the long history of human habitation in the American Southwest, calling this part of the country “unseen” is a stretch in other ways, though it was the first time I was seeing it. For lengthy sections of the trip, the train parallels I-70, a heavily trafficked and remarkably scenic interstate that, when I was there, had been undergoing major construction after mudslides. There is no new track laid down here. Salt Lake City and Denver have been linked by rail for almost 100 years. With the exception of one relatively short section after leaving Moab, you can do virtually the same route aboard Amtrak’s California Zephyr—and for a 10th of the price and a fraction of the time. So what are you paying up for? Bigger windows? Unlimited prosecco? The add-ons of a package deal in the form of national park tours around Moab?

There are no bunk beds or private sleeping cabins. ... The point is the journey and that journey is purposefully slow.

Guests onboard the Rocky Mountaineer are paying for all the frills of luxury, sure. But after the year and a half of isolation, anxiety, and heartbreak that so many of us have experienced, the ability to take it slow and take it all in itself feels like a luxury. Leisure travel is always a privilege. After the past year and a half, to travel for travel’s sake, to take the slow way from point A to point B for the sake of what you might see along the way, feels downright indulgent. We, in the United States, may still be decades behind when it comes to high-speed rail, but being able to stare out an oversized window for hours and hours on end can feel revolutionary in its own way.

Golden, a quaint town 15 miles from Denver, offers a good opportunity for a tacked-on day trip before or after the train ride.

“It’s like a movie,” the man in the backwards cap, two cameras hanging off his shoulders, says to me. “It’s like a movie, only you’re in it.”

We were standing in the vestibule, shouting at each other to be heard over the clanking steel and rushing wind. He introduced himself as “the Railway Baron,” before tacking on his given name. Tom Savio (age: “senior”) has traveled on these tracks upwards of 40 times. Now retired, Savio spent decades working for Amtrak as an engine driver, an engineer, a station manager, and a sleeping car attendant (“Not a sleeper car,” he corrected me. “That’s a car that sneaks up on you.”) He and his wife spent their honeymoon on this same route. He was excited at the introduction of the Rocky Mountaineer to the tracks. “This is one of the last trains where you can take photos out the window,” he said with a childlike gleam in his eye, before leaning out the open window and pressing the shutter. (Note: The Rocky Mountaineer prudently asks guests not to lean out of windows in the vestibule, though I did it with the same wide-eyed recklessness as the Railway Baron.)  

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Why this route, I wondered? What made someone like Savio come back again and again? He had already ridden the Rockies to the Red Rocks route two times, in addition to the dozens of trips on other trains over the same tracks. “The variety of terrain is like nowhere else,” he said, before listing all the other trains he’s taken, in Europe, in Canada, here in the United States. Out the window, we passed steep rocky slopes, an infinite spectrum of reds and browns gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine. The Colorado River, gurgling as if in joy after the previous day’s rainfall momentarily broke a months-long drought, had by this point become a constant companion. Dense thickets of pine trees lined its banks like sentries. “This railway has been my life,” Savio says.

For Savio, a trip like this—slow, intentional, all about the journey—was a pilgrimage. For others, it was akin to a long, drawn-out sigh of relief. “You gotta make hay while the sun shines,” says Nelda Bozeman, 68, of Holden Beach, North Carolina. She was referring to her age, but also this brief moment of time where she, vaccinated and masked, felt safe to take a trip like this. She was on the trip with five of her friends and while they had run into a few hiccups along the way—delayed flights, confusing itineraries, a downpour just as they were about to enter a national park—Bozeman said the long pause in travel had given her new patience for the hurdles that come with any worthwhile journey. Bozeman’s friend and travel companion Susan Reynolds, also 68, of Chesapeake, Virginia, chimed in. 

“‘God’s wings,’ I call it,” Reynolds says. “You’ve got to focus on the positives right now. After the rain, there were waterfalls everywhere.”

The Rocky Mountaineer passes through desert canyons, river valleys, and dense woods, all over the course of two days.

The train took its time, stopping for extended periods to allow for passing traffic and slowing to a crawl in order to avoid hitting work crews that were out clearing debris from the recent storms. For two days, I didn’t touch my book or the pair of headphones in my backpack. There’s no Wi-Fi on board and cell phone reception is spotty. Apart from the smattering of conversations with fellow passengers, I spent the entire time gazing out the window. I tried keeping track of all the canyons we passed through and lost count. I waved at the pantless rafters and groups of men in fly-fishing coveralls. 

I marveled at the way the landscape transitioned from arid rock to lush forests to, as we neared Denver, a wide open sea of green and beige. By the time we entered the city limits, I didn’t care how long it took for us to disembark (a very long time), nor that we pulled into an industrial train yard rather than the gleaming Union Station. (I was told that Rocky Mountaineer is working on getting a spot at Union Station.)

Everything had slowed, like my world was a jar of honey that had just been flipped upside down. Any North American train might do this to you; they aren’t exactly known for their speed or efficiency. But a train whose entire selling point is taking things slow and scenic heightens the sensation that maybe your internal clock is broken. Once I had settled into Denver, where I had planned to tack on some extra days, I had no desire to speed back up. I ordered cocktails to my room at the Ramble Hotel in the city’s trendy River North neighborhood and went on long aimless walks.

Instead of renting a car or relying on rideshares, I rented a bicycle for three days. I used it to get around the city, an easy task thanks to well-marked bike lanes, like the ones that follow Cherry Creek and serve as a kind of expressway for anyone leaving the car at home. I ventured farther, convincing an old friend and his partner to join me on a ride to the nearby town of Golden and back. On my last full day, I put my bike on the rack of a bus and went to Boulder. There, I met my guide, an Italian transplant by the name of Davide Giardini who runs tours out of Full Cycle, a bike shop, and who had agreed to show me the farm roads and gravel paths that extend north of town.

We rode down rolling dirt trails, surrounded by lush fields. Prairie dogs scattered at our approach. Taking gravel backroads, free of car traffic, and quiet but for the lilting songs of nearby birds and the whirr of our tires, we rode by organic farmstands and country homes. At around the 15-mile mark, Giardini, glancing at his watch, asked what time I needed to be back. I thought about the dinner I had scheduled in Denver and how easy it would be to cancel it. I thought about the slow, deliberate rocking of a slowly moving train. I thought about how the sun was shining and there was hay to be made. “No rush,” I said.

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