For our anniversary in 2001, we decided to celebrate by taking Amtrak's California Zephyr from Denver to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The last time we'd made this trip was in 1982, aboard the Rio Grande Zephyr. Amtrak uses different equipment, but the scenery is the same. Or is it? Only one way to find out!
August 5th found us at Union Station in downtown Denver. Our "ride" was a couple hours late arriving, and we didn't clear the yards till close to 11:30 AM. Upon boarding, we basically dumped our bags in our car and headed for the observation lounge, and managed to get seats on the right side of the train (hint: if you ever make this trip, do what we did-- the lounge fills up quickly).
We made good speed clearing the suburbs, and soon were into the serious part of the climb. We got a good look at the power on the train as we negotiated the first part of the Big Ten curves at Rocky (pictured at left). We can see the evolution of Amtrak paint schemes here, with two of the new "Shamu"
units (Phase 5 paint scheme) on our train.
Here we see the opposite side of the power as we approach the east switch of Clay Siding.
We're being followed!!!
Towards the west end of Clay, we look down whence we came and see a westbound empty coal train entering Rocky. From this vantage point, you can see this train as it snakes under the Hwy 93 bridge and down towards Leyden (to the left).
I've shot so much film of the tunnel district from the Ski Train over time that we decided to enjoy this part of the trip from the diner. Amtrak food sure has improved over the years. We sat at a table with a nice couple of folks who were travelling separately, and got to know each other. It was a very pleasant experience.
By the time we exited the diner and went back to the lounge, we were to Tabernash and getting ready to traverse the first of several canyons on the western slope, Fraser canyon. This is a narrow, wooded, and secluded canyon, not accessibly by road except for some private roads on the northwest entrance.
After this came the town of Granby, where we went on our first anniversary (via Amtrak). It's grown a bit in the last 18 years. Beyond Granby, we rolled through the broad valley of the Colorado River, which we had now joined, making good speed up till the town of Hot Sulphur Springs, where we took to the siding to wait for two eastbound freight trains. And let me pause here to mention that the Amtrak equipment was very comfortable and pleasant to ride. I had expected it to be looking a little tired or worn, but that wasn't the case.
Immediately after Sulphur, we entered the second canyon, Byers. US 40 also uses the route, on the opposite side of the gorge. The river is up-close and personal in this area, and slide detection fences are common.
Beyond Byers Canyon, the valley opens up considerably, and we began to hit speeds up to 79 MPH. We passed a westbound BNSF freight at Kremmling, which illustrated for us the dispatcher's priorities: UP priority piggyback trains, followed by a tie between any other UP train and Amtrak, with BNSF trains at the bottom of the pecking order... At least, so it seemed...
The broad valley disappears dramatically just west of Kremmling, as the river and tracks enter Gore Canyon. Here the river devolves into a series of raging rapids, and the roadbed is blasted out of the sheer rock sides of the canyon.
Massive rock monoliths line the canyon walls. The upper windows in the Sightseer Lounge are a great help in seeing the landscape in this area.
A number of short tunnels were required to pierce the many rock spurs along the north wall of the gorge. Here we're looking back up the canyon, and can see at least three tunnels.
After another interlude of open country, we entered Little Gore canyon. Not quite sure why it's called "Little", since the gorge is spectacular and deep. This view is near the west end. Note the tunnel in the left side of the image; you can see clear through it from this angle.
Looking back; note the raft pulled up to the bank below the tracks. We received at least five "Zephyr Salutes" on the trip, several during this stretch. However, we're not getting mooned in this photo...
Leaving behind the gorges for now, the tracks continue to follow the river through winding valleys of varying width. Here we're somewhere near Radium.
After passing Bond, where the Craig branch splits off, the surrounding landscape is not as high as before. Train speed is fair to middlin', with occasional sharp curves, such as here at Dell siding. The stretch between Bond and Dotsero was built around 1934 to join the original Rio Grande main with the Denver and Salt Lake, which track we've been on up to this point. Of course, it's all Union Pacific now...
The Colorado and the Eagle join at Dotsero, and the train turns west on the original D&RGW main, headed into Glenwood Canyon. Interstate 70 also follows this route, and a massive highway-building project has resulted in the incredible double-deck design visible in this photo.
By this time, we were running about 2:15 late, but we had to wait for the eastbound California Zephyr to clear the depot at Glenwood Springs, and transfer something from our train to it. The two Amtraks met at Grizzly siding. Directly across the river is a nice highway rest stop, where we had gathered autumn leaves the previous October.
These two shots show the eastbound train, #6, as it pulls away. Amtrak carries express freight in the tail-end boxcars (US mail, among other things).
Here's the view out our window in the Hotel Denver, across the street from the depot. We're looking up into Glenwood Canyon as a westbound coal empty passes.
On August 6th, we saw a relatively rare movement: an eastbound BNSF coal train, complete with two sets of DPU helper locos. This shot is of the three-unit swing helper...
... and here is a single SD70MAC shoving on the rear. It was unusual (and nice) to see so much EMD power on a coal train in 2001.
Later that evening we saw the eastbound "Minturn Local" with Rio Grande's SD40T-2 #5361 on the point, waiting for #5 to arrive at the depot, but I was in the pool with no camera at the time! Oh well, can't catch them all.
Two days later, we waited as our eastbound ride, train #6, entered the depot siding. It was only running 35 minutes late, which is right on time by usual Amtrak standards. Again, there are three P42 locomotives for power.
Here's a closer look.
... and here is our home for the next six hours. Again, we managed to stay in the lounge car for the entire trip.
On the return trip, the weather turned cloudy and then rainy, the further northeast we went. I took mostly video on the eastbound leg. But here is another view of the curve at Dell siding. By the way, the white box with the stick man on it is a reflection of a trash box inside the car...
At Bond, we passed our westbound counterpart. Although they were further behind schedule than we were, they were still way ahead of our westbound trip of two days past!
Here's a scene in Little Gore canyon. The same location is pictured above. You can really see the change in the light from that day.
This shot is looking nearly straight up at the side of Gore canyon. You can see the wires from the slide detection fence that is strung along the tracks through here.
The west end of Byers Canyon has an extremely sharp curve, scene of a massive derailment back in '82. A freight train didn't slow down for the curve; the first two units made it around, but the rest of the train ended up scattered all over the landscape.
As we got to Tabernash, we broke free of the overcast skies and had bright sunshine the rest of the way into Denver. We had fully expected it to be dark when we got back, but the engineers actually made up the entire half-hour they were behind, so it was a double bonus. This photo shows the head end as it passed the location of old tunnel 28, just below Pinecliffe.
The rest of the way, we just enjoyed the ride. Again, let me say how pleasantly surprised I was at the whole Amtrak experience. Other than being a little late on the trip up, it was thoroughly enjoyable. It was comfortable, quiet, smooth, and had decent food to boot.
© 2 0 0 1 J a m e s G r i f f i n
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