For a memorable travel experience, the journey is the destination. A transatlantic crossing on the QE2 is one example. A flight to the United Emirates on an Etihad A380, sitting in an upscale First-Class suite like The Residence, is another. Another memorable experience is seeing the great American West from the windows of the Rocky Mountaineer train.
A Canadian company created the Rockies to the Red Rocks railroad experience. The train takes travelers through the Rockies and across the Continental Divide, showing off the beautiful scenery of the West. Pulled by a pair of locomotives, each with 2500 horsepower, the train chugs up the mountains, through the tunnels and follows the Colorado River. It shows passengers a gorgeous view they won’t see from their cars. There’s no driving, no traffic, no crowds, no pitstops for food or a bathroom. All is on board.
As the company puts it, guests will ‘enjoy two days of extraordinary landscapes including vast canyons, inspiring deserts, natural archways and enchanting hoodoos.’ Hoodoos are sandstone spires, or pillars, like the Three Sisters in Arches National Park.
Travelers can choose to start their Rockies to the Red Rocks journey in Denver, Colorado, and travel westward towards Moab, Utah. Or they can board the train in Moab, a gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and head east. Moab is known for its hiking, rafting, 4-wheeling and other outdoor activities. The journey of nearly 400 miles takes place entirely in daylight, so passengers can take in the view through the train’s five-foot-high picture windows.
In addition to the mountains, forests, mesa, red rocks and the mighty Colorado River, the train passes orchards and farms where peaches, cherries and grapes grow. Passengers have seen elk, red-tailed hawks, gray herons, ducks, wild turkeys, and bald eagles that look “just like the one in the US quarter.” On the human side, hikers can’t seem to resist “mooning” the train.
The trains have six passenger cars. Each car has a maximum of 52 passengers and is typically served by three hosts. One doubles as a guide detailing the history of the area, from polygamy in pre-statehood Utah to the last battle of train robbers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with the law in Parachute, CO. Other points of interest include NBA star Karl Malone’s enormous home, the former Rocky Flats nuclear bomb manufacturing area, and the studio where the Grateful Dead recorded “Coal Creek Canyon.”
The quality of the light and the Western scenery gives the area a cinematic quality. Passengers can focus on the views, as the Rocky Mountaineer does not have Wi-Fi, internet access or seatback video. Cellphone coverage in the Rockies is also hard to come by.
The season runs from April through October. A spokesperson said the travel season ends in October not because of the increasing cold and chance of snow, but because of losing the light.
The train is resting now, and the tracks are covered with snow. But when April rolls around, weekly boardings will bring hundreds of passengers from all over the world.
The Rocky Mountaineer has roomy passenger cars, while a higher class of service offers access to lounge cars with a bar and tables and chairs. The train does not have sleeping compartments. Instead, the two day, one night journey includes an overnight stay in Glenwood Springs, CO, known for its hot springs and the ‘world’s largest hot spring pool.’
En route, passengers can relax in their reclining seats and watch the scenery roll past. Hosts push bar carts down the aisle. A culinary specialist asks which gourmet breakfasts, lunch, or dinner a passenger would like on their oversized tray table.
To make the route possible, tunnels were cut through the mountains. The 6.2-mile-long Moffett tunnel, at 9,200 feet above sea level, was built at the cost of 28 lives. More recently, at least one tunnel was “daylighted,” blasted away to create a better view.
Rocky Mountaineer is a Canadian company that has been in the passenger train business since 1990. In 1999 it set a record with a 41-car train, the longest passenger train in Canadian history. In 2017 the company served its two millionth guest. And having launched Mandarin-language departures on several Canadian routes, the company may be well-prepared for the highly-anticipated return of Chinese tourists in 2023.
Rocky Mountaineer operates three passenger services in Canda, Vancouver to Jasper via Kamloops, Vancouver to Banff/Lake Louise via Kamloops, and Vancouver to Jasper via Whitter and Quesnel, all through the spectacular Canadian Rockies. For those who have never been, these Canadian national parks equal their US counterparts in breathtaking beauty.
The company began planning and researching a US service before the pandemic, working with Union Pacific, which owns the tracks. As a Rocky Mountaineer spokesperson noted, “The CEO of Union Pacific is passionate for passenger rail.”
The company somehow launched Red Rocks to the Rockies in 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It successfully ran a short season starting in August of that year. Most of the staff, hired for their customer service skills, are from the Denver area. Rocky Mountaineer ran a full season from April to October 2022 and expects an even more successful 2023.
Rocky Mountaineer says clients are typically couples, sometimes families with children, as well as connected groups. These might be four teachers traveling together, moms and sons, fathers, and daughters, or ‘four girlfriends having a blast,’ said a spokesperson She added that business and corporate groups, such as meetings and incentives, are also frequent customers, enjoying a drink, a friendly game of cards or simple post-COVID conversation. “The tax accountants were crazy!” she said.
The basic Rockies to the Red Rocks package starts at $1456. Higher classes of service and extensions to the trip, such as a luxury motorcoach from Moab for Arches National Park and Dead Horse State Park, or to Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, are also available.