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Rocky Mountain Exploration:Part 1: Riding The City and The Zephyr

Rocky Mountain Exploration:

Part 1: New Orleans to Pikes Peak By Rail

By Jack M. Turner
Photos by John C. Turner

    To begin our train vacation in late July 2012 my family would have to drive from our North Florida home to New Orleans since Amtrak’s only other option involved traveling via Washington, DC or New York.  The afternoon departure of train # 58, the City of New Orleans, from the Crescent City made it reasonable to spend the first night in Biloxi, MS. From there a short morning drive the next morning would get us to New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal (NOUPT) rested from an evening along the Mississippi Gulf coast.  The Avis car rental location on Canal Street was just a few blocks from the train station and a driver from that agency dropped us and our luggage off at the terminal to begin our journey.

    The waiting area for sleeping car passengers at NOUPT is known as the Magnolia Room, a far smaller and simpler space than the Metropolitan Lounge and Club Acela facilities found in the stations in Chicago, Washington and other key cities.  However, the quiet space was welcomed as we dined on the sandwiches we purchased at the station’s Subway restaurant for lunch.  We boarded sleeping car 32009 “George M. Pullman” about one-half hour prior to the City’s 1:45pm departure.  The walk was short since the lone sleeping car was at the rear of the train just a few steps from the waiting room door.  This convenience would be somewhat offset by having to walk through one coach to reach the dining car as the train would be turned to form the Texas Eagle out of Chicago.  That train’s rear two cars would then continue from San Antonio to Los Angeles on the Sunset Limited thus the City’s equipment arrangement would facilitate this process with a minimum of switching moves.  Such is the unfortunate reality on Amtrak where operational ease trumps passenger convenience every time.

Engines 99 and 23 lead the City of New Orleans as it prepares to depart the Crescent City on July 24, 2012

    Our jovial car attendant Damien welcomed us aboard and throughout the trip referred to train # 58 as “the happy train” as he worked to ensure a good time for his passengers.  The rear placement of the sleeper allowed us to watch New Orleans recede into the distance then note our divergence from the Sunset Limited line which headed across the Mississippi River via the massive Huey Long Bridge.  Our advance along the former Illinois Central line was more like a slow crawl for several minutes until we came to a stop to await passage of the southbound City of New Orleans at 2:25pm.  Once # 59 flew past, our engineer was free to resume authorized track speed and the miles began to click by at an even rate.  Looking out the rear of the “George M. Pullman” evoked memories of what it must have been like riding the club observation car on the end of the IC’s daytime “City of New Orleans” back in the 1960s with the exception that we had to stand to enjoy the rearward view.  In just a few days we would enjoy a ride in one of the classic Illinois Central club observation cars, the “Mardi Gras”, during our visit to Colorado.

The Louisiana Superdome can be seen as the train departs New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal

Seen in the New Orleans yards, engine 145 is one of Amtrak’s heritage locomotives, painted to commemorate the company’s 40 years of service as of 2011

    The most scenic half hour of our journey took us over a narrow spit of land interrupted by several trestles along the western shore of Lake Pontchartrain.  To our west Lake Maurepas bordered the railway though thick cypress groves obscured much of that view.  All the while, Interstate highway 55 played hide and seek with the rail line, first paralleling on the east then crossing over to the west of the tracks.  Near the north end of our lakeside running we trekked across a drawbridge over Pass Manchac, a narrow waterway linking the two lakes, about an hour out of New Orleans.

The rear view from the City’s sleeper shows Lake Pontchartrain and I-55 (left), and marshes on the right

Helpers shove a southbound coal train through the marshlands south of Pass Manchac

The Pass Manchac drawbridge is located at one of the most scenic points on the City of New Orleans route

    Within 20 minutes the City made its first station stop to serve Hammond, LA and adjacent Southeast Louisiana University.  We were about 25 minutes late thanks to the slow running leading up to the meet with train # 59 but this was of little concern to us since it was our goal to relax.  Since there were three of us in our party, we had booked two rooms, Bedroom E, a deluxe bedroom with lengthwise sofabed, and Roomette 2, the closest smaller room to Bedroom E.  By not trying to shoehorn three people into a “deluxe” bedroom we had ample space to rest during the day and sleep by night.  This strategy worked well as we slept through the stop in McComb, MS and awoke in time to view the next stop, Hazelhurst. 

    As the train pulled away from Hazelhurst it was time to head to the diner for our 5:00pm dinner sitting.  There we found two servers, Michelle and Linda, ready to wait on our table.  We soon found out that Linda was a trainee on her second trip working in the diner and of course we had to advise her that “trainee” is a great title on a train.  Car # 37005 was one of Amtrak’s reconfigured Cross Country Café cars, however, the end of the car where we dined was mercifully still configured like a dining car with traditional booth style tables.  Dinner on the City of New Orleans was a treat as the flat iron steak was tender and perfectly cooked.  I was delighted to again enjoy a baked potato and mixed vegetables after our AutoTrain trip the prior Christmas in which the diner had no baked potatoes.  During dinner the train made its 20 minute stop at Jackson, MS where the elevated tracks give a good perspective of the state capitol and the surrounding downtown area.  Departing that city Jackson Memorial Stadium came into view for a few moments before the former IC line (now operated by Canadian National) branched off for Yazoo City.  The traditional route of the City of New Orleans and companion streamliner, the Panama Limited, took a more easterly line through Canton, Durant, and Grenada, but that line was downgraded a couple decades ago in favor of the current route.

    A return to the sleeper’s rear window revealed a long downhill stretch through heavily forested land south of Yazoo City.  My scanner revealed the outside temperature to be 92ºF while the interior of the sleeper was much more comfortable especially in the bedroom.  Somehow we had lost more time as we were 40 minutes late at Yazoo City at 7:22pm.  There was no evidence of the massive tornado that brought destruction to that city a couple years earlier as chronicled on television’s “Storm Chasers” program last year. 

    As we watched a huge red sun made its final descent behind a Mississippi cornfield, train # 58 was clocked at 74 mph according to a talking defect detector.  Soon our first crew change took place at Greenwood, MS at 8:25pm then the City slid into the Mississippi darkness rolling toward Memphis.  We managed to stay awake for the nocturnal passage through Memphis then yielded to our need for sleep.  The gentle rocking of the train and the chilly temperature of our bedroom made for the best first night’s sleep I can recall aboard a train.  Only the five minute stop in Carbondale interfered until my alarm clock dutifully ended our sleep at 6:30am.  We had wakened early to allow time for breakfast in the diner before arrival in Chicago.  The Champaign, Illinois station stood outside our window as we climbed out of bed; we had slept through Kentucky as well as parts of Tennessee and Illinois.

    Railroad French Toast was a perfect breakfast selection and we watched the drought stricken cornfields of Illinois flash by while we dined.  The poetic sounding town of Kankakee, immortalized in the song “City of New Orleans”, and suburban Homewood were our last two stops before Chicago.  After passing Soldier Field train # 58 ducked westward on the St. Charles Air Line then eased onto the BNSF mainline near Halsted Street before backing down to Chicago Union Station.  The first leg of our journey ended at 9:12am, just 12 minutes behind schedule. 

    Sleeping car passengers have access to the first class Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago and one of its most convenient features is a check room where passengers may securely store their luggage.  This permitted us to enjoy our five hour layover by taking a tour of The Loop and Chicago’s near downtown areas.  On previous visits to the Windy City we had visited some of the city’s outstanding museums such as The Art Institute of Chicago, The Field Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry; enjoyed the vistas from Sears (now Willis) Tower and The John Hancock Building; and taken a boat tour along the Chicago River.  This time we decided to tie all those sights together with a tour offered by the Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Company.  The trolleys depart from a street corner on the south side of Willis Tower about two blocks from Union Station.  After acquiring our tickets we were greeted by a friendly and knowledgeable tour guide on the open top deck of a double decker tour bus. 

    Over the course of the next couple of hours our tour would wind its way through The Loop and along the shore of Lake Michigan while the guide shared interesting information and stories about the sights we were passing.  Stops were made at favorite tourist spots such as those we had visited previously and riders could hop off at any stop they desired, visit that attraction, then catch a later trolley or tour bus.  With our California Zephyr departure looming, we opted to simply enjoy the narrated ride this time around, a great decision as we absorbed a great deal of knowledge about the city from our morning tour.

Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Bus Company bus

Marina City, one of the opening scenes in the old Bob Newhart Show

Metra/Illinois Central electric train yard seen from our tour bus near downtown Chicago

The Field Museum

Sailboats anchored in a harbor along Lake Michigan

The Chicago skyline seen from the top deck of our tour bus

The Chicago Sun-Times clock tower

The John Hancock Building as seen from our tour bus

    After lunch at a favorite nearby restaurant it was time to return to Union Station’s Metropolitan Lounge, collect our bags from the check room, and cool our heels for a few minutes before boarding the California Zephyr.  Our sleeper, number 32041, was the middle of three sleepers at the tail end of train # 5.  For this leg of the journey Christine, John, and I each had our own roomette in rooms 3, 4, and 6 which all were adjacent to one another.  We had originally booked a bedroom and a roomette as on the prior night’s train but a couple days after booking, Amtrak discovered an error by one of their agents who had failed to protect the bedroom space.  The room was quickly booked by someone else and there were no more bedrooms left.  In an act of good customer service, Amtrak contacted us and offered two roomettes for the price of the one bedroom which was a fair trade in my opinion as everyone would now have a lower berth.  We still hung onto the other roomette that we had previously booked since roomettes are crowded for two adults.  In the intervening months between booking and departing on our trip, Amtrak added a third sleeping car line to the consist and I discovered bedroom space was once again available.  For a few fleeting moments I considered switching back to our original plan but something told me to stand pat.  This turned out to be a case of God working in mysterious ways as later in the trip we found out that the third sleeper had no air conditioning in the bedroom end of the car and its passengers were bailing out to coach seats.  Our sleeper, meanwhile, was very chilly and we were delighted to say the least.

Engines 157 and 151 head the westbound California Zephyr at Chicago Union Station

Westbound Southwest Chief (left) and California Zephyr (right) at Chicago Union Station

    The CZ departed Chicago on schedule at 2:00pm and made its way through the beautiful western suburbs of LaGrange, Western Springs, Hinsdale, and Downers Grove en route to the first stop in Naperville.  Just past Naperville we met the eastbound Southwest Chief followed soon after by the eastbound California Zephyr.  We squeezed in a nice little nap between Princeton and Galesburg, once again finding it perfectly comfortable to slide the roomette seats together and sleeping on their cushions rather than using the mattress during nap time.  A fair crowd boarded at Galesburg’s Swiss style station where John and I spent some time after a ride on the train from Quincy, IL a couple summers earlier. 

    We headed to the dining car for the 5:30pm seating and viewed our passage over the new bridge over the Mississippi River into Burlington, Iowa a few minutes later.  The topic of discussion amongst passengers was the conductor’s announcement leaving Galesburg that someone was left behind and the train had not stopped despite the forlorn former passenger waving their arms at the departing train.  There was much debate whether this was fact or fiction, perhaps a scare tactic to prevent smokers and others from straying from trainside at future stops.

Crossing the new BNSF Mississippi River bridge at Burlington, Iowa

    During the next 90 minutes # 5 met several eastbound BNSF trains including a couple of long coal trains before slowing to a 15 mph crawl west of Mt. Pleasant due to an ailing freight train that was limping westward ahead of us on single track.  We finally made it to a passing track and ran around the turtle-like freight at 7:45pm.  The National Weather Service (NWS) channel on my scanner noted a heat advisory with a temperature of 101º in a nearby town during the 7:00pm hour.  Our roomettes were nice and chilly and we continued to be thankful we had stuck with car line 0532.  As the Des Moines River came into view a few minutes later we also got our first glimpse of predicted thunderstorms ahead.

An Iowa sunset prior to a major nighttime storm

    The dispatcher called our engineer at about 9:30pm with a high wind warning from the NWS as winds of 60 mph were occurring several miles to the west.  The dispatcher advised the engineer to use caution and asked if we needed to stop.  As there were no significant winds where we were, the train crew said they would press on and the dispatcher made it clear we could and should stop if necessary and report to him.  He added we should run out of it by 10:20.  One of our greatest pleasures is passing through thunderstorms on a train at night as the streaks of lightning are impressive to behold from a darkened sleeping car room.  This storm did not disappoint as the entire sky frequently was filled with the brilliant white light from sheets of lightning punctuated at times by jagged bolts of cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning.  Torrents of rain cascaded down yet we didn’t have to worry about being hit by the lightning since we were aboard a train grounded by the steel rails nor be concerned about driving through the blinding rain.

    The high wind warning expired at 10:02pm though the impressive light show resumed again awhile later much to our delight.  We did discern that the train had slowed somewhat, perhaps to guard against any possible downed trees or perhaps due to the potential for flash flooding.  By Creston we were almost two hours late at 10:35pm due to the slow freight train we had followed and the weather related reduced speed.  Another hour was lost by the time I woke briefly at Lincoln, Nebraska, reportedly due to stopping for some reason outside Omaha.  Overall we slept well this night until the alarm clock again rousted us for an early breakfast at 7:00am.  We had at least gained a bit of extra shuteye due to the CZ’s tardiness as we had been due into Denver at 7:15.  Nevertheless, we needed to eat before the uninformed crowded the diner in anticipation of snagging lounge car seats for the climb into the Rocky Mountains after we detrained.

    Arrival in Denver at 9:40am was 2 hours and 25 minutes late, not bad considering the nasty overnight weather.  We made our way across the street to the temporary train station which is in use during renovations to Denver Union Station which is being converted to a multimodal transportation hub.  Within minutes a driver from the Avis car rental office on Broadway Street appeared and within the half hour we were on our way for a two week western adventure.

    Colorado Springs was our first stop and we made our way to the U.S. Olympic Training Center for a tour of the facilities where U.S. Olympians train throughout the year.  It was exciting to see a swimming pool where Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, and other stars trained as well as the gym where the American gymnasts had practiced their events and the facilities where weightlifters, wrestlers, and marksmen trained.  It was especially timely since the 2012 Summer Games started the next day in London.

Castle Rock, a notable land form visible along I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs

The entrance to the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs

The gymnastics training facility used by the US men’s team

The strength and conditioning facility used by US Olympians

One of the pools in the Olympic aquatic center

    Next we headed to nearby Manitou Springs to board the Pikes Peak Cog Railway for a magnificent 70 minute ride to the 14,115 foot summit of Pikes Peak.  The trip began at the 6,571 ft. elevation station in Manitou Springs and quickly started a gentle ascent through lush forests.  In the first few minutes the Swiss built train car passed waterfalls, rock outcroppings, and a variety of pines and spruce trees as well as distant lakes and reservoirs.  Almost without notice from passengers, the grade became steeper as the 8.9 mile long line had over 7,000 feet in elevation to climb.  The climb evened out for awhile before getting into serious climbing (and a steeper grade up to 25%) in the top portion of the route.  Along the way we noted passing sidings where the well-scheduled trains pass as the route is otherwise single tracked.  Soon we reached the timberline where trees do not grow and rocks dominate the Alpine tundra.  Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep could be seen on the right side of the train while several yellow bellied marmots frolicked on the rocks outside the left side windows.  The last couple miles of the journey offer amazing views down the side of the mountain and on clear days one can see all the way to Kansas to the east and Denver to the north from the summit.  Passengers are allowed about 30 minutes at the summit before boarding their train for the return to Manitou Springs.

A two car train passes the storage sheds at the base of Pikes Peak Cog Railway

A train prepares to board at the Manitou Springs station

Beautiful mountain scenes dominate the climb to the summit

A mountain lake nestled among the mountains

The steep climb among the rock fields nearing the summit of Pikes Peak

A trailing train climbs the part of the line our train traversed a few minutes before

The twisting line and a trailing train visible behind our train

The author with our train at the absolute end of the line at the summit

The cog railway logo seen during the layover at the summit

The author and the photographer at the summit of Pikes Peak

    The Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway opened in 1891.  The line uses a cog wheel that meshes into a special track located between the outer rails to stay on the track while climbing the steep grades required to reach the summit.  The self-propelled cars used by the Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway were built in Switzerland.  Single unit cars were purchased in the mid-1960s while articulated twin units were added in the 1970s and 1980s.  The cog railway is a relaxing way to enjoy the scenic climb and is far less stressful than the twisting roadway which climbs the opposite face of the mountain.

    The return trip down the mountain took about the same amount of time as the uphill journey as trains must take their time to safely travel down the mountain.  Following our return from Pikes Peak we visited another Colorado Springs area highlight, Garden of The Gods.  This park features an array of rock formations and outstanding views of the mountains that can be seen from various points along the park drive.  There is no admission charge to the park and it is worth a visit while in the area.

Our train and the one that will precede it prepare to leave the summit

The trains at Summit House

A yellow bellied marmot spotted on our descent

Big horn sheep seen from the train

Garden of the Gods

Striking rock formations at Garden of the Gods

    Our overnight stay at the Colorado Springs Marriott validated our lodging choice as the hotel stands atop a hill with commanding views of the mountains from the windows of our suite.  The hotel projects a relaxing atmosphere with inviting public spaces, a well stocked concierge lounge, and clean, pleasant accommodations.  Our suite featured two flat screen TV sets, a nice sofa bed in the sitting area, and the aforementioned views.  We knew we had picked a winner when we drove up the driveway toward the hotel and came upon a large deer ambling across the drive.  We chalked this up as the first of many wild animals spotted during our visit to the Rockies.

A large deer strolls across the entrance driveway at the Colorado Springs Marriott

The view from our suite at the Colorado Springs Marriott

The Colorado Springs Marriott was a perfect stopover for the first night of our Colorado visit

    There are many other worthwhile sights to see in and around Colorado Springs including the Figure Skating Hall of Fame, the US Air Force Academy, and the Focus on the Family Headquarters.  The Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau provides details for these and other sights at its web site listed below.


Click Here for a Slide Show of all Images used in this Report.

Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Company
US Olympic Training Center

Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Colorado Springs Marriott
Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau

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