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Rocky Mountain Exploration Part 2: The Royal Gorge Route By Jack M. Turner

Rocky Mountain Exploration

Part 2: The Royal Gorge Route

By Jack M. Turner
Photos by John C. Turner

    The former Denver and Rio Grande line through the Royal Gorge has long been one of most desired lines missing from my personal map of routes ridden through the years.  Day two of our Rocky Mountain travels would allow me to finally cover the Royal Gorge portion of that line which once hosted some D&RGW passenger trains linking Denver and Salt Lake City.

    The 1951 Official Guide of the Railways shows Rio Grande’s train “The Royal Gorge” departing Denver at 8:50am and heading south through Colorado Springs and Pueblo before turning west through Caņon City and Salida en route to Dotsero where it would join the D&RGW line that came from Denver via Moffat Tunnel.  The Royal Gorge then continued along the same route used by today’s California Zephyr to Salt Lake City which would be reached at 8:15am the next morning.  From Salt Lake the train proceeded to Ogden where the Rio Grande ended.  This schedule was much slower than the CZ yet the train merited a sleeping car, grill car, and a vista dome coach along with a flat top coach.  By the mid-1960s passenger service via the Royal Gorge operated only as far west as Salida and carried only one coach beyond Colorado Springs.  Similar schedules continued on the eastbound runs in both eras.  Passenger service totally disappeared from the Royal Gorge line in 1967 and only freight service remained.

    By the late 1990s even the freight service had all but disappeared and the Union Pacific, which had taken over the Rio Grande, decided to mothball the line.  A special steam excursion was operated over the entire line en route to the 1999 NRHS convention in Sacramento, however, the schedule did not mesh with our previously set summer plans that year.  Today the line across Tennessee Pass lies dormant though still intact.  However, a tourist train operator has operated service through the Royal Gorge between Caņon City and Parkdale for the past several years.

    The drive from Colorado Springs to Caņon City took just over an hour and by 9:15am we were sitting aboard a full dome car ready to explore the scenic Royal Gorge.  We were assigned a booth in dome car 553 which was built in 1954 for the Santa Fe’s “San Francisco Chief”.  The car was purchased in 1971 by the Auto-Train Corporation for use on its Lorton,VA-Sanford, FL train.  Beginning May 1989 the car began operating for Holland America Line’s Westours brand in Alaska and the car was named “Kashwitna” during that time.  The exterior of the car still wears its Alaska paint scheme while the interior has been redecorated with inviting colors.  Riding the dome car requires an upgrade charge from basic coach and it is well worthwhile for viewing the spectacular sights.  Dome passengers have the run of the train which is welcomed since the open air car is popular for viewing the awe inspiring Royal Gorge.  We decide to enjoy the dome on the westbound run then take in the open air atmosphere on the return through the gorge.

    Leading our train is F7 # 403, a former Chicago & Northwestern freight and commuter train locomotive and FB unit 1503 which also came from the C&NW.  Both are painted in the colors of the former Rio Grande complete with D&RGW style speed lettering.  The consist of our train includes former Milwaukee Road super dome # 56 (which later served Canadian National and VIA Rail Canada, Amtrak, and Holland America), the former ATSF full dome car we are riding, a bar car, two open coaches, two standard coaches, and former VIA Rail Canada heater car 15462 which has been outfitted with a cab to lead the return trip.

The westbound Royal Gorge train prepares for departure from Caņon City, CO behind former C&NW F7 # 403 on July 27, 2012.

Former Santa Fe full dome 553.

A Royal Gorge coach.

One of two open air cars on our train.

CRRX power car 15462 has been retrofitted with a cab control compartment since its service with Canadian National and VIA Rail Canada.

    The train departs the Caņon City depot promptly at 9:30am on the first of the three runs on Friday, July 27.  The Arkansas River appears on our left shortly after departure and soon we spy a few fishermen standing in the river fishing for trout.  The train is in no hurry as it ambles along at12 mph, perfect for savoring the sights that unfold outside the glass.  Very nice recorded guitar music plays over speakers throughout the train and we recognize the tune “City of New Orleans”.  A recorded narrative describes the sights and the history of the rail line and we appreciate the fact that both it and the music are well modulated rather than intrusive.  The recorded narrative is a welcomed change from the constant rambling and silly jokes often told when a live microphone is used. 

A steam engine is displayed in front of the Caņon City depot.

A fly fisherman in the Arkansas River just outside town.

    The river becomes noticeably wilder as we continue west, first displaying fairly sedate rapids, then turning into full fledged whitewater.  At 10:00am we pass beneath the towering Royal Gorge Bridge and note several pedestrians who appear to be dots looking over its railings.  Our friendly hostess delivers our breakfast order, hot cinnamon buns made on board, while the family at the next table dines on a made to order omelet.  Both far exceed any breakfast we have recently seen aboard a train.

Mountain scenery begins moments after departure.

Mountain goats seen from the left side of the train.

    As the Royal Gorge train rounds one of many curves through the gorge the first of several rafts filled with adventuresome rafters floats past in the Class 4 rapids.  The skill and necessity of having qualified guides is evident as oars maneuver the rafts around huge rocks protruding from the river.  The gorge becomes more and more beautiful as we continue west and it is interesting to note the contrast between the two former Rio Grande lines through the Rockies.  The Moffat route climbs up into the mountains and the beautiful views of the Colorado River are often seen from several feet above the roaring river.  On the Royal Gorge line the tracks hug the Arkansas River through a very narrow gorge and the tracks actually are built out above the water at one point on a unique rail bridge.

Rafters begin their journey beside a US Highway 50 bridge near Parkdale.

Inside dome car 553, a former Santa Fe car which later served on the original Auto-Train and on Holland America/Westours service in Alaska.

The view from the dome car.

The bar car on the Royal Gorge train.

    We reach Parkdale at 10:21am and stop while the head end crew moves to the cab control car for the eastward trip.  John and I move to the closest open car which from all appearances once was a standard coach with its roof and much of the sides cut off.  The crew doesn’t waste any time and we are on our way back to the east at 10:27, after a mere 6 minutes.  The odd looking cab control heater car now is leading our train.  A hi-rail truck trails us eastward as it did westward.  This provides emergency assistance if needed in either direction.

Modified power car 15462, outfitted with a cab control compartment, leads the return trip to Caņon City.

Continuing eastward along the Arkansas River.

A hi-rail truck follows the eastbound train.

    Even more rafts have entered the river since our earlier passage and we enjoy waving and, in some cases, exchanging greetings with the rafters.  The train stops for several minutes on the hanging railroad bridge that protrudes out above part of the river which allows several rafters to rush past the train much to our delight.  The Royal Gorge Bridge soars almost 1,000 feet above the river and it is popular with those wishing an aerial view of the Royal Gorge.  Meanwhile the hanging railroad bridge, built in 1879, extends out over the river because the canyon is only 30 feet wide at that point with rock walls reaching right to both sides of the Arkansas River.  Cables driven into the rock canyon walls hold the bridge in place and allow the railroad to navigate this incredible geographic feature. 

Passing several whitewater rafts on the Royal Gorge route.

An open air car is enveloped by mountains in the Royal Gorge.

A kayak helps the rafts navigate the whitewater.

The subtle differences between a Milwaukee Road Super Dome (next to the engines) and a Santa Fe full dome can be seen in the curved dome glass.

The gorge narrows as the train prepares to pass below the Royal Gorge Bridge.

The power car leads the way through the Royal Gorge.

One can appreciate the height of the bridge from an open car.

The bridge appears suspended between mountain peaks.

Cables and supports hold the hanging railroad bridge which hangs out over the river.

More rafters enjoy the whitewater ride.

These rafting enthusiasts are tackling a challenging path along the Arkansas River.

Every curve offers more scenic views of the Royal Gorge.

 The Royal Gorge Bridge provides its visitors a view from 1,000 feet above the gorge.

    The train returns to Caņon City at 11:25am and soon switching begins for its midday trip.  Another full dome, two more coaches, another open car, and another F unit will be added to the rear of our consist.  Our trip covered only 24 miles but provided enough memories and stunning photographs to have filled an entire day.  Before leaving we tour the beautiful railway station which today serves as ticket office, waiting room, and gift shop.  We then head west on scenic US Highway 50 to Salida.  The railway parallels the road along the Arkansas River and the tracks still appear in good shape should Union Pacific ever decide to reactivate the line. 

    A few miles west of Salida we turn south and make our way to Great Sand Dunes National Park.  This park features 750 foot high sand dunes that are unusual in this region.  Visitors can hike to the top of the dunes which John successfully did in a bit over one hour. The dunes are located close to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains whose collection of 14,000 foot peaks are a perfect backdrop to the park.  The dunes project a dark color during our visit as a result of a brief but heavy rainstorm that passed through right before our visit. Great Sand Dunes National Park is situated on the way to our next destination, Alamosa, which we will visit in Parts 3 and 4 of this series.

A dust devil encountered on Highway 17 north of Hooper, CO.

The sand dunes are visible to the left of the entrance sign to the national park.

The dunes display a dark color due to rains that fell minutes earlier. 
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains stand behind the dunes.

The size of the sand dunes is massive compared to hikers who appear as specks.

Great Sand Dunes National Park’s dunes  present a challenge to climb.

Many visitors like to slide down the sand dunes.

A ridge on the side of one of the dunes.

The view from near the top of the highest sand dune.

Curious chipmunks abound near the parking lot and boardwalk in Great Sand Dunes National Park.


                    Royal Gorge Route Excursion Train     
                    Great Sand Dunes National Park          

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

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