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Boulder to Glenwood Canyon by Santa Fe Vista Cruiser

Chicago’s famous bridges in the middle of town over the Chicago River

Check out the Lionel Trains  “O” gauge on Amazon. The World’s Most Famous Railcar!

Passing through the foothills that back Boulder, snaking up in altitude, and offering views of Gross Reservoir that are beyond compare, this journey reveals the less-seen back sides of familiar scenes to the north. It’s thrilling.

With my face plastered to the window—hard enough to leave flat spots on my face and a dent in the glass—I spend the 6 hours (or more) on the AMTRAK trip from Union Station, Denver, to Glenwood , Colorado. This is the most spectacular part of the Zephyr‘s journey from Chicago, a city still glorious in its own right, to San Francisco. When in Chicago, be sure to take the Chicago River Boat Tour—trust me, it’s worth it.

In the heart of downtown, the bridges spanning the Chicago River are a sight to behold. Colorado boasts its own roots of genius, including inspiring the design of the then Santa Fe Vista Cruiser. Today it is an AMTRAK train. The Vista Cruiser with its art deco look, with windows everywhere including up and over the sides, is something to behold.

It even better to ride to Glenwood Springs riding in this wonder of tourist-rider glee and joy!  The Vista Cruiser, or Dome Car was created specifically for Glenwood Canyon.

That singular distinction of being the birthplace of the Vista Cruiser or “Dome Car” train car should be no surprise to Coloradans, used to leading innovation in all fields. That innovation in railroading and in passenger excitement is another breakthrough from Colorado.  As we locals know, a train line that passes through places like No Name, Colorado, and Dotsero (pronounced ‘Dot Zero’) Colorado simply must be interesting, with tales to share!

As the train leaves the Eastern Slope behind, it travels through 31 tunnels including the Moffat Tunnel for 6.2 miles under the Continental Divide. Passengers are plunged into darkness for nearly 10 minutes before emerging back into daylight at the west portal, near Winter Park Ski Area. 17 of the tunnels are in Glenwood Canyon!

We pass the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Gore Canyon treat!  The final For 12.5 miles we see headwaters of the Colorado River,, going through Glenwood Canyon. The historic Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant, the Glenwood Canyon Recreation Path, surrounded by 1300 foot or 400 meter tall Canyon walls.

The Vista Dome railcarehit the tracks in 1949 and was immediately the “most talked about train in America.”

Imagine the railroad baron of old, riding in the locomotive with the engineers, sharing their unobstructed view of their surroundings.

gray and red train running on rail in between trees at daytime

The magnificent red walls of Glenwood Canyon tower over the train, with the tracks clinging to the mountainside and burrowing through tunnels. Each more astonishing than the one before.

Across the Colorado River, the famous section of I-70 through the Canyon stands as an engineering marvel. This stretch of track, with its tales and sights, offers one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring experiences of the entire Chicago to San Francisco trip. Wanting to share in the glory of the view, our railroad tycoon designed the Vista Cruiser.historic photos of Glenwood Canyon

The history of the Vista Cruiser suites a track that goes through No Name, Colorado, through Dotsero (pronounced Dot Zero), and so much more. The railroad baron who owned the railroad when such things were possible, was riding in the locomotive with the engineers. They had an open view in all directions. No roof blocked their view of the soaring canyon walls which surrounded them.

People with a deep understanding of the significance of and importance of the Glenwood Canyon are at Visiting Glenwood.com

The tracks follow the mountainside, and go through tunnels in those mountains as it carries us through one of the world’s great marvels of a canyon. An especially famous site of I-70 which runs directly across the Colorado River. We are treated to an unparalleled  view of this engineering design marvel. Having the tales and sights, talking the talk and walking the walk, this adventure on the rails holds more than a few paragraphs worth of tales and factoids.  It is one of the finest, most interesting most beautiful, and most awe-inspiring of any stretches of train track in the lower 48 states. The best 6 hours of the Denver-Glenwood trip are way beyond a single blog.

After leaving Colorado, the Zephyr heads towards Salt Lake City. In the past, it would have turned right at Dotsero, with ‘Dot Zero’ being the notation on the surveyor’s map when the line was laid out.

The trip showcases the magnanimous visionary concept of the Vista Cruiser, designed by our RR tycoon who wanted his passengers to enjoy the same unparalleled views he did.

Winter journeys may offer sightings of Bald Eagles along the Colorado River, which remains unfrozen. This stretch of river, followed by the train for more miles than any other  train/river path in the lower 48 states, is a haven for these once-endangered birds. On a good day, you might see anywhere from 5 to 100 eagles, fishing, flying, or just congregating in large numbers. The river’s proximity to the tracks makes these national birds a true photographer’s dream. That’s IF you can get your face away from being plastered against the window.

The train skirts the Colorado River, through canyons inaccessible by road, offering a perspective few ever see. The sight of Bald Eagles in winter, utilizing the river’s never-frozen waters for fishing, is a highlight of the journey. Whether they’re fishing, perched on the banks, or just observing the passing train, these majestic birds are a common sight along this route.

Personally I put my ticket in the ticket holder at a regular seat, park my luggge, and that’s the last I’ll see of that seat for the trip. I go immediately to the Vista Cruiser, which provides a view from both sides of the train, and for the first time shares the view looking up that is enjoyed by the engineers in the locomotive! We travel next to the Colorado river where the roads don’t go, and the tracks and our route follows the river farther than any train runs next to any river in the US. Does that matter? Take the trip during the winter. When you see dozens of Bald Eagles and their white heads and tails lining both sides of the Colorado river, taking advantage of the never frozen section of it to fish year ’round, you’ll never ask that again. Whether fishing, hanging on the bank eating their catch, or just watching the Zephyr go by, you’ll likely see more Bald’s than you’ve ever seen in your lifetime before this railroad adventure.

Vista Cruiser

The journey also includes at least one canyon virtually inaccessible except to the intrepid Boulder hikers, known for their ability to traverse any terrain. No trail is too challenging for these hikers, who make even the most difficult paths seem easy. Their presence is a reminder of the natural wonders that surround us, like Longs Peak, a towering and ever-changing natural wonder just north of the city.

Immediately to our North, just about falling into the city, is Longs Peak. At 14, 265 feet, it is a daily piece of natural art that after 50 years for me never looks the same as it towers over all that surrounds it. Summer at the bottom of Longs is not what we find after “walking” 5000 vertical feet, with a 14 mile round-trip walk. And we have to avoid tripping the people who mock us by jogging by in shorts, while we’re wearing a wind breaker over a down jacket with gloves and hiking boots, gasping for the little oxygen provided by the altitude.

Arriving in Glenwood after dark, we were happy to find an open restaurant where we could sit down and begin to digest the magnificence of this journey. This venture on the rails is not about adhering to a timetable but about embracing the magical, mysterious ride through the mountains of Boulder and Colorado.

Leonard Frieling Pen Of Justice Legal Blogger
  • Senior Counsel Emeritus to the Boulder Law firm Dolan + Zimmerman LLP : (720)-610-0951
  • Former Judge
  • Photographer of the Year, AboutBoulder 2023
  • First Chair and Originator of the Colorado Bar Association’s Cannabis Law Committee, a National first.
  • Previous Chair, Boulder Criminal Defense Bar (8 years)
  • Twice chair Executive Counsel, Colorado Bar Association Criminal Law Section
  • NORML Distinguished Counsel Circle
  • Life Member, NORML Legal Committee
  • Life Member, Colorado Criminal Defense Bar
  • Board Member Emeritus, Colorado NORML
  • Chair, Colorado NORML, 7 years including during the successful effort to legalize recreational pot in Colorado
  • Media work, including episodes of Fox’s Power of Attorney, well in excess of many hundreds media interviews, appearances, articles, and podcasts, including co-hosting Time For Hemp for two years.
  • Board member, Author, and Editor for Criminal Law Articles for the Colorado Lawyer, primary publication of the Colorado Bar Assoc. 7 Years, in addition to having 2 Colorado Lawyer cover photos, and numerous articles for the Colorado Lawyer monthly publication.
  • LEAP Speaker, multi-published author, University lectures Univ. of Colorado, Boulder, Denver University Law School, Univ. of New Mexico, Las Vegas NM, and many other schools at all levels.
  • http://www.Lfrieling.com
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