Press "Enter" to skip to content

Places: Along the California Zephyr

By Forrest Whitman

Here are a few places to see and visit on a super Colorado train trip. Your window to it all is on the California Zephyr (AMTRAK train #5). Settle in to the sightseer lounge, or the dining car, or maybe your seat-side window. It’s a fine day trip from Denver to Glenwood Springs.

It’s fun to board at Union Station, Denver. The old gray lady is showing her best holiday side. You may come on the W line (free parking at Jefferson Center) or maybe take the RTD “Bustang” from our Central Colorado home land in Salida, Alamosa and Gunnison.

After you get off the bus or light rail you’ll feel all that holiday excitement. Little kids are given to laughter and seniors are seen smiling. The station is jammed with holiday makers. A giant Christmas tree dominates the scene. Much of the history of the state is right here in the great hall.

You can check out the loving cup given to the founder of the railroad line in 1904. David Moffat gave his life (literally) to the dream that Denver would not be a backwater, bypassed by the mainline in Cheyenne. When faced with big pressure from New York moguls like Harriman and Gould he said, “The line will be built if I have to go drive the spikes myself.”

The etchings on that huge silver cup depict scenes you’ll see as the Zephyr winds up into the mountains. The hundreds of tunnels and cuts haven’t changed from what is pictured there.

Glenwood Canyon and the Colorado River. Photo by Maggie Smiley.

An obvious place to see along the line is the lovely South Boulder Creek. Blue ice caves are seen at odd places as you enter Pinecliffe. Later your window will reveal where the water comes from.

You’ll catch a glimpse of Wink’s Lodge. That’s all that left of the once thriving African American resort of Lincoln Hills. During the days of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, this resort was a safe place for African American families to vacation in the mountains. Later a YWCA camp for girls, named Nizhoni, was established there.

After you pass Rollinsville and Tolland you can look up that steep mountainside ahead and see where Moffat lost his fortune. Those grades up to Rollins Pass, called The Giant’ Ladder, were an amazingly steep 4%. Snows were constant and lives were lost. It’s a part of our history worth marveling at from your train window.

Next you enter a rail tunnel. The Moffat Tunnel 6.2-mile bore was completed in 1928 long after Moffat died. If you notice the sides slightly bowing in on the western side, you are correct. The east side is hard stone, but the west side is a continual problem as it is bored in soft stone left by the glacier. At the entrance you can see the parallel water tunnel. It fills up south Boulder Creek with Frazier River flows.

You exit the tunnel into a happy place, Winter Park and Frazier stations. The heated platform at Winter Park is waiting for happy skiers and snowboarders to get off the Winter Park express. You might be tempted to spend the night there. Most of its 47 resorts offer transport to the train. You’ll be tempted by world-class restaurants and also modest pizza places. Part of their business is from people who don’t ski.

Not far from the Frazier stop is the Crooked Creek Saloon. It’s one of Colorado’s oldest and is loaded with memorabilia. You might be tempted to stop there and have lunch. You could catch the train back to Union Station, but it’s fun to continue on the Zephyr. There’s more to be seen from your window. Did I mention that your window was washed before the train left for better visibility?

Another tempting stop is Granby. Passengers getting off here are usually looking for cross country or dogsled excitement. It’s also a snowmobile mecca. There are over 23 places to stay there, many of them bed and breakfasts. Some restaurants of note include the Java Lava, the Chinese Pearl Dragon and the Azteca Mexican.

If the end of your trip is Glenwood Springs, you’re in for a great place to visit. There’s something “Colorado special” about soaking in that hot water pool with the steam rising in the brisk winter air. Two historic hotels, the Colorado and the Denver serve the train. Both were built over a century ago and are lovingly restored. The bistro in the Colorado serves as a venue for live music. Restaurant choices are many. A Bavarian restaurant serves strudel, pancakes and even Eggs Benedict with kale. It’s a great place.

The California Zephyr is waiting.