Cañon City. In the 1870s, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe fought a literally and figurative turf war over which line would build a line along the river. The battle reached the Supreme Court, and the Denver and Rio Grande won. At one time, the busy line connected Pueblo's magnificent railroad terminal, Salida and Leadville's high-elevation station and eentually beyond to Minturn. Now, the Royal Gorge Route train uses a relatively few miles of trackage to take tourists through the Arkansas River's most dramatic canyon, but it does so in vintage style.
Coach class, open-air cars where passengers stand and swivel for ever-changing views, Vista Dome cars with lunch, dinner or wine dinner service, murder mystery trains, rail/raft packages combining a train ride upstream and a raft trip back downriver, Santa Express trains and even the opportunity to ride in the cab with the engineer are Royal Gorge options. The rail company commissioned Idaho artist Ward Hooper to create a special, limited edition poster (above left) in a retro style to match the cars and recently hired Donald Burns as executive chef. We took what amounted to a twilight "hors d'oeuvre train" to introduce both the graphic artist and the culinary artist to the media.
Among other credentials, Burns was corporate chef for the luxurious American Orient Express, and he has brought his culinary touch to the Royal Gorge route. The excellent small plates served to the media are not on the regular menu, but the route and the scenery are the same, no matter which class of service. A cute little depot with ticket office and extensive gift shop is the train's home port.
The train pulls our of the station and heads westward, paralleling the river, and soon passes the outskirts of Cañon City. The Arkansas is running really fast these days from high-country snowmelt. Even the flatwater was high, lapping over its customary banks. Our tablemates are Pueblo locals whose son works for a raft company. He told them that the swift current had been turning their "family float" trip into a fast float .
Soon the valley closes in and the train enters the area of rock slopes and later steep cliffs, pinching down the river into raging whitewater. Authorities are warning even experienced rafters and kayakers off many Colorado rivers until they calm down, but looking down from the train was both exciting and disquieting, because running water like this can be really dangerous.
The railroad could collect tickets at the boarding gate, airline-style, but it retains the traditional flavor with a uniformed conductor checking them on the train. He's probably making sure that coach ticket holders haven't upgraded themselves into the dome card, but he does so subtly and with a broad smile.
Artifacts along the banks include remaining sections of redwood pipe that once brought gravity-fed water to thirsty Cañon City.
We stopped for quite some time at the narrowest part of the canyon, with the Royal Gorge Bridge -- the world's high suspension bridge -- resembling nothing more substantial than a tightrope a thousand feet above the water surface.
As the train returned to Cañon City, the setting sun slotted into the canyon and made the water glow with reflected evening light.
Royal Gorge Route, 401 Water Street, Cañon City; 888-RAILS-4U or 719-276-4000.