"I apologise this isn't in the brochure," says our host, Mike Hannifin. "We're approaching Moon River on the left and you won't want to miss it."
A day into our Rocky Mountaineer journey through Colorado and Utah, we pay close attention to Mike's cheerful instructions. The born-and-raised Denverite entertains us with local history as we pass by tiny communities (population: 10) and a town he claims is the coldest place in the US. A mostly-true recap of the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid makes everyone laugh.
Between sharp-eyed wildlife spotting, Mike throws in personal tales. There's his adolescent first kiss on the Ski Train from Denver to Winter Park. Many years later, a successful romantic proposal at Colorado's beautiful hot springs. Blink and you might miss the bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer and eagles, but Mike's colourful stories are in abundant supply.
As we peer out the windows, ideal for landscape viewing, a picture-perfect river appears. Framed by snow-capped mountains in the distance, the river reflects a thousand rays of sunshine. It's a scene worthy of a Visit Colorado poster.
Half-a-dozen hardy souls are rugged up against the biting cold to fish for trout from small boats. As the train passes by, the fishermen turn their backs to us and bend over en masse. In a flash, the men pull down their pants and expose their bare backsides. We're being mooned, good and proper. Coloradans really are very cheeky.
Launched in August last year, the new two-day Rockies to the Red Rocks rail journey connects the city of Denver with Moab, Utah, via an overnight stop at Glenwood Springs in Colorado's western region. The itinerary is offered seasonally, from April to November, in both directions.
Denver and Moab are both engaging destinations in which to spend time exploring either end of the journey. It seems many are taking the opportunity to do just that. When we visit in October, a Moab local tells us one in three tourists to the Utah town is a Rocky Mountaineer passenger.
Travelling at an average speed of 40 miles (64 kilometres) an hour, the pace is unhurried and the ambience onboard is relaxed. All the better to appreciate the Wild West landscape and look out for wildlife (and bares).
Historically, the Rocky Mountaineer has mainly travelled on Canadian rails, along the scenic trails between Vancouver, Jasper and Banff. This is not the luxury train brand's first foray into US territory, however. A previous route, operated between Seattle and Vancouver, was cancelled in 2019 due to less than expected patronage. Rail buffs were more interested in delving into the vast Canadian wilderness. In the current climate of unpredictable lockdowns, international border restrictions and COVID considerations for travellers, it makes sense to offer an itinerary wholly within the US.
The elegant train, purpose-built for nature viewing, offers unobstructed views of the Rockies and the Mars-like red rock formations of the Utah desert. While Rocky Mountaineer shares the train line with three other rail entities — owner-operator Union Pacific, the California Zephyr Amtrak and the Burlington-Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) — it is in a class of its own as a luxury leisure experience. While guests focus on the passing scenery, the uniformed train attendants serve fine wines and freshly prepared food from the galley.
Returning passengers familiar with Rocky Mountaineer's luxurious GoldLeaf service will notice a few differences. On this route, SilverLeaf service is the only class offered. That means it's a single-level train and there's no separate dining room or the full-dome upper level windows GoldLeaf is known for. Be assured, the captivating scenery, warm service and complimentary meals and beverages come as standard.
In SilverLeaf, meals are served at passengers' seats. On our Denver to Moab journey, we enjoy two breakfasts and one lunch onboard. Options include buttermilk pancakes with crispy bacon and maple syrup, wild mountain berry parfait or pepper, onion and cheese frittata. Billed as "delicious, regionally-inspired cuisine", the food is more fine than fabulous.
The open bar is met with more enthusiasm, with many passengers migrating to the lounge car to chat, sip and watch the passing parade of rust-coloured mountains and red-white-and-blue small town American. Complimentary drinks include wines, beer, spirits and liqueurs. The wine list is dedicated to US producers, all from California or Oregon. It would be a nice touch to see Colorado winemakers featured, perhaps Colterris Winery's luscious Coloradeaux or easygoing Coral White Cabernet Sauvignon.
By the time we arrive in Glenwood Springs after the eight-hour journey from Denver, spirits are high. The small town is charming and deserves more attention; it seems to be a secret that has been kept too well. Passengers disembark to spend the night at their choice of three different hotels, all within walking distance of the train station. Most take the opportunity to dine in town, where recommended options include The Pullman and Riviera Supper Club.
The biggest drawcard of all, at least to those of us who love to take the waters, is a dip in Glenwood Hot Springs Pool. It's a chilly late autumn evening when we visit, and steam is rising from the 40-degree thermal water with an irresistible invitation.
The historic swimming club, which has welcomed bathers from around the world since 1888, claims to be the world's largest mineral hot springs pool. Regular immersion is said to have the power to heal everything from arthritis to anxiety. The pool design, wellness focus and social hangout atmosphere will feel familiar to anyone who has visited Iceland's Blue Lagoon or Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest.
We swim until closing time, relishing the contrast of a hot bath on a cold night, then float back across the road to our hotel. There must be something in the water because all passengers manage to check out of their hotel rooms and be back onboard before dawn next morning for a pre-sunrise departure. We have a five-hour journey to Moab ahead, and by the snoring sound effects it's clear many of us are detouring first to dreamland.
Moab holds the promise of two of the most spectacular National Parks in the land, Arches and Canyonlands. We are booked on an evening stargazing tour to marvel at the wonders of the inky night sky. But first, there's an open bar to be enjoyed as we drink in the ever-changing American Southwest views.
TRAVEL BY TRAIN
Rocky Mountaineer's two-day rail journey travels from Denver, Colorado to Moab, Utah, with an overnight stop in Glenwood Springs. The Rockies to Red Rocks itinerary operates seasonally, from April to November, priced from $A1728 per person. See rockymountaineer.com
Denver International Airport (DEN) is United Airlines' largest hub, with connections to dozens of US cities. Moab's airport is Canyonlands Field Airport (CNY). SkyWest/United Airlines offers daily flights between the two. See united.com
Rocky Mountaineer optional packages include (non-rail) extensions to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. It makes sense to plan extra overnights in Denver and Moab, before and after the rail journey. Both cities offer plenty of interesting sights and activities to explore.
In Denver, stay at the Crawford Hotel and you'll be directly above the cafes and bars of Union Station, AKA Denver's Living Room. A complimentary Tesla ride around town is a popular amenity. If Rocky Mountaineer figures out the logistics that will enable passengers to embark and disembark at Union Station, instead of the current coach transfer to another train station, this truly would be the ideal place to stay. See thecrawfordhotel.com
A 10-minute drive from glorious Arches National Park is Hoodoo Moab, part of Curio Collection by Hilton. Elegant interiors inspired by nature set the scene for spectacular views of the red rocks landscape. See hilton.com
Denver is known as the Mile High City because it's one mile (1609 metres) above sea level. The high altitude and dry air can cause altitude sickness, a miserable state that can include headache, dizziness and nausea. The most effective cure is to rest frequently and drink more water than you think you'll need. Don't let it deter you from this fantastic adventure.
Kristie Kellahan was a guest of Rocky Mountaineer, Colorado Tourism Office and Visit Denver.