Tour of Colorado, Day 3: Gorge-ous

Posted by David Lassen
on Thursday, October 4, 2018

A shiny A-B set of F units awaits action on the Royal Gorge Route.
As seen in a photo in my hotel room on Tuesday night: an open-air car on the hanging bridge then ...
... and an open-air car on the hanging bridge now.
The Royal Gorge Route's 12:30 p.m. train, as seen from the Royal Gorge Bridge.
... and that same train in a shot that hints at the full scope of the gorge. (All photos by David Lassen)
CANON CITY, Colorado — In the days before our group arrived in Canyon City for its ride on the Royal Gorge route, I was exchanging text messages with Jody Moore, the railroad’s assistant general manager, to set up a video interview for an upcoming Trains project At one point, he dropped in a short aside: “Your timing is good. We just put the F7s back on the train this weekend.”

Now, that was a truly welcome bit of news.

When last I was on the Trains Tour of Colorado, in 2015, the train trip along the Arkansas River and through the Royal Gorge was powered by an ex-commuter GP40 — a fine locomotive, but something less than the epitome of streamliner-era design. There’s a reason the Royal Gorge Route uses an F unit, and not one of those Geeps, in its logo.

So when we arrived Thursday, on a somewhat gray morning, it was no small deal to see F7A No. 402 and its accompanying B unit, gleaming in fresh Grande Gold and silver, tied onto the train awaiting us in front of the railroad’s former Santa Fe depot. The train would indeed have a covered wagon on the point, as God and EMD designer Dick Dilworth intended.

What’s more, it would feature a matching consist of cars in the Rio Grande Prospector paint scheme, looking very much the part of a passenger train that belonged on this short surviving segment of the Grande’s Tennessee Pass line. (That, too, was a change from my previous visit, when some cars still bore the paint of previous owners.)

If the basic look is ideal, the difference in the details is not small. The Grande never had full length domes like the pair on our train (one of which was mostly filled by our group). Its regular passenger trains never had the open-air car that is truly the best place to experience this route, but they certainly have plenty of antecedents in the decades since rails were laid through the canyon — as I was reminded by a photo in my hotel room in Colorado Springs on Wednesday night. (As Moore told me when we talked, “We have a lot of scenery that goes up, not out.”) Like all of Colorado’s tourist railroads, the Royal Gorge Route’s biggest selling point is scenery, and in this case, that scenery is as dramatic and vertical as it gets. They call it the Grand Canyon of Colorado for a reason, and the only ways to experience it at water level are by train or whitewater raft. Not believing that the opportunity to drown enhances travel, I’ll stick to the train.

In a neat little addition from the first year we offered these tours, our group did get to see the gorge from the top as well as the bottom. After riding the train, we made the short bus trip to the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, where we could ride the gondola across the canyon, or walk on the famous suspension bridge that that crosses some 955 feet above the river. Which gave us the chance to photograph the 12:30 p.m. train up the gorge as it snaked along the river below us.

It’s a shot I always wanted, and the perfect capper to another spectacular day.

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