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A CAA Associate’s Amazing Rocky Mountaineer® Adventure from Red Rocks to Rockies

Laura Kwiatkowski, Travel Marketing Manager, CAA Club Group September 29, 2023
Rocky Mountaineer train against red rocks

As an Associate at CAA Travel, I see all kinds of amazing trips cross my desk. But it’s not often my schedule allows me to actually take one. Recently, I enjoyed an unforgettable rail journey aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, and I wanted to share what a wonderful adventure it was.

Departure day.

As I got ready on the morning of departure, I realized that this was my first trip back to the U.S. since before the pandemic. Luckily for me, things couldn’t have gone smoother. My flight out of Winnipeg departed on time and landed as expected at 11:05 a.m. MT in Calgary.

I had enough time to get through the U.S. screening in the Calgary airport, thanks to my NEXUS card. Found my gate to Salt Lake City, boarded, and enjoyed my flight to Salt Lake City while munching on my white chocolate macadamia granola bar, courtesy of Delta Airlines.

Salt Lake City.

After checking into our hotel, some members of our group and our hosts from Rocky Mountaineer took a walking tour of downtown Salt Lake City. At 3:30 p.m., the temperature was still scorching 35 degrees Celsius, so we opted for a quick ride on the downtown air-conditioned tram. After just a few minutes, we hopped off at the downtown outdoor mall to walk around. We took in the enormity of the headquarters of the Mormon Church and the Mormon Temple (covered for our visit for renovations). The buildings downtown reflected quite a mix of architectural styles – from the Wild West to Art Deco to modern, with a nice mix of outdoor murals to make the area very vibrant.

Dinner was a doner salad with falafel at Spitz, a Mediterranean restaurant with vegetarian options. The eclectic décor included pink extension cords dangling light fixtures, and unusual but colourful murals.

Once back at the hotel, our group split up, with some going to the pool and some to their rooms. I went to the hotel gym for a workout before retiring early in anticipation of our big travel day to Moab.

Day 2 – Moab.

We boarded the roomy, limo-style bus at 8 a.m. The drive out of Salt Lake City didn’t take long. The landscape became hillier, with pine trees coating the hills with a dark green hue. Our trip to Moab was a four-hour drive, and I used the time to write postcards to friends and family back home. I dug into our boxed lunch immediately – I can’t be trusted around cookies.

As we neared Moab, the landscape changed quite dramatically. The green vegetation was replaced with rocky cliffs, calling to mind western movies. Each time I looked up at the cliff face, I expected a group of cowboys on horseback to emerge.

Red Rock formations

Just as quickly as the rocky cliffs appeared, the rock faces began to take on a red hue. We made a right turn to Moab and headed into the town in the middle of the rocky desert. Home to just 5,000, Moab has one main street with quaint local restaurants and shops. Our hotel, the Hoodoo Inn by Hilton, was just two blocks off Main Street. The ambience in the hotel reflected the rustic Moab area. Each more-than-comfortable room had a lantern, and walls adorned with images of the iconic rock formations.

I ventured out into the heat to find the famous Lin Ottinger’s Rock Shop – a 15-minute walk up Main Street. Lin has been digging up dinosaurs and interesting rocks since the 1930s, and his shop is jam-packed with rocks in colours ranging from clear to pink to black to blue. They also had dinosaur fossils – very cool for kids especially.

After spending 30+ minutes walking in 36+ degrees heat, the hotel pool was the perfect way to cool off.

For dinner, we found a highly recommended taco place a short walk away, called Gilberto’s. It lived up to its reputation of serving piping hot fajitas, tacos, churros and even deep-fried cheesecake. Yum!

Day 3 – Arches National Park & Rocky Mountaineer®.

We had an early morning start, but it was so worth it! At 7:30 a.m., we loaded onto a bus to drive 15 minutes outside Moab to Arches National Park. We were entertained along the way by our guide Dave and bus driver Steve who did an impressive John Wayne impression. Even before we arrived at the park, the terrain rose up to greet us with towering mountains of red rocks. The highway was uniquely built within the mountainside, winding back and forth. In this way, the highway itself is not noticeable from the entrance, so it was a strange sight to see vehicles snaking along the side of the mountain.

Traveller in Arches National Park

Our first stop in the park was the Three Gossips, Sheep Rock and Tower of Babel. This first view was breathtaking, with the early morning sun warming up the rocks to a bright red hue. Our host Dave gave us insight into the rock formations and their geological history. We then moved on to hike the Double Arch trail. We took photos inside the arches, and our guide nimbly climbed the rocks to take a group photo of us. We checked out Delicate Arch from afar but got up close and personal with Balanced Rock. I vowed to return to hike the trails and see more of the unique formations in this area.

Traveller in front of Balanced Rock

We returned to the hotel to freshen up, eat lunch and check in for the next exciting part of our journey. We boarded a bus for a short 10-minute drive to the train. (The train cannot come into Moab fully because the tracks were never built – they end at a nearby potash mine.) After a warm welcome from the Rocky Mountaineer train crew, we settled in our spacious seats. The windows are huge – there’s even a bonus window above the windows. The scenery rolling past could be easily viewed from everywhere.

Traveller posing in front of Rocky Mountaineer train

The SilverLeaf Plus experience.

Since we were in SilverLeaf Plus, meals arrived at our seats with linens and china. The delicious food came with a choice of beverages – and there seemed to be no end to the permutations of cocktails that the bartender could create. Part of SilverLeaf Plus includes access to the lounge car, where you can relax and enjoy beverages and snacks while taking in the scenery.

Salmon lunch on the Rocky Mountaineer

We rolled into Glenwood Springs, Colorado at 8:30 p.m. and were welcomed by the Rocky Mountaineer destination team. Our bags were delivered to our hotel rooms before our arrival – what great service! The Hotel Denver is situated just across the street from the train station, and it is the cutest, most eclectic place with hardwood floors, Tiffany-style lamps and the most comfortable beds.

Rocky Mountaineer in Glenwood Springs at night

Though the town is known for hosting the world’s largest outdoor hot springs, we didn’t have enough time to “test out the waters”, but those who book the CAA 2024 Extraordinary Explorations® Platinum Journey will arrive in the early evening, allowing the opportunity to soak in the healing powers of the hot springs. It certainly looked inviting! We found many local shops and quaint bars still open as we moseyed around. One definite highlight is Hotel Colorado. This historic site is not to be missed, with its turn-of-the-century themed lobby and magically tree-lit outdoor lounge.

Overhead view of Glenwood Hot Springs

Day 4 – Glenwood to Denver.

I woke up early to explore Glenwood Springs. What a surprise to walk outside our hotel and see that mountains surrounded us! During our night arrival, I was completely oblivious to the majestic scenery. These mountains were covered with stunning green vegetation and red rock. Our train arrived back to the station just then, giving us time to take some fun photos before boarding for good. Once again, Rocky Mountaineer handled bringing our bags to the train. After the ceremonial “All Aboard” by the Rocky Mountaineer conductor, we sat back to enjoy the ride to Colorado.

As we followed the mighty Colorado River winding its way up the mountains, I noted the rocky cliffs were covered in green vegetation. I also took advantage of the outdoor viewing platforms to take in the fresh mountain air and get a closer look at the beautiful scenery – so different from the arid desert mountains in Utah!

Colorado River seen from the Rocky Mountaineer

Throughout our ride, we were regaled with stories about the history of the area, including David Moffat’s failed attempt to complete his railway, only to have his work bought out by the big railways in the end and put into use. We spent 15 minutes travelling through the Moffatt Tunnel along this famous route, which has been open for nearly one hundred years (since 1928), and it cuts through the Continental Divide.

One of the most dramatic engineering feats is the Big 10 Curve. It was built in the early 1900s as a switchback to help trains climb the steep terrain. At about the middle of the curve, two dozen rail cars filled with cement are permanently parked alongside the track as a wind block. It looked like a matchbox racetrack winding back and forth.

Big 10 Switchback from Rocky Mountaineer

I think the best part of our train trip was Michael, our Rocky Mountaineer guest services rep. This sweet man knew so much about the fauna and foliage and added in many funny stories of his own – including his first kiss while travelling by train and through one of the 47 tunnels on the Colorado side.

Denver, Colorado.

Once the train arrived in Denver, we said goodbye to the Rocky Mountaineer train team and headed by bus to our hotel downtown. Our local Rocky Mountaineer tour guide filled us in the local history of the many neighbourhoods we drove past. We arrived at our bustling downtown hotel after just a short drive. I had an early flight, so I turned in for the evening, but I am very keen to revisit Denver sometime soon. All in all, it was an amazing adventure that I won’t soon forget!

Outdoor viewing platform on Rocky Mountaineer

Editor’s note: Laura’s magnificent Rocky Mountaineer rail journey can be booked as a CAA Extraordinary Explorations® Platinum Journey in reverse (from Rockies to Red Rocks), through CAA Travel. To find out about 2024 journey dates and what extra benefits CAA Members enjoy on this trip, call 1-800-992-8143, click extraordinaryexplorations.com/premier or visit your local CAA Store today.