What It Was Like Riding the Rails on the Rocky Mountaineer’s New U.S. Train Route

They call it luxury for a reason

Rocky Mountaineer train curving around rock formation

Courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

I admit that gazing at scenery isn't exactly on my bucket list when planning trips. I'm more into food tours and museums–the kind of activities that'll keep me busy. So, when I first heard about the new Rocky Mountaineer train route launching in the West, I didn't give it much thought. I thought it just wasn't meant for me. But after trying it, I can fully admit that, while riding the rails isn't the perfect vacation for a 20-something, the Rocky Mountaineer's luxury experience brings more to the table than just sightseeing.

While Rocky Mountaineer is new to the U.S., it's not new to North America. The company celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2020, commemorating its first trip—a two-day, all-daylight journey through Western Canada and the Canadian Rockies. After launch, the company continued to grow and eventually set the record for the longest passenger train in Canadian history at 41 cars. They soon opened two other train routes in the early 2000s and continued an upward climb. 

Its newest line, Rockies to the Red Rocks, opened earlier this year. The two-day journey between Denver, Colorado, and Moab, Utah, features an overnight stay in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Since it's a luxury daylight train, passengers only ride during the day (when the scenery is most enjoyable). The line covers about 354 miles of track, and it offers stunning views, delicious food (served white tablecloth style), and plenty of entertainment from vivacious hosts.

The morning of departure passed by relatively quickly. The Rocky Mountaineer team provides a coach bus for train passengers staying in town, which takes them to the platform in the morning. My train journey began in Denver, and the ride to the platform lasted no more than 10 minutes.

When we got our first glimpse of the train as we came into our departure point, everyone's jaws went slack. The train itself was impressive, with five rail cars, two lounge cars, two locomotives, one generator car, and two crew cars. They rolled out the red carpet—literally—for boarding. The staff waited outside to help guests get situated, guiding us onto our respective cars.

People taking pictures out of windows on the Rocky Mountaineer train

Courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

The Coaches

When I stepped into the coach for the first time, it was apparent why this was considered a luxury experience. The car was incredibly spacious, and the windows shot straight up to the edges of the roof—not entirely creating a dome but giving a much more extensive range of view than your typical train. (Be aware that these windows also let in a lot of sunlight, and you'll get warm fast. Dress in layers to beat the heat and have sunglasses on hand.)

The leather seats were comfortable and provided ample legroom—much more than you would expect on a train. My large travel backpack fit fine on the ground in front of me, and I still had more than enough room to move around. In a clever move, the seats recline by sliding forward to avoid impacting the seat space behind them. There are two charging ports between each seat and a convenient window ledge. The backs of the chairs, similar to airplane seats, come with tray tables decorated with white linens at mealtimes.

Rocky Mountaineer offers two different experiences on its Canadian routes—SilverLeaf and GoldLeaf. While they both come with ample legroom and delicious foods, the more expensive GoldLeaf service offers bi-level coaches with full glass dome windows and a separate dining car below. The dining car has an entire culinary team who serve gourmet meals à la carte. Meanwhile, the SilverLeaf coaches are only one level without the full glass dome. Because there are no dining cars, meals are pre-prepared off the train, and selection is limited.

As preparation for the new U.S. route began, there was a minor snag: the GoldLeaf coaches were just too big for the route's tunnels. So, Rocky Mountaineer introduced an entirely new service exclusively for Rockies to the Red Rocks called SilverLeaf Plus. SilverLeaf Plus offers everything that the original SilverLeaf service does, with some bonus features, including an additional meal course, signature cocktails, and premium alcoholic beverages, and most notably, the addition of lounge cars.

The lounge car was my personal favorite space on the train and made for a nice place to break up the monotony of the ride. The windows in the lounge car don't reach the ceiling, giving you a significantly smaller view of the outside, and you aren't able to hear any of the narration going on in the main car. Despite that, you are treated to comfortable couch chairs and a full bar in the back.

There were small viewing areas with open windows between cars, just big enough to fit three people comfortably. This was the perfect place to take pictures without a chance of getting an annoying glare from the window or just a place to get some fresh air. Predictably, this area gets crowded fast, especially as the train passes some prime photo hotspots. You'll want to pay attention to how many people are coming in and out so you know when the best time to go is.

Rocky Mountaineer host speaking to passengers with a microphone

Courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

The Experience

Upon boarding, we were introduced to our hosts for the duration of the trip (with SilverLeaf, you get three hosts, with SilverLeaf Plus, you get three hosts and an additional host in the lounge car). The hosts were all attentive, full of high energy, and very knowledgeable about the entire route. They told amazing stories about the history of the land and its people—President Eisenhower and rough-rider cowboys were mentioned more than once. They always had answers to our questions, ranging from the mineral composition of rocks or the names of towns we passed through.

After their introductions, the hosts began taking drink orders. They had hot coffee and tea in abundance and would come around for refills whenever they had a chance. (I recommend bringing a water bottle, as water was harder to get since there were so many passengers.) Shortly after drink orders were taken, we were served a pastry and some fresh fruit as a starter for our breakfast. At this point, around 9:30 a.m., we were finally pulling out of the station. The staff who stayed behind lined up and waved at the train as we pulled out, a charming and personal touch that happens at every departure.

A host came around with a seating chart and took our breakfast orders. All dishes on the train are regionally-inspired meals and brought to your seat, as there is no dining car. For breakfast on the first morning, we had the choice of a Colorado pepper, onion, and cheese frittata, a waffle with local berries, or, for a lighter meal, a wild mountain berry parfait.

Rocky Mountaineer train passing evergreen trees

Courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

For the first 30 minutes of the journey, you get a striking view of industrial Denver. Then, once the train finally leaves the city, the landscape quickly changes. Dry grass and graffitied buildings turned into seas of Douglas fir and blue spruce. The large mountains and hills became spotted with the yellows and reds of the changing aspen trees, making the sight even more magical. Our hosts made sure to point out every photo opportunity and give a brief history of the many landmarks we saw. Eventually, the train ran adjacent to the Colorado River, with the sun's reflection bouncing off of the water, making for a perfect photo every time.

However, the mountains and trees weren't the only things to look out for. The train was chugging through moose and elk country, and the entire coach was on the edge of their seats to see if we could spot a bald eagle. (We did.)

Around 11 a.m., the hosts came around with a bar cart. Lunch was served not long after, starting with arugula, cranberry, and shaved Manchego cheese salad. There were only two lunch options: coriander-crusted Coho salmon and rosemary and Durango honey-roasted pork loin. The extra course with SilverLeaf Plus was dessert, and we were served a surprisingly refreshing (and delicious) lemon bar.

The first day of the train ride lasted for eight hours, and it felt like it, too. While the scenery was breathtaking, it became repetitive the closer we got to Glenwood Springs. There was also little to no data access on this part of the trip, so there was no other way to bide time. After a while, I snuck off to the lounge car and enjoyed a comfier seat and a cup of tea.

Host serving food on Rocky Mountaineer

Courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

Eventually, we pulled into Glenwood Springs, a town that looks like it could be the location for a cute made-for-TV romance. I stayed at the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, but Rocky Mountaineer also partners with other hotels, this season partnering with Hotel Denver, Hotel Colorado, Hampton Inn, and the Courtyard by Marriott. Accommodations are automatically allocated to guests depending on their seats and service level.

The Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, as the name suggests, contains the largest mineral hot spring in the world, and it does not disappoint. I felt my body relaxing after such a long train ride, and it was just what I needed after a long day.

Bright and early the following day, around 6 a.m. to be exact, we were up and boarding the train once again to start on the second half of our journey. This time, we would only be on the train for four hours en route to the town of Moab. Because it was so early, we experienced a beautiful sunrise on the train, complete with hot coffee or tea, served right at our seats. This was probably my favorite part of the trip, enjoying the colorful sunrise and steam rising from the Colorado River as we started to approach the red rocks.

Breakfast was served on this part of the trip, a choice of the same parfait from the day before, buttermilk pancakes, and farm-fresh scrambled egg cazuela. I had the pancakes, which were small but still delicious. Instead of lunch, because this was a shorter ride, they served us a small snack toward the end of the journey—a personal charcuterie board with Colorado-raised bison, elk, and venison, an homage to the wildlife we'd been looking for the entire trip.

As we got closer to Moab, the scenery began to change. Evergreen trees gave way to sandstone formations and red rocks. Like the first day of the trip, the view eventually became repetitive—at one point, there wasn't much to see but long plains of sand. Admittedly, I started reading at this point. This part of the journey went much quicker, and before we knew it, we were deboarding in Moab.

After the Train

Once you depart, it's up to you what you want to do with the rest of your trip. Rocky Mountaineer offers various packages, the most basic only including the one night in Glenwood Springs, and the more expensive packages taking guests further afield to Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. There's even a return package including off-board excursions. A basic one-night package starts at $1,100 per person, and the larger packages run upwards of $2,000 per passenger. There's always the option of planning your own excursions, too. Both Moab and Denver offer plenty of tourist-friendly opportunities and accommodations.

While I felt that the ride was a tad too long, I can also admit that the sights I saw were incredible, and I might never get the opportunity to see them again. Once you start to consider how some of these land formations came to be, it gives you a greater appreciation for the world around you, and of course, my hosts' contagious energy and the wonder of the other passengers made this trip worth it for me. Even though it wasn't a high-energy type of experience, I'll never forget the stories from the wonderful hosts or how the entire train became enraptured looking for America's iconic bird outside our windows.

Article Sources
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  1. Rocky Mountaineer. "History." Retrieved November 16, 2021