Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Colorado in Fall


In late September and early October of 2022, I spent time west of the Continental Divide on the old D&RGW mainline from the west portal of Moffat Tunnel to Burns.  Now that Union Pacific operates this road, the mystique of the Rio Grande is gone.  If you are a baseball fan, you will understand when I say that the difference in railroads is like the difference between Fenway Park and the newest domed stadium.  One is newer, with state-of-the-art technology, while the other is old and clunky and slow.  And we prefer the old and clunky and slow every time.  Still, the scenery is as spectacular as ever.

Geological studies have shown that this spectacular scenery, the many separate ranges that together are called the Rocky Mountains, are like wrinkles in cloth pushed together from the side.  In this case, the "cloth" is Precambrian rock, the continental foundation, squeezed over millions of years, breaking into long north-south slivers pushed up from the horizontal to in some cases angles of sixty degrees and more, thousands of feet into the air, crawling up and over neighboring rocks.  Younger and softer sedimentary rocks, created mostly from layers of mud and marine skeletons at the bottom of an ancient sea, were also cracked (faulted) and pushed upwards.  More pliant, they spread along the mountain sides like drapes, then slowly eroded away, as the mountains continued to rise, revealing the classic serrations we call the Rockies.

But here is a mystery.  There is no general agreement as to what caused the Precambrian rock to be squeezed.  In other parts of North American, California for example, the movement of the Pacific Plate against the North American Plate has created earthquake after earthquake, each raising the ground higher on one side or the other of the fault, a process that over millions of years has created the mountains that give the Golden State much of its splendor.  In other areas, northern Arizona for instance, volcano fields have created ridges that tower over the Colorado Plateau.  But no tectonic plates rub against each other in central Colorado.  And although there are extinct volcanoes in the state, there is no evidence that an active field ever created anything comparable to the peaks above Flagstaff.

Some have hypothesized that a huge landmass hit North America billions of years ago, squeezing the rocks to form the familiar mountains, but that does not explain why there have been two sets of mountains.  The first set was short, only a couple of thousand feet, and as it began to erode was submerged by the Western Interior Seaway, which dissected Norther America.  The modern Rockies, which we see today, were created after the land started rising again, and no one really knows why there were two sets of mountains or what caused them. Most text books today simply state that the peaks were created by "mountain building events."  The technical term is "orogenies," which is used when we don't really understand what happened.

The other major events that shaped the Rockies were the ice ages, the glaciers of which, above approximately 8,000 feet, carved huge scooped valleys out of the rock and, upon melting, left behind large deposits of soil and other detritus (moraine).  When you see a valley in the Rockies, if it is V-shaped, it was caused by flowing water, for example Gore Canyon.  If, on the other hand, its sides are rounded like ice cream scooped from a container, it was caused by a glacier -- Tolland Valley on the east side of Moffat Tunnel. 

The Colorado Rockies are endlessly fascinating and will repay however much attention you wish to pay them.  

The images start at the west portal of Moffat and proceed geographically to Burns.

Moffat Tunnel -- West Portal.  If you look closely on the right, you will see a "No Trespassing" sign that references the D&RGW. 

The West Portal is surrounded by a ski resort, but there is a station used in the winter for de-training skiers.  You can park in the lot and walk along the platform to the location where the above image was taken with a 200 mm lens.  Lighting is almost always a problem because of the close surroundings.  As the train approaches, you will feel the rush of cold air ahead of it.  Because the tracks are curved at the portal, headlights do not appear until the train is almost on top of you.

Moffat Tunnel was created to bypass the original railroad that crossed the Continental Divide at Rollins Pass, perhaps the most maintenance-intensive stretch of track ever constructed in North America.  A fault zone crosses the divide here, weakening the granite so that it erodes more easily, which caused repeated collapses in the boring of the tunnel

Westbound Amtrak Number 5 has just exited Moffat Tunnel.  Because the train originates in Chicago, it can be hours late, or on time, or somewhere in between, and it is impossible to predict.  One must check the Amtrak website to find out.

The daily BNSF eastbound approaches the tunnel.  This train often comes through in the early morning.

Eastbound oil train at Winter Park, a common sight in late 2022.

Past Winter Park to the north, the mountains open like unfolding hands to reveal the valley of the Fraser River, carved by glaciers in the last ice age.  This close to its headwaters at Berthoud Pass, the Fraser River is so narrow that you can almost jump across it.  The stream is clear, cold and fast-running, and the valley around it in the fall is tranquil and inviting, giving no hint of the ferocious winter preparing to descend, when even in this relatively warm inter-glacial respite, temperatures can routinely drop below zero, with wind speeds north of 20 mph.  

The valley tilts to the north.  Winter Park sits at about 9,000 feet, Fraser at 8,500, Tabernash at about 8,300.  If you are not from this country, a short climb up a hillside will leave you gasping.  Eastbound trains meeting something coming from the tunnel often wait at Tabernash, before the beginning of the steep grade.

The valley is covered with glacial moraines, with hills of various sizes surrounding small ponds and marshes.  (See the cover photograph at the beginning of this article.). Flat terraces near Fraser and Tabernash consist of glacial outwash deposited by streams below melting glaciers.

Another eastbound oil train in the Fraser River valley.  Still obscuring the very top of the Continental Divide, low clouds have lifted enough in the west for the sun to peek through.

Late-running Amtrak No. 5 in the middle of the Fraser River valley.

Another eastbound oil train on another day.  Clouds are clinging to the top of the Continental Divide.

Eastbound No. 6 in the Fraser River valley, hauling three shiny new ALC-42's.

An eastbound oil train waits on the Tabernash siding for westbound Amtrak No. 5.  At the rear of the train is the mouth of the Fraser River Canyon, inaccessible to all save the railroad and those on foot.  Tabernash takes it name from a native Ute.

A lengthy and taxing climb allowed the photographer to take this image of No. 5 in the canyon.

Eastbound Amtrak No. 6 is exiting the Fraser River canyon.  Freight traffic on the Moffat Route is spotty.  Some days you will see four or five manifests, oil or coal trains -- no intermodals.  Other days, the only thing you will see is Amtrak and/or the Rocky Mountaineer.  This is not the line to visit if you like action.  Be prepared for long stretches of nothing, although if you are doing nothing, there are few places more spectacular to do it in.

No. 5 is entering the Fraser River canyon.  The Tabernash passing siding is visible behind the train.

On this morning, the dispatcher routed No. 5 on the passing siding.

An eastbound oil train exiting the canyon.  This train would stop at the east end of the siding.

Pushers on the same train.

Behind the oil train was the daily BNSF manifest, which ran around the oil train -- because the BNSF crew was short on hours.

BNSF passing UP.

The Fraser River Canyon is about five miles long and opens on the north to a golf course where your author got lost one day looking for the tracks.  Past the course is the small town of Granby where, in June of 2004, Marvin Heemeyer used a bulldozer (which he had armor-plated himself) to demolish many automobiles, houses and commercial buildings before shooting himself in the head.  The incident became known locally as the "Killdozer Rampage."  He was enraged because he had lost a lawsuit in which he was attempting to stop the construction of a commercial establishment next to his vacant lot.

Well, he drove his 85-ton armed and armored Komatsu, D355A bulldozer out of a steel shed in Western Granby. He had three rifles mounted on embrasures on the side of the tank. He had remote viewing cameras — five of them — so he could see where he was going, because there were no windows.   And he proceeded to basically attack anyone he thought had done him wrong.  https://www.kunc.org/news/2020-02-20/granbys-bulldozer-rampage-captured-the-worlds-attention-now-its-a-documentary 

Amazingly, no one was killed or even injured, probably because Heemeyer's home-made tank was virtually immobile, and anyone in the line of fire would have had plenty of time to move before the mad bomber had located a target on one of his television screens.  Damage was limited to property, and there was plenty of it.  Heemeyer's armored doom machine broke down while he was destroying a local hardware store.  Police tried to get him to come out, but he would not open the door.  Eventually, he shot himself, and the authorities had to break into the vehicle with a cutting torch.

Heemeyer left behind a written manifesto which said, in part:  "Had they not meddled in my business, this whole thing would have turned out completely different." 

Apparently, based upon what your author was told by local residents, the mad killdozer has become something of a local cult hero, a martyr almost, which just solidifies my belief that this is the greatest country on earth.

On the Granby siding, a BNSF manifest awaits a fresh crew.

A mile or so west of Granby, the Fraser River (seen on the left) flows into the Colorado River (behind Amtrak No. 6).

Westbound BNSF along the Colorado River west of Granby.  BNSF's trackage right trains probably account for about one-half the freight traffic on this line.

Another westbound west of Granby.  In the author's home state of Oklahoma, the rock formation in the background would be noteworthy.  In Colorado, it is not even a pimple.

Eastbound approaching Granby.  At this elevation (8,000 feet) in early October, the trees had lost their leaves.  Thirty miles to the west at Kremmling, and 700 feet lower, the leaves were resplendent, as later images will show.  

At Hot Sulphur Springs, another BNSF manifest awaits a fresh crew.  This image was taken in early morning.  When your author came back through town at sundown, the train was still waiting.  The hot springs bubble up along a fault line.  The water is filled with minerals which over the ages have leeched out to create a huge pile of travertine limestone.

DPU on a loaded coal train at Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado.  Coal traffic had slowed to a trickle in the fall of 2022.

Hot Sulphur Springs is the eastern entrance to Byers Canyon, which can be traversed by automobile and presents many opportunities for photographs.  Here is a westbound BNSF manifest entering the canyon beside the Colorado River.

No. 5 enters the canyon.

AMTK 181 West begins to creep through the canyon.  Train speed appears to be about 20 mph.

The north side of the canyon (about two miles long at its narrowest and eight miles overall) is composed of Precambrian granite, which on the south side is faulted over various sediments.  The thrust fault is located at the base of the granite on the north beside the tracks. 

Westbound BNSF in Byers Canyon.  The tracks here run along the fault.


As the granite rose almost imperceptibly, the Colorado River likewise almost imperceptibly sliced an almost vertical channel.

Oil train in the canyon.

Emerging from the narrowest part of the canyon, the tracks run due east-west along a ridge.  The river runs below, and there is a gravel public road south of the river that provides views of the aspen and cottonwoods in the valley, with the tracks above the trees to the north.

Amtrak No. 6 above the Colorado River.

The westbound Rocky Mountaineer has just left the narrowest portion of the canyon.  Approaching eastbounds receive a message from the hot box detector telling them to slow down.

The last light of the setting sun illuminates No. 6.

On another day, an almost identical setting.

Late-running No. 6 curves along the edge of the canyon, while the hot box detector tells it to slow down for the narrow run ahead.

On this day, No. 5 was the only train running in the daylight.

Eastbound loaded coal.

Eastbound Rocky Mountaineer headed back to Denver.

No. 5 with three private cars on the rear.  The house in the valley has a perfect view of the tracks.

Beyond Byers Canyon, the tracks leave behind the fault complex that has created such tortured geography, to say nothing of endless headaches for railroad construction, and enter the relatively flat Middle Park, a basin in Grand County on the southwest slope of Rocky Mountain National Park, approximately 50 miles west of (and across the continental divide from) Boulder.  Those 50 miles are some of the most rugged in North America.

The basin extends southwest from the source of the Colorado River at Grand Lake to Kremmling, terminating roughly at magnificent Gore Canyon at the southern end of the Gore Range.   The valley is the middle of the three large mountain "parks" in Colorado west of the Front Range. The other two, not surprisingly, but also not very originally, are North (Park) and South. 

The land seems almost benign as westbounds cross mostly level ground.  Just east of Kremmling, the railroad crosses a thrust fault that forms the western edge of the majestic Front Range.  East of the fault lie scattered outcroppings of granite; west is home to the Cretaceous Pierre Shale, which accumulated at the bottom of an ancient shallow sea which geologists believe split north America in half.  How do we know the land was once covered with water?  Marine fossils have been discovered in the shale below the sandstone bluffs above Kremmling.

Though surrounded by mountains, the valley of Middle Park is relatively level.  Here a westbound oil train meets a loaded eastbound coal drag at the appropriately named Flat Siding.

No. 5 in Middle Park, approaching Kremmling.

Middle Park.

Immediately east of Kremmling's small air field, which itself is immediately east of the small village, the hills and mountains spread like parting curtains, and the Colorado River meanders through a valley filled with grazing cattle, wide fields of grain and Aspen and Cottonwoods lining the water, a bucolic setting belying the altitude.  In late September the trees turn various shades of yellow, red and orange, and dust rises from pick-ups along the dirt road that crosses the river and then climbs the hills to public land accessible to anyone with four-wheel-drive.

Bear the Mighty Dog was still alive in the fall of that year (2022), and he and I sat in the hills for hours.  I was waiting for the very occasional train (two or three per day if you were lucky), while Bear searched tirelessly for food.  He was well-fed, but instincts control both dogs and people; thus, we are mostly unaware of our behavior.  If asked why we did something, an honest reply would be, "I don't know, I just did it."

The river turns southwest and cuts an almost surgically clean incision through the Precambrian heart of the Gore Range.  The gap can be see from the hills east of town, the only passage through the mountains, which were created by a huge faulted anticline where rocks have been pushed together from two sides, causing them to bulge upwards and form an arch.  You can create the same effect by pushing a sheet of paper on its sides on a table top and watching the paper's middle rise.  

The diagram shows how the ground bulges, with the oldest and lowest rock in the center.  The Gore Range is unusual because some of the oldest arching sediments are still in place on top of the range.

The valley east of Kremmling is one of your author's favorite locations to photograph trains, so there are a lot of images here.

No. 5.


Rocky Mountaineer.

Union Pacific.

No. 6.

The westbound Rocky Mountaineer hustles toward Gore Canyon.

Following close behind was No. 5, with two private cars bringing up the rear.

No. 6, almost on time today, is chased by a fast moving thunderstorm.

The cattle are blissfully unaware of the passing BNSF freight.


Like Amtrak Nos. 5 and 6, the Rocky Mountaineer is timed to run in the daylight.  Unfortunately, in the short days of fall, when No. 6 is late, and it often is, it comes through in the dark.

An on-time No. 6.


And now we come to Gore Canyon.  Building a railroad through this geologic wonder beggars the imagination, much like the idea of laying a communications cable beneath the Atlantic or boring a tunnel beneath Rollins Pass or writing over 100 articles for a blog that no one reads. 

Gore Canyon seems impenetrable.  Seems?  It is.  You can pass only by railroad or water craft, and large signs near the eastern mouth warn would-be rafters, kayakers and other dare-devils not to attempt the rapids without first obtaining extreme skill.  Several people have died in the canyon, including many of the men who roped down the side of the canyon to deposit the dynamite charges that blasted away enough granite to construct a level path for the railroad.  There is not even enough room to hike into the canyon.  

Your author has ridden the California Zephyr several times through this declivity, and each trip is as spectacular as the last, even more spectacular, because I now know what to look for.  People in the observation car talking to each other and not even bothering to glance out the windows remind me of those who visit cathedrals and stare at their cell phones.

An eastbound UP grainer in Gore Canyon.

Amtrak No. 5 in the canyon.

Rocky Mountaineer. 

Westbounds emerge into narrow Gore Valley where the Colorado River runs smooth and clear.  Land along the water is open to the public, and many rafters enter the river here to float placidly downstream for miles.  In the early morning, when the wind is down and the sun has just climbed over the mountains, one can hear a loaded coal train from miles away, beginning the climb from Bond, where the Craig Branch ties into the mainline.  Fly fishermen stand knee-deep in the cold water, arching their lines into the air.  The temperature is only slightly above freezing, but without breeze this land is amazingly comfortable in the slanting sunlight.

Westbound Amtrak No. 5 emerges from Gore Canyon into brilliant sunlight.

Trough Road runs east of the river and high above the valley, providing many marvelous locations to photograph Amtrak and any freights that might be running.

No. 5 above the Colorado River.

A loaded coal train as seen from the river bank.


After the short interlude in Gore Valley, westbounds enter Little Gore Canyon, which in almost any other environment on earth would not be called "little."  The south rim is accessible over public land, and a relatively easy hike will yield many interesting photographs.

Eastbound Rocky Mountaineer in Little Gore Canyon.

Eastbound BNSF.

Westbound BNSF.  Gore Valley is visible in the background.  In the top center is the V-shaped water gap of Gore Canyon.

No. 6 in Little Gore Canyon, with two private cars on the rear.

No. 6.

Westbound Rocky Mountaineer.

Beyond Little Gore Canyon, the tracks turn south and enter a small valley with a shelf of land wide enough for the passing siding at Radium.  A few houses huddle near the tracks.  A winding and narrow county lane  runs down from Trough Road, and there is public access to the river on the west bank.

The few people who live here are like reclusive lions, as would be anyone, human or animal, living in isolated mountains with ferocious winters and preciously short summers.  The nearest gas station and grocery store are in Kremmling, only ten miles away as the crow flies, but the drive requires one to cross the Gore Range on a narrow gravel road that near the summit hugs a cliff that drops over a thousand feet to the Colorado River.  Called "Inspiration Point," there is a small turn-out where one can take spectacular images of the railroad.  Still, the drive can be nerve-wracking, especially in the rain.  Your author has never tried it in snow -- and never will.  If you peer over the edge of the cliff, you will see a dead automobile near the water.

Eastbound No. 6 has just passed Radium and is preparing to enter Little Gore Canyon.

Near sundown, an eastbound UP freight approaches Little Gore Canyon, the entry to which can be seen in the left center of the image.

Westbound empty coal approaching Radium.  The very rear of the train is emerging from Little Gore Canyon.

Westbound BNSF approaching Radium.

No. 6 at Radium.

BNSF at Radium.

UP at Radium.

Eastbound Rocky Mountaineer at Radium.

The next passing siding west of Radium is Yarmony.  Here an eastbound UP freight waits to meet westbound No. 5.

Eastbound BNSF at Yarmony.

Westbound at same location.

Bond is where the original Moffat Road left the Colorado River and began the climb up the side of an extinct volcano, one of the most amazing pieces of railroad construction in North America.  Today this is the Craig Branch that still services a few coal mines, though traffic has decreased significantly over the years.  The mainline now runs from Bond to Dotsero where it connects with the original Rio Grande mainline across Tennessee Pass (now closed).  On this day, a string of light engines was awaiting movement.

West of Bond, the mainline hugs the banks of the Colorado River, twisting and turning like a worm on hot concrete, as it steadily descends to lower elevations ("lower" being a relative term in Colorado).  The tracks cross the river and enter a short tunnel.  Small ranches hug the flatlands along the water, watched over by the mountains that bracket the tracks all the way to Utah.  

Westbound oil train crossing the river and approaching the short tunnel.

While awaiting Amtrak No. 6, your author was surprised to see this eastbound oil train headed for the second main at Bond.

Less than five minutes behind, No. 6 prepares to enter the short tunnel.

A decent gravel road follows the tracks closely all the way to Dotsero.  In places, tracks and road are literally side-by-side, with nothing separating them except the high-altitude atmosphere.  Because this section of the line does not see trains off the Craig Branch, traffic can some days be non-existent, save for Amtrak.  A few dwellings are tucked in crevices along the river cliffs.  Unless a moving train or vehicle is nearby, the mountain stillness is broken only by the sound of the gently flowing water.

Burns appears to have a post office, though every time I have driven past, it has looked closed.  There is no town in Burns, just a few deserted buildings.

I chased the oil train west where it hugs the river.

Tracks and road are side-by-side.  Photographer is standing in the road.

Westbound BNSF is approaching Burns.

Eastbound BNSF.  Burns is just around the corner to the rear of the train.

No. 6.

Burns was the end of the line.  Traffic was spotty on the old Moffat Road, but any traffic at all makes it a treasure.  Tennessee Pass is gone now.  In fact, as of today (July 2023), it has been gone over 25 years.  That alone impresses upon me my mortality.  I hope the Moffat Road outlasts me.      

To see my other posts, go to waltersrail.com.

To see my photographs on Flickr, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jpwalters/.

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