Monday, November 2, 2015

Crater Loops, Little Gore Canyon, Flaming Aspen and other Vanishing Splendor

Kremmling in Late September
Thirty years ago, Colorado was the pre-eminent railroad state in the Union.  Few adventures were more exciting than chasing a loaded coal train up the western slope of Tennessee Pass.  The Moffat Line saw several trains per day, not counting Amtrak, and it was relatively easy to catch a train in Big Ten Loop.

Now the Tennessee Pass line is abandoned, though the rail and signals are still in place, like remnants of a vanished civilization -- think "Forbidden Planet," or for those of you too young to recognize that reference, try "Prometheus," an exceptionally bad film.  If you don't recognize either reference, I can't help you.

The Moffat Route now may see two or three UP trains in 24 hours.  Amtrak continues to chug along, with two trains in the sun, at least during the longer days of the year.  BNSF runs several manifests on trackage rights, helping to pick up the slack for declining UP traffic.  But rail fanning in Colorado now, for those of us old enough to remember, is wistful and unsettling, a little like seeing a picture of yourself from 40 years ago.

September 2015

A few images from a recent trip to Colorado.  I took the trip because, frankly, I don't know how much longer some of these trains may be running.

The weather was decent, with a fair amount of sunlight.  Also, because a track crew was working from 4:00 am to noon every day, trains were held in both directions, then sent through in the afternoon, which created more traffic in the sunlight. I took my dog Bear (aka Mighty Dog) with me.  He is a great traveler, weighs less than 10 pounds and doesn't bark, so I can take him in the "Bear Bag" into any motel, and no one knows the difference.  We stayed several nights in a ski resort, courtesy of time shares from my mother.  I was fortunate to be there as the trees were turning at elevations near the tracks.

 East of Kremmling in Fall
Westbound Approaching Kremmling

Eastbound East of Kremmling

Eastbound Coal Load Past Kremmling

Same Train
Another Eastbound Past Kremmling
Westbound Manifest Approaching Kremmling
Same Train
While in Colorado, I was fortunate to catch an exceedingly rare movement, a BNSF Office Car Special carrying railway officials over BNSF trackage rights.  No. 7418 pulled seven passenger cars and presented quite a sight.  Here are two shots of that train just east of Kremmling.

BNSF OCS East of Kremmling

BNSF OCS East of Kremmling

Little Gore Canyon

One goal on the 2015 Colorado trip was to get shots in Little Gore Canyon.  A Jeep Wrangler Rubicon will get you within about a half-mile.  Then you must hike another half-mile or so, depending upon which part of the canyon you are trying to photograph.  

Eastbound Coal Load in Little Gore Canyon
Mid-Trains on Same Movement in Little Gore Canyon
Pushers on Same Train in Little Gore Canyon

Westbound Coal Empty in Little Gore Canyon

Same Train
Westbound BNSF Manifest Exiting West End of Little Gore Canyon

Westbound Pusher in Little Gore Canyon
Same Pusher  Entering Tunnel 39 in Little Gore Canyon

I think the best time for photography in Little Gore Canyon is fall, when the sun is low in the southern sky, nicely illuminating trains in both directions.  The rail gang was working in the canyon quite a bit while I was there, but I was able to get some shots in the afternoon.  I would not recommend driving toward the canyon when it is raining or snowing.  The road is primitive, and I had some difficulty with my Jeep in good weather. 

Eastbound Entering Tunnel 39 in Early Morning Light at Little Gore Canyon

Another Eastbound Approaching Tunnel 39 in Little Gore Canyon

Westbound Exiting Tunnel 39 in Little Gore Canyon
Bear and I hiked into the canyon three different times.  One time Bear got hot and disappeared.  I was worried I had lost him, but he had just wandered back to the Jeep and was waiting for me when I was finished.

BNSF Eastbound Manifest in Little Gore Canyon

Same Train Showing Almost Full Extent of Little Gore Canyon

Westbound Manifest Exiting Tunnel 39 in Little Gore Canyon

Early in the morning or late in the day in fall, when the sun is low in the southeastern or southwestern sky, the walls of Little Gore Canyon can really come alive and, depending on the lighting, look almost phosphorescent, glowing red like an "EXIT" sign in a dark theater.  The effect can be startling.  

Coal Train in Little Gore Canyon Approaching Tunnel 40
Same Train Showing Length of Tunnel 40

DPU on Same Train Approaching Tunnel 39
Same DPU in Little Gore Canyon With Tunnel 39 in Distance
Eastbound Amtrak in Little Gore Canyon

Located approximately halfway between the west mouth of Gore Canyon and the east mouth of Little Gore Canyon, Azure Siding is 7110 feet above sea level in a valley between mountain ridges.  Public access is available here to the Colorado River, and trout fishermen and rafters are generally more plentiful than trains.    Photographic opportunities abound, especially from Trough Road, graveled and well-graded from State Bridge to State Highway Nine east of Kremmling.  The most scenic and well-known point along Trough Road is Inspiration Point, a turn-out overlooking the western mouth of Gore Canyon.  Eastbound trains can be viewed for several miles, while shots of westbounds exiting the canyon are spectacular, in part because the river is hundreds of feet below.  Access is easy, and photographs can be taken almost without leaving your vehicle.

I have taken hundreds of images at Inspiration Point, and this trip concentrated on other locales.  I shot two trains there on two different days as I was passing through.  Other posts will include more Inspiration Point photos.

Westbound Manifest Beside Rafters in Colorado River

Same Train Past Azure, Approaching Tunnel 39 and Little Gore Canyon

Same Train

Eastbound Coal Load at Azure

Westbound Empty Coal at Inspiration Point
From Inspiration Point:  Amtrak in Gore Canyon with Private Car on Rear and Towing Electric Unit 


Yarmony is a passing siding about a half mile east of State Bridge.  During my trip in September 2015, several coal trains were parked on the siding when I arrived at dawn.  This made for some interesting photographic opportunities, both beside the Colorado River and in the hills above the tracks.

Yarmony at Dawn

Westbound Amtrak with Coal Train Leaving Siding at Yarmony
Eastbound Coal Load Leaving Yarmony
Eastbound Amtrak Meeting Manifest at Yarmony
Red Gorge
Red Gorge lies northeast of Yarmony and southwest of Radium, about equidistant between the two.  The image immediately below shows a meet at Yarmony.  In the distance is a gap through the mountainside -- Red Gorge -- approachable only by river or railroad.  

Westbound Manifest With Eastbound Coal, Both Leaving Yarmony, With Red Gorge in Background

Red Gorge is a classic "water gap," as is Gore Canyon, in which a river appears to have sliced through the side of a mountain.  There are at least two theories concerning the creation of water gaps.  The first holds that the river course established itself when the land was relatively flat.  Later, as uplift occurred during mountain building, at the rate of a few inches per year, the river slowly but steadily eroded away the uplifting rock, creating a canyon, while the rock walls continued to rise on either side.

The second theory suggests that gaps can be caused by two separate streams on opposite sides of a ridge, both eroding away at the ridge until a gap is created.  In the case of Red Gorge, the water flow from the two streams would have been gigantic, but when the glaciers melted after the last ice age, goes the theory, such gigantic water flows did, in fact, occur.  Those with a more Biblical bent might prefer the story of Noah and the Great Flood.

For my money, I prefer the first theory, but I am a lawyer by trade, not a geologist, or a theologist, so my opinion is not worth much.  I do know that photographing Red Gorge is difficult.  To capture the images below, I climbed a steep ridge just south of Trough Road.  

Westbound Manifest in Red Gorge
Same Train Showing Extent of Water Gap, Especially in Upper Right

Amtrak in Red Gorge
Radium, the passing siding between Yarmony and Azure, can be reached on a passable byway west off Trough Road.  The settlement consists of a few houses, some well back from the tracks and hidden in trees on another "road" that my Jeep could cross only with difficulty.  There are a number of nice shots in this area, but they are reachable only with a four-wheel drive vehicle and some hiking.

I met one individual who lives in the woods near Radium, a very large man with a beard that appeared not to have been cut or trimmed since the onset of puberty.  I asked him why he had chosen such an isolated location.  He replied, looking at the camera strap around my neck:  "To get away from people taking photographs."      

Eastbound Coal Train at Radium, Taken From a Jeep Trail

DPU on Same Train

Westbound BNSF Manifest Leaving Little Gore Canyon and Approaching Radium

Same Train

Coal Load Approaching West End of Little Gore Canyon

Dotsero to Orestod
When the Moffat Route ran out of funds at Craig, the railroad became the most expensive branch line in the world.  This problem was solved when a connecting route (the Dotsero Cutoff) was constructed in the 1930's along the Colorado River from the original Denver and Rio Grande Western to the Moffat Route.  The connection started on the west at Dotsero ("Point Zero") and ended on the east at Orestod (Dotsero spelled backwards) near Bond.

Dotsero sits at the confluence of the Colorado and Eagle Rivers.  The original Rio Grande line followed the Eagle River to Tennessee Pass, at 10,424 feet once the highest operating mainline in north America.  We won't talk about Tennessee Pass anymore.

The following images were taken at various points along the Dotsero Cutoff.  
Westbound Empty Coal Train Near Burns

Same Train
Same Train

Empty Westbound at Orestod
Eastbound Coal Load Approaching Orestod

Same Train
BNSF at Colorado River Ranch
Same Train
Westbound Amtrak Approaching Dotsero
Same Train

Eastbound Amtrak Leaving Dotsero

Craig Branch

Another goal of the recent Colorado trip was to get shots at the Crater Loops on the Craig Branch, which is seeing less traffic every day.  On a totally overcast day, I drove all the way to Craig and back.  As nearly as I can tell, there appears to be only one mine still operating -- Nineteen Mile Mine -- which loads maybe one train per day.  So there's not much traffic on the line.  I was fortunate to catch two coal trains on the branch in decent light -- one empty and one load.

I think the Crater Loops are one of the most spectacular locations for rail photography in North America.  Not all that many people know about the loops, and not all that many have photographed them.  The Craig Branch is a portion of the original Moffat Line west out of Denver, and the climb from Bond, where the line leaves the valley of the Colorado River, to the summit at Toponas is one of the most amazing pieces of railroading you will ever see.

The Crater Loops are a reverse-S curve allowing westbound trains to climb Conger Mesa at a manageable grade.  The loops are small enough that a normal size coal train will fill them.  When I see railroading like this, I am always amazed at the ingenuity of civil engineers.

Unfortunately, the loops are remote, photography is difficult and the paucity of trains can be depressing.  On this most recent trip, I talked to some ranchers from the area who indicated that it is not unusual for no trains at all to run through the loops during the day.

In any event, following are the images of the loops and the mountainside that I managed to capture in late September of 2015.  The first train is a coal load that came down from Phippsburg on a sunny midday.

Eastbound Coal Load in the Crater Loops
Same Eastbound Coal Load Curving Through Bottom Loop of Crater Loops, with Ranch in Middle of Loop

Pushers on Same Eastbound Coal Load Exiting Bottom Loop of the Crater Loops

Pushers on Same Eastbound Coal Load in the Lower Loop, With Continuation of Line Visible on Side of Mountain About Five Railroad Miles Away

Same Eastbound Loaded Coal Between Volcano and Crater on the Mountainside Visible in Image Immediately Above

Same Train Approaching Crater Loops

A few days later, I caught an empty westbound climbing the loops toward Phippsburg.

Westbound Empty Coal Train Climbing Crater Loops

Same Westbound Empty Coal Train Filling Crater Loops

Pushers on Same Westbound Empty Train at Crater Loops, With Ranch House in First Loop

Pushers on Same Westbound Coal Train in the Middle of  Crater Loops

Same Westbound Coal Empty at Crater Loops
Same Westbound Coal Empty Leaving Crater Loops

As recently as ten years ago, Phippsburg was crazy with railroad activity.  I remember visiting the yard several times when three coal empties were preparing to head to the mines, while three coal loads were preparing to head toward Toponas and the Crater Loops.  Every available track in the yard was full.

Train crews on the Craig Branch would lay over at the Oak Tree Inn in Yampa.  In those days it was easy to strike up a conversation and just as easy to get train information from friendly crewmen.  On my most recent trip, Mighty Dog and I stayed two nights at the Oak Tree and did not see a single train crew.  The only other residents at the motel were dear hunters who did not seem too interested in trains.  

Today, Phippsburg is more or less empty.  A couple of days when I drove through, there was nothing in the yard -- not a single train, not a stray coal car, not an engine.  Nothing.  The yard office was locked up tight.  

One day I found a coal load waiting for a crew to head toward Toponas.  But no one was in the yard, and the yard office was still locked.  After I had waited about an hour, the crew showed up in a Renzenburger, climbed out and started inspecting the train.  About ten minutes later, a gentleman drove up and unlocked the office.  He stayed inside about ten minutes, then came back outside, locked the door, got in his car and drove away.  The train whistled, then began pulling, and the yard went back to sleep.  

One other day there were two coal trains in the yard.  One loaded, one empty.  This seemed like a flood -- quite a downturn from years past.

Coal Load Leaving Phippsburg
A Crowd in Phippsburg in the 21st Century

Empty Coal Train Headed to Mine

Pushers on Same Train

May 2013

These next images were taken during the last week of May 2013.  Weather was good in the mornings but, as the Monsoon Season had arrived, clouds built rapidly by mid-day.  I spent the afternoons exploring and hiking with my wife, who was a good enough sport to allow me free mornings.  That only happens about once every ten years.  We were traveling with a female friend from England who had never seen the Rockies, and she and my wife spent the mornings drinking coffee and shopping.  Had I known what was going to happen in the coming years to the Craig Branch (severe traffic downturn) I would have spent more time at the Crater Loops.  

Craig Local at Crater Loops
Craig Local at Volcano
Loaded Coal Train Heading Downgrade From Toponas

Empty Coal Train in Crater Loops
Volcano is a passing siding on the Craig Branch, located at the site of an extinct volcano, as the image immediately below demonstrates.  Below the tracks in Conger Mesa is a mine where lava has been harvested for many years.  At the top of the ridge in the image below is a crater where the ancient volcano erupted.  Unfortunately for railfans, this area is on private property guarded by closed circuit television cameras.  If you try to enter, as I did, you will be accosted by large men in a pick-up truck telling you to leave.  When I asked why, I was told that the land owners are worried about terrorists.  Really!   
Empty Coal Train at Volcano
I think the real problem is deer hunters who show up in force in the fall.  I have considered wearing a shirt with the logo "I am not a deer hunter!"  I don't think it would do any good.

Eastbound Coal Load Approaching Orestod

Westbound Amtrak in Gore Canyon as a Cloud Descends

Westbound Amtrak From Inspiration Point

Pusher on Loaded Coal Train at North Entrance to Egeria Canyon

Craig Local in Crater Loops

In the photo immediately below, you can see that a ranch house and other out-buildings have been constructed in one of the loops.  When I first visited this site in 1988, the area was almost completely deserted, and I never saw a soul.  There were no ranch houses anywhere nearby.  Now there are several dwellings in the area, and I see people frequently.
Same Train in Crater Loops

Same Train in Crater Loops With Another Ranch House and Out Buildings in Background
Same Train

Pushers on Empty Coal Train in Crater Loops
As loaded coal trains descend from Toponas summit, they follow Egeria Creek into a steadily deepening canyon which eventually opens onto the mountainside that overlooks Conger Mesa.  Egeria Canyon is quite spectacular but can only be approached over private ranch land.  If you ask for permission to cross, as I did, you will wait until your death for a positive response.
Loaded Coal Train at Egeria Creek

Mid-trains at Egeria Creek

Pusher at Egeria Creek
The railroad scenery in Colorado is spectacular, but there are fewer and fewer trains every year.   Nonetheless, I still return and will continue until nothing is left -- of either the railroad or me, whichever goes first. 


  1. Hello Paul,
    very great your report. I like your pictures.
    Is it a good idea to visit crater loops in september this year.
    My wife Elke and I are on a holiday trip from middle of september to beginning of october.
    I like american trains and the routes where they are going along.
    Can you give me some ideas.
    Best regards
    Oliver Röhl

    1. Unfortunately, there is virtually no traffic at Crater Loops today. I would not recommend a visit.