Monday, November 2, 2015

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

Kremmling, Colorado, 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.

Colorado Flaming Aspen.

On a cloudy day, Aspen still look spectacular.


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.

Westbound approaching Kremmling.


Eastbound east of Kremmling.

Eastbound coal east of Kremmling.

Another eastbound east of Kremmling.

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 is that train just 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.   

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.

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.

Westbound coal empties in Little Gore Canyon.

Eastbound BNSF manifest in Little Gore Canyon.

Another eastbound.

Westbound BNSF manifest.

Westbound UP.

Westbound DPU.

Same DPU.

Eastbound UP Manifest in the shortest tunnel on the Moffat Route.

Westbound UP manifest.

Westbound UP manifest entering Little Gore Canyon.

Pushers on eastbound loaded coal exiting Little Gore Canyon.  The front end of the train is visible in the upper right.

Mid-trains on loaded coal.

Pusher on same train.


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.

Amtrak at Azure.

Westbound UP.

Loaded coal approaching Gore Canyon.

Westbound California Zephyr.

Gore Canyon

This is the big brother of Little Gore Canyon and is inapproachable other than by rail or water, and the Class IV rapids leave little time for those with oars to enjoy the scenery.  Even rolling through  on the California Zephyr does not give a full representation of the size of this monster.  Trough Road approaches the west end of the canyon at the aptly named Inspiration Point and allows one to shoot images of trains several hundred feet below.

The line was originally blasted into the north side of the canyon wall by men who rappelled down the sheer granite, carved out small holes with hand picks, placed the dynamite securely and lit it, then yanked on the ropes to, in theory, be pulled upward to safety.  I do not know how many lost their lives in this endeavor, but it was almost certainly more than one.

For my money, Inspiration Point is one of the most spectacular photographic locations in North America.   

Eastbound coal load entering Gore Canyon -- photographed from Inspiration Point.

DPUs of same train.

The eastbound California Zephyr is entering Gore Canyon from the west, towing an electric unit in front and a private car in back.


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 and eastbound coal load leaving Yarmony Siding.

Eastbound coal load leaving 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 and eastbound coal, both leaving Yarmony, with Red Gorge in the 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 (and left Bear in the Jeep).  

Westbound manifest in Red Gorge.

Westbound 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 load at Radium, taken from a Jeep trail.

Westbound BNSF manifest approaching Radium.

Eastbound coal load leaving Radium.


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 coal empties.

Same train.

Coal empties approaching Bond.

Eastbound BNSF manifest at the Colorado River Ranch.

Eastbound loaded coal approaching Orestod.

Mid-trains and pusher.

Westbound Amtrak approaching Dotsero.

Eastbound Amtrak leaving Dotsero.

Craig Branch

Another goal of the 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, in the year of our Lord 2015, 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.

Loaded coal train in the loops at Crater.


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

Empty coal train climbing through the middle of the Crater Loops.

Same train filling the Loops.

Empty coal climbing the loops.

Loaded coal train descending toward Crater Loops.

Empty coal approaching Toponas.


As recently as 2005, Phippsburg, Colorado, 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 (2015) 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.

Same train.

Loaded coal headed to Bond, Colorado.

Loaded coal in Phippsburg, awaiting a crew.

Empty coal training arriving in Phippsburg.

Both trains awaiting crews.

Empties approaching Steamboat Springs.

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 in Crater Loops.

Empties 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.

Craig local in middle of 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!

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.

Same Craig local at Volcano.

Same empties at Volcano.

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 approaching Egeria Canyon.

Mid-trains at Egeria Creek.


Below are three images that more or less duplicate photographs above, but I thought they were worth displaying for historical purposes, if nothing else.

Eastbound coal load approaching Orestod.

Westbound Amtrak in Gore Canyon as a cloud descends.

Same train leaving Gore Canyon.

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. 

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  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.