Two Fridays ago, 10 of us embarked from Denver on a journey we had planned for a year.
Actually, we're five couples — most have been close friends since the 1970s — who undertake a weekend escape every autumn, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We're spread from Manitou Springs and Cascade to near Salida and even Las Cruces, N.M., but that doesn't deter us from our annual meeting.
Last year it was Taos; before that, Cripple Creek and Denver.
This time we were taking the train, Amtrak's California Zephyr, from Denver to Glenwood Springs. No big agenda, just ride to Glenwood, stay two nights and return. We would gather for dinner each night, but otherwise have no organized plan.
What brings us together, of course, is the shared bond of years and experiences together. But this trip's attraction was the train. Our route would take us literally into the Flatirons south of Boulder, westward for a series of shorter tunnels, then through the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel under the Continental Divide and into Winter Park. From there, we'd go north to Granby, west to Kremmling, then south through several canyons following the Colorado River until meeting up with Interstate 70 for the final stretch into Glenwood.
It's a little less than six hours each way. And it's stunning, totally worth the round-trip fare of about $140 a person (less for seniors). If you think you've seen all of Colorado, you really can't say that until you've ridden the California Zephyr.
You slice through the Flatirons, amazed at the geology. You check out the streams and the lake that provides much of Denver's water supply. You marvel at the remarkable engineering feats from so long ago, creating tunnels to maintain the right direction with only a gentle rise in elevation.
We did have to gulp, from Winter Park onward, at the alarming lack of snow for the time frame of Nov. 30 to Dec. 2. And we couldn't help but worry about how low the Colorado River was running. Yes, the state finally got one decent storm last weekend, but it'll take plenty more to create the kind of snowpack needed for Colorado's rivers and water supplies, not to mention the ski industry.
We would find out later, reading a story in the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, that the Western Slope snowpack in that region (west of the Continental Divide to Grand Junction) was only 41 percent of normal at the end of November. Actually, in the Arkansas River headwaters starting near Leadville, the snowpack was even less, reported at 32 percent.
You don't think much about snowpack until you see it — or, in this case, the absence of it. We'll be hearing more, especially if the winter weather doesn't pick up. But to grasp all that, without the distractions of highway driving, you have to be on the train.
On a happier note, whether you stop in Glenwood Springs or venture on to Grand Junction, many pleasant surprises await. The best scenery comes in Gore Canyon, a stretch that contains the Colorado River's best whitewater, with rock walls rising 1,000 feet or more on either side and no room for roadways, just the tracks. The train rolls slowly through the canyon, and not only are the views memorable, but just as predicted by our conductor, several majestic bald eagles took their turns flying gracefully over the river and alongside the train.
In Glenwood we didn't even need a car, whether walking the neat pedestrian bridge over I-70, the river and the tracks to Glenwood Hot Springs, or checking out the classy restaurants such as The Pullman (named one of the nation's best 10 new restaurants of 2011 by Esquire magazine).
There's one last lure to mention. If you wonder how loud the train might be, forget that. Unlike the trains of a generation ago, the California Zephyr is soothingly quiet as it moves along, as relaxing as one could imagine. (And the onboard restaurant provides good food, drink and service at decent prices.)
By Sunday night we were back in Denver, heading home and planning for next year — but also thinking this wouldn't be our last train trip.
Next time, we might take it all the way to San Francisco.