Railfanning the Moffat Road

Yes I have just come back from the States and we spend several days on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Moffat Route. Here are some railfan hints:

The "Moffat Route" is the name for the ex Denver & Rio Grande Western line between Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah.
Traffic is sparse and consists mainly of coal trains originating in the Yampa area and empties from the Denver side. Occasional mixed freights are seen and don't forget Amtraks California Zephyr .
Motive power is almost exclusively GE AC4400 both Union Pacific and Southern Pacific. We saw no units in Rio Grande markings here.
A railfan trip to the Rio Grande can be easily integrated into a holiday starting in Denver and going via Grand Canyon, Death Valley to Los Angeles or via the Great Salt Lakes to San Francisco.
I have made up a plan based on my experience for a four day railfan trip but you can alter this to your likings. Minimum time to be spent is two days.
A radio - scanner is an absolute must on this line, as is a copy of the Gazetteer Atlas of Colorado which offers map on a 1 inch = 2.5 miles basis (available at any European bookstore or in Colorado). Furthermore you need the Altamont Press Railfan Timetable Number 3 (Rocky Mountain Region) which is available from Steam Powered Video. I will refer to pages in both documents in the following text.
Please be advised that while I travelled this route in August 1997, conditions may have changed meanwhile. This goes especially for Rollins Pass. Only attempt to go up there if you feel that you are up to it. Make local enquiries beforehands as to the conditions of the road. Do not walk up to the summit in poor weather.
No responsibility can be taken for any of the information - things may have changed meanwhile.
Please respect -No Trespassing- signs and act responsible. Others will want to see the Rio Grande. Do not spoil it for them.

Day 1
Get over your jetlag if you have come from Europe. Visit the Forney Transportation Museum in Denver (1416 Platte Street, Tel.:303-4333643). This museum has a Big Boy locomotive on display, plus a rotaty snowplow and some Rio Grande Southern narrow gauge equipment. There is also a huge N-Scale model railroad layout and a lot of autos.
After this drive to Golden, where on the East side of town you will find the Colorado Railroad Museum. There are tons of locomotives, coaches and freight cars here, nearly all of them RGS narrow gauge plus some "Gallopping Geese" motor cars. In addition you will find indoor exhibits about the Rio Grande and a well sorted bookstore.
If you still have time you can take a first peek at the SP/UP line not far from here (see Day 2). Find a motel in nearby Denver West Village. I recommend the Days Inn which is located near I-70 exit Colfax Ave.

Day 2
Set the following frequencies on your scanner: 160.455 and 452.900. The details about the route are in the Altamont Timetable Pages 6 & 7 SP subdivision 1-A.
Fuel up your car. From Golden take Route 93 North and then Route 72 West (GAoC page 40). On your left you will soon find a road called Blue Mountain Drive. Turn into Blue Mountain Drive, cross the level crossing and drive uphill until reaching the top. From here you have an excellent view on one of the horseshoe curves leading from the prarie uphill to the frontrange. Wait here for a westbound (uphill) coaltrain which will be slow and easy to chase and get a nice photo as it circles the horseshoe. As soon as you have done that race your car down the hill and cross the level crossing before the train does.
Get a shot as the train approaches you and then wait for it to circle around you and get another good photo as it climbs out of sight on the other side.
Trains are sparse so this will be your train to chase all the way to Moffat Tunnel.
Follow Road 72 westbound (GAoC page 39) past Copperdale and Wondervu which are tiny settlements. After Wondervu the road descends into a valley and you can see the tracks again below you. As the road starts uphill again there will be a sand parking bay on your right where you can stop and wait for the train to come out of a tunnel and around a nice bend. I recommend 200 or 300mm lenses for a shot from up here or walk down some foot trails to get closer to the train but stay well clear off the tracks.
Continue 72 westbound. Soon there will be a level crossing providing a nice photo oportunity of the oncoming westbound. Next there will be a sign to Rollinsville. Turn left here and after a few miles right to Tolland/Moffat Tunnel/Rollins Pass. The road is a little poor but driveable.
Get a photo as the train enters Moffat tunnel and maybe wait for an eastbound coming out of the tunnel. There will be plenty of warning as there is a gate for the airvents about 50 yards inside the tunnel which will be closed until trains come closer. Also you will hear a distinct rumble about 20 seconds before the train emerges.
If you still have time you can try and drive up the old Rollins Pass. Before the Rio Grande built Moffat Tunnel, trains used to go up here and cross the pass at 11671ft altitude. This proved to be too much to maintain so the tunnel was built. The road up Rollins Pass is extremely rough and only for courageous drivers. Even though 4 WD is recommendable here we managed in a fully loaded Ford Windstar van during a thunderstorm. You can go up to Yankee Doodle Lake which is at app. 11000ft and get a good impression of what railroading used to be like before Moffat Tunnel. The drive up to here will take about 2 hours at slow speed.
You can go about two more miles to a "trailhead parking place" and there even are occasional signs pointing out railroad points of interest, but after the trailhead the road was blocked by some rocks and the summit was snowed in in August 1997. You can of course walk up the remaining two miles but be advised that you are at high altitude and you may have to catch your breath quite often. You can see the summit tommorrow from the other side.
When you are finished drive back down and follow the gravel road back to Road 119 which you should follow southbound via Blackhawk (nice mining area) and then take Interstate 70 West to Jct. 40. From here on follow Hwy 40 north to Winter Park. Find a motel here, be advised this is a ski resort and prices vary significantly, so compare motel room prices before actually taking a room. We stayed at the Olympia Motel which was pleasant and inexpensive.

Have breakfast at the Bagel Station (out of the Motel left and then on your right hand side).
Add frequency 161.565 (Moffat Tunnel) to your scanner. Go back up the pass for a few miles until you see Winter Park Resort on your right. Shortly before that is a viewpoint on your right to see Moffat Tunnel but I do not recommend that, as from here a lot of telegraph wires will spoil your view of the train.
Rather go into the Winter Park Resort and park your car on the huge parking place. Walk up to the Winter Park Station (which is really only a wall behind you and some gravel to stand on). Here you can get a really nice shot of trains coming out of Moffat Tunnel. You will get plenty of warning before a train comes. First there is a signal behind you just down the curve which will turn green about 5 to 10 minutes before the train comes, second you will hear a deep rumble about 20 seconds before the train comes out of the tunnel.
Please act responsible: Do not enter the tunnel and stay well clear of the tracks. The railroad has had very bad experience with "railfans" here and they are likely to close this part to the public if people continue to misbehave.
If you have had enough you can take a second shot at Rollins Pass from this side. We did not go up here ourselves due to lack of time but were told that the road is slightly better than on the other side. Supposedly there is an old trestle bridge and remains of an old hotel at the summit. You will not be able to drive up to the summit as Needle Eye Tunnel has collapsed (it had been reopened by some railfans in 1972 but collapsed again in the eighties). However you can walk up to the summit. If you decide to take the time to go up the pass you should consider spending a second night at Winter Park.
Next drive along Hwy40 via Fraser, Tabernash, Granby (GaoC page 28) to Hot Sulphur Springs. After Hot Sulphur Springs the road follows a spectacular canyon with the Rio Grande right in the middle. There is plenty opportunity to park the car on the side of the road and even non railfans stop and take a picture if a train comes up. An eastbound train will offer slightly better photos than a downhill westbound.
Follow Hwy 40 past Kremmling and then take Road 134 West to Toponas (GAoC page 26). Here take Road 131 Southbound until shortly before McCoy (GaoC page 36) where a small sand road called River Road/Road 301 heads of towards your right. Follow this very drivable road which will later on turn into a paved road. Soon the Rio Grande will come up on your right and you will enter the same canyon. The scenery here is spectacular to put it mildly. Continue through Burns, Range and other tiny settlements and just hold down the button on your camera, there are so many motives here you just cannot make a bad photo.
At Dotsero you will join Interstate 70 again which you can take westbound to Glenwood Springs. You will pass through magnificent Glenwood Canyon but you have done enough for today so continue all the way to Glenwood and enjoy a hot bath in the Glenwood Springs bath.

Glenwood Canyon is difficult to railfan as the only road is the Interstate allowing no stops for photos. There is a bicycle/pedestrian path but you are pretty low here and will not get too many good photos of the railroad.
The best bet is to wait for an eastbound coaltrain and then follow it by car. Have your driver concentrate on the road and take pictures out of the passenger side. You can follow this train to the Burns area and you can be sure to get loads of good shots there again.
The chances are high that the train will go towards Burns as Tennessee Pass had only one train per day in August 1997.

maybe you would like to make this part of a larger holiday, so here are some suggestions to put this into a vacation.
From Glenwood Springs you have two alternatives:
Follow the Rio Grande til Grand Junction and turn south on Hwy 50 towards Delta. Continue to Durango (great scenery along the route, lots of left open mines) and take a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge RR. See Mesa Verde and continue via Flagstaff, Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Death Valley, Tehachapi ( the famous loop) to Los Angeles
Go to Grand Junction, continue to Moab (Arches NP) and then Salt Lake City. Cross the Salt Lake to the west and go via Lake Tahoe (Donner Pass, great railroad scenery) to San Francisco.

If you found that these instructions were particularily helpfull to you I would be pleased to receive a photo that you took of the Rio Grande . Also if you find that anything has changed or you have any improvements please do contact me via e-mail.


Last Update: Mar 1st 2008

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Railfanning The Moffat Road