Royal Gorge Route Railroad (Colorado) Train Ride — Review

© 2012 Peter Free


02 April 2012



Worth doing once — depending on how much you like trains and don’t mind being too deep to appreciate the full grandeur of the gorge


The Royal Gorge Route Railroad train ride in Colorado seems to me to be one of those tourist experiences that are worth doing once, but probably not more.


The route is a back and forth ride (not a loop) on the track that parallels the Arkansas River through the entirety of the gorge.  Train lovers will probably appreciate it.  Others might not, given the repetitive nature of the gorge scenery.


What follows is based on our 31 March 2012 ride in one of the operator’s Vista Dome cars.  It was a clear sunny day, trees were blooming, and the ambient temperature was an astonishing 82 degrees Fahrenheit.



The windows in our Vista Dome car were not as expansive as those I remember from childhood


Vista Domes, as I recall from youth, come in two flavors.


One is like those the Royal Gorge train uses.  The second, visually more impressive version, constitutes a bubble that sits atop an ordinary rail car.


This bubble style has a second tier of curved windows above the first curved row.  This reveals a good deal more of the upward view.  But it has the drawback of not accommodating as many passengers.



A 5-year old passenger’s knock-knock joke summed our experience on the Royal Gorge train


Knock, knock.

Who’s there?


Train who?

Don’t you wish the train could go faster?



He meant that the visual experience quickly became boring, and he wanted to feel the exhilaration of more train motion


I felt the same way — which may only demonstrate that I have the maturity of a 5-year old.


The Royal Gorge train is understandably very slow.  And the visual experience in the gorge is repetitive enough that the excursion does not match the stimulation that an ordinary train ride provides.  I found the brief passage through the outskirts of Cañon City more interesting than the canyon itself.


Royal Gorge is a very narrow desert canyon.  Steep rock faces are mostly absent vegetation.  The near wall is just a few meters from the north side of track.


Until one passes underneath the Royal Gorge Bridge, being in the bottom of the gorge steals away visceral realization of just how deep this place really is.


There are also unavoidable visual perspective problems with the train’s seating.  The Arkansas River on the south of the train is usually far enough below the railway that passengers on the north side of the rail car cannot see the water.  This leaves them to stare at igneous rock on both sides of the rail line.


Even for people who are interested in geology, the rock here is visually uniform enough that one longs to get off the train and look at it up close to detect the nuances that are there.


Perhaps most attention-getting, for passengers on both sides of the train, are the splintered remnants of a wooden water flume wired to the south canyon wall.  The flume once transported water to Cañon City.  It was built in 1906 by prison labor.  Looking at it reminds one of the dangerous, back-breaking manual labor that characterized the not-so-long-ago past.


Passengers seated on the south side of the train can see kayakers, if they are present.


Some passengers were delighted by the open air rail cars.  But the one we could access was so crowded that (for someone as crowd averse as I am) the crush looked as if it would defeat the point to being there.



A note on unavoidable glitches for photographers


In sunlight, the windows on the south side of the Vista Dome show internal reflections that are virtually impossible to screen out.  Part of the problem is curved top portion of the window that bounces light around the car.  This causes through-glass camera metering and auto-focus problems for lower end cameras.


Though skilled photographers can overcome some of this with workarounds, I found that these compensations often took too long to set for me to consistently capture even slow-moving action outside the train window.  If you want through the window photos, I would recommend bringing along a digital SLR that allows rapidly accessed manual control.


Another hitch is that the top portion of the Vista Dome’s curved window is very noticeably darker than the vertical portion.  This leaves a horizontal stripe in your photos, if you are shooting through the window on the opposite side of the car.



Service is friendly and of excellent quality


Meals are served on the Vista Dome.  Smiles, competence, and not a glitch.



On the other hand, the restrooms in the Santa Fe Depot from which the train departs (and returns) could benefit from sacrificing simulated authenticity to more practicable modernity


Though clean, the restrooms could only accommodate two people at a time.


The stalls are wooden and latched with a hook.  The doors swing out so far that they interfere with the movement of people at the wash basins or those who are waiting their turn.


At the time we were there, just prior to the train’s 12:30 departure, there was a considerable wait for both men and women.




Though I thought the charge for the Vista Dome ride (at $59) was high relative to the experience (but probably not compared to the train’s operating costs), the lunch prices were reasonable — especially given the ferrying back and forth the servers have to do.


Group photographs are available.  These are taken at boarding on the steps into the rail cars.  The photographer is one of the wait staff.  The slight delay caused by taking pictures allows already boarded passengers to find their seats.


During the excursion, the photo-taker comes by with a print inside a folder to see if anyone wants to buy it.  Prices the day we rode were $12.50 for one 8x10 inch or $20 for two.  Our photo was decent and worth having as a memento.


Recommended at least once


The Royal Gorge Route Railroad train ride is an expensive excursion.  But, for train lovers (like me), it is worth doing at least once.