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Rio Grande railfanning

By Bruce Collins | July 6, 2006

Follow Union Pacific's route through Colorado between the storied railroad town of Grand Junction and majestic Glenwood Canyon

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Think “Rio Grande” and one imagines long freights grinding through the tunnels and screeching around the tight curves of the Front Range, or coal drags with multiple helpers creeping up Soldier Summit or winding through the double horseshoe at Gilluly.

Not as frequently considered, yet almost entirely accessible end-to-end, is the stretch from Dotsero, at the east end of Glenwood Canyon, to Grand Junction: 108 miles of canyons and wide-open spaces, almost all paralleled by paved highways.

Union Pacific operates the former Denver & Rio Grande Western today, but you’ll also see BNSF freights on trackage rights, and Amtrak’s Chicago-Emeryville California Zephyr.

Glenwood Canyon

The hub of railfanning in what is now the Union Pacific’s Glenwood Springs Subdivision is Glenwood Springs itself, 160 miles west of Denver via Interstate 70.

Glenwood, a tourist town of about 8000, has numerous motels, restaurants, all other services, and a number of attractions. Located across the Colorado River from the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, the distinctive red sandstone depot is the focus of the downtown area, on 7th Street at the east end of an esplanade that provides easy access to the tracks from the east leg of the Aspen Branch wye to the east switch of the Depot Siding (no traffic on the branch, which now belongs to a local transit authority). The esplanade has both open and sheltered seating areas, as well as access to the depot platform.

The pedestrian bridge at the west end of the esplanade provides good views of the depot and the tracks as they exit Glenwood Canyon just east of the station, and the railroad can be followed along 7th Street west to Midland Avenue and on to West Glenwood, with the road curving along a shelf above the West Glenwood Yard.

Unfortunately, there are no real turnouts along Midland Avenue, so photography can be risky. Just under the new bridge over Midland past the west end of the yard is Devereaux Road, which follows the north side of the yard back east toward Glenwood Springs proper.

East from Glenwood Springs automobile access through spectacular Glenwood Canyon is limited entirely to “don’t-you-dare-stop-along-here” Interstate 70, 18 miles to Dotsero. Car-bound photographers are limited to the No-Name, Grizzly Creek, Hanging Lake, and Bair Ranch rest areas, from west to east. The four rest areas are in four distinctly different parts of the canyon so, while photo opportunities are limited, they are at least different. WARNING! Access to and exit from Hanging Lake is from and toward the WEST ONLY!

Or you can hike through the canyon. Starting at the east end of the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, directly across the Colorado River from the depot, is a paved walking/bicycle trail that hugs the north side of the river below the interstate continuously to the east end of the canyon. Bicycles can be rented from several vendors in Glenwood Springs.

Train-watching and photo opportunities are as unlimited from this trail as they are limited from the highway, although lighting in the deep canyon is problematic, with the railroad on the south side at the bottom of cliffs that tower 2000 feet and more above the river. There are parts of the railroad that never see sunshine, and shadows are deep.

At Dotsero the wye between the former Tennessee Pass main line-now idle except for a local twice a week to Gypsum-seven miles east, and the Dotsero Cutoff main line to Denver, is in the midst of a huge new residential development, and access is variable.

From Dotsero east to Gypsum, a frontage road parallels the interstate on the north side of the river while the railroad remains on the south side, but there are opportunities for “grande vistas” and the bridges in Gypsum are reasonably accessible.

West to Grand Junction

From Glenwood Springs west, I-70 parallels the railroad to Silt, 19 miles from Exit 116 in Glenwood. The tracks are accessible at the South Canyon county road crossing, from Exit 111. A little farther west, the railroad crosses to the north side of the river just east of the Chacra Siding. Canyon Creek enters the Colorado here and, consequently, it is a popular fishing spot. Parking areas south of I-70 are accessible from the South Canyon exit, Exit 109.

From the South Canyon exit all the way to De Beque, 62 miles, US-6 (mostly a frontage road here) parallels the railroad on the north side, including the 10-mile stretch from Silt to West Rifle where I-70 swings south away from the tracks.

In New Castle (Newcastle on the railroad), a small, pleasant park in the middle of town backs up against the tracks, and there are several turnoffs west of the village that provide views of a sweeping S-curve, although unfortunately I-70 is right below the railroad.

From New Castle through Silt to Rifle, 14 miles, US-6 follows the railroad quite closely, allowing for nice pacing on occasion. Because the highway is on the north side, there are few crossings, and all of the land south of the tracks is private, good photo spots are few.

From Rifle west to Parachute (Grand Valley on the UP, home to American Soda and BNSF’s new Parachute Yard), about 15 miles, US-6 again parallels the railroad more closely than I-70, although for the last five miles the interstate is in between, and once again the road is entirely north of the tracks.

The Lacy Industrial Park is four miles west of Rifle, and a local from Grand Junction switches soda, cement, drilling pipe, frac sand, lumber, scrap, and magnesium chloride solution here five days a week. A county road crossing just west of the industrial park provides access to the south side of the railroad just east of Webster Cut, a line change constructed to avoid a long meander in the Colorado River.

From Lacy west, the railroad and highways all pass through the Rullison, Grand Valley, and Parachute gas fields, and natural gas production facilities are everywhere. Dos Siding is halfway between Lacy and Grand Valley, and the east switch of the Parachute Yard is about three miles from West Dos. There are a couple of sweeping curves between Lacy and Grand Valley that present modest photo opportunities, although again the roads are north of the tracks and lighting is variable.

Parachute Yard is reached by a dirt road off US-6 just east of Parachute, at the American Soda spur crossing; there are a couple businesses, as well as a BNSF office at the west end of the yard. The spur extends about four miles north to the American Soda plant, which is switched approximately five days/week, although when depends on arrivals and departures of BNSF’s AS unit trains; a county road parallels the spur.

West of Parachute the railroad is again separated from US-6 by I-70 for about two miles, but it crosses the interstate and then follows the tracks much more closely than the interstate another 10 miles to De Beque (Debeque on the railroad).

About five miles west of Parachute is the Una Siding, and a county road crossing here provides access to the south side of the rails. This segment of US-6 ends at De Beque and, while I-70 curves south along the river, the railroad continues southwest through irrigated ranch country about for about five miles to the upper end of De Beque Canyon, where interstate, river, and railroad converge again. From here to the mouth of the canyon just east of Palisade, the railroad hugs the west side of the canyon. There are a fair number of pulloffs and, as a result, some pretty decent photo opportunities.

Grand Junction

From Palisade west to the Grand Junction Union Depot the railroad is pretty much a straight-ahead racetrack through orchard, vineyard, and farm country, as well as the villages of Palisade, Clifton and Fruitvale, and suburban developments that are sprouting like mushrooms in between. From the east taking US-6 at Exit 44 leads to Palisade, and from just west of town the railroad can be followed reasonably closely all the way to downtown Grand Junction. From Palisade to Clifton there are many private crossings, and pacing a locomotive can be a noisy experience. At Clifton, a left turn onto the I-70 business loop leads to the tracks at Fruitvale.

Just west of Fruitvale is what is left of Grand Junction’s East Yard and finally the depot, which, like Glenwood Springs, enables reasonable trackside access, although a chain-link fence has been making its appearance.

Train operations

Now the hard part – train traffic.

The only scheduled trains are Amtrak Nos. 5 and 6, the Chicago-Emeryville California Zephyr, plus UP’s Lacy/Gypsum locals. On a rare on-time day, No. 5, with a scheduled Glenwood Springs departure of 1:53 p.m., should pass through Dotsero between 1:15 and 1:30; its scheduled arrival at Grand Junction is 4:10 p.m. No. 6 is scheduled out of Grand Junction at 10:43 a.m. and Glenwood Springs at 12:30 p.m., putting it at Dotsero at about 1:05 to 1:15 p.m.

The Lacy local operates Sunday through Thursday, and continues to Glenwood Springs and Gypsum on Monday and Wednesday. Times vary, but it can usually be found at Lacy around noon to 1:00 p.m., and on appropriate days in Glenwood Springs between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., then on to Gypsum, with return not infrequently after dark.

UP also operates a North Yard (Denver)-Grand Junction pair of manifests, MNYGJ/MGJNY, on a more-or-less every-other-day basis, and occasional light-engine westbounds to return coal train helper power to Grand Junction.

Coal trains are catch-as-catch-can, with loads east and empties west, running through this territory at night. Based on tonnage hauled, there should be three to four loaded trains, which usually run with 105 cars and distributed power in a 2-2-2 configuration, and three to four corresponding empties per day. It doesn’t always work that way, of course. Some days there is an endless parade and some days there are none.

BNSF runs daily Denver-Stockton and Stockton-Denver manifests, MDVSTJ/MSTDVJ, via trackage rights, as well as American Soda unit trains to and from Parachute, and occasional steel coil and grain trains.

Road frequency, which carries almost all radio traffic between Dotsero and Grand Junction, is 160.455 (AAR Channel 23).

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