This fall, groups of senior tourists will have an opportunity to experience how the wild, wild West was tamed by the iron horse when Colorado State University and Elderhostel collaborate on a fall field studies program called "Seven Rails of Colorado."
The journey will take passengers through Colorado’s most beautiful landscapes on seven of the state’s historic rails: Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge, Georgetown Loop, Pike’s Peak Cog Railway, Royal Gorge Incline, Royal Gorge Route and the Glenwood Canyon Amtrak. Also included is a visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument via dune coach and the San Juan Mountains by way of motor coach and 4-wheel drive.
"This program gives tourists a unique view of Colorado history," said Bill Bertschy, director of Colorado State’s Pingree Park mountain campus. "Railroads were vitally important to the growth of the West. Out here, the iron horse did more than help existing small towns to grow, they were the primary reason for towns to be built at all. These pioneer railroads transformed a remote, frontier territory into a state in less than a generation."
In 1870, the biggest and most well known of all the Colorado railroads, the Denver and Rio Grande, was incorporated by William J. Palmer. Palmer was the first to introduce a narrow-gauge track 3 feet in width as opposed to the standard 4 feet 8 ½ inch gauge. This narrower gauge could not only be laid for about two-thirds the cost of the standard gauge, but it also seemed perfect for the Colorado terrain since it could better handle tighter curves and steeper grades.
The Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) laid track going south, helping to create the cities of Castle Rock, Colorado Springs and El Moro, then headed up the Arkansas River canyon from Pueblo to Leadville after silver was discovered in that mountain town. Another extension was built from Walsenburg to the San Juan Mountains, where the D&RG helped to build Alamosa, Antonito and Durango. This rail line became the first to cross Colorado and reach Utah and helped to promote the tourist mecca of Glenwood Springs.
One of the most recognized names in railway history, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line, founded in 1859, actually reached the Colorado border in 1873. It followed the old Santa Fe Trail westward along the Arkansas River. This Kansas-based, standard gauge railroad created the towns of Lamar, Las Animas and La Junta. The Santa Fe’s efforts to tap Colorado’s mining towns backfired when it lost the "Royal Gorge War" to Palmer’s Denver and Rio Grande rail line.
"These railroads all have fascinating histories," said Bertschy. "They each have their own character – as unique, powerful or eccentric as the people who built them. Their history is inextricably entwined with the history of this state and there are some amazing tales to tell."
Colorado, in fact, has two of the world’s most outstanding examples of narrow-gauge passenger trains. America’s highest and longest narrow-gauge, the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, climbs and winds for more than 63 miles between Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colo. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge, which has been in continuous operation since it launched in 1882, still uses coal and antique narrow-gauge equipment. A large, spacious railyard, a traditional roundhouse and repair shops have been built in Durango to build or repair all parts for the antique trains.
The eight-night program begins and ends in Denver with nightly stops in Colorado Springs, Canon City, Alamosa, Pagosa Springs, Ouray and Glenwood Springs. Experts from Colorado State will offer lectures and commentary on the history and scenery, the engineering achievements and the human sacrifice involved in settling the mountains and prairies of Colorado.
The program includes double occupancy modern lodging with private baths, all meals, transportation arrangements, tickets, and special tours. Departure dates are as follows: June 26, July 31, Aug. 21, Sept. 4, 18 and 25, and Oct. 2.
Elderhostel was founded in 1975 and is America’s premiere non-profit provider of high-quality educational opportunities for older adults, age 55 and up.
Colorado State regularly collaborates with other institutions for educational events and for special travel programs. Since 1983 the university has teamed with Elderhostel to coordinate special travel programs which highlight the beauty and captivating history of Colorado. Other collaborative programs include: "Photographing Nature and Wildlife in the Rocky Mountains," is a nine day program which takes participants through the scenic wonders of Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Participants join professional photographers to travel across mountains and prairies to capture nature in all its stunning beauty; "Along the Santa Fe Trail," traces parts of the Mountain Route of the historic trail used by Native Americans, mountainmen, immigrants and soldiers for more than a century. Through on-site interpretations, lectures, videos and tours, participants learn the Trail’s fascinating history including stops at Trinidad, Raton Pass, Fort Union and Fort Bent; and the "Mystical San Luis Valley," where the West meets the Hispanic Southwest. This program explores the history of the rich Spanish and Mexican cultures of Colorado’s earliest settlers while visiting the state’s oldest town of San Luis, viewing wildlife preserves and the Great Sand Dunes National Monument and visiting an early home of Kit Carson. This tour offers participants the chance to savor the solitude and mystery of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, while living and learning at a former Mexican Land Grant Ranch in Crestone. The town is located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Range, at an elevation of 7,800 feet above one of the largest alpine valleys in the world.
Each of these programs offers participants an extraordinary opportunity to learn what makes Colorado such a beautiful to live. These travel programs can be enjoyed by native Coloradans as well as visitors from out of state. Anyone with an appreciation of history, the environment and the wildlife of the west would find each of these journeys fascinating.
For more information about the "Seven Rails of Colorado" program, or any of the other Elderhostel programs, contact Bertschy at (970) 491-7377 or (970) 881-2150 OR write to: Bill Bertschy, Director, Pingree Park, Colorado State University, 1005 West Laurel Street, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523. To contact Elderhostel, call (877) 426-8056 and ask about program #06209 or online at www.elderhostel.org.