Colorado’s Morning Glory

Story Behind the Image

The morning of March 9th, 2020 started early. I was over a week into my photography adventure across the Western United States. The previous day was a mammoth 18-hour day, which started in Canon City, Colorado and ended along the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. I was tired, catching a few hours of sleep in my Glenwood Springs hotel room when the phone rang.

Rock slide issues in Byers Canyon had the Moffat Route shut down overnight. The slides had delayed several trains which were supposed to sneak though the Rocky Mountains under the cover of darkness. With the new information, I quickly packed my gear while still half asleep, grabbed a hotel-lobby coffee and took off on the hour and half drive towards Kremmling.

As I made the drive, the sound of country music and radio traffic filled my truck. Most of the radio traffic was scratchy, a common problem when you are in the mountains and the railroad action is far away. Unsure of what had transpired along the railroad during my hour and half drive from Glenwood Springs, I arrived near Azure, Colorado right after sunrise.

I was trying to figure out a plan of action as I slowly rolled along the rugged dirt roads near Gore Canyon. I feared that I had arrived too late, when all of the sudden, the radio traffic became crystal clear. “BNSF 5686 East, highball Radium out.” I had arrived just in time. After being stopped all night, the railroad was open and there was a train quickly headed my direction. As I got into position, the skies opened up. The once dark mountainsides now beamed with light.

BNSF 5686 roars out of Little Gore Canyon on the morning of March 9th, 2020.

As the train roared out of Little Gore Canyon, additional radio traffic came in. This time it was from the Moffat Tunnel Subdivision Dispatcher. “BNSF 5686, I’m going to stick you in the siding at Gore for this westbound work train. They’re making their way through Troublesome now.” The Gore Siding is located just east of Gore Canyon between Azure and Kremmling. At 6,730′ in length, it is one of the longer sidings in the area.

BNSF 5686 continuing east between Little Gore Canyon and [Big] Gore Canyon. In approximately 5 miles, it will enter Gore Siding for the westbound work train.

As the BNSF 5686 continued east towards Gore, I doubled back west towards Little Gore Canyon. Located only a few miles west of [Big] Gore Canyon, Little Gore Canyon is one of my favorite locations along the Moffat Route. With it’s vertical cliffs that tower hundreds of feet above the river below and a view of the incredible Gore Valley extending to the east, Little Gore Canyon provides endless photography opportunities.

I soon found myself standing on the canyon edge, overlooking an incredible mountain scene. The train was taking a little longer than expected, but that bought time, allowing the sun illuminate the eastern edge of the canyon. As I waited, a Bald Eagle made several passes, patrolling his little section of paradise. “This is what it’s all about”, I thought to myself.

Eventually, the silence of the mountains was overtaken by the rumbling sound of a ballast train exiting Gore Canyon. I got into position, being careful to set my feet on the snow covered rocks. A small slip could lead to a very fast and deadly trip to the bottom of the Colorado River.

The sound of the train is getting louder as it works west through Gore Valley.

As the train rounded the bend, the sound became deafening. Like a megaphone, the canyon walls were amplifying the sounds of this incredible display of mountain railroading. The Union Pacific 7890 was in the lead, dragging 74 Herzog ballast cars west. The train briefly ducked into the 294-foot Tunnel 39 as it entered Little Gore Canyon. A frozen Gore Valley provided the perfect backdrop.

UP 7890 exits Tunnel 39 and enters the incredible Little Gore Canyon. Notice the dark shadow just above the train. As I patiently waited, dark storm clouds cycled in and out of the area adding an extra element of uncertainty. Fortunately, the clouds decided to play in my favor this day.

Distributed Power Units (DPUs) are common along the Moffat Route. The extra power on the end of the train makes for a safer journey through the mountains. On this day, the UP 5785 was assigned as the rear DPU, seen here exiting Tunnel 39.

Framed by the jagged rock walls of Little Gore Canyon, the UP 5785 is seen here as the rear DPU, helping guide this westbound train down the Moffat Route.

Soon, the UP 7890 would arrive in Bond, Colorado for a crew change. Unfortunately, do to the overall lack of of rail traffic along the Moffat Route, the few train crews that still work this section are not always available. With no rested and qualified crews available, this train would stay stopped at Bond for most of the daylight hours. Eventually, late in afternoon, a new a crew would arrive and take this train west towards Grand Junction.

The UP 7890 is tied down at Bond awaiting a new crew. At one time, Bond was a busy junction for coal and manifest trains along the Moffat Route. Today, the empty tracks paint a bleak picture.

This underscores the challenge of the Moffat Route. With some of the most incredible railroad scenes in the world, the overall lack of train traffic makes it difficult to photograph. The steep decline in Colorado Coal production, along with a general decline in overall rail traffic means this route is quiet more often than not. Fortunately for me, I got lucky that morning.

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