Martin's Moab Trip

Back in the Saddle


My name is Martin Flanagan. 28 years ago, I decided that I wanted to live a life of travel and incorporate travel into everything I do. That was when I started our company, Canada Rail Vacations. I’m in love with our country Canada and thus, it became my passion to showcase all of the natural wonders Canada has to offer. Over the years, I’ve hosted groups and individuals to travel Canada from coast to coast to coast. I’ve personally guided over 10,000 guests throughout Western Canada.

During this time, I’ve also booked another +10,000 guests aboard Western Canada’s iconic train, the Rocky Mountaineer. For those who don’t know how much I love the Rocky Mountaineer train, for my 50th birthday, I invited all of my friends to come on a three-day trip aboard the train with me. I can honestly say that, of the top 10 days of my life, 5 of those were spent aboard the Rocky Mountaineer train (the others were my wedding, other cool travel adventures and bike rides).

When Rocky Mountaineer made the announcement in November 2020 that they were going to offer trips to the US Southwest, I was all aboard. I’ve spent many holidays in the Moab area, dating back to 2003 with regular trips to hike and bike. With Rocky Mountaineer running the spectacular Rio Grande route along the Colorado River, I couldn’t resist the temptation of selling my favourite train experience in one of the most geologically interesting parts of the world. The big five national parks of Utah and Arizona (Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion, Grand Canyon) have always been my favourites and I was happy to have a reliable means of showcasing these areas by train to future guests. In December 2020 we launched our US Southwest-focused site: Over the past 3 years, we’ve actively promoted trips to the area and we’ve had a lot of fun doing so.

For those who have travelled with me, you’ll know I’m always working. When I’m not the guide, I’m organizing dinners, excursions, hikes and bike rides. I love planning everything, even when it doesn’t go to plan.

On August 11, 2023, I received a last-minute invite to come on this trip: Red Rocks Classic – Salt Lake City to Denver. A colleague of ours couldn’t make it and I decided to take her spot. For those who have travelled with me, you’ll know I’m always working. When I’m not the guide, I’m organizing dinners, excursions, hikes and bike rides. I love planning everything, even when it doesn’t go to plan. However, this trip is something completely different from any other I’ve ever done. I’m just on holiday! I’m going to be a guest aboard the Rocky Mountaineer and I don’t have to plan anything. As a professional tour organizer, it feels a bit strange when I’m not in the driver’s seat or I’m not the tour guide, but I’ll just sit back and enjoy my surroundings in style aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. As I’ll have some extra time, I’ll write this blog, post a few videos, and make some new friends along the way.

Day 1 - Reach for the Sky

August 15th, 2023 | Salt Lake City

DELTA Grounded Birds

My flight left Calgary this morning at 08:00 am. I flew with Delta Airlines. I’m always joking that Delta stands for Doesn’t Ever Leave The Airport, but today, we did leave. In fact, I’m on the plane right now as I write this. Whew, I’m glad I didn’t foreshadow this flight with a bad joke. The flight has been good so far. I have a window seat in aisle 13 and……. maybe I offset that foreshadowing with an unlucky number. Two negatives equal a positive right? At Salt Lake City airport though, we were cursed by my earlier words. While we did in fact leave the airport in Calgary the other planes in Salt Lake didn’t. We had to sit 45 minutes on the plane on the tarmac before we were assigned a gate. Ha ha, I couldn’t help chuckle while we sat there waiting. Here’s a photo of DELTA planes clogging up the airport. The pilot was good and was joking about not getting a gate.

Something I love about Salt Lake City is how easy it is to get around. From the airport there’s a train that goes right downtown. At $2.50 per person I was happy to see the sights on the way to the city aboard the train. Our train conductor was a fellow named Martin. I’ve been known to convince train conductors to let me drive for a bit, but I didn’t want to test my luck on this one. It reminded me of that time I convinced the conductor of a commuter train in Slovenia to let me take over for a few stops.

Salt Lake City's TRAX - UTA Light Rail System

Sightseeing in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City is a small city on the edge of the Wasatch Mountains and the population is only 200,000. I’m staying at Little America Hotel, booked by Rocky Mountaineer. It’s a great hotel right on the edge of downtown. It’s a short walk to all the sightseeing and it’s right on the train line. In fact, the hotel is on the edge of the local train’s free fare zone, so you can go into downtown and back free of charge. At 850 spacious, luxury rooms, it’s a big hotel surrounded by 10 acres of gorgeously landscaped grounds. There are plenty of flower gardens, full time gardeners and hundreds of trees (Google says 300 trees).

I was at the hotel at 11:00 am and none of the rooms were ready for check in yet, so I went for a walking tour of downtown. You can check out some more of the photos I took while out exploring today on Facebook, X, or Instagram.

Train Gang

I haven’t yet met up with all of my fellow travellers yet. Some of us went out exploring the city together. For the others, we have a group chat and here’s what I know of them so far. Let’s call them The Train Gang.

  • Adrienne is the marketing manager for one of our competitors in Calgary. She’s been in the travel industry close to 15 years and previously worked for my good friend Anthony.
  • Julia is also a marketing specialist at AMA Travel in Edmonton. She’s pretty cool. She previously worked for the Edmonton Oilers in marketing. As a Calgary Flames fan, I hereby declare the Battle of Alberta ON in Utah.
  • Charlie is the director of marketing from AAA Travel in Buffalo. He’s a great guy, really down to earth and a lot of fun.
  • Ann is another marketing specialist from her company in Minnesota. She really enjoyed the trip.
  • Heather is in marketing with CAA out on the east coast of Canada in New Brunswick. She was always smiling and brought a lot of positive energy to the group.
  • Johnna is in marketing from California. She was super sweet and a really nice person who I enjoyed getting to know.
  • Laura is a travel marketing specialist from Manitoba. She comes from an athletically talented family and her husband was a professional basketball player. Her kids sound really talented too.
  • Marie-Pier is from Montreal and has worked in marketing and is new to the travel industry.
  • Bonnie is from Long Island and has been in the industry 18 years. We’ll have a good time because she likes my old man jokes and I make fun of her New York accent.
  • Monique is very experienced in various travel roles and is from the Toronto area (Barrie), but winters in Florida.
  • Yvonne works for AAA and manages travel products for them out of Orange County in California. She leads a group of travellers called the So Cal Explorers.
  • Tiffany is based in Phoenix and also works for AAA in product development and marketing. She had the best creative Instagram posts.
  • Sam worked in destination management in Japan, and then she moved to Houston where she is a product specialist.

I see that Rocky Mountaineer has invited some very experienced marketing folks on this trip. Wow, I’m feeling out of my league as I’m just a guy who loves to show off his trips (I don’t have much marketing experience). I’ll just blog and take some photos instead.

Coco, Ben, and Cari are our hosts from Rocky Mountaineer and will be our guides, travel coordinators, liaisons, and leaders for the next four days in the US Southwest. Overall, there are a lot of interesting and experienced travel professionals here and I’m looking forward to taking it all in.

Day 2 - Ace in the Hole

August 16th, 2023 | Moab

Up and at 'em!

I woke up bright and early at 3:30 am. I was quite excited about the trip. I spent some time going through my emails and planning my day. Today, we got to meet the rest of the train gang. Everyone is just as excited as me. Our bus left at 08:00 am for the five-hour drive plus stops to get to Moab. The route is the US-6 to 93, and it’s way more scenic when you’re a passenger (this is my first time not being the driver). I posted a few videos to our Instagram stories. I also utilized the time aboard the bus to get to know most of the rest of our travel group and fill in some blanks from the others I don’t yet know.

That was really kind of Rocky Mountaineer. They provided us with lunch, snacks and drinks aboard the bus. I had a turkey with Swiss cheese sandwich. Our bus driver’s name was Gary from Park City. He’s got Canadian in-laws, so we bonded over a few “Eh’s”. We’ll be arriving in Moab around 1 pm and our group has some free time to get out and explore.

Canyonlands National Park

Upon arriving in Moab, our group had time to get out and explore. There’s a new shuttle bus loop in Moab, so some folks tried to do that, others ended up at the Moab Brewery and others went out exploring and ended up at Fiesta Mexicana. I joined this group for some margaritas after my ride. Some guests I met on the bus wanted to do a tour into Canyonlands National Park, so I called Moab Express and arranged a last minute evening tour into the park for sunset. There was something for everyone today.

I decided to do something for the kids. Every year, I am involved in various charity organizations doing fundraisers. Every August I take part in the SickKids Foundation’s Great Cycle Challenge for kids with cancer. I managed to squeeze in a short mountain bike ride for the kids. So far, this month, I’ve raised over $1700 to this worthy cause. This is my 8th year involved with this group. Follow the links below if you’d like to check out the organization, or support the cause!

Great Cycle Challenge

Check out our Instagram for a quick clip of my ride today in 36C heat.

Cycling for a good cause.

Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection by Hilton

Our hotel tonight is Hoodoo by Hilton. This place is presently the fanciest hotel in Moab, but I can see many new properties being built. This is my first time staying in the hotel. It’ll likely be an early night, then rest up for the next few exciting days of train travel aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. Tonight, we’re all going different places for dinner in Moab. I’ll likely check out a few new venues and add them to our Moab info page.

History of the Rocky Mountaineer

Let me tell you a little about Rocky Mountaineer’s history: Founded in 1990 by Peter Armstrong, the Rocky Mountaineer departed on its inaugural voyage – a two-day trip on what is now called the “First Passage to the West”, through Western Canada and the Canadian Rockies. Over the next few years, a lot of progress and improvements were made, including founding it’s GoldLeaf Service, setting the record for longest passenger train in Canadian History, launching two new routes (“Whistler Sea to Sky Climb” and the “Rainforest to Gold Rush” through BC’s interior) and celebrating many more record-breaking accomplishments before finally incorporating the American “Rockies to Red Rocks” route in 2021. For more information about the Rocky Mountaineer and its history, check out: Rocky Mountaineer – Company History

Levels of Service

Due to the low heights of the tunnels on our current route, tunnels such as the Moffat Tunnel would make it impassable for Rocky Mountaineer’s double-decker GoldLeaf rail cars. Levels of service aboard this route are SilverLeaf and SilverLeaf Plus. SilverLeaf Service includes comfortable seating, hot meals served at your seat, as well as complimentary beverages and access to the open-air vestibule car.

SilverLeaf Plus Service uses the exact same rail cars and food service but offers access to Rocky Mountaineer’s lounge cars. For further information on SilverLeaf and SilverLeaf Plus Service, I would refer you to the following link: Rocky Mountaineer – Levels of Service

Day 3 - Burn the Breeze

August 17th, 2023 | Arches National Park

We awoke bright and early, and now it’s time for the adventures to begin. We were to meet our bus at 7:30 am for a half-day trip into Arches National Park. Please remember, I’m usually the bus driver, guide or both on these trips, so it was wonderful to sit back and hear the stories of the park’s history, geology and see the wonderful formations of Entrada Sandstone. They’ve been carved out for the past thousands of years. The story of Arches National Park is one that goes back 300 Million years, to a time when the area was a dry seabed, many hundreds of metres below where we are today. Over the years, sediment was piled on top of the salty seabed. Tectonic collision at the time forced the sedimentary rock upwards, like giant rugs being pushed together. The sandstone layers folded, wrinkled and buckled. As the sandstone warped, fractures tore through it and salt seeped into the cracks. As the tectonic plates continued to collide, the Pacific Plate wedging under the North American plate caused the area’s landmass to uplift hundreds of metres above sea level. As the sedimentary rock layers were being forced upwards, so too were they being torn apart, this time by water erosion. It is much of this water erosion which lead to the formation of the arches in the park today. Here’s the sign from the park with a diagram showing how the arches were formed.

Our stops in Arches National Park included La Sal Lookout, The Windows, Delicate Arch and Balanced Rock. We had plenty of time to get out and walk at each location. For me, the highlight was seeing the faces of my fellow travellers, many of whom were seeing this for the first time. Once a tour guide, always a tour guide! This is why I love doing what I do – to travel to areas with others who have never seen the area and see their expressions upon witnessing such beauty for the first time.

David from @moabadventurecenter

Group shot!

After visiting Arches National Park, we went for lunch at Josie Wyatt’s and I met up with Tom from Moab Express and Jenny from Destination Moab to talk about future business opportunities. We’re now headed to the train depot to be awed by the Rocky Mountaineer. It’s on that very train that we’ll be headed to Glenwood Springs today. I can’t wait for the journey.

Choo Choo! Our staff know how much I love train travel. Within our company, we have an inside joke, when a new sale comes in, we say #CCMF (Choo-Choo-Martin-Flanagan). Now being aboard the train, this is my “Raison d’être”. For those of you not from Canada, that expression has nothing to do with dried grapes, it’s French for “Justification for Existence.” I really love train travel and this is where I come into my own.

When I was 22, I started my company as part of a university class project. The inspiration for the idea came from my own personal travels, my experiences abroad, some letters to my brother while I was travelling (he was an entrepreneur at age 13), leadership from some of my professors (Al Braun, Diane Draper, Joe Pavelka) and a few chance meetings with influential people. One of those people just so happened to be Peter Armstrong, founder of Rocky Mountaineer. As a student, I was representing our university at a Travel Alberta conference in Jasper. I was seated at the head table with Peter Armstrong and Joe Hussein, founder of Intrawest who built Whistler into an international destination. At the time they were likely my age now, and I looked up to them for all that they had done.

Desert Yoga

Michael and Leigh on the mic!

Over the years, Rocky Mountaineer has consistently improved. In 1995 they added GoldLeaf Service, offering a double-decker glass dome where guests were seated above and were served meals in the dining car below. By 2011 SilverLeaf was introduced. I was on one of the first-ever SilverLeaf cars in August 2011, a very memorable trip with my grandmother, just months before she passed away. Unsurprisingly, I have many fond memories of travelling in SilverLeaf Service.

After a great day aboard the Rocky Mountaineer train and a wonderful dinner en route, we’ll be arriving tonight in Glenwood Springs just after dinner, in the early evening. Glenwood Springs is famous for it’s hot springs. I’ve soaked in the pools before, and make sure to check out our Instagram stories for photos of the surrounding area.

When we arrive at the station today, the hotel will be just a 100 metre walk from the station. One of the nicest things about travelling aboard Rocky Mountaineer is that your luggage isn’t on the train, it’s ahead of you in a truck. By the time I check into my room, my luggage will there waiting for me.

Good night!

A bird's-eye view of Glenwood Springs

History of Glenwood Springs

Strolling the streets of the tranquil town today it’s hard to imagine the history of Glenwood Springs as a rowdy frontier town of yesteryear. Built on a rebellious spirit, the town boomed into life as a mining settlement called Defiance. Embodying the essence of the Wild West’s rule-breaking spirit, shady characters frequented noisy saloons, spilling out onto muddy streets and back into brothels, before retiring to their rustic tents along the river. Nestled in the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, idyllic Glenwood Springs sits at the confluence of the Colorado and the Roaring Fork rivers.

By the mid-1800s the government began surveying the area for minerals, even though they had no claim to it. In 1868, the well-respected Chief Ouray, a Tabeguache Ute, negotiated a treaty protecting ancestral Ute hunting grounds. Despite this treaty, prospectors including John Blake established a wooden fort on the Flat Tops area of Glenwood Canyon in 1878, naming it Fort Defiance. The land opened for settlement and Blake used his Fort Defiance claim to establish a new town site at the confluence of the Grand (now Colorado) and Roaring Fork Rivers in 1883. The town was named Defiance in keeping with the spirit of the first staked land at the fort. Defiance boomed. Blake’s wife Bessie was the town’s first madam, opening up a brothel on 7th Street to sit alongside the saloons and stores that had sprung up to serve the increasing numbers of miners, trappers, and traders rushing to the region.

Glenwood Springs was ready for a tourism revolution and it came in the form of the railway opening in 1887. Previously Glenwood Canyon’s steep sides and river rapids meant that visitors needed to go over the Flat Tops to avoid the treacherous canyon. The race was on for one of the two railway companies to be the first to arrive. The Denver & Rio Grande company won by just a week, after constructing a route that blasted through the south side of Glenwood Canyon. This railroad will be the one to host our Rocky Mountaineer Rockies to the Red Rocks rail route.

Day 4 - Slick as a Whistle

August 18th, 2023 | Colorado

It’s a nice 9 am start today and I’m so excited for what’s coming today. I’ve done this route before so here are my anticipated highlights:

  • Travelling up the Colorado River through Glenwood Canyon
  • Going off the grid and away from the highway and getting into the backcountry along the Colorado River
  • Going through Winter Park, Colorado
  • Going through the Moffat Tunnel
  • Going around the Big 10 Curve
  • Entering the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies to see more red rocks
  • Spending an entire day on a train, which I get excited about in general
  • Spending the entire day on the Rocky Mountaineer train. Again, I can never get enough of this
  • It’s probably worth repeating, but spending an entire day on the Rocky Mountaineer train with the lovely people I just met

I’ll be posting a lot of videos today because this scenery is so beautiful it can’t be described. I’m a very proud Canadian, but I have to admit, some of this scenery in the USA is just unbelievably beautiful. I know it’s not a competition on which country is more beautiful, but, this is a close tie. Make sure to check out my Instagram stories, I’ll be posting as we pop into cell reception here and there.

Colorado National Monument

Now let me tell you a little about something extra special that makes Rocky Mountaineer one of the world’s top train journeys. It’s the staff. Here’s a bit about the staff that we have in our car for the trip:

Michael grew up in the area. His stories of geology and history often reflect back on his own personal history. He proposed to his wife at the Glenwood Springs station, he did geology field trips as a student in the Moab area, he pans for gold in this very river we’re travelling along.

Paul works for Rocky Mountaineer. He’s a true “Foamer”. For those not into rail lingo, a foamer is someone who already starts foaming at the mouth when you talk anything train related. Paul and his family own their own train engine, an old CN engine from the 60s. Their plan is to ultimately restore it. In the meantime, they let kids learn about the train’s working components.

Evan is the Guest Services manager aboard Rocky Mountaineer. After teaching English abroad for many years, he ended up working for a destination management company in Las Vegas before landing his dream job here aboard the train.

Lacey is in her second year here with Rocky Mountaineer, although we first met her before that. In 2021, when we were down in Glenwood Springs learning more about this route, we had dinner at a nice restaurant in the heart of Glenwood Springs. Lacey was our server. Last year aboard the train, we knew we had met her before. She’s lovely.

Chris has been with Rocky Mountaineer for 22 years. He’s been part of all of their new routes, having opened the Whistler route, the Prince Rupert route, the Coastal Passages route to Seattle and now this one. When Chris isn’t working aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, he can be found living on his sailboat in the Caribbean.

Leigh is originally from Florida and does a great job looking after all of our guests as a bartender in the lounge car. If I was going to try to spell customer service, it would start with a Lei and end in a -gh.

These people are here to make your trip extra memorable and do their best to make every Rocky Mountaineer trip a true trip of a lifetime

Amazing group and a lot of fun!

As we approach Denver, I’d like to tell you a little about my own experiences in this area. In 2003, after 8 years as a tour guide, I was approached by a company asking me to drive and guide an 18-day trip from Calgary to Denver. Back in those days, as a commercial operator, it was much easier to legally work in the USA as a Canadian and I did many trips to the US. The tour I did for this company was one that included all of the National Parks – Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Jasper, Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, finishing with Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Back in these early days of guiding, I didn’t have navigation and I didn’t really use the internet much for trip planning. I brought about 40 books with me and a lot of maps. After seeing the area and exploring a little bit after the trip, I realized I wanted more and started offering trips to the area two or three times per year. At the end of each trip, I would go spend some personal time in Moab. I knew a tour guide who lived in the Denver area and he took me up Mt Evans and we walked to the top of the mountain at over 4350 metres (14,000 feet) above sea level. When I met my wife, I brought her to the area and, being a music junkie, she fell in love with seeing concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. We’ve been back many times. Tomorrow, I’ll be doing a walking tour of downtown Denver and try to get a few more photos before I head home tomorrow night.

Special thanks to Rocky Mountaineer for inviting me on this very special holiday. I really enjoyed meeting all of the travel professionals I had the pleasure of spending the past few days with.

History of the Denver and Rio Grande Route

Getting its start as the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, the company was founded in 1870 by General William J. Palmer. Palmer first pioneered a 3-foot, narrow-gauge line south from Denver in 1871 toward Mexico, as a way to cut costs. With the motto “Through the Rockies, not around them” and later “The Main Line through the Rockies,” the Rio Grande was the pinnacle of mountain railroading. By 1917, the railroad had approximately 6,000 miles of track under operation. The railroad constructed some of the most challenging tracks in history throughout the years, including the highest mainline railroad in the US at over 10,000 feet at Tennessee Pass in Colorado and the renowned routes through the Moffat Tunnel and the Royal Gorge.

History of the Moffat Tunnel

Sitting at an elevation of 9200 feet, we have cut through 6.2 miles (10 km) of the engineering marvel, the Moffat Tunnel. This massive project was conceived by businessman and railroad entrepreneur David Moffat in the early 20th century and was intended to be a link between Denver and Salt Lake City. Moffat had spent all his fortune on trying to complete this tortuously steep route but was unable to raise sufficient funds to build the tunnel before he passed away in 1911. As the highest main-line railroad ever built in the United States, the operating costs were astronomical. In 1914, a Denver bond issue was approved financing two-thirds of the construction of the tunnel.

The construction phase of the Moffat Tunnel used innovative tunnel techniques, combining rail and water tunnels with its doubling permanent aqueduct. This made it possible to carry water across the Continental Divide to Denver, having increased the city’s water supply by 30% at the time. The tunnel itself began construction in the spring of 1922 with eight hundred men working around the clock for three and a half years, moving 3 billion pounds of rock. However, poor, and unstable rock deposits on the west end of the bore drove up construction costs even more, and it took the state three additional bonds to finally complete the tunnel. The final costs of the tunnel, with interest, rang up to nearly $24 million, a phenomenally expensive project for that era. It costs 28 workers their lives and took nearly six years to complete before the first train used the tunnel in 1928.

Martin Flanagan

Martin is the founder of Canada Rail Vacations. He has achieved the goal of turning a travel junkie’s passion into a reality of full-time travel. Martin has travelled to nearly every location in Canada and has stayed in every hotel we work with. He has been creating and guiding tours since 1995 and has personally guided over 10,000 guests in the past 28 years. Many of these guests have come back to Canada specifically to take a tour with Martin.

Martin speaks fluent English and German and was previously a competitor in the sport of luge. After realizing he couldn’t make a career out of travelling around the world sledding down icy chutes, he figured he would stop the sledding and just travel. In his spare time, Martin likes hiking, cycling, cross country skiing, travelling, and visiting excellent restaurants worldwide.

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