With eight new restaurants, two bars, a hotel and a half acre of splashing water fountains, The Mile High City's glittering newly refurbished Union Station has already become the center of downtown Denver.
It's not the first time. It was the railroads that transformed Denver from a dusty, frontier town to the largest and most opulent city between Chicago and San Francisco. In the golden age of railroading, Denver's lavish Beau-Arts 1914 Union Station was a beehive of activity, handling up to 200 trains per day. One hundred years later, Denver Union Station is back, serving as a transportation center for light rail, AMTRAK, a massive bus network, two electric bus shuttles and coming in 2016, a 24-mile-long rail line to Denver International Airport.
For rail fans, Union Station is just the beginning. The Denver area is home to operating steam trains, historic locomotives, cog railroads, and some of the largest model and garden railroads in the nation. All aboard for a rail tour of The Mile High City!
DENVER UNION STATION
Following the discovery of gold and silver in the Rocky Mountains in the 1860s, railroad lines were pushed up canyons and over high passes, making them the lifeline of every mining camp in the state. By 1880, there were dozens of railroads passing through Denver, and the city had four stations. Jay Gould and Walter Cheesman consolidated this network into one central location called Union Depot.
Although nothing remains of the original station which burned down, the current one, designed in the Beaux-Arts style by local architects Gove and Walsh, was completed in 1914 and completely restored in 2014.
The old waiting room has been re-christened "The Great Hall." With its soaring arched windows, this grand room is open to the public 24-7. The old ticket windows have been turned into The Terminal Bar, which features more than 30 Colorado craft beers and a huge outdoor patio. In front of the station is a new water park with dozens of dancing fountains shooting water into the air; it is particularly pretty at night when the fountains are lighted.
Looking down on the Great Hall from a terrace above, is the Cooper Lounge which re-creates the glamorous old-Hollywood days of railroading with high-end cocktails and an extensive wine list.
In the wings of the Great Hall is the elegant 112-room Crawford Hotel. Named after local developer and preservationist Dana Crawford (who was also responsible for preserving nearby Larimer Square) the Crawford is affiliated with the Oxford Hotel across the street and shares their spa and meeting facilities. The "Pullman" room on the second floor is modeled after the luxury private sleeping cars of old.
COLORADO RAILROAD MUSEUM
Next stop for rail buffs is the Colorado Railroad Museum, which has the state's largest collection of locomotives, cars, photos and historic railroad mementos. At one point, more than 2,000 miles of narrow-gauge track probed the mountains of Colorado, and this exciting era comes to life at the museum.
Located in Golden, the museum is circled by a half-mile track, which allows them to do monthly "steam ups" with operating locomotives. On alternate weekends, the museum also runs the Galloping Goose, a rare bus mounted on train wheels that used to take passengers over Lizard Head Pass near Telluride.
The museum has a number of special events throughout the year including a Christmas train with Santa Claus, an Easter Bunny train, an Old West event with shootouts and train holdups, and "varnish specials" of authentic historic wood cars, complete with coal-fired stoves to keep passengers warm in winter.
There are more than 50 narrow- and standard-gauge locomotives, cars and other rolling stock, as well as one of Colorado's largest indoor HO model railroads, and largest G-scale outdoor garden railroads.
The museum has the definitive Railroad Book Store with more than 1,000 titles and an assortment of railroad gifts, DVDs, magazines and memorabilia.
THE GEORGETOWN LOOP RAILROAD
One of Colorado's most famous railroad engineering feats is just 42 miles from Denver. The original railroad reached Georgetown in 1877. It was decided to push the railroad up the valley another two miles to the neighboring mining camp of Silver Plume. The challenge: Silver Plume was 600 feet higher in elevation. To gain that much altitude that fast, the railroad had to twist and turn four and a half miles, making two and a half complete circles and at one point crossing over itself on a 90-foot-high trestle -- the Devil's Gate Bridge.
Today, steam-powered locomotives make the climb up the valley, sending huge plumes of smoke into the surrounding forest of pine trees. The train may be boarded in Georgetown or Silver Plume and offers panoramic views, particularly when crossing the 90-foot-high bridge.
There are wine trips every day that includes a wine-tasting in a historic car. There are also special Christmas trains in December. Along the way is an optional hour and 20-minute tour of the Lebanon Silver Mine.
Located just 30 minutes from downtown Denver, Tiny Town began in 1915 at the site of an old
stage coach stop when George Turner began erecting a village of one-sixth sized buildings for his young daughter. In 1920, the town was open to the public and in just five years it became one of Colorado's top five attractions. By 1939, a miniature railway was added, but a flood, a fire and changing economic conditions forced the attraction to close.
In 1988, volunteers began the resurrection of Tiny Town. Today, more than 100 colorful buildings are in place, all beautifully hand-crafted with wonderful details, many with full interiors. Some of the buildings are exact replicas of famous structures from Colorado's history.
The one-sixth size village is circled by the miniature Tiny Town Railway, a mile-long track with open-air cars pulled by an authentic steam locomotive similar to the narrow-gauge locomotives that once worked the mountain lines of Colorado. The train crosses a trestle over a small stream, and curls through tall pine trees in its lovely mountain location, affording excellent views of the village.