I'll bet Ralph Waldo Emerson was on a train when he wrote: "Life is a journey, not a destination."

Riding the rails lulls passengers back to an era when travel time was spent taking in new landscapes. When climbing aboard the California Zephyr (amtrak.com/california-zephyr-train) in Denver for the 185-mile trip to Glenwood Springs, be sure to get a window seat (I recommend the right side), because riders are guaranteed to see aspects of Colorado they have never seen before.

The first of the 29 tunnels leading up to the 9,239-foot Continental Divide is a gateway back in time. Acres of forest, water and canyon wall remain as untouched as they were when the Zephyr made its inaugural run in 1949.

Passengers spot pronghorns grazing in remote meadows, slide behind massive, red, Flatiron-like rock formations and watch the roiling water churn down a section of Gore Canyon, accessible only by train or kayak. After leaving the plains behind, signs of man are sparse until you exit the 6.2-mile long Moffat Tunnel to arrive in the ski resort of Winter Park.

The train follows the Colorado River for the remainder of the six-hour trip as it transforms from the narrow, whitewater rafter paradise to the wider version that carved out the red cliffs of Glenwood Canyon.


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My family started our journey into the past by staying at Denver's Oxford Hotel (theoxfordhotel.com) the night before catching the Zephyr. Built to provide a first-class resting place for the growing number of train travelers in 1891, it is still lavishly adorned from the antiques in the hallways to the tassels on the room keys (and yes, they are actual keys).

Across the street at the Oxford's new sister hotel, the Crawford Hotel (thecrawfordhotel.com) at Union Station, guests won't even need keys. The tech-savvy newcomer is creating a system allowing guests to use iPhones to access sleek, modern rooms that pay homage to the 133-year-old station's history.

Rooms on the second floor, which was created to house hotel guests, are compact and patterned after Pullman cars. Guests in suites on the third floor will walk out of their room to a balcony that overlooks the bustling Great Hall. Those on the third floor will stay in lofts with original exposed beams.

Wherever you spend the night before, be sure to check how close the Zephyr will be to its 8:05 a.m. departure time. The train shares tracks with freight trains on its route from Chicago to San Francisco, and a lot can happen along the way. For those who have traveled by train in Europe, it's a lot less like Germany (where trains arrive on schedule to the second) than Italy (where trains arrive fashionably late, if at all).

The essence of train travel has changed little through the years. There's still the thrill of the whistle blowing and clambering on to the call of "All aboard!" Families play cards or chat over dinner in the dining car. Children revel in the independence of exploring car-to-car.

We continued our historic weekend in Glenwood by staying at the Hotel Colorado (hotelcolorado.com). Built in 1893, the massive lobby of the hotel played host to the Titanic crowd of the day. The Teddy bear was born at the hotel when maids stitched together scraps of cloth into a bear to cheer up President Theodore Roosevelt after a bad day of hunting.

There's plenty to do in Glenwood today that they were doing in the resort town a century ago: soak in the hot springs, hike or horseback ride.

Despite the fun we had in Glenwood, my daughters were eager to get back on the train. And on this journey when they asked, "When are going to get there?", they hoped the answer was "Not for a while" — and so did I.

Chryss Cada is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor of journalism at Colorado State University. Visit her at chryss.com.