GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. -- Taking a passenger train through the mountains is nothing like driving or being a passenger in a car or a bus. It's not work. Under the right circumstances, it's akin to walking into a restaurant or a lounge and spending a few hours inside. It's quiet. You have lunch and watch the live movie that happens outside your window or the observation car – the Rocky Mountain scenery and Colorado River. When it's time to go, you exit to a different world.
That was my recent trip to Western Colorado. After being transported from the Denver Airport to the Winter Park area (well known for its skiing of course), we played two days of high altitude golf, then headed for the train station in nearby Granby. Six hours later and almost to Utah, we arrived in Grand Junction and got a totally different experience. It was a taste of two Colorados, joined seamlessly by Amtrak.
High octane golf
Pole Creek Golf Club
There are two adjustments you have to make when playing golf at altitude. First is club selection. I found that at 8,000 and 9,000 feet, it could be a club and half or more with my irons, but not as much with my driver. That's probably because I don't hit the driver super high to take advantage of it. In retrospect, a higher lofted driver probably isn't a bad idea when playing in the mountains.
The second adjustment is not letting the scenery distract you too much. From the elevated tees to the backdrop of the Continental Divide, it seems like all hoes are postcards in the Winter Park area of Colorado. It's easy to forget about navigating the course with your golf when you're taking so many pictures. (In truth, however, this what makes this type of golf so much fun.)
Our first four golf courses certainly fit the bill for both of these "problems."
First up was Grand Elk Golf Club (ranked no. 2 among public courses in the state, according to Golf Advisor ratings in 2016). The course, a par 71 that can be stretched to nearly 7,200 yards, is anything but easy. Designed by Craig Stadler and Tripp Davis, it sits at almost 8,000 feet. It's routed around protected wetlands with plenty of Mountain views. The back nine, which has a couple blind shots off the tee, is more difficult than the front nine.
Next up (on the same day) was Grand Lake Golf Course, a 1954 Dick Phelps design. Adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand Lake, the course has plenty of native elk, deer, fox and red-tail hawk that roam this tight, tree-lined course. And there's also the snow-capped peaks of the Continental Divide, of course.
The second day of golf was also a 36-hole day. Fortunately, with temperatures topping out in the 70s, it wasn't too much of a physical strain.
It started with Granby (Colo.) Ranch Golf Course. The course is tucked between the sparkling waters of the Fraser River and the mountains. The back nine is particularly scenic with several holes that incorporate lakes, wetlands, elevated tees, and large, deep bunkers.
Granby Ranch was nice appetizer for one of the best courses in Colorado, Pole Creek, the highest ranked public course in Colorado by more than one poll, including the Golf Advisor rankings.
Pole Creek Golf Club is one of the few public 27-hole courses in Colorado. There are native wildflowers, drastic elevation changes, vast bentgrass greens and two ponds and five lakes on this wonderful 1993 Denis Griffiths design. We played the Ridge nine and the Ranch nine, both of which were beautiful and challenging at around 3,600 yards each.
Meanwhile, we also took advantage of a beautiful home rental in Winter Park for four (came out to around $100 a night per player), and some unique dining opportunities. One was the Hernando's Pizza Pub in Winter Park, Colo., where thousands of customers have signed and/or written on dollar bills that are posted throughout the restaurant. The pizza was top-tier, too. Another was the historic Grand Lake Lodge, known for its meatloaf and views of Grand Lake.
It would be our last night in the cool mountain temperatures. After the train ride to Grand Junction, the terrain would change to high desert, though certainly no less dramatic.
Hear the train acomin'
Day 3 started with a trip to the small train station in Granby. There we waited for the California Zephyr, only 30 minutes late (which is pretty good when it comes to U.S. trains), for the middle part of this adventure.
The train ran along the Colorado River through Byers Canyon, where we saw plenty of kayakers and rafters in the rapids. We spent a couple hours in the dining car and strolled to the observation car. There might have even been a short nap or two, leaving us plenty refreshed upon our arrival in Grand Junction, a town of around 60,000 or so situated right next to the Colorado National Monument, which would come into play a couple of times over the next couple of days.
After arriving in Grand Junction, we had dinner at the Bin 707 Food Bar restaurant in the center of town. Featuring seasonal Colorado farm-to-table fare, there's nothing on the menu not to like. Everything from the cheese and charcuterie appetizers and soups to the main courses of Colorado lamb or Maple Leaf Farms duck breast to the dessert of beet ice cream (yep, it's really good), everything is outstanding here and maybe unexpected in this part of the old West.
As for the golf, there aren't a lot of public offerings, but what's offered is certainly memorable.
We began by tackling the incredibly scenic The Golf Club at Redlands Mesa, another Jim Engh design that's dramatic around every turn. This was the course with most elevated tees and striking features, framed by the Colorado National Monument, but certainly not walkable. Still, it's a course any golfer venturing in this part of the state should experience. The morning round was followed by a wine tasting at the Two Rivers Winery. The Grand Junction area, as it turns out, ins an emerging wine destination, especially for those in Colorado.
Our final course was one of the nicest municipals you'll play in the Keystone State. Tiara Rado Golf Course is only 6,100 yards or so, but it's anything but easy. A few quirky holes will get your attention as far as strategy is concerned, and there are plenty of great views of Colorado National Monument here, too.
Dinner would be at the Rockslide Restaurant & Brewery in downtown Grand Junction. Another outstanding venue with superb appetizers, burgers and main courses.The brewery is, of course, known for its microbrews, which range from IPAs to lagers to unique stouts.
Finally, on getaway day, we spent the morning at the aforementioned Colorado National Monument. Don't let the name fool you; it's really a national park (without the designation). This is one of the grand landscapes of the American West with towering monoliths and massive canyons. There's also plenty of wildlife, include bighorn sheep and soaring eagles.