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Sweet vistas and music: What's not to like about the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad's concert train in Colorado?

Sweet vistas and music: What's not to like about the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad's concert train in Colorado?
Mardi Gras and the concert train ready to depart Alamosa, Colo., for Fir. (Karl Zimmerman)

"The train, the mountain views, the music," Ed Ellis said. "What's not to like?"

My wife, Laurel, and I agreed with the railroad executive.

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We were comfortably ensconced in the beautifully restored Mardi Gras lounge car on the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, concert-bound from Alamosa to a mountain-girded amphitheater. The car had been rebuilt in 1947 for use on the City of New Orleans, perhaps the most musically famous train ever.

Colorado is a hotbed of terrific train excursions such as the Georgetown Loop, the Royal Gorge Route, the Durango & Silverton and the Cumbres & Toltec. We'd done all these and were eager to add the Rio Grande to the list, for the ride and the chance to hear music in a beautiful setting.

View from the concert site at Fir.
View from the concert site at Fir. (Karl Zimmerman)

It was early last August, and with Ellis and his family, we were already enjoying the first two pleasures of his trilogy and anticipating the third. He is president of Iowa Pacific Holdings, which owns and operates nine railroads; most of them, like the one on which we were riding, offer scenic passenger excursions.

We were on the Mountain Rails Live concert train, operated every Saturday and Sunday from mid-June to mid-September.

Also riding with us were the day's performers, the Burrito Brothers and singer-songwriter Bill Staines, who would open for them, along with Fred Hargrove, the emcee.

The company, luxury and nostalgia of the Mardi Gras had enticed us to book Diamond Class, at $169 apiece expensive but worth it. The entertainers always ride Diamond Class and traditionally jam on the return leg.

From Alamosa, the railroad's home base, the trip to the Fir Summit Amphitheater, elevation 9,242, feet, was a distance of 45 miles and would take just over two hours.  An early harbinger of the climb came when we passed a bald peak at Blanca. We were soon in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and before long in the teeth of a steep climb: 2.5%, challenging for a train. As the finale, the train swung around a dramatic horseshoe curve, then eased to a stop at a modest station amid a lovely, green expanse.

Below was the rustic amphitheater: benches made of large, split logs and a small covered stage. There were folding canvas chairs under canopies that provided shade, welcome as the sun was hot even at this elevation. The chairs and canopies were a Diamond Class perk.

The Burrito Brothers perform at Fir.
The Burrito Brothers perform at Fir. (Karl Zimmerman)

Passengers in the other classes — standard, open standard and first — were welcome to bring their own chairs, and many did. Chairs can also be rented at the site.

"When we bought this line from Rail America in 2006, and I saw this meadow," Ellis said, "I asked, 'Do we own all the way to that fence?' The answer was yes, and an idea was born." That idea was Mountain Rails Live. "You could say it evolved from there," Ellis said, with the first concert in 2007, featuring Michael Martin Murphey, on a simple stage. "The next year, we built a bigger stage. Then we laid a brick apron and built restrooms. We ended up with what you see now."

Past performers include Nanci Griffith, Ricky Skaggs and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. "We've had pretty close to 300 concerts, and [my family] has been to about 250 of them," Ellis said.

Besides the weekend concert trains, in season, Rio Grande Scenic runs excursions from Alamosa to the town of La Veta, 17 miles beyond the amphitheater.

While the musicians got organized, our lunch, included in the cost of the ticket, was served under the canopy. As Diamond Class passengers, we could have our meal on the train or at Fir, and we chose the latter. Laurel's Asian quinoa salad was delicious, as was my pulled pork. We both chose Scenic Rail Pale Ale; its handsome label features the steam locomotive that once ran on the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad.

Staines and his acoustic guitar opened the show, singing his compositions and the songs of others.  His "Child of Mine" has a railroad connection. Decades ago, the Burlington Northern (today part of BNSF Railway) asked Staines to write a song on the importance of family for a video series.

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Bill Staines and Peggy Ellis aboard Mardi Gras on the return from Fir.
Bill Staines and Peggy Ellis aboard Mardi Gras on the return from Fir. (Karl Zimmerman)

Next onstage were the Burrito Brothers, a group that carries on the country-rock tradition of the famous Flying Burrito Brothers, an important early proponent of the genre from the late 1960s. Fronting the band are Fred and Chris James, who keep alive the style and energy of the original group.

The crowd — substantial but not SRO — was diverse; all had come by train as we had. The concert ran a bit more than two hours. And though the amplification system was powered by wind and solar, it sounded very professional, making listening a pleasure.

It takes nothing away from the concert to say that the highlight of the day was the ride back to Alamosa. Staines, Ellis, Hargrove and  Fred James uncased their guitars, and the sing-along began. Titles were tossed out and played. Selections leaned Western and railroad, with Ellis stepping up for Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans," made famous by Arlo Guthrie.

We'd received goody bags when we'd picked up our tickets in Alamosa. In them were pins that would identify us as Diamond Class passengers as well as CDs with a compilation of songs by Mountain Rails Live performers.

Of course, the CD contains "City of New Orleans," with an extra verse sung by the Ellis family: "Nowadays on the City of New Orleans, you'll find yourself traveling different tracks." As Ed Ellis had sung aboard Mardi Gras, we'd be "rolling across Colorado plains" on a "train of memories."

"The world will wait," his verse ended, "while we're riding on this train."

A map of Colorado.
A map of Colorado. (Los Angeles Times)

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO.

From LAX: United offers nonstop service to Colorado Springs, and United, Delta and American offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $406, including fees and taxes. Alamosa, Colo., is about 165 miles from Colorado Springs.

Rio Grande Scenic Railroad,  (877) 726-7245, www.coloradotrain.com. Tickets for Mountain Rails Live range from $29 to $169 depending on performer and class of service. Among the performers this summer are Exile, Shenandoah and Michael Martin Murphey.

Alamosa is an attractive small Colorado city on the Rio Grande with numerous dining and lodging options.

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