Heber Valley Railroad

Quiet Giants Of The West

The giants of Heber Valley Railroad were sleeping the day I visited them. Standing in majesty, quietly waiting for another day when the crowds would throng to join them on the platform. Grand engines and breathtaking cars rested silently in the yard as soft snow settled around them. Mount Timpanogos stood like a sentinel on the west, smiling down gently on the railroad yard, a friend of many years. In the calm, I imagine the distant echoing of times past and future; excited crowds awaiting their turn to present their ticket to the conductor, the crack of gunfire and puffs of smoke fired by the Salt Water Bunch, and laughter ringing from passengers of all ages. History and a love of heritage run deep in this little valley.

Heber’s railroad of yesteryear, built by Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway almost 125 years ago, delivered products, supplies, and passengers to Provo and back. Today’s trains deliver a different product. Adventure. Excitement. Wonder. Exclusively a tourist railroad now the Heber Valley Railroad carries an assortment of passengers offering a range of experiences. Bouncing little ones bursting with anticipation can meet Princesses, Pirates, and even Santa Claus. Nostalgic history buffs can take a ride aboard historic cars. Adventure seekers can enjoy a combination of riding the rails and rafting the great Provo River. Passengers full of wanderlust can escape and soak up Utah’s pristine beauty and breathe our high mountain air. There’s a little something for everyone on the train Heber Valley calls her own.

Running Towards A Bright Future

Not long ago, Heber Valley Railroad’s future seemed blocked. Mayor Connie Tatton didn’t want the trains sitting or walking; she wanted them running. She approached the President of the Midway Boosters, Mark Nelson, in a conversation that went a little like this: “Mark, the Heber Valley Railroad is struggling. We’re deeply in debt, the recession has not been good to us, and we’re afraid we’re going to have to close. You have a background in business and marketing. I wonder if you would come to one of our board meetings and just listen and see what you think?”

A stroke of luck came their way when the Heber Valley Historic Railroad Board roped in a man with a vision. Within a year’s time, Mark Nelson transformed from a consultant for the board in 2011 to Executive Director. His vision included two main products, Scenic Daytime Trains and Special Events. Now with those products firmly in place, Heber Valley Railroad is up and running in all sorts of new directions.

As a man trained in marketing, Nelson began speaking to directors of successful tourist railroads around the country. He compiled a list of the top five elements successful tourist railroads possess: a steam engine, a dining car, open-air cars, high-quality equipment, and a first-class car. Of these elements, the Heber Valley Railroad had none. Faced with this daunting information, Nelson began with what the railroad could control right away — cracking customer service.

“I had no background in tourist railroads, no background in trains. I didn’t know anything about anything, but I knew a lot about customer service and marketing.” Reaching out to the two million people living within an hour’s drive to our valley seemed like a great place to start.

Pirates, And Flappers, And Santa, Oh My!

Heber Valley Railroad began offering Train “Specials” catering to a price-sensitive market whose ticket grants them a unique experience. Mark’s eyes twinkle as he talks about the BEST employees rooted out of Wasatch High School’s drama department to facilitate these experiences. Throughout the year, these young employees take on any number of exciting roles: Harry Potter characters, a Taylor Swift lookalike, Santa’s daughters, hippies, flappers, or World War II-era characters. These themed trains are all about what’s going on inside of the cars. Now, Heber Valley Railroad has other tourist railroads asking them how they’re getting so many people to ride. Mark’s answer? “The magic is the young people that we’ve integrated into all of this.”

“This makes lots of jobs for lots of kids in Wasatch County.” Mark gushes about these kids as if they were his own, “The passengers just love them because they have so much energy, so much positive! They’re happy! They’re excited to be there. We have the most talented kids. If you’re not a happy, smiling person, you can’t work here. If you’re grumpy, you can’t work here. We tell our employees that all the time. They’re wonderful, they’re amazing! We have fantastic customer service. We have the best employees!”

The goodwill created through the railroad within the valley is phenomenal! For the Christmas Season’s North Pole Express alone, the railroad hired 150 young people and bought 40,000 cookies from a local cookie company. The special boxed lunches provided with some ticket packages are purchased through local eatery, Dotties Kolache.

For customers looking for a historical experience or wanting to admire the gorgeous local scenery, Heber Valley Railroad also offers Scenic Daytime Train excursions.

Two Years, Plus Three Million Dollars, Equals One Amazing Collection

Ever working on completing the top five elements on his list, Nelson reports, “Over the past two years, we have purchased 20 passenger cars and three locomotives. Where before we had one of the worst collections of the tourist railroads, we now have one of the best collections of equipment! We’re really excited about the future!”

My boots crunched through the snow and tapped on the rails as Mark and I made our way to visit the cars resting in the snow-covered yard. My hand clasped the cold metal rail as I climbed the steps to the entrance of a 1925 car. This particular car had been parked for 40 years before being lovingly restored to its former glory. Stepping into the car was like stepping back in time. With its open floor plan, perimeter seating, and player piano with inlaid stain-glass, I could imagine a stunning bride and groom welcoming guests to their wedding reception. I can picture a social event or corporate recognition taking place in this welcoming space, maybe an intimate soirée or my family’s next gathering — Utah family-style. My eyes stayed wide open, as I daydreamed of dancing the night away, swaying in time to the music playing in my imagination. This quaint 1920’s car is not only for dreamers but for everyone here and now.

Next, I visited the stunning Coach Storage Building. Recently erected to look and feel as though it has jumped out of the 1930’s it will house as many as seventeen cars. The brick edifice touts a feel of age as does the car I see next. Before I step foot into this car or even know its name, I can feel it is unique. Shades are opened one by one to reveal an exquisite scene. My eyes jump from the ornate woodwork to the decorated ceiling and light fixtures. It takes my breath away. I can’t help but stroke the aged varnish on the rounded woodwork corners and marvel at the opulent feeling of this car. The very smell is old and rich. It’s an exceptional car — the 1913 Presidential Car — and it has not yet been restored. It has been meticulously preserved and is entirely self-contained with heating and air conditioning. Visually, it is in the same state as when President Truman toured Colorado and Utah. He gave speeches on the back deck of this three-bedroom car. Would you care to rent it? Remember the list of the top five items successful tourist railroads have? This is number five  — a first-class car steeped with history, and its home is right here in Heber Valley.

As I step away from the Presidential Car, the shop seemed to crackle with energy and urgency. The excitement is palpable for the complete restoration of the No. 618 steam engine expected later this year. From number five on the list to number one – a steam engine. Built 113 years ago to serve the Oregon Short Line Railroad Company, I couldn’t help but give it a quiet moment of reverence. The railroad’s pride and joy is currently dismantled, carefully tucked in the shop, patiently awaiting its conversion from being coal-fired to oil burning. I had the honor of standing beside its enormous newly built iron wheels and admiring the intricate pipework of the boiler. The nearing completion of the locomotive’s restoration will undoubtedly be worth celebrating.

I say my goodbyes to the grand old engine and wander back through the buzzing shop. Mechanics bustle around, each consumed in their work. Mike Manwiller, Heber Valley Railroad’s Chief Mechanical Officer, is at the heart of the entire setup. The railroad would “be nowhere; be nothing without his genius.” He is a fourth-generation ‘railroader.’ The man knows trains. His skills come from the very fiber of his genetic makeup. He is an irreplaceable gem in the pocket of Heber Valley Railroad. It takes his expertise and grit, along with six other technicians, to keep all these immense metal beasts running productively. The shop has already turned out several restoration projects, but there are more slated. Seventeen cars and a locomotive recently rumbled in from Canada. Even though these are practically ready to roll, and already have, these pieces need their electric systems converted from their original 1925 32-volt systems along with heating upgrades.

The List May Be Complete, But It’s Far From Being Finished

Just a few short years from when the list was originally compiled, Heber Valley Railroad can proudly check off each of the top 5 elements of a successful tourist railroad this year. The completion of historic steam locomotive No. 618 will be the last check. Expanding the depth of experiences is the current goal of Heber Valley Railroad. Filling all the newly acquired equipment with laughter and smiles and running them down the line is what’s happening now. With equipment that spans centuries, customer service, and a first-rate location, Heber Valley Railroad falls in line as one of the largest tourist railroads in the nation.

Crunching back through the snow, I turn into the crisp air and admire this landmark of Heber. The station stands as a stately reminder of how far we have come. This is a saga of our western roots and a memoir of our ancestors. Each snowflake that falls is like a memory of a passenger throughout time. The past, present, and future all compiling, layer upon layer, to wrap the yard in joy – I foresee the railroad being around for my children and their children. I pray it will forever stand the test of time. May it always be an icon of our Heber Valley.

Heber Valley Railroad’s Gunslingers

Guns blaze like fireworks on the 4th of July every Monday and Friday evening during the regular Heber Valley Railroad operating season. The “Salt Water Bunch” fire over 100 rounds of self-made blanks in a gunfight skit. Living Historian gunfighter, Ryan Brown chuckles, “Every kid wants to grow up and be a cowboy running around yelling and shooting guns in the air.” There’s certainly a bit of that, but the experience is richer if you look closely. These men have a deep respect, love, and passion, for the unique period of time in our Western heritage they represent.

Leo Wood speaks from the heart about donning his late 1800’s hat, boots, and Coach Gun; the authentic regalia to go “shed the day.” For a short time he’s able to tune the world out and be “just right there, in the moment.” As a child Leo would watch from his grandparents’ home in Charleston. “I always liked to see the train go past, all the people having fun in the open gondolas, and wave at them. It was one of my highlights.” Now he is a part of the camaraderie Heber Valley Railroad offers their employees.

The rails built the West, but gunpowder and lead tamed it.

Did You Know?

Living Historian gunfighters are trained in the art of aiming safely during reenactments. Distance and direction are a big deal. Even though no bullet is fired, they take safety seriously.

If there’s no bullet in the cartridges and shells, what is? Cream of Wheat or floral foam is carefully loaded with black powder. The boys reload together, as another built-in safety precaution.

Gunfighters are using modern remakes of guns used in the 1870-1880 time period.  A replica black powder Remington 1858 revolver, Colt Army Model 1860, Colt Navy Model 1861 and Model 99 1887 Coach are small samplings of the fire power used on site.

It all started with a Wild West Days themed Special Train. The gig stuck and today it’s become a mainstay of the railroad.

The gunfight is considered “a good ‘un” if when the firing is done they can’t see each other through the gun smoke.

On special occasions they fire a “candy cannon” packed with salt water taffy. “It’s like a piñata going off!”

Many of Heber Valley Railroad gunfighters come from reenacting backgrounds. Part of the fun is doing the research for their attire. They aim for the 1880-1890 sort of look.

Notice the little things like the cuffs, spurs, holsters, the style of hat, even the silk fabric of their wild rags. It’s this level of detail that makes history come to life.

What stands 11,749’ high, has a heart, a saddle, an emerald, a shack, and some goats?

If you’ve been in Heber for even a short time, you’ll know the valley’s pride lies in the great mountain that sprawls to the west where the sun settles each night. Mount Timpanogos creates a portion of the eastern wall of the Wasatch Front. Often folks claim we, here in Heber, reside on the backside of the great Timpanogos. We’d like to beg their pardon. They happen to be discombobulated, not realizing that we have the front seat to Timp’s right side. Of all the peaks in the Wasatch Mountain Range, the majestic summit is second in height only to Mt. Nebo. Each breathtaking foot is covered in alpine flora, fauna, and crag, while crystal clean water from white peaks, burbles over as falls, and meanders to rivers and streams.

Through The Year

Spring is when the falls of Timp and their gushing runoff are at their prime. Mount Timpanogos Trailhead in Aspen Grove, accessed on State Route 92, is the entry point to three sets of breathtaking waterfall hikes. Timpanogos Falls is made up of an upper and lower set of falls. Visiting both is approximately a 2.5-mile round trip hike. Stewart Falls and Scout Falls are also great options for late spring hikes.

Summer is the best time to beat the heat and get to the heart of the mountain. Timpanogos Cave National Monument leads tours deep into the geologic Timpanogos Cave System. In the depths of the cavern is a large stalactite known as the “Great Heart” of Timpanogos. Legends tell of two hearts joined at death to become one that now lies deep in the mountain.

Summer is also a great time for ambitious hikers and trail runners to reach the peak. But don’t forget your jacket — even in the summer months, the windy summit stays nice and cool. The trek begins at either Aspen Grove or Timpooneke trail. It careens through Mount Timpanogos Wilderness Area, where you may choose to take it slower and camp overnight, remembering there are no fires permitted. Another fun choice is to depart early and squeeze the full excursion into one day. These hikes are where you’ll discover the emerald of Timp — Emerald Lake. Just as a horse’s saddle is sweeping in shape, Mount Timp’s saddle is a sweeping field of boulders where the trail to the peak converges with the ridgeline. Keep your eyes open for the mountain goats, moose, and other wildlife among the profusion of wildflower colors. Marking the summit is an old surveyor shack.

Fall brings a chill to the air, and our trees take center stage. As the bright blooms fade, the deep hues of autumn steal the show. Be sure to take a drive. Throw in a picnic and your camera to make a day of the fully-paved, 20 mile Alpine Scenic Loop. Head out before October passes and our snow closes portions of the loop for the winter.

Winter may offer the best views of Mount Timpanogos from a distance. Adventure junkies sometimes choose to summit Timp in the winter with an ice ax and crampons. If you enjoy snowmobiling or snow biking, Wasatch State Park grooms 72 miles of trail throughout the winter months. They are also home to the 2002 Olympic Site contracted by the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation. This venue allows for Nordic skiing, a tubing hill, and snowshoeing at the base of Timp. Those of you who don’t feel like competing with yetis or Sherpas may choose other ways to enjoy winters with Timpanogos. Relax while you wind leisurely around the base aboard a railcar of the Heber Valley Railroad. Are you an artist? Find a perch in town to paint to your heart’s delight. Or, simply take it easy and get cozy with a warm drink while enjoying the view from your favorite place.

Whatever the season Mount Timpanogos with its high summit, heart, saddle, emerald, shack, and goats, is definitely worth visiting — even if it’s only from your front porch as you watch the sun settle behind Timps peaks.


Timpanogos Falls
1.9 miles |  moderate  |  dogs allowed  |  kid approved

Stewart Falls
3.4 miles |  moderate  |  dogs allowed  |  kid approved

Scout Falls
4.2 miles |  moderate  |  leashed dogs allowed

Aspen Grove Timp Summit
15.7 miles  |  difficult  |  dogs and horses allowed

Timpooneke Timp Summit
12.8 miles  |  difficult  |  dogs allowed  |  $6 fee, pay at yourpassnow.com

For kids:

The Junior Ranger Program
Available at Timpanogos Cave National Monument. Kids explore
the culture and natural history. There is an event every Saturday
at 10:00 am throughout the open season, May-early September.
Go to nps.gov/tica/learn/kidsyouth for more information.

Legend Of Timpanogos:

As with any good story, there are many variations to the Legend of Timpanogos. In fact, at least 12 recorded versions exist today. The legend is centered on the outline of a woman that can be seen in the peaks of the mountain, and the large stalactite called the “Great Heart” found inside the caves.

The legend is “Romeo and Juliet”-esque, featuring the Indian warrior Red Eagle and the beautiful Indian princess Utahna. While their exact roles and circumstances vary from version to version, the story goes that Utahna was chosen as a sacrifice to the gods to end the great drought. When she was about to jump off the cliffs, Red Eagle begged her not to end her life. Thinking Red Eagle was the great God of Timpanogos, Utahna went to the caves with him, and they fell in love.

One day, Red Eagle was injured by a wild animal — which proved he was human after all — so Utahna left to finish her sacrifice to the gods. After she jumped, Red Eagle found her and took her back to the caves, where it is believed their two hearts became one, forming the stalactite that is now called the Great Heart of Timpanogos. People say you can still see the outline of Utahna lying on top of the mountain.

(Courtesy of nationalparks.org)

For more information on Mount Timpanogos and Wasatch State Park visit https://stateparks.utah.gov/parks/wasatch-mountain