The Ski Train

All aboard the Winter Park Express, this skier experiences the reinvigoration of a Colorado ski train.
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All aboard the Winter Park Express, this skier experiences the reinvigoration of a Colorado ski train.
Winter Park Express: ski train from Denver to Winter Park Resort

The jingling alarm didn’t wake me, but the sound of a train whistle did. I sat up straight. It was Ski Train Day—no regular Saturday ski day—when the Winter Park Express would run from Denver’s Union Station to Winter Park Resort and back.

I leapt at the chance to take a train to ski because, well, really, who wouldn’t? More than 900 tickets were sold out in 14 hours for two ski train trips. A celebration of Winter Park’s 75th anniversary and a collaboration between a wide range of stakeholders, the Saturday ride marked the first time in six years that a so-called ski train dropped riders at the Winter Park base.   

From 1940 until 2009, the Rio Grande Ski Train whisked skiers from Denver to Winter Park regularly, with a two-year hiatus for World War II. Facing costly liability insurance, the service was discontinued despite frequently selling out.  

As I-70 and other mountain highways draw increasing ire from many of Colorado’s weekend warriors (not to mention tourists), demand for convenient transportation grows. “I’m sad as a native Coloradan that we’ve gotten so congested,” says Mariane Erickson, of Centennial, Colorado, who rode the train with her husband.

“We still are worker bees and need to ski on the weekend,” she says. But that’s when traffic is at its worst. Facing a standstill—“a parking lot in all directions”—one weekend, the couple turned around to head home. “The mountains are such an asset, and we’ve not been able to get there,” she says.

As a Denverite, I live near a new light rail line—a direct route to Union Station. I took it.

Before a summery sun dawned on the city, I schlepped my ski gear down to the light rail station, hopped the W Line, and emerged at Denver’s recently renovated transportation hub with other mountain-goers.

On the platform alongside a red, white, and blue engine, Colorado’s Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, Denver’s Mayor Michael Hancock, and other officials mingled and addressed the crowd. “I’m so happy to see skis at Union Station again,” says Gary DeFrange, Winter Park’s president.

“The only thing is you have two very jealous United States senators who aren’t on the train up to Winter Park,” says Sen. Gardner. He and all the officials present endorsed the day’s train and called for regular service in future seasons.

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Winter Park and Amtrak attendants loaded arriving passenger’s skis, boards, and poles into storage compartments on the first level of Winter Park Express’s two-level, coach class cars. With several “All Aboard!” calls, we settled in for the one hour, 45-minute ride.

A far cry from airplane coach class, the spacious cars contained wide seats, like leather recliners with an extendable leg rest, and enough room so that when you recline you don’t end up in someone’s lap. Plus, ample overhead storage stashed boots and bags, and electrical outlets along the wall worked well for phones and cameras.

Forget napping: the scenery, not to mention the train enthusiasts, along the tracks out of Union Station, through towns, along highways and dipping into 27 tunnels captivated me. At the East Portal trailhead near Rollins Pass, we entered the Moffat Tunnel, which runs under the Continental Divide. At 6.2 miles long, the tunnel is the third longest rail tunnel in the country; at 9,239 feet above sea level, it’s Amtraks’s highest track. 

It’s also a good indicator to put your boots on. From the East Portal to the West, the train takes about 10 minutes. Once you emerge into glaring sunlight from the dark, dark hole, you’re there. The Winter Park Express stopped at The Village base, roughly 200 meters from the lifts.

That’s, of course, where the real fun begins. We arrived at 9 a.m., just as icy snow began to soften up into sun-drenched spring conditions. I skied everywhere, getting lost during my first time in Winter Park’s expansive terrain. After a late lunch on Lunch Rock patio, I skied back to the base to catch the 4 p.m. train. Along the train platform a small crowd waited. The train was delayed, I heard, because the California Zephyr—an Amtrak train that runs from Chicago to California’s Bay Area—had to get through the tunnel before the Winter Park Express.

The biggest challenge to resuming regular seasonal trips, says Amtrak’s Joy Smith, is coordination between equipment availability and permission from Union Pacific, which owns the tracks. “They are not challenges we cannot overcome,” she says.

Another issue is costly liability insurance, which Winter Park picked up for this weekend. Talks with the resort, city, Amtrak, ColoRail (a passenger rail advocacy group), and other parties will resume in April, officials say, to finagle a feasible business plan. Also on the docket: whether adult beverages will be served.

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Working with Amtrak and ColoRail (a passenger rail advocacy group), Winter Park wants to bring a ski train back. “It’s the right thing to do,” says DeFrange, Winter Park’s president. Looking to Denver’s light rail endeavors, including a line from Denver International Airport to Union Station, he’s excited about the prospect for his ski area and visitors.

Imagine, for example, flying into Denver International Airport, taking the light rail to Union Station, staying the night downtown, enjoying a breakfast burrito from Snooze, and taking a two-hour train ride up to Winter Park. “That makes transportation part of the trip,” he says. “You don’t have to wait ‘til you’re on the lift for your vacation to start.”

Once the Express returned to the platform (only delayed enough for grabbing one additional après beer) and we loaded up, people’s post-ski (and/or post-bar) glow persisted. Like a good carpool, people conversed, scolded their kids, played dice games, re-hashed the runs they skied, reviewed their new boots, etc. The stress of driving was lifted, the seats were roomy, and more train lovers waved from alongside the tracks.

In those people I am free to gawk at, I see a bit of my father. He didn’t get to know me as a real, adult skier, because he died, but he did impart a fascination for trains. Not for those shows with tiny model trains he dragged me to, but for the efficiency and grandeur of trains. This train is something we would’ve had in common.

It’s something many have in common: skiers and high country enthusiasts looking for an efficient trip to the mountains; train people; Coloradans who learned how to ski at Winter Park; families riding the train together; environmentalists and others concerned with the effects of auto emissions.

“We think skiers and boarders are demanding 21st century transportation options,” says Phil Huffeldt, director of Snowriders International, a nonprofit organization of mountain recreationists who promote carpooling, rail, and other more sustainable methods of getting to the slopes as a method of protecting the environment.

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The organization’s motto, Less Drive More Ride, “Is about making mountain transportation better for everyone and not just skiers.”

Because high-speed rail and other options are proving to be expensive, as CDOT studies find, “Winter Park Express is a great solution in the short term, and we should encourage it as much as possible because the rail is already there. I think they should bring it back every weekend at least in the ski season,” Huffeldt says.

In about two hours, we pulled into Union Station and 70-degree weather. Early St. Patty’s Day revelers staggered about in shorts and tanks as I gathered my gear and headed to the light rail platform.

Another skier leaned his planks against the shelter, saying it was a good day. I agreed as I hopped aboard the W line towards Golden, hoping this wouldn’t be my last ski train trip.