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The Rail World

The Winter Park Express rebooted its service last season to much fanfare. It's pretty easy to see why.

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Winter Park Express at the Moffat Tunnel
Of the 31 tunnels on the Winter Park Express line, Moffat Tunnel opened in 1927 as a commerce route between Denver and Salt Lake City.Photo credit: Keri Bascetta

The car sways lazily side to side as the sun-glinted concrete of downtown Denver recedes into the distance. The gentle back-and-forth, combined with the white-noise din of the wheels along the tracks, lulls me to near sleep. The train had pulled away from the station at exactly 7 a.m. on this crisp January morning, packed with skiers and their considerable stowage—skis, boot bags, poles, backpacks. Like most early ski mornings en route to the slopes, getting the family out the door was no picnic. My husband, Tim, and I were sweating as we handed over five sets of equipment to the kind porter loading the train’s underbelly.

Today, however, is very unlike most of our early ski mornings. Today we will not sit in traffic on Colorado’s I-70, the main highway artery that leads to many of the state’s ski resorts. Today we will not constantly refresh Google Maps, wishing away the red streak of death from our driving route. And best of all, today we will not leave before 2 p.m. to avoid traffic on the ride home. In fact, we will ski until the lifts stop spinning. More on that later.

The Winter Park Express revived its beloved ski train service last winter after a seven-year hiatus, and not surprisingly, it was very well-received. Trains were sold out most weekends, leading the resort, along with Amtrak, to increase service for this winter. Trains leave downtown Denver’s Union Station weekend mornings from Jan. 5 through March 25, pulling into the resort at 9 a.m. (though our train arrived closer to 8:30). Afternoon service departs Winter Park at 4:30 p.m. and hits Union Station by 6:30 p.m. New this season are three Friday departures, added to answer the community’s desire for a full weekend stay.

The Alphabet Chutes used to only be accessible by hiking, but now you can hop the Cirque Sled if you time it right.
The Alphabet Chutes used to only be accessible by hiking, but now you can hop the Cirque Sled if you time it right.Photo courtesy of Winter Park Resort/Dag Larson

“The popularity of last year’s train was a big reason [for the increased service],” says Steven Hurlbert, Winter Park’s Director of Public Relations. “This is indicative of the incremental growth people can expect of the service as we continue to establish it as a viable alternative to I-70.”

The trip itself is surprisingly fast. After a slow crawl to the city limits, we fly through the rolling foothills outside of Golden before climbing behind Boulder’s iconic Flatirons and deep into the Rockies. There are a bunch of tunnels along the route—31 in total—but about 90 minutes in we hit the big one: Moffat Tunnel, opened in 1927 as a commerce route between Denver and Salt Lake City. The 6.21-mile tunnel cost $23 million to build, an astounding number for that time.

When we pop out of the tunnel after nearly 10 minutes in the dark, people are milling about the car, grabbing boot bags and backpacks, pulling off shoes and getting ready to buckle into ski and snowboard boots. When we come to a full stop and disembark, I see why: The train has come to rest literally feet from the Gemini Express.

A view of Mary Jane from the Zephyr Express.
A view of Mary Jane from the Zephyr Express.Photo courtesy of Winter Park Resort/Chris Wellhausen

Even though I moved to Colorado in 2003 when the old ski train was still running, I had never taken it before. But I had heard the stories: the partying in the beverage car, food fights, inebriated brawls, even teenagers riding outside cars and climbing the roof. But when the last ski train pulled into Union Station on March 29, 2009, it was due to a combination of tussles over who owned which portions of the tracks between Denver and Winter Park, and the high cost of operating passenger trains in the United States. There would be attempts to restart service, including a Winter Park 75th Anniversary weekend run in March of 2015 that sold out in hours. Needless to say, there was abundant interest in seeing the ski train come back to life.

Still, last season’s revival exceeded all expectations, says Hurlbert. But with each train carrying about 550 passengers, one has to wonder, are the slopes of Winter Park more crowded? 

“We saw an uptick in visitation on the weekends,” says Hurlbert, “but since we’re so close to Denver it’s hard to pinpoint the train as the main contributor. The real spike we saw was in lodging, which we expect to continue with the added Fridays.”

High Craft Bar at Lunch Rock restaurant.
High Craft Bar at Lunch Rock restaurant.Photo courtesy of Winter Park Resort/Chris Wellhausen

After we’re all booted up, we slide into the queue at the Gemini lift, which has overflowed from the maze and backed up onto the slope. After waiting there for a few minutes without moving, we duck under the ropes and skate over to the Zephyr Express, which seems slightly less congested. It’s not. It would take us close to 30 minutes to get out of the base area that morning. So from this writer’s perspective, yes base-area congestion is worse. (We’d later meet up with a friend, a longtime Winter Park skier, who shared the secret to avoiding the base-area time suck: Take the old Arrow triple to the Eskimo Express. You’re welcome.)

A few hours later, standing above Parsenn Bowl at 12,060 feet, staring out at the expanse of mountain peaks, we’re feeling like the only people on the mountain. Winter Park’s seven territories have a way of effectively scattering people out amid the just-over-3,000 acres. Parsenn is the easternmost territory, mostly wide open with nice vert and patches of trees toward the bottom. If the weather’s clear, you can spy Longs Peak, at 14,259 the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park, from the summit. We’re hungry for trees, so we seek out Parry’s Peek and pop out under the Panoramic Express six-pack. Lines are long there, so heeding previous advice, it’s the slow Sunnyside triple for us.

Enjoying the bumps on Roundhouse, on the Mary Jane side.
Enjoying the bumps on Roundhouse, on the Mary Jane side.Photo courtesy of Winter Park Resort/Chris Wellhausen

We refuel at Lunch Rock, the handsome, newish restaurant at the top of Sunnyside, then, checking the time, decide to head down and call it day. It’s just before 2 p.m. The slopes seem to be clearing, and we ought to follow suit, we think.

Or not. After all, our steel chariot doesn’t depart until 4:30. The next couple hours—mostly spent having Mary Jane’s trees to ourselves and rediscovering the joy of Winter Park’s frontside sans crowds—remain one of my highlights of last season. Our final run, down Larry Sale, a usually congested feeder trail that leads to the Winter Park base, is a ghost town. We could get used to this train thing, for sure.