It's the rare ski day that begins with sunrise over an urban skyline. Yet that's exactly what my family and I experienced one recent weekend as we boarded the Amtrak Winter Park Express at Denver's Union Station and settled in for a 90-minute journey. After we left the station and rolled through the train yard, the cityscape through the window gave way to soccer fields and suburban homes, then scrub oak and undulating fields rising to meet the state's famous rocky foothills. A dusting of snow highlighted impressive red rock formations, and my two young sons scanned the landscape for mountain lions. Alas, nothing.
And then we were chugging up a 2 percent grade as we climbed to about 9,000 feet. As the train snaked up the mountainside, passing through tunnels - 28 in total - and winging through the landscape of hidden canyons and cliffs, the sensation of going back in time was strong. By the time we entered Moffat Tunnel, the 6.2-mile, 10-minute passageway underneath the storied Continental Divide, we had almost forgotten the trip's purpose. But with a shrill whistle and the screech of brakes, the train reminded us. We plunged from the darkness and rolled to a stop. Beyond the platform were the slopes of Winter Park Resort.
Unlike skiing in Europe, skiing in North America practically mandates driving to the mountains, often to the chagrin of urban travelers unsettled by the thought of navigating icy mountain passes in a rental car. Despite a prevalence of railways throughout the American West, only one route - the Winter Park Express - delivers passengers directly to a ski resort, says Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari. Most of the country's modern rail routes were designated by the U.S. Transportation Department in 1970 and 1979, and the federal government did not prioritize providing rail passenger service to ski resorts. And though some Amtrak routes travel through gateway mountain towns including Truckee, Calif., and Whitefish, Mont., the mountains are still a 30-plus minute drive from in-town train stations.
Winter Park is unique because of its proximity to the train tracks, which were built long before the resort's chairlifts went in. The original Winter Park ski train, which followed Amtrak's California Zephyr route from Chicago to San Francisco, ran from 1940 until 2009, when its billionaire investor and then-owner Philip Anschutz halted service because of increased insurance costs, decreased profits and the complex logistics of securing passenger service on a significant freight rail route, says resort spokesman Steve Hurlbert.
In 2015, the resort launched an effort to bring the line back. Two trial runs that spring sold out in hours. Hurlbert says it took about 18 months of negotiation between Union Pacific, which owns the tracks, Amtrak, and the resort to finalize the Winter Park Express agreement, which included the construction of a $3.5 million heated ADA-compatible passenger platform at the resort. Given that the National Sports Center for the Disabled is located at Winter Park, accommodating a wide range of visitors was a priority, says Amtrak's Magliari.
In January, the 500-plus passenger train began weekend runs, with round-trip travel on Saturdays and Sundays through March. (Next season's schedule is still being finalized; officials hope to provide train service starting in late December to coincide with the winter holiday season.) Curious and hoping to avoid the nightmare that Interstate 70 can be - the main highway from the Denver metro area to the Rocky Mountains is regularly clogged with ski traffic on the weekends - I snagged four seats on the train for a weekend trip as soon as reservations opened last fall.
I wasn't the only one. Weekends quickly sold out and the tickets ($39 each way) are in high demand for the rest of the season. Convenience is part of the appeal. Now, travelers arriving at Denver International Airport can take a new commuter rain line to downtown Denver's renovated Union Station, spend the night and catch the 7 a.m. Saturday train to Winter Park. With round trips every Saturday and Sunday from January through the end of March, skiing in the state has never been easier.
Because we live in Boulder, my family and I skipped the airport. Still, determined to make this a car-free weekend, we hopped onto a Denver-bound bus Friday after school, arriving 40 minutes later at Union Station, an early-20th-century terminal that reopened in 2014 after extensive renovations. In addition to a lively mix of shops and restaurants, it houses the Crawford Hotel. A boutique luxury hotel whose rooms circle the station, the Crawford is modern, elegant and urban.
I loved our loft room's towering ceilings and space-saving flourishes, like the carved sliding door to the bathroom. My kids were more impressed by the gifts presented to them upon check-in; to say their new stuffed animals enjoyed our weekend adventure would be an understatement.
We made the next day's 7 a.m. departure without a hitch, fortified by breakfast burritos, croissants and yogurt from Pigtrain Coffee. We arrived at Winter Park and made our way to Zephyr Mountain Lodge, one of the few ski-in, ski-out properties at Winter Park. Despite our early arrival, our condo was ready, so we checked in, changed into our ski gear, grabbed rentals from the friendly folks at the Mountain Adventure Center, and jumped aboard the Zephyr Express chairlift.
We were in our element. We ski Winter Park frequently, and my sons, who are 6 and 4, have a favorite routine: Zephyr Express to Dilly Dally Alley, a romping trail through the trees with plenty of bumps to test the balance of little rippers. After several laps, we persuaded them to venture into unfamiliar areas. At 3,081 acres, with varied terrain, Winter Park is big enough to cater to everyone from newbies to mogul aficionados, and from park and pipe fiends to those who love off-piste skiing. It's a friendly place with a brown-bag lunch feel - Vail, this is not - but with the creation of a more cohesive village with shops and restaurants, it's also growing up. With a 10-year plan to add a gondola and more on-mountain lodging, Winter Park is making a bid to become a destination resort.
The Winter Park Express certainly could help. After two days of skiing, we climbed aboard Sunday afternoon and settled in. I felt more than a little smug when the train manager announced over the loudspeaker that traffic on I-70 was at a standstill for a 10-mile section between Winter Park and the Front Range. Instead of sitting in a traffic jam, the boys and I passed the time reading "Winnie-the-Pooh."
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IF YOU GO
Where to stay
The Crawford Hotel, Denver
1701 Wynkoop St., Denver
Located in Denver's Union Station, this is a vibrant luxury hotel situated among award-winning restaurants and shops. Denver Ski Train Packages, which include overnight accommodations for two, ski storage, breakfast for two to-go and apres ski at the Terminal Bar, start at $279.
Zephyr Mountain Lodge, Winter Park
201 Zephyr Way, Winter Park
Ski-in, ski-out condos located about 50 yards from the Zephyr Express chairlift, these comfortable units have outdoor hot tubs, private ski lockers with every condo and a workout room. Options range from one to three bedroom units. Prices start at $250 per night for a one-bedroom unit.
Where to eat
The Lodge at Sunspot
160 Sunspot Way (On-mountain dining at Winter Park Resort)
Choose from hearty comfort food, such as the buffalo chili or a lighter, herb-encrusted roasted lamb salad, and marvel at the floor-to-ceiling views in this sit-down, on-mountain restaurant. Entrees start at $12.
135 Parry Peak Way, No. 33, Winter Park Village
Zesty and fresh Mexican food meets more than 100 tequila varieties. What follows are a range of classic dishes (burritos and tacos) and specialty plates like Margarita Mariscos, lime margarita-marinated tilapia, house made pineapple salsa, guacamole, grilled shrimp, black beans and rice. Entrees start at $14.
Tea and Coffee Market
33 Parsenn Rd., Winter Park Village
A favorite breakfast spot of locals, with homemade pastries, breakfast sandwiches, oatmeal, drip coffee and espresso drinks. Grab a sandwich to go for lunch. Prices start at $3.75.
What to do
Winter Park Resort
85 Parsenn Rd., Winter Park Village
Opened in 1939, Winter Park is one of Colorado's oldest ski resorts. Featuring 3,081 acres and averaging 324 inches of snowfall a year, the resort is also home to a popular snowsports school, the National Sports Center for the Disabled, and a range of non-skiing activities. Lift tickets start at $119; multi-day discounts are available on the resort's website.