All aboard the new Denver ski train

Thanks to the new Winter Park Express you can now ski or board in one of Colorado’s snowiest resorts without having to hire a car. Sam Haddad and her young son ride the inaugural train

All aboard the new Denver ski train
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Going loco … the Winter Park Express runs from Denver straight to the ski area.
Photograph: Marc Glucksman/Amtrak

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This article titled “All aboard the new Denver ski train” was written by Sam Haddad, for The Guardian on Saturday 4th February 2017 12.30 UTC

It’s 6.30am and I’m in downtown Denver dressed in full snowboard kit and my board under my arm. Queuing for coffee in the Great Hall of Union Station, I watch other skiers and snowboarders scurry past. It’s an incongruous sight given the grandeur of the setting. The terminal building was recently restored to its former beaux arts-style glory, with a giant art deco red neon sign, soaring ceilings, large arched windows, dark wooden benches and a terrazzo floor. There’s even an antique shuffleboard set up.

On the platform, we pass our boards and skis to the capped and suited guards, who are dressed like the Tom Hanks character in the Polar Express, before heading to the top deck of the inaugural Winter Park Express train, which started running last month. It has a snowplough at the front, but today we won’t need it. The sky is beautifully clear and as we set off on the 70-mile journey, the sun is rising over the city and painting the high rise-buildings a glowing salmon-pink.

Union Station, Denver.
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Union Station, Denver. Photograph: Marc Glucksman/Amtrak
On board the sold out-train the sense of excitement is palpable. There was a ski train from Denver to Winter Park from 1940 (run by a private operator – the resort was originally opened due to its proximity to the railroad) until 2009. Since then, skiers and snowboarders have had to take the notoriously gridlocked Interstate 70 out of the city, which can become treacherous and sometimes closes in heavy snow.

Shailen Bhatt, from the Colorado Department of Transportation, which helped fund the new train says: “It will take 500 vehicles off the I-70. It could be a harbinger for the future where you get to the mountains by train or bus or even hyperloop.” In a country where cars have been so dominant for so long (a 46-year-old woman on board tells me this is the first time she’s ever ridden on a train) that’s quite a claim.

Ski Train, Denver, Colorado
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A train arrives at Winter Park. Photograph: C Stemen

Once we’ve gone through Denver’s suburbs, with their pretty snow-covered one-storey houses, we speed out towards the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, watching them grow bigger on the horizon. The seats are comfy and we have plenty of space, which apparently wasn’t the case on the old ski train. “It was like travelling in 1956,” a Denver resident tells me. There is also disabled passenger access, which was especially important as Winter Park is the home of the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD).

I am with my four-year-old son, who spends the journey glued to the view from the big windows. He’s heard from another passenger there are bears in these parts and is keen to spy one despite my suggestion they might be hibernating right now. Deer and elk are more realistic sightings at this time of year.

As we begin to climb the mountain section, we hit the first of 29 tunnels, many of which were drilled by hand in the early 20th century. The last, Moffat Tunnel, is 6.2 miles long and cuts through the Continental Divide.

Sam’s son gauges the piste.
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Sam’s son gauges the piste. Photograph: Sam Haddad
When we pop out we’re at the base of Winter Park’s ski slopes. It’s just after 9am and the lifts are already running. We rent my son some skis, queue for lift passes (it saves time and money to order these in advance), then head up the mountain.

Winter Park is 75 years old, one of the longest-running ski resorts in Colorado. It’s actually owned by the city of Denver, though run by the resort company Intrawest. It has a high average annual snowfall of over nine metres, especially compared to Europe. Today the snow is fresh, light and dry, in that uniquely Coloradan way, and the sky is blue.

A snowboarder tries a trick.
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A snowboarder tries a trick. Photograph: Tripp Fay
The mountain is split into seven sections including the extreme double-black diamond terrain of the Cirque Territory, which can only be accessed by snow cat or hiking. As I am with my son, I spend the first day enjoying the groomed green tree-lined runs on the front Winter Park side of the mountain. The pistes are long and cruisey and great for beginners like him. They are also lined with trees, which made it perfect for mini-adventures and forays into the forest along the way. On the lower slopes we hear the horns of the freight trains passing by. We like the empty pistes of Vasquez Ridge too, and its down to earth Sundance Chili Hut for lunch.

Later in the week he goes into ski school and I have some amazing runs through the towering pine forests of Mary Jane, which will long live in the memory. There are also some great mogul runs for skiers in that section and in Lunch Rock the tastiest lunch spot on the mountain. The view and run down from the highest lift in the resort at Parsenn Bowl is breathtaking.

Sam with her four-year-old son.
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Sam with her four-year-old son. Photograph: Marc Glucksman/Amtrak
Like many North American resorts, the base of Winter Park is purpose built, so if you’ve only ever skied in quaint Alpine resorts that might jar, but I like its family feel and thoughtful touches such as carts to pull your kids and kit along in, outdoor fire pits and an ice rink with skate aids for young kids. And I especially enjoy the resort’s car-free centre. There are some great restaurants too, most notably Goodys Mountain Creperie, which does amazing pancake-stack breakfasts, french toast and smoothies; and the Lime and Vertical, which serves a baked brie pie and seared ahi tuna that I’m still dreaming about.

We stayed at the Vintage Hotel, which has rooms on booking.com from £116 for 4 adults. It was clean and had everything we needed, most notably comfy beds and a kitchen. It was also perfectly located right by the tubing hill, and a short open-air gondola lift across the trees from the main resort village.

The Vintage Hotel, Winter Park Resort, Colorado
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The Vintage Hotel
At the end of our time in Winter Park, taking the train back to Denver was easy. It leaves at 4.30pm on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, though you can also take the California Zephyr train back from nearby Fraser during the week. My super-tired son still looked out the window for bears until it got dark, especially as we’d seen lots of animals tracks from the chairlifts, though they’d most likely been pine martens. By the time we reached the bright lights of Denver he was almost asleep.

Taking the Winter Park Express means you can have a ski or snowboard holiday without the faff or expense of hiring a car, especially as Denver has a new train line, which runs directly from the airport to Union Station. It was fun to have a night in Denver, and to acclimatise to the altitude, as the base of Winter Park is almost 2,800m above sea level, high by European resort standards.

Using the train means there’s no need for car hire or taxi for any part of the trip.
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Using the train means there’s no need for car hire or taxi for any part of the trip. Photograph: Carl Frey
And as a Brighton resident who’s suffered with Southern Rail this winter, the trip reminded me that train travel can still be a romantic and enormously pleasurable pursuit.

Way to go

The trip was provided by Colorado Ski Country and Winter Park Resort. The Winter Park Express runs 7 Jan-26 March, Saturday and Sunday only, departing 7am, from $39 one-way. Winter Park hotel rates start at $89 a night. The Crawford Hotel in Denver’s Grand Union station has a Friday or Saturday night ski train package from $299 per night for two, including an evening cocktail and breakfast to-go. British Airways flies Heathrow to Denver from £471 return.

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