On a Colorado Ski Trip, Planes, Trains, No Automobiles

On a Colorado Ski Trip, Planes, Trains, No Automobiles

The plan was simple: Take the train to the ski slopes.

Why? Trains are romantic. Trains are relatively climate-friendly. And I had recently spent an hour and a half on a perfect powder day sitting in traffic, trying to drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Snowbird, near Salt Lake City.

So I decided to swear off car travel for a weekend of skiing and snowboarding via the rails.

Two developments in Denver made the scheme possible: In 2016 the city opened the A line train, which runs from Denver International Airport to Union Station, an exquisitely restored Beaux-Arts terminal and the city’s main transit hub, in 37 minutes.

The following year, Amtrak launched its service on the Winter Park Express, a snow-season train that leaves Union Station each weekend and delivers passengers to the base of the Winter Park Resort, a burly, 3,000-acre ski mountain about 70 miles outside Denver.

Getting to the mountain, and the other resorts west of Denver by car is increasingly an issue. On a snowy weekend, traffic on I-70, the main route to the mountains, can turn an hour-and-a-half drive to Winter Park into a four-hour ordeal. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the Winter Park Express’s trips sell out, with 400 passengers choosing to ride the rails each trip.

Or, as 8-year-old Sophia Sprinkle, who rode the train on a recent weekend with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, said, “I like it a lot because it goes really fast.”

It was admittedly a harebrained exercise. I had to fly to Denver and back, and spend a night in a hotel there at either end of the ski weekend, making for an expensive two days on the slopes. But I decided to consider it as research for a possible longer trip.

The journey began on a Friday afternoon in New York City, which lacks what travel planners call a “one-seat ride” to the airport. I slalomed down the subways stairs with my skis and gear as commuters streamed up, then rode a urine-perfumed elevator to the platform to meet my friend Julie at Penn Station. A standing-room-only Long Island Rail Road train took us to Jamaica station, the terminus of the AirTrain, where we once again had to schlep our gear to a new platform to get to the terminal for our four-hour-and-47-minute flight (which sat on the tarmac for an hour and a half after our scheduled departure).

In Denver, things looked up: As we walked out of the airport with our gear, the train to Union Station was on the tracks, its countdown clock showing 0.0 minutes to departure. I broke into a run, but the helpful conductor held the door and we slipped on with no seconds to spare.

Its eight cars — double-decker Superliners — are usually used on overnight trains in the West, like the California Zephyr or the Southwest Chief, but in the winter, when rider numbers on the big trains decline, the cars can be lent to the ski train. Mr. Swartzwelter is the conductor, checking tickets and offering a running commentary over the train’s public address system.

After leaving Denver at 7 a.m. sharp, the Express rolled through the suburb of Arvada and across a wide grassland plain, where it climbed a series of 10 curves toward the mountains of the Front Range. As the terrain got steeper, the train wound through massive slabs of rock that seemed almost close enough to touch. In the lounge car, the bartender, Darrell Bennett, was playing Tracy Chapman and doing a brisk business in Bloody Marys. After a section along South Boulder Creek, the train reached the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel. For the day-trippers, that was the signal to put their ski boots on; in 10 minutes we were at the base of the mountain. Nine a.m., right on time.

We cheated on our anti-car resolve and rode a hotel shuttle bus to the front desk of the Zephyr Mountain Lodge, where we stowed our bags, since our room in a nearby condominium wouldn’t open up until the afternoon. Within half an hour we were in line for the gondola. The mountain seemed to fit into the theme of the trip, with runs named Trestle (an Expert bump run with one seriously steep section), Brakeman and Derailer. Winter Park has never had the cachet of mountains like Vail and Aspen, and its devotees seemed to have a bit of a chip on their shoulders: “Vail Sucks” stickers were plastered on many available surfaces in the lift lines.

Around 3:30 p.m., I called it a day and went back to the condo to pick up our gear. Another quick shuttle ride took us back to the platform and the waiting train. Every seat was taken. There were numerous family groups — Emily Rice and her husband, from Chesapeake, Va., were visiting her parents, and her father, who had never been to Winter Park, had arranged the outing for them all. They hadn’t even skied. “I love taking the train,” she said.

Another group was celebrating a birthday — they had a cooler of beer for the ride back.

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