Here’s a first-hand report on the Winter Park Express Ski Train from two discerning and, possibly, hung-over skiers.
They’ll happily ride the Ski Train again, just not on Spring Forward day.
By Ian Lummis
Sometimes it seems that Colorado’s Front Range ski resorts are better known for lift lines and heavy traffic than the actual world-class skiing.
While one can debate actual severity of lift lines (they pale in comparison to the legendary lines on powder days at Squaw Valley and Revelstoke), it is true that a ski day from Denver often begins before 6:00 AM and usually ends well after 6:00 PM, including time spent in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
While early mornings are a fact of life for metro area skiers and snowboarders, there is one winter morning more painful than all others: Spring Forward.
Losing an Hour, But Gaining on Traffic
Since the smart phone long ago replaced the alarm clock, waking up an hour too late to beat the traffic because of the time change has been replaced with something far more sinister: the automatically time-adjusted cell phone. It is now much too easy to forget about the coming time change (and thus compensate by going to bed early), only to be awakened an hour “early” on Spring Forward day.
My first ski journalism assignment happened to fall on Spring Forward 2017 and my friend Jonah and I realized our folly when the time on our phones went from 11:59 PM to 1:00 AM in a single minute.
Luckily, I was brushing my teeth at this moment but as I drifted off to sleep on Jonah’s couch my last thought was that maybe my alarm would fail to go off 4 hours and 15 minutes later.
My alarm never went off, but only because Jonah was awake and shining a bright light into my eyes fifteen minutes before I planned to get up. Thus my morning began with a brutal headache that only got worse as I merged onto I 70 and noticed the tail lights of cars going well below the speed limit.
Spring Forward 2017 was, however, not a normal ski day.
Instead of joining the traffic heading west, we headed east toward Denver’s Union Station on wonderfully deserted roads.
Sit Back, Relax, Enjoy the View (or Sleep)
By 6:45 AM, we were reclining in large seats aboard the Amtrak Winter Park Express Ski Train, our boot bags and cooler behind us and our skis happily ensconced in the baggage car.
As we rolled through the Denver rail yard, Brad Swartzwelter, the train manager, announced over the PA that this rail yard is the last in the country still using hand turned switches.
The thought of Denver’s industry being hamstrung by such archaic technology made me mildly nauseous as we passed through Denver’s western suburbs. Or perhaps the nausea was more the result of the short night and beer.
As we began climbing into the foothills, Brad announced that we would be passing through 31 tunnels during our two-hour journey to Winter Park. I didn’t believe him until the 12th tunnel.
The tunnels would eventually prove to be a little too much early morning visual stimulation for me, as was the sight of two partially comatose college students for the couple sitting across from us. They left for seats with a better view.
Fortunately, the train was fairly empty, as it has to be on Sundays to allow room for weekenders who journey to Winter Park on Saturday morning with plans to return on Sunday afternoon. This meant that Jonah and I had plenty of space to relax and sleep. We both agreed that this trip would have been an absolute disaster on the interstate.
Arrive in Winter Park Ready to Ski and Ride
We booted up as the train passed through the Moffat Tunnel and arrived at Winter Park with plenty of time to pick up a ticket and enjoy a free Noosa yogurt. After eating our yogurt in the lift line, we boarded the Zephyr chairlift 100% ready to ski.
Suddenly the guy on the chair with us announced, “Today is the worst day of the entire year. I hate Spring Forward. I had to get up with no sleep and be a dad.”
At that moment, I decided that getting up and riding a train sounded much more appealing than getting up and being a dad.
Jonah and I spent the morning searching for, and finding, snow that had not been affected by the month-long freeze-thaw cycle.
And then around 11:00 AM, our day got even better when heavy snow moved in.
We realized that at the rate the snow was piling up, we should take an early lunch break and spend the afternoon skiing fresh snow. We hurried down to grab sandwiches at Coffee and Tea Market. The sandwich I ate was so phenomenal that I stepped out into the blizzard feeling positive about skiing Winter Park on only four hours of sleep.
We spent the next four hours skiing as hard as possible.
After countless Mary Jane laps and maybe even a face shot or two, we arrived at the train at 4:15, de-booted and grabbed our cooler. We spent the ride back to Denver eating delicious snacks.
The tunnels were far more enjoyable on the return trip and I found train manager Brad’s comments quite interesting.
His best came as we pulled into Union Station at 6:00 PM sharp: “According to CDOT, there is stop and go traffic through Georgetown and an hour and a half delay on I-70.”
Take the Ski Train
In addition to Ian’s first-hand take on taking Winter Park Express Ski Train, here’s some handy and fun information on the ride from Traveling Jules.
Reserve your Winter Park Express Ski Train tickets now at Amtrak or read more about the train and buy tickets on the Winter Park website. Book now and score the “early bird” price of just $29 one-way. Discount tickets are limited and first-come/first-served. All other tickets are $39, $49 and $59.
As Ian mentions, it’s easy to spend the weekend (or a full week!), taking the train to Winter Park one day and returning another.
The ski train also works well for visitors skiing Winter Park. Light rail connects Denver International Airport to downtown Denver, making this Colorado ski vacation a car-free affair.
The Winter Park Express Ski Train runs from Denver’s Union Station to Winter Park every Saturday and Sunday from January 5 – March 25, 2018.
New this winter, the train also runs the first Friday of each month — January 5, February 2 and March 2.
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