This ski re­sort is the only one in the United States ac­ces­si­ble by train.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY RACHEL WALKER travel@wash­post.com Walker is a writer based in Boul­der, Colo. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @racheljowalker.

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 ear­ly20th-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 10year 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.”

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.

MARC GLUCKS­MAN/AM­TRAK

RACHEL WALKER

TOP: Only one U.S. route — Colorado’s Win­ter Park Ex­press — de­liv­ers pas­sen­gers di­rectly to a ski re­sort. ABOVE: The train by­passes heavy week­end traf­fic on In­ter­state 70, the main high­way from Den­ver to the state’s high coun­try.

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