PHOTO: Courtesy of Winter Park
PHOTO: Courtesy of Winter Park

Ski Train Returns to Denver this Winter

The Winter Park Express brings back memories from a bygone era

After an eight-year hiatus, skiers in Denver will once again be able to avoid the I-70 weekend gong show this winter by traveling directly to the chairlifts via train. The Winter Park Express, formerly known as the Ski Train, will operate weekends from January through March with direct service from Denver's revitalized Union Station to the base of Winter Park ski area.

By getting cars off the road and providing travelers with a much more relaxed commute, the rebirth of The Ski Train is just what the Front Range needs. While newcomers will marvel at the comfort of the Amtrak Superliner Cars, those of us that grew up taking the train during the ’70s and ’80s will wax nostalgic for the original cars from the 1940s we used to ride, and the crazy youthful energy we unleashed.

Growing up with parents that didn’t ski in downtown Denver, the Ski Train was the ultimate salvation for my brother and me. Every Saturday morning before dawn, my mom would drop us off at Union Station, a dark and seedy rail hub nestled amongst abandoned warehouses and empty streets with newspapers blowing around like tumbleweeds in an old Western. If Denver had a skid row, this was the neighborhood. With a duffle bag full of ski gear and our skis secured by the trusty Ski Tote, we charged through the train station to get dibs on the best seats.

The next two hours were spent consuming all the candy and soda we brought from home, then roaming the train cars looking for any other form of sugar we could find. Luckily there was an annoying young entrepreneur kid who brought suitcases full of candy to sell at inflated prices to all of us tweaking youth. He called his business Gill and Co.

Most kids had a real love/hate relationship with Gill, and depending on the opportunity we would either reach for the five-finger discount or fork over our change to get another sugar fix. With our blood sugar spiked, and only a handful of ski instructors from the Eskimo Ski Club acting as chaperones to hundreds of kids ages 6 to 15, there was a sense of lawlessness and freedom we had never experienced before.

As the train crept higher into the mountains and the snowpack deepened, everyone's eyes drew to the windows. There were 29 tunnels over the course of the 4,000-vertical foot elevation gain. Everyone knew when the train entered the last tunnel to scream at the top of our lungs in unison, "MOFFAT!" to signify our passing through the 6.2-mile-long Moffat Tunnel. No matter where you were on the train, once you heard the "MOFFAT!" screams, you knew the train would soon pop out of the tunnel directly at the chairlift. The mad dash to get ready ensued; kids rushing to get dressed for a big day on the slopes before the train slowed to a halt and we headed out to ski.

Every day at 4:30 p.m., the Ski Train left Winter Park regardless of who was on it (there were more than a few close calls of kids almost getting left behind). Once on board, the train turned into one huge party. Smelly ski clothing hung from every hook, rack, and bench seat while the stories of the day kept everyone laughing and fired up for more. Melted snow turned dirty floors into slick, slimy hazards, allowing various booby traps to be deployed for unsuspecting passersby. Bruised apples and oranges were used as bowling balls as we chucked them down the aisles at a stack of empty soda cans. Awkward preteen romances got their first start with make-out sessions in between the cars. There were no alcohol or drugs present, but damn did we party hard.

When the Winter Park Express pulls out of the now hip and bustling Union Station this winter, skiers will peer out the windows at trendy breweries, retail stores, and clean streets. Traveling in the modern cars will provide more comfort then the old rickety train of my youth, and even the view out the window will be different due to the million and change people that have moved to the area over the last 35 years. Booze will still be banned on the public train cars, but with a hearty sense of juvenile mischief and a fat supply of Mountain Dew and Skittles, you can keep the party chugging right along until you scream "MOFFAT!" as you enter the final tunnel.

DETAILS: The Winter Park Express will run every Saturday and Sunday from January 5 through March 25, plus Fridays on February 2 and March 2. The train departs Denver's Union Station at 7 a.m. and returns at 6:30 p.m. Adult tickets start at $29/one way.