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Here’s Why the Winter Park Express Is an Epic Move for a Parent

By Jon Coen

It was a warmish Sunday as we strolled through Denver’s Union Station toward our train. We’d arrived Friday night and spent a gorgeous spring (perhaps Fool’s Spring) Saturday wandering the city. That morning , our boards and skis were stowed below as we boarded Amtrak’s Winter Park Express and settled into a comfy train car before climbing 4,000 feet into a happy little winter storm.

As parents with a passion for the outdoors, we want our children to appreciate the natural world. We want them to grow to be proper stewards. And selfishly, perhaps, we’re hoping they develop enough passion that they’ll want to accompany us on overnights or fishing trips as they get older. Sipping a hot cocoa and gazing out the window while climbing straight through the Rockies is a worthwhile option for parents—a mix of science with a dose of culture and the nostalgia of train travel.

In addition to enjoying zipping between trees, my kid happens to be a geography nerd, so the whole aspect of tracing the 56-mile route on the map, discerning elevations and the stimulation of a quickly changing landscape kept his face out of a screen the whole trip. Slipping through the Continental Divide is a pretty subtle teachable moment.

Slipping through the Continental Divide is a pretty subtle teachable moment.”

At its advent, Winter Park was part of the Denver Parks & Rec. The trainline actually preceded the resort by a few seasons and became a dedicated ski train in 1940. The service ceased in 2009 before returning to a regular schedule several years ago. Amtrak now offers round trips Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, January through March. Skiers and boarders can embark from Denver, leave bags right on the train, ride all day and then hop on for an easy ride home after the lifts close. As conductor Brad Swartzwelter of Golden likes to remind passengers, it’s a lot easier than I-70 gridlock. 

Swartzwelter is the heart and soul of this line. He wrote the business plan that brought Amtrak to the table a decade ago. In addition to his railway acumen, his affable commentary on the PA brings extra color to the whole experience. At around $70 per adult and $30 for kids under 12 roundtrip, it’s economically accessible as well.

We cruised past Coors Stadium and navigated Denver’s suburbs before climbing into the foothills. We ducked into 29 tunnels, made note of the snow cover as we climbed and found ourselves chugging through steady snow showers. There were winding creeks, farms and dramatic vistas. The highlight were the two moose less than a hundred yards from the track. When we emerged from the Moffat Tunnel, we found ourselves at the snow-covered base of the resort.

Winter Park was named Elevation’s top Small/Medium Mountain town in 2018, mostly for  vast public lands open to exploring with relative accessibility from the Front Range, year-round. Of course, over 3,000 skiable acres (he fifth highest in Colorado) helps. The train only makes it more accessible.

Several inches had fallen when we arrived and it came down through Sunday, even as the weekend crowds thinned late day. The system continued to dump generously on us from Sunday through Wednesday – not all at once, but politely portioned through the week so we barely heard the scrape of edges. We made a morning mission to Cirque and befriended Mary Jane. We took off one day off from riding to catch up on some remote work/schoolwork and got in on a mid-hill snowshoe hike that took us up close and personal with the powder.

It snowed every night. It snowed most mornings … It even snowed when the sun was out for about 24 inches total. 

We stayed at the Vintage Hotel, which makes your trip easy, a two-minute float on the Cabriolet from the base. The staff let us gear up to ride in a common area lounge when we arrived Sunday morning (many hours before check in.)  

At night, we’d shuttle the 2.5 miles into town and gorge early dinners at relatively affordable spots like The Ditch or Casa Mexico.  One night we enjoyed the more upscale Deno’s Bistro. Dubar Napalese & Indian Bistro at Cooper Creek Square is perhaps one of the most exciting culinary experiences in this part of the Rockies. There are a few dinner options right at the base that are surprisingly affordable too, specifically Lime Cantina. Divide Board Shop gave us a fair price in snowboard boot rentals when we discovered the lace system on the kid’s hand-me-downs where shot. 

In the afternoons, I’d find my son and I, nearly alone, weaving through the snowcapped glades and traverses as the shadows of the evergreens got longer on the quiet side of the mountain. The mix of parental joy heightened the euphoria of riding good conditions. And something about that train ride there made the whole experience a little more satisfying.

Note: The train only runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Weekday returns to Denver require a shuttle.

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