Skiing in Colorado, US: Winter Park Express Ski Train returns to 'last affordable ski town'

There was a time when the ski freaks of Denver were sitting on a dream ticket. More specifically, a train ticket.

As early as 1940, a train used to depart Denver's Union Station, transporting anyone with a love of The White Stuff directly to the ski fields in a couple of hours, returning the same day once lifts closed. Then, in 2009, the train was no longer and suddenly anyone used to the good life was forced to make their own way to the mountains via the often congested I-70 Highway.

It's a crisp, bluebird morning when I check out of The Crawford Hotel, a stylish 112-bedroom property situated right inside Denver Union Station. Handing over my room key, I wheel my snowboard bag all of 200 metres across the platform where a train – conspicuous for its hot pink paint job – is waiting.

I check in my snowboard, slip on noise cancelling headphones and, moments later, we're pulling out of Denver, safe in the knowledge that – just like those decades before us – we will be in the heart of ski country in about two hours.

The unlikely resurrection of the Winter Park Express Ski Train transpired after the service was temporarily re-introduced for a single weekend in 2015 to celebrate Winter Park Resort's 75th anniversary. Tickets sold out in less time than it takes to lace a snowboard boot and the money men behind the ski and rail industries had a Eureka moment.

The service now appears to be back for good, running on weekends and select Fridays throughout the winter season.

We arrive at Winter Park via 31 tunnels slicing northwest through Colorado's Continental Divide, the last of which, The Moffat Tunnel, takes almost 10 minutes to pass through. When we do finally emerge, it's like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – city life suddenly replaced by a ski village in the heart of the mountains.

At first glance, Winter Park resembles any other ski resort, with the usual smattering of hotels, shops and condos situated just metres from the foot of the busy lift areas. Most of this infrastructure, however, only emerged in the past 20 years. Traditionally, Winter Park has been a no-frills mountain for die-hard Denver skiers.

Nowadays it's a mid-sized resort with 1247 skiable hectares divided into seven distinct territories. For beginners, Winter Park and Vasquez Ridge offer an agreeably diverse range of groomers and long cruisers with the latter famed for its powder stashes. At the opposite end of the scale, Mary Jane offers more challenging bumps and tree skiing while Terrain (aka Dark Territory) is a state-of-the-art fun park with more than 80 features and a five-and-a half-metre half pipe. It's a scary looking spot and I spend a while watching some of the region's up and coming athletes perform terrifying aerial tricks, effortlessly back-flipping off jumps in a manner that turns my mouth dry.

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Twenty six lifts connect the region's 144 trails, ensuring the mountain is easy to navigate. Over several days I explore many of them; it's diverse terrain and although some of the green runs can prove infuriatingly flat for snowboarders, relative beginners can still cut their teeth on a number of easier blues.

Back at base, the resort is essentially split into two main areas, the village at the foot of the slopes and the town of Winter Park itself, easily accessed via free shuttles that make the 10-minute commute frequently.

One night I make the pilgrimage into town to watch live music and enjoy a damn fine Indian curry but for the most part everything I need is in the village.

The slope-side set up may not be for party animals looking to race Jager-bombs till dawn, but for everyone else it's ideal. My hotel with four hot tubs is just metres from the lifts. The Derailer Bar has an expansive sun patio perfect for late afternoon après ski beers and a winding walkway snakes past multiple shops, bars and restaurants with cosy outdoor fire pits.

It's also the friendly, unpretentious feel; there's a distinct absence of showy culture. While some of Colorado's resorts are famed for their razzle dazzle, you won't find fluffy-moonboot-sporting couples hankering after Gucci handbags here.

"We're not Vail and we're not Aspen. If you want that type of town, by all means go there, but we are very local and genuine here; if we don't like you, we'll tell you," says John Glancey, a veteran former ski patroller and long-term Winter Park local. "It's one of the last affordable ski towns, it's always been that way."

Winter Park will never be one for keeping up with the Joneses; it isn't that kind of place. But with ongoing talks already underway about extending the Express Ski Train services beyond weekends during winter, its ease of access and down to earth charm could see it providing unexpected competition to the state's better-heeled contemporaries.

Guy Wilkinson travelled as a guest of Travelplan and Colorado Ski Country USA.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO AT WINTER PARK RESORT

1. GO TUBING

Coca-Cola Tube Park is Colorado's newest tubing park and offers four individual lanes with banked curves for a thrilling ride off even off the slopes. See winterparkresort.com/things-to-do

2. TAKE A DOG SLED RIDE

Experience stunning winter landscapes from another vantage point as a pack of huskies tows you on a sled through the snow at a thrilling pace. See winterparkresort.com/things-to-do

3. TAKE A SCENIC SNOWCAT TOUR

Part tank, part truck, snowcats are a great way to go cross country through Colorado's wilderness. This hour-long tour includes spectacular mountaintop views, plus lunch at The Sunspot restaurant. See winterparkresort.com/things-to-do

4. TAKE A SLEIGH RIDE

Check out local wildlife and snow blanketed meadows from the comfort of a horse-drawn sleigh. Tours finish up with a crackling campfire, hot chocolate and marshmallows at a historic homestead. See winterparkresort.com/things-to-do

5. ENJOY A SPA AND MASSAGE

Alpenglow, situated in the heart of the resort, offers a range of spa treatments to unwind and iron out those inevitable ski-related kinks. See alpenglowmassage.com

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa

winterparkresort.com

VISIT

Travelplan has a range of Denver plus Winter Park ski packages including discounted accommodation, lift tickets and air fares. See travelplan.com

The Winter Park Express Ski Train runs between January and late March, departing Denver Union Station at 7am, departing Winter Park at 4.30pm. Tickets from US$29. See Amtrak.com

FLY

Qantas flies to LA several times a week, with ongoing connections to Denver. See qantas.com

STAY

Zephyr Mountain Lodge offers a range of one-, two- and three-bedroom fully equipped condominiums about 30 metres from the Zephyr Express Chair Lift. The property includes four hot tubs, lobby areas, a fitness room, underground parking (US$14 per day in winter) and more. See zephyrmountainlodge.com

See also: 12 winter resorts that will take your breath away

See also: Twenty-three great bucket-list winter adventures
 

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