WINTER PARK, Colo. — A legendary portal through the Rocky Mountains beneath the Continental Divide is once again making it possible for skiers and snowboarders to take a train directly to the ski lifts.

Denver is again the only major American city where you can step onto a train and ride directly to the slopes. Other ski trains usually require a shuttle bus of some kind to cover the final miles, but Colorado’s Winter Park Ski area sits directly adjacent to transcontinental Union Pacific railroad tracks emerging from the Moffat Tunnel.

Bored through the mountains in the late 1920s at 9,000 feet above sea level, the 6.2-mile-long Moffat Tunnel significantly shortened the distance for trains, and the route remains in heavy use today for freight and daily Amtrak California Zephyr service.

The Winter Park Express ski train begins the climb into the Rockies in earnest in this area near Golden, Colo., where the track curves back on itself several times before entering a tunnel district. This photograph is taken from the last car in the train as the engines curve south before curving back north on the track above.  | Trevor Hughes/ USA TODAY

The Winter Park Express ski train begins the climb into the Rockies in earnest in this area near Golden, Colo., where the track curves back on itself several times before entering a tunnel district. This photograph is taken from the last car in the train as the engines curve south before curving back north on the track above.  | Trevor Hughes/ USA TODAY

Formally known as the Winter Park Express, the weekend-service ski train ferries passengers from the reborn Denver Union Station to Winter Park in the morning, then returns that evening. A similar service operated for 69 years but ended in 2009 over concerns about insurance and profitability.

The new train — two locomotives and nine passenger cars — can carry more than 500 people each way, helping reduce some of Colorado’s legendary Interstate 70 vehicle congestion. The inaugural run in January arrived nine minutes early, a major contrast to the traffic tie-ups 50 miles from the resort. The train journey takes about two hours, and leaves Denver in pre-dawn darkness, arriving at Winter Park just as the lifts are opening for the morning. Rides start at $39 each way.

The Moffat Tunnel, bored beneath the Continental Divide, helped significantly shorten rail journeys through the Rockies. The nearest alternative rail route through the mountains is more than 100 miles north in Wyoming.  | Trevor Hughes /USA TODAY

The Moffat Tunnel, bored beneath the Continental Divide, helped significantly shorten rail journeys through the Rockies. The nearest alternative rail route through the mountains is more than 100 miles north in Wyoming.  | Trevor Hughes /USA TODAY

The train passes through 29 tunnels, including the nine-minute-long Moffat Tunnel, as it climbs out of Denver to Winter Park. On its first day, the train charged through new-fallen snow, sending clouds of ice crystals swirling it its wake as the sun began rising over the plains to the east.

Riders of the inaugural Winter Park Express ski train walk toward the train at Denver's Union Station. Riders hand their skis or snowboards to Amtrak workers, who load special baggage cars, and then hand the equipment back upon arrival.  Trevor Hughes /USA TODAY

Riders of the inaugural Winter Park Express ski train walk toward the train at Denver’s Union Station. Riders hand their skis or snowboards to Amtrak workers, who load special baggage cars, and then hand the equipment back upon arrival.  Trevor Hughes /USA TODAY

Train managers hope to draw young customers who live in downtown Denver and might not have cars of their own. Garcia, who got tickets to ride from her family as a present, said she and her friend Emily Gore planned to ski, snowtube and otherwise enjoy the winter wonderland so different than their college campus at Western Kentucky University.

“This is honestly the prettiest thing I have ever seen,” said Gore, 20, taking a break from Snapchatting video of the journey to her friends.
Also among the inaugural riders: Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper and his family. Hickenlooper got off the train as thousands of other skiers and snowboarders remained stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the interstate. The interstate closed again for hours the next day due to heavy snowfall and traffic. The train returned to to Denver a few minutes ahead of schedule.

Workers load ski gear onto the Winter Park Express ski train before it returns to Denver. |Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY

Workers load ski gear onto the Winter Park Express ski train before it returns to Denver. |Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY

“This ski train is the only place in America, the only place in the world, where you can get out of your hotel bed, walk over to the train station, get on a train, and the train lets you off at the ski lift,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s as good as it gets anywhere in the world.”

With heavy snow falling, skiers and snowboarders disembark from the Winter Park Express ski train disembark following a two-hour ride up from Denver.  | Trevor Hughes/ USA TODAY

With heavy snow falling, skiers and snowboarders disembark from the Winter Park Express ski train disembark following a two-hour ride up from Denver.  | Trevor Hughes/ USA TODAY

For many longtime Denver-area residents, the ski train remains a fond memory. And now they’re having a chance to make new memories. Tourists can fly into Denver International Airport, take the new A-Line train from the airport to the station, and step aboard the ski train for an all-rail journey.

“I think it’s fantastic, not only for the locals who don’t like to drive on I-70 but for the out-of-staters who want to come in and have a good experience,” said Susan Eikenberry of Lakewood, Colo.

Trains will continue to run round-trip from Denver Union Station to the slopes of Winter Park on Saturdays and Sundays through March 26, 2017. Additional Monday round trips are scheduled for Presidents’ Day.

For Winter Park Express tickets, visit www.amtrak.com/winterparkexpress.

Other ski trains across the United States 

While the Winter Park Express is the only train-to-lift service in the United States and Canada, you can incorporate trains into trips to many other resorts. Among them:

Thunder Ridge Ski Area, Patterson, N.Y.
The Metro-North Ski Train runs you from New York City to Patterson, N.Y., where you board a free shuttle to the slopes. The train runs weekends, Christmas week, MLK Day and Presidents Week. For tickets: Visit Metro-North online or go to any ticket seller or machine at Grand Central Station and ask for the Thunder Ski package. The shuttle runs on a schedule but can also pick up train riders if they call ahead to Thunder Ridge. Price depends on where you start.

Wachusett Mountain Ski Area, Princeton, Mass.
The MBTA runs a commuter train from Boston’s North Station to Wachusett Station, where riders hop a shuttle to the mountain. The service runs weekends through March 12, 2017, and the train includes a designated “ski” car for easy storage of ski/snowboard equipment. The fare is $11.50 one way.

Mount Snow, Vt.
Take Amtrak’s Vermonter from Washington, D.C., or New York City to Brattleboro, and then hop aboard the Moover transit service shuttles serving southern Vermont to reach Mount Snow. The Vermonter operates in one direction daily, and the Moover service is free.

Snowbasin, Utah
Take the airport light rail to connect with a UTA Front Runner train to Ogden, and then take the UTA Ski Bus to Snowbasin. Season pass holders at Snowbasin can ride the bus all season for just $10. Service runs frequently; check timetable for scheduled departures and prices.
Whitefish Mountain Resort, Mont. Amtrak’s Empire Builder serves the historic Whitefish station, and from there you can take a shuttle to Whitefish Mountain Resort. Prices and schedule vary; check timetables.

TREVOR HUGHES, USA TODAY