DENVER -- In the 7 a.m. half-light, passengers streamed into Denver's Union Station. It was Friday morning, but this was no commuter crowd. Families and groups wore parkas and backpacks, toted skis, and headed for a bright orange-and-silver train.
My ticket read "Car 10, Seat 13A." Each car was named for a Rocky Mountain peak. Car 10 was Mount Princeton and way down the line. It was half full, and seat 13A was surrounded by bleary-eyed men who seemed part of a group, but what kind I couldn't fathom.
The Ski Train pulled out promptly at 7:15, rattling into railyards and through suburbs, then slowly began to climb out of the mile-high plains, snaking up into the foothills that begin 15 miles west of Denver. I hit the cafe/lounge car and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of a latte and breakfast burrito, served up by a pleasant ski bum. Amtrak take note.
Billed as "America's longest-operating ski train," this service began running weekends in 1940 using vintage 1915 cars with hard wooden seats. It hauled members of the Eskimo Club (city children ages 7 to 17) up to Winter Park, the city-owned ski area.
In the 1980s, with declining ridership, the line was sold. The new owner replaced the cars and engine with 1960s
We passed milepost 24, and, according to my "Passenger Guide," our vista of the receding city and surrounding plains encompassed one-quarter of the entire state of Colorado. The next hour we went in and out of tunnels -- 27 in 25 miles.
"Nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere are there as many tunnels in this short a distance," according to the guide. Between tunnels 8 and 17, the track clung to the side of the canyon, curving constantly. At tunnel 16, it horseshoed out of a side canyon and then reversed.
Fifty miles west of Denver, we entered the Moffat Tunnel, a 6.2-mile bore through the Continental Divide. Drowsy passengers sprang to life and began pulling on ski gear. Finally emerging from the tunnel, the train came to an abrupt halt. We were at Winter Park, milepost 57, elevation 9,239 feet. It was 9:30 a.m.
Amazingly, we were right in the base area, 100 yards from the lifts. I joined a long line in a rental shop until I was directed to another shop with virtually no line. Winter Park is, after all, the nearest big Rocky Mountain resort to Denver, and a Friday morning ski train with a maximum 750 passengers, most with their own skis, is a breeze to process.
The trail map revealed the resort's two distinct areas. From this original base with its modest 1940s lodge and crescent of new condos, a high-speed, four-person chairlift drops skiers at Sunspot (at 10,700 feet), a big, handsome, open-timbered lodge, a hub for busy lifts serving intermediate and expert runs off Mary Jane, an 11,200-foot peak. Parsenn Bowl, at 12,060 feet, with backcountry beyond, was another possibility.
Still city-owned, Winter Park has come a long way since 1939, when it opened with a half-mile rope tow. The 2,900-acre resort has 22 lifts serving 134 trails. What hasn't changed are its snowfall (with an average 360 inches a year, it boasts more than any other big Colorado resort) and its views (a circle of mountains will impress any newly arrived Eastern skier).
Nonskiers can enjoy these views, too, from frequently scheduled snowcat and snowshoe tours. A 10-mile dog sled trek into the backcountry also is offered.
The ski train, having mysteriously reversed direction, departed promptly at 4:15 p.m., scheduled for arrival in Denver at 6:30. Back in car 10, my male neighbors, glowing with the day's exercise and exploits, bought me a Coors (the local brew) and introduced themselves. They were all Postal Service workers from St. Louis, and this was their annual ski trip to the Rockies. Usually they based themselves at Vail or Aspen, but this year they were staying in Denver, driving to a different slope every day or two.
Some in the group had slept in that morning and were exploring the city, but not these guys. They were sick of driving but not of skiing, and the train worked perfectly for them. We agreed there was far more to Denver than a futuristic-looking airport with a ski delivery system at the baggage claim. The friend who met my plane insisted that I see Colorado's Ocean Journey aquarium on my way to the hotel. Not big on aquariums himself, he knew my obsession and assured me this was a fish lover's dream.
He was right. Opened in 1999 and rescued from bankruptcy last year, this 17-acre, multimillion-gallon phenomenon features two indoor "River Journeys." One goes down the Colorado, beginning high in the Rockies and ending in Mexico's Sea of Cortez. As viewers walk through the building, temperatures change, as do the flora, fish, and interactive adventures, such as a token "flash flood." The "voyage" down the Kampar River in Sumatra was even more exciting, beginning in a humid, 8,700-foot-high rain forest and ending in the South China Sea, with several live Sumatran tigers (safely caged) along the way.
The Brown Palace Hotel was reason enough to come to Denver. Opened in 1892, it remains one of America's most distinctive lodging places. The atrium lobby is framed by six tiers of cast-iron balconies, capped by a stained-glass skylight that is as intricately patterned as the Oriental rug beneath it. The arched first-floor and mezzanine walls are encased in rich, gleaming Mexican onyx. Anyone who was ever anyone has stayed here: many presidents, the Beatles, and, during World War II, the 10th Mountain Division, whose members kept in shape by rappeling off the balconies.
Denver's compact downtown architecturally reflects three boom periods, the first two fueled by discoveries of gold and silver and the third, in the early 1980s, by the city's emergence as a center of alternative energy companies.
Even in winter, it's a walkable downtown. From the Brown Palace, 10 minutes in one direction brought me to the exceptional collection of Native American art and works by Western masters Frederic Remington and George Catlin at the Denver Art Museum. The place is an amalgam of a 1950s museum building and a futuristic, 26-sided structure by Gio Ponti, the 20th-century Italian architect and designer. In the other direction, Union Station is a mile down 16th Street, a pedestrian mall lined with shops and restaurants.
In retrospect, however, it was that Ski Train ride back down from Winter Park that capped my days in Denver. In the morning, heading up into the mountains, I hadn't appreciated the views, but descending at sunset through those snowy peaks must be one of the most beautiful rides anywhere. We finally detrained around 7:30 p.m., but most passengers lingered in Lower Downtown, or LoDo, the Victorian-era, newly revived area around Union Station, studded with cafes and restaurants.
I walked back along 16th Street, tempted to hop one of the free shuttle buses that stop at every corner. After the previous day's flight from Boston and the day's dreamlike train ride and skiing, however, the thud of my boots was a reassuring contact with Denver.
Christina Tree is a freelance writer and coauthor of "Massachusetts: An Explorer's Guide." She lives in Cambridge.