Winter Park | Moffat | Tolland | Pine Cliff | Crescent | Plainview | Clay | Rocky | Leyden | Utah Junction | Denver Station
Locate Union Station, home to The Ski Train, in the lower right hand corner of the map. The current depot was built in 1914 and refurbished in recent years. Once the train departs, we are headed into the mountains for some breathtaking scenery and colorful historic points of interest. The next stop is Winter Park, the destination of The Ski Train for over 50 years!
As we leave Denver and slowly wind our way through the suburbs of Arvada and Wheat Ridge, we are following the trail of the former Denver Northwestern and Pacific Lines.
Utah Junction is the location of the " Denver North Yards," the Rio Grande’s freight classification yard. To the North, you’ll see the metal water tower - the only structure remaining at this former site of the Moffat Shops.
As we cross Wadsworth Boulevard and approach the Denver suburb of Arvada straight ahead, note the tall peak to the left. This is Mt. Evans, 14,264 ft. The large lake on the right is Stanley Lake.
LEYDEN JUNCTION - Milepost 12
Leyden Junction was the departure point for the Inter-urban Electric Line which served the Leyden coalmines, supplying Denver with home heating coal prior to World War II.
Notice the long stretches of "ribbon rail" - track welded into continuous 1,000 ft. Sections. While it takes away from the romantic clickity-clack of conventional rail, it results in a much smoother, quieter ride.
ROCKY - Milepost 18
At Rocky, we start to climb out of the valley and begin a serious attack on the Rockies. To gain entrance to the canyon ahead, the railroad engineers cleverly laid a huge horseshoe around a bluff between Rocky and Clay: the Big Ten and Little Ten curves. This is a wonderful opportunity to take pictures of the train as it winds up the 2% grade.
Several hopper cars are located on the West side of the track before Clay. They serve as a wind-break against occasional hurricane-force winds. The railroad permanently filled the cars with dirt and welded the wheels to the rails.
Coal Creek Canyon is to the left as the train crosses over a small bridge and we thread our way through the first tunnel. Watch for deer and elk in this region!
Plainview lives up to its name: the seeping vistas of plains below include one quarter of the entire state of Colorado. It’s possible to see Rocky Flats off to the east, and the city of Boulder to the North. Behind Boulder, note the jagged, angled escarpments known as the Flatirons. The red roofed buildings of the University of Colorado can also be seen. Beyond Denver to the east stretch the Great Plains.
We will pass through 27 tunnels in the next 25 miles - nowhere else in the western hemisphere are there this many tunnels in this short a distance. In the summer of 1903, over a thousand men were at work on the tunnels and cuts of the canyon. Most of the tunnels were drilled by hand as it was too difficult to bring in machinery. There are 31 tunnels between Denver and Winter Park. The shortest is 78 feet and the longest - the Moffat Tunnel - measures an amazing 32,789 feet or 6.2 miles. Tunnel numbers are shown on metal flags at the right side of the track or cast into the concrete portals. The railroad gained altitude by carving into the side of the Front Range. Between Clay and Plainview, this "side-hill" construction wasn’t too difficult - it required only the drilling of Tunnel 1. Immediately west of Plainview, however, the topography got tougher, requiring the construction of Tunnels 2-7 to enable the railroad to get through the immense rock buttresses tilting steeply out of the plains.
After Tunnel 8, we find ourselves perched on a ledge over a thousand feet above South Boulder Creek. Look for traces of the wooded flume on the north canyon wall below; it sent logs to the Eldorado sawmill at the turn of the century.
Between tunnels 8-17 the track is clinging to the side of the canyon, curving constantly in a series of 10 degree curves through tunnels 10-16. Tunnel 10 is one of the longest ones. At tunnel 16 the track horseshoes out of a side canyon in an 11 degree curve; it reverses to reach Tunnel 17, which passes under a long ridge and back into the main canyon. Tunnel 17 is one of the rare straight tunnels; nearly all of them are on a curve.
Just before Crescent, we enter Roosevelt National Forest. After Tunnel 12, to the northwest is South Boulder Canyon and Gross Reservoir, which supplies Denver with 14 billion gallons of water per year. You may even see a few ice fishermen.
Along the chasm of South Boulder Creek, the challenging terrain gives us respect for Colorado’s adventuresome railroad pioneers.
On the other side of Crescent are Tunnels 19-27 in rapid succession. The creek rapidly rises in the canyon and at Pine Cliff the rails are just a few feet above the water.
Pine Cliff was once a popular resort community served largely by "fish train" - special runs operated by the railroad to bring fishermen up from Denver.
Now the valley broadens. Look for the remains of an old ice pond and large wooded ice storage shed immediately south of the track. Ice was "harvested" from the pond with huge ice saws, stored in sawdust in the adjacent shed, then shipped down to Denver in the summer.
The sharpest curve east of the Moffat Tunnel and the shortest tunnel on the Moffat line are encountered just below Pine Cliff. The track makes a twelve degree horseshoe to follow a bend in the canyon, then it burrows just 78 feet through a narrow rock spur in Tunnel 29. Back in the middle of the curve a large scar reveals the location of Tunnel 28, which was removed in 1951.
Beyond Rollinsville, the valley broadens further into a high mountain "park" at Tolland. A major division pint early in the railroad’s history, crews who stayed here made the trip over Rollins Pass (a locomotive fireman would have shoveled 15 tons of coal into the engine on a single 23 mile trip over "Hell Hill"). There was a water tower, a coal tipple, a telephone, and a "wye" for turning engines. A picnic pavilion was located here, and Tolland became the focus of many special outings. Here you can see the mountains to the northwest three winding spiral lines that form traces of "Giants Ladder." This former roadbed of Moffat’s Denver and Salt Lake Railway wound its way over the summit from 1904 until the opening of the Moffat Tunnel in 1928. In fact, the hardship of operating this high mountain railway was the incentive for construction of the Moffat Tunnel.
Fifty miles west of Denver we encounter the East Portal to the Moffat Tunnel - named after Colorado railroad pioneer David Moffat. The route the train has taken from Denver into the Front Range follows the right-of-way laid out by Moffat back in 1902 while he was seeking a better and shorter route to Salt Lake City.
The buildings at the East Portal house the power plant and equipment used for ventilation.
This 6.2 mile long bore through the Continental Divide is 9,239 feet above sea level at its apex. It is the 6th longest tunnel in the world. During its construction, 750,000 cubic yards of rock were removed using 2.5 million pounds of dynamite to shake it loose. 700 miles of blasting holds were drilled, requiring 800,000 pounds of drill steel and 1,500 drills a day to be sharpened. Eleven million board feet of timber were used to support the shifting earth (the tunnel is largely concrete-lined today). The tunnel took 48 months to bore - average daily progress being 21 feet. The tunnel cost 15,577,817 to build, an astounding $475 per linear foot. The occasional flashes of light that can be seen in the tunnel are telephone and safety stations.
The first train passed through the tunnel in February 1928.
We emerge out the West Portal beneath lofty James Peak at Winter Park. The Ski Train originated in 1940 as transportation to newly-opened Winter Park for Denver youth, who skied for a full day for only one dollar. Through the decades, both the train and Winter Park flourished, becoming the proud, popular Denver traditions they are today. Whether you travel to tackle the more than 1,300 acres of ski terrain, take the free shuttle into town, or cuddle up and take a heated snow cat ride – there’s always something going on in Winter Park. Get set for a great day of fun!
Many photos copyright and courtesy of James Griffin. All rights reserved. Used with permission.