The first ever destination mountain resort in the United States was started by Union Pacific Railroad in 1936. The goal was to build a mountain resort that could compare to those found in Europe, including ease of access. Union Pacific built Sun Valley with the intention of selling railroad tickets. They believed in this so much that Union Pacific designed the first aerial chairlift. Now the only way to get to this mountain is by driving. Much of this due to the push by the automotive and oil industries to remove public transit. Today the only resort in North America you can get to entirely by rail is Winter Park, via the Winter Park Express.
Yes, Sun Valley was built to appeal to the wealthy. But there are destinations all over the country that could be linked together with commuter trains; a move that would do more for environmental protection than anything else Vail or Alterra have done. Modeling these routes and towns off of the success of the Swiss Alps train routes would remove tons of carbon from the atmosphere, and make destination travel much more pleasant. A light rail around Lake Tahoe, utilizing the AmTrack station in Truckee would help Keep Lake Tahoe Blue. A connection up Cottonwood Canyon around I-80 back to Salt Lake City would make the gondola idea obsolete. Expanding the rail options in Colorado could simplify resort travel in ways currently only experienced in Switzerland and Germany. And most of the needed rail lines existed in Colorado during the mining era.
Mountain towns are also notoriously limited on space. This causes issues with limited housing, automotive congestion, and ever increasing rent prices for businesses and employees alike. Yet every year, more money and space is dedicated to encouraging people to drive into these towns. Typically by dedicating money and precious real estate to parking lots. A painful example of this is the $38M parking garage built in downtown Breckenridge. The town could have used this structure to add housing and retail space instead of 400 new parking spots. That money could have been invested in public transit from Dillon, Frisco, and Silverthorne, reducing the need for parking space.* Ultimately reducing the stress of how to get to town, and what to do with your car once you're there.
Most mountain resort towns have bus systems, but these old mining towns often had railroad access. The tracks have largely been removed, but if it was possible 100 years ago it's possible now. And if the trains were as convenient as driving, people would use them. Especially if the towns have been designed with walkability as the focus. And given the small size of these mountain towns, this isn’t hard to accomplish. We already have the examples of the Vail and Whistler Villages. If there was better public transit into the town of Vail, the increased parking pass price wouldn't be an issue.
But the easiest place to start is where the systems are already in place. During the summer Winter Park opens Trestle Bike Park for lift access mountain biking. When in Denver, you're never more than a quarter mile away from dedicated bike path. This seems like a brilliant opportunity for Trestle Bike Park to make more money off of Denver mountain bikers. But the Winter Park Express only runs in winter, and there are no bike commuter specific train cars. With just a few changes and upgrades, this could be great for building an after work mountain bike culture. If you could get there in 40 minutes, and work while you're commuting, wouldn't you go ride more often?
This same route could also service Granby Ranch. Though smaller than Winter Park, it has lift access mountain biking as well as snowsports. The town of Granby is only a couple stops further down the line from Winter Park. While tourism would improve by allowing access for an entirely new financial sector of people, Winter Park employees also don't live in Winter Park. A commuter train between Granby and Winter Park would increase revenue for all of these towns. While it would be difficult to get this on the existing tracks, it's something that should be looked into. The ideal situation would be to eventually have a separate light rail track that is faster than driving. You could cover most employees with single stops in Tabernash and Frasier.
However, all of this only covers getting to these towns, and in order for this to work the towns have to be bike positive, walkable areas. By creating separated walk and bike paths, getting around these towns would be less of a hassle. Not only for people who would prefer to walk or bike, but even for drivers. Winter Park Resort isn’t directly in town, but it could be reached by bicycle in under four minutes with a dedicated bike path. This would be faster than current buses and would be far more pleasant. If the people of Oulu Finland, a town 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle, can bike year round, so can the people of Frasier Valley. If there is a safe place to ride bikes, winter and summer, people will ride them. (Oulu Winter Bike Infrastructure Maintenance) It could even open up fat bike trail options, particularly around Granby.
Every city that has focused on bicycle infrastructure and walkable spaces has seen an increase in retail revenue. In winter there are more opportunities for cross country ski rental, bike rentals, and simply more time at the restaurants and bars. Once you remove the worries of getting over Berthoud Pass, it's easier to stay in town after sunset. Restaurants could continue their expanded capacity with the outdoor seating we all enjoyed during COVID. Winter Park already has its walkable spaces, and the resort itself is essentially car free. And these retail locations are the most desirable in the valley because of this walkability. By extending these walkable spaces to include all of town, there are more highly desirable business locations. Walkable spaces paired with simple to use commuter transit keeps people in town for longer.
The technology exists to improve the existing lines and make them commuter friendly. It shouldn’t take over an hour, or an average of two and a half hours, to get from Denver to Winter Park by train. And if Jerry ride’s the train, they’re not driving over Berthoud Pass in a rental car without snow tires. How many hundreds of cars could be taken off of I-70 every weekend, just by prioritizing rail? If the Swiss can build a 37 mile long train long tunnel, why can’t there be a train that connects Denver to Summit county? It would allow many of these places to focus on prioritizing people oriented space instead of car spaces. Which would allow for acres of land to go back to being used by people rather than cars. Parking lots don’t have to be a primary landscape of mountain resort towns.
From the other side of the state, Grand Junction could be connected to Aspen. There are AmTrack stations in Glenwood and Grand Junction already. All that's needed is new track from Glenwood to Aspen. Light rail starting in Parachute would take hundreds of employee commuter cars off of HWY82 and I-70 each day. Not only take cars off the road, but get employees to work more reliably during inclement weather. A quick transit bus from Glenwood to Sunlight Mountain could increase visitation to this smaller, charming resort. Especially as Glenwood is taking great strides to make its downtown area more walk-able.
Everyone wins in this scenario, except for those who might wish to maintain exclusivity and car dependency. Improvements to trackage would eventually allow for higher rail speeds and less freight interference. And since many of these towns basically have one way in, adding rail would drastically increase mobility and on time employees. Increasing the quality of holiday for tourists, and quality of life for employees currently stuck driving hours per day. The freedom of mobility this would allow is substantial. No more being stuck in traffic, and no more being focused on driving means more personal time.
It may seem silly to start with mountain towns instead of cities. But people move to these towns, and vacation in them, to be outside. To connect more with nature and experience less stress. By starting with access to mountain towns from cities, you can start a trend. Most of these mountain towns are small enough you can easily walk end to end. So it just makes sense that these are places you could delete cars from much more easily. And it still takes a lot of weekend traffic and employee commuter traffic off the roads. Anyone who has driven I-80 to Tahoe, or I-70 to Summit knows just what hassle it is. Ultimately, they know how dangerous and stressful it is. It doesn't have to be this way. Especially in towns that people visit specifically to be outside.
Authors Note: While Moffat Tunnel is close to capacity, there is another line through the Colorado Rockies that could be used for freight. Reactivating the Tennessee Pass line could also open up the options for rail traffic from Pueblo to Ski Cooper and Monarch Mountain in the future, and even connecting to Copper Mountain and Summit County. All while allowing greater rates of commuter traffic through Moffat Tunnel by diverting freight traffic to this route. While there are concerns of these lines carrying “waxy crude”, the easiest way to reduce that possibility would be to reduce the need for crude oil by reducing commuter car traffic. Interestingly, with 5-10 miles of trackage, the route to Winter Park could fork and include a stop at Eldora. A rail line down HWY 119 could connect Boulder with Eldora. This would allow rail traffic from Boulder to Eldora, Winter Park, and Granby Ranch. This additional train stop on the Winter Park Express would open up some wonderful commuter hiking in the area of Nederland and Rollinsville. This would not be the first time a train connected Boulder to Eldora. The Little Switzerland Trail was a railroad line from 1896 to 1919.
*Previously there was enough track that the only gap from Breckenridge to Denver was the stretch between Dillon and Silver Plume. Technically Waldorf Mine and Keystone. A tunnel connecting these two would be slightly longer than Moffat Tunnel.