Ride the Rails to Surf the Mountains

Train from Quebec City to Baie St Paul
Le Massif de Charlevoix Ski Train IMAGE CREDIT; Facebook

Look a-yonder comin’ Comin’ down that railroad track …

There is a train that runs from Quebec City to Baie St Paul in Charlevoix, Quebec, stopping at Le Germain Hotel, a modern, eco-conscious resort and spa, founded by Daniel Gauthier, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil and owner of the magnificent Le Massif de Charlevoix, accessible by shuttle from Le Germain. The train service between Quebec City and Baie St Paul is only being offered once more this season before shutting down ‘til summer, but there are plans to resume a winter train service for the 2020 / 21 season.

I drove from Montreal when I had the unforgettable fortune of snowboarding at Le Massif a few years back. The drive from Quebec City to Baie St Paul was the white-knuckle variety typical of Quebec mountain roadways in winter. I’ve only ever seen pictures of the Train de Charlevoix, but the idea of riding the rails along the snowy banks of the Saint Lawrence River conjures nostalgia and fantasy. I hope to make this trip by rail one day.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SKI TRAINS

Snow Train Poster
Boston and Maine Snow Train Poster IMAGE CREDIT: Facebook

1868 was the year the Mount Washington cog railway first hauled thrill-seeking passengers to the summit. The same year the first passenger train ran the route from Sacramento, across the Donner Pass, into Truckee, and on to Reno. North of the border, the Canadian Pacific Railway pushed across the Rogers Pass in 1885, and Glacier National Park opened the following year.

Ski clubs that grew in popularity during the 1920s rode trains to the Alps, the Laurentians, the Adirondacks, the Rockies, and the Sierra. In the depression-era, cuts to railway revenues inspired clever marketing folks to come up with the idea of special trips to the mountains by rail. America’s first dedicated ski train debuted on January 11th, 1931, when the Boston & Maine Railroad’s ‘Sunday Winter Sports Train’ took 197 passengers up to Warner, New Hampshire. In January of the following year the Rio Grande Railway ran special trains from Salt Lake to Park City, and in 1835 the first ski train ran from New York City to the Berkshires, carrying 500 skiers, and twice as many onlookers.

In its heyday, thousands of passengers would cram into the 12-car winter sports train until all standing room was gone. Northerners in New England telegraphed snow reports so that railroad officials could customize snow train schedules, which ran in the Boston Globe on Thursdays. A converted luggage car rented skis for $1!

MODERN SKI TRAINS

Declining in popularity in WWII and nearly disappearing in the 1950s with the expansion of the highway system, the ski trains that formed the foundation and spurred the popularity of the sport in New England have recently experienced a retro rebirth. A nostalgic, practical, and low-carbon footprint option for traveling from the concrete jungle to the snowy mountains, on a silver bullet you can sit back and experience breathtaking views, free of the stress that often comes with navigating unfamiliar mountain highways and roadways.

Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont

  • New York (Penn Station) – to Essex Junction
  • $119 round trip
  • 11:33 am arrives at 8:08 pm; 9:54 am arrives at 6:25 pm
Morse Mtn Chair and Smuggler's Notch
Smuggler’s Notch, Voted #1 Family Ski Resort in the East IMAGE CREDIT: J. Davis

The east coast has one of the most extensive rail networks in North America. Multiple ski resorts are accessible by silver bullet from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.  One of the most magical destinations, and our home mountain, is Smuggler’s Notch, near the village of Jeffersonville, in Lamoille County, Vermont. Ranked #1 Family Friendly Resort in the Eastern United States by SKI Magazine readers, Smugg’s has a deep and captivating history. With three distinct mountains – Sterling, Madonna, and the beginner-friendly Morse, its trails are named after the smugglers who frequented the notch during the War of 1812. With a local, down-to-earth vibe, #smuggslove is large. For train travelers, a shuttle service runs through the resort village and a mountain shuttle loops between the village and the upper mountain base area. If you’re inclined to venture from the village for apres, a number of mountain taxi services in the area can transport you to one of the many microbreweries that have popped up in the county in recent years.

Stevens Pass/Mission Ridge

  • Seattle – Leavenworth
  • $78 round trip
  • 4:40 pm arrives at 8:00 pm; 6:08 am arrives at 10:25 am

Following the original route of the Great Northern Railroad, the train winds its way through Gold Bar, Index, and Baring. Near the 4,000 foot summit it travels into the Cascade Tunnel, arriving in the Bavarian town of Leavenworth, which is all dressed-up at Christmastime with carolers in the street, and sleigh rides. At dusk, everyone gathers to sing “Silent Night” for the lightening of the village. Two world-class ski resorts, Stevens Pass and Mission Ridge are accessible from Leavenworth. For west coast style powder, skiers head to Mission Ridge, where the snow is dryer and the sun shines bright 300 days of the year.

Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows / Northstar California

  • San Francisco to North Lake Tahoe (via Truckee)
  • $78 round trip
  • 9:10 am arrives at 2:38 pm; 9:37 am arrives at 4:10 pm

The transcontinental railroad revolutionized the settlement of the American West, connecting the eastern railroad network via Omaha all the way to the seaports in Oakland/San Francisco. To make the final journey over the Sierra Nevada, Truckee’s rail yard was established as the place to get additional engines to help push over the summit. It is still used as a gateway to all the ski resorts in North Lake Tahoe today, and there is a myriad of affordable shuttles from downtown Truckee to the ski resorts in the region.

Winter Park

  • Denver (Union Station)
  • $98 round trip
  • 7:00 am arrives at 9:00 am; 4:30 pm arrives at 6:40 pm
Winter Park Ski Train
The Winter Park Express Train IMAGE CREDIT: Facebook

Like New England, Colorado has a long history when it comes to ski trains. One of the longest-running was the route to Winter Park from 1940 until the 2008-09 season. Relaunched a few years ago, the engine climbs over 3,960 feet across 56 miles to the Moffat Tunnel to its destination at Winter Park Station. Winter Park itself is the longest-running resort in Colorado with over 3,000 acres, 29 feet of snowfall, and an uphill capacity of 40,000 riders per hour. The ski train begins its 2020 season on January 10th and runs on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Whitefish

  • Chicago, Twin Cities, Spokane, Seattle
  • Schedule & rates – varia

The legendary Amtrak line known as the Empire Builder begins in Chicago traveling through Minneapolis/St. Paul, finishing up in Seattle. This route provides access to the world-class Whitefish Mountain Resort (aka Big Mountain). The picturesque ski town of Whitefish provides a free “Snowbus” (tip your driver!) that can shuttle you from Whitefish up to Big Mountain. 300 inches of snow blanket the resort, across its 3,000 acres.