We had two things in mind when my daughters and I planned a quick weekend getaway for January: cheap airfare and winter fun.
Because we couldn't guarantee there would be snow in the Mile High City, we aimed higher to increase our chances. How high? About 9,000 feet, the altitude at the base of Winter Park Resort.
The day trip couldn't have been easier. We hopped on Amtrak's Winter Park Express at Union Station at 7 a.m. and settled in for the roughly 2-hour train ride. I had read online about the Winter Park Express, which runs on select days through March 25, and booked our tickets through Amtrak's website for $29 apiece each way.
The journey was comfortable (nice reclining seats), and the conductor was a very capable travel guide, pointing out things (on the right, on the left, ahead) and talking about all the tunnels we'd be traveling through — 29 — and something I tuned out about the train's fumes inside those tunnels.
For most of the way, the scenery was brown, but as we neared the end, the color palette changed, giving way to green and white.
Emerging from the 6-mile-plus Moffat Tunnel, it felt like we were in a postcard: snow-capped mountains and trees as far as the eyes could see.
These Florida natives were starting to get excited.
The only thing on our agenda, other than touching the snow, sitting in the snow, lying in the snow, throwing the snow and making really bad snowmen, was snow tubing down a hill. (There are plenty of other resort activities for the more adventuresome, from skiing to snow biking.)
Someone mentioned that we should get a reservation for tubing, so we took advantage of the free Village Cabriolet, open-air gondolas that provide stunning 360-degree views, to get to the tubing area. We signed some liability waivers we didn't read and plunked down $78 to tube for one hour. Our rides were scheduled for 1 p.m., so we had a few hours to explore.
One of my daughters suggested we take a hike.
We inquired about where there might be a trail and were directed across the main road. We were encouraged to take the free bus there, so we did.
We found the Discovery/Challenger Trail and walked past some people who knew what they were doing. (We had on footwear made for fashion, not function, boots and sneakers. They were strapping on snowshoes.)
What a fun diversion the hike proved to be. The snow on the trail was compact, so we had little trouble navigating. The only thing that slowed our pace was stopping repeatedly to take cellphone photos of our surroundings, which at every turn seemed to get more beautiful, majestic trees covered in snow, thick blankets of it covering everything.
We had the place to ourselves, no people, no animals, just sheer tranquillity.
Benches along the path were heaped several feet high with the white stuff, but that didn't stop me from sinking down and sitting on one. I stepped off the trail to see what that would be like, going lower and lower until the snow reached my upper thighs. It didn't even feel cold.
We decided to turn back after about 20 minutes but were quickly halted as clouds gave way to blue sky. Is there no end to this picturesque setting?
When we made it to the highway, we took our chances and crossed on foot. Then it was off to the main village by gondola for sustenance. We opted for Doc's Roadhouse, which was big on zesty cheese — in our chili, in our soup of the day, on our loaded fries.
Stomachs full, we went in and out of a few shops, then headed toward the gondolas. Tube time!
It all seemed a little intimidating, the instructions, the lanes, how to get in the tubes without taking off prematurely, so we started with the fourth of four lanes, the slow lane. I grabbed a single tube and my daughters grabbed a tube for two. Because we were first-timers, I went in front and they held on to my strap. We got the green light from an employee and took off, zipping to the bottom.
It was such a blast that we were eager to try a different lane. Our zeal was tempered, however, by the journey back up on the enclosed conveyor belt lift, tubes in tow. So. Darn. Slow.
Once we arrived at the top, we decided to try the fast lane, Lane 1. Definitely faster.
And we weren't done yet. But first we had to, again, endure the dreaded people mover to get back to the top.
We moved to Lane 2, which was near a lifeguard stand that was empty, save for a small radio on its seat that played, of all things, Escape (The Pina Colada Song).
After the third run, my girls were done.
I went once more, finishing up with Lane 3.
Having mastered snow tubing, we boarded a gondola and returned to the main village, where we sipped Starbucks and indulged in a sugar waffle at Waffle Cabin and a Monte Cristo crepe and boozy hot chai drink (for me) at Goodys Mountain Cafe and Creperie. We also warmed ourselves by one of several fire pits and did a little shopping.
As the sun began its slow descent, it really started to cool off, so we holed up in a heated building to wait for the train.
It pulled in at about 4:30 p.m.
Not long after, we were underway and it was nap time.
Contact Dawn Cate at