Unless you commute by rail for a living, the idea of a weekend train ride through the countryside is pretty appealing. There is just something relaxing about chugging along while sitting back and enjoying the scenery.
Add to that some time on a ski slope, and it all becomes even better. Then add a beautiful day — blue sky, temperatures in the mid-20s with no wind, fresh snow — and you have the makings of a great experience.
Think last Sunday and the morning train from Saratoga Springs to North Creek with three hours at the Ski Bowl in town before a pleasant two hour, 15-minute ride back to Saratoga.
This is not so much a trip for the steep and deep ski boomer who wants to catch first tracks in the morning and ride the last lift before closing time. It is much more for those who want some time in the slow lane, with a leisurely breakfast en route to the mountain and a relaxed beverage on the way home.
Maybe you won’t do this regularly. But it sure is worth a try.
Trains are a part of ski lore in the Eastern U.S. They were popular in the 1930s and none more so than the famous Schenectady-North Creek trains that brought as many as 700 skiers to the small Hudson River community on weekends. But after World War II, as roads improved and cars become an easier form of transportation, the era of the ski train ended. Occasionally, one would pop up, like the Portland to Sunday River Maine train in the 1990s and the Denver to Winter Park Colorado run that ran up until three years ago, but otherwise, ski trains became nostalgia, not transportation.
Until two winters ago, that is. The Saratoga & North Creek Railway began its regular snow train in January 2012. This is its second full season with service now on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through mid-March. The Friday and Sunday trains run north from Saratoga at 10 a.m. and return from North Creek at 3:45 p.m. On Saturdays, in addition to the regular schedule, there is a 7 a.m. train north and a 1 p.m. departure south from North Creek. The Saratoga-North Creek service is now year-round with trains running in the spring, summer and fall. The service from July 1 through Oct. 31 is seven days a week. From Nov. 15 through the holidays, the Polar Express runs on these rails.
Is the ski train working out?
“We had 129 passengers last weekend,” said Steve Torrico, a career railroad guy from the Iowa Pacific Railroad and general manager of the Saratoga & North Creek Railway. “That is the high water mark for our service so far. We are pleased.”
Of the weekend total, 64 of the 66 who rode the train on Saturday were skiers, taking advantage of conditions right after the Friday snowstorm without having to worry about highway conditions. On Sunday, only three of the passengers were lugging skis.
One of them, regular ski sidekick Skyler, 41⁄2 (“almost 5”), loved the experience, not because of the scenery so much, but because of the opportunities. On board the train up and back, she played with a new friend who was there for a birthday outing, and in between on the hill, she worked on her “French fries” parallel ski technique at the Snow Bowl where she had the beginners terrain almost to herself. Then she capped off her on-the snow activities with several laps in the tubing park next to the ski run. It was a pretty good day to be 41⁄2 (“almost 5!”)
There are certain features that make this service extra pleasant.
First, parking at the train station in Saratoga is a breeze. There is no waiting for a shuttle or long slog to the platform.
Second, skis are handled for you at the platform. There is no lugging gear up the train steps and into the passenger compartment then off again at the destination.
Third, the free shuttle to the ski hill is waiting for you at the train station and drops you off and picks you up at the hill.
On board, there is food and beverage service. And this isn’t some cardboard container fare like you get on the airlines. It is freshly prepared onboard by chef Lawrence Proctor, and it is both tasty, and fairly priced. A continental breakfast with coffee and juice is $6. A stuffed pork loin with rice for dinner is $15. The fruit cobbler dessert at $4 would be a steal at twice the cost.
The cost for the round-trip train varies by accommodation and age of the traveler. The most expensive trip is $87. That is for an adult round-trip and includes a Gore Mountain ski lift ticket, and a reserved seat at an upstairs table in a glass dome rail car. (If you pick this option, remember to bring sunglasses).
Compare this to the cost of a regular Gore Mountain lift ticket alone which is $59-79, without transportation.
There are some people who have made the train a multi-day option. They go up to North Creek one day and back another. The most expensive travel-lift ticket combination for this is $125. Both the Copperfield Inn and the Alpine Lodge are just a short walk from the train station and operate shuttles to the ski area.
Torrico is very upbeat about the future of the service. He indicated that they are ahead of last year in passengers served, and the recent storm gives skiers optimism that the sliding season will go well beyond March 17, which is the end of Snow Train schedule.
As with all new programs, the question is “Will the train service be back next winter?”
“I think the prospects of that are very solid” said Torrico.
Is an avid skier likely to take the train on a regular basis? Probably not. Travel by car is still quicker, and you determine when to come, and go. But for a day, or a weekend, when the idea is to kick back and enjoy the trip as much as the destination, the Saratoga & North Creek Snow Train is a great alternative for home to hill, and back.
EMPIRE STATE GAMES A HIT
Three years ago, the Empire State Games were dead in the water. New York had decided to abandon the annual event after 28 years as part of a state cost reduction plan. The day after the cancellation announcement was made that November, longtime Lake Placid/Essex County Visitor and Convention Bureau chief Jim McKenna announced that local organizers would take over responsibility for running the games.
It worked. In less than three months, the Games were back on the calendar. Local officials, along with the Lake Placid-based Olympic Regional Development Authority and a host of other organizations and businesses from throughout the region got together to run the show. And they have been doing it ever since. Last weekend wound up the third year under the new arrangements. With fresh snow providing a frosting to the scene, the Winter Games drew more than 1,100 participants in 19 sports to an event that without local leadership and a broad public response at the time would be just a footnote today.
The snowstorm last week didn’t bring quite as much as what some were predicting. And what it did bring was not enough to open the Hickory Ski Center outside of Warrensburg.
The area has still not opened this season. But optimism continues to flow as events are being scheduled into March. This is a special place for skiers who like a challenge. To see if the area is open, check www.-hickoryskicenter.com.
If you are like me, you enjoyed reading the printed information about Gore Mountain and the Adirondacks that were posted in each cabin of the area’s Northwoods Gondola. You could learn quite a bit about the mountain and surroundings from these bite-sized posted notes. I always wondered why more areas didn’t do this.
Well, the stickers are not there this winter.
The good news is that they will be back. According to Gore marketing manager Emily Stanton, who started the project several years ago, these stickers are being re-done with color photography added. They are a welcome addition.