Bump bonanza: why Colorado’s Winter Park ski resort is worth a visit

With everything from world-class moguls to tree skiing and gentle cruisers, Winter Park ski resort has you covered – and it’s so close to Denver, you don’t even need a hire car.

It’s worth making a pitstop at Snoasis, a mid-mountain lodge at Winter Park ski resort, just to see the Bradley Packer.

Suspended above the bar, this daunting, plough-like contraption is allegedly the world’s first snow-grooming machine.

Invented in the 1950s by Winter Park’s first executive director, Steve Bradley, it was used to smooth out the resort’s humps and bumps. Bradley would tow the 400-kilogram machine behind him as he skied down the mountain, praying he didn’t fall and get run over.

Winter Park ski resort Colorado © Carl Frey
Winter Park ski resort’s humps and bumps are one of its biggest drawcard © Carl Frey

Fast-forward 60-odd years and Winter Park’s bumps are now, ironically, one of its biggest drawcards. Mogul addicts flock to an area called Mary Jane – named after a local lady of ill repute who allegedly traded favours for land – to test their skills on some of the best bumps in the country.

Mary Jane is one of seven separate territories, each of which has its own features and personality.

Runs for all

Beginners will find gentle greens and cruisey blues in the Winter Park territory near the base area. While powder fiends will want to head to The Cirque for 160 hectares of stamina-testing double-black diamond terrain.

On a clear day, head for the Panoramic Express, which will whisk you above the tree line to Parsenn Bowl. From this 3676-metre vantage point, you can bask in neck-straining views of the Continental Divide.

Winter Park ski resort Colorado © Carl Frey
You don’t need to be an expert skiier to conquer Winter Park © Carl Frey

The best bit? You don’t need to be an expert skier to get back down, because there are intermediate runs all the way to the base.

Easily accessible

Winter Park’s impressive variety tends to play second fiddle to its unrivalled accessibility. Not only is it the closest major ski resort to Denver, but the Winter Park Express means you can get from the airport to the base of the mountain solely by train.

While you could do the journey in one hop, it’s worth breaking it up with a night in Denver. That way, you can acclimatise to the altitude. After catching a train to Union Station, you’re but a ski-glove toss away from the stylish embrace of Kimpton Hotel Born.

Winter Park ski resort Colorado © Chris Wellhausen
Winter Park ski resort © Chris Wellhausen

If there’s a downside to this impressive urban proximity, it’s that the resort can get busy on weekends. However, if you book a lesson with a ski instructor or hire a guide, you can access the mountain before the lifts open to the public, and skip the queues.

Gaming-changing features

In 2019 a new gondola was installed from the base. In the words of our instructor Tom Hickok, it’s been “a game-changer” for easing congestion.

We’re lucky to arrive the day after 30 centimetres of fresh snow and, thanks to his local knowledge, we ski untouched powder stashes all day long.

Winter Park ski resort Colorado © Carl Frey
Gondola at Winter Park ski resort © Carl Frey

The new gondola has also enabled a lively on-mountain après scene. At places such as the stylish Sunspot, visitors can often enjoy live music with dinner from Thursday to Saturday.

The gondola is free after 4pm so non-skiers can also enjoy upscale cuisine, such as roasted corn chowder and honey-grilled salmon, served with a side of majestic mountain views.

Another popular on-mountain dining venue is Lunch Rock. It not only serves a mean turkey chilli but also has a popular bar with a dangerously tempting Bloody Mary happy hour from 9am.

Sun chairs at Winter Park ski resort Colorado © Carl Frey
Sun chairs at Winter Park ski resort Colorado © Carl Frey

Modest and authentic

Two things you won’t find at Winter Park ski resort are Gucci stores and Michelin-starred restaurants. Despite its handiness to Denver, the scene here is authentic and unpretentious. Even the resort’s only ski-in/ski-out accommodation, Zephyr Mountain Lodge, is a functional, three-star property of self-contained apartments. People come here to ski, not to be seen.

The dining scene is similarly unostentatious. Start your day with a breakfast burrito and a bargain $US2 latte from Coffee and Tea. Then grab a steaming bowl of chilli for lunch at the cosy Sundance Chili Hut above Mary Jane.

Winter Park ski resort Colorado © Carl Frey
Fresh powder at Winter Park © Carl Frey

If it’s a weekend, get your après fix mid-mountain at Sunspot, otherwise head to Doc’s Roadhouse at the base for a Snuggler: a decadent mix of peppermint schnapps, hot chocolate and whipped cream.

For dinner, you can either eat in the village or take a 10-minute cab ride into the nearby town of Winter Park.

In the village, our pick is Vertical, a relaxed bistro that serves a mean Lumberjack burger with a wide range of craft beers. In town, try Deno’s, a lively steakhouse that’s been satiating mountain appetites with Black Angus ribeyes since 1976.

Other attractions

Although skiing and boarding are the resort’s main attractions, there are other activities too, including snowshoeing, snowmobiling and even a weekly ‘snow yoga’ class.

Families are also well catered for thanks to a purpose-built tubing park, a musical parade on Saturday afternoons and several kid-friendly excursions, such as a S’mores snowcat tour.

When we wake up on our last day, it’s to the glorious sight of blue skies and fresh snow. It’s a Saturday, so our guide uses her early access pass to whisk us up the mountain ahead of the crowds.

We spend an hour snaking down deserted runs on fresh corduroy before zig-zagging through bucolic glades of spruce and fir.

Winter Park Express © Carl Frey
Winter Park Express train © Carl Frey

In two hours’ time, we’ll be on the Winter Park Express train, speeding back to Denver through a frozen landscape dotted with elk.

But right now, with our time ebbing away, there’s only one thing left to do – jump on the High Lonesome Express and get one last dose of Mary Jane’s bumps.

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This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, Autumn 2020, issue 114

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