Winter park is five mountains in one and just a little over an hour’s drive from Denver. You won’t find any celebrities or extravagant on-slope resorts. But you will find 134 trails, wide-open slopes, glades, bowls and bumps and over 3000’ of vertical drop. My wife and I and two friends (Jan and Ben) spent an extended weekend at Winter park. It wasn’t nearly enough time.
On our first day, we puzzle over the enormous trail map and decide to start out with some blue trails to warm up. Warming up comes easy as sunshine, blue skies and temps in the upper 30s promise a good day. The line to the primary lift at the entrance to the mountain, the Zephyr Express high-speed quad, is surprisingly short for a Saturday. At the top of the lift we marvel at the view for a few minutes. Mountain peaks covered in thick pine forests extend in all directions. Unlike other areas of the Rockies that have sharp jagged peaks, which look dramatic and foreboding, the surrounding countryside looks alive and inviting. We reorient ourselves at a “You are Here” type trail map and decide on a trail called Cranmer that we end up calling Kramer the entire trip. The wide blue slope takes us down to another lift, the Eskimo Express. So we hop on that and make a few more runs.
Ben is itching to try out the Parsenn Bowl at 12,060 feet. Karen, however, has this fear that the bowl will be a nasty, icy, moguled up glacier filled with crevasses. Instead, we move onto blue/black slope, Hughes, which seems steeper at parts than any of the black slopes in the mid-Atlantic. The trail is well groomed and none of us have any trouble. But I feel a bit like an out of control skier a couple of times as I zoom along. The speed, however, becomes addictive and we make a few more runs down Hughes.
Winter Park is best known for the Mary Jane section of the mountain and the numerous mogul trails. None of us are particularly good on the bumps. But we want to take a look at the notorious chutes and glades. Fortunately, there are several blue and blue/black runs on this part of the mountain. Reaching Mary Jane requires taking several other trails and two more high-speed quads (Olympia and High Lonesome Express). My stomach begins to growl as we finally arrived at the top of Mary Jane. A fairly easy blue slope, Bluebell, makes for effortless swooshing and we agree on one more run before continuing all the way to the bottom of Mary Jane. From the bottom of the Sunnyside lift, Coronaway (another Blue), circumnavigated the steeper mogul trails and all of these trails fed into Coronaway. We pause along the way to gaze up Cannonball, Long Haul, Short Haul, Brakeman and a whole bunch more of shear trails filled with tight moguls well beyond our skill level. They all look like you’d end up needing knee surgery after just one run.
A sign at the top of the trail leading to the bowl warns of long lift lines. We continue on anyway and find a crowd amassed at the Timberline lift, a standard two-seater. A group of lines funnel into one line and it only takes about five minutes of shuffling to board the lift. The lift offers an almost panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. Wind sweeps across the bowl as Karen and I near the top, revealing patches of ice on blue/black slope Larkspur. Fortunately, the wind has blown the snow onto intermediate trail, Forget Me Knot. Off the lift we see a group of skiers mulling around and getting ready to ski down Forget Me Knot. The slope itself appears empty. Karen and I decide not to wait for Jan and Ben, several chairs behind us, so we can have the bowl to ourselves. We yell up to Jan and Ben that we’ll meet them at the bottom of the lift as we cut through the crowd. Ahh! Emptiness! On the blank whiteness of the bowl, with nothing but horizon below, I think I’m on the frozen planet Pluto. The slope crests, becoming steeper, to reveal several runs cutting through the trees… back to Earth. The contrast from nothingness to being surrounded by trees really feels like going from one world to another. Paths within the trees keep converging and lead back to the lift. The line has gotten longer and I’m ready to start eating snow, but I maneuver towards the queue and wait for my companions. One more time!
The second run is just as much fun as the first. We all meet up at the bottom and begin the long process of returning to find our buried food. Two trails and three lifts later I’m famished. I eat my sandwich, half of Ben’s sandwich and a slice of pizza from the Sunspot cafeteria. We dine outside on the deck of the complex amazed at the sunny spring-like conditions in February. I return to the cafeteria and grab a cookie to appease my bottomless stomach. It must be the altitude. The mid-mountain complex lies at 10, 700’. The top of Mary Jane is at 11,200.
The 2:00 o’clock hour passes as we click back into our skies. With less than two hours left before the lifts close, we return to Parsenn for a couple of more blasts down the bowl and then to the base of Mary Jane for a run on Sleeper -; a great blue/black cruiser. We work out way back along a variety of trails and somehow manage to arrive back at the base of the mountain a few minutes before 4:00 o’clock. We hop onto the Zephyr Express for one last run down Hughes.
Vasque Ridge is empty as the brochure attested and most slopes are easy blue cruisers. However, too many of them feed into a very flat, perhaps even uphill, green trail called Big Valley that goes on and on forever before ending at the base of the lift. Even going at Mach speed, I have to pole, pole, pole to finish the trail. It’s easy to understand why it’s empty.
We traverse the mountain trying out various trails as snow begins to fall and the temperatures dropped. By lunchtime we find our way back to the main complex at the base of the mountain. It is still sunny and warm down low. Okay, 9000’… but low compared to the rest of the mountain. Once again, we eat outside under the sun. And I don’t eat everything in sight this time.
After lunch, Karen and I lend our ski boards to Jan and Ben and Ben let me try out his new X-Scream skis. I’m on K2 188 first generation sidecuts. Ben’s a few inches taller than me and his X-Screams are 176 cm. Everyone is now pushing smaller and smaller skis. Karen had just gone from Rossi Red 170s to Volkl 156s before the trip and she made a gigantic leap in her skiing ability. I don’t notice any real difference with the newer small skis. Jan and Ben, however, have a blast skating down the hills are on the very short ski boards. We play around on blue and green trails teaching Jan and Ben to do spins and jumps on the boards and lose track of time. Catching the last ride up on the High Lonesome Express, we follow a long path along five trials and return to the front of the resort fifteen minutes after closing time. Wow! Two full days of closing the place down.
I’m ready for bed.
But there’s no rest for the wicked. Or at least there’s no rest when you’re on vacation (why is that???). We stop at an Internet café on the way back to the condo and then dine out at Marvin’s Hideaway Restaurant in the town of Winter Park -; pricey, nice atmosphere, good service… mediocre food. Can’t say I’d recommend it. We follow this with a dip in the communal hot tub and then stay up too late watching a Jackie Chan movie on cable.
Getting up early the next day is a struggle. But with a late afternoon flight beckoning, we need to hit the slopes as early as possible. A good six inches of snow has fallen overnight in town and the mountain received several more inches. I dig out the car and we hit the road. We somehow manage to arrive at 8:45, about fifteen minutes after the lifts open. Bach to the top on the Zephyr Express, fresh powder coats every trail. It’s what every skier talks about -; fresh powder.
I have no idea what to do in powder. I look down and my skis are gone and snow comes up to the tops of my boots. We ski down Kramer and everything moves in slow motion. Just to keep going, I pump back and forth. Snow continues to fall and the temperature is about 25 degrees. Not too cold. But Jan and Karen stop to warm up after a few runs. I’m overheated from pushing my way down the slopes. We try out a few of the shorter mogul runs thinking that the soft snow will make then bumps less jarring. Our theory actually works. I manage to connect the tops of the bumps together -; the powder helps me control my speed and acts as a cushion as I hit each mogul. Still, it’s pretty tiring and the snow continues to fall. At the base of the Olympia Express Lift, however, the sun shines. With only a couple of hours left, Ben and I head for the Parsenn bowl while Jan and Karen stay low where it’s warmer. There’s no line on a Monday for the Timberline Express. I look at the thermometer on my jacket and it reads 5 degrees Fahrenheit as we near the top of the lift. The wind is howling and I can barely see the chair in front of us. I’m certain that it’s going to be a rough time getting down.
As usual, I’m wrong as can be. The wind has prevented the snow from piling up too deeply. There’s about 2 inches of powder on a packed powder base. I can’t really see where I’m going during the first half of the run. But the trees eventually come into view and I’m enjoying the best conditions I’ve had all season. Ben arrives at the lift a few seconds behind me smiling ear to ear. We’re giddy as we shuffle to catch the chair. He says something to me and I turn towards him just as the chair comes up from behind. I hear a GAFLOMP, the lift stops, and I’m sitting there alone a few feet in the air while Ben is on his back behind me in the snow. “What the heck happened,” I say. And he shrugs, puts his arms out, palms up and gives me the international sign for “I don’t know.” I laugh at him until the lift operator walks underneath me.
“Would you like your ski?” She asks.
“Huh?” I say.
“Your ski, sir?”
I look down and notice my missing extended appendage on the right. How in the world did that happen? Now Ben is laughing. The lift-lady grabs my ski and pushes it back onto my boot. I thank her as she walks behind me and fires up the lift. At the top Ben and I try to figure out what happened. We don’t have a clue. I’ll try to remember this incident the next time a lift stops and I’m cursing under my breath.
Ben and I fly down Forget Me Knot twice more before starting the long journey back. By now we have the route memorized and whoosh along without have to stop and double check the trail markers. Our plan is to finish up and meet up with Karen and Jan at 12:30. We arrive at 12:15. So we jump on the Arrow Lift and grab another quick ride down a blue trail called Larry Sale.
Times up and I still haven’t explored all of the blue and blue/black trails. I should have planned on spending a few more days there. I also wanted to attend a mogul clinic or two and try a true ‘Out West’ expert trail or maybe explore some of the back-country trails-the wild, un-groomed chutes and glades. Or maybe not. The way I ski, that would take a lot more than just a couple of more days.
For more information on rates and packages, go to:
United (hey, we’re bankrupt too) Airlines offers direct non-stop service from Baltimore to Denver. Discounted tickets cost about 30 dollars more than can be found on some other airlines. But it’s worth the few extra dollars to avoid having to change planes. Visit orbitz.com or the united.com Check out United’s e-fares for even better deals on last minute travel. Winter may be winding down here in the mid-Atlantic. But it’ll be going strong for a good, long while at Winter Park.
Photos by Matthew Graham.
Matthew Graham is a skier as well as a hang glider and paraglider pilot, SCUBA diver, cavern diver, equestrian, polo player, sailor, hiker, biker, rock climber, paddler, and skater. He's also yoga teacher and certified personal trainer and has dabbled in just about every other sport, even stunt car driving and bull riding! He has written for the Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, USA Weekend Magazine, Hooked on the Outdoors, Richmond Magazine, Chesapeake Life Magazine, Metro Sports, American Fitness, Blue Ridge Outdoors, Recreation News and numerous other outdoor and travel publications.