Tips and Secrets to Ski Winter Park Resort Colorado

Winter Park Resort Colorado offers consistent snowfall, award-winning terrain, and fewer crowds than other Denver area ski resorts. After spending a month skiing at Winter Park, I’ve got all the tips and secrets you need to choose this beautiful, friendly destination for your next ski vacation.

Man skiing in powder snow.

About Winter Park Resort Colorado

Winter Park Resort is Colorado’s longest continually operated ski resort featuring over 3000 acres of terrain spread across two mountains: Winter Park and Mary Jane. It’s located about an hour and a half northwest of Denver and receives over 344 inches of snow annually.

Winter Park Resort’s elevation is 12,060 feet at the summit, with its base at 9,000 feet. Its terrain is rated as follows:

  • 8% beginner
  • 18% intermediate
  • 19% advanced
  • 52% most difficult
  • 3% expert only

Winter Park is not a Vail Resort. Owned by Alterra Mountain Company, it is served by the Ikon Pass (not the Epic Pass).

Is Winter Park Resort Colorado the best ski vacation alternative to Vail Resorts? Read on to find out!

Man on skis standing in front of Winter Park Mary Jane sign.

Getting to Winter Park

On my recent trip, nearly everyone I met on the lift was skiing or snowboarding Winter Park for the first time instead of taking their usual spring break trips to Vail’s Breckenridge, Keystone, and Beaver Creek ski resorts.

The driving time from Denver to Winter Park takes about the same hour and a half as driving to the I-70 ski areas. But after a snow storm, going to Winter Park in wintry weather demands a white-knuckle drive through Berthoud Pass and its 10 hairpin turns as it climbs to 11,000 feet before plunging back down into the resort town.

Having driven from Denver Airport to several of the I-70 Denver ski resorts in wintry conditions, I’d say the ride to Winter Park is more challenging than the ride to the Summit County, CO resorts.

Yet the parking lots at Winter Park filled up by 9:00 a.m. every day for several consecutive weeks no matter how much snow was reported in the snow report. So why are so many skiers and snowboarders choosing Winter Park, CO for their winter ski vacations instead of Vail Resorts?

Packed Parking Lots, No Lift Lines

The free parking lots at Winter Park and Mary Jane were mostly filled up by 9:00 a.m. when the ski lifts start spinning. Shuttle buses pick up and drop off at these lots like clockwork so it’s no real inconvenience to boot up at the car and take the bus to the village.

Or, park 20 yards closer to the village for $10.00/day via kiosk, which jumps to $20.00/day on peak days. The paid lots were always filled up.

We called the free F lot our secret parking spot for the days we planned to ski on the Winter Park side. It’s right next to the paid lot and close enough to walk on a powder day if you just missed the bus and can’t wait.

Winter Park parking map with tips drawn in red.

Wherever you park, you’ll have to walk through the entire Winter Park village to get to the lifts. It’s fine if you need a breakfast crepe or coffee. But on the way back to the car, you’ll notice the entire walk is slightly uphill.

At Mary Jane, early birds can get prime parking right next to the trails just a few steps from the lifts with no need for a shuttle bus, credit card, or a hike in ski boots. Our secret parking spot isn’t even in a parking lot but on the road just behind the Challenger lift.

Parking spot close to ski lift.

Many locals in the know have their own secret spots up and down the road for a quick exit directly from semi-secret trails through the woods.

Despite the jam-packed parking lots, there were almost no lines at any of the ski lifts, even on what was called the busiest day of the year. We may have waited five minutes a few times for the Panoramic Express to Parsenn Bowl but never experienced the demoralizing traffic jams common to the Timberline lift at Copper Mountain or the Peak 7 base at Breckenridge.

Three high-speed, six-person chairlifts at Mary Jane and six high-speed quads at Winter Park keep everyone moving before long lines can form. I especially enjoyed how everyone merged, alternated, and talked to each other in line. On a busy day, nearly every chair went up fully loaded – without any employee managing the process. The line for the gondola went just as smoothly, even on a pow day.

The vastness of the mountains disperses any crowds very well so once you know the bottlenecks to avoid, it’s easy to find seclusion in the woods or an empty groomer to shred.

Winter Park Trail Map Areas to Avoid

Many of the trails at Winter Park and Mary Jane funnel everyone into bottlenecks en route to the lifts. These high traffic zones create a dangerous mix of skiers and snowboarders of all ability levels moving at different speeds in all kinds of random directions. These danger zones must be carefully navigated if it’s not practical to avoid them entirely.

Winter Park trail map with tips drawn in red.

Take Bluebell Instead of Edelweiss

The entirety of the Parsenn Bowl, for example, empties into the blue Edelweiss for the return to the Panoramic (and Sunnyside) lift. Upstream, skiers empty from the trees into the flow unseen, and often without looking uphill, as snowboarders find every side hit, and the crowd leaving Lunch Rock merges into the flow.

Then, coming over a lip reveals a sea of pandemonium as myriad blue skiers stand stopped and panicked in chaotic bumps and chop as more advanced skiers avoid the orange cone obstacles by speeding through the mess shouting, “On your left! On your right!”

For a safer alternative, take a left onto the blue trail, Bluebell. It leads to the same place but gets slightly less traffic. A note for the mountain operations folks, this trail needs to be groomed every day for everyone’s safety.

Crowded Areas to Avoid From the Gondola

The Mary Jane trail connects the Winter Park side to the Mary Jane side. It’s not the only trail that connects the top of Winter Park where the gondola empties to Mary Jane but it is the only blue trail connection and the one that isn’t covered top to bottom in bumps.

Everyone appreciates a wide, groomed, blue cruiser as a warmup first thing in the morning but everyone with a pulse and a lift ticket seems to be here at the same time. Despite the orange “slow” signs, I’m convinced the safest way to navigate these types of trails is with speed, and lots of it.

Or, a better way to avoid this bottleneck if you plan to ski at Mary Jane is to park at Mary Jane and save everyone the trouble.

Beautiful views at Winter Park Resort Colorado.

For those getting off the gondola and going to the right to ski Winter Park, most take the blue and green White Rabbit and March Hare trails. This whole area merges into the same flat runout on the way to the Looking Glass and Olympia lifts and needs to be avoided.

While these rolling trails would be fantastic to super G when no one is around, there’s always someone around. Usually lots of someones. With mostly beginner and intermediate skiers standing around where they shouldn’t be and meandering without looking, White Rabbit and March Hare are two Winter Park ski trails you’ll want to minimize your time on.

Pioneer Express: It’s Just Not Worth It

For snowboarders, and anyone else who prefers to avoid skating and walking on flat runout, the Pioneer Express lift must be avoided at all costs. This is especially sad because this lift serves a number of excellent, blue cruisers, black bumps, and lesser known tree skiing areas. But once reaching the green trail at the bottom, it flattens out and even goes slightly uphill for miles before reaching the bottom of the lift.

And if you planned to get fresh chili at the Sundance Chili Hut at the top of the lift as a reward for the effort in getting there, the joke’s on you again. No chili. It’s just a warming hut. Maybe next year. Seriously, never go near this area – until 2024 when a new lift with a mid-station that will allow loading without going all the way to the bottom is to replace Pioneer.

Winter Park Mary Jane Where to Ski Secrets

Now that I’ve covered where not to ski, here are several of my favorite trails and secret lines.

Trail map with secret spots noted in red.

Fireberry Glade

Off the Panoramic Express lift, nearly everyone goes to looker’s left onto the groomed section or all the way left to the trees – and these trees and bumps uphill of the Pano lift are excellent! Many also go right to Larkspur for the steepest pitch on the bowl.

But for softer snow, and for the best shot at untracked powder, pass Larkspur and go all the way around the rim to Fireberry Glade. It all empties into about the same place. Then play around in the trees downhill of the Pano lift.

The Cirque

Of course you’ll want to hit Vasquez Cirque on a powder day. The entry looks very steep from the top but it’s fairly short and the lower section through the trees is a lot of fun. It compares nicely to Copper Bowl.

The Cirque snow bowl with many skiers' tracks.

To get to the Cirque, get off the Pano chair at the summit, skate straight ahead, pop off your skis, and hike up. If it’s your lucky day, Winter Park runs a snowcat pulling a sled. The driver packs as many as possible in the back then drives around the rim, dropping off by the South Headwall.

I still don’t know how to tell when the sled is running but if it’s a pow day, I’d check it out. If there’s no sled, it’s a 15-30 minute hike depending on where you want to drop in. Be sure to take the Eagle Wind lift back up – otherwise it’s the endless runout that goes on and on all the way down to the bottom of the dreaded Pioneer Express lift.

Best Tree Skiing at Winter Park Resort Colorado

On the Winter Park side, try the trees skier’s left off the Looking Glass lift. It’s fun to ski the not-too-steep pitch in the woods rather than pick your way through steeper areas with more dense trees.

Snowy ski trail in the trees.

People tend to track out the same lines just next to the lift but keep going left. This entire section of woods is skiable and we found untracked powder days after a storm. The trees skier’s right of the lift are slightly uphill and don’t hold as much snow as the trees to the left and are best avoided except on deep powder days.

For another fun, not-too-steep tree area, try the woods between Jabberwocky and Hook Up. Get off the Olympia Express lift and ski underneath it, getting as much speed as possible to get over the slight uphill section without a tiring skate. Thankfully, this is being regraded to eliminate the skating. Follow signs bearing left for Jabberwocky and turn left into the trees wherever you like. It empties at the bottom of the High Lonesome lift.

But you may not want to stop there because just past High Lonesome, awaits another, even better section of tree skiing. We followed tracks just downhill of the lift corral and found superb skiing in the entire wooded area looking down on the Lonesome Whistle blue trail.

Ski slope with trees.

We’d skied there for weeks before I heard a ski patroller yell down to us that the area was closed. There were no ropes or signs in front of all the tracks into the woods but it turns out the trail map shows the whole area as closed. Maybe if we’d had a printed trail map to check…

Winter Park Mary Jane Trail Map Extinction

Colorado ski resorts are at the forefront of integrating environmentally sensitive ideas into the ski resort experience. Foodservice at Winter Park uses actual silverware, plates, mugs, and glasses rather than paper products to cut waste, for example. The net environmental benefit versus heating water for dishwashing can be debated, but the overall foodservice experience here is far superior to the feeling of a fast food base lodge.

But not everything done in the name of environmental stewardship leads to a positive outcome. Some ideas are downright boneheaded. Take the decision to eliminate printed trail maps. I’m sure I never saw so many confused people crowding around the few maps posted at the top of the lifts. How to get from here to there was a hot topic on nearly every lift ride.

Crowd of skiers looking at a map on the mountain.

Winter Park did add trail signage on a number of lift towers to show what’s below when riding the lifts and some of the lifts had trail maps built into the safety bar. The Super Gauge Express lift even had built-in digital trail maps supported by advertising space. Too bad they were either down or shut off more than half the time.

With the high number of first-time visitors and a relatively bewildering layout for noobs, printing trail maps offers the safest approach. It only takes one wrong turn to ruin the day. Nobody wants to remove gloves to open an app, especially in freezing cold temperatures when phones often lose their battery charge anyway. Just use recycled paper with water-based inks, and feel free to increase the amount of on-mountain trail signage so people don’t feel a need to stop at every crossroads.

Happy Workers at Winter Park, Happy Guests

The lifties at Winter Park Mary Jane were consistently friendly and outgoing, yet also focused on the safe loading and unloading of the ski lifts. Special props to the guys at Eagle Wind and Looking Glass lifts. These brief but happy chats were a welcome contrast to the dour indifference experienced when loading the lifts at some other ski resorts.

The shuttle bus drivers were just as agreeable. One even waited while I ran to the car and back to swap out my skis. Same with the retail and customer service workers in Winter Park Village and the servers in the village restaurants.

In fact, everyone I encountered working at the ski resort, ski rental shops, restaurants, or retail stores when shopping in Winter Park, and in nearby Fraser, CO, was especially pleasant. They seemed almost as happy to be there as I was. The entire area was very welcoming, even for people who are gluten-free, vegan, or otherwise concerned about health issues.

Is it worth skiing at Winter Park Resort Colorado instead of other ski resorts near Denver? For mountains of moguls, impeccably groomed cruisers, terrific tree skiing, and a wide range of terrain parks for all skill levels, yes, this ski resort needs to be at the top of your list for a ski trip to Colorado, skiing vacation, or weekend getaway from Denver.

Skier lying in deep powder snow.

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