Earlier this year, we finally made it back to the powdery slopes of Winter Park Resort after 12 long and lingering pandemic months.
The spring break ski trip we had booked with friends for March 2020 never happened — the day before we were set to depart, ski areas across the country began shutting down due to rising coronavirus cases. Instead, we spent that spring break away from the mountains and our friends, exploring trails and sniffing wildflowers in our own backyard.
Fast-forward one year and we were piled up together in a suburban, braving the 15-plus hour drive from Austin to the cozy snow-capped ski village of Winter Park Resort.
As we blew through Denver just before dusk and ascended into the mountains, tiny snow flurries began whirling outside our windows just as my maternal nerves started churning. I realized it had been two long years since our boys had been on skis. Our daughter, whose last ski school experience occurred at the ripe age of 4 and consisted mainly of hot cocoa-sipping and snowball-making, had never even ridden a chair lift. I worried about what kind of ski trip this would be: The one that left us with snow-laced memories so blissful that we’d be itching to get back as soon as we left, or a complete disaster of a vacation defined by incessant whining and plentiful tears?
Fortunately, we experienced the first scenario, and I owe every bit of it to Winter Park Resort. We had so much fun, in fact, that we are heading back to do it all over again at the end of this month. If you’re contemplating a ski trip with the kids but aren’t completely sure which resort to choose (Colorado is home to more than 30 ski resorts, making the decision somewhat daunting, I know), here are five reasons why Colorado’s oldest continuously running ski resort is great for families.
Here’s the thing: There’s something undeniably magical about the first time your family gets up on skis together. All of you. Riding the lifts up and skiing back down together — even the littlest one of the bunch. You all get to experience that same euphoric feeling of your skis sliding over freshly-fallen powder and more than a few gleeful smiles are exchanged somewhere between the bluebird skies and the bright white snow sparkling in the sunshine. As parents, you can’t help but become filled with pride watching your babies learn a new skill, witnessing them gain a sense of confidence and a newfound passion they didn’t know until now.
Much to my surprise, that magical moment happened for our family our second day skiing at Winter Park Resort thanks to Parker Thomson, an incredibly patient, always-positive ski instructor and ski race coach who has been with the resort for the past 30 years. Just the day before, we booked a private family lesson with Thomson, who spent most of the time with our 6-year-old daughter, teaching her the basics and building her confidence on skis in a way that neither my husband nor I are skilled (or patient) enough to do.
By the second day, she was hooked and was riding up the chair lift and skiing down the greens on a foot of fresh fluff with the rest of us. By the third day, she was skiing all of the greens with us while our 9- and 12-year-old boys, who also collected some tips from Thomson, were flying past us down challenging blue runs and we were chasing them down a couple of the tamer black trails.
Varied terrain and top teaching
I think that’s one of the biggest perks of skiing (and snowboarding, if that’s your thing) at Winter Park Resort — it’s home to one of the state’s best ski and ride schools, offering guest-centered teaching methods through an array of private and group lessons. Plus, for families like us who all ski at different levels, Winter Park is an ideal ski resort because the terrain ranges from chill to challenging. Boasting more than 3,000 acres of world class terrain spread out across seven unique territories, skiers and boarders have access to miles of groomers, cruisers, steeps, deeps, trees and glades.
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For anyone just starting out or still a little shaky on skis, the beginner-friendly terrain in Discovery Park is the perfect starting point. More advanced and expert skiers can challenge themselves on the steeps and cliffs in the extreme, double-black diamond terrain of the Cirque Territory, or test out the world-class bumps, thrilling tree skiing and wide open alpine bowls found in the legendary Mary Jane Territory.
But families like us who tend to gravitate toward gentle greens and blissful blues will love the long, uncrowded cruisers and groomers in the vast Winter Park Territory. You can’t beat the breathtaking mountain views you’ll soak in from Parsenn Bowl, home to North America’s highest six-passenger chairlift and perfect for intermediate skiers craving a high alpine ski experience. But I think my personal favorite is the Vasquez Ridge Territory — it’s the perfect place to sneak in a few solo runs and discover untouched powder stashes, and even during the peak days, it feels like I’m the only one on the mountain.
Trains, planes and automobiles
Winter Park Resort sits just beyond Colorado’s cosmopolitan capital nestled high in the Rocky Mountains, and getting to the broad powder-cloaked slopes and wavy mogul-rippled steeps that draw folks here is relatively cheap, easy and accessible no matter which mode of travel you take.
Direct two-hour flights abound from Austin to Denver — and we can usually fly our family of five for around $1,000 roundtrip, although traveling during the holidays like we are doing this month will cost a bit more. For our upcoming trip, we paid roughly $1,400 for our five roundtrip direct flights and we rented a large SUV for the week that cost about the same amount.
Once you land, Winter Park Resort happens to be the closest major ski destination to the Mile High City (it’s just 67 miles from Denver). While not nearly as quick but definitely cheaper, Winter Park Resort is also a drivable destination — we braved the nearly 16-hour drive from Austin to Winter Park and back three separate times throughout the pandemic.
Don’t want to drive at all? Colorado is the only state where visitors can travel to a ski area without ever getting into a car thanks to the commuter rail line that takes passengers from Denver International Airport to Denver Union Station where they can climb aboard the recently relaunched Winter Park Express ski train and head straight to the base of Winter Park Resort. The roughly hour-and-a-half commute on this historic train trip allows passengers to swap stressful weekend I-70 traffic, icy roads and streams of never-ending taillights for tranquil views of snow-dusted pines and breathtaking canyons and cliffs. Back for the 2022 season, the ski train will run each Friday-Sunday from the weekend of Jan. 14-16 through the weekend of April 1-3. One-way fares start at $29, with kids fares (aged 2-12) starting at just $14.50. Book tickets at www.amtrak.com/winterparkexpress.
While we weren’t exactly in the mood for more snow earlier this year, right on the heels of Snovid 2021 back in Texas, I’m a firm believer that the snow looks better on Colorado than it does on Austin. Yes, Winter Park Resort receives over 326 annual inches of snow and has all the powder you could possibly dream of on the slopes, but it’s plenty of fun to play in when you’re not clicked in your skis, too.
At Winter Park, snow-spun memories come easy. We’ve had more than our fair share of old-fashioned snowball fights with the kids, watched them make snow angels in sugar-powder snow and we’ve built a couple of epic snowmen.
One afternoon following a day of skiing, we raced our kids down the curvy snow tubing lanes at Winter Park’s Coca-Cola Tube Park and then warmed ourselves with hot cocoa at the base. Another day we took a break from the slopes to rest our sore ski legs, enjoying an off-the-slope snowy adventure snowshoeing along peaceful, private trails in the morning and then headed to the nearby town of Fraser to experience the historic Fraser Tubing Hill in the afternoon. It’s a more thrilling snow tubing adventure than the one at the resort, and you can choose to zoom down solo, in tandem or linked onto your entire group. Plus, there’s a magic carpet lift to take you right back up to do it all over again.
More snow play unfolds just beyond the resort. At The Colorado Adventure Park, sitting just five minutes from downtown Winter Park, families can spend a day sledding, renting snowscoots (imagine a hybrid of a scooter and a snowboard), snow tubing and more. At Hideaway Park, in downtown Winter Park, kids can build a snowman or speed down the free sledding hill — there are plastic sleds for public use you can borrow on an honor system.
The laid-back vibe
When you’re a Texas family who only makes it to the mountains every year at most, the last spot you want to be is a fussy ski resort where you feel intimidated and out of place. But there’s a low-key, unpretentious vibe that flourishes from the foothills to the summit of Winter Park Resort. Long known as Denver’s “home mountain,” there’s a local vibe that contributes to the casual feel.
Whether you are craving an après ski beer, a romantic mountaintop meal or a family-friendly dinner, you won’t have to leave the resort to find it. At Winter Park Resort, it’s convenient to refuel with comfort food and barbecue specialties made with meats smoked in-house daily at Doc’s Roadhouse, which also boasts a full bar serving craft beers and whiskey flights. Or stop midmountain at nearly 11,000 feet above sea level at The Lodge at Sunspot — the two-mile high mountaintop lodge atop Winter Park Mountain that pairs cocktails and meals with panoramic views of the Continental Divide and Rocky Mountains. Lime, sitting at the village base, is a great place for big-as-your-face fresh-squeezed margaritas and authentic Mexican dishes like al pastor street tacos and roasted Anaheim chile rellenos.
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The cozy and unpretentious vibe experienced at the resort extends to the town of Winter Park, which is also fun to explore after a day of skiing. You’ll find around 60 diverse dining options spanning Italian and Mexican to Asian and barbecue. One of our favorite places to order delicious takeout is Pepe Osaka’s, which is known for its eclectic Mexican-meets-Japanese seafood like the pulpo a la plancha, mahi mahi al pastor tacos and ahi poke ceviche. If you’re craving pizza, head to Hernando’s Pizza Pub, a local staple where you can sink your teeth into hand tossed homemade pizzas, lasagna and pasta dishes and hang your own decorated dollar bill on the walls along with some 40,000 others. We always like to have one nice dinner when we’re in Winter Park and our favorite spot for it is Deno’s Mountain Bistro, which makes amazing thai curry mussels, a delicious burrata caprese and is known for its menu of locally-raised, grass-fed steaks.
If You Go
It’s a 90-mile drive from Denver International Airport to Winter Park Resort, which is the closest major ski resort to Denver. We’ve braved the long drive a few times, too. Buckle up — it’s over 15 hours straight through and will take longer in the snow.
There are plenty of lodging options in and around Winter Park, but with kids and all of the accompanying ski gear, there’s nothing more conducive to a seamless day on the slopes than when it starts and ends right outside your door. Stay steps away from the ski lifts at the comfortable and convenient Zephyr Mountain Lodge, located at the base of the resort just 110 feet from the lift and featuring one-, two- and three-bedroom fully equipped condos perfect for families.
At Winter Park Resort, refuel at the base with comfort food and BBQ specialties made with meats smoked in-house daily at Doc’s Roadhouse, or stop mid-mountain for a lunch with panoramic vistas at Sunspot Mountaintop Lodge. In the town of Winter Park, order pizza from Hernando’s Pizza Pub, Asian-Mexican fusion and fish tacos from Pepe Osaka’s or enjoy a nice steak dinner at Deno’s Mountain Bistro.
If you’re shaky on skis, want to improve your skills or learn some new techniques, book a private lesson with one of Winter Park’s incredible ski instructors. Even a half-day lesson can prepare you for a successful few days on the slopes.