Winter Park and Mary Jane: Colorado Family Skiing At Its Best

Photo Courtesy of Winter Park Resort

This is a conversation I love to overhear in the lift line.

Q: Have you been up today? A: Yes.

Q: How’s the snow? A: It’s the best day of the year.

Glad I’m here, at Winter Park, on the “best day of the year.”

When we lived in Denver for a couple of years, we rarely skied Winter Park. After a perfect March weekend last season, I have no idea why we didn’t go up every weekend. I can’t wait to go back.

Here’s why:

1. Time has been good to Winter Park and Mary Jane.

Since we’d last been to Winter Park, many new lifts, most of them high-speed quads or six-packs, have been added, new terrain opened up and many glades thinned, creating some exceptional tree skiing. A new base village has been built which has a really comfortable feel and is easy to get around, with nice restaurants, bars and condos. Parking has been added and a cabriolet lift installed to ferry visitors from the outlying lots to the base. A multi-line shuttle system can take you anywhere you want to go in the town of Winter Park and into the neighboring ‘burg of Fraser.

Winter Park, and its hard-core sister mountain Mary Jane, have grown up. Even on a very busy Saturday, the lift lines weren’t overwhelming after the ski school classes left the base at 9:00 a.m.  Best tip: Beat the rush up by getting on the chair between 8:30-8:50. Stay high and don’t come back down to the base until at least 10:30. After that, you shouldn’t have very long lift lines anywhere on the mountain.

2. Easy Access.

Coming from Western Colorado, it doesn’t really make much sense to ski Winter Park and when we told people where we were from, they looked at us like we were crazy to drive so “far.” From Denver and Colorado’s Front Range however, access is easy. While drivers do have to go up and over Berthoud Pass, there are no tunnels and less traffic than you’ll find going to the many I-70 resorts. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect traffic and be aware that it will be slow during peak times. But of all the people we talked to, none complained about the drive.

Photo courtesy of Winter Park Resort

Coming from out-of-state, we met one family that had flown into DIA from Chicago for a three-day weekend. In their opinion, skiing Winter Park was the most time-efficient option, even better than flying into and skiing out of Salt Lake City. We also met a couple from Omaha who had taken Amtrak overnight 12 hours and de-trained in nearby Fraser.

The base, seen from the Mary Jane side.

Which reminds me, Winter Park is all about trains, because trains made Winter Park. Founded in 1940 by the City of Denver as a public park for winter sports, the town and ski area are located at the West Portal of the Moffat Tunnel which connects the Rocky Mountains with the Great Plains. In the early days, ski trains provided the primary access to Winter Park and allowed parents who didn’t ski to get their kids on the slopes. Sadly, the Ski Train ceased operation in 2009, which is a pity considering what a romantic, nostalgic and energy-efficient option it provided for skiers. Amtrak and commercial rail still use the tracks and skiers will often hear a lonesome whistle blow or see trains entering the tunnel.

3. Tons of Special Events

The events schedule at Winter Park is always full and always fun with lots of on-mountain events, entertainment in the village and town and racing — from high-level FIS to NASTAR.

Photo courtesy Wylde Photos

When our boys raced, we were always slightly in awe of the Winter Park ski team. First of all, the team was huge. Secondly, they were good. Winter Park knows how to put on races and they do a great job.

On the weekend we visited, the first weekend in March 2011, not only was Winter Park hosting the Rocky Mountain Freestyle Divisional race, but also the 36th Annual Wells Fargo Cup, a pro-am style race to benefit the National Sports Center for the Disabled. As if that wouldn’t be enough to tax the resources of most resorts, on mountain there was the Winter Park Freeskiing Open, a mogul camp, with Mardi Gras in the Village.

We were at Winter Park so my husband could compete as a member of a corporate team in the Wells Fargo Open. The teams are comprised of 6 skiers, five amateurs and one professional adaptive or disabled skier. It is a huge event and all proceeds benefit adaptive sports at the National Sports Center for the Disabled which is based at Winter Park. NSCD runs winter and summer adaptive programs for children and adults who have physical, cognitive, emotional or behavioral diagnoses.  For more information on the 2012 Wells Fargo Open, click here.

4. Great Skiing

Photo courtesy Wylde Photos

We arrived at Winter Park on a Friday, when eight inches had fallen overnight (hence the conversation I heard in the lift line). My husband was on a schedule and needed to run through the gates a few times to get his qualifying times for the next day’s racing, so I was on my own, trying to find my way around a mountain which I couldn’t remember. Armed with a map, the recommendations of Brave Ski Mom Diane and guided by the excellent signage at Winter Park, here is what I found out.

…On The Winter Park Side

From the base, there are many, many options. I was trying to stick around the race center on Lower Hughes, so I did a few laps off of the Zephyr Express, a long high-speed quad which goes to the Sunspot Lodge at the top of Winter Park. From here, my choices were many. I could take one of the Alice-in-Wonderland-named blue or green runs to the base of the Olympia Express. From the Olympia Express, I could go back up and easily connect over to Mary Jane. Or, I could continue further down the hill and take the Pioneer Express up to Vasquez Ridge and ski the blue and black runs in that area. Or I could ski back down to the base along some nice black mogul runs. I decided that I might as well get used to big bumps so I skied Mulligan’s Mile and then Retta’s Run, both of which had great snow and more than a few awesome Freestyle skiers warming up for their races to inspire me.

…And Over On the Jane Side

When my husband was done, we headed straight to Mary Jane. As we remembered, Mary Jane is not exceptionally steep, but it is exceptionally bumpy, with long, long runs. The next day, I skied with Diane and after our first run, as I was gasping for air I commented, “Skiing Mary Jane will get you into shape.” She just laughed and said “You have to be in good shape to ski Mary Jane.” As it says on the bumper sticker, “No pain, no Jane.”

Primarily black advanced terrain, there is much less groomed terrain (and the groomed runs change every night, so check the grooming report if you are interested). The new Panoramic Express (installed in 2007) and the Sunnyside lift which share a base area have the most blue, intermediate terrain on the Jane side and are easy to get to from the top of Mary Jane. Parsenn Bowl, at the top of the Panoramic lift, can either be icy or awesome depending on how strongly the wind is blowing. On Saturday it was windy and freezing. On Sunday, the snow was soft and fun. The bowl runs out into some nice tree runs that aren’t too tight or the wide open Edelweiss and Bluebell runs.

The Panoramic Express also provides access to the Vasquez Cirque gate. It is a one mile skate (or hike) to the Cirque headwall, the pitch of which is advertised as greater than 50%. Without many cliffs or too many big rocks however, the Cirque is above tree line and wide open — worth the hike on a nice day. Getting out of the Cirque requires some more tree skiing and skiers end up on the extreme opposite side of Winter Park at the Eagle Wind lift. Eagle Wind serves more gladed, advanced and expert terrain and closes each day at 2:00 p.m.

Photo courtesy Wylde Photos

After three days of skiing, including one morning with a local expert, we felt like we had a pretty good handle on the mountain but still hadn’t discovered nearly all of its secrets and charms. As we left it was snowing. We may have been there on the “best day”of the year, but we are pretty sure that there are plenty more “bests” to come at Winter Park and Mary Jane.

When You Go…..

Photo courtesy Wylde Photos

We stayed with our team at the Iron Horse Resort and Retreat in a studio condo. A large complex, the Iron Horse is only steps from the Corridor Run which connects Mary Jane with Winter Park and provides easy ski-to access from the condos to the Winter Park base. Coming home in the afternoon, the Iron Horse has ski-from access from Mary Jane only. From Winter Park, the Iron Horse is a stop on the Green shuttle line.

The unit we were in had a full kitchen, dining and living area with a gas fireplace (which is on a thermostat and provides heat to the unit). The living room converted into a bedroom via a murphy bed. The Resort has a great indoor/outdoor pool and two outdoor hot tubs, with bar service. Not a bad way to end the day, enjoying a beer or hot cider at the hot tub. There is also a restaurant, ski shop and massage on-site.

Of course, there are many other lodging options and for more information about other properties you should check out Winter Park Central Reservations.

Photo courtesy Wylde Photos

We had breakfast at the food court in the West Portal building at the base, choosing grab-n-go breakfast sandwiches because we are always ready to “go.” Quick, hot and filling, we had no complaints, but there were lots of other cook-to-order options, as well an Einstein Bros. Bagels.

There are numerous lunch options on mountain with standard ski area fare. Lunch Rock at the top of Mary Jane serves burgers on their patio, while the Sundance Chili Hut serves, you guessed it, chili at the top of Vasquez Ridge. On Friday and Saturday nights gondola cars are attached to the Zephyr Express to take visitors up to the Sunspot Lodge for dinner or drinks around the fire. Reservations are recommended.

In the Village, we enjoyed apres ski at the Cheeky Monk. We were unable to resist both the name and the lure of choosing between many, many Belgian and Colorado beers. We didn’t have the fries with aioli, but they looked delicious. For dinner, we ate at Lime, a southwestern restaurant, known for their scorpions, a shrimp on a jalapeno, rolled in a wonton skin, fried and served with guacamole. Yum!

Finally, there is a lovely little skating pond in the Village with lessons offered each day. And for the kid in all of us, there is Goody’s, an old-fashioned soda fountain and sugar stop, offering ice cream, cookies and candy.

Enjoy!

This post was originally published at Club Colorado, the Colorado Ski Country USA blog on March 14, 2011. Thank you to Denise Wylde of Wylde Photos.

© 2011, Kristen Lummis. All rights reserved. Any use or publication of content, including photos, requires express permission.

About Kristen Lummis

I am the owner, writer and head ski tech at www.braveskimom.com. The mom of two boys in a busy outdoor family, I write about skiing all year round, tossing in some biking, hiking, parenting and even a bit of reflection during the off-season. While my recreational passion is for all things snow, my real passion is for my family.
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