Mountain Magic, Winter Park CO

March 6, 2024

A rocky mountain ski trip is winter magic: snow-capped views above 10,000 feet, delightful apres-ski toasts with ski buddies, ripping a top-to-bottom run on packed powder, and a soak in the slope-side condo’s hot tub…. The winter magic will dazzle you; a few weeks later, so will the credit card statement. I realized it’s why I hadn’t been skiing “out west” in almost four years. The American ski trip at a major resort will cost around $200-250 per day for a lift ticket for the aforementioned views and mountain vibes. Add ski or snowboard rentals and a slope-side townhome for several nights, enter your next second mortgage. 

Good news, there are ways to save, and I feel it’s my duty to share. My advice is to buy an IKON pass or travel with someone who does. Become their buddy and get 35-40% off on day lift tickets. $160 felt a heck of a lot better than $250, plus I could afford to buy the $15 bowl of chili at mid-mountain for lunch. Lots of sharing is the key. Find a vacation rental and split the costs with a group; our townhome was conveniently on the shuttle route, about a 5-minute drive to the resort base. That saves a pile of powder, too. Ski-in-ski-out lodging is for the lifestyles of the richer and more famous than me. My plan is to start saving now for the Winter Ski Trip in 2025. 

Winter Park, Colorado

We picked Winter Park Colorado for a late February holiday. Of our group of six (Ginger/Craig, Kim/Steve, and Laura/Josh). It was a first for all of us. So, why Winter Park? It’s close to Denver, and the logistics are favorable, at only a 1 ½ hour drive from the Denver airport. Winter Park averages about 300+ inches of snow annually and boasts 3000 skiable acres, an elevation topping at 12,060 feet, plus gondola service and nine high-speed chairlifts. It’s big, we were impressed. Of note, Winter Park Resort is accessible by Amtrak train, called the WP Snow Express, that runs from downtown Denver, delivering you to the heart of the mountain range.

Beavers Sports Shop

My first step was to secure skis and boots that were fabricated in the current decade. Rather than hauling antiques, I reserved with Beavers Sports Shop in Winter Park’s main village. This locally owned shop has three locations that will connect you with gear and, yes, help you save some cash. Reserve online at least 48 hours in advance and save 20%. Plus, they have a unique program: Only Pay for the Days Used. Don’t pay for days you don’t Ski! I knew my legs would need a break, so I skied Thursday/Friday, skipped Saturday (and the lift lines), and returned to the mountain refreshed Sunday/Monday. 

Winter Park Resort

As the trip went on, the mountain inspired us, and we kept finding highlights and more ways to save. We skied the tippy top, arriving via the Panoramic Lift. Be sure to stop long enough to take in the continental divide, the Berthoud Pass view that shows off multiple peaks in the front range. From the top, there are great options for all levels: ski a blue groomer, a bumped black, or ski the bowl down to mid-mountain. We loved the Mary Jane side; we sessioned the Super Gauge Express lift up and down, took bio breaks, and lunched on the expansive dining area and outdoor patio. The Mary Jane Lodge serves up a two-taco plate with grilled veggies and queso for a delicious and astounding $4. We made a point of stopping for lunch every day on the mountain, which was definitely the best food bargain.

Happy hours and apres-ski are a time-honored tradition. Craig surprised us one afternoon, pulling a six-pack of Coors Light out of a snowbank for a spontaneous happy hour. Another good bet is to get off the mountain, head into Winter Park, and belly up at Big Trout Brewing for local brews or to the Noble Buck for super good deals on well drinks. Besides, imbibe early, especially when on Eastern time, you’ll be ready for bed at 8 pm.

High Lonesome Hike

Also, give your legs and wallet a break and find a winter-friendly hike or snowshoe – NO lift ticket required. On Saturday, when lift lines are the longest, four of our six drove north to Fraser to the High Lonesome trailhead. It’s about a four-mile out and back. We followed a groomed snowmobile track on a sun-soaked day through an alpine valley laced with pristine, untouched powder. Tip: stay on the packed trail; if you venture off on a spur or potty break, you will likely sink hip-deep and need a friend to help you out. We encountered backcountry skiers en route to a powder stash, hikers, and plenty of XC skiers heading to the hut for a rest and lunch. 

The trail leads to a rentable cabin perched in an idyllic meadow. Powered by a solar setup, the cabin has a full kitchen and dining area and sleeps up to 12 in the top-floor bunkhouse. There’s also a nearby snow tube hill you can slide down, as long as you’re up for the human-powered walk to the top pitch. On the return, we donned our shades, gabbed, and walked away the early afternoon. We got plenty of steps in before landing at Vicious Cycle Brewing for recovery drinks. You can’t miss this pub or the impressive mural directly on Highway 40. The giant-sized moose and colorful hop call you into the expansive taproom and patio. The pizza food truck is a good pairing while you sip on the American Lager, or the Wander, the Belgian Saison. The beertenders were super helpful; they slipped us a list of local restaurants to try for the next dinner out.

Winter Park, CO Dining

Skiing and hiking at elevation left us all perpetually hungry. We breakfasted at the condo, usually a protein-packed plate of eggs and bacon, with strong coffee. Plus, this was ideal for our group’s eager-beaver, first-track seekers; they could be out the door by 8:30 and on time for the 9 am opening bell. For dining out, we have a few recommendations. The Smokehouse topped our list for tasty barbeque delights; bonus, it’s fast, not fancy. Steve assured us that all the best BBQ restaurants only have paper towel rolls for napkins. He was right; the brisket and the burnt ends were the group faves, and I noshed on chicken thighs with the Texas heat sauce. Also, thumbs up to Don Dany Mexican for house margaritas and fajitas at a reasonable price. Pizza lovers, for sure, hit up Hernando’s.

We tried twice to make reservations at Deno’s Mountain Bistro, both unsuccessful due to lack of planning and an Open Table app that would not cooperate. Also, another restaurant we did NOT patronize was The Ranch House at Devil’s Thumb Resort. I was about to call for reservations until we read the menu that revealed the locally-raised Wagyu beef cuts were priced at $21/per ounce and up. A 6 oz filet would have cost me $126 if my math is correct. I bet they have cloth napkins and fancy cutlery, too.

That’s okay. Fancy dining aside, the mountains, the skiing, the snow conditions- what a fantastic experience. I’m okay with paper towels, $4 tacos, and, most importantly, the camaraderie of ski buddies, no matter where we landed for dinner or happy hour. Put that all together, it was a rock-solid value. I will probably always travel on a budget, but I know travel is the only thing I buy that makes me richer!

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