Have you ever visited a destination you’ve been to before, only to discover a hidden gem that you missed all along during previous travels? That was the experience we had on a recent trip to Colorado, where we came upon Winter Park Ski Resort (aka the state’s 4th largest ski field) for the first time. While we’re keen skiers, we were ashamed to say that we’d never heard of it before this trip which was thanks to Ikon Pass, so there was a sense of discovery to our visit, which only added to the glorious mystique of this snow-covered paradise. Perhaps it was the ‘Hogwarts’-like majestic winter train ride that took us there?
Before you even get to Winter Park, we’d strongly recommend that you take a quick stop-over to spend the afternoon and night to relax, unwind, and enjoy the city of Denver before hitting the slopes. Thanks to a flourishing community of startups (and yes, the legalization of pot), the Mile High City has really come of age in recent years. Now more than ever, there’s no shortage of things to see and do or places to eat and drink. Hopping aboard the eTuk Urban Denver City Tour, we visited Civic Center Park, Downtown Core, bustling squares, arts districts, sports stadiums, and thriving marketplaces.
A great dinner recommendation is Rioja, where “Top Chef Masters” contestant Jennifer Jasinski delivers inspired Mediterranean cuisine within a high-energy setting. A quick word of advice: try the pork belly bacon appetiser and then the rack of lamb as your main course. Looking for more places to get your eat and drink on? We can heartily endorse Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox, a “gastro-brothel” known for its live music, eclectic menu, and vivacious atmosphere. Along similar lines, Nocturne Jazz & Supper Club is the stuff of local legend, as is Dazzle at Baur’s. By the way, if you need a place to stay, Kimpton Hotel Born leaves literally nothing to be desired.
After a fantastic few hours in Denver, it was time to hit the slopes and the journey to Winter Park was unexpectedly nearly as thrilling and rewarding as the resort itself. We’re speaking of the Winter Park Express Ski Train, which starts at Union Station in the centre of Denver’s CBD and winds its way through the Rocky Mountains. We’d call the experience of stepping aboard the train as nothing short of romantic if it weren’t for a 1902 ruling and un-fun-fact in which Denver Union Station depot police began enforcing a ‘no kissing’ rule on platforms because it slowed down the trains leaving on time. It really was surreal though to be boarding a Harry-Potter-like train, fully rugged up and in-toe with ski gear in the middle of the city. Upon leaving the station and as the two-level Amtrak “Superliner Sightseer” weaves its way through long tunnels and past epic landscapes, we were overwhelmed with the sheer majesty of our surroundings. If you don’t feel like driving, this is an awesome alternative that we cannot recommend highly enough and one of the easiest (and quickest) ways to hit the slopes for even a quick day-trip.
Emerging out of a long tunnel, we arrived at the winter-wonderland that is Winter Park, surrounded by a pattering of thick light fluffy snow-fall. While we’d skied in Colorado before, somehow this ‘hidden-gem’ and its adjoining resort had managed to escape us. Of course, our lack of awareness made the place seem that much more unique. Well, that and the fact that this is some of the best terrain we’ve ever skied on. Considering it was mid-March, we couldn’t believe the quality of fresh powder as we glided our way down various slopes.
Our personal favourite runs were Hughes and Larry Sale, the latter of which makes for a terrific way to start the day. Meanwhile, some of the run names are accompanied by hilarious backstories. Take Mary Jane, for example, which consists of some great tree runs. While the moniker might instantly conjure associations with Colorado’s thriving marijuana industry, the slope is actually named for a local prostitute who used to live in the neighbouring town. That said, visitors have definitely embraced the double entendre. Don’t be surprised if you notice billows of THC-laced smoke emerging from the small wooden huts that are hidden amongst the trees.
For all the seasoned skiers out there—most of whom will want a challenge—we suggest taking the short hike from the top of the panoramic express lift over to the free Snowcat. From there, you’ll be escorted to the top of the Cirque Bowl, where you’ll find some great backcountry skiing. Consider it a hidden gem within the hidden gem. We certainly did.
If there had to be one drawback to Winter Park, it’s that the village at the bottom of the mountain is comparatively small to some of the other more well-known ski-mountains in Colorado. Winter Park is very much a family destination and a ‘locals mountain’, so if you’re looking for wild bars and parties, you might not find it directly in the resort (…they’re only a short free 10-minute shuttle away in the neighbouring town of Winter Park). Should you venture into town, “the odds are good, but the good are odd,” to quote our ski guide, so take from that what you will. So what’s the good news? What the village resort may lack in size, it definitely makes up for in the quality of its luxurious layout, first-class ski facilities with fast lifts, and all the other services you can expect from a premium ski resort. It also has the largest adaptive sports program in the world, with accessibility facilities featured throughout the mountain, and a national sports centre located nearby. This all means a lack of lift queues and more skiing which is something we consider probably the most important factor to any ski-holiday.
In our opinion, Winter Park is more the kind of place where you drink with a group of close friends by night and focus on getting as much skiing in during the day as possible. Thanks to a significant investment from Alterra (owner of Ikon Pass), the resort is incorporating improvements as part of a rebranding effort, which will invariably draw a larger crowd. Of course, if you ask us, we’d prefer that this hidden gem remain hidden. Had you taken the amazing trip that we just took, you would too.
This recent trip wouldn’t have been possible if not for Ikon Pass, the new world standard in season passes. Now in its second winter season, the company provides you with lift-pass access to 39 global destinations, including some of the planet’s best ski resorts. Our experience—which entailed visits to both Winter Park and Steamboat—couldn’t have possibly gone better. Pick up one of their passes and prepare for endless amounts of outdoor adventure.
The better news? Mt Buller has just signed on with Ikon Pass joining the ranks of Thredbo in New South Wales, Coronet Peak, The Remarkables, and Mt Hutt in New Zealand, and Valle Nevado in Chile in the Southern Hemisphere. And in celebration of Mt Buller’s inaugural Ikon Pass season, 19/20 Ikon Pass holders will get bonus early access to Mt Buller for the 2019 season starting this June, along with regular access to the 2020 season. That’s two seasons, with the purchase of one pass.
The Ikon Pass is available now at early discounted rates starting at $649 USD at www.ikonpass.com and extended through to Monday, June 10 when purchased through selected regional travel partners.
Man of Many travelled to Colorado as a guest of IKON Pass, Visit Denver and Virgin Australia.