Discovering Winter Park

WE were at a place appropriately called Sunspot, nearly 11,000 feet above the far-removed sea and, more relevantly, 6,000 feet above Denver, only 67 road miles away. In my mind I was already composing this article. ``Colorado without pretense -- Rocky Mountain sun and snow, big mountains, gorgeous scenery, easy access, comfortable condos, interesting growing town (though certainly no Vail or Aspen), free shuttle bus linking everything together, friendly locals whose idea of service does not include pampering wealthy guests, probably because Winter Park does not get many wealthy guests.''

Oh, the piece was writing itself nicely until my son led me through a forested shortcut, supposedly to the fine advanced trails off Winter Park's Zephyr triple chairlift. Suddenly, we were crossing a forebodingly steep and bumpy trail named ``Outhouse.'' To those who still think of Winter Park as Denver's alpine playground -- relaxed skiing offering everything but challenge -- Outhouse is a rude awakening.

I fell only once -- and that was merely skiing across the trail, not down it. Looking down that humpback chasm, I had to ask myself, ``Colorado without pretense? If you think you belong on this trail, you have splattered enough pretentiousness across Winter Park to serve the entire resort for years.''

It could be said, of course, that Outhouse reflects Winter Park's own aspirations to be something more than everyone thought it was. Coloradans were skiing here as early as 1927, when the six-mile Moffat Tunnel was completed under the Continental Divide. The ski lifts started in 1940 as Winter Park became a city-owned winter playground for metropolitan Denver. You could board the train in Union Station and a couple of hours later emerge from the tunnel right smack in front of the slopes. It's still possible, only now you can also board Amtrak trains in Chicago, California, New York, or wherever and deboard at Winter Park.

The first mechanical snow packer was invented here. And a busy ski school developed a spate of popular programs, including the largest ski program for the handicapped in the nation. Today, 17 chairlifts (including two quads and three triples) can carry 25,200 skiers an hour, and on a busy Saturday it looks as if they are all there.

In the face of fierce competition from newer Colorado mega-resorts, such growth could not have happened with merely pleasant slopes. Ten years ago, the private company that operates Winter Park (the resort is still owned by the City of Denver, and much of its 800 acres is on national forest) opened next to the Mary Jane ski area. Then modernized base facilities and 220 acres of snowmaking were added, and the town also began to wake up and grow. The purpose was to attract not just day skiers with their brown-bag lunches, but real money-spending ski-vacationers. Thus you now have the likes of Outhouse and Drunken Frenchman linking the broad, family-oriented slopes of Winter Park with the steep bump and powder runs of Mary Jane, where 45 percent of the skiing on its 1,770-foot vertical drop is rated expert.

In all, Winter Park Resort (its new name this season) now has 56 runs up to 2.5 miles long. The overall mix is a bit short on advanced intermediate skiing (20 percent), but there's something for everyone, including a top-to-bottom novice run. This season, two new quad chairlifts and 67 new acres of skiing have been added. The $6 million expansion is the first step toward possible development of as many as four surrounding alpine peaks. But before that happens, skiing vacationers must demonstrate that Winter Park is their kind of playground.

In the nearby town of Winter Park and the surrounding Fraser Valley, there is a a wide spectrum of condos, homes, family-style inns, pensions, and motels, and 30 restaurants, 19 lounges, a cinema, shops, a new transportation center, a toll-free central reservations system (800-453-2525), at least three cross-country ski centers, health clubs, skating, snowmobiling, tubing, sleigh rides, and, this year, 126 ski-to condominium units.

None of this matches the lavishness of Vail, the glitter of Aspen, or the pizazz of Steamboat. But it's sufficient to bring 52 percent of Winter Park skiers from out of state. Helping attract vacationers are prices that, while increased by all the expansion, are still quite competitive with other Colorado resorts. For example, a four-night, three-day ski and condo lodging package costs $217 per person; five nights, four days at a local inn with two meals a day and skiing start at $292 per person. Condos and motels in January can run less than $190 for similar stays.

Discounted air fares ($79 one way, Newark, N.J., to Denver on Continental; $99 one way, East Coast to Denver on People Express) are helping to increase bookings, as is Amtrak's $150 round-trip special out of Chicago (via RMA travel wholesalers). Amtrak is now bringing in about 200 skiers a week from Chicago, 30 a week from California.

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