With a moniker that refers to both a mountain town as well as a stellar ski resort, Winter Park has been a quietly favored destination of outdoor enthusiasts for years. The surrounding Fraser Valley boasts 600 miles of multi-use trails, two national forests, plenty of lakes and reservoirs, and proximity to the Grand Lake entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. Thanks to the recent revival of the Winter Park Express, providing a stress-free journey from Denver’s Union Station to the base of Winter Park ski resort on weekends (the country’s only ski resort with direct train service from a major metropolitan area), this low-key mountain town is now very much on everyone’s radar—especially those looking to avoid the worsening traffic on I-70.
The Odometer: 66 miles one-way
Best For: Families, budget travelers, and dedicated outdoorsmen and women who balk at ritzy resorts.
Best-Kept Secret: Winter Park is a gold mine of deals, from extensive happy hour specials to complimentary events and activities. Winter Park Resort offers free skiing to kids younger than six, as well as a weekly schedule of free activities and events, including yoga classes, ice skating lessons, and live music performances. Stop by the Winter Park Information Center for handy printouts of local deals like “Activities under $20” and happy hour specials. The town’s “Lift” bus system provides complimentary transportation throughout the valley, with routes running as late as 2 a.m. Hideaway Park is the place to be on Thursday evenings in the summer when the city hosts the High-Note Concert Series, free of charge.
Play Outside: Winter Park is almost completely surrounded by rugged, natural landscape, including four designated wilderness areas, two national forests and one of the country’s most visited national parks. Although many come here to ski or snowboard the “seven territories” of Winter Park Resort, the town and surrounding Fraser Valley offers a mind-boggling array of outdoor activities from hiking and fishing to snowshoeing and snowmobiling, and is even dubbed “Mountain Bike Capital USA” (the resort’s celebrated Trestle Bike Park draws aspiring and expert-level mountain bikers with an extensive offering of camps, coaching, and events in the summer months). Horseback riding is another popular activity, as the valley is home to several dude ranches, as well as a weekly rodeo event. Nearby Berthoud Pass has a plethora of multi-use trailheads for those looking to avoid resort fees. And don’t be alarmed if you see masked pow-slayers looking for a lift to the top—Berthoud Pass is a very popular area for backcountry skiers and snowboarders (just make sure you’re well-versed in avalanche safety and check conditions before heading out).
Low-Key Leisure: Those who prefer to maintain a lower heart rate will find plenty to do along Winter Park’s main drag, about three miles from the ski resort, like indulging in a spa treatment at Bella Vita Mountain Day Spa or having some classic fun at The Foundry Cinema & Bowl. Although the town has its share of souvenir and t-shirt shops, poking around the stores in the two-story Cooper Creek Square shopping center can result in some unique finds. Try Haven for hostess gifts and home goods; Be Boutique for women’s fashions; and Peezie Marie, a whimsical shop chock full of “gifts for gals.” Several gear shops are also scattered around town for retail and rental purposes, like Epic Mountain Sports, Beaver Sports Shop and Alpine Sun, Ski & Sport (tucked away near the ski resort).
Family Fun: Winter Park is an amazing place for families to have some outdoor fun on a budget (and the hour-and-a-half drive time from Denver minimizes sibling squabbles in the backseat). In the winter, take the crew to the Colorado Adventure Park for a few hours of snow tubing and Snowscoot riding (aka: miniature, low-power snowmobiles). In the summer, head to the resort village where you’ll find alpine slides, a supervised climbing wall, and miniature golf course. Located in the center of town, Hideaway Park provides year-round opportunities for kids to burn off energy with a sledding hill, playground, and skate park.
Food & Drink: With so many ways to burn off calories, it’s important to have plenty of options for re-fueling the energy tanks. For a quick bite, try an Elk Jalapeno Cheddar or Bison Chipotle bratwurst from Fraser Valley Hot Dog, a panini at Rudi’s Deli & Catering, or the hatch green chili-smothered Ditch Burger at The Ditch on 40. For a nice, relaxing dinner, don’t miss Deno’s Mountain Bistro, a fine-dining chophouse (with an upscale-casual lounge) with an award-winning wine selection that has been in operation since 1976, or Volario’s at Vasquez Creek Inn, offering a modern menu of seasonally influenced Northern Italian fare. Breakfast at Carver’s is a must. As your good deed for the day, pick up a $2 gift card with your pour-over at The Perk coffee shop, which buys a cup of joe for your favorite Winter Park Resort lifty. If the only thing that will satisfy your growling gut is a gooey slice, get thee to Hernando’s Pizza Pub for a mountain-sized pizza pie. Be prepared for a wait, but feel free to kill time guzzling a pitcher of beer and gawking at the 20,000-plus dollar bills that decorate this cozy Winter Park institution.
For a liquid fix, sample local brews on the patio at Hideaway Park Brewery or on the lawn at The Peak Bistro & Brewery. Later, hop on a barstool or snag a fireside armchair at the new Idlewild Spirits, which distills their own rum, vodka, gin and whiskey on site (they also offer tours and a delicious small plates to help soak up all that booze—try shaking up your regular G&T with their hibiscus-infused gin.) Night owls will want to head to Ullrs Tavern after hours for drink specials, billiards and live music.
Necessary Rest: Winter Park is a small town that hosts several equally small hotels. The recent additions of the Vasquez Creek Inn and Trailhead Inn provide modern options to a somewhat dated lodging supply (both are operated in partnership with Devil’s Thumb Ranch, a luxury resort down the road in Tabernash). The Iron Horse Resort, located at the entrance to the Winter Park Resort, offers ski-in, ski-out access. Many people opt to rent a private home or condominium through various property management companies (check out the Winter Park Lodging Company or the Resort Management Group.) For a rustic yet comfortable camping experience, book a Camp Cabela’s package through the ski resort to sleep under the stars without the hassle of setting up camp or chopping firewood.