Putting the "Park" in Winter Park: Grand County, the Birthplace of Colorado's Ski Industry

The name says it all: Winter Park is well-known for the abundant outdoor recreation opportunities it holds in the snowy winter months. The deep powder days and “winter wonderland” vibes are woven into the community’s identity. Whether it be cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, downhill skiing, snowboarding, or backcountry skiing, there is no shortage of fun to be had in the giant “park” we call home. 

Typically, when people hear “Colorado,” they picture the world-class skiing offered at resorts across the state. Skiing and riding throughout the Seven Territories at Winter Park Resort or teaching a family to ski at Granby Ranch is the norm these days, but it hasn’t always been. Taking a dive into Grand County’s storied ski history paints a beautiful picture of people seeking adventure and pioneering the now-prolific sport across the high country from Hot Sulphur Springs to Berthoud Pass. 

During the late nineteenth century, Grand County saw a boom in population resulting from the newly-constructed railroad and rich mining opportunities. People moved to the county to mine, not to ski. But, just like today, the land was blanketed in snow for the majority of the year. Travel was difficult, and Scandinavian miners introduced the concept of constructing skis and using them to get from place to place in those long winter months. Originally utilitarian, skiing became a more of a necessity and way of life for tenacious locals. 

But it was a matter of time before the adventurous spirit the area is known for took root in the form of recreational skiing. Considered the birthplace of Colorado’s ski industry, Grand County was home to the first winter carnival and first established ski area (complete with a rope tow) and now boasts seemingly endless opportunities to get outside and play in that “white gold.”


The Hot Sulphur Springs Winter Sports Club was established in 1911 by Swiss immigrant Jonh Peyer. Its 25 members saw the snow as an opportunity to play and banded together to make the most of the long, cold winters. They held a winter carnival with sled races, ice-skating, ski races, and ski jumps. It was such a hit that construction of a new ski course and jump slide started shortly thereafter and plans were put in motion to host the first “official” Hot Sulphur Springs Winter Sports Club Carnival in February of 1912 where professional and amatuer ski races were introduced. The Winter Sports Club pioneered the concept of winter tourism, was the original Colorado Ski Train destination, debuted skijoring in the United States, and paved the way for the growth of the ski industry. 


Once Coloradans discovered the sheer joy of sliding on two planks, they creatively sought out opportunities to get out on the snow. By the late 1920s, backcountry skiers had discovered Berthoud Pass. Once winter maintenance began on the road in 1933, the popularity of skiing the pass soared. It was an ideal location as it was a (relatively) short trip from both the Fraser Valley and the Front Range. Groups would drive to the top of the pass and send a driver down to pick them up. Skiers decided to create trails, and volunteers spent summers cutting trees on the Forest Service land and developing trails by hand, motivated by a sheer love of the sport. In 1937, they installed a rope tow, making Berthoud Pass Colorado’s first formalized ski area. 

Even as it grew, it was always marked by a “no frills” mentality. People skied and loved Berthoud because they loved the mountain and loved to ski. Period. They didn’t need a fancy resort or bells and whistles. But they did need a little assist up the mountain–in 1946, the first two person chair lift in Colorado started turning at Berthoud ski area. In another first, the area pioneered the inclusion of snowboarders in the 1970s.

The lifts stopped turning in 2001 as competing with bigger resorts in more habitable locations proved challenging, but they did continue to run shuttles and snowcats for the next couple seasons. In March 2003, the Berthoud ski area closed for good.

But its spirit is alive and well. Backcountry skiers continue their dedication to the sport, hiking up and making turns on Berthoud as soon as the snow flies each season, and the Friends of Berthoud Pass, a collection of backcountry enthusiasts, work to continue the tradition that had its advent over a century ago. 


This small ski area operated back when Winter Park was actually called Hideaway Park. Located in downtown Hideaway Park, Ski Idlewild opened in 1961 and operated until 1986 with two lifts, one surface and one double chair. Offering 400 vertical feet and four total trails, Ski Idlewild offered beginner and intermediate terrain. Guests enjoyed amenities at the Ski Idlewild Base Lodge and the Idlewild Guest Ranch & Hotel. The base lodge offered a cafeteria, bar, ski shop, and patrol room while the guest ranch featured cross country ski trails, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a skating rink.  As the community continues to grow, various developments are now found where Ski Idlewild once was, however numerous hiking, biking, and cross country skiing trails run throughout the area. 


Considered to be the state’s first major ski area, Winter Park Resort opened in 1940, in part to alleviate the congestion on Berthoud Pass. The construction of the Moffat Tunnel made getting to Winter park from the Front Range even easier; access and resources allowed Winter Park Resort to grow rapidly and offer a ski experience unlike any other in the state at the time. With land leased from the Forest Service and operations run by the City of Denver, tickets for the first season cost one dollar, with a total of 10,692 skier days that year. Fast-forward to 1961: five t-bars, four rope tows, and a double chair gave the upwards of 100,000 skiers access to significant terrain on the mountain. Ski school (including the Winter Park Ski Jump School) was in full swing. The mountain expanded to the Mary Jane side in 1975, opening up 350 more skiable acres known for its ungroomed bump skiing. 

Today, Winter Park Resort boasts 3,081 total skiable acres combined in their Seven Territories: Winter Park, Vasquez Ridge, Parsenn Bowl, Terrain Park, Mary Jane, Eagle Wind, and The Cirque. Twenty-three lifts, including three high-speed six-pack lifts, one 10-person gondola, six high-speed express quads, three triples, six double chairlifts, three surface lifts, and one rope tow give skiers run of the mountain. 

One thing hasn’t changed: an adventure is always waiting at Winter Park Resort. 


The long winters and great snow conditions leave room for more than one downhill resort in Grand County. Originally opened as the Silver Creek Ski Area in the early 1980s, renamed Solvista in 2000 and rebranded again as Granby Ranch in 2004, the resort offers a smaller, more intimate alternative to Winter Park Resort. With around 400 acres of skiable terrain, 1000 feet of vertical drop, and five lifts, Granby Ranch capitalizes on its modest size. Designed for families and operating with them in mind, they’ve definitely found their niche in Colorado’s ski industry. We highly recommend making it out for night skiing at Granby Ranch this season! 

Want to learn more about Grand County ski history? Check out the ski exhibit at Hot Sulphur Spring’s Pioneer Museum

Posted by Angela McDonough (Sandstrom) on


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