Origin of Trail Signs

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We take ski signage for granted in skiing. As far as many skiers remember, ski signs were always around. The familiar green circle, blue square, and black diamond shapes guiding us through the mountains. This familiar terrain signage was created and adopted in a way that is distinctly America.

The winter of 1964-1965 was the first year any ski signage was used to indicate terrain difficulty. The newly formed National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) was under pressure from insurers to make mountains safer for guests (because, you know, America). The first set of signs adopted were a step in the right direction, combining shapes and colors, but confusing. A maroon diamond designated advanced terrain in the U.S. while the color red indicated intermediate terrain in Europe.


sign_zps7a9b606bLooks familiar? Thank you, Mr. Disney!


Less than three years later, in the winter of 1967-1968 the solution became apparent. In the 1960’s Walt Disney, who among other things loved to ski, was looking in to building a resort in the California mountains. Sky Crown at Mineral King, designed to be a winter and mountain centric counterpart to Disneyland would have been unlike anything today. Located in the Sequoia National Forest, Disney secured the rights to develop Mineral King in 1965. While the development of Mineral King was unsuccessful (due in part to environmental issues over the four-season road needed to reach the resort) the signage that Disney had developed for the potential resort was. The Mineral King area was eventually incorporated into Sequoia National Park.


Mineral King Ski SlopesDisney’s proposed Sky Crown at Mineral King. photo: disneydrawingboard.com


Disney had put a considerable amount of energy into developing signage that was intuitive and easy to understand. The signage for Mineral King was based off of research for signage at Disneyland, which suggested that people respond best to colors and shapes. The proposed signage for Mineral King was a green square, soft shape and mellow color for beginner terrain, blue square for intermediate, and a black diamond, hard and intense, for the most difficult terrain. In 1968 the NSAA adopted Disney’s signage, which has remained unchanged to today.

Double black diamonds were not part of Disney’s resort signage. The first double black diamond runs were not created until the 1980’s when marketing and improved terrain management techniques took things to the next level.

Next time you are out on the slopes, remember that whatever you think of Walt Disney, his signage was so simple and intuitive that we still use it today. We can thank him for keeping the weekend crowds (somewhat) in the appropriate areas and creating intuitive mountain signage that we still use over 45 years later.

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