At just about every ski hill in North America, from Sugarloaf to Mammoth, you’ll find the same style of trail map. If you’ve ever been skiing, you know the map. An aerial perspective to show the entire mountain, a blend of whites and light blue shadowing to illustrate the contours of the mountain, blueish green miniature trees broken up by crisscrossing white runs, and simple lines to mark the chair lifts. While folding one up and tucking it into the pocket of your jacket next to a peanut butter sandwich, it’s easy to overlook that they’re actually beautifully designed maps. And the reason they’re all so similarly beautiful is no accident. Each one is designed and hand painted by one man, the artist James Niehues.

James Niehues
Cannon Mountain in Franconia, New Hampshire, 2007.

The origins of American trail map painting go back to the 1970s, when artist Hal Shelton began using an airbrush to paint maps for resorts. In the 1980s, Bill Brown became the primary trail map artist and in 1988, Niehues got in touch with Brown, who passed a job to Niehues to paint a map for Mary Jane Mountain in Colorado. Niehues soon inherited the mantle of trail map painting from Brown and in the three decades since, Niehues has painted over 430 maps for resorts on five different continents.

James Niehues
Niehues doing initial research.

His process typically begins with aerial photography of the mountain to start figuring out the right angle and perspective. After the photographs, Nieheues begins working on pencil sketches before the final painted and finished trail map. The challenge in doing so is that the natural slopes and edges of mountains make them impossible to see in their entirety from one angle.

James Niehues
James Niehues at his studio in Loveland, Colorado.

However, what Niehues says is his best skill is that he can look at a mountain and simply see the whole thing. He can take an entire three dimensional mountain and turn it into an elegant two dimensional image that you can look at once when you get off the lift and then somehow still intuitively understand while carving through a maze of runs at high speed. His maps are simply so well designed that people typically don’t even consider that they’re not just computer designs, let alone that they’re all hand painted by one old guy in Colorado.