Black diamonds in the rough
“Small is Beautiful”- E.F. SchumacherI walked into the clouds at Wolf Creek.During the hike up to 11,900-foot Alberta Peak, I straddled the line between blue sky below and floating droplets of water above, then waded into the mist as if it were a magical sauna.
It was a precious moment standing on that peak, snowboard in hand, catching my breath as I scouted my descent. When I sat down to strap in, the surrounding mist slowly lifted, and an unforgettable high-country canvas revealed itself. Piercing blue sky splashed up against the surrounding snow-covered mountainsides, each dappled with flourishes of green trees and jagged, brown rocks.For some reason, I imagined I was in one of those sappy Master Card commercials: Tank of gas, $43. Lift ticket at Wolf Creek, $45. The view from the top of Alberta Peak on a powder day, priceless.Priceless not because you can see for miles up there, but because that untainted view may soon be marred by one of the largest ski villages in the state, if approved.Colorado’s crown jewel of small ski resorts is in danger of becoming just another mega-resort, a hard fate to imagine at a place so beautiful, and so loved by outdoors enthusiasts. Similar uncertainty faces several more of the state’s tiny, out-of-the-way ski areas, and in that sense Wolf Creek symbolizes the challenges faced by a threatened breed of resorts.Texas billionaire Red McCombs, the former owner of the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Vikings, owns a 228-acre parcel of private land at the base of Wolf Creek’s Alberta Lift. McCombs, and partner Bob Honts, have plans to develop a village that would include 2,100 housing units and 222,000 square feet of commercial space.Think Vail, at 10,300 feet – in a county with fewer than 1,000 year-round inhabitants. I couldn’t imagine it myself, sitting on that peak. I traveled to Wolf Creek because I wanted to see it, and capture it, before the cranes and earthmovers and cement trucks arrive. It was definitely worth it.I savored that view from the top of Alberta Peak for a good five minutes. Then I pointed my snowboard downhill to carve long, arcing turns through some 17-odd inches of fresh snow. Midway down the face of the mountain, a primal scream shot up from my stomach, rattled through my diaphragm, then forced its way out of my mouth.Priceless, indeed.
Colorado’s “gems.” That’s the title for the state’s smallest ski areas, eight of them altogether.Wolf Creek actually isn’t classified as a gem by Colorado Ski Country USA, the statewide trade association. But if you look at the other ski resorts in “destination resorts” category where Wolf Creek is grouped, it’s hard to justify its place there. CSCUSA classifies the gems as its member ski areas “found off the beaten track, with down-to-earth prices, a variety of terrain and a laid back atmosphere.” By that definition, Wolf Creek is the Hope Diamond of the gems – a no-frills, 1,600-acre powder haven in the southwest corner of the state that averages an unbeatable 465 inches of snow each season and is far enough away to attract only the most devoted powder hounds. It’s not Telluride or Crested Butte, and it’s definitely not Aspen.For just $45, you get everything from green and blue cruisers to cliff-lined steeps where signs warn of avalanche danger. The area also offers no overnight lodging, just like all but one of eight resorts listed in the gems category. And talk about mellow. Every Wolf Creek local I met was warm and endearing, and willing to point me toward the best snow – although, with 11 feet of new snow in March alone, it was hard to go wrong anywhere.But enough about Wolf Creek. What about the other gems, like Monarch, or tiny Ski Cooper? Or Powderhorn and Sunlight? I had to see for myself, so I hit the road. More than 1,000 miles later, and with some 40 inches of snow falling from the time I left Aspen until I returned, I must say I’m convinced of the name. Colorado’s small resorts have slow lifts, dated base lodges and quirky locals. But they also have character and, more important, unique terrain.Along with that cloud walk at Wolf Creek, I’ll remember the incredible view over the sprawling Grand Valley at Powderhorn, a tiny three-lift resort on the edge of the Grand Mesa.At Monarch, an 800-acre area just outside Salida in the Sawatch mountains, I found 8 inches of new powder and peerless tree runs.At tiny 400-acre Ski Cooper, located at 10,500 feet on Tennessee Pass near Leadville, I found myself alone on wide-open groomed cruisers, on the same day that spring-break hordes clogged nearby Vail. I had a similar experience at local gem Sunlight, with fresh powder stashes in the trees all day long.Everywhere I went, I found scant lift lines, free parking and lunch for less than $10.
Of course, there is a rub. To appreciate the uniqueness of each little ski area, you must go for yourself. And most people never make the trip.”I always tell people that if I can get you here once, you’ll want to come back,” Powderhorn’s marketing director Kathy Dirks told me. “We’ve got great skiing, we never have any lift lines, and it’s hard to beat our prices.”Powderhorn offers stunning views of the surrounding valley, and averages as much snow each season as each of Aspen’s four mountains, yet only 81,000 skiers and snowboarders visited the area last season, the fourth lowest in the state. Dirks said 75 percent of those visitors hail from the Grand Valley, the rest from out of state. People just don’t think the drive is worth it, she said.All told, the gems racked up just 1,261,812 visits last season. Vail, the largest ski resort in the United States, attracted 1, 568,192. Which leads to a question: Can a tiny, independent ski area like Ski Cooper survive in the long term – especially when a behemoth like Vail, which is 13 times as big, is just 35 miles away? Can small mountains like Monarch survive by just offering skiing, and not much else?”I think the future looks very bright,” said Molly Cuffe, CSCUSA’s communications director. “They’ve really fulfilled their niche in the market. This year, the year-to-date average of skier visits is 23 percent higher than the five-year average. I think that trend is really indicative of a bigger trend of people wanting to get off the beaten trail.
“You’re not comparing apples to apples here,” Cuffe added. “These little resorts survive by keeping the costs down, while doing local grassroots programs that attract a steady base of customers.”A grassroots plan does work at a number of gems, including Eldora, Arapahoe Basin, Loveland and Monarch. Eldora, where I snowboarded as a kid just 21 miles from my home in Boulder, markets itself locally as an alternative to the Interstate 70 grind. A-Basin and Loveland, located on opposite sides of Loveland Pass on the Continental Divide, rake in profits by opening early and closing late in the season. This year, A-Basin expects to stay open until June – a full 2 1/2 months later than the big Summit County resorts. Monarch, which attracted a healthy 142,190 visitors last season, also caters to customers within a two-hour drive, and by reaching out to vacationing skiers from Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Arkansas. It doesn’t waste money competing in the saturated Denver market. This year, according to a report in the Denver Post, the area projects to make $1.4 million.During my one day at Monarch, the plan seemed to be working. The free parking lot was lined with license plates from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Minnesota. And everyone I met on the chairlift lauded the great snow and tiny lift lines.”This is our first year out here, but I think we’ll definitely come back,” said Tanza Bauer, a mother of three from Wichita, Kan. “We went through a ski shop in Wichita, and they suggested Monarch because it’s not as busy and it’s not as expensive. We think its great for our kids, it’s small, and even over spring break the lines aren’t very long.””We can’t afford Vail. We can’t afford any of those places like Breckenridge,” said Hillary Phelps of Pueblo. “The best part of it is that the snow is usually better and there’s nobody in the lift lines. It’s the only place we think of going when we go skiing.”
The future for other gems, like locally owned Sunlight, isn’t as secure.This fall, the area was put up for sale for $50 million. Tom Jankovsky, the mountain’s general manager, told the Glenwood Springs Post Independent that Sunlight must have faster lifts and more snowmaking to remain competitive. A new base village has also been discussed to attract destination skiers.Powderhorn also faces an uphill battle. The area isn’t necessarily struggling, Dirks said, but to remain competitive in the Grand Valley, a golfing and mountain-biking paradise, it will have to expand its amenities. There are currently two housing development projects in the works, one of them tied to the resort, and a golf course has also been discussed.”We’re not competing against other ski resorts,” Dirks said. “We’re competing against the other recreational options available to people in this valley.”Neville Ross, a season-pass holder for nine years, who helps run the Wagon Wheel Motel and restaurant in nearby Mesa, said Powderhorn brings in steady business during the ski season.”But it’s going to close next week, and it will be dead for the next two months,” he said. “That place is pretty much a lifeline during the winter. If they put in a golf course, that would help keep things more steady. I know the ski operation struggles, too. They’re looking for other ways to make money.”
Wolf Creek represents the opposite end of the spectrum. With more than 200,000 skiers each season, and its seemingly endless supply of snow, the family-owned area turns a healthy profit.But if McCombs’ development is approved (see related timeline), the gem will become a giant – a transformation that has become a hot-button topic statewide.Numerous groups, including Durango-based Colorado Wild and the locally organized Friends of Wolf Creek (friendsofwolfcreek.org) have fought the development, arguing that it will destroy wetlands and tarnish the ski area’s charm. The groups also argue that there isn’t enough water to support a village for up to 10,000 people.The U.S. Forest Service will eventually decide whether to approve a 250-foot access road across federal land for visitors to reach McCombs’ property from Highway 160. Colorado Wild has threatened to sue if the Forest Service grants permission for the road. At Wolf Creek, the regulars don’t have many nice words for McCombs or his development.”In the end, there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s going to ruin the little uniqueness of Wolf Creek,” said Andy Burch, a Pagosa Springs resident who has held a Wolf Creek season pass for eight years. “The reason I moved here was to be closer to nature, to get away from the big resorts and the city and stuff. It is really sad.”Michael Whiting, 45, had similar feelings. He and his wife, Amelia, moved to Pagosa Springs in April to get away from the big-city grind in Denver.”I’m sure there’s businessmen and property owners in Mineral County who are for it, but the ranching community and the local outdoors people don’t see a lot of benefit in the project,” Whiting said. “The owners of Wolf Creek are all for moderate development; they’re just opposed to putting Vail here. It’s just a bunch of rich Texas developers with a lot of money who have no clue about what this place is about.”On the drive back from Wolf Creek, I couldn’t stop thinking about that view, that run, those sprays of soft white snow. I arrived back in Aspen during a 5 p.m. traffic jam. There are things I love about big resorts – the high-speed lifts, the groomed corduroy, the nightlife. But the gems have their own undeniable pull.I just hope too many people don’t discover the same riches I have.
Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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