430 inches of snow and an $89 lift ticket: Wolf Creek's laid-back appeal

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It was a beautiful cloudless February day and the skiing at Wolf Creek Ski Resort in southwestern Colorado was magnificent. The snow was soft and squeaky as I raced through the glades and rode race after race on sparsely populated tracks. Everything felt great. But somehow my lingering memory of that day is from another time.

After my last run, happily exhausted, I headed to Prospector Grill at the base of the mountain for a recovery coffee. When I started looking for money, the employee behind the counter dismissed me. He was starting to put things away and it was only a few dollars, but it felt… good.

When asked what draws them to Wolf Creek, where the average annual snowfall is 430 inches, the most in Colorado, many people have a quick answer: “The snow.”

And that's exactly what Sherry Miller mentioned. Ms. Miller, 70, drives to the area when there is a lack of snow at resorts near her home in northern New Mexico, and she has experienced the benefits of Wolf Creek's microclimate. “We've been in some storms where you couldn't see your hand in front of your face,” she said appreciatively.

But if you dig deeper into what makes Wolf Creek feel really special, the answer for me (and many other visitors) is that good vibe.

“It's super chill,” said Olesya Chornoguz, a 39-year-old skier from the Philadelphia area who regularly travels to several Rocky Mountain resorts and has become a fan of Wolf Creek. “Very quiet, not crowded. The people are nice and it is clear that they are there to have fun.”

The area's 1,600 skiable acres reach up to 11,904 feet of Alberta Peak and tend to build confidence. The clearings are usually next to the groomers, so there is always an exit in sight if any problems arise. There's certainly some expert terrain: hugging a cliff, the Knife Ridge Staircase leads to slides and bowls, and will get any thrill-seeker's heart rate up. But it's not discouraging for people who are good, but maybe not good enough to be sponsored by Red Bull.

“You can find very steep lines, but they are not unforgiving,” Ms. Miller said. “So you can try something steeper than your normal comfort zone, knowing that there will be shallower breathing areas in between.”

That general tranquility is increasingly rare in a ski industry dominated by large corporations, often long lines and congested trails and prices that have risen to as much as $15 a day for a medium-sized ticket office.

My locker at Wolf Creek was 75 cents.

This is a place with a reverse shock: The daily rate for lift tickets this season is $89 for adults and $44 for children, rising to a still-reasonable $100 and $55 during holiday periods. (The usual walk-up price in the much larger Vail for a one-day lift ticket is $269.) On “local appreciation days,” the price drops to $66 and $33.

Fear not, visitors, because according to the Wolf Creek website, “We're all locals! Discounts apply to everyone!

When a friend and I arrived at the parking lot the first morning in February, she mentioned that she had left her IKON card in another jacket. I told him he wouldn't need it anyway because Wolf Creek doesn't accept IKON, or Epic, or any of the other passes that have disrupted the snow sports industry in recent years.

Part of the way Wolf Creek keeps costs in check is the lack of extensive (and expensive to build and maintain) amenities. The improvements are incremental. This season, an 11th lift, the Tumbler, will cater to beginner and intermediate skiers with a slower speed and proximity to the learning center.

“Because of my love of skiing, my wife's love of skiing and just our general philosophy, we like to see people be able to enjoy public lands and ski without a lot of amenities and without a lot of rules; Have a good day,” said ski area CEO and manager Davey Pitcher. “That's why we don't have a terrain park: we don't really like that intense concentration and all the hype that comes with those events and stuff. “We think it’s better to be able to find your own way.”

However, finding your way to the ski resort is not easy. Wolf Creek is not near a large population center or an interstate highway. The nearest major airports are Albuquerque, four hours away, and Denver, which takes at least five hours. And once you're there, you can't even stay on the mountain: there's no on-piste accommodation and no après-ski scene. “Everyone skis and then comes home and supports our local community,” Pitcher said. “Restaurants and hotels are important for the economy and for money to be distributed.”

Most accommodations are 18 miles away in the town of South Fork or 24 miles away in Pagosa Springs. The latter has more accommodation and restaurants, plus mineral hot springs that feel great at the end of a day of skiing. At Springs Resort (one-day ticket: $67 for adults/$35 for children), you can get a revitalizing shock to the system by going from a 100-plus-degree swim right into the freezing San Juan River.

While sparse in terms of dining options and lodging (although an old property was just renovated and joined the outdoor-focused LOGE chain), the South Fork is a safer bet if the weather forecast is good for skiing but dangerous to drive: the road to the ski area tends to stay open during big storms, while the stretch from Pagosa can close.

The Pitcher family has owned and operated Wolf Creek for nearly five decades. Davey's father, Kingsbury, a pioneer of mountain planning in the United States, helped create Snowmass, designed the first lifts for Big Sky in Montana, and built the Sierra Blanca ski area (now Ski Apache) and the Santa Fe ski area in New Mexico.

In 1976, Kingsbury turned his attention to Wolf Creek, owned by a consortium of Texas investors, including Dallas Cowboys players. “They were really good at football, but not very good at running a ski area,” Davey Pitcher said dryly. When the group went bankrupt, Kingsbury jumped.

The Pitchers' presence is felt everywhere (the Charity Jane Express elevator is named after Kingsbury's wife, for example) and the family is actively involved. Davey's wife, Rosanne, is vice president of marketing and sales; His son Keith is an assistant elevator supervisor and his daughter Erika works in graphic design for marketing and retail. (Davey's brother Peter bought Discovery Ski Mountain in Montana in the mid-1980s; it's the only place Wolf Creek has a lift agreement with.)

But not even Wolf Creek is immune to market forces, and familiar figures to the ski industry are now appearing: ambitious developers.

In the mid-1980s, a group led by Texas billionaire Red McCombs (who died in February 2023) purchased land near Wolf Creek Pass, a portion of which actually encompasses the base of some of the ski lifts. area. The idea was to develop 300 acres at the Village at Wolf Creek, which would offer the accommodations and amenities currently missing.

“Our last plan had a total of 1,700 units, which was a mix of houses, townhomes, condominiums and hotel rooms,” Clint E. Jones, the project's president and senior leader for the past decade, said in a telephone interview. . “We have to provide food and drinks there, we have to provide a certain level of groceries, so that if someone is staying all week, they have certain necessities available.”

But in order to build, developers first had to connect those acres to U.S. Highway 160, which links Wolf Creek to Pagosa Springs and the South Fork. Local organizations banded together and sued to block construction of a new access road, arguing that the Village at Wolf Creek would drastically impact the environment and wildlife, and strain resources such as water.

“It's essentially the highest-altitude city in North America that they want to build there,” Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a group that opposes the project, said in a video conversation. “That causes a lot of consternation, like: What's the emergency medical services situation there? “I think most local people value Wolf Creek for what it is now.”

Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, another organization fighting the Village, highlighted the risks to the ecosystem. “It is probably the most biodiverse, concentrated and ecologically sensitive area left in the southern Rocky Mountains,” she said in a video conference. “And that's where they want to build, right in the middle!”

In October 2022, a high-ranking federal judge invalidated the access road plan, arguing that the environmental impact had not been adequately mapped; The Forest Service and the developers filed an appeal in the spring, and a hearing was held on Jan. 16 in Denver. A ruling is expected later this year. Jones declined to comment further on the appeal.

As for the ski area, Kingsbury Pitcher was briefly part of the Village project before the family sold its stake in the early 2000s and went through acrimonious litigation with McCombs. The Pitchers are diplomatic these days: “Right now the project is in a lawsuit to which we are not a party,” Rosanne said in an email. “We are optimistic that if it moves forward, the developer will work with us to complement Wolf Creek's unique niche.”


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