Where is Wolf Creek? Rather out of the way: Wolf Creek sits directly on top of the continental divide in the Rio Grande National Forest not too far from the New Mexico border, about a 225 mile drive from Albuquerque via I-25 and U.S. 84 through Chama up to Pagosa Springs, then east on U.S. 160. Coming from Durango, Colorado, Wolf Creek is about a 75 mile drive eastbound on highway 160. From Denver, United Airlines offers seasonal service to Durango airport.
Wolf Creek is one of those deeply hidden gems of the Rockies that easily compares to Taos, New Mexico in difficulty levels, but is harder to get to and far more rustic. It is one of Colorado’s older ski areas, having opened in 1939. At first glance it appears well worn. For example, the two-person Dickey chair that leads to the easy green Kelly Boyce, Bunny Hop and equally gentle blue Thumper and Charisma runs was a bit beat up and slow, but that was about the only detraction I noted during our entire excursion there. Everything else about Wolf Creek was great.
Its simplicity is very appealing. The entire base area consists of about five buildings. Parking was wonderful: not only is it free, but also a very short walk to the ticket area and lifts. Lift tickets are quite reasonable here: I paid only $43.00 for a full day on Saturday. The base area also maintains a small rental and gear shop, and a picnic pavilion available for those who pack their own lunch.
Wolf Creek has neither fancy sushi bars nor martini-and-cigar hangouts. The Wolf Creek Lodge and Prospector Grill is housed in one compact building at the base and serves fresh and simple sandwiches, chili, salads, juices, and hot and cold drinks. Laura claimed she had the best bacon cheeseburger in her life here. The Lodge also has a small bar serving beer, wine and mixed drinks. The warm weather last weekend allowed us to sit outside and enjoy our meals while watching skiers pound down the black diamond Holy Moses run next to the t-bar D. Boyce lift.
Our party of seven people ranged from extreme experts such as Paul, a well-known outdoor guide, to Donna from North Carolina, who was still learning to ski but did exceptionally well for her second time in the West, easily conquering the long and wickedly elegant blue Tranquility run. One of our other companions, Shannon, swore by Wolf Creek’s woodsy Waterfall area, and spent several hours there dodging trees while navigating through powder.
Powder is a given here every season: Wolf Creek’s motto is “The Most Snow in Colorado,” and they’re not kidding. The area certainly lived up to that reputation when we visited, having just received three feet of new, slightly heavy powder.
I stayed away from most of the bowl areas since I was toting my big Völkl skis with me on this trip, and turning them in such deep powder or on large moguls is too tiring (I had finally rented some shorter, lighter Rossignol performance skis on a trip to Winter Park in February, and yes, they did turn out to be a lot easier on moguls and in deep powder, so a second pair of skis may be on my shopping list next season). When I decided to be cute and hop off the Navajo trail toward the bottom of the Waterfall area anyway, I ended up on my side with skis facing uphill and my head facing down in sticky snow. After about fifteen minutes of contortions I managed to get free, then headed to the base of the relatively new Alberta quad lift to join my friends Jan and Kevin, who were brave enough to rough it through the Waterfall area from its top.
Kevin told me that prior to the Alberta lift’s installation - just a few years ago - one got over to this side of the mountain from the top of the three-person Treasure Chair lift (at 11, 775 feet) then down off the Navajo Trail. At the bottom, a snowcat would tow people on one big rope from this part of the mountain all the way up the lengthy ski road back to the base area. If someone got tangled and fell during the trip, everyone behind them would go down like dominoes.
Jan, Kevin and I played around on this far side of the area for a good part of one afternoon, observing brave souls up on the endless stretch of peaks, ridges, and bowls accessible from the Alberta lift. Heading left off the Alberta lift one can try something like seventeen different chutes and the entire horseshoe bowl area, which leads to lower black diamond runs such as Simpatico and Abracadabra, and eventually back down to the base of the Alberta lift.
A lot of areas along the tops of the ridges were blatantly roped off due to avalanche risk. As of March 15, Wolf Creek had received 297 inches of snowfall during this ski season so the avalanche danger was quite high.
I don’t believe one could ever get bored here. Besides downhill, Wolf Creek features an alpine ski area near the base of the Alberta lift. Too, on Saturdays the area has a “Fun Series” non-competitive downhill ski race, where participants’ names and times are posted on the Lodge door at the end of the day and everyone gathers to check their times.
They don’t groom very much here, so if you dig moguls, Wolf Creek is your spot. If you don’t do bumps, the most groomed areas lie below the Dickey Chair and Treasure Chair lifts. Just off the Treasure Chair, I found in particular the Silver Streak, Muskrat Ramble, and Tranquility blue runs all quite fun and built for speed. The entire area features numerous tree trails as well for those who are inclined.
Wolf Creek has none of the shi-shi lift-side condos and hot tubs, heated gondolas, and expensive boutiques that cram Vail, Breckenridge, and all of the I-70 corridor ski resorts further north. Here, you can stay in a motel in nearby Pagosa Springs or instead rent a fully furnished house, as we did, for quite modest prices. Pagosa Springs has a number of good restaurants including the Bavarian Inn, which serves authentic German cuisine. Finally, the Pagosa Hot Springs are delightful to settle sore muscles in after a long day of skiing (sorry, bathing suits are required here).
Besides all of its qualities like a huge variety of challenging runs, snowfall, and lack of both crowds and pretensions, Wolf Creek retains a kind of nostalgia, reminding one of what skiing was like before it became so commercialized. Above all, this last aspect is what makes Wolf Creek truly awesome.
Anne Fitzpatrick is a Washingtonian who currently lives in Santa Fe and works at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. She finds her way back to Washington to quell her Potomac Fever whenever it hits.