Colorado Ski History
Colorado's Lost Resorts
There are ghosts among us – dozens of them. You see traces scattered all around the Colorado mountains, if youlook closely some forlorn-looking chairlift towers standing guard over a hillside here, tell-tale white boulevards weaving down a slope off the highway over there, remnants of blue and black runs that drew crowds before anyone called them blue or black. They're the ski areas that have fallen bythe wayside - victims of competition, victims of bad business decisions, victims of scanty snowfall, and victims of time. If youlove Colorado skiing today, then why not tip your hat to the 137 resorts, jumps, lifts, and rope tows that helped pave the wayyesterday? These are Colorado's Lost Resorts.
Arapahoe East stood beside 1-70 for two decades but only operated about half that time. Larry Jump, founder of Arapahoe Basin, actually made money one year, but snowmaking had its limits. Alternative proposals for grass skiing and an alpine slide failed, and the end came in 1984. Its chairlift came from another failed area, Meadow Mountain.
Camp Hale, Tennessee Pass: Can an Army base be considered a "resort"? Maybe. Like Aspen, Vail, and other modern resorts founded by Tenth Mountain Division, the base had trails, tows, meals, and ample overnight lodging. Opened three months after Pearl Harbor, it shut down in 1965 except for the longest training slope, which became the heart of still-active Ski Cooper.
Climax, sometimes called the Continental Ski Course, opened in 1936 with great snow, a $10 pass, and night skiing. The Climax Molybdenum Co. kept the "vast open slopes" going from 1936 to 1960, when employee housing nearby was discontinued.
Conquistador's development began in 1974, but it wasn't until 77 that the resort opened. Two pony lifts with a scant 85-foot drop served for five years. Two chairlifts were added in 1982 in a major expansion, accompanied by a major default on loans. The federal Small Business Administration lost millions running it for six years before closure; a planned reopening as Mountain Cliffe failed in 1992-93.
Evergreen Basin consisted of little more than high hopes and good publicity. It made a big splash when it was announced in 1965. Two chairlifts would be ready by that winter. A lodge would be built in 90 days, starting a development planned to be bigger than Winter Park. A few trails were cleared before development stopped. Denver's South High ski team did ski there, drawn uphill by a team of horses.
Fun Valley was first developed in 1938 as "Watson's Ski Hill," with a homemade sled tow that could haul 15 skiers standing. Revived in the mid-'60s, it soldiered on until 1977, adding an old single chairlift from A-Basin, night lights, background music, and never quite enough snowmaking.
Genesee Mountain was a highlight on the national ski jumping circuit with the 1921 and 1927 National Jumping Championships. The hill had a 700-foot drop, with four jumps. Snow was undependable, but events continued into the mid-1930s. The University of Denver ski team used the site briefly in the mid-'50s.
Geneva Basin, opened as Indianhead Mountain in 1962, offered an "Eastern flavor," with challenging terrain and often-cold weather. Former governor Roy Romer owned it in the early ‘70s. Equipment woes mounted, and when one empty chair fell from a lift in '84, it was the last straw. A revival as Alpenbach failed in '86.
Hidden Valley bridged the eras of competitive jumping and recreational skiing. The National Alpine Championship was held there in '34, and surface lifts were added later. But the area's layout was awkward, and 70% of the terrain was rated "most difficult." So the National Park Service removed a chairlift just five years old, and it closed in 1991, after 57 years.
Magic Mountain is gone now, really gone. The slope, 1.100 feet long and 150 feet high, was gobbled up by a gravel quarry. But in 1958-59, it introduced snowmaking to Colorado. The first successful season was never repeated. Bankruptcy of the associated amusement park left the site padlocked. The snowmaking equipment found a home at Ski Broadmoor. The ski run was beside Heritage Square, just west of Denver.
Marble ran a mile-long chairlift from 1971 through 74, but much bigger things were planned. A vast development was predicted, but opposition mounted. A million-dollar lodge was half-completed when spring mudslides demonstrated the geological hazards of the area. The forest service refused an expansion scheme, and the project went bankrupt.
Montezuma Basin had no competition but little success. It was open only in late summer when the Jeep road to the snowfield beneath Castle Peak, at 13,000 feet, was passable. A portable rope tow operated from August to October 1967. The area ran two more years and was popular with racers in training but never found its footing.
Old Man Mountain's jumping events, begun in 1931, often had to depend on snow hauled up the slope in an old ore cart... so why not hold an event in August, when Estes Park was full of summer tourists? In 1951 and 1952, the Estes Park Ski Club had 55 tons of crushed ice delivered and spread on the slopes to make what veteran jumper George Peck called "a great surface, better than snow."
Pikes Peak went bust in 1984, its brand-new chairlift repossessed by the manufacturer. Beginning in 1954, the 500-foot-tall slope at Elk Park had claimed the skiers who formerly used Glen Cove (see No. 29), a mile uphill. Two pomas and a rope tow served three slopes until funding for a major expansion foundered.
Pioneer Ski Area opened in late 1939 with the state's first chairlift, built from a converted mine tram by local ski club volunteers and WPA workers. Initially, nervous forest service officials demanded that the seats be no more than three feet off the ground, but later they relented. The main Big Dipper trail, with slopes of 53 degrees, proved a bigger challenge. The area lasted until 1953.
Red Mountain's slopes, served by one of the nation's longest chairlifts, were judged among the West's best in 1940. But the lift was plagued with defects and failures. The area boomed in the late '50s with a new lift, rising 1,750 feet. Money woes brought closure in '59. A higher portion of the same slope southwest of town operated as Glenwood Mountain Park in 1965-66 (see No. 108).
Sharktooth was the state's most unlikely ski area. This stray hill above the Poudre River provided almost 200 vertical feet. It opened in 1971 with one surface lift and operated day and night through '86. Some usual costs were negligible, such as avalanche control and ski patrol, but the operator had to plant 1,000 trees upwind to block blowing dust from neighboring farms.
Ski Broadmoor never matched the luxury and permanence of its namesake hotel. Begun in 1959 with a 600-foot drop, it specialized in night skiing and ski instruction. Colorado Springs took it over in '86 for one successful season, then suffered through 400 percent overruns with renovations in '87. Vail ran it for two years, then abandoned the aging, balky lift and the too often-icy trails. The creators of this area, which still can be seen, included Steve Knowlton, the founder of Colorado Ski Country USA.
Ski Sugarite, or Raton Ski Basin, was somewhat elusive. Its slogan, "New Mexico's Only Colorado Ski Area," was part of the problem. Just where was it? Not on the west-facing slopes above Raton Pass, where remnants of a summer-only chairlift can still be seen. Instead, it was 12 miles northeast of Raton, N.M., but literally feet within the Colorado boundary. It ran from 1965-89.
Stagecoach was the largest Colorado resort to close, leaving three chairlifts dangling empty. It opened in 1972 and ran for two seasons. Controversy plagued the development, which reportedly included condos but not a base lodge for skiers.
All articles written by Pat Pfeiffer
Much of the Museum is comprised of the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, which is dedicated to those men and women who helped Colorado make great advances in the sport of skiing. Some of the inductees are the great racers of their time, while others are teachers, instructors, innovators, physicians, and more. You can learn more about the Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame inductees at the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame in Vail.
Many films run continuously at the Museum, and there are lots of exhibits to see. When you are in Vail, please make sure you stop by and say hello. You'll love the Museum...it's an amazing trip through skiing's past that you'll never forget.
The Legacy of the 10th Mountain Division
One of the biggest influences on Colorado skiing history was the 10th Mountain Division.
Winter Park Ski Train Ends Service...
The Winter Park Ski Train announced it was ceasing operations in 2009 after 69 years in operation. From the dawn of alpine skiing in Colorado, it had faithfully served the skiers of Denver and the Front Range, never having to cancel a trip because of bad weather. The last trip was March 29, 2009.
When Skiing Came To Colorado...
Gold was discovered in the mountains of
in 1859. The early pioneers soon learned that webbed snowshoes were useless in the deep powdery snow of the high mountains. They preferred Norwegian snowshoes or skis. Colorado
It has been estimated by some historians that the State of
would have taken another decade to settle had it not been for skis. The long runners provided a dependable way for the mail to get through when trains were stalled, when telegraph lines were down, and when drifts and avalanches prohibited travel on the primitive roads and trails. Colorado
The first documented use of skis in
, as reported in Frank Hall’s History of Colorado, occurred during the winter of 1859-60 in a snow-locked mining camp along the Colorado near present-day Breckenridge. The 10 men remaining in camp made themselves skis and traveled down-valley where they built a cabin and claimed a town site called Eldorado West. The same history source reveals that the following winter all provisions were being carried over the range from Blue River to Georgia Gulch by men on skis. South Park
Father Dyer (Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame Member) braved the blizzards of Mosquito and
to take the word of God to his wayward and scattered flocks in the Leadville mining district. In 1863 he signed on to carry the mail and almost perished in an avalanche. His book, The Snowshoe Itinerant, describes the pleasures and perils of traveling alone on skis across the roof of the continent. Hoosier Passes
The Mail Must Get Through
Father Dyer was just one of the mail carriers in Colorado’s early history that provided a lifeline to the outside world. In 1880 there were over 50 skiing mail carriers in the state. These hardy mountaineers carried a compass, rubbed soot or lampblack on their faces to avoid sunburn - wore silk underwear for warmth under their great coats, and were adept at building snow caves for survival in bad storms. But the mail got through!
They traveled fifty miles at a stretch over the mountains on skis with only a simple toe strap and heel block to keep the foot in place. Harrowing tales abound of many being swept down slope by snow slides; becoming disoriented in whiteouts or breaking a ski enroute - a life threatening mishap. Some perished in the line of duty. Others lost toes and limbs to frostbite.
Mail carriers like Al Johnson (Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame Member) are legendary heroes. Johnson carried the mail from Crystal City, a ghost town above Marble, over Schofield Pass to Gothic, Crested Butte and Irwin. He was known far and wide as one of the best skiers in the Elk Mountains. When the gentlemen of Irwin formed a ski club, Al Johnson became a member.
People in the Colorado mountain towns from Telluride in the southwest to Steamboat Springs in the north kept on skiing. Winter ski outings were popular; young people organized ski parties; winter carnivals featured cross-country ski races, skating and tobogganing. For the next 25 years Coloradans would ski to school; to work; to mend fences; but they would remain largely unaware of the improvements in equipment and technique being made in the Scandinavian countries and in the Alps.
All that would change in 1911 when Carl Howelsen, (Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame Member) a great Norwegian champion, skied down the western slope of Rollins Pass and into Hot Sulphur Springs. There he found a winter carnival in progress and proceeded to demonstrate ski jumping to an awe-struck group of spectators. It was the beginning of the ski-sport in Colorado and it was to change the state forever.
-Written by Pat Pfeiffer
Much of the Museum is comprised of the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, which is dedicated to those men and women who helped Colorado make great advances in the sport of skiing. Some of the inductees are the great racers of their time, while others are teachers, instructors, innovators, physicians, and more. You can learn more about the Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame inductees at the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum - Hall of Fame in Vail.