More Powder, Less Dough: Affordable Colorado Ski Destinations

Colorado Ski and Snow Insider Guides
by Hal Amen Mar 14, 2008
If you need designer ski wear and sushi bars to enjoy your ski vacation, stick to Aspen and Vail. If you prefer lots of white goodness, wicked terrain and cheap lift tickets, keep reading.

LIFT TICKETS AT VAIL, Aspen, Breckenridge, and the other top-name resorts are approaching $100. It’s enough to make you wonder whether it’s possible to ski Colorado without taking out a second mortgage.

But fear not. If you’re able to venture south, away from the over-developed I-70 corridor and beyond the glitzy boundaries of the mega-resorts, Colorado’s endless mountains hold some real gems.

Two of the best under-the-radar CO ski areas are Wolf Creek and Monarch Mountain. Neither is terribly large. Nor do they offer faux-alpine condo blocks, five-star restaurant chains, or opera houses. In fact, each has little more than a base lodge, rental shop, and a few eating establishments.

What they do have, though, is what counts most for a killer ski vacation: incredible natural snow, lift lines that are manageable on weekends and holidays and practically nonexistent during the week, and ticket prices you won’t kick yourself for paying.

photo courtesy of Hal Amen

“The Most Snow in Colorado.” Enough said.

In addition, both Wolf Creek and Monarch rank high on the environmental scorecard of the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition, which coincidentally places several of the state’s better-known mountains towards the bottom of its low-impact list.

So let’s wrap up. You get dreamy snow, relative seclusion, extra money in your wallet, and a genuine Rocky Mountain experience, minus boutiques selling fur coats and $275 sunglasses.

Wolf Creek

“The Most Snow in Colorado.” Enough said. But not only does Wolf Creek consistently rack up the most inches in the state (450 on average and up to 600), the light, soft quality of its powder is truly something to be experienced. And at $48 a day, it’s a steal to do so.

Another unique aspect of Wolf Creek is its relatively open trails. Whereas runs on other mountains may be hemmed in by thick woods, trees are more sparsely situated at Wolf Creek, giving you the freedom to cut lines across the mountain however you please.

photo courtesy of Hal Amen

In 1999, the Alberta quad lift was added, increasing Wolf Creek’s lift-serviced acres from 600 to 1,600. The new terrain is primarily gladed, with numerous powder chutes and bowls.

Wolf Creek’s location, while prime for snowfall, also keeps the crowds of wealthy Texans and Denver day-trippers away.

Seated just east of the summit of the formidable Wolf Creek Pass, it can be difficult to reach when the snow really starts dropping.

In fact, during the 2007-08 season alone the pass was closed more than a dozen times.

Accommodation in the town of South Fork, also on the eastern side of the pass, provides both the shortest and least intense drive to the mountain.

However, if you’re staying for more than a couple days, you’ll probably want to head over the pass to the livelier population center of Pagosa Springs.

Reasonably priced motels can be found here, and after a long day of cutting through the powder, you can relax in the hot springs in the center of town.

(Note: Just how long Wolf Creek will remain a down-to-earth ski mountain is uncertain. See the Friends of Wolf Creek website to learn about a development proposal being fought both by locals and the ski area management itself.)

Monarch Mountain

Your fellow skiers and riders are as likely to be sporting blue jeans as the latest Spyder gear

Monarch can’t compete with Wolf Creek in the snowfall race, but its high elevation ensures that it gets hit with the good stuff pretty often (averaging 350” annually). What’s more, the unassuming charm of this mid-state mountain is sure to win you over.

Your fellow skiers and riders are as likely to be sporting blue jeans as the latest Spyder gear, while the views from the top of the peak will leave you breathless.

You won’t find as much in the way of technical challenges at Monarch either; nearly every run can be tackled with intermediate skills. However, the opening of the 130-acre Mirkwood Basin in 2005 has added some much-appreciated double-black terrain. A 15-minute hike is required to access this hidden stash, but its chutes, rock cliffs, and tree skiing are worth the effort.

Monarch’s lift tickets come in at $52 a day, and this price drops to $42 if you buy at least one day in advance online. As if this weren’t good enough, even bigger deals have become available in recent years.

This season, Ski Free Colorado has partnered with Philips 66 to offer a buy-one-get-one-free voucher whenever you purchase 10 gallons of gas from a participating station. That’s $26 a lift ticket! The vouchers are valid at Crested Butte, Winter Park, and Copper Mountain as well.

Monarch is also more accommodation-friendly than Wolf Creek. The small city of Salida, brimming with motels, lies 20 miles east of the mountain on Highway 50. Even more conveniently located is the Monarch Mountain Lodge, just 3 miles away. The adjacent village, Garfield, has several vacation homes available for rent.

Practical Info

The closest major airport to Pagosa Springs (Wolf Creek) is in Albuquerque, a 4-hour drive to the south. Alternatively, the tiny airport of Durango is just 60 miles away. For accommodations in Breckenridge, check out Breckenridge Vacation Rentals.

It takes a little over 3 hours to reach Salida (Monarch Mountain) from the Denver International Airport, and about an hour less from Colorado Springs.

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