Following the Road Less Taken to Southern Colorado

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All images were taken by David McCue.

Like most Southeastern skiers, I spend the bulk of my ski days in the mountains around here.  I’m fine with snow, slush or ice, and whatever the snowmakers can provide.  Most satisfying are the winter storm days where I drop everything if 8 inches or more is forecast somewhere, then I stay up late looking at forecast maps and weather sites until I head out early the next morning to the most likely spot.  Some of my best deep snow days have been in West Virginia, and my best ever ski days were beside my sons on blue groomers in North Carolina and Virginia.   But, let’s face it mixing things up is  good too and I try to make a trip of some length out west each year, as a lot of readers do, and I return now from one of those outings with some tips.

Actually rather than just tips, let’s say a philosophy, a mantra and rallying cry; and the watchword is ROAD TRIP my friends, I appeal to that deep in your soul, straight from your youth, most basic love of adventure and change.

Road trip, it rings deep in our hearts but too many people, when they do head west, choose a sole destination and stultify in a week long slog from lift to dinner to their cushy condo bed.  The thread count of your sheets is no parameter for a successful trip, seeing amazing things and being taken by surprise is the greatest payoff.  When you go around the bend of an unfamiliar high mountain pass, or drop into a steep run that you have never skied or even seen, that’s the experience we all remember and chase, so embrace it.  Take a chance and get a little uncomfortable.

I attended the Snow sports industry of America (SIA) convention at the end of January, spent some time ogling all next year’s toys in Denver and then had a great two days actually getting hands and feet on them at Copper Mountain (one of the “corridor” mountains I know well and love.)  I’ll write more about that separately as there is a lot to talk about concerning next year’s gear; it was a great experience and I was again amazed by the quality and technology of what is being offered.

However I stayed several additional days and had a whole separate adventure heading south away from the congested trail of the Mega Resorts sprawling along the I-70 corridor. I grew up in Amarillo, Texas so I spent my first years skiing in New Mexico and southern Colorado; I joined every church youth group and bedeviled natives by descending in tour buses to fill up southern Colorado slopes.   I still have a soft spot for them and the relationship between native Texans and Coloradoans has become less chilly perhaps because hardly anyone is “native” anymore.  Besides I’m a North Carolinian now.

After the show I headed south to some favorite places with an anchor of the trip being a first time visit to Crested Butte Mountain Resort.  The strategy of this road trip is to travel far but make great stops along the way, like a stage coach run. Before the stops let me mention that I’m sincere about the traveling aspect, this is no commute.  This and any other route you choose, if you do it right will take you through soul quenching and mind drenching terrain that you will never see on a summer drive and trail hike.  Wind through a rocky canyon beside the ice choked waters of the Arkansas River, with 14,000 foot peaks of the presidential range framing the western horizon, that is a journey not just a drive.

And all the while you are moving toward another alpine pass, crossing to a new mountain and a fresh day of unfamiliar skiing–it’s an experience both sublime and just the right amount of scary.

Another thing about a road trip is that you remember your roots.  Do you remember the family owned motor courts and clusters of cabins with swing sets and creek frontage?  Yep, they are still there and sleepy families or solo travelers can still pull up to the neon glow of a vacancy sign and find a nice room on most nights.  They have a cool factor now as well, so embrace your memories of old journeys or your currency as a hipster in the know…. the road doesn’t care, it’s always there and waiting.  It is also possible to stay in an old mining town hotel where people slept and stayed a hundred years ago instead of a modern board room facsimile clad in faux shake shingle panels and christened with some foolish sobriquet like, “The Mine Tailings Inn.”

Something else old that’s new again is the hostel experience; which is not just for a student’s summer trip to Europe anymore.  There are old and young now; couples, groups and singles, sharing a place and good information of trips current and past.  Clean, efficient and fully stocked kitchens (you bring the food of course) are the norm.  Some Hostels are not good, and the cheaper rates can be a blessing or a problem but the best ones are magic in the combination of traveler’s dreams and local knowledge.  By the way, while the bunk room is an option, private rooms with a shared bath are usually available and cheaper than the Budget by the highway.

Oh, and also…

RENT AN SUV.  When  you are renting a car  just get an SUV; on  the road trip I am suggesting, lodging ,food, lift tickets and souvenirs will all be cheaper so pay for a vehicle that will take you over any road you choose to go.  It is also helpful to have a big boxy repository for your unwashed laundry and the elk antlers you purchased on your last detour.  Elk antlers by the way make exceptional drying racks but could be a problem as carry on.

GET A COLORADO GEMS CARD.   If you are skiing in Colorado and off the beaten track this is an essential piece of gear and the lightest one you will carry. This is the fourth year I’ve used it and the details vary each year but it’s always a tool for escaping the tyranny of I-70. On this trip I could use the card for half price tickets at Arapahoe Basin, Monarch, and Cooper (price tag, $47, $42, $27 respectively after discount) The card is provided by Colorado Ski Country,, and provides either two 2-for-1 tickets or 30% off for two days at nine participating resorts, all of which have reasonable rates to begin with. It costs $25 and they are still available as of this writing.  It’s another reason to look at the mega resort ticket prices and wonder why people would cough up $179 for a single day ticket.   I realize of course that between the various season pass offers and other options people do not necessarily pay the day rate but it’s also a matter of preference. I don’t like navigating condo choked base areas, then paying for parking to slog through the quarter mile of boutique shops that lead you to a crowded lift line.  I’d rather bounce through a parking lot full of campers and old 4×4’s and park in the shadow of the base lodge with the smell of bacon being grilled behind the “72 land cruiser two cars away.

Gentleman, start your engine:  Ski Cooper, Monarch and Crested Butte Mountain Resort

I first went to Ski Cooper randomly on another road trip.  I was driving away from I-70 toward Leadville and passed the iconic brown SKI AREA sign, that national forest classic has a Pavlovian effect and driving past one is nearly impossible for me.  It was a bad snow year when I was there but despite limited terrain, I loved the place and their no nonsense attitude, so I swore if they had better coverage I would check it out again.  This was a year of complete coverage so I made another visit.  I parked beside the base lodge and while organizing myself I watched a group of family and friends getting their gear into back packs and onto sleds to begin their journey to a back country hut accessed from a trailhead in the parking lot; maybe next time for me.  For southeastern skiers, Cooper feels somewhat familiar, it only has 1200 feet of vertical with a preponderance of blue runs, but it’s spread across two faces of the mountain.  All the runs can be crisscrossed through the trees between them, hopping back and forth between the groomers makes for long and varied top to bottom runs. If the 10th Mountain Division can train there, then I imagine most of us can find some challenge, actually by southeastern ratings all the black diamond runs are rugged though tamer by Colorado standards.  This is also a great place to start honing your tree skiing skills in preparation for what comes next. By the way Cooper’s military history is still alive, a group of several soldiers were learning to use skins and touring gear under the instruction of two Delta force leaders who looked pretty proficient.  One of the soldiers I rode with on the lift had barely skied before but they were next on the way to skin up, set a base camp, and summit Mt Elbert later in the week.

Monarch Mountain

The road goes on toward Monarch and points beyond.  I stopped at Salida, a town with great options for lodging, restaurants, fine brews, coffee, and even premium locally distilled whiskey.  It’s a summertime climbing and rafting mecca at the eastern edge of the Sawatch Range.  Driving there with the caps of the Presidential Peaks bathed in alpenglow made the journey seem mythic; it’s an unforgettable image that I can still bring instantly up.  From Salida various paths branch out, down to the snow magnet Wolf Creek or even New Mexico’s classic Taos.   I chose a personal favorite, a half-hour drive and 5000 feet up to Monarch Mountain. Monarch has some of every aspect of great Colorado skiing on a smaller scale and slower pace.  To me it’s such a classic experience for anyone who has never ventured down from the I-70 corridor; it’s not to be missed partly because it so often is.  Monarch is in a different weather belt than the Front Range, blessed by storms that often bring deeper and softer snows which are less prone to be stripped away or beaten into corrugated sheets by notoriously high Colorado winds.  Shelter, that’s a word that comes to mind, bowls open up from small ridgeline cornices, snow filled creeks form long natural half pipes scattered with features.  But most of all there are trees, heavily laden above and deep and soft below.  Elevation, shaded aspects, and lower traffic means there is something fresh available long after hungry crowds at other places are licking an empty plate.  Monarch has expanded it’s skiing  into the  terrain of Mirkwood Basin and that twenty minute hike assures even more protected powder and clean drops into the steep bowl there.  I was moving on this time but next year I may make Monarch my final stop and with the money I’ve saved from hostels and half-price tickets I’ll finally spend a day of cat skiing further beyond their boundaries.  I have repeatedly heard great things about their operation and don’t think I can pass it up again.

Crested Butte Mountain, Finally after 35 years.

The road as I say was calling and my final destination was still ahead. Crested Butte Mountain Resort has been a someday proposition for me since I started driving on my own with friends to Red River and Angel Fire;  we always planned to keep going but never made it on those weekend trips.  Decades went by and now each time I’ve flown into Denver I’ve considered it again but my itinerary always just came up short.  However, this time as I planned my next move past Monarch I calculated that the drive that far would put me in easy striking distance to realize a dream too long deferred. After wishing farewell to Monarch by way of a late afternoon tour off  Old Monarch Pass Road, I made the fifty minute drive along the nearly empty (save for a constant parade of mule deer and elk) rocky creek bottom lands of Sagauche and Gunnison counties.  A night in the wonderful Wanderlust Hostel in Gunnison put me within a half hour of CBMR the next morning, finally I was there!

The Difficult Terrain is the tip of the iceberg. Below it there are literally miles and miles blue and green groomers for all skill levels. Click to enlarge

The skiing at crested Butte is of a different magnitude.  By western standards Crested Butte is not huge but its terrain is universally revered as some of the toughest lift served and short hike accessible steeps anywhere in the US. When I venture out of the Southeast I’m always amazed by the talent of skiers I see,  the level of skill and guts at A-Basin in the steeps off Pallavicinni and the east wall is humbling to say the least and every mountain has locals  whose antics and ability are worthy of a documentary.  But, there is a concentration of ripping great skiers, male and female, young and old that I have not seen elsewhere; and of course the Crested Butte Extreme Competition is held each year in association with the Freeride World Tour. That was not happening while I was there, but it was hard to tell as I watched distant figures flying off the cliff bands into tight technical faces full of boulders and chutes.   Standing at the top of Paradise and High Lift I was quite satisfied just to be an informal spectator.  But one is inspired and I made my own heroic turns on terrain formidable enough for me, through runs like Rachel’s and the Glades, down steep bumps on Resurrection and arcing turns down Paradise Bowl and Forest Queen.  Steep tight pines are everywhere but you can find days’ worth of skiing in more widely spaced evergreens and there are massive stands of aspen to be sampled on the lower parts of the mountain.

What may be best about Crested Butte is what I’ve described throughout this account, the positive vibe: the elusive feel of comradery, good company and conversation, even as a visitor to their extreme playground I felt welcome, and just took it all in.  The mountain base has become more developed than I generally like but its remoteness has kept it real.  The price tag of $111 is higher than some but still lower that most and CBMR again participated in offers like the BOGO deal at Shell Stations (but buy your 10 gallons of gas BEFORE you reach Gunnison County)

I thought I could finally win a game of one-on-one here, but there were no takers.

My original plan was to only ski a day but somehow having finally arrived I made the smart choice to stay another night in the town of Crested Butte.  I am all about the skiing but what a great mountain town they have; exceptional restaurants and other amenities and people really committed to making their life in that wonderful place, I was pretty enamored I admit.. After one more day on the mountain exploring and revisiting favorite runs it was finally time to move on. By the way the shuttle system between mountain and town is a pleasure to navigate and gets you to the lift with at most a 15 minute wait and 10 minute journey; free of course or I would not even endorse it.

All good things come to an end and after another night bunking at the Wanderlust in Gunnison for $25, it was Denver and home for me with a couple of Back Country adventures to break up the trip.  Again, another story for another time.

But I’m rested now, some cold weather is returning here and the SkiSoutheast Summit is planned so I’m ready to start again on another more local adventure.

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