By R. Scott Rappold
There's an old two-seater chairlift rising above U.S. Highway 160 in southwest Colorado.
From the road, Hesperus doesn't look like much, especially compared to the massive resorts of Purgatory, Silverton and Telluride that also call this region home. In summer, cattle graze on the ski trails. In winter, the smell of livestock is unmistakable in the muddy parking lot. Little has changed here since the first tow rope went in back in 1962.
But thanks to the 2016 acquisition by James Coleman, owner of Purgatory and several small ski areas in New Mexico and Arizona, a lot more people are discovering Hesperus. With the region's only night skiing and pass reciprocity with the other areas, Hesperus is filling an important niche here. And Durango locals who might never have skied Hesperus are catching on.
"It's cool to see a lot of locals say, 'I've lived here for 10 years and I've never skied there because I've always had a Purgatory pass," said mountain manager Ben Beresford. "And then they ski here and never realized Hesperus was so fun. People look at it from the road and don't realize it's so steep but if you get out there it's pretty steep."
On a recent swing through Southwest Colorado, I stopped by to see what the newest addition to the Colorado Ski Country USA family (and Gems Card) - not to mention the second-smallest - is all about.
Surprising variety of terrain
Looks can be deceiving.
That's the impression one gets after hopping on the chairlift at Hesperus (it's the only lift so nobody's bothered to name it.) The highway noise fades and the stunning La Plata Mountains open up to the north. After a midway unloading station for beginners, the lift drops you on top of a ridge at 8,888 feet above sea level. The desert Southwest spreads before you and the cliffs of Mesa Verde National Park twinkle in the distance.
There's an impression that "small" equals "wimpy" in skiing. Not so at Hesperus. There are plenty of black diamond trails as steep and bumpy as anything at a mega-resort. There are tree runs through the willows and junipers. There are rocks to jump, glades to explore and fast groomers for soaring.
Of the many ski areas that opened in Colorado in the 1960s, most either expanded or went under. Not so at Hesperus, which has changed little. The base remains rustic and the ski patrol is still an all-volunteer outfit. Previous owner Jim Pitcher was content to keep things simple and continue offering one of the lowest lift ticket prices in the state.
That hasn't changed - an adult full day ticket is just $39 - but other things have. Since the purchase opened up Hesperus to Purgatory passholders, Beresford said, many more Durango locals have discovered it.
In Greek mythology, "Hesperus" means "evening star", the planet Venus in the evening, and it's at night, especially if it's snowing, that Ski Hesperus really comes alive.
"People that work all day, if it's a powder day, they're coming here and skiing here at night because they had to work all day. It's filing that niche of people being able to still get out and be active in the evening, because we have night skiing, where they weren't able to do that before," Beresford said.
If nights are for Durango locals with day jobs, weekends are for families. Many come from northern New Mexico, lured by the cheap tickets and the fact Hesperus provides three free lessons to beginner skiers and snowboarders.
This winter, for the first time, Hesperus is able to have a terrain park, thanks to the partnership with Purgatory, which sends crews over to build it. That's a big improvement for local shredders like Kyle Harris, of Cortez, who said he rides there more than anywhere else.
"It's just way cheaper and closer and it's kind of like our hometown ski area. It's just nice to rip it. They've got a little terrain park and everyone here is chill," said Harris, strapping in atop the mountain.
So next time you find yourself looking for an affordable skiing experience in southern Colorado, or you're just looking to see what night skiing is all about, drive 11 miles west of Durango and give it a try.
Though their average snowfall is only 150 inches, they get good powder days too.
"The last big storm we got over 30 inches and this place was blower. We have huge powder nights. This place will pack 300 to 400 people here," said Beresford.
"Everyone comes here and says, 'I didn't realize Hesperus was so awesome.'"
About Ski Hesperus
- Acres: 160
- Base Elevation: 8,100 ft
- Summit Elevation: 8,888 ft
- Hours of Operation: Lifts are open Monday-Friday from 4pm-9pm, Saturday from 9am-9pm and Sundays from 9am-4pm.
- Season Dates: Mid-December - mid-March