HAPPY ANNIVERSARY: Three Venerable Colorado Ski Areas Turn 80

Submitted by R. Scott Rappold on Mon, 11/18/2019 - 16:08

historic monarch photo

Historic Monarch Photo from SkiMonarch.com 

By R. Scott Rappold

Eighty years ago this winter, something special was happening in Colorado. 

We were learning to love the sport of skiing. Colorado ski areas Monarch Mountain, Winter Park and Wolf Creek all trace their beginnings to the winter of 1939-40. 

The Great Depression was over and people had extra income again. The nation had yet to be drawn into the war in Europe. Optimism abounded and Americans were discovering the joy of the great outdoors. For many Colorado residents and the increasing number of tourists, that meant skiing. 

And, most importantly, the automobile had given people a freedom never before realized, combined with a wave of mountain pass construction that allowed them to visit locations previously unreachable in winter. 

"There was a boom in road and railway construction. This made these ski areas much more accessible," says Dana Mathios, curator at the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame. "Due to these advancements in transportation, Coloradoans were better able to adventure out for skiing, especially if they lived in Denver or Colorado Springs. By creating these links to the mountains, skiing became much more popular."

Of course, those hardy pioneers who ventured into the snowy depths of the Rockies couldn't have imagined how big skiing would get, and while much has changed at these three ski areas, much has remained the same. 

Changing views of the Rockies

For much of Colorado's short history, the Rocky Mountains weren't loved as much as they were feared, especially in winter. Extreme cold, deep snow, brutal storms and deadly avalanches plagued the early settlers and miners who built many mountain towns. 

The automobile changed all that, and in 1938, according to newspaper reports, 1.1 million people visited one of the state's national forests, up 47,000 from the year before. And more than ever, people were coming in winter. In the 1938-39 season, 131,000 people visited a national forest for winter recreation, 30 percent more than the previous winter, according to the Aspen Daily Times. 

The U.S. Weather Bureau (precursor to the National Weather Service) in the winter of 1939-40 began compiling snow reports for the public, including snow depth, the date of the most recent snowfall and snow quality, ranging from "dry, heavy, crusted, packed, drifted or granular." 

There were already a handful of tow ropes around Colorado, at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs, in Aspen, on Pikes Peak and at Loveland. But the areas getting the heaviest use didn't have facilities at all. 

Everything was about to change.

Monarch Mountain

The Continental Divide between the Arkansas and Gunnison river valleys is one of the most imposing barriers in Colorado, a wall of 14,000-foot peaks, where winter is long and brutal. In 1938, state highway engineer Charles Vail chose a "low point" of 11,312 feet for the location of the first paved, year-round road over these mountains. Locals knew it as "Agate Pass" but Vail renamed it for monarch butterflies seen there. 

Locals already knew about this place, and in 1936 formed the Salida Winter Sports Club. They hauled a six-cylinder truck engine up an old wagon road to power a rudimentary tow rope. According to a Forest Service report, the area saw 1,750 skiers in 1938-39. Later that year,  with the pass now built, they applied to the U.S. Forest Service for a permit to build trails, a lodge and permanent lift. The agency approved on the condition the town of Salida take over the area. 

The Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era program to create jobs, funded the  $26,000 construction cost. It opened that winter with 25-cent tow rope tickets, netting $50 for the season. The lodge had no restrooms so skiers had to step outside into the cold.  The town sold it for $100 dollars a few years later. 

From that one tow rope, Monarch has grown into a quintessential "locals hill," beloved for generations in Salida and nearby Colorado Springs. It now spans 800 acres, with seven chairlifts and some of the best hike-to terrain in the state, Mirkwood Basin, but without the high prices, boutiques or condos of larger resorts. 

Today, you can still ski the first cut run, Gunbarrel, which plunges a steep 30 degrees into the modern parking lot. Imagine skiing something that steep on rickety 1930s wooden planks without quick-release bindings. 

Monarch is planning on hosting several events throughout the upcoming season to celebrate its 80th year! They're planning a fun race that includes of teams of 2 people whose ages add up to 80, or more. Monarch is also planning on having its largest ever fireworks show this New Year's Eve. Also, Dr. Duane Vandenbushe from Western State College will be giving a historical presentation about Monarch Friday, November 22 at the High Alpine Brewery in Gunnison. 

And if you're interested in knowing more, Rocky Mountain PBS just aired “Colorado Experience” Monarch Mountain on November 13, which covered Monarch's history. 

Winter Park 

historic winter park photo

Historic Winter Park Photo: Courtesy of the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame

On Dec. 1, 1939, residents of West Portal, Colorado, woke up in a new town: Winter Park. 

The sleepy hamlet had thrived during the construction of the Moffat Tunnel, a water diversion project for the city of Denver, but later dwindled to just 50 residents. The completion of Berthoud Pass in the late 1930s ended the town's decades of isolation and brought in a new breed of visitors: skiers, nearly 50,000 in the 1938-39 winter, according to a Forest Service report. 

Denver city officials, eager to encourage outdoor recreation, decided to fund the creation of a ski area. The town was encouraged to rename, a $40,000 tow rope was built and on Jan. 28, 1940, opened for business with a race. The governor, Denver's mayor and other dignitaries were on-hand for the occasion. 

"This famous ski area is one of the finest in the world. Most of the region faces north and thus is protected from the winter sun for the greater part of the day," wrote one newspaper. 

"The half-mile ski tow was warmly praised by the thousands of skiers who attended the meet," reported another. 

The tow rope "hauls winter sports enthusiasts up steep grades to points where they can zoom down again over six different trails." 

And uniquely, Denver skiers could ride a train to the resort, with train cars "as smart in furnishings and conveniences as any traveler could desire," wrote the Steamboat Pilot. 

Skiers can still ride the train on winter weekends, but much else has changed at Winter Park. Today the resort covers two distinct areas, Winter Park, known for its family-friendly runs and deep trees, and Mary Jane, with its steep drops and long mogul runs. All told, it spans 3,081 acres, with 23 lifts and a base village. 

The resort will celebrate 80 years on Dec. 6, with a party and concert on the mountain featuring bluegrass music by The Railsplitters. 

Wolf Creek

historic wolf creek photo

Historic Wolf Creek Photo: Courtesy of the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame

Colorado's San Luis Valley is one of the state's most isolated regions, hemmed in by mountains on all sides. Until the late 1930s, a trip to the west meant a long detour into New Mexico on a road that often closed in winter. 

All that changed with the construction of Wolf Creek Pass, completed in 1938 to connect the Rio Grande and San Juan river basins. Locals had long known about these mountains - the area gets more snow than any other part of Colorado, an average of 430 inches, as moisture-laden storms out of the southwest slam against the wall of the Continental Divide. 

That year, Charles Elliot and Kelly Boyce, two ski enthusiasts from the San Luis Valley, hauled a Model A engine to the top of the pass to power a tow rope. It blew up. But by the 1939-1940 season they had a permanent rope. The Civilian Conservation Corps, another Depression-era program, built the warming hut. Lift tickets were $1 per day. 

Much has changed here. The area relocated to the east side of the pass in the 1950s, and has since expanded to 1,600 acres, with ten lifts. 

But much has remained the same: affordable lift tickets ($76 for adults), a locals vibe, free parking, a lack of hotels or condos and the most snow in Colorado. You won't find terrain parks here, just deep powder and the best hike-to terrain in Colorado. 

To celebrate the area's 80th birthday, they recently restored an old tow rope to working order, which until 1982 was the only way to access much of the mountain's expert terrain. 

Scott Rappold

R. Scott Rappold is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, including 10 at The Colorado Springs Gazette, where he wrote about skiing, hiking, camping and all the things that make Colorado great. He is now a full-time ski bum who writes when he needs money for beer or lift tickets. He lives in Colorado's beautiful San Luis Valley. Read more of Scott's stories here

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