Colorado Powder Ghost Towns  by Peter Bronski

Colorado Powder Ghost Towns Guide Book

by Peter Bronski (Wilderness Press)
Colorado Powder Ghost Towns  by Peter Bronski
In its heyday, Colorado had more than 175 ski areas operating on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and while many of those resorts have shut down, their runs still shelter secret stashes of snow. Pristine slopes await backcountry powder hounds out to discover these chutes and steeps, bunny hills and bumps. Chronicling the history of more than 36 of these "lost resorts," Powder Ghost Towns provides the beta for how to ski and board these classic runs today, with comprehensive information on trailheads, where to skin up, and the best descents. Coverage ranges from southern Wyoming's Medicine Bow Mountains to the Colorado-New Mexico border, including famous old resorts like Hidden Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park.

© 2008 Peter Bronski/Wilderness Press. All Rights Reserved.

Trails from the "Colorado Powder Ghost Towns" Guide Book
Displaying trails 20 of 36.

Displaying trails 1 to 20 of 36.

You’ll be setting your own skin track, but once it’s in, you’re good to go. From the summit of Adam Mountain, there are incredible views of the Elk and Gore mountains. The northern slope of the mountain is mellow, but gullies and avalanche chutes on the southeast face offer amazing descents. As long as the snowpack is stable, drop in and carve your way to the bottom. You won’t be disappointed. Although skiing in Eagle County is today synonymous with Beaver Creek and Vail just to the east of the town of Eagle, it wasn’t always so. As recently as the early 1940s, there was very little skiing to speak of in the area at all. That was until the 1945/1946 season, when Whittaker Ridge opened. It was located off of Bruce Creek south of Eagle, and wasn’t much to look at, or ski. It had one rope tow, and one single run, called “South Side,” that was several hundred feet long and dropped about 300 feet of vertical. It had a small shack that sold hamburgers, and that was it.
Eagle, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 2.5
Baker Mountain is tons of fun. The approach is easy, the summit is exhilarating with its cliffs off the backside, and the skiing is great. While Rabbit Ears Pass is swarmed with skiers and snowmobiles, chances are you’ll have Baker to yourself. The Baker Mountain ski area got its start thanks to two ranchers from Kremmling, Joe McElroy and Willard Taussig. (McElroy was later credited as the source of the term “Champagne Powder,” used today by Steamboat Springs and the Steamboat Ski Resort.)
Kremmling, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 1.6
If you like getting away from the crowds, this is the place to do it. There are no major towns for a long way in any direction. With the minimal approach, if this area were located anywhere else closer to a population center, it’d be swarmed with skiers and sledders. Despite its relatively recent closure (sometime in the 1970s), painfully little is known about the old Barrett Ridge ski area. It had a lift, and at least two dominant ski runs. Beyond that, no one—not the area’s museums, or national forest office, or local residents—seems to know or remember much at all. Barrett Ridge is an enigma and was one of the only lift-served ski areas on the west side of the Snowy Range. Around the same time that Barrett Ridge operated, however, the U.S. Forest Service received a proposal for another ski area on the west side of the Snowy Range.
Saratoga, WY - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 0.6
Berthoud is super popular among backcountry skiers, and for good reason. It’s accessible, and has tons of terrain. You probably won’t be alone here, but that’s part of the vibe—it’s a social skiing experience. Skiing at Berthoud Pass has genuinely come full circle over the years. The earliest organized skiing dates to the 1930s, when a small ski area existed near the West Portal of the Moffat Tunnel, close to present-day Winter Park. In 1939, 26 racers participated in a May Day Slalom down the Current Creek Headwall. But it was Berthoud Pass that really attracted the skiers. In the earliest days, they would ski from the 11,314-foot summit of the pass down both sides. At the bottom of their chosen run, they’d load into cars and drive back to the top.
Winter Park, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 1.5
This mountain is great because it’s basically roadside. There’s a supershort approach, and gentle slopes with generally low avalanche danger. However, the gentle slope makes it too low angle to enjoyably ski in deep powder. Spring skiing on firm snow would be best, though turns in midwinter can be great, too, as long as the fresh snow’s not too deep. The year was 1879 when Leadville prospector Charles Senter discovered an outcrop of molybdenite near the summit of Fremont Pass. Senter didn’t know what it was, and it took until 1895 for a chemist to identify the deposit. There wasn’t a market for the material at first, but steelmakers soon discovered molybdenum’s usefulness in producing hard steel alloys. By 1915, the first ore shipments began, and by 1918, a mine known as Climax was in full-blown operation. However, the end of World War I also saw a drop in ore prices, and the mine shut down in 1919.
Leadville, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 0.75
The main run at Coal Bank Pass isn’t steep enough for fresh powder, but it’s good for spring skiing on firm snow. Its low angle and wide-open slopes make it a great place for entry-level backcountry skiers looking to get their feet wet. Over the years, the stretch of U.S. Highway 550—the Million Dollar Highway—between Silverton and Durango has been littered with small ski areas. No one was more instrumental in the development of those areas than Barney Yeager, who year to year moved a portable 400-foot rope tow from one locale to another: Columbine Lake in 1948/1949, Highway Camp (near Purgatory) from 1950 to 1953, Wildcat Ranch in 1955/1956.
Durango, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 1.75
Conquistador is great fun to ski, even though private property at the base complicates the approach and necessitates a skin up and over the mountain to get out at the end of the day. Even so, with good snow, the wide-open runs and distant views up into the Sangre de Cristos and down into the Westcliffe valley make it well worth the extra effort. Skiing here is almost eerie—the runs are so clear and the snow is so smooth, I kept stopping at trail junctions and looking uphill expecting to see other skiers, but I was the only one. As a general rule of thumb, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the Wet Mountain Valley to their east have not been home to significant ski areas. Most over the years have been small rope tows, operated either by local communities or by ranchers on private property. The vertical drop, the amenities, and just about everything else was on a very small scale. Ski San Isabel was a perfect case in point.
Westcliffe, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 2.3
Cuchara is a great mountain. There are endless opportunities for runs that are wide open. It supposedly closed in part due to inconsistent snowfall, but in late March we found a deep, consolidated snowpack with a foot of fresh powder on top. The very short approach meant that we were able to do two laps and be back to the car within 15 minutes of reaching the bottom of our second lap... and the engine was still warm. At the far southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, near the Spanish Peaks, lies a beautiful and remarkably unpopulated stretch of country known as the Cucharas Creek valley. The nearest “big” town, Trinidad, is more than one hour away, and has a population of just 9000. Even so, the few people that live in this corner of Colorado wanted a place to ski.
Cuchara, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 1.2
Leave your fat boards at home, take your light gear, and have fun. Expect to see lots of people—hikers, dogs, Nordic skiers, a few backcountry skiers, snowshoers. You can chug uphill for a good aerobic workout, then cruise downhill at a relaxed pace, casual enough to hold a conversation with your ski partners. The history of Emerald Mountain is intimately connected to that of Howelsen Hill, Carl Howelsen, and Steamboat Springs. They combine to form one of the richest skiing heritages anywhere in the United States, just one reason Steamboat has successfully branded itself as “Ski Town USA.”
Steamboat Springs, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 2.6
Fern Lake is great for an outing to a spectacular location. It has more of a feel of exploration than of visiting an old ski area. Going there today must feel much like it did when the original CMC members made their outings decades ago. Fern Lake is unique in this book, in the sense that it never had lift service of any type, but it is included for its historical significance. The beginnings of skiing at Fern Lake date back to 1909, when Dr. William J. Workman—from Ashland, Kansas—traveled to Colorado and built a lodge at his favorite fishing location, Fern Lake. The original lodge was constructed during 1910, and completed by 1911. Up to 500 guests visited the lodge each winter, and every guest was asked to sign a red leather-bound log book. Eventually, adjoining and nearby smaller cabins and tents were added.
Estes Park, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 4.5
I had my best skiing of the season here in June 2007. The long approach is brutal, but the skiing is totally worth it. Like St. Mary’s, Geneva Basin has had a tumultuous history of openings, closings, and reopenings under different owners and different names. The story begins in mid-December of 1961 when the area first opened as Indianhead. More than two years of preparation led up to opening day, which was delayed when the initial developers went broke. By October 1961, Indianhead had a two- or three-story chalet, and two rope tows bought from the defunct Magic Mountain ski area in Golden. The road up from Grant was being improved in the hopes of easing access for skiers.
Georgetown, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 7
Hidden Valley is great when there’s high avalanche danger elsewhere. It has a low enough angle that it doesn’t present a lot of risk. The warming hut at the base, and its proximity to the Front Range are great. Navigation is easy—you can’t make many wrong turns here. On the other side of the coin, it gets a lot of traffic, and on the way in you have to dodge tourists taking pictures of the elk. The top—where the best skiing is—can be exposed to the wind, but it’s great for laps if conditions are good. The Hidden Valley ski area, as with many others, got its start with hearty backcountry skiers who schussed its slopes before lifts ever came to town. An above-treeline area along Trail Ridge known as the Big Drift was their first target. Soon, there was a rope tow, and by the 1940s, three rope tows (each powered by old auto engines). Ranger Jack Moomaw (of Fern Lake fame), reportedly cut a trail discreetly, one tree at a time. His project—the Federation Internationale du Ski, also known as “Suicide”—supposedly dropped 1200 feet in less than a mile, and was just wider than a bridle path.
Estes Park, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 1.8
Because the old ski area is roadside, and there’s tons of below and above-treeline terrain nearby, you can basically have as big or small a day as you want. It’s super accessible from either side of the pass. The history of skiing at Hoosier Pass and Breckenridge, as with many other lost Colorado ski areas, begins with the history of gold and other such objects of miners’ affections. During the summer of 1859, gold was discovered along the Blue River. Miners established a base camp that would ultimately become the Breckenridge we know today. In November 1859, General George Spencer formally created the Town of “Breckinridge.” Looking to gain the favor of the federal government (and a post office), Spencer named the town after John Cabell Breckinridge, vice president to James Buchanan. It worked, and in 1860, Breck had its post office.
Breckenridge, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 2.5
The old Ironton ski area is great because it’s so close to the road and so easy to do laps on. Beyond the ski area itself, the Ironton Park area is surrounded by a tremendous amount of potential ski terrain—in springtime you’re bound to see ski tracks on most slopes. The roots of skiing in Ironton Park and Ouray date back to 1887 and the Mount Sneffels Snowshoe Club, which was based in Ouray. “Snowshoe” was used as an early word for skis, and the Mount Sneffels club is often credited as giving birth to North America’s après ski culture. Members of the club would ski for the day, then retire to a restaurant or someone’s home for wine and food.
Ouray, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 0.6
There’s tons of terrain within a relatively short distance of the trailhead. The Jones Pass side can be noisy with snowmobiles, but the snow slopes above treeline are worth it. Butler Gulch is a backcountry skier’s quiet paradise. The trees and lower slopes above treeline are excellent midwinter, while the massive snow slopes higher on the mountains are begging to be skied in spring. As the population of Denver and the Front Range grew during the early 20th century, so too did the demand for water. Bringing water to thirsty cities and towns was the unlikely beginning of skiing at Jones Pass.
Empire, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 2.8
The northeast aspect of the ski area holds powder really well, even when there hasn’t been a fresh snowfall for a while. Though the trailhead was bitterly cold and windy, Libby Creek stayed well-protected and was a ton of fun. The history of the old Libby Creek ski area is complicated by the fact that it was once known as the Snowy Range ski area, and that, over time, a total of four ski areas (three lost, and one still in operation) have had the name “Snowy Range ski area.”
Centennial, WY - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 3
Once you make the easy ascent to Little Annie Basin, doing lap after lap is easy. The main slope is great for farming the powder—start on one side and slowly move across the slope, lap after lap. The snowmobile traffic at times can be busy, but in general everyone is considerate and out to enjoy the snow. The proximate history of Little Annie dates back to 1960. However, the ski area has earlier ties to Elizabeth Paepcke—one of Aspen’s founding mothers. She, in turn, fits into an even broader tapestry of the history of skiing in Aspen. From the Little Annie parking area, continue on the Little Annie Road. The first several hundred yards you head southwest across an open slope, with stunning views to the west of the Elk Mountains and the edge of the Aspen Highlands ski area. At 0.3 mile, the road turns northeast into the trees and begins a gradual ascent into Little Annie Basin.
Aspen, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 2.5
The scenery is outstanding, the snow is deep, and the descents are fun. It may be hard to believe that with Telluride’s present-day reputation as a ski town, skiing in any major form is a relatively recent evolution here, but it’s true. The town began in 1875, and for decades its existence was defined by mining. At its height in 1890, Telluride’s population surpassed 5000. The town grew rich from the wealth of ore in the San Juan Mountains that surround it, so much so that Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch began their string of bank robberies at the San Miguel National Bank in 1889.
Telluride, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 1.25
Marble feels like a mountain town removed from time. The snow slopes above the old Marble ski area are phenomenal. The ski area itself looks like the owners just walked away—the lift towers are still standing, with chairs hanging from the cable. It’s wild. The town of Marble and the small population of the Crystal River valley started sometime in the 1870s, when prospectors came over Schofield Pass from Crested Butte looking for gold and silver. They didn’t find a ton of either, but they did find the world’s largest marble deposit. Marble went through a series of mining booms and busts, its population never exceeding 1500, and more often hovering around 150. While the town remained small, the marble that came from it went into big projects: the Capitol building in Denver, the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Marble, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 3.6
Marshall Pass is so far from roads and trailheads, there’s a good chance you’ll have a solitary day in the mountains. But it’s also far enough that, if you don’t use a snowmobile or do the trip as an overnight, you might be too tired to enjoy the backcountry skiing once you’ve finished the approach. Marshall Pass was an important transportation route between Salida on the east and Gunnison on the west. (For a more detailed history of skiing at Salida, see the chapter on White Pine. For a more detailed history of skiing at Gunnison, see the chapter on skiing at Pioneer.) The pass was also home to a unique ski area. Today, the ski train from Denver to Winter Park is both popular and well-known as a way to get from the Front Range to the ski area.
Salida, CO - Backcountry Skiing & Snowboarding - Trail Length: 9