430 Inches of Snow and an $89 Lift Ticket: Wolf Creek’s Laid-Back Appeal

It was a gorgeous, cloudless February day and the skiing at Wolf Creek Ski Area, in southwestern Colorado, was superb. The snow was the soft, squeaky kind as I darted in the glades and lapped run after run on sparsely populated groomers. It all felt great. But somehow my lingering memory of that day is of another moment.

After my last run, happily drained, I headed over to Prospector Grill at the mountain’s base for a recovery coffee. When I started fishing for money, the employee behind the counter waved me off. He was starting to put things away and it was only a few dollars, but it felt … nice.

When asked what draws them to Wolf Creek, where the average annual snowfall is 430 inches, the most in Colorado, many people have a quick answer: “The snow.”

And that’s exactly what Sherry Miller brought up. Ms. Miller, 70, drives to the area when snow at the resorts near her home in northern New Mexico is lacking, and she has experienced the benefits of Wolf Creek’s microclimate. “We’ve been in some storms where you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” she said appreciatively.

But if you probe deeper as to what makes Wolf Creek feel truly special, the answer for me — and many other visitors — is that good vibe.

“It’s super-laid-back,” said Olesya Chornoguz, a 39-year-old skier from the Philadelphia area who regularly travels to various Rockies resorts and has become a Wolf Creek fan. “Very chill, not crowded. People are nice, and they’re clearly there to enjoy themselves.”

The area’s 1,600 skiable acres top out at Alberta Peak’s 11,904 feet and tend to be confidence-building. Glades are often next to groomers so an exit is always in sight if trouble arises. There is expert terrain, to be sure — hugging a cliff face, the Knife Ridge staircase leads to chutes and bowls, and will raise any thrill seeker’s heart rate. But it does not feel daunting to people who are good, but maybe not quite good enough to be sponsored by Red Bull.

“You can find very steep lines, but they aren’t relentless,” Ms. Miller said. “So you can try your hand at something steeper than your normal comfort zone, knowing that it will have shallower respite areas in between.”

That overall mellowness is increasingly rare in a ski industry dominated by big corporations, often long lines and congested trails and prices that have climbed as high as $15 a day for a medium locker.

My locker at Wolf Creek was 75 cents.

This is a place with reverse sticker shock: The daily rate for lift tickets this season is $89 for adults and $44 for children, climbing to a still reasonable $100 and $55 during holiday periods. (The usual walk-up price at the much-larger Vail for a one day lift ticket is $269.) On “local appreciation days,” the price goes down to $66 and $33.

Fear not, visitors, because according to the Wolf Creek website, “Everyone is a local! Discounts apply to everyone!”

When a friend and I rolled into the parking lot on our first morning there in February, she mentioned that she’d left her IKON card in another jacket. I said that she wouldn’t need it anyway because Wolf Creek does not take IKON — or Epic or any of the other passes that have upended the snow-sports industry in recent years.

Part of the way Wolf Creek keeps costs under control is a lack of expansive (and expensive to build and maintain) amenities. Improvements are incremental. This season, an 11th lift, the Tumbler, will cater to beginner and intermediate skiers with a slower speed and proximity to the learning center.

“Because of my love for skiing, my wife’s love for skiing and just our overall philosophy, we like seeing people be able to enjoy public land and ski without a lot of bells and whistles, and without a lot of rules — let them kind of just have a good day,” the C.E.O. and ski area manager Davey Pitcher said. “It’s why we don’t have a terrain park: We don’t really like that intense concentration and all of the hype that goes with those events and that stuff. We think it’s nicer to be able to go find your own way.”

Finding your way to the ski area, on the other hand, is not easy. Wolf Creek is not near a big population center or an interstate. The closest major airports are Albuquerque, four hours away, and Denver, which takes at least five hours. And once you’re there, you can’t even stay on the mountain: There is no slopeside lodging or apres ski scene. “Everybody skis and then they go home and they support our local community,” Mr. Pitcher said. “The restaurants and hotels are important to the economy and seeing that money spread around.”

Most of the accommodations are 18 miles away in the town of South Fork or 24 miles away in Pagosa Springs. The latter has more lodging and restaurants, along with mineral hot springs that feel pretty sweet at the end of a ski day. At the Springs Resort (day ticket: $67 for adults/$35 for children), you can get a revivifying shock to the system by going from a 100-plus-degree soak straight into the freezing San Juan River.

While skimpy in terms of dining options and accommodations (though an old property has just been renovated and joined the outdoors-focused chain LOGE), South Fork is a safer bet if the weather forecast is good for skiing but dicey for driving: The road to the ski area tends to remain open during big storms, whereas the section from Pagosa can shut down.

The Pitcher family has owned and operated Wolf Creek for nearly five decades. Davey’s father, Kingsbury, a pioneer of on-mountain planning in the United States, helped create Snowmass, did the early lift layout for Big Sky, in Montana, and built Sierra Blanca Ski Area (now Ski Apache) and Santa Fe Ski Area in New Mexico.

In 1976, Kingsbury turned his attention to Wolf Creek, which was owned by a consortium of Texas investors, including players from the Dallas Cowboys. “They were really good at football, but they weren’t very good at running a ski area,” Davey Pitcher dryly said. When the group went bankrupt, Kingsbury pounced.

The Pitchers’ presence is felt everywhere — the Charity Jane Express lift is named after Kingsbury’s wife, for example — and the family is hands-on. Davey’s wife, Rosanne, is vice president of marketing and sales; their son Keith is assistant lift supervisor and daughter Erika works in graphic design for marketing and retail. (Davey’s brother Peter bought the Discovery ski mountain, in Montana, in the mid-1980s; it’s the only place with which Wolf Creek has a lift deal.)

But even Wolf Creek is not immune to market forces, and figures familiar to the ski industry currently loom: ambitious developers.

In the mid-1980s, a group led by the Texas billionaire Red McCombs (who died in February 2023) purchased land near Wolf Creek Pass, a portion of which actually encompasses the base of some of the area’s ski lifts. The idea was to develop 300 acres into the Village at Wolf Creek, which would offer the lodging and amenities currently missing.

“Our latest plan had something that totaled 1,700 units, which was a mixture of homes, town homes, condominiums and hotel rooms,” said Clint E. Jones, the project’s president and main leader for the past decade or so, in a telephone interview. “We’ve got to provide food and beverage up there, we’ve got to provide some level of grocery, so that if somebody’s staying all week, they’ve got certain necessities available.”

But in order to build, the developers first had to connect those acres to U.S. Highway 160, which links Wolf Creek to Pagosa Springs and South Fork. Local organizations banded together and sued to block the building of a new access road, arguing that the Village at Wolf Creek would drastically impact the environment and wildlife, and strain resources like water.

“It’s essentially the highest-altitude city in North America they want to put up there,” said Mark Pearson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a group that opposes the project, in a video conversation. “So that causes a lot of consternation, like, What’s the emergency medical services situation there? I think most people who are locals value Wolf Creek for what it is now.”

Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, another organization fighting the Village, underlined the risks to the ecosystem. “It’s probably the most biodiverse, concentrated, ecologically sensitive area left in the southern Rockies,” she said in a video chat. “And that’s where they want to build, right in the middle of that!”

In October 2022, a senior federal judge invalidated the access road plan, arguing the environmental impact had not been adequately mapped out; the Forest Service and the developers filed an appeal in the spring, and a hearing was held on Jan. 16 in Denver. A ruling is expected sometime later this year. Mr. Jones declined to comment further on the appeal.

As for the ski area, Kingsbury Pitcher was briefly part of the Village project before the family sold its stake in the early 2000s and went through acrimonious litigation with McCombs. The Pitchers are diplomatic these days: “Right now the project is in a lawsuit that we are not a party to,” Rosanne said in an email. “We are optimistic that if it does proceed forward the developer will work with us to complement Wolf Creek’s unique niche.”

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