Nestled into Huerfano County’s Spanish Peaks, almost 80 miles southwest of Pueblo, sits Cuchara Mountain Park, a 47-acre plot at the base of the former Panadero Ski Area. Established in 2017, the Huerfano County–owned park is a mix of open slopes and forested areas with hiking trails flanked by Douglas firs, fiddlehead ferns, and some of Colorado’s tallest aspens. Humble Baker Creek winds through the park’s lower section, past a small day lodge, a kids’ climbing structure, and a mini golf course.

In the past five years, Cuchara Mountain Park (CMP) has become a hub for summer recreation, but when temperatures drop and the snow starts to fly, the park quiets down and welcomes only those inclined to hike or skin past long-dormant ski lifts up to postcard-worthy views of West Spanish Peak. That may change in a few months: Many in the community hope CMP will be able to get at least one of those lifts spinning for the public—an initiative that will bring not just skiing back to Huerfano County, but other lift-served activities as well.

“[This is] a chance to complete a project in a way that gives the community what I think they’ve been wanting, and it’s also a chance to see a county facility—a public asset—be energized,” says Huerfano county administrator Carl Young. “At the end of the day, this is all about the folks who live in Huerfano County and giving them one more thing to do, giving them one more thing that helps them work another day.”

Revitalizing a Ski Resort

Today, Monarch Mountain, Wolf Creek Ski Area, and New Mexico’s Red River Ski & Summer Area are the closest ski resorts to the roughly 7,000 people living in Huerfano County, and all are more than 100 miles away. It wasn’t that long ago, however, that these southern Colorado residents had lift-accessed skiing nearby.

The Panadero Ski Area opened in 1981, operating its two double chairlifts and a rope tow largely on National Forest Service land under a Special Use Permit. Over the next 19 years, the resort added lifts, grew to 230 acres, supported snowmaking over the entire mountain, and averaged 22,000 annual visitors.

During that time, however, the resort was plagued by inconsistent ownership, mismanagement, and limited snowfall. Some years it closed to skiers early; other years it didn’t open at all. The resort shuttered for good in 2000. Terrain situated on U.S. Forest Service land remained open to the public, but the private property at the base was closed off.

That changed in 2017, when the community—led by the Cuchara Foundation—raised $150,000 for Huerfano County to purchase the privately held land and turn it into what’s now the site of CMP (officially, Parker-Fitzgerald Cuchara Mountain Park). Since its opening, the park has added a disc golf course, bike trails, and hiking trails. Private groups can rent the county-owned space to host events such as movie nights, ultra-running races, and archery contests. Construction is nearly complete on an outdoor classroom—which is open to school groups and summer camps—and the park is working with the International Mountain Bicycling Association to assess potential multi-user, bike-optimized trails.

Adding lift-aided access to higher-elevation terrain greatly expands recreation possibilities, especially in the winter, and could help turn CMP into more of a destination. Enter Panadero Ski Corporation (PSC), a spin-off of the Cuchara Foundation (both entities are nonprofits), with a name that pays homage to the area’s first ski resort. The organization formed in 2019 with a mission to restore Lift 4—the only lift that sits on county-owned land—and “bring lift-aided skiing and year-round, lift-served recreation” to the park.

Last month, after a meeting with Huerfano County’s Board of County Commissioners, PSC’s mission expanded from just getting the lift turning to actually running it. Once PSC helps the park reach a “minimum viable status”—with enough revenue to sustain itself, maintenance, and operations, without regular input of County funds—the County and PSC expect to enter into a multi-year lease agreement in which the County will retain ownership of the park, but PSC will operate it.

“We’re not driven by the bottom line,” says Cale Dancho, PSC’s vice chair and president of the Cuchara Mountain Park Advisory Committee, which provides recommendations to the County regarding the park’s needs. “We’re more driven by the end-user experience and being able to provide something special to residents and those visiting the community.”

The Saga of Lift 4

Walk out to CMP tomorrow, and it’s possible you’ll see Cuchara’s single lift spinning. “It’s fully functional,” Dancho says. “There are things that need to be done before we can put people on there, but it works.”

Getting the lift to this point has required considerable investment. The tab for parts, repairs, and analysis of the lift is well over $200,000, Dancho estimates; most of that money has come from fundraising efforts like PSC’s gofundme campaign and a few small grants. In addition, Dancho says volunteers—some of whom are former lift mechanics and snowmaking experts—have donated more than 6,000 hours to the project.

An old double chairlift at Cuchara Mountain Park.
Cuchara Mountain Park will start with only one double chairlift when it opens. Photo courtesy of courtesy of Spanish Peaks Country

The results of that money and labor will yield what might seem to be a relatively small reward: Skiers who ride the 300 vertical feet to the top of Lift 4—and who aren’t headed into the backcountry—will have access to seven, beginner-level runs across about 28 acres of terrain. PSC is still evaluating operating schedules but hopes the lift can run on weekends and holidays, likely from late December to the end of March if the 200 inches of annual snowfall, bolstered by a couple snow guns, holds out.

Compare those stats to figures from CMP’s closest competitors, geographically speaking. Red River Ski & Summer Area, 116 miles away, has a vertical drop more than five times CMP’s at 1,600 feet. Wolf Creek Ski Area, 139 miles away, boasts that it gets “the most snow in Colorado” with 430 natural inches falling across 1,600 acres during what in some years is an almost six-month season. Monarch Mountain, 142 miles away, has seven lifts and 67 trails accessing terrain for all ski levels. Adult lift tickets cost $106, $70, and $119, respectively

Dancho, however, believes that what may appear to be shortcomings for CMP can actually be advantages. Beginner skiers don’t care about impressive vertical descents or massive acreage—they can’t ski it anyway. They just want mellow groomers, ideally close to home, so that they can get in the necessary reps. CMP will also offer far lower lift ticket prices, likely around $36 for an adult ticket (though final rates are still being determined). “A family of four may be able to ski together for less than $100 total, compared to $200-plus-per-person window rates at the larger resorts,” Dancho says.

The relaxed vibe of the nearby town—locals refer to it as the Community of Cuchara—could be a draw as well, one accessible without the madness of I-70. “There aren’t thousands of people crowding Main Street [in Cuchara]. You aren’t looking at a Starbucks and all the other national chains,” Dancho says. “It’s a small town. It’s just a slower pace of life.”

A Well-Known Ally

CMP’s beginner terrain, low ticket prices, and accessibility to Huerfano County residents offer potential for familiarizing a new generation with the sport of skiing. That trifecta of benefits got the attention of Snow Sports Hall of Fame inductee, filmmaker, and philanthropist Chris Anthony.

Among other experiential and educational programs, the Chris Anthony Youth Initiative Project works with schools, primarily in underserved areas, to provide transportation, lift tickets, and equipment and gear rentals so that kids can go skiing—at no cost to the school or student. “If you look at it from the business side of it, we need new skiers,” Anthony says. “We need future people who want to work in the industry. We also need that next generation, no matter who they are, from what economic level, that appreciates the outdoors.”

Anthony’s program has been bringing students to Loveland Ski Area for years, but when he learned of PSC’s efforts to revive Lift 4, he saw an opportunity to expand his program to southern Colorado. He’s since made a small donation to the PSC, advocated on their behalf during a recent county commissioner meeting, and is now looking into which Huerfano County schools might be open to partnering with his nonprofit.

Dancho says the objectives of Anthony’s organization align with the vision PSC has for CMP as a place where youth and families to learn how to ski affordably. “One of our end goals is to provide all of these programs that [Anthony is] already doing. Partnering with him allows us to reach those goals quicker,” Dancho says, adding it also “validates our mission to have someone of his stature say, ‘Yes, I believe in you.’”

Potential Economic Benefits

Huerfano County residents have largely been supportive of the efforts to get Lift 4 running, according county administrator Young, at least since the PSC has stepped up to take on the role of concessionaire. The community’s openness likely stems not just from an eagerness to strap on their skis, but also from the potential for economic growth in their corner of Colorado. Right now, the Community of Cuchara effectively goes into hibernation during the winter months. The population drops to roughly 100 to 200 people—compared to around 1,500 in the summer—and many businesses start slowing down in October and don’t get up and running again until April or May.

Dancho points to analysis by the SE Group to demonstrate how beneficial bringing lift-served access to higher terrain at CMP could be. The data show that for every $1 spent directly on a ski area, another $2 to $2.50 is spent in the community. Projected for CMP specifically, year-round, lift-served activities are expected to provide 22 additional jobs (direct and indirect), as well as an increase of $118,000 in annual tax revenue, according to the SE Group. Given Huerfano County currently supports 125 jobs and collects $5.1 million in annual sales and property tax revenue, the figures, Dancho touts, would not be insignificant.

Cuchara Mountain Park's sign with ski runs blanketed in snow.
Cuchara Mountain Park plans to offer lift-assisted skiing starting this winter. Photo courtesy of Spanish Peaks Country

Those numbers would likely go up if the ski area expands. A surface lift—in this case, a magic carpet—would be a natural addition for the beginner-focused ski hill. There’s also potential to tap into existing lift infrastructure, which is left over from the former resort. Lift 5, for example, would add another seven or eight ski runs and 60 to 75 acres, though the process of getting it up and running would require time-intensive National Environmental Policy Act studies and U.S. Forest Service approvals because the lift is on Forest Service land.

And then there are the opportunities beyond skiing. Lift 4 will facilitate scenic rides in the summer, and there are already talks about adding a tubing run, which, with the right infrastructure, could also be a year-round, lift-accessed activity. Both of these will be fee-based offerings to help pay for park operations.

Community members do have differing opinions about how big they would like to see the resort grow. “Some folks want a full-blown ski mountain and others want a quieter park that has a lift,” Young says, “but I think the majority is somewhere in the middle.”

For now, Dancho and the PSC are focused on getting Lift 4 open to the public for the coming ski season and beyond. “We want to offer this park as a full-year venue for people to enjoy the outdoors,” he says. “It’s going to benefit everybody in the community.”