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Hint: Where to sleep, eat and gear up if you go
I dropped my skis onto packed powder near the Treasure Stoke lift at Wolf Creek Ski Area and leaned down to tighten my boots. My heart was racing, but I couldn’t tell if it was a result of the 10,300 feet of elevation or the anticipation of a beautiful ski day. The weather was ideal—sunny with a few puffy white clouds and a temp that was hovering around 30 degrees—a thick layer of fresh snow covered the ground, and after years of listening to the hype about Wolf Creek, I was finally going to experience the thigh-deep fluff and heralded terrain.
But as I went to clip into my bindings, my boot wouldn’t secure. I pushed down hard. No luck. Having rented my skis 30 minutes away in South Fork, I knew it was unlikely I would be able to adjust the settings without driving all the way back to the ski shop. Dejected, I plodded to the base area rental store hoping someone there could help.
Scooting past a couple trying to manhandle three youngsters into their gear, I approached the counter and asked the rental technician if she could adjust my bindings. As I suspected, she couldn’t help me. “Did you try knocking the snow off?” she asked. Duh. “Yeah,” I said. “Still didn’t work.” She persuaded me to let her try. She grabbed a ski, and as I held my legs one at a time in the air, she whacked away at the soles. My eyes widened at the amount of snow that piled up on the floor. I shoved my toe into the front of the binding and stomped down. Click. My cheeks reddened with embarrassment. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” she said. “It happens all the time. We’ve just got so much snow here at Wolf Creek.”
Most people who decide to make a weekend out of Wolf Creek’s famous powder stashes make hotel reservations in Pagosa Springs, a cute but touristy town situated 25 miles southwest of the ski hill, which has almost no base village to speak of. Hot springs, shops, restaurants, and art galleries draw in vacationers looking for amenities to bookend daylight hours spent on the hill. But Pagosa Springs isn’t the only—or even the most reasonably priced—option for an overnight stay. From Denver, the tiny hamlet of South Fork—a three-mile-long, one-stop-sign town just 17 miles from Wolf Creek—is 45 minutes closer and less frequented.
My boyfriend and I had decided on South Fork after seeing the website for Riverside Meadows, a property with three small cabins and an even smaller price tag. The Master Cabin, a log structure with a queen bed and a full bathroom, was only $95 a night. At that price, we booked it for the weekend and figured even if it wasn’t great, we’d still come out ahead.
Fortunately, as we pulled into the driveway we got the distinct impression we had made the right choice. The innkeeper, Fritz Allen, and his 12-year-old daughter, Sadi, were waiting to greet us. Allen has lived in a log cabin nestled along the banks of the Rio Grande River with his wife and daughter since 2001. They are three of the approximately 600 year-round South Fork residents who find the town’s lack of amenities—you have to drive 30 miles for a Safeway—appealing. Standing in front of the cabins, the river, and eight secluded acres, it’s easy to see why.
In 2006, Allen opened a bed-and-breakfast on the same property as his own log home, and, last year, he transitioned the business to cabin rentals. The lodging has been popular with fly fishermen in the summer because of the gold medal waters it bumps up against. But the cabins—built in tribute to a Norwegian tradition in which kids grow up and build a house just steps from their parents’ place—are just as suitable for winter adventures.
With thick flakes falling, we hurriedly lugged our bags 40 paces to the Master Cabin. Unlike many mountain accommodations, which try too hard to be quaint and shabby-chic, the wooden bed, gas fireplace, oversize leather chairs, and blue-and-green tiled bathroom gave the structure a contemporary but lived-in vibe; it’s exactly the kind of place you wish you could just leave your gear because you’ll be back next week. We even found a switch to turn on the twinkle lights adorning the cabin’s roof.
After unpacking, we followed Allen’s recommendation for dinner: a visit to the Shaft Restaurant, a laid-back locals’ hangout, for salad and pizza and some beer-fueled foosball in the attached bar. With our bellies full and the snowfall diminishing, we grabbed a six-pack of Dale’s Pale Ale at the nearby liquor store and ended the night in Riverside’s outdoor hut tub, looking up at an expanse of stars so vast and so bright, a date with the slopes the next morning was the only reason good enough to draw me inside to sleep.
With my equipment in working order, I could finally take a breath and soak in my surroundings. Compared to Colorado’s popular resorts along the I-70 corridor, Wolf Creek appears small. Unlike at Vail or Breckenridge, where you know a magnificent backside exists out of sight, Wolf Creek is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get mountain. At first glance, the hill might appear to be a disappointing ski day in the making—until you take a closer look.
The base was peppered with skiers and snowboarders of all ages, but the rainbow of puffy jackets straight out of a Burton catalog that I was used to seeing in Summit County was replaced with more modest hues. There was a relaxed, cheery vibe in the air—not the box-out-to-get-into-line atmosphere I’ve experienced at Breckenridge. And no one around me looked like they’d have trouble staying on two feet while getting off the lift. These were not your average Texans in jeans pie-ing down the bunny slope. These were skiers. And a lift ticket—an old-school paper ticket stamped with the word of the day—cost me just $58.
Anxious to experience some of Wolf Creek’s 430 inches of annual natural snowfall—the most in the state—my boyfriend and I hopped on the lift and got our first taste of the billowy white stuff on the blue square Silver Creek Run. It wasn’t thigh-deep, but the powder crept past our ankles. As an intermediate skier who learned to carve on the East Coast’s icy slopes, powder skiing had never come easy to me. But turns were effortless thanks to the freshly fallen fluff and the wider, powder-specific skis I had rented at 8200 Mountain Sports. For the first time since I began skiing in Colorado, I experienced the magical suspension that comes when you lean back into your boots as you’re supposed to in powder.
The fact that we had the runs nearly to ourselves—on a weekend no less—helped. I didn’t worry about dodging ski-wees or being sprayed by some hotshot carving inches in front of me. Though I was gaining confidence in my ability to navigate the deep snow, we stayed on the west side of the hill, which offers more moderate terrain than the east side’s bevy of black diamond runs. We did venture over to those slopes for a look, but one glance at the trails Wolf Creek is known for and I pointed my tips back to the other side. I knew my boyfriend was disappointed; a born-and-bred Coloradan, he had wanted to drop into that famous terrain, but he kindly followed me back to slopes I could handle.
For hours, we weaved down run after run, never feeling like we were limited by Wolf Creek’s diminutive 1,600 acres. (For comparison, Vail boasts 5,289.) This, I thought, is what skiing is supposed to be like: short lines, deep powder, affordable lift tickets, wide-open runs, and unpretentious folks on every chair lift. I will keep skiing the peaks along I-70, but as I zipped up against the chill and headed for a deeper patch of powder, I realized this little ski hill had delivered on all the hype. Wolf Creek may be undersized, but it was the quality of the experience, not the quantity of runs, that had given me one of the best skiing days of my life. And when we were tuckered out, the $4.50 beer made it even better.
If You Go
Riverside Meadows, 2 Dodge City Road, South Fork, 719-873-5280, riversidemeadowscabins.com
8200 Mountain Sports, 30923 W.
Highway 160, South Fork, 719-873-1977, 8200sports.com
The Shaft Restaurant, 29411 U.S. 160, South Fork, 719-873-0102, theshaftsouthfork.com; Feelin’ Good Coffeehouse & Café, 0076 Highway 149, South Fork, 719-873-5150, feelingoodcoffeehouse.com; Three Barrel Brewing Company, 586 Columbia Ave., Del Norte, 719-657-0681, threebarrelbrew.com
From Denver, take U.S. 285 south for about 200 miles. Turn right onto CO 112 west. Drive for 13 miles, and then turn right onto U.S. 160 west. Continue until you reach South Fork. Wolf Creek is about 17 miles southwest of South Fork on U.S. 160.