Skiing the Southern Colorado Powder Highway

Purgatory knows how to dial up the fun factor.
Purgatory knows how to dial up the fun factor. Purgatory Mountain Resort
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It’s go time, Colorado skiers and snowboarders: El Niño is unleashing its glorious fury, with huge storms dumping powder across the state. As we reported last fall, Colorado’s southern mountains are often the winners in an El Niño year. Now is the perfect time to bust out your skis and boards and shred your way across (or any part of) the Southern Colorado Powder Highway—a 1,000-mile journey from the Front Range that hits Wolf Creek, Purgatory, Silverton, Telluride, Crested Butte, and Monarch.

This is the place to avoid the frenetic pace of the I-70 corridor. At most of these areas, you still get a wicket with your lift ticket, and untracked powder lines are more common than lift lines. Drooling yet?

Here’s our suggested route for an epic 10-day road trip through southern Colorado, with seven (or more) days of skiing or riding plus a couple of hot springs along the way. It goes like this: ski–drive–sleep, ski–drive–sleep, ski–drive–sleep, so you wake up fresh near the next slope. Stretch or squeeze the length however you like, planning your driving for daylight hours so you can ogle southern Colorado’s stunning scenery.

Pagosa Springs

The Springs Resort in Pagosa Springs is a serene place to start your tour.
The Springs Resort in Pagosa Springs is a serene place to start your tour. Avery Stonich

At the start of your journey, prepare your muscles for a pounding by soaking in the healing waters of the world’s deepest geothermal hot spring. Twenty-three pools dot the steamy banks of the San Juan River at The Springs Resort & Spa in Pagosa Springs. Slip out of your plush robe, sink into the soothing water, and sip on a smoothie or cold canned beverage delivered poolside. When hunger pangs hit your belly, head over to Riff Raff Brewing Company for a lamb burger that’s to die for.

Insider Tip: If you spend the night at The Springs, you can use the pools until 6 pm the next day, so swing by for another dip after Wolf Creek.

The Drive Onward: It’s about five hours from the Front Range to Pagosa Springs, the longest leg of the trip. You’ll catch a glimpse of Wolf Creek Ski Area on your way over Wolf Creek Pass. Double back to the ski area in the morning, just over a half an hour from The Springs Resort. Don’t be deterred by the cold temperature when you wake up in Pagosa Springs; a temperature inversion usually makes it warmer at the mountain.

Wolf Creek Ski Area

Wolf Creek dishes up freshies off Alberta Peak.
Wolf Creek dishes up freshies off Alberta Peak. Avery Stonich

If you’ve ever studied snow reports in Colorado, you’ve probably raised an eyebrow at Wolf Creek , which sucks 430 inches of fluff out of the sky each season—more than any other resort in Colorado. Right now its 102-inch base is double that of some central ski areas. (We’re not naming names.) “Here we don’t usually consider it real powder until it’s a foot deep,” says David Schmeiser, who has been teaching turns at Wolf Creek for more than 15 years. A base elevation of 10,300 feet keeps the powder light.

You go to Wolf Creek for the powder, but you stay for the hometown feel. The vibe is decidedly chill; no need to even put your skis in a rack when you go in for lunch. Yet the terrain is anything but sedate—1,600-acres of fun wrapped around a big bowl, with open groomers, steep trees, and great hike-to terrain that yields sweet rewards without too much sweat. At this point, your legs are still fresh, so take 10 minutes to hike to untracked turns off 11,900-foot Alberta Peak.

Insider Tip: Even days after a storm, you can often find fresh snow off Bonanza, a slower chairlift that people tend to avoid.

The Drive Onward: Beeline straight to Purgatory from Wolf Creek in two and a half hours, or stop for the night in the charming western outpost of Durango, Purgatory’s hometown, 30 minutes down the road.

Purgatory Resort

Purgatory knows how to dial up the fun factor.
Purgatory knows how to dial up the fun factor. Purgatory Mountain Resort

After switching its name to Durango Mountain Resort for 15 years, Purgatory reclaimed its original moniker last year. (Don’t be confused by the sign on the highway, which still says Durango Mountain Resort). Purgatory, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, holds esteem for being a great place to ski without breaking the bank.

Purgatory’s stair-step terrain keeps you on your toes, with constant shifts in fall line and pitch. “For me that’s what Purgatory really is: a neat character of the runs. There’s a fun factor that can rival just about anything,” says Jim Robertson, who has been working at the mountain for 32 years. Case in point is the frontside run, Styx, which twists and winds like '70s disco. Try it and see (bonus points for gyrating your hips John Travolta-style as you fly over rollers).

Insider Tip: For easy access, park in the free Lower Columbine Lot near the resort entrance and walk across the street to take the Graduate Lift to the base. Hit Purgatory on a Thursday this season to get throwback $50 lift ticket pricing (with some March blackouts).

The Drive Onward: It’s just 23 miles from Purgatory to the town of Silverton, where you should stay the night. There’s no lodging at Silverton Mountain, which is six miles outside of town. Grab a beer at Silverton's Avalanche Brewing Company and then get to bed early, since you have a big day ahead.

Silverton Mountain

Big mountain terrain is on tap at Silverton.
Big mountain terrain is on tap at Silverton. Silverton Mountain

Bring your big-boy pants to Silverton because this all advanced and expert mountain doesn’t mess around. A certain mystique emanates from its purist, no-nonsense approach: One lift. Lots of hiking. Big mountain scenery. Big mountain lines. Think cornices, couloirs, steep trees, and stout climbs. Runs with names like Hell’s Gate, Mandatory Air, Nightmare, and Gnar Couloir give a hint of what’s in store.

To ski at Silverton, you must reserve a spot in advance. The mountain offers guided skiing on select days from January to March (generally Thursday through Sunday). Three closed days each week let freshies fill in. Spring for a heli drop (or day) if you’re so inclined. If you have more courage than cash, show up on one of a handful of unguided dates offered early and late season.

Insider Tip: You’ll need to choose a moderate or fast-paced group, based on both hiking and skiing speed. If it’s your first day, consider the slower option since Silverton can bring even hard chargers to their knees.

The Drive Onward: Plan to spend another night in Silverton after you ride since you’ll be wiped out. Rest the next day (you’ll need it), enjoying a leisurely 74-mile drive from Silverton to Telluride, with stops along the way. After climbing over gorgeous Red Mountain Pass, drop into the charming hamlet of Ouray and check out ice climbers ascending frozen flows in the famous Ouray Ice Park. Ten miles farther, pause in Ridgway to soak at the clothing-optional Orvis Hot Springs and nosh on short-rib tacos at Tacos Del Gnar. From there, it’s 40 more miles to Telluride.

Telluride Ski Resort

Telluride is famous for its steeps and deeps, but it has plenty of intermediate terrain, too.
Telluride is famous for its steeps and deeps, but it has plenty of intermediate terrain, too. gmiphone

Telluride ’s claim to fame is steep hike-to terrain, but don’t let that deter you. Even intermediates will find plenty of fun, with the same dramatic views. At 2,000 acres, Telluride is the biggest resort on the Southern Colorado Powder Highway, yet still less than half the size of Vail.

Warm up on Chair 5 before making some laps in Revelation Bowl, a powdery open expanse with views into the Bear Creek drainage. Then decide if you’re up for tackling Palmyra Peak, a looming 13,320-foot summit with some of the most remarkable inbounds terrain in Colorado. It’s a nearly two-hour hike to the entrance of the steep couloir off the summit. If your legs are lacking, you can peel off early and still find great turns in Black Iron Bowl.

Insider Tip: A free gondola connects town to the mountain village and runs until midnight, so you bunk in either place and park your car for the duration of your stay. Build in some time to wander the streets of this quaint mining town.

The Drive Onward: One day of skiing here might not satisfy your appetite, so consider hitting the slopes again in the morning before you leave. The drive to Crested Butte is just over three hours. Build in an extra hour for a side trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, just past Montrose, where you can peer over the rim of the deep, dark canyon that plunges 2,400 feet to the Gunnison River.

Crested Butte

Crested Butte will tickle your tingle for steeps.
Crested Butte will tickle your tingle for steeps. Avery Stonich

Practice your hop turns before heading to Crested Butte Mountain Resort , where extreme terrain is the name of the game. The High Lift and North Face Lift (both T-bars) dump you on or within easy hiking distance of double-black runs that vie for the steepest terrain in Colorado. It’s no wonder extreme skiing competitions take place here. If cliffs and high-angle faces give you the willies, don’t despair—you’ll find plenty of blue groomers, too.

Plan for two days inbounds at Crested Butte, or pump up the fun with a day of cat skiing with Irwin Guides. Their leather-seated snow cat, “Tucker,” will haul you 45 minutes out of town to 1,000 acres of pristine terrain above Lake Irwin, where there is plentiful powder for the taking.

Insider Tip: If you plan to ski Crested Butte’s steeps, pick up an Extreme Limits Ski Guide, sold at Thin Air and Crested Butte Mountain Outfitters in the base area.

The Drive Onward: The trip from Crested Butte to Monarch Mountain is 71 miles, about an hour and a half, but there isn’t any good lodging near the mountain. To soak up more southern Colorado charm, breeze past Monarch for 20 more miles and stay in Salida, a cute outdoorsy town that’s still within easy striking distance to the lifts.

Monarch Mountain

Monarch Mountain gets pounded with powder all season lone.
Monarch Mountain gets pounded with powder all season lone. Avery Stonich

Monarch is Colorado’s best-kept secret: a small, homey mountain that sucks snow from the sky and doesn’t brag about it. Runs are short (max 1,100 feet), but who cares when you’re knee-deep in pow? Monarch’s position on the Continental Divide creates orographic lifting, where moisture gets pushed up and squeezed out over the ski area. It can be dumping at Monarch and not snowing anywhere else.

Test your legs with a couple of laps on Breezeway, then hit High Anxiety or J.R.’s off Panorama. When you’re ready, buckle down for the 20-minute hike up to Mirkwood, Monarch’s premiere terrain that used to be the domain of their cat-skiing operation. From the top, head skier’s right to East Trees and Staircase, where you can make steep and deep turns through the trees.

Insider Tip: For the longest run from Mirkwood, don’t lose elevation by traversing. Head skier’s left to Orcs and follow the spine of the ridge into Mirkwood Bowl

The Drive Onward: By the end of your Monarch day, you’ll be bone tired. Allow three hours for the drive back to the Front Range, where you’ll fall dead asleep in your bed, with visions of powder dancing in your head.

Optional Add-on: Taos Ski Valley

Taos is a small mountain that delivers big adventure.
Taos is a small mountain that delivers big adventure. Taos Ski Valley

Taos is a small mountain that delivers big adventure. Taos Ski Valley

If you have extra time and are willing to stray beyond Colorado’s borders, stop at New Mexico's low-key Taos Ski Valley before heading to Wolf Creek. At 1,294 acres, Taos notches in smaller than every Southern Colorado Powder Highway stop except Monarch, yet it delivers big vertical—3,281 feet from top to bottom. More than half the mountain is expert, including high hike-to terrain that delivers high adventure. The new Kachina Peak Lift opened last year, giving easy access to Kachina Peak at 12,481 feet. Approachable intermediate terrain is plentiful on the ski area’s lower flanks.

The Drive: To add Taos to your itinerary, head straight there (a five-hour drive) from the Front Range to start the trip. Ski Taos and then drive  three hours to Pagosa Springs to pick up the Southern Colorado Powder Highway.

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