GET BREAKING NEWS IN YOUR BROWSER. CLICK HERE TO TURN ON NOTIFICATIONS.

X

Long-shuttered ski area in southern Colorado may be reopened

Cuchara Valley nestled in a picturesque valley in the Sangre de Cristo Range

The old Cuchara Valley ski area operated from 1982-2000 at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in south central Colorado, 25 miles from the New Mexico border. (Paul Smith, Special to The Denver Post)
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Nearly 200 miles south of Denver, near the New Mexico border in a picturesque valley on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristo range, a long-shuttered ski area is showing hopeful signs of life.

Sure, a lot of things would have to fall into place before Cuchara Valley can be reborn as a ski area after two decades of dormancy, but a local group is working hard to make it happen. Through the non-profit Cuchara Foundation, Huerfano County acquired land at the base area in 2017, which became a county park. The foundation fixed up one of the old buildings, reversing years of vandalism and adding a fireplace and an electric heater. Now, dozens of locals ski, snowboard and sled under their own power there on weekends. 

The group behind the effort is hoping to get one of the area’s smaller lifts up and running for next ski season, serving four trails at the bottom of the mountain. Mike Moore, who owns a bed and breakfast in Cuchara village 3 miles from the ski area site, believes it can happen.

RELATED: This is Colorado’s most famous abandoned ski area

“I’ve got five volunteers who have previous ski experience, some of them 35 to 40 years of ski experience,” Moore said this week. “We’re working on that lift, doing everything we need to do. Two months ago we had the cable inspected, and it was certified as OK to be run again. I just got off the phone with the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, and we’ve got the outline of what we need to do prior to next summer to get that lift certified — all the maintenance, greasing, things like that. We’ve got an auxiliary motor and an electric motor, and we’re hooking up other electricity up there.”

When the area operated off and on from 1981 to 2000 with four chairlifts and a vertical drop of 1,562 feet, ski trips there were rich in beauty and solitude. The road to Cuchara is designated a Colorado Scenic Byway. A pair of massive mountains called the Spanish Peaks, which rise more than a mile above their surroundings, greet visitors approaching the area. Then the road passes a series of massive rock walls that appear like battlements guarding the entrance to the Cuchara Valley.

The area’s isolation is part of its charm, but that and unreliable snowfall made it hard for a series of owners to make the ski area viable. Now, Moore and others in his group believe it can exist as a not-for-profit, a concept that works at the Antelope Butte ski area in northern Wyoming with $40 lift tickets. The Antelope Butte Foundation, which operates the area, is a 501(c)3 non-profit. So is the Cuchara Foundation.

Cuchara Valley had eight different owners while it operated as a ski area. Two others, Moore said, “held it as land developers and never did anything with it except put up ‘No Trespassing’ signs and let it get vandalized.”

What makes him think the area can become viable when so many others failed?

“Most of them were out-of-state owners who knew nothing about the ski business,” said Moore, an Aspen native. “I grew up in the business and I know what it takes to make it work. We want to see this stay small. We’ve even had people sort of getting mad at us for working on the lift. They say, ‘Let’s keep this the world’s best secret, and let’s hike up the mountain.’ Skinning up the mountain is the new thing. You can see eight or 10 tracks coming down every run, and there are 27 runs above us.”

When Cuchara Valley was open, most of its trails were wide-open intermediate cruisers cut through remarkable stands of aspen trees, making it an enchanting place to ski. When Texas businessman Dick Davis bought it and brought it back to life in 1992 — after another period of dormancy that lasted four years — the area’s marketing director (and owner’s son) Taylor Davis said while skiing there one day in 1993: “The owner fell in love emotionally before he did financially. It’s just drop-dead beautiful.”

Davis sold the area after a couple of seasons, and multiple owners came and went after that. Max Vezzani, a Huerfano County commissioner, is hopeful but unconvinced Cuchara can come back again as a ski area.

“Would a ski area work? Maybe,” Vezzani said. “We’re certain it’s going to be used for park purposes. People will enjoy that place, summer and winter. To what level we have formal winter skiing I think is yet to be determined. We’re being optimistic, but realistic as well. The last thing we want to do is have another failure up there.

“We have a good group of folks working to try to make something out of that place. We have a great advisory committee, they’re working hard, they’re checking all the equipment. Some of those folks are very optimistic. Some, like me, have a dose of skepticism.”

But people are skiing there now. Trails are being packed by snowmobiles. The group trying to get the mountain back in operation as a ski area is negotiating to purchase a snowcat. If they can get the first lift certified and operational next season — a double, at 1,500 feet long with a vertical drop of 300 feet — they hope to get a permit from the U.S. Forest Service in three or four years to run snowcat skiing to the top of the mountain. After that, if all goes well, they hope to reactivate another lift, a triple. They could also reactivate an existing snowmaking system.

“What we want is an economic driver for this little valley,” Moore said.

Most of the businesses in tiny Cuchara close for the winter. That leaves two bed and breakfasts and a retail store until May.

“We don’t want to see a four-lane freeway ever go through Cuchara,” Moore said. “I’m a native Coloradan, and to me, this is the last place that hasn’t been overrun with tourists and people. People say, ‘Are you going to sell out if the ski area works?’ I say, ‘No, I have no place to go.’ I love Colorado, but I really like this corner of it.”

As Moore spoke, he was icing a black and blue leg after a skiing mishap two weeks ago. He’d skinned up the mountain and crashed hard at the bottom on his telemark skis.

“By the way, this is my first ski injury in 65 years, on my own slope,” said Moore, 73. ”I’m going to stay away from the teles for a while.”

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, The Adventurist, to get outdoors news sent straight to your inbox.

blog comments powered by Disqus