Southern Comfort: Wolf Creek

All you’ll find at this small, unadorned roadside ski hill is snow...and tons of it.
Wolf Creek Face Shots

When my husband’s phone rings at 10:30 on a Thursday night in January, and I hear our friend Chris’s muffled baritone on the other end, I don’t ask what’s going on. I throw back the covers, kiss a night of REM sleep goodbye and gather up our ski gear. A southern storm is pushing in from the Gulf of Mexico. It will cool as it climbs into the San Juans, and it will drop light, fluffy piles of snow on Wolf Creek Pass. If we leave Denver in the next 15 minutes, we’ll reach South Fork by 4 a.m., where we can get a no-frills room at the no-frills Arlington Inn for $150 and hopefully get a few hours of shut-eye before the lifts open. We’re slightly past the age and well beyond the free-time bracket to make this a regular mission. But we’re hardly too old or too busy to make an exception. It’s not unusual for El Niño storms to unload feet of snow with crosshair precision on the small-by-Colorado-standards ski area in a matter of hours, even at times when the rest of the state’s resorts writhe in drought. Sure, 1,600 vertical sounds especially measly compared to nearby Silverton and Telluride—or even Stowe, Vt., for that matter—but the short-and-steep drops off 11,900-foot, hike-to Alberta Peak and the Knife Ridge Chutes feel plenty extreme when you’re choking on 36 inches of fresh snow. Wolf Creek, with just a handful of outbuildings at the base, is hardly a destination resort. The nearest lodging is 18 miles east in South Fork or 23 miles west in humble Pagosa Springs. But you don’t come here to wine, dine, sleep, shop or spa. You come here to ski. If things go according to the area’s master development plan, you could do even more of it in the near future. Wolf Creek awaits Forest Service approval of a 900-acre lift-served terrain expansion and this year filed a separate application to contract with a third-party heli-ski outfit to lead day trips into the powder-choked Rio Grande National Forest. If those upgrades happen, or even if they don’t, we’ll have our bags packed and ready for the night when Chris calls with a storm report—and we’ll again allow ourselves the rare indulgence of slumming for powder. ●