The Continental Divide courses through the Rocky Mountains like a spine. It follows a continuous trail of the highest elevations, and rises to its greatest heights in the Canadian and American Rockies.

High mountains force air masses upward and cools them off, pulling out the moisture. At the highest elevations, powder snow piles up all winter and then clings to the crests of the Divide well into the warmer months. If they make it to the next winter, those snowfields qualify as glaciers.

Skiers and riders have long reaped the benefits of this geography. And nowhere is that more apparent than the three Continental Divide ski areas in southern Colorado: [R511R, Wolf Creek], [R240R, Monarch] and [R372R, Ski Cooper]. This trio of ski areas (don’t call them “resorts”) share many traits, not the least of which is 300-plus inches of snowfall in most winters. All three began more than 60 years ago, and each maintains an old school, mountain-first atmosphere. Tickets won’t break the bank, and the amenities are basic—but without pretension.

Last winter, OnTheSnow took a tour of these three venerable winter locales to return to the roots of American skiing—and get into some serious powder, too.

 

Day One: Wolf Creek Ski Area

 

Mention “Wolf Creek” to almost any skier or rider, and their eyes will light up and they’ll start talking about “the deep stuff.” Even those who have never ventured up U.S. 160 to the very top of Wolf Creek Pass have heard: “If it’s going to snow anywhere, it’ll be at Wolfie.” The forecast can say clear skies, but, by some mysterious force, there will be freshies on Alberta Face.

The challenges begin early at Wolf Creek—the walk from the lower parking lots to the lifts can test your conditioning, especially at an altitude of 10,600 feet. First break is the ticket window, then some more stairs to the rental shop. Another flight and you can catch a breath in the classic ski area architecture of the pitched-roof Base Lodge.

Wider than it is long, Wolf Creek Ski Area spreads out below the Divide from Bonanza Bowl on the east to Horseshoe Bowl on its west edge. The main novice area heads off to the right on Bonanza and Raven chairs. It’s off Bonanza Chair that beginners get to taste the thrill of being on top of the world on the Divide Trail—without a single sidestep.

Wolf Creek 3 Photo by Scott DW Smith Courtesy of Wolf Creek.jpg

Another bluebird powder day at Wolfie. Photo by Scott DW Smith. Courtesy of Wolf Creek Ski Area.

The true glory of Wolf Creek’s legacy lies to the west of there. After a warmup run on Bonanza, head up Treasure Chair to the famous Alberta Face, where fresh tracks can be had all across the slope. As typical in this portion of Wolfie, the first pitch levels out for a bit before diving into a second set of steeps, which again levels out for the run to the base. Long-timers at Wolf Creek will make sure they’ve got some speed to traverse the middle and lower flats; newcomers would be wise to stay close to well-traveled tracks to find the route out.

The old, mid-mountain D. Boyce poma doesn’t run anymore, so you have to go to the base and catch Treasure. At the top, it’s a short hike to get onto the Divide and into the alpine world of Boundary Bowl and 11,900-foot Alberta Peak—all without jumping any ropes. Or, start working your way skier’s right toward the Alberta Chair. Dive into the forest for some of the best tree skiing in North America. There’s room to turn and, of course, the snow can be deep enough to warrant a snorkel. The second pitch off Alberta features the gnarly Waterfall Area, with local favorites 52o Trees and Squeeze Box off Navajo Trail. Catch the runout to the right and jump on Alberta Chair.

Wolf Creek 2 Photo by Scott DW Smith Courtesy of Wolf Creek

The high number of blower powder days at Wolf Creek makes for plenty of rooster tails. Photo by Scott DW Smith. Courtesy of Wolf Creek Ski Area.

For hardy hikers, the top of Alberta Chair opens up a honeypot of backcountry skiing and riding. Hit the Divide and the Knife Ridge Chutes will be the first thing to tempt you. Stay on the ridge, and the trees off Dog Chutes and Coyote Park beckon. Go all the way to the ropes, and you’ll likely have all the fresh tracks you want on Horseshoe Bowl. Just beware—after the runout, it’s a long hike back to Alberta.

However, with a sharp eye, Alberta’s treasures can be plumbed without climbing. Go skier’s left off the top of the lift, and take on the trees and chutes off Bankshot. Or, head the other way and drop into the trees off Shazam. Whichever way you go, when you hit the first flats, get an eyeball on the lift line and don’t stray too far. The face of Gyro deserves some major turning, but keep up the speed for the run out at the end.

Getting home from Alberta requires a long easy traverse on Navajo Trail. If you are tempted to dive into Waterfall one more time, make sure that Alberta is still running, or you’ve got a long walk to the car. 

Once there, head down to Del Norte, take a left and cut up to U.S. 285 in Center for the straight shot over Poncha Pass to the motels and hot springs of Salida. 

 

CONTINUE READING: PAGE 2, MONARCH MOUNTAIN»

 

RELATED PHOTO GALLERY: 

OTS Ski Test
Powder Gallery: Wolf Creek Ski Area, Colorado