The deep-pocketed Texans who spent decades dreaming big and losing millions as they struggled to develop a ski resort above southern Colorado’s Cucharas River Valley are long gone. The runs are weedy and lift towers rusty.
But nearly a decade after the last Texan decamped, a band of locals have carved a modest plan to open a single lift on 56 private acres next winter, hoping to spark a ground-up revival.
“Everyone has dreamed so big. They all envisioned a $30 million to $40 million ski area. When I managed the ski area in 1999, the owners were $47 million in debt,” said Mike Moore, who has run a bed and breakfast in the village of Cuchara since 1996. He’s endured the rollercoaster of proposals from Texas investors like Red McCombs, Dick Davis, Phillip and Donald Huffines, John Lau, Curtis Bruner and John Bryant for even longer.
“Now we own the ski area and we invested $150,000 and it’s a nonprofit and we have an incredible team of local volunteers,” said Moore, one of the founders of the nonprofit Panadero Ski Corp. “We are taking a new approach. We are taking baby steps.”
A Texas-sized list of failed dreams
Since opening in 1981 as the two-lift Panadero, a parade of Texas investors have floated big schemes for the remote ski area south of La Veta.
Every time financial trouble arrived — and it always did — the area closed and sold to another Texas investor. That process repeated over and over in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001, the Forest Service yanked the area’s permit and promised the ski area would remain closed. Still more Texans lined up and spent a decade in the early 2000s trying to revive the ski area with housing and development plans, all of which foundered. The area last spun its lifts in 2000.
A local couple picked up about 56 acres at the base area, which includes a few buildings and a 1,500-foot chairlift, in a tax sale in 2015. A band of locals that formed the Cuchara Foundation in 2014 raised $150,000 and bought the property from the couple in November 2017. The property has five cut runs and potentially room for two more.
Cuchara Mountain Park is now owned and operated by Huerfano County. The volunteers rehabilitated the old ski rental shop into a day lodge for visitors. And in recent months, a team of volunteer workers — including lift mechanics, ski patrollers and snowmakers who retired from major ski areas and are now living in the Cucharas River Valley — have brought that old lift to life. The lift passed tension tests on its cables and the lift’s motors are running. The volunteers on Saturday plan to pull the chairs from the cable for repainting and will send the clips that attach the chairs to the cable off to the Colorado Passenger and Tramway Board for testing.
Last summer a team of AmeriCorps kids helped clear growth from the ski runs. The team of volunteers this winter has been packing snow for an increasing number of cross-country and backcountry skiers who travel through the park to reach the San Isabel National Forest where the ski area once offered ski runs. On Feb. 27, the Panadero team was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the first of two grooming snowcats it acquired from the nonprofit Sleeping Giant ski area outside Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
Sleeping Giant, which opened in 1930, closed in 2004 but revived as a foundation-funded nonprofit in 2009 with low ticket prices and volunteer support. Last month Sleeping Giant announced it would close for skiing after this this spring, citing an annual deficit of $200,000.
A subcommittee of the Cuchara Park Advisory Committee has incorporated into the non-profit Panadero Ski Corp. with a plan to offer lift-served skiing starting in December, pending final approval by the tramway board. Moore expects the chair to be ready for testing in the next two months. In future years, Moore hopes to sway the Forest Service to approve guided skiing on the public land above the chairlift, maybe even using a snowcat.
The group is raising money right now to support its work. They have chairs up for adoption, offering the names of donors on each double-chair for $500 and ad space on the lift towers. After crunching some budget numbers, Moore admitted he had to raise lift ticket prices for his inaugural season to $20. At first, before he crunched the numbers, he was hoping he could keep prices around $10.
“We are aiming for maybe 5,000 visits a year,” Moore said. “We have had up to 50 people a day on weekends skinning and split-boarding all the way up to the top of the mountain and skiing down. It’s hard to get first tracks this year — and that’s with no lifts.”
The push to revive lift-served skiing in the Cucharas River Valley dovetails with efforts to connect the communities in Huerfano and Las Animas counties with broadband internet service, better recreational trails and workforce training opportunities.
The various communities coming together, as well as state and federal support for connectivity and other economic development programs, are helping some of the poorest Colorado counties grow, said Lola Spradley, a four-term Colorado lawmaker who lives in Huerfano County and has tirelessly advocated for rural economic development programs.
“We are not Pitkin County. We have to use outside resources because sometimes it can be hard for us,” Spradley said. “We don’t have deep pockets down here to make these things happen quickly. But they are happening.”
She hopes that maybe the more modest-sized proposal for skiing at Cuchara could help sway the Forest Service to support the project, which could eventually lead to guided operations on public lands above the town.
“We are hoping the Forest Service would be responsive to what we are trying to accomplish and give us a window of opportunity to perform,” she said. “I think this is sized in a way that could be very positive for our little county here in southern Colorado. If we can offer year-round opportunities for people, and provide broadband connectivity, and be able to provide more working and telecommuting opportunities, I think we can continue to see growth.”
Don Dressler, who manages the Forest Service’s ski resort program for the agency’s Rocky Mountain Region, has been in contact with district rangers in the San Isabel National Forest, which stretches above the proposed ski runs on private land.
Knowing that any activity that goes above the lower land will involve public land — like hiking or skinning onto the long dormant ski runs above the chairlift, or riding mountain bikes above the trails on private land — Dressler said local Forest Service officials are engaged in the planning process.
The Forest Service will consider the type of terrain and potential hazards above the private land if more and more skiers use the lift or private land to access public lands, Dressler said.
“Just like we would with any lift-served area, we need to think about the next circle of use beyond the chairlift,” he said. “We are engaged at the local level right now. I’ve heard the discussions around skiing and summer operations. The Forest Service will be engaged in all aspects here.”
That’s a big difference from a decade ago, when regional Forest Service officials grew frustrated with the up-and-down business at the Cuchara ski area and vowed, often adamantly, to keep the mountain closed to lift-served skiing.
Dressler sees similarities to the efforts in Cuchara with the community work that revived northern Wyoming’s Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area this season near Sheridan. A nonprofit foundation of residents from Sheridan and neighboring Greybull, scraped funds to open for the 2018-19 season a few acres of the Antelope Butte ski area, which closed in 2004. More than 2,000 skiers flocked and this season the foundation was able to open the entire ski area, with three lifts, instructors, patrollers, gear rentals, a base-area yurt and food service.
More than 5,500 skiers have bought $40 tickets this season — another 300 bought season passes, which run $385 for adults. With a robust summer schedule, the Antelope Butte Foundation Board hopes the area can be financially stable.
The key was starting small, said John Kirlin, the executive director of the Antelope Butte Foundation.
“We started small with our plans and with our users. We start with the little ones, the kids, so as they grow, so can your plans and your revenue will increase from there,” said Kirlin, who this week had instructors in a local school teaching kids how to cross-country ski before they come up to the ski area for alpine lessons.
Kirlin was a PE teacher and worked at a brewery before joining the foundation. Now he has 40 seasonal workers. He’s trained the first grooming machine operators and lift attendants. He’s helping design a base lodge that will open for next season. He’s working through systems that allow visitors to buy lift tickets online and schedule ski instructors. Soon he hopes to have flushing toilets and running water.
“It’s a blessing we had a soft opening last season,” he said.
Kirlin is seeing Antelope Butte guests eager for a smaller, easier ski day.
“They are really wanting to come to this old mom-and-pop experience. We hear that a lot,” he said. “Our mountain is a community with literally someone’s mom handing out cookies at the bottom of the lift line.”
If Kirlin can offer any advice to the locals working to revive the skiing above Cuchara, it’s to reach out to kids and grow the next generation of skiers in the communities around the ski area. You have to reap before you can sow, he said.
“Plant those seeds early and then you can grow a culture of sustainability and a model that is based on growing the next generation of skiers, workers, volunteers and donors who really believe that the ski area can be more than a ski area,” he said. “They can see the experience that you take from skiing and apply it to the rest of their lives and who they are as a person. Starting with the younger generation and planting those seeds, that’s what can make the nonprofit model really grow into something sustainable.”