It’s not difficult to find Colorado’s newest ski area. Just take the Windsor exit off of Interstate 25 — one of the last before you hit the Wyoming border — and scan the expansive plains for 130 feet of vertical rise.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
For city folk, 130 feet translates to roughly an 11-story building. Around these parts, the closest they come to a skyscraper is the 150-foot sugar factory chimney that has stood off Main Street in Windsor since 1914, when sugar beets were the main crop in the tiny agricultural town.
Now with the building of the 12-acre “Hoedown Hill,” this burgeoning burg is hoping to grow slopes of skiers and snowboarders and rows of tubers.
The state’s current ski industry model of “Go Big or Stay Home” has many barriers for the average family hoping to get their children into snowsports. Parents living on the Front Range have to rouse their children before dawn in hopes of beating the traffic for the minimum two-hour drive on clogged Interstate 70 or getting a coveted parking spot at Eldora, which at a 90-minute drive from the Windsor exit is currently the closest Colorado ski area for residents of Northern Colorado.
“We’ve struggled as an industry because there is no access to skiing for the mass populace,” said Eric Lipton, of Snow Operating, the company that designed the new ski area. “We ask people to drive for hours out of the city to get to the slopes. This resort brings skiing to the people.”
Where there’s water, there can be snow
Hoedown Hill is an extension of RainDance National, a golf resort that’s part of The Water Valley Company’s residential development plans expected to bring a minimum of 3,200 new homes to the town of 43,000. But despite some initial confusion that the ski slope might just be another neighborhood amenity, like the elaborate water park/pool, Hoedown Hill is slated to be open to the public by Christmas.
“This hill is for everyone,” touts Tyler Lind, whose father, Martin, is owner of Water Valley and has long dreamed of bringing skiing back to Northern Colorado. “Everyone will feel welcome and everyone will find something on the hill that speaks to their enjoyment.”
Martin, a third-generation Windsor resident, has fond memories of Sharktooth, a small ski and tubing hill that operated near Greeley from 1971 to 1986. The hill, built on an old landfill, had a base at 4,600 feet, making it the lowest ski area to ever operate in Colorado. With a base at 4,800 feet in elevation, Hoedown Hill will not challenge Sharktooth’s record.
The Linds declined to say how much Hoedown Hill will cost, other than to say it was much more they expected. Raindance Metropolitan District documents show at least $3 million was budgeted to be spent on the hill this year.
While smaller “farm league” hills are staples in the Northeast and Midwest, Colorado has gotten away from that model.
Adrienne Saia Isaac, spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association, has big hopes for the role small feeder hills could play to save a pastime that struggles to attract newcomers.
“Community ski hills are vital for the growth of snowsports,” she said. “They take away the many barriers to getting started in the sport by bundling everything you need, such as gear and lessons, providing terrain that is less intimidating and offering all that at a lower price.”
The central portion of Hoedown is dedicated to 10 tubing lanes, the longest about 1,200 feet. The lift infrastructure includes four conveyor lifts (aka “magic carpets”), the longest is about 700 feet and serves the tubing lanes.
Declining to give specifics, its developers say the Hill will include multiple green, blue and black runs.
“Terrain ratings are all relative,” Snow Operators’ Lipton explains. “A black run at Snowmass is not going to be the same as a black run at a smaller resort.”
The centerpiece of Hoedown will be the beginner area, a model Lipton’s company has incorporated into ski resorts around the world including Steamboat’s “Greenhorn Ranch” and “Elk Camp” at Snowmass.
Called the “perfect slope,” all four edges of the beginner area will slope slightly upward to keep new skiers “corralled” in an area safe from steeper terrain.
The sell might be hard
The Hill, which expects to host “hundreds of skiers a day,” is being promoted to the roughly 700,000 people who live in Northern Colorado as an alternative to Colorado’s mega resorts. Some of those potential users are balking at the comparison.
A family with two young children, the Robersons of Fort Collins seem like ideal users of the learner-friendly Hoedown Hill. But mom Marie isn’t planning on taking 7-year-old Jack and 4-year-old Rose to the nearby ski area.
“A big part of why we want our kids to ski is because we want them to love nature,” Roberson said. “We want them to be in the magic of the mountains where floating on the fresh snow is heaven on Earth. You can’t recreate that experience out on the prairie surrounded by houses.”
While Front Range skiers think it would be a relief to skip the traffic and cost of the big resorts, they also say comparing Hoedown Hill to big resorts is like comparing oranges and kumquats.
“I’d be willing to give it a try just because it’s so close and the lift tickets prices are so low,” said Elyse Gerke, an expert skier who attends Colorado State University in Fort Collins, which is about a 25-minute drive from the Hill. “But I can’t imagine with only 130 vertical feet it’s going to hold my interest for long.”
Gerke and her friends buy a money-saving IKON pass and take turns driving to the mountains to offset the price of gas.
With an upfront cost of anywhere from roughly $300 to $1,300 depending on age and time of purchase, the IKON pass offers access to nine of the state’s resorts, including local favorites Winter Park and Copper Mountain. Hoedown Hill hasn’t set prices yet, but a spokesperson for the company said weekend passes will be under $100 and weekday learner passes under $50.
Winter Park has 2,200 feet of vertical drop, more than 3,000 skiable acres of terrain within its boundaries, compared to Hoedown’s 133 feet of vertical drop over 12 acres.
But every parent who has taught their child to ski knows that when you are just a couple feet tall yourself and learning to ski, you don’t need a lot of vertical drop.
What every ski area does need is snow and Hoedown is being built in an area better known for dust storms than snow storms.
Windsor averages 44 inches of snow per year. In comparison, the mountain resort of Winter Park averages 345 inches annually.
Cue the 15 Demaclenko tower snow guns, two of which are portable, with built-in automated weather stations that are fed via existing pump infrastructure from the RainDance Reservoir at the bottom of the hill.
“Water is always a concern especially in a state like Colorado where it is a precious resource,” Lind said. “The way we designed the hill, we are capturing over 95% of the drainage. Really the only water loss we will have will be from evaporation, and there is just no way around that.”
How exactly does a ski hill proceed through the planning and zoning process in a small town? Well basically the developer writes their own plan.
“Back in the early 2000s when they acquired the land and filed a plan they built in the possibility of a variety of uses,” explains David Eisenbraun, senior planner with the town of Windsor. “The term ‘skiing’ might not explicitly be in the plan, but they left it open for a lot of recreational opportunities.”
The roughly 4,000 acres stretching east of I-25 between Windsor and Loveland that the Linds are developing includes five lakes, two golf courses, biking and hiking trails and one of the fanciest water parks ever seen around these parts.
Because the plan for RainDance was approved by the town of Windsor before people actually lived in the area in question, there wasn’t any public input to speak of during the zoning approval process, Eisenbraun explains.
But as a planner in Northern Colorado for nine years, he said the community in general is behind the new ski area, which he refers to as “a glorified bunny hill at best.”
“There’s always some grumbling and griping when something new is going in,” he said. “But overall the community sees this as a net positive. This is unlike anything they’ve seen in Northern Colorado and they are excited to have it in their backyard.”