Colorado’s big ski resorts dominate, but these smaller city-owned ski areas carry on the tradition of skiing for everyone
Ouray native Rick Trujillo, born here a few years after the hill opened, found this quote in the paperwork decades ago. This was when the city was considering selling the land, a plan that was quickly scrapped after it intervened. Trujillo, the eldest of 11, knew he had to protect the ski resort. He had basically spent his childhood winters here. He and his friends would come in after school, turn on the towline, and ski until dark.
“There was no surveillance! Not at all!” he exclaimed with a certain pride in his voice.
Today, a seasonal city employee is on site and the rope ski lift has been modernized. But one thing has not changed: the price. When Trujillo was growing up, Lee’s Ski Hill was free.
“And his always for free,” he said, “which I think is unique to Colorado or anywhere else.
The desire to keep something special – and affordable – for the kids has also enabled small, city-owned hills in Durango and Silverton. Steamboat’s “other ski area”, Howelsen Hill, is now protected as a municipal park. And the small Lake City, close to Ouray as the crow flies, but a few hours by car, still has its ski slope at a lift. The local government floated the idea of shutting it down – three times, in fact. But each failed.
Henry Woods, a skier in Lake City for decades, made sure of that by bringing in the heavy hitters: local moms.
“It’s one of the greatest powers in the world, it’s angry mothers,” he said.
Woods, who coaches a children’s ski team, says the ski resort once charged school children a small fee. But he discovered that even five dollars was a hindrance. So he made an agreement with the school, where every student enters for free.
“So there’s no haves or have-nots at the ski resort,” he said.
On Monday mornings, a crowd of kids descend on the hill base for ski team practice. They joke around and line up waiting for the elevator, a historic Arapahoe Basin heirloom that dates back to the 1940s and is actually the oldest such elevator still in operation in the state.
It’s called a Poma lift, and straddling a disc between your legs, you let it pull you up the hill. It takes concentration and strong hands to keep from falling. But the kids are absolute pros, including 11-year-old Labron Wampler. He has only been skiing for a year but he feels he is improving.
“Oh yeah, yeah,” he said. “Everyday.”
So it doesn’t matter that there are so few ski slopes that one is actually the summer driveway of a luxury home, or that there are usually not many people here.
“Well, I’m really shy, so I like that,” Wampler said.
And for local mum-of-three Sarah Tubbs, it’s been a supportive place to learn to ski again.
“You can fall on your butt and laugh at yourself,” she joked.
Perhaps more than anything, it’s close. Getting to any other ski resort would take two hours or more. To get to this hill, his hill?
“Five minutes,” she said, laughing. Sometimes it’s even faster.
But despite all those bonuses, longtime employee Don Junak knows that ultra-small ski areas can still be a tough sell in Colorado.
“There are dozens of ski resorts where I skied when I was young that are no longer there,” he said, sporting his long gray beard. “Just drive by the side of the road as the larger resorts have taken over.”
And as he sees it, who wants to go to one of those?
“You must have a $5,000 pair of pants and a $10,000 pair of skis, et cetera,” he said with a wry smile.
Compare that to Lake City, where equipment comes free with lift tickets, which are only $25 for adults. Junak cared so much about keeping this place going that for the first 12 years he worked here, he did it for free. He’s just glad Lake City Ski Resort survived.
“You never know what’s going to happen with global warming,” he said. “You never know because this year we are really dry on the snow.”
To make matters worse: This is one of many municipal ski resorts that cannot make their own snow. In Gunnison, city-owned Cranor Hill received so little snow it couldn’t even open this winter. It was looking pretty bad for Ouray too, until a recent storm brought some much-needed powder feet to Lee’s Ski Hill, just in time for Cabin Fever Day.