Cry Wolf Creek: Fanatic Following at Colorado’s Snowiest Spot

Wolf Creek is the snowiest spot in Colorado. No matter how much snow the rest of the state gets, you can bet Wolf Creek has more. Its lucky location at 10,300 feet on top of Wolf Creek Pass takes an easterly dogleg turn on the Continental Divide, catching storms from all directions. Clouds hover above the ridge and, as if they can’t keep it in any longer, burst open about every third day. That piles up to an average of 30 to 40 feet of snow each winter. One season 592 inches — over 49 feet — fell. For this reason, Wolf Creek has carved out a niche and developed a fanatic following.

No one loves Wolf Creek more than Dr. John Hutcherson. Don’t tell his patients, but this Denver cardiologist has been known to re-schedule their appointments on powder days. As soon as the base builds to 80 inches, the doc calls his favorite number, 800-SKI-WOLF.

Sign of the times: A typical snow year for Wolf Creek.

When the automated voice reports a foot or more of new snow, he gets excited. Then he calls the road report. If it’s snowing on the pass, his heartbeat quickens. If the chain law is in effect, his chest flutters. If the pass is closed, he’s in an uncontrollable frenzy.

At this point he speed-dials his pals and makes plans to drive four-and-a-half hours to heaven. His system paid off in spades one year when he arrived on the day the pass opened after a five-day closure. He and two buddies hit the mother lode — 80 inches of bottomless bounty on top of a 100-inch base.

Hutch first introduced me to Wolf Creek when we stopped there on our way to snowcat skiing near Durango 80 miles west. We met up with the Cox brothers who grew up in nearby Pagosa Springs. They’ve skied Wolf Creek since they were kids, eventually working there. Dean was general manager in 1972 when Lee designed the wolf-head logo still used today.

The area hasn’t changed much. It’s still a locals’ gem in the Rio Grande National Forest, undeveloped except for a smattering of buildings housing skier services and a day lodge serving the best green chili this side of Santa Fe. Tickets cost $52, $28 for kids and seniors.

The ski area atop Wolf Creek Pass catches storms from all directions, which add up to an average of 30-40 feet of snow each winter.

During dinner in South Fork the night before, Hutch and I studied the trail map. The right side of the1,600-acre ski terrain shows a nice mix of cut trails and five lifts fanning out from the base. But the rest of the map looks entirely different. “Here,” bellowed Hutch, “lays the heart and soul of Wolf Creek.”

He pointed to the remaining 1,000 acres between the left boundary, Horseshoe Bowl, and the tumbling terrain of the Waterfall Area. Trees — open glades and tight forests — dot the natural landscape with only a handful of discernable runs. Streaks of purple designate the best tree trails, though everything in between is skiable.

The Alberta lift bisects this sacred zone, replacing the snowcats that used to haul skiers back to the top. High alpine routes topping out at 11,904 feet span one end of the rim to the other, leading to the steep bowls, chutes and glades of Alberta Peak and Knife Ridge. For those who slice off more than they can chew, a web of bailout trails loops back to home base.

Though it hadn’t snowed in a couple of days, the Cox boys found freshies in the trees on our warm-up that took us to Alberta. Already the guys were talking hiking. At the top of the lift, we clicked out of our skis and climbed straight up a path in the snow that led to the Knife Ridge Staircase built right into the mountain. From the end of the stairs, we traversed the ridge and gathered above one of the steepest chutes I’ve ever seen inbounds. When the best skier of the bunch fell after launching off the cornice, I knew I needed to find another route. I did, and sailed through ankle-deep powder — my initiation into the Wolf Creek culture. The best was yet to come.

“Twenty inches of new snow,” the automated voice purred to Hutch three days later. After two days of skiing in snowstorms in the San Juan Mountains, we weren’t surprised. Typical Colorado, the day dawned bright and blue. We drove two hours from Durango with mounting anticipation.

Forget climbing — this time we pranced through poof powder in the forest, looking like Red Riding Hoods on speed. I couldn’t help but think that God must be a tree basher. These are the most perfectly placed trees I’ve ever skied.

Not wanting to miss a precious powder moment, we bought water and snacks sold by the lifties at the bottom of the remote Alberta lift. We were delirious. How can there be so much untracked powder? Doesn’t anyone else call the snow phone?

“You get this kind of experience every once in a while at other areas,” said Lee Cox. “But you get it regularly at Wolf Creek.”

Untracked powder lasts for days in the trees at Wolf Creek Ski Area.

Since 1976, this pristine pearl has been owned and operated by the Pitcher family, direct descendents of Colorado pioneer Otto Mears. Driven by their love of skiing and the San Juan wilderness, two generations have managed to keep it simple and pure. The only lodging so far is down in South Fork on the east side or in Pagosa Springs to the west.

If You Go

Wolf Creek Ski Area, U.S. Highway 160 at Wolf Creek Pass, 970-264-5639

Colorado native Claudia Carbone is an award-winning ski and travel journalist and the author of the book “Women Ski.” She writes for local, national and international publications.

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.