Saturday, February 11, 2023

I Was Going To Give Up Skiing Until...

I love to snow ski but I hate long lift lines and lift ticket prices have gotten out of control. I can be impatient, one of my many character flaws. That combination doesn't get me too excited about going snow skiing anymore. It's been two years since I've been skiing and the last time was at Snowshoe Mountain, West Virginia. It's a great place that I've been going to for 30+ years. For east coast skiing, I've usually had very good snow conditions there. But our last few times there, the lift lines were pretty long. When you're paying close to $100 per one day lift ticket, it gets pretty frustrating. That was two years ago. Now a Friday/Saturday/Sunday daily lift ticket at Snowshoe is $170. Once every few years, I would go ski out in Colorado. Most of the Colorado resorts are now charging over $200 per daily lift ticket.

I get it. It's a business and it's expensive to run a ski resort. Sometimes a ski season can be shortened due to bad snow conditions and a resort doesn't make money as a result. Covid certainly hurt ski resort business for a couple years. But still. I'm fortunate to be able to go surf, windsurf, bike, and paddle for free. Out of principal, I can't even bring myself to spend $200+ for one day of skiing unless it's a very special occasion and a lot of friends or family are involved. Even then, I wouldn't be able to contain my utter cringiness (is that even a word?) over overpaying for waiting in long lift lines.

Cue my lovely bride, who loves snowy weather. She's the one who loves the snow forecast hype over a week out. She wanted some snow and lots of it. In her research, she read a couple articles about an under the radar Colorado mountain town, Pagosa Springs. It's located in southwest Colorado approximately one hour east of Durango. There is a ski area nearby, Wolf Creek, that apparently gets more snow than any other ski area/resort in Colorado. It sounded nice but I didn't really know what to expect. 

Now before I go any further, someone could accuse me of divulging a closely guarded secret. Don't ever share information about the "secret spot". I can hear someone saying "Hey, don't tell anyone about Pagosa Springs or Wolf Creek. We want them to keep going to Summit County to ski". And my response would be, "And yet, Pagosa Springs is right there on the map for everyone to see and there are plenty of articles and online information about it for anyone to see." It's not a secret folks. It's just not easy to get to which leads most people to seek to ski elsewhere. And that won't change.

We looked at flight and rental car options. Flying into Durango is the closest option. However, we found the airfares were more expensive compared to flying direct to Denver, and it would have required a layover which I always try to avoid when possible due to the increased chances of flight delays, cancellations, or losing luggage. We also found that car rental rates in Durango were a lot more expensive, I'm assuming due to the lower number of available cars to rent there. 

We opted to fly direct from Charleston to Denver and make the five hour+ drive to Pagosa Springs. Since we charge everything on our Capital One Venture X card, these flights actually didn't cost us anything since we were able to use our Venture X points to pay for them. Using the Capital One Venture X card and booking your travel through Capital One Travel, you get 10X miles on hotels and rental cars, 5x miles on flights, and 2x miles on other purchases. Direct message me here with the subject heading "Capital One" and I'll send you a safe secure link to get your own Venture X card so you can start doing the same.

We rented a 4x4 midsize SUV. The cheapest option was from NU Car Rentals. Since this wasn't a brand name I recognized, I read online reviews and they were mixed but I've always had some sort of less than desirable experience with most of the car rental companies over the years, so I rolled the dice. When I went to the counter, they tried to upsell me on another car, plus all the extra features and insurance I didn't want or need (already covered under the Capital One Venture X card and our car insurance company). They were pretty aggressive about it but I stood my ground. There was a misunderstanding in the conversation that actually turned into my favor. Instead of the midsize SUV I reserved, I ended up with a Dodge 1500 Ram V8 4x4 Pickup Truck for the same rate. Much nicer and had more power than the midsize SUV I had originally reserved.

A comment on Denver International Airport: It's a strange airport to me. I like to call it Kansas West due to its proximity well east of the city of Denver. It's a flat landscape that looks like Kansas to me. It seems to take forever to drive to and from there, no matter where you're going in Colorado. And the traffic in Denver has gotten worse over the years. Also note that all the car rental companies require a 1-2 mile shuttle ride...none of them are located in the actual airport as far as I know. 

Even though it's a long drive from Denver to Pagosa Springs, its very scenic, which made the drive go by pretty fast. There is the risk of winter driving to consider. There are some curvy and mountainous sections to drive through, including one very high mountain pass just before you get to Pagosa Springs. So if it's snowing, the drive will be longer. The normal 5+ hour drive could turn into a really crappy 10+ hours depending on the weather. So just know that.

We lucked out on most of our drive after we landed in Denver. Clear weather until we got to that high mountain pass, appropriately called Wolf Creek Pass which is where the Wolf Creek ski area is located, thirty minutes north of Pagosa Springs. When we got to that pass, it was snowing pretty good and the roads were covered. I have some snow driving experience and I had a capable 4x4 vehicle but still took it pretty slow and conservative compared to some of the local drivers around me. There are some pretty steep and curvy turns on that pass. It's not for everyone, particularly if you're inexperienced driving in snowy/icy conditions. I would not attempt to drive through there in the winter without a 4x4 vehicle.

We arrived safely in Pagosa Springs and checked into our AirBnB, a nice small one bedroom loft/studio located within walking distance of downtown. Pagosa Springs sits at just over 7,000 ft elevation. The Wolf Creek mountain pass we drove over to get to town is just under 11,000 ft elevation. If you're from the east coast and live at sea level like we do, you run the risk of altitude sickness. At the very least, you'll get a headache. One way to help combat this is to take one aspirin a day for a week leading up to your trip (helping to thin your blood), plus drink a lot of water...staying hydrated during that entire time leading up to your trip as well. That has helped me over the years when visiting Colorado.

Kris and I thought another way to get acclimated to the higher altitude would be to just do some other things around Pagosa Springs for a day or two before going skiing at Wolf Creek's higher elevations. Neither of us had been cross country skiing before, so we tried that. We rented our XC skis and boots from downtown Pagosa Ski & Snowboard Rentals, which was just down the street from our AirBnB rental. Matt was very friendly, got us all set up and was extremely helpful with tips on where to go. It turns out Matt got married in Folly Beach and his wife is from the Charleston area. Small world. 

Kris and I started out at Cloman Park which is close to town. It has groomed trails exclusively for cross country skiing and for different levels of skiers. It was a great first trail for us to try out, mostly flat with some beginner sloping, staying within the tracks already laid down by others. It was fun working on proper technique, trying to get into a rhythm and getting the heart rate up. It was so quiet and peaceful out there amidst the snow covered woods. 

We grabbed a lunch, then returned for more at a different trail system near town, Coyote Hill. This nordic trails system has multiple loops marked for beginner (green), intermediate (blue), and advanced (black). Kris and I did the beginner loop together. Completing that, she decided she was done for the day but encouraged me to stay out longer. So I went solo and sampled a blue loop section. I'm usually good at directions, the trails were well marked and I had a map with me...but somehow I took a wrong turn....twice. 

I was temporarily lost. It was 4pm, the sun was starting to go down and I didn't have a cell signal on my phone. Trying not to panic, I stopped and thought about where I had taken the wrong turn. Finally it hit me and I realized where I was and where I had gone wrong. I had gone close to two miles out of the way, and fallen twice on a couple of steep sections. Needless to say, I got my workout in that day, "accidentally" cross country skiing 10.5 miles. 

The next day, Kris and I went snowshoeing. Again, renting our gear from Pagosa Ski & Snowboard Rentals. It's basically hiking in deep snow, using the snowshoes to keep ourselves on top of the snow instead of sinking in it with each step. We set out for Reservoir Hill, right there in town. It had some good punchy climbs and hilly terrain, up to a nice view of the San Juan River and downtown Pagosa Springs. We saw deer, including a large buck, and a family of wild turkeys. The snow was very deep in sections and the trails were still well marked. We snowshoed over 2.5 miles but it felt like twice that, given you have to work harder with each step in the deep snow. Another great workout and way to get outside on a beautiful snowy day. 

Now it was time to go downhill skiing. Once again, Pagosa Ski & Snowboard Rentals provided the rentals due to it's convenient location for us and very friendly staff. Not to mention their rental rates were relatively inexpensive compared to other rental shops I've been to. The drive north to Wolf Creek is approximately thirty minutes and you drive to the top of Wolf Creek Pass. The weather had cleared and we had blue skies. 

Wolf Creek is not a resort and it's not "resorty". It's a ski area, a real plus if you ask me. It doesn't have lodging, however it does have a ski school for lessons, ski/board rentals, and a restaurant/bar. It's not owned by one of the larger ski resort conglomerates, also a real plus if you ask me. It is one of the few remaining privately held family owned ski areas left in the U.S. Wolf Creek also has the reputation for getting the most snow of any ski area/resort in all of Colorado with an annual average of 465 inches. The base elevation is 10,300 ft and its summit elevation is 11.900 ft. The regular daily lift ticket rate is $85. That used to be an expensive lift ticket way back when...but is now cheap compared to the big resorts. And my lunch at Wolf Creek? $15. It would have been twice that at one of the resorts. 

Lift lines? We skied on a Thursday and Friday and didn't have any lift lines, given that we were there during a slow period...between the holidays and spring break when most students are in school. I imagine they might have some short lines on weekends and holidays...I suppose someone else can vouch about that. We practically had the slopes to ourselves. There were some runs when I didn't see another skier. And when I did see someone else, we were pretty spread out. 

The snow conditions were excellent and there is something for every level of skier. Plenty of beginner terrain, advanced/extreme terrain, groomed trails, ungroomed powder areas, wide open runways and tree skiing. Each ski downhill run was at least one mile, most being closer to 1.5 miles, and the longest being two miles. According to my GPS watch stats over the two days of skiing, I ended up doing 52 runs, 62 miles, and over 48,000 ft of vertical. 

Pagosa Springs is a nice small mountain town with friendly people. Like most great mountain towns, it has a beautiful river running through it. In this case, the San Juan River, which also provides for great summer recreational opportunities for rafting, kayaking, and tubing in its playful river waves. There is a really nice paved river trail that runs alongside it for walking. The trail includes interesting historical markers and self sustaining eco-gardens managed by the local community. There are also many hiking and biking options in the area. And there are some really good restaurants. Our favorites included Thai Pagosa, Rosie's Pizzeria, Pagosa Baking Company, 2 Chicks and a Hippie, Kip's Grill and Cantina, and Riff Riff Brewing Company (both locations). All of these were really good.

So there you go - I spilled the already spilled beans and I just might keep skiing if I can find places like this. If you go, I hope you enjoy it as much as we did. Cheers!