For Some Colorado Towns, There's No Business Like Snow Business

Silverton's homegrown ski area opens today.
Silverton's homegrown ski area opens today.
Kendall Mountain
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Hordes of travelers from around the world will be heading to the hills on Presidents' Day weekend, bound for one of Colorado's ski areas, likely a big mountain with a big international reputation like Aspen, Vail or Breckenridge. But long before skiing became a big business, this state was dotted with small resorts, some private and some public; since Colorado became a state, it's seen close to 200 ski areas open. Today only about thirty remain, most of them members of Colorado Ski Country (places owned by Vail Resorts a notable exception).

And Colorado Ski Country just signed on its 24th member: Kendall Mountain Ski Area, a 53-year-old facility owned by Silverton that has four groomed trails, multiple tree runs, a terrain park and a double chairlift serving 240 vertical feet. After a few dry months, Kendall is finally opening on Presidents' Day weekend and will continue operating 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through the season. It will also be open Monday, February 19, and there are special ticket deals for the holiday; find out more on the Kendall Mountain website.

Kendall isn't the only ski area owned by a municipality. Winter Park is the big one; it was opened by the City of Denver before World War II, and remains a Denver property, although it's run under a long-term operating contract by Alterra Mountain Company, the entity started by Aspen Skiing Co. and Denver’s KSL Capital Partners that owns a dozen resorts.

Unlike Winter Park, most ski areas that are owned by municipalities lie in the actual municipality, usually a small town that wanted to provide an amenity for its own residents. But tourists sometimes hit the slopes, too, especially tourists who want bragging rights to having skied at every area in Colorado, no matter its size.

On the (much, much) smaller end of the scale is Lee's Ski Hill, and this area owned by the City of Ouray isn't much of a hill at all. The vertical drop is just 75 feet, and a single rope tow serves the single beginner slope. But Lee's isn't intended to be a major draw; it's a spot where local children can learn the sport of skiing. It operates from noon to 5 p.m. weekends and holidays, and after school on weekdays. Lee's isn't on the Colorado Ski Country roster; it isn't even on its radar.

Durango also has a city-owned ski area, Chapman Hill. It's part of a complex that includes skating and other recreational activities, and has a vertical drop of 775 feet and two rope tows. "This is where skiing started in the Southwest," says Durango's Matt Morrissey. And when the area did start in the early '50s, it did so with a rope tow that had been used by the 10th Mountain Division in WWII. Chapman Hill was able to open for the season in December, since it has snow-making capabilities. It's open from 3 to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays, 11 a.m.to 5 p.m. on weekends.

A lack of snow has put two more municipal areas on hold. Cranor Hill was constructed in 1962 as a private ski ranch; after operating for four years, it was sold to the City of Gunnison under the stipulation that it would continue to be operated as a ski area. And it still is, snow willing. It wasn't willing last season, and hasn't been so far this year.

Lake City Ski Hill has had a rocky history for decades. It got its start in 1966, when the tiny town's chamber of commerce purchased a poma lift from Arapahoe Basin. Lake City ran the hill until a couple of bad snow years closed it in the early '80s; it reopened in 1998 after former Governor Roy Romer was able to connect the town with mechanics willing to upgrade the lift, according to coloradoskihistory.com.

But Lake City Ski Hill hasn't been able to overcome another challenge this year: bad snow. "The Lake City Ski Hill is currently closed," the Lake City website reports. "However, we continue to evaluate conditions daily. Should conditions change prior to this weekend and we are able to open to the public we will let you know."

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