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The authentic Colorado

Got attitude? Leave it at home. In the southern part of the state, the lift lines are mercifully short and the locals refreshingly friendly.

December 09, 2007|Grace Lichtenstein | Special to The Times

DURANGO, COLO. — The ski spots of southern Colorado take at least two planes to reach. The weather here can slide quickly from slushy-warm to numb-thumbs cold. And the resorts are not platinum-card havens.

But that's also the appeal of these ski areas, where the scenery compels your attention, the skies are not cloudy and the ski slopes are not crowded all day.

Durango Mountain Resort (it was originally known as Purgatory, after a nearby river) and Crested Butte have grown up since I first tried them in the 1970s. New owners, new condos, new hotels, new restaurants and new lifts are transforming these smaller destinations into places worth the hassle of an extra flight in a puddle-jumper from Denver. A determined skier could easily include the Wolf Creek Ski Area in a southern Colorado sampler.

What's so special? To start with, not one of these playgrounds is a Ritz-Carltonized spa with snowflakes. Each has its special strengths, and each is far enough away from a distinctive town that it retains its separate identity.

The people in southern Colorado are special too. Many come from Latino ranching families and ethnically diverse Anglo ranchers and miners deeply rooted in the region. Sure, the area has its share of newcomers, but to an uncommon degree they've adopted the cuisine and the manners of the locals rather than impose their own style.

That attitude applies not just to the lift operators, instructors and waiters, who have time to be friendly while those at large resorts might not, but it's also true of the Texans, Oklahomans, New Mexicans and Kansans you'll meet on the lifts. (I was about to say "in the lift lines," but there usually aren't any.)

These visitors won't put down Californians as alien life forms. Nor will they dazzle you with five-figure Zai skis and Moncler parkas. They probably won't make your socks roll up and down with their perfect technique.

Instead, they'll tell you with a sense of wonder how amazing the mountains look and how thrilled they are to be there after driving 17 hours from some distant town. They won't complain when the light gets dicey or the temperatures dip. They're on vacation and they bring a can-do, love-it mentality that will touch even the most jaded skier.

These are skiers and snowboarders who appreciate the real deal when they see it. They may come to test themselves against Crested Butte's renowned steep bowls and to feel their thighs burn on Durango's long-rolling cruising snow boulevards. But when they wander through the old Western streets of Durango and Crested Butte, they sense the origins of these historic burgs.

You will too. You can't help but absorb the authenticity that remains from their contrasting histories: Durango as a railroad hub and Crested Butte as a mining and supply camp.


Crested Butte gets its name from the arc of one of its peaks, which resembles the beak of a great bird. The first miners came to dig for gold in the 1880s, but precious metals played out quickly in Washington Gulch, and within a few decades Crested Butte settled into a more humble existence as a coal-mining center. Croats, along with other Slavs and Italians, made up a large part of its population right through the early 1950s, when the last mine closed.

The small homes that the miners built made ideal houses for ski bums, who arrived after Crested Butte opened in 1962. Two former University of Kansas fraternity brothers had purchased a ranch at what is now the base area, installing one chairlift and a used gondola. They went broke, forcing a consortium of banks to run the nascent resort for five years until Georgia Republican political powerhouse Howard Hollis "Bo" Callaway took it off their hands in 1970.

As late as 1986, Crested Butte was small enough for everyone to know everyone else's business. A friend of mine and I asked a passerby on Elk Avenue, the Butte's Broadway, about a black-sheep cousin who reportedly had decamped to this distant outpost.

"Try the bar at the Wooden Nickel," the local said.

The Wooden Nickel is still going strong. But since Tim and Diane Mueller, owners of Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont, bought Crested Butte in 2004, they have expanded the on-mountain skiing and drinking options.

Advanced skiers head for Teocalli Bowl and the intimidating slopes below the crest itself. Intermediates can stick to the middle mountain and its lower flanks.

One of the finest on-slope coffeehouses in Colorado can be found at the Camp 4 shack atop the Painter Boy lift, which serves a novice/intermediate part of the lower mountain. (There is another at the base of the mountain.) If you need more bracing liquids, there's a true ice bar tucked into a more angled, tree-studded corner near the Twister lift.

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