It was a return trip to the “White Room” when a buddy, Jim Walton, and I headed north out of Santa Fe recently to ski at Wolf Creek. I was nervous about the possible road conditions, as we left in a light snowfall, and Chama was getting the brunt of the storm. But luckily it was another Pineapple Express, and while it continued to snow the air temperature hovered at 32 to 33 degrees until our final push up Wolf Creek Pass to the Continental Divide.
North of Abiquiu we entered the White Room and stayed in until our return: the land blanketed in snow, the rivers running silently beneath an icy skin, the trees and homes draped in fluff. At the ski area itself, we were enveloped occasionally in white-out conditions, which led us to ski almost exclusively in the trees, where definition was far better and pillows of snow two to three feet deep awaited.
SKIING WOLF CREEK
From the first chair to the last, we skied largely on untracked powder, soft and silent, turn after exquisite turn until our legs cried out for relief. And despite arriving on a holiday and in the middle of a four-day storm cycle that dropped more than 52 inches of fresh flakes, we skied all day right onto the chairlifts. Lack of crowds is common here, due to its isolation. With many fine days notched in the past more than 40 years at Wolf Creek, it’s hard to say this was the best day yet, but it was among the sweetest.
We started on the “frontside” to skiers’ left on some of their abundant intermediate runs to get our legs warmed up, and then worked our way to skiers’ right across the face and over into the “backside” on the Alberta Chair. And it was all good.
In the Alberta sector, we found the steeper lines and occasional small cliff drops, but also huge swaths of mid-angle treed slopes, and some very easy-going runs like Serenity where you can really relax and let the skis find just enough gravity to keep you moving through the pow.
Many runs at Wolf Creek have hidden drains that corkscrew down steeper pitches, so one should always ski with a bit of caution, and also to avoid the numerous “terrain traps” that suck you into their untracked expanses only to leave you having to hike up and out of a depression.
There were so many freshies to be had on the lift-served runs that we forewent any hiking. But Wolf Creek has vast upper slopes off 11,904 foot Alberta Peak and the Knife Ridge that can scare the pants off all but the most extreme skiers or boarders, and endless opportunities for finding stashes long after storms have moved on.
We were finally ready to call it a day and hopped on the Elma Chair to return to the front side. Off to lookers right of the chair, though, we spied terrain I’d never entered, due to its former isolation. Hardly anyone had been in those woods and glades, so we rallied for another run and emerged from the trees at the bottom with grins from ear to ear. Another sublime, successful day in the White Room of Wolf Creek.
IF YOU GO TO WOLF CREEK
Basic Stats: 1,600 vertical drop (including its hike-to summit), spanning 1,600 acres; 10 lifts, including three high-speed chairs, operating 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. It averages 430 inches of snow a season, including 237 inches so far this season! On January 30, it was reporting a fabulous base of 86 to 95 inches.
Services: It has a handful of places to dine, both in the base area and on the slopes, and two bars, plus a full retail shop, rentals, a ski/board school, and a free network of more than 6 miles of groomed Nordic trails.
Getting There: The most direct route from Santa Fe is through Chama via US 84/285, then west on US 64, and up and over a lowish pass on US 84, into Pagosa Springs, then up Wolf Creek Pass from the west on US 160. Drive time from Santa Fe is about 3.5 hours. An alternate route, 25 miles longer, but that avoids the pass between Chama and Pagosa, is up US 285 through Alamosa, then west to Del Norte on US 160 and up the more gently inclined east slope of Wolf Creek Pass. There’s also a commercial shuttle operation, Wilderness Journeys, which runs from Pagosa Springs. For more on the ski area, go to wolfcreekski.com.
Accommodations: There’s no lodging at the ski area, but Pagosa Springs has numerous hotels and motels — from budget options to deluxe resorts — plus home and condo rentals. One of the attractions of staying in Pagosa, versus in South Fork at the east foot of Wolf Creek Pass, is the existence of numerous hot springs where you can soak away those powder-worked legs. Several lodgings offer on-site soaking, and there are also a few stand-alone operations. My favorite stay/soak option is the very affordable Healing Waters. It is one of the oldest “spas” in town, and unlike some others that blend the mineral water with treated city water, all of Healing Waters’ liquid relief bubbles directly out of the earth. If you visit here, be sure to check out the “bone melter” pools inside both the
men’s and women’s dressing rooms, and the almost hidden steam “rooms.” The latter, in the men’s area, hides behind a nondescript plastic curtain. Inside the narrow slot is a hissing, snorting, belching darkish realm, as if you entered a lung of the earth itself. Deep breathing of the steam is said to wash out your respiratory system. For details on Healing Waters, see pshotsprings.com.
Dining: There’s a decent range of possibilities here, from “Mexican” fare and a Cajun joint, to the upscale Alley House Grille or the venerable Kip’s Grill. There’s also the excellent Pagosa Thai, about a 10-to-15-minute drive from downtown. For fresh suds, there are several choices, including Riff Raff Brewing Company.
Other Attractions: There’s an excellent cross-country trail system right in Pagosa, and other activities include dog sled tours, sleigh rides, snowmobiling, ice skating, fat tire snow biking, tubing, ice climbing, ice fishing, and gallery hopping. There’s also a movie theater, a history museum, and an “escape zone.”
For details on Pagosa Springs, see visitpagosasprings.com.
Top image: A snowboarder enjoys some of the fantastic fluff at Wolf Creek. Photo courtesy Wolf Creek.
Daniel Gibson was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame in October 2022 for his snowsports writing. He is the co-author of Images of America: Skiing in New Mexico (Arcadia Publishing, 2021), with 183 historic photos; and author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, websites, and magazines including Powder, Ski, and Wintersport Business. He can be reached at [email protected] or via DanielBGibson.com.
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