Skiing isn’t convenient when you live in Northern Colorado.
The nearest downhill ski resort is 66 miles to the southwest.
Cameron Pass is 70 miles up Colorado Highway 14 and offers cross-country skiing.
Do you dare tackle the traffic of Interstate 70? Or make the slow slog up the Poudre Canyon?
Rocky Mountain National Park used to have a resort, Hidden Valley, but it was shut down by the National Park Service in the early 1990s.
Remember Sharktooth Ski Area? You were just as likely to find dust storms as you were snowstorms at the Windsor-area ski hill that closed in the 1980s.
Developments to build a ski resort on Cameron Pass-area Seven Utes Mountain fizzled in the mid-1990s.
Fort Collins doesn’t have an Eldora Mountain Resort 20 miles away, like Boulder does.
The city that annually makes “best of” lists for its expansive outdoor recreation opportunities isn’t a ski destination. Never has been. Never will be, some say.
Colorado’s 25 ski resorts hosted a record 12.6 million skier visits in 2013-14. The massive ski and snowboard industry produces an annual $3 billion economic impact for the state.
Denver, Colorado Springs and Boulder are directly impacted by Colorado’s ski tourism, said Jim Clark, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association and former president of Visit Fort Collins.
“Skiing doesn’t have an impact on Fort Collins. There’s no connection,” said Clark, who left Fort Collins in August. “It’s an issue of geography.”
The “ski fight”
Geographically, Cameron Pass and the Hidden Valley area or Twin Sisters Peaks, near Estes Park, offer the most potential for Northern Colorado ski resorts.
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With an average snowfall of 250 inches, a ski season spanning November to April and similar powder to Steamboat, Seven Utes Mountain was praised in the 1970s by backcountry skiers and the Forest Service alike for its potential as a ski resort.
In 1993, California developer Fred Sauer unveiled his plan to build a new ski resort — The Resort at Seven Utes — on the north face of Seven Utes Mountain in Jackson County near Gould, then with a population of 50. Sauer’s development for the year-round resort proposed building a 1,300-acre ski area, two hotels with 300 rooms each, 200 homes, 1,250 condominiums, a golf course, ice-skating rink and an equestrian center.
The Colorado State Land Board owns the 4,200 acres in the Colorado State Forest, and Sauer planned to lease 3,000 acres from the state and trade land elsewhere for the other 1,200 acres. The development would have been built in two five-year phases, with the resort opening for the 1998-99 ski season.
People were skeptical of Sauer’s plan and its potential to boost the rural county. More than 20 years later, locals still call the vocal and at times hostile opposition to Sauer’s plan the “ski fight.”
Led by Don Ewy, a self-employed logger, Gould and Walden residents overwhelmingly opposed the development, saying The Resort at Seven Utes would turn the area into “Six Flags over Cameron Pass.” Community activists, environmentalists, ranchers, loggers and the Poudre Canyon Group of the Sierra Club opposed the development, citing the ski resort’s massive size and $60 million price tag. There were concerns an influx of people visiting the state-owned land would drastically disturb area wildlife, which includes moose, elk and mountain lions.
“It was an interesting time. There have been at least three attempts to build a ski resort there.” said Ewy, 62, who lives in Gould. “When this last one came around, let’s just say this, I think this place is the last best place you’ll find. I’ve lived here since 1972. It’s reasonably secluded. I didn’t want to see major development here.
“I felt that the way it was being handled, it would have been a disaster. Our county is a very small county, and I didn’t think the county could handle that type of development.”
By mid-November 1993, the land board had received more than 2,200 comments, fewer than 900 supporting The Resort at Seven Utes. Governor Roy Romer publicly opposed the project.
Sauer not only faced a steep climb to gain the public’s approval, but also he had many obstacles to overcome just to acquire the land. The sale of state trust land is prohibited, so Sauer’s plan would have required a complicated land exchange approved by the state’s legislature. The resort also would have bordered Routt National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park, further complicating land permits.
The Resort at Seven Utes would have been the only major ski resort in Colorado built on state-owned land, as opposed to federal land. Sauer also needed a clean water permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.
And though his plan called for two five-year building phases, it’s unlikely the resort would have been built in that timeline, ski marketers said. The state’s newest major ski resort, Beaver Creek, opened in 1980 after 15 years of planning. The development of Catamount Ski Area, a proposed second ski resort near Steamboat Springs, fell through in the mid-1990s after 20 years of planning when a principal investor dropped out.
The most recent talk of a new Colorado ski area has been the proposed private ski resort on Battle Mountain near Minturn in the Vail Valley. But following a change in ownership and the economic slump, no building has begun on Battle Mountain.
If Battle Mountain did happen, the ski resort built on private land could possibly be the last built in Colorado because of the state’s lack of private mountain real estate suitable for a ski resort, the U.S. Forest Service’s reluctance to lease more federal tracts, and the fact that Colorado’s ski business is a mature industry.
The Resort at Seven Utes proposal was rejected by the land board in December 1993. No serious plans for a ski resort near Cameron Pass have surfaced since. Though Ewy said he wouldn’t be surprised if those conversations started stirring again.
“And we’ll be ready,” said Ewy, who owns a logging and construction company, Focused on the Forest.
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Today, the Cameron Pass area attracts thousands of backcountry skiers and boarders every winter. Pick a weekend and the parking lot atop Cameron is packed, Ewy said.
Randy Morgan, longtime owner of ski and outdoor gear shop, Outpost Sunsport, said he would have opened a rental shop at The Resorts at Seven Utes had it been built.
“I wish we had a ski area within 30 miles of Fort Collins. That’s just not going to happen, unfortunately,” Morgan said.
Even if The Resort at Seven Utes had come to fruition, Clark said the impact would have been minimal in Fort Collins.
“You’d have outdoor retailers and ski equipment stores that would benefit, but Fort Collins is still over an hour away. Skiers wouldn’t be staying in Fort Collins,” Clark said. “To make Fort Collins a ski town, I don’t know if that would ever be a thing. … I know in Boulder, they’re trying to play that space (Boulder as a ski town) a little bit. They have Eldora right there.”
With Eldora right at its doorstep, Boulder has several hotels and resorts that offer special lodging deals for its “Boulder Ski Escape” package. Residents can also catch the Ski-n-Ride RTD bus service to Eldora daily. Boulder is also a major hub for outdoor recreation-related business like Crescent Moon, Kelty, SmartWool, Spyder Active Sports, Title Nine and the Outdoor Industry Association.
Where Fort Collins goes to ski
Closer to home, Morgan and many other Northern Colorado skiers spent the 1980s skiing Rocky Mountain National Park’s Hidden Valley. But with a shifting focus toward offering recreation opportunities on undeveloped land rather than expanding and developing facilities, the National Park Service shut down Hidden Valley in 1991.
Today, Fort Collins skiers opt for the backcountry at Rocky Mountain National Park or Cameron Pass, or the long trek to the resorts.
Demographic research by the National Ski Areas Association and Boulder-based RRC Associates sheds light on where Fort Collins residents ski.
Using end-of-season surveys and on mountain interviews, research shows over the past five seasons that Fort Collins residents generate an average of 167,000 skier visits per season. Of those visits, the three most popular areas are Winter Park (19 percent), Copper (18 percent) and Keystone (12 percent).
For many local skiers, the long drives and early-morning wake-up calls are worth the hassle if you can make turns in the quiet of the backcountry. Morgan said he has an employee who leaves Fort Collins at 5 a.m., skis Cameron Pass and returns for his noon shift at Outpost Sunsport.
Rodney Ley, a longtime Cameron Pass backcountry skier, calls that “dawn patrol.”
“I really admire that phrase. You’ve probably seen Black Diamond begin to use that,” said Ley who has lived in Fort Collins since 1969. “There are some very hardcore folks who live here. If you love to ski, you’ll ski.”
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What Fort Collins lacks in skiing, many say it makes up for with its year-round recreation.
“Fort Collins is such an incredible place to live with our weather that allows us to mountain bike and run for, like 11 months of the year,” Morgan said. “In the ski towns, you tend to be higher and closer to the mountains, so obviously you have the skiing, but you don’t have that other recreation throughout the year like we do. There’s tradeoffs.”
Xplore reporter Stephen Meyers covers the outdoors and recreation for the Coloradoan. Follow him on Twitter @stemeyer or Facebook.com/meyersreports.
Making the trek
Here are distances from Fort Collins to the nearest ski areas. Click here to explore the ski areas on a map.
Eldora: 66 miles
Snowy Range (Wyo): 100 miles
Loveland Ski Area: 117 miles
Arapahoe Basin: 124 miles
Winter Park: 126 miles
Keystone: 129 miles
Copper Mountain: 138 miles
Breckenridge: 142 miles
Steamboat: 157 miles
Vail: 157 miles