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Big Colorado ski resorts dominate, but these small, city-owned ski areas keep up the tradition of skiing for all

A desire to keep something special — and affordable — for children has kept small, city-owned ski hills going in places like Ouray, Durango and Silverton.

COLORADO, USA — When people think of Colorado skiing, certain big resorts pop to mind.

Aspen. Telluride. Vail.

Maybe they even know some of the smaller ski areas, like Powderhorn outside of Grand Junction, or Ski Cooper near Leadville.

> Video above: Skiing isn't cheap. How did it become so expensive in Colorado to hit the slopes?

But there’s another level of small when it comes to the state’s ski areas, so small that if you’re in the tiny community of Ouray, you literally turn up Third Avenue, go two blocks, and there you are.

This is the world of little, city-owned ski hills, and they’re scattered across western Colorado.

In Ouray, the ski spot is called Lee’s Ski Hill, and on a recent blue-sky weekend, dozens of people were gathered at the bottom of it — a vertical drop all of 75 feet — clapping and whooping from their lawn chairs as little kids competed in a ski-jump contest. One little boy even managed to do the Macarena, the ’90s dance craze, while airborne.

> This story is brought to you by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, a nonprofit coalition of more than 160 newsrooms across Colorado working together to better serve the public. Learn more at https://colabnews.co

That made Sarah Gray cheer even harder, in her magenta, snakeskin-print tights, cut-off jeans and flap hat, an outfit that shows she came “to party,” she said. She recently moved to Ouray, and has been so impressed with the community spirit.

“It's a quirky little mountain town. And it holds onto that,” she went on. “Like, there could be a set of condos built right on this hill, but there's not.”

The piece of prime real estate was actually set aside for this very purpose in 1946, when a local woman named Deema Mary Lee donated much of this land to the city “to be used as a recreation area for the young people of Ouray.”

Ouray native Rick Trujillo, born here a few years after the hill opened, found that quote in paperwork decades ago. That was back when the city was contemplating selling off the land, a plan that was quickly abandoned after he intervened. Trujillo, the oldest of 11, knew he had to protect the ski hill. He had basically spent his childhood winters here. He and his friends would come after school, turn on the rope tow and ski until dark.

“There was no supervision! None whatsoever!” he exclaimed with definite pride in his voice.

These days, a seasonal city employee is on site, and the rope ski lift lift has been upgraded. But one thing has not changed: the price. When Trujillo was growing up, Lee’s Ski Hill was free.

“And it’s still free of charge,” he said, “which I think is unique in Colorado or anywhere.”

A desire to keep something special — and affordable — for children has kept small, city-owned hills going in Durango and Silverton too. Steamboat’s “other ski area,” Howelsen Hill, is actually protected as a city park now. And tiny Lake City, close to Ouray as the crow flies, but a few hours by car, still has its one-lift ski hill. Local government did float the idea of closing it — three times, actually. But each failed.

Credit: Stina Sieg / CPR News
Lee’s Ski Hill in Ouray under sunny skies in February.

Henry Woods, a skier in Lake City for decades, made sure of it by bringing in the heavies: local moms.

“That's one of the biggest powers in the world, is angry mothers,” he said.

Woods, who coaches a ski team for kids, says the ski hill used to charge a small fee for the schoolchildren. But he found even five bucks was a barrier. So he worked out a deal with the school, where every student gets in for free.

“So there’s no haves and have nots at the ski hill,” he said.

On Monday mornings, a crowd of kids descends on the hill’s base for ski team practice. They joke and roughhouse in line as they wait for the lift, a historic hand-me-down from Arapahoe Basin that dates back to the 1940s, and is actually the oldest lift of its kind still in operation in the state.

It’s called a Poma lift, and straddling a disk between your legs, you let it pull you up the hill. It requires concentration and strong hands to keep from tumbling down. But the kids are absolute pros, including 11-year-old Labron Wampler. He’s only been skiing a year but can feel himself getting better.

“Oh yeah, yeah,” he said. “Every day.”

So it doesn’t matter that there are so few ski runs that one is actually the summertime driveway for a fancy house, or that typically there just aren’t a lot of people here.

“Well, I’m really shy, so I like it,” Wampler said.

RELATED: Skiing isn't cheap. How did it become so expensive to hit the slopes in Colorado?

And for local mom to three Sarah Tubbs, it’s been a supportive place to relearn how to ski.

“You can fall on your butt and laugh at yourself,” she joked.

Perhaps more than anything, it’s close by. Going to any other ski resort would take two hours or more. To get to this hill, her hill?

“Five minutes,” she said, with a laugh. Sometimes it’s even quicker.

But for all these bonuses, longtime employee Don Junak knows ultra-small ski areas can still be a tough sell in Colorado.

“There's dozens of ski hills that I used to ski at when I was young that are not there anymore,” he said, sporting his long, gray beard. “Just go by the wayside ‘cause the big resorts took over.”

And as he sees it, who wants to go to one of those?

“You have to have a $5,000 pair of pants and a $10,000 pair of skis, et cetera,” he said, with a wry smile.

Credit: Hart Van Denburg / CPR News
Welcome to Ouray, Colorado, where since the 1990s, local folks have been building a growing winter economy based on climbers coming to the Ouray Ice Park in the Uncompahgre River Gorge just outside of town in the San Juan mountains. Saturday Jan. 22, 2022.

Compare that to Lake City, where equipment is provided free-of-charge with lift tickets, which only cost $25 dollars for adults. Junak felt so strongly about keeping this place going that for the first 12 years he worked here, he did it for free. He’s just glad the Lake City Ski Hill survived.

“You never know what's gonna happen though, with global warming,” he said. “You never know ’cause this year we're really dry on snow.”

Making things worse: This is one of several municipal ski hills that can’t make its own snow. In Gunnison, city-owned Cranor Hill has gotten so little snow, it couldn’t even open this winter. It was looking pretty bad for Ouray, too, until a recent storm brought feet of much-needed powder to Lee’s Ski Hill, just in time for Cabin Fever Day.

Carrie Hickman, who grew up in Ouray, watched as kiddos in brightly colored ski helmets and bibs zoomed up to a line for a rope tow — basically a rope suspended in air the kids clung to as it spirited them up the hill.

Hickman did that countless times as a child, and even participated in this very same event as a 3-year-old.

“And so to be back here with my kids, participating as 5- and 7-year olds, it’s so cool,” she said.

She added that it’s also kind of bittersweet.

“I’m glad it’s still a loving place here in Ouray.”

A window into old Colorado, tucked right off Main Street.

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