Sojourner Afield

Sunlight Mountain Resort Celebrates Golden Anniversary Season

In the shadow of its higher-profile neighbors, Glenwood Springs' mighty mountain has offered skiing for the 99 percent for the past 50 years.

By Tess Weaver Strokes November 27, 2016 Published in the Holiday 2016 issue of Aspen Sojourner

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Cruising at Sunlight in the early 1980s.

Sunlight Mountain Resort, the small ski area near Glenwood Springs, actually owes its start to a 1930s Dodge pickup. In 1946, 20 years before Sunlight opened, its predecessor, Holiday Hill, fired up operations with Colorado’s second-longest rope tow, powered by the old truck parked at the top.

Brothers Don and John Vanderhoof (who would go on to become, respectively, mayor of Glenwood Springs and governor of Colorado) conceived of the idea after seeing a similar rope tow on a hill near the town of Delta. Their family found promising terrain at the end of Four Mile Road, 12 miles south of Glenwood Springs.

At the time, the Vanderhoof family owned a local sporting goods store and had recently bought hundreds of pairs of government skis from former 10th Mountain Division training base Camp Hale when it shut down after World War II. “My brother and father decided they could sell more skis if there was a ski area nearby,” recalls Don, 85. “That idea didn’t work too well, but the ski area did.”

As the younger brother, Don had to snowshoe to the top of the hill to get the motor started every weekend day through high school. As more people loaded the rope tow, he would shift gears, increasing the power as gradually as possible to avoid jolting customers off the tow.

Meanwhile, down at the farmhouse that served as the warming hut, burgers and bowls of chili cost 25 cents. The Vanderhoofs planned to build more trails and install a T-bar, but three years after Holiday Hill opened, the city talked the family into shutting it down so that Glenwood Springs could better market close-to-town Red Mountain ski area. (With a base elevation lower than 6,000 feet, however, that area soon failed.)

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The Holiday Hill site remained dormant until a Chicagoan named John Higgs saw potential for a medium-size ski area. He gathered stockholders and formed the Sunlight Ranch Company, installed a chairlift, built two more runs, and opened the area in 1966. With a shoestring budget, Sunlight relied on volunteers to keep the lights on. Since then, the ski area has added two new chairlifts and replaced one (with a lift purchased secondhand from Aspen) and cut new trails, but it remains the ma-and-pa resort that generations have supported and loved.

“With so many resorts being bought up and monopolized, people are starting to appreciate that Sunlight hasn’t changed much,” says Chris Tribble, a Carbondale filmmaker who frequents the ski area. “You go to Sunlight, and you feel at home. You don’t have to be a great skier with the latest gear to enjoy all the benefits the sport has to offer.”

Indeed, Sunlight relies on a local community of loyal skiers to stay afloat: people like Tribble, who taught one of his sons to ski there while bringing along his younger son in a backpack. Or Marianne Virgili, president of the Glenwood Chamber Resort Association, whose daughter wrote her college essay about learning to ski at Sunlight. Or the gang at Denver-based Meier Skis, a company that got its start testing its hand-built skis of beetle-kill wood at the area (and recently designed limited-edition skis to honor the resort’s golden anniversary).

Or Josh Mattson from New Castle, whose son became Sunlight’s first “Mini Mayor” when he petitioned on social media for the ski area to open early last year. (This year’s Mini Mayor was announced on November 9 and won a season pass, a pair of skis, and a seat at the executive table.) “It’s very family friendly, there are no lift lines, and everyone knows each other,” Mattson notes.

Just because it’s smaller and more laidback than its better-known brethren up the road, Sunlight doesn’t skimp on the ski experience. The East Ridge, for example, offers 13 double-black shots through the trees. One trail, The Heathen, offers a 52-degree pitch, one of the steepest in Colorado. And a cruiser named Ute winds more than 2.5 miles over a respectable 2,000 vertical feet from summit to base.

Moreover, all of the runs lead back to the base lodge, so it’s almost impossible to get lost. Parents can stop for a break and watch kids lap the Tercero lift from the lodge’s sun-drenched deck.

Even powder days, says Sunlight’s marketing director, Troy Hawks, are a low-key scene. “There might be 10 to 20 people waiting for the lift to open, and everyone spreads out immediately. It’s not uncommon to come back three days later after a big storm and find fresh turns,” he says, noting the resort’s amount of terrain is nearly equivalent to Aspen Mountain, but with one-tenth the number of skiers.

There’s even still evidence of the original ski area that started it all. Two-thirds of the way down the Showdown run, the rusty skeleton of the old Dodge that powered Holiday Hill’s single rope tow can be found in the snow—a reminder of the humble beginnings that still fuel the ethos of the Roaring Fork Valley’s most inclusive ski area.

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