Vail Daily Travel: Wolf Creek has ‘most snow in Colorado’
Vail Daily Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
In the heart of the San Juan Mountains, 24 miles east of Pagosa Springs on U.S. 160, is one of the more famous passes in Colorado, Wolf Creek Pass. This pass is home to Wolf Creek Ski Area and the namesake of country singer C.W. McCall’s hit song “Wolf Creek Pass.” There is a large parking lot on the 10,850-foot summit. The pass is on the Continental Divide and separates two well-known rivers. On the west of the pass is the San Juan River, a major tributary of the Colorado River, which drains into the Pacific Ocean. On the east side of the pass is the Rio Grande, which drains into the Atlantic. While the local demands of lumber and mining camps prompted the construction of many mountain roads in Colorado, the one over Cumbres Pass was built to facilitate transcontinental travel. Some documents indicate that the pass was first completed in 1913, others 1916.
At the summit of Wolf Creek Pass there is a turnoff for a well-graded, three-mile dirt road that travels north to the top of a hill called the Lobo Overlook. You can enjoy 360-degree views from this vantage point, and the short detour is well worth the time. There is also a parking area here and a trailhead for the Continental Divide Trail.
From the Lobo Overlook, above Wolf Creek Pass, you can see a portion of the Weminuche Wilderness Area. Located in the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests, this 492,418-acre wilderness area is by far Colorado’s largest.
Weminuche is at the heart of the San Juan mountain range, and has an average elevation of over 10,000 feet, and many of its peaks rise over 13,000 feet. In the far western side of the Weminuche, where it crosses into the Needle Mountains, there are three 14,000-foot peaks: Sunlight Peak, Windom Peak and Mount Eolus. Dozens of major streams and rivers travel through the Weminuche on their way to feed the Rio Grande and San Juan Rivers. There are also 63 lakes in this area. Nearly 500 miles of trail cross the Weminuche. The Continental Divide Trail runs through the area for nearly 80 miles. The Colorado Trail crosses it for 21 miles, running from Molas Pass to the Rio Grande.
Looking out to the northwest from the Lobo Overlook, you can see the La Garita Mountains, formed by La Garita Volcano’s first eruption 27.8 million years ago. This massive volcanic event makes Mount St. Helens’ famous 1980 eruption look like a soap bubble pop. It is believed that in less than a week, 3,000 cubic miles of magma flowed from La Garita. That is enough to bury the state of Colorado under 61 feet of magma! This magma, called tuff, makes up the surrounding La Garita Mountains to the north. The eruption most likely killed everything from the nearby La Garita Mountains all the way east into what is now Kansas. Some of the ash would have fallen as far as the East Coast. The scale of this eruption is far beyond anything known in human history.
When La Garita erupted, it formed one of the world’s largest calderas. A caldera is a large depression formed when the magma chamber below a volcano is emptied during an eruption and the mountain collapses into the chamber. Most calderas are circular, but the La Garita caldera is an oval that is 22 miles wide and 50 miles long. Because the La Garita formation is so large, has an unusual shape, and has been changed in form by erosion, additional volcanism, and glaciations, it was not discovered until 1995.
Just east of the summit of Wolf Creek Pass is the Wolf Creek Ski Area. Skiers have frequented this area since the 1930s. Before there were lifts, they would park at the summit of the pass, then hike up and ski down the hills around it. In the fall of 1938, the forest service and the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) constructed a shelter house for skiers on the summit of the pass. Local papers from that time reported that there were often 50 automobiles parked on top of the pass.
In 1955, the Wolf Creek Ski Development Corporation constructed facilities at their present location. Wolf Creek Ski Area can rightfully claim to have “The Most Snow in Colorado” – their average snowfall is more than 38 feet!
Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.