About 7 hours south of Denver, striated cliff bands welcome you as you make your way up through the town of Durango to Purgatory Mountain Resort. The name of the resort is certainly a misnomer – Purgatory appears to be anything but! Protected by its remote location, and with an unassuming entrance off state highway 550, one gets vibes of Steamboat, Vail, and Aspen, with condos and houses dotted the lower part of the mountain, but without the throngs of people in every direction. Like these three, the frontside is covered with aspen groves and shrouded in the early morning mist. Looking the opposite direction rewards you with a view of the Needle Mountains, a series of rugged, couloir-laden peaks – if your eyes had taste buds, they’d be watering mightily by now, or maybe you’d be overcome with some butterflies!
Unlike these more well-traveled resorts, Purgatory is chock full of the things that make small mountains so worthwhile – start with the parking. First off, it’s free, which is always a plus. There are two lots near the entrance, and you can hop on a shuttle to get to the main base area above. On a Saturday with nice, sunny conditions, the main draw is mostly families and locals from nearby Durango, as well as a handful of day-trippers from the surrounding southern states. It a nice mix, and there is plenty of open space throughout the mountain. A beginner area is near the bottom which makes for a great last run to the car. It’s a good thing that there is a smaller hill before the mountain, because the main face is steep!
Looking at it in the morning, you might see some racers carving low, and snowboarders popping off the knolls that mark the rolling faces. If you’re not feeling the pitch, you can take a winding route back down to the base, but the real play is to head to the backside of the mountain, and the rolling groomers that await. The backside is served by lifts 3, 5 and 8, which accommodate a progressively more difficult set of terrain, culminating in the experts-only McCormack Maze, a winding web of pines and aspens, which reaches to the boundary of the resort.
The trail maps at the top of each lift come in handy here because the runs are much longer and wider than they may appear on the map itself. You can expect a lot of vertical, and plenty of horizontal as well. There are several fun chutes on the mountain, one of which is the Elevator Shaft under lift 5. It’s been a good snow year so the snowpack is there, but you can expect to see plenty of exposed rocks. If you’d rather not hop down, more open pitch is available to the right, though like most things here, it is plenty steep!
The trees at Purgatory can be a bit dense, but if you’re willing to navigate them slowly, plenty of good turns await, even a few days after a storm. One thing to keep in mind is a cliff band that runs along the lower backside of the mountain – there are several ways around it, but it’s better to be aware of it prior to accidentally skiing over it! The wide, open slopes are a great place to get in dozens of turns, and the rolling terrain offers a variety of jumps, moguls, and gentler roads that weave through the mountain. Regardless of where you plan on spending your time, you get offered a fresh glimpse of the remarkable landscape with each lift ride.
Is Purgatory the prettiest mountain in the Southwest? Well, as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so we’ll let you be the judge. Whether it’s number 1 for you or not, be sure to check with us first for the best deals on tickets, lodging and gear!