Our winter playground: White River National Forest | PostIndependent.com

Our winter playground: White River National Forest

Kate E. Jerman
White River National Forest

White River Skiing by the Numbers

• 12: number of ski resorts permitted on the White River National Forest.

• 22,975 skiable acres. That’s more than 17,000 football fields, slightly larger than the island of Manhattan.

• 192 lifts.

• 1,304 ski runs. It would take a skier more than five months skiing eight runs every day to ski them all.

The past few weeks of colossal snowstorms give cause to take a quick break from laps on the powdery ski runs to think about what makes these bliss-filled days possible; the public –private partnership on national forest lands.

There are 12 permitted ski areas operating partially or fully on the White River National Forest. Eleven are administered by the White River and the 12th (Ski Cooper) by the Pike San Isabel National Forest. There are also six Nordic ski areas permitted partially or fully on the White River. Collectively, these areas contribute to a large part of what makes the White River the destination forest for winter recreation in the country.

This year is a cause for celebration for many throughout the community including your local national forest. The forest marks 125 years of existence, 100 years of which include management from a supervisor’s office headquartered in downtown Glenwood Springs.

The forest is also thrilled to help commemorate the anniversaries of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area (70 years) and Sunlight Mountain Resort (50 years). As both land managers and members of these vibrant mountain communities, we would like to take a few moments to acknowledge this shared history with our ski partners and all of you.

The evolution of sliding on snow on forest lands had its humble beginnings in isolated and enthusiastic pockets of forest locations around the country. However, the passing of the Term Occupancy Act in 1915 gave winter recreation the jump start it needed to develop as an agency- recognized use on national forest lands. The act allowed for the quick expansion of the special-use permitting program, granting permits for the development of infrastructure including summer homes, resorts and ski tows.

More opportunities for winter recreation greatly expanded with New Deal funding in the 1930s and the influx of Civilian Conservation Corps labor to work on the construction of both summer and winter recreation areas. As public interest steadily grew, the agency needed to consider capacity, accessibility and proximity to highways for the development of new winter recreation areas.


World War II also played a major role in the development of ski areas on the White River National Forest. Camp Hale, located on forest land south of Minturn, served as the storied and primary training ground for the elite 10th Mountain Division, whose members specialized in winter combat operations, which included skiing. After World War II, the 10th Mountain Division veterans returned to the states playing a major part in the development of ski areas across the country and also becoming legendary for contributions to resorts such as Vail, Aspen and Arapahoe Basin.

The end of World War II not only freed up ingenuity and capital to build resorts, but also enabled Americans to “return to the forest” to recreate at these resorts. Development of ski areas on the White River National Forest began shortly after the war with the opening of Arapahoe Basin in 1946, followed by the development of Aspen Mountain (1946-47).

The 1950s through the early ‘70s resulted in the establishment of the bulk of White River National Forest ski areas with Buttermilk (1958), Highlands (1958), Breckenridge (1961), Vail (1962), Sunlight (1966), Snowmass (1967), Keystone (1970) and Copper (1971). The last ski resort to be built on the White River National Forest was Beaver Creek, which opened to the public in 1980. Several other ski areas were proposed on the White River that either barely started and ended or never started such as the Rifle Ski Area north of Rifle, Little Annie and Ashcroft near Aspen, Marble Ski Area at Marble and most recently Adam’s Rib south of Eagle.


As forest year-round visitation numbers have soared over the past five years, exceeding 13 million combined winter and summer visitations, it has become clear that the White River is more than just a winter destination.

In 2011, Congress officially recognized the summer season for resorts by passing the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, granting resorts the opportunity to diversify their recreational offerings to the public on a year-round basis introducing what the agency has dubbed “summer uses” to the landscape. These uses include zip lines, bike trails, mountain coasters and outdoor education opportunities.

The forest has partnered with the resorts in this endeavor, seeing this as an opportunity to provide on-site environmental education and inspire a connection between visitors and nature in a developed setting.

While most locals know that when they ski on some of the 23,000 skiable acres or 1,300 individual ski runs in the area that they are skiing fully or in part on their national forest lands, the majority of the winter visits to the White River come from the Front Range, out of state or international visits.

This fact alone continues to motivate the forest to strengthen partnerships with ski areas and local communities as we endeavor to build awareness and educate about the benefits and opportunity of winter recreation on national forests.

As we celebrate 125 years of the White River National Forest, 125 years of the Post Independent and 50 years of the Colorado Mountain College, we invite you to think about the evolution of the ski areas that surround your community, the vision of agency and industry leaders of the past and present and we encourage you get out and go play in snow on your White River National Forest.

For more information on the history of recreation on National Forests visit http://www.foresthistory.org/.

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