I can clearly remember my first visit to Purgatory — it was in 1966 when I was 11.
My father invited me on a rare trip with just him to the region’s newest ski area. Lacking base lodging, we stayed at the historic General Palmer in Durango with its Victorian-era ambiance. For two days, we skied the stair-step pitches and terraces of Purgatory among its lovely aspen groves overlooking incredible views of toothy peaks and the Animas River Valley.
It has been a favorite of mine ever since, and a recent visit reminded me why.
While the old chairs are mostly gone, replaced by high-speed four- and six-seat lifts, the area vastly expanded over a ridge onto the “backside,” and the funky base facilities were rebuilt with a contemporary and very comfortable complex of high-rise condominiums, hotels, dining and retail shops. Yet, it still exudes a family-friendly vibe.
It continues to get good to excellent snowfall, as it has this season, which is supplemented in low-snow years with a good snowmaking system. It averages 260 inches of snow but has notched an impressive 333 inches this winter.
I also love the terrain, which has 2,000 feet of elevation change spread over 1,600 acres (Taos, by comparison, spans 1,200 acres). There is plenty of skiing to be had here. On the frontside, just above the base complex and served by the Village Express six-pack chair and a triple chair, are the resort’s oldest runs. These include the steep and hugely bumped-up Styx and Hades, which are as exhausting as any mogul run anywhere. But also here are groomed intermediates like Paradise and Exodus, and rare excellent tree skiing among aspen groves. In recent years, a few super gnarly runs have been added in this sector, such as Monkey Gully and Monkey Brains that are not patrolled or controlled.
The frontside also has runs for novices and beginners, several man-made glades in pine forests, two large terrain parks — including Pitchfork with its halfpipe — and two smaller, beginner parks. Beginners also have a dedicated sector with its own lifts where they can learn in a safe and supportive environment.
The sprawling backside is laced with intermediate and expert runs, including some super steep pitches, and acres of glades like McCormack’s Maze and Paul’s Park in the Legends sector that hold powder stashes for days after a storm. With 45 percent of its runs classed as intermediate, and immaculately groomed runs descending the rolling, stair-stepped slopes, it is a cruiser’s paradise.
Purgatory also is a true winter vacation destination, offering a range of things to do other than skiing. There are horse-drawn carriage rides, dog sledding, snowcat dinner excursions, snow biking, tubing, the mile-long Inferno Mountain Coaster, snowmobiling, guided snowshoeing and spa services. Just down the road toward Durango is Trimble Hot Springs, which is a great way to soak away those après-ski aches.
There’s even a range of how one might ski, from a backcountry snowcat operation to a complete Nordic Center with rentals, instruction and 20 kilometers of groomed trails. And, you can try the newest twist on downhill motion called Railz. Railz is essentially a scooter mounted on tiny skis developed by a pair of Arizona entrepreneurs, and you can use them on the lifts. Purgatory is one of the few ski areas where they are available. For more details, visit railzusa.com.
Launched in 1965 by a band of enterprising locals, Purgatory was acquired in 2015 by James Coleman and Mountain Capital Partners. They have brought new energy and innovation — such as the Kids Power Pass with free skiing here and at sister of Sipapu, Pajarito, Hesperus and Arizona Snowbowl — to the venerable property, and the future looks bright for its next phase.
If you go
The resort has a wide variety of ski in/out cabins, condominiums and the Purgatory Lodge, but a much larger range of cheaper accommodations is available in Durango, 27 miles down U.S. 550, where peak tourist season is actually in summer with the steam-fired Durango Silverton narrow gauge railroad drawing large crowds. Durango is chock full of excellent restaurants and award-winning brewpubs, such as Steamworks, established in 1996, and Carver, opened in 1986.
The base area has a handful of dining spots and the popular watering hole Purgy’s, but new this season and just two miles down the highway is a great find, The Nugget Mountain Bar tucked into an old two-story cabin. With the Backcountry Gourmet food truck partly buried under a snowdrift outside cranking out excellent fare, it’s a great place to end the day.
Purgatory will operate on a daily basis through April 7, then on weekends for as long as the snow holds out. For further details, visit purgatoryresort.com.
Just point it
A pair of New Mexico brothers teamed up to produce a series of locally branded ski and snowboard gear and apparel. Presently, their skis and boards come with a custom topsheets, inspired by the Zia sun symbol, from a production factory in Denver, but the duo hopes someday to oversee their own manufacturing in New Mexico. They offer two all-mountains models, one for $600 and The Pro at $650 — the latter in 171, 181 and 191 centimeter lengths. The 171 measures 134 at the tip, 105 underfoot and 124 at the tail and has an early rise tip, camber underfoot and a rocker tail. To see their line, visit justpointit.com.
Skiing is great all over the region, with more snow in the works this week for southern Colorado and possibly Northern New Mexico. Sandia Peak, however, has closed.
Daniel Gibson of Santa Fe has been writing this column for more than 25 years and is the author of the first comprehensive look at the state’s snow scene: Skiing New Mexico: A Guide to Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). Contact him at DanielGibsonNM@gmail.com.