Introduction to Purgatory
Southwest Colorado is a bit off the beaten path for many ski travelers, most of whom flock to Summit County and the other I-70 resorts much closer to Denver. Ask any local in the town of Durango and they will tell you that is okay by them. They’re just fine letting Colorado’s front range keep the traffic jams and $15 cocktails in exchange for lift line-free powder days.
Purgatory Resort sits about 27 miles north of Durango on Highway 550, a quick and breathtaking drive through the San Juan mountains that gives travelers a small taste of the stunning natural landscape that locals are more than proud to call home. 1360 acres of ride-able terrain can be accessed by ten lifts. The high desert region south of Durango means that while the resort gets 260 inches of snow per year, most days see bluebird sunny skies and moderate temperatures. The vertical drop of the resort is 2,029 feet. The mountain is renowned for its ‘rollers’- natural jumps and snow-covered access roads that dot the runs.
I went to school in Durango and spent a few years working the resort. It is smaller than many Colorado resorts and relatively easy to learn. After a couple years of riding the mountain I felt as though I knew every powder stash and hit, but over the years, I kept discovering more.
The mountain has always had, and continues to have, a very strong ‘local hill’ feel. Lift tickets are still well under $100, which is (unfortunately) a rarity these days for top quality ski areas. James Coleman, a local businessman, bought the resort in February of 2015, returning it to local ownership after a decade and a half of corporate management and changing the name back to the original title of Purgatory (Purg, to the locals) from its previous moniker of Durango Mountain Resort.
Coleman also owns Sipapu ski area and Parajito Mountain in New Mexico, and Arizona Snowbowl. The purchase of Purgatory finalized the plan to build a collective of regional ski areas that can be accessed by one season pass, similar to ones offered by Vail Resorts and Intrawest. For those hoping to ski multiple resorts on a bargain while traveling to the four corners region, this pass is a great option. Click here for information and to purchase.
If you plan to do an extended trip around the west and also hit the front range, this pass offers free days at Copper Mountain and Monarch Mountain, as well as other resorts in Utah, Nevada, Michigan, and Wyoming.
Durango is about a six-hour drive from Denver across the Rocky Mountains. Albuquerque is four hours away. These are the two closest major cities and international airports. On snowy days, Wolf Creek Pass and other alpine parts of the drive from Denver can be quite slow as no major freeways access the area.
I have had to stop and stay in a hotel a couple times doing winter drives from Denver to Durango, but typically you’ll be fine, especially if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle. The nearest airport is Durango-La Plata County Airport. Flights come in from nearby hubs like Denver, Phoenix, and Albuquerque but are pretty expensive. I recommend driving if possible because then you will have transportation to and from the mountain as you please.
Shuttle service is available daily from town to the mountain from the Durango Transit Center at 250 W. 8 th Street in the morning with a return service in the evening. Get there before 8 AM to buy a ticket, as there is only one shuttle per day. Once at the mountain, a free bus provides service between the lower base and the main Purgatory Village base.
It is also possible to take a lift up from the lower base to the main base if you have to park down low on a busy day. For those willing to stick out a thumb, hitchhiking from the north end of town to the mountain is very common and it generally does not take more than five or ten minutes to get picked up with your gear. Return the karma by buying a round of drinks or a breakfast burrito!
Where the locals are riding
The mountain is essentially divided into two sides- the front side and the back side. Most of the beginner terrain is located on the front side and accessed via the Twilight Lift (Lift 4) and Graduate Lift (Lift 7). If you’ve got your game down and are ready to ride the good stuff, start with a warm up on Upper Hades, skier’s right of the main Purgatory Village Express (lift 1). Then, move it over one run and hit Styx- one of the front side’s most fun and challenging runs full of rollers, small drops and as steep of a pitch as you’ll find on most of the mountain.
On the backside, Hermosa Park Express (lift 3) offers access to some fast-moving blue runs that all lead right back to the base of the lift. This area is also a great place to warm up- after taking lift 1 up, traverse skier’s left and follow signs to lift 3. Feeling adventurous? Try Snag- some of the best runs I’ve had here are Snag on a powder day. There is a great cliff drop about halfway down on the right- you’ll see the lead into it as the trail is split in half by trees just before.
The Legends Express Lift (lift 8) accesses some of the resort’s most challenging terrain and many great tree runs such as Poet’s Glade and Paul’s Park. It is easy pass half a day back there without realizing how much time has gone by because the runs are very smooth, fun, and put you right back at the lift. My favorite run on the mountain is somewhat hidden. It is called Elevator Shaft, and although short it is as good as anything in the country on a powder day. Head down Wapiti underneath lift 5 and cut to the right about two-thirds down- you’ll see a sign.
For terrain park riders, there are a few options. Paradise, just off lift 1 and viewable during your ride up, is the big time park with larger jumps and rails. While the park riding here is not quite as on point as places like Keystone and Breckenridge, there are some good hits. The Pitchfork Park is accessible by lifts 1 or 3 and offers medium sized hits and a half pipe. Just above the Purgatory Village base is a quick rail park with some challenging options.