Echo Mountain, closest ski area to Denver, gets 4 feet of snow in 2 weeks

For Colorado’s major resorts, spring conjures up images of laid-back, shirt-sleeve skiing and high-altitude sun-bathing under bluebird skies. At humble Echo Mountain this spring, it’s been about mind-boggling amounts of snowfall.

Benefiting from upslope storms that are not uncommon for the Front Range in March and April — but which have been unusually bountiful this year — the small area located only 17 miles west of Genesee received 4 feet of snow in the past two weeks. On Thursday, the parking lots were nearly full, many of the cars carrying tourists on spring break. Enormous snowbanks lined the highway leading from Evergreen to Echo, which is situated 4 miles south and 3,100 feet above Idaho Springs with gorgeous views of Longs Peak and the Indian Peaks.

But despite all that snow, most of the visitors weren’t there in search of steep and deep powder. For the most part, they come to the one-lift ski area because they are beginners or intermediates.

“I heard a guy the other day — we reported like seven or eight inches (of new snow) — this guy skis up to his friend and he was like, ‘I hate powder,’ ” said Echo general manager Fred Klaas. “I was just cracking up, because when you think about the Colorado ski market, nobody says that.”

All that recent snow has benefited Echo in other ways, though. Echo was scheduled to close for the season this weekend, but Klaas has already extended the season two weeks and hints that the closing date could be extended further.

And not all of Echo’s fans are beginners. Some are experienced Front Range skiers and riders who like to take advantage of night skiing there, a rare offering in Colorado.

“We have had a lot of locals who have been up here a lot the last two weeks, and they’re just loving it, getting their laps in, wanting more and more snow,” Klaas said.

Nearly all of Echo’s trails are rated for beginners or intermediates, although there is a handful of runs in the trees that are rated expert. The slope angle and small size of the area — 60 acres with a mere 600-foot drop — make it a great place to learn, which is why Kevin Stickney of Denver was there Thursday with his family from Denver. His sons, 7 and 5, were on skis for the first time, learning on the bunny slope with Edgie Wedgies attached to their ski tips to help them execute the snowplow stance.

“I just wanted to enjoy the experience with them,” said Stickney, who left his skis at home to focus on helping his sons. “Hopefully over the next few times they’ll get good enough to where we can take them on some other trails. At that point, I’ll ski with them.”

Stickney said Echo reminds him of a small area in western Montana where he learned to ski when he was a boy.

“It’s close to Denver, so it’s a quick drive for us,” Stickney said. “It’s affordable, there’s a lot of beginner terrain and intermediate terrain. It would be a great mountain to start out with and really learn how to ski. And, if you like it, eventually you can move on to some of the more advanced terrain here or at other mountains.”

Michael Betyo, a snowboarder on spring break from the University of Central Arkansas, learned to ride at Echo two years ago. This week he was back with other friends on spring break. They’re also planning to take a RiNo brewery tour while they’re here.

Jayme Wells of Dothan, Ala., was at Echo with her two kids, her nephew and her wife. It’s spring break for them, too. They visited the Royal Gorge and the Garden of the Gods, but they wanted to see some snow so they visited Rocky Mountain National Park and went to Echo for the tubing hill that drives a lot of Echo’s business.

Laura Costa and her husband, Oscar Hernandez, were up from Denver with her father and other family members who live in Florida.

“We are from Cuba,” said her father, Abel Costa, a Cuban immigrant who was on skis for the first time. “We only see sun and sand.”

Echo has a fascinating history, first operating from 1960-1975 as the Squaw Pass ski area. The original Squaw Pass sign now hangs from the rafters of the main building, along with T-bars from the old area’s surface lift. Lift towers from back then have been repurposed as light towers in Echo’s parking lot.

The opening of the Eisenhower tunnel in 1973 killed the area because Front Range skiers could get to Summit County and Vail without having to brave Loveland Pass. The area was closed for three decades but reopened in 2005 as a terrain park under the name Echo Mountain Park. Under yet another new owner in 2012, it became a private ski racing training facility, but it went into bankruptcy in 2016.

Now in its fifth season under the current ownership, Minnesota-based Burwell Enterprises, Echo has carved out a niche. Key components include the night skiing (4:30 to 9 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday), an expanded beginner area and its affordability. Midweek season passes (Tuesday-Thursday) and night-only season passes cost only $99. The tubing hill, which debuted in 2018, has been a boon for business.

Klaas concedes there was a lot of skepticism when the current ownership took over.

“We’ve approached this very conservatively, understanding the limitations up here and challenges we face,” Klaas said. “Some of that skepticism was motivating. A lot of people looked at it as, ‘This has failed multiple times,’ or ‘It’s just a one-lift ski area.’ The more people who have come, the ones that get it, they love it. It’s very unique for the Colorado market.

“It definitely was a slow start, a challenging start, encountering a lot of unanticipated challenges. But from the beginning, we found our stride with customers who wanted to come here because of our proximity to Denver, because of our price point.”

In fact, more investments in the mountain could be coming.

“We’re very confident in the niche that we’ve carved out, the operation, culture and community we’ve created,” said Klaas, who commutes to work from south Denver. “There are days when we can’t serve any more tubers, we can’t get any more cars in the parking lot. It’s not often, but it’s enough to where we feel there’s more demand out there that we can serve and a lot more people we can reach, introducing people to snow sports.

“We’re feeling very confident about the business plan we’ve been executing, looking to the future and what could be next.”

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