An estimated 5,000 people packed the slopes of Wolf Creek Ski Area on Tuesday, creating concerns for highway officials after people parked on the side of U.S. Highway 160 and apparently walked nearly a mile to the resort.
“I, myself, have never witnessed this,” said Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Lisa Schwantes.
Wolf Creek Ski Area received a little more than 2 feet of new snow from the winter storm that blanketed Southwest Colorado over the past few days, and the resort’s trails are fully open and operational.
The prime powder conditions have caused tickets to sell out Tuesday and again Wednesday. As part of the resort’s operating plan under COVID-19 restrictions, the mountain is limited to 5,000 people per day.
Wolf Creek Ski Area’s plan to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic was approved by the local health department, Silver Thread Health District. It calls for things such as social distancing, mask wearing and minimizing group size.
CDOT officials, however, started to notice cars parked along Highway 160, mostly in a pullout on the east side of the highway, between Wolf Creek Ski Area and a snowshed tunnel.
Schwantes said the concern is twofold: cars parked closely along the highway could present a hazard to passing traffic and people walking along the highway is a dangerous endeavor.
According to a rough estimate on Google Maps, the pullout is about seven-tenths of a mile from the ski area.
“We’re concerned with the amount of vehicles today,” she said.
CDOT sent crews to Wolf Creek on Tuesday afternoon to find out more about the situation, Schwantes said, but the main pullout people are using is not a designated area for parking.
A call to Wolf Creek Ski Area owner Davey Pitcher was not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.
Schwantes said people parking along mountain roads to recreate has been a problem all over Southwest Colorado, namely Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain passes along U.S. Highway 550, north of Durango.
The problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Schwantes said, which is driving more people outdoors.
“We’re experiencing more and more people utilizing our public lands,” she said.
CDOT’s first priority is to keep roads open, but when people park in off-limit areas, plow crews are unable to do their job, Schwantes said. She said state law allows CDOT to tow cars and fine drivers if they are obstructing crews from keeping the highway clear.
“Our job is to clear the road as quickly and safely as possible, and make sure people can get through,” Schwantes said.
It was also Purgatory Resort’s busiest day of the season, said general manager Dave Rathbun, though far below a normal year.
Rathbun declined to say what Purgatory’s max capacity of skiers is under COVID-19 protocols, calling it a proprietary number. But he said the resort was at 80% of its max capacity Tuesday.
Traffic became a little hectic Tuesday, Rathbun said, because the largest rush of people arriving happened within a 90-minute window.
“COVID is trying to challenge us in ways we’ve never seen before,” he said. “It felt like a challenge at times. No question.”