More than two decades after closing, a chairlift could run this winter at Cuchara Mountain Park, and it may soon be operated by a local non-profit

Eli Jaynes/KRCC
The setting sun illuminates West Spanish Peak, known as Wahatoya to some Indigenous people in the area. Seen from the slopes above Cuchara Mountain Park on March 11, 2022 with the old Lift 3 in the frame.

Lifts haven’t turned at the old ski area since 2000, but Huerfano County owns the 50-acre Cuchara Mountain Park at the base of the mountain southwest of Pueblo. The park provides public access to the area and to the surrounding national forest land.

The Board of County Commissioners reached a tentative agreement with the La Veta-based Panadero Ski Corporation on Tuesday to transfer park operations to the non-profit starting next year, pending the receipt of a Great Outdoors Colorado grant.

Panadero Ski Corp is a group of local residents and property owners who have been working to rehabilitate Cuchara’s Lift 4 through donations and volunteer work since 2019.

“We decided we think we could do a really good job not only bringing back skiing,” said Panadero board member Will Pirkey. “But also managing and operating all the activities at the park.”

After buying the land in 2017, Huerfano County drafted a master plan for the park. It envisioned a year-round publicly accessible venue that would feature an array of free and fee-based activities such as miniature golf, mountain biking, tubing, and eventually a return to lift-served downhill skiing.

The county was previously in negotiations with the Florida-based group Moss Adventures to run the park, until the deal fell through early this year. 

Pirkey said Panadero had been working with Moss Adventures to get Lift 4 up and running, but when the deal collapsed, his organization had to regroup. 

“After the Moss plan fell through it really gave us the time to think, well where do we want to go with this,” he said. “And we really just said, all right, can we do this ourselves?”

Earlier this month, Panadero sent the county a letter asking for an agreement to allow them to operate Cuchara Mountain Park for the next 10 years as a non-profit concessionaire.

As operators of the park, Panadero says they will adhere to the county’s vision, based on the following standards:

  • The Park property will remain a public park in perpetuity.
  • The Park will be open and free to the public, although some activities may be “pay to use.”
  • The natural beauty and resources must be the first consideration when planning additions/changes to the park.

At Tuesday’s special session, the board of commissioners ultimately decided to draft a memorandum of understanding as a sort of trial run for Panadero. The non-profit will be able to operate Lift 4 this winter, if it’s operational by then, and ramp up more activities this summer. 

Next year, if the county is satisfied with their progress and the grant from Great Outdoors Colorado comes in, the county and Panadero will likely enter into a three-to-five-year agreement giving operational control to Panadero. The agreement could then be extended to a more long-term deal. 

As a non-profit concessionaire, Pirkey said they will be in charge of all the day-to-day operations of the mountain, including operating skiing, tubing, summer lift rides, disc golf and any other activities they expand into, using the county’s master plan as a guide. 

Pirkey said Panadero hopes to break even after a few years from ticket sales and donations, and will be able to operate without economic support from the county.

Lift 4 was originally installed more than 40 years ago, according to Pirkey, and has to be certified by the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board this fall before it can be reopened for recreational activities, like skiing or biking. Pirkey said Panadero hopes to have the lift running by the December holiday season.