Wolf Creek draws skiers with big Colo. snow, small crowds

I'm wallowing in waist-deep powder, huge, puffy drifts of the stuff swirling around me and grabbing at my skis, which clearly aren't wide enough to handle the 24-inch dump that's currently blanketing Wolf Creek Ski Area.

And it's still snowing - flakes as big as Ritz crackers, sailing up and down and sideways, sticking on my goggles, burying my ankles and blasting the tip of my nose, the only exposed bit of flesh on my body.

Now this is a snowstorm.

Wolf Creek is legendary for its snowfall. I've heard for years about how on average it gets more than any other ski resort in Colorado - a whopping 465 inches a year.

Lest I ever thought those stories were some kind of "big fish" tale, the numbers are proving themselves today. The last storm that blew through Wolf Creek Pass deposited a whopping 94 inches of snow over several days.

By the time this storm ends, another 34 inches will coat the place, which already looks like a lunar landscape.

The advantages

Wolf Creek is like the baby brother to those sprawling front range resorts near Denver. That's good and bad, but mostly good.

This is no Vail Mountain, where you can spend a week and never ski the same terrain twice. In all, Wolf boasts 1,600 skiable acres in the San Juan/Rio Grande National Forest. The base stands at 10,300 feet and the summit is at 11,904 feet.

Four main lifts carry skiers up 1,600 feet of vertical elevation, and only one of those lifts is a high-speed detachable quad. The other three lifts - Alberta, Bonanza and Treasure - are triples or slow-speed quads that putter up the mountain. There are no mid-mountain lifts - the lifts start at the base and carry skiers all the way to the top.

If you're used to staying slopeside on your ski trips, you'll have to make an adjustment, too. Wolf doesn't have any on-site lodging, which means you'll either be making the 45-minute drive (more if the road conditions are dicey) to Pagosa Springs on the west or East Fork to the east.

That means no apres ski hot toddy for the driver. (Let us all take a moment here to salute our designated drivers.)

Yet there are plenty of advantages to a smaller resort like this.

The lack of crowds, for one. You won't find yourself standing in long lift lines or mooing like a snow-bound heifer, trampling down a mountain slope in a slow-moving herd.

Head to the Alberta lift, and the already sparse crowds thin even more. That side of the mountain is geared toward tree skiing anyway, so you won't be moving down a frozen highway clogged with traffic. The trees are scattered just widely enough that I'm able to weave slowly through them without worrying that I'll scrape my ski tips on a tree trunk with every turn.

Parking's a breeze, too. All three days we skied at Wolf, we arrived around 9 a.m. and parked within easy walking distance of the main base area. And it's free.

Another bonus? Inexpensive (by comparison) lift tickets. It costs just $54 for a day of skiing at Wolf Creek, compared with close to $100 for some of the larger front-range resorts.

It's not just lift tickets that are less expensive, either. Ski rentals, food and lessons also cost less than at the big resorts.

On the side

While the slopes may not be crowded, though, the Wolf Creek Lodge and Prospector Grill, where everyone goes for grub at the base of the mountain, packs them in at lunch time. On a busy weekend, you might find yourself standing and waiting for a table or wedged into a six-top with total strangers. Watch out or you'll get an elbow in your green chile stew.

We discovered the Raven's Nest snack bar underneath the top of the Raven quad lift as an alternative. It doesn't offer the same variety of food as the main lodge, but the breathing room is worth the sacrifice. Besides, the Frito pie topped with green chile rocks for just $3.50.

Wolf Creek and nearby Pagosa Springs are unpretentious, down-home and friendly.

The biggest bragging point at Wolf, though, remains the snow. Come prepared to make like a water buffalo as you try to wade through it.

Along with those big dumps, though, can come icebox temperatures.

I know - we experienced them. One day during our stay, the temperature gauge in the car read minus 23 degrees during our morning haul to the mountain. Brrrr! Lucky for us, it warmed up to a relatively balmy minus 17 by the time we got to the mountain.

Honestly, that wasn't as bad as it sounds. We bundled up, covering every patch of skin. And when the sun came out, it was sheer bliss.

It's just part of the charm of Wolf Creek.