History of Parker-Fitzgerald Cuchara Mountain Park
Cuchara is a small mountain town nestled on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristos in Southern Colorado with views of West Spanish Peak to the east.
Cuchara Mountain Park sits at the base of Baker Mountain, home to a once popular winter destination, Panadero Ski Area. (Panadero means “baker” in Spanish.) Originally operating only two double chairlifts and a rope tow, the ski area eventually expanded to 230 acres, four chairlifts, two surface lifts, and 1,562 vertical feet of terrain capping off at an elevation of 10,810’.
It was popular with local and regional visitors, many of whom brought their families to learn to ski and enjoy the mountain life Cuchara had to offer. The resort grew over time and became home to the renowned Baker Creek Restaurant, ski and outdoor shops, and rental services, but inconsistent management, variable uncontrollable snow conditions, and other economic factors led to intermittent and extended closures in the late 90s. After changing ownership and names several times, the resort was closed down on July 4, 2000, leaving a shocked community grieving the loss of their favorite outdoor escape.
Sitting in limbo
In 2010, the abandoned ski area was purchased by a local dreamer hoping to restore it to its former glory. But, tax debt and resulting liens ultimately led to the property being auctioned off. To complicate matters, the land would be parceled off and sold bit-by-bit, meaning its days as one large resort were likely over.
One of the parcels, a 48-acre plot that formed the base of the ski area including Lift 4, the ski rental building, and a couple of concrete storage buildings on the west side of the mountain, sold to local business owners. When the new owners placed the land up for sale in 2016, they were approached by representatives of the Cuchara Foundation and Huerfano County about the possibility of striking a deal.
The owners didn’t take long to be convinced. Jerry and JoVonne Fitzgerald had fallen in love with the area and settled in years prior. Jerry had at one time served as Mayor of La Veta! They made a deal with the county for an agreeable price, and, as such, their goodwill is memorialized in the park’s full name, Parker-Fitzgerald Cuchara Mountain Park.
The Cuchara Foundation was integral in raising the funds for the purchase. Their board granted $25,000 to the county for the down payment with the understanding that community members would raise the remaining $125,000. In December 2016, the Huerfano Board of County Commissioners agreed and the fundraising began.
Again led by Cuchara Foundation, the Huerfano County community showed the heck up and met the fundraising goal within nine months, presenting the Cuchara Foundation with a check on Labor Day 2017.
Soon after, an eight-acre tract of land extending along the east side of Baker Creek with pristine open space for hiking/snowshoeing was added to the park along with the back 9 of a disc golf course. Now sitting at just over 50 acres, Cuchara Mountain Park provides convenient access to public lands and once again attracts visitors all year long.
Breathing new life into old bones
Since 2017, countless volunteer hours have been spent cleaning the vacant property. The ski rental shop has been renovated into a day lodge. The disc golf course has been rounded out with an additional 9 holes. The old mini-golf course buildings were literally unearthed, cleaned, repaired, and installed in their original locations. And thanks to recent donations, a grant by GOCO (Great Outdoors Colorado), and continued work by the Cuchara Foundation and other private donors, an outdoor classroom pavilion, bat house, children's play structures, and a bike playground are now available.
In 2019, the local nonprofit Panadero Ski Corporation formed to focus on fixing Lift 4, one of the original two Panadero Ski Area chairlifts that is within Cuchara Mountain Park. Funded by donors and relying mostly upon volunteer labor, the chairlift rehabilitation has been a labor of love driven by passionate locals who can’t wait to see lift-serviced skiing return to Cuchara. In 2022, Panadero Ski Corporation reached an agreement with Huerfano County to manage and operate Cuchara Mountain Park as a year-round outdoor recreation and education attraction, in which skiing is just a part of the overall offerings.
Heading into the 2022-2023 winter season, Lift 4 now runs and is extremely close to getting certified by the Colorado Tramway Safety Board. We are still working through some final electrical control system updates to meet state regulations.
Panadero Ski Corporation is also developing necessary infrastructure including ski patrol services, safety equipment, snowmaking guns, and grooming maintenance. The dream of returning downhill skiing to Cuchara has never been closer!
Looking to the future
Expansion plans include additional hiking and biking options, summer and winter tubing, hosting regular community events, and offering outdoor educational youth programs.
None of this could be possible without the Cuchara Foundation and other local groups who keep showing up day after day, year after year.
The fact is, the history of Cuchara Mountain Park is still being written. No matter where you live, we invite you to be part of this exciting time by donating and/or volunteering. It takes all of us to make Cuchara Mountain Park all it can be!