When Vail was in its infancy, Minturn’s family-run resort was where locals learned to ski; today the resort is gone, but Meadow Mountain is still where locals play.
As he approaches 90, Jack Oleson is more active than many guys half his age. A cowboy to his core, Oleson lives and works at Diamond Star Ranch near Eagle, where he manages the cattle and drives the snowplow. But a half-century ago, Oleson did something very un-cowboy-like: he bought Meadow Mountain, a rolling hill at Dowd Junction just west of Vail and north of Minturn, and with some friends threw up a chairlift and a Poma lift. When it opened in 1966, four seasons after the lifts started turning at Vail, Meadow Mountain Ski Area was a simple resort with 900 feet of vert and four or five runs, none steep.
But here’s the thing: unlike Vail founder Pete Seibert Sr., a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division and former Aspen instructor, Oleson had never skied. When he tried one day, it didn’t go well: he fell a lot, and kids laughed at him. “I’m a cattleman,” says Oleson, a Gypsum native who also helped develop the bedroom community of Eagle-Vail just down the road from Dowd Junction. “I think I skied about three hours in my whole life, and most were at Meadow Mountain.”
And unlike Vail, which from the beginning harbored grand ambitions, Meadow Mountain Ski Area was contentedly small-town, a place for locals and their kids, much like the feeder hills in Minnesota and Michigan that Vail Resorts recently folded into its global empire. The lift tickets were inexpensive, the hot dogs and hamburgers cheap, and, back then, it was where valley kids learned to ski. Longtime local Byron Brown put together one of the valley’s first ski-race programs there, named in honor of Olympian Buddy Werner, which still exists today as the ski racing equivalent of Little League. His wife, Vi, dyed the race bibs pretty colors in the kitchen sink. “It was all very casual and down-to-earth—no hype,” Vi Brown recalls. On Sunday nights, valley families came to the Meadow Mountain ski lodge to watch Disney films on a projector because “there was no TV in the valley until the mid-’70s,” she adds.
Some developers fantasized about connecting Meadow Mountain to Vail to create a giant, European-style town-to-town ski area. But the resort’s lifts stopped cranking forever in 1969, and ultimately, Oleson sold it off to Vail, which deeded the land to the US Forest Service in 1979 in exchange for other acreage it coveted.
As public land, Meadow Mountain became Minturn’s town hill, a destination for hiking and sledding. In the early 2000s Meadow Mountain had a brief commercial renaissance as a tubing hill, served by a rope tow. “We had a really good time,” says Kimberly Nock, who ran the hill with her husband, Robert, from 2004 to 2012. “We had a lot of happy people.”
Today it’s a winter playground for snowmobiling, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, dog-walking, and romantic moonlight hikes. Minturnites can hike directly up from town.
Regulars like Meadow for its calm vibe. “Vail can be so hyper,” says local Mac McEachron, who brings his dogs there for walks. “If you want a freer, more alternative experience, Meadow Mountain is it.” And with its location just off the interstate, an exit that serves Minturn and a proliferation of marijuana shops on Highway 6, tourists sometimes discover it, too. Minneapolis’s Joe Lee could be found touring Meadow Mountain recently—walking uphill on skis specially designed for the purpose, then telemarking down.
“I like to get away from the moguls and the crowds,” Lee said. “I can breathe out here.”
To get to Meadow Mountain, head west from Vail Village on I-70 to Exit 171, then turn south on US Highway 24; Meadow Mountain will be on your right, just beyond the highway underpass. To refuel after your Meadow Mountain sojourn, continue south on Highway 24 to downtown Minturn, and try the gyros platter at Nicky’s Quickie (151 Main St.; 970-827-5616), the Lahaina burger at Magusto’s (101 Main St.; 970-827-5450), or the Perfect Turn sandwich at Sticky Fingers (132 Main St.; 970-827-5353).