The real winter soldiers behind the U.S.’s newest national monument

The U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, one of the most decorated units of WWII, trained at Colorado’s Camp Hale. After the war, they returned to the Rockies—and built an iconic ski industry.

When President Joe Biden came to Colorado in October 2022 to designate the Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument, he not only announced the protection of 53,804 acres of beautiful Rocky Mountain landscape but also honored an important part of United States military and skiing history.

From November 1942 to June 1944, the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division trained at Camp Hale and on the nearby peaks. In preparation for warfare in the European Alps, the soldiers practiced skiing and rock climbing, lugging 90-pound rucksacks, and learned how to survive at high altitudes in brutal winter conditions.

During five months of fighting in World War II, 10th Mountain troops prevailed in several significant battles in northern Italy’s Apennine Mountains, allowing Allied forces to break through a tenacious German stronghold. The division became one of the most decorated units of the war.

After returning home, many 10th Mountain vets, still enamored with the peaks they trained on, went to work in the burgeoning ski and outdoor recreation industries, becoming leaders in resort management, equipment innovation, and education. “They are pretty much responsible for the ski industry as we know it in this country,” says Dan Torsell, president and CEO of Colorado’s Ski Cooper, an alpine resort situated on the slopes where the troops learned to ski.

Since then, outdoor enthusiasts have long frequented the area, immersing themselves in a landscape of craggy summits, fragrant forests, and high-alpine lakes. In summer, hikers and mountain bikers traverse meadows teeming with vivid wildflowers and follow the snowmelt-fed streams that thread slopes and valleys. In the winter, skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers play among a glittering mantle of deep snow that softens the land’s harder edges.

But these recreationists may not know the area’s legacy, which the monument designation now puts front and center. Here’s how to plan a visit that includes learning more about that history as you explore some of the outdoor activities in this special region.

Exploring the monument’s history

The new national monument consists of two noncontiguous sections in central Colorado’s White River National Forest: the former Camp Hale itself and a swath of land to the north and east, plus the Tenmile Range. The latter includes 10 mountains that soar more than 13,000 feet in elevation, most notably Quandary Peak, one of the state’s most popular 14ers. The Continental Divide runs near the southern edge of both sections.

Base your visit out of Vail, the popular ski resort co-founded by a 10th Mountain vet that’s about a hundred miles due west of Denver, or Leadville, 43 miles southeast of Vail. The highest incorporated city in the U.S. at 10,152 feet, Leadville embraces its boom-to-bust mining history and outdoor adventures, like the Race Across the Sky ultramarathon. With new businesses and lodging, the town has done a good deal of work to soften its once-scruffy edges, while remaining refreshingly down to earth.

In Vail, the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame offers a compact but comprehensive exhibit recounting the 10th Mountain Division’s history. As the monument itself has no visitors center, the museum provides a valuable introduction to the troops’ exploits, including examples of the gear they used and artifacts from Camp Hale.

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A 45-minute documentary, Climb to Glory, loops continually, bringing more of that history to life. Next summer, an interactive display will include thousands of letters written by soldiers. “Some are love letters, some are about missing home, some talk about their time at camp,” says the museum’s executive director, Jennifer Mason.

For the past several years, Vail Legacy Days has commemorated 10th Mountain troops with a parade of military vets, a ski race, and special events (the next one will be February 25–26, 2023). This winter, on one Friday a month, skiers wearing the 10th’s signature all-white uniforms will join a torchlight descent down the lower part of the ski area as part of a celebration that includes a parade, outdoor film screening, and fireworks.

To reach Camp Hale from Vail, drive 22 miles on U.S. Highway 24 East, a winding mountain road. As you descend to the floor of the Pando Valley, the monument lies on the left, with two entrance gates that lead to parking lots.

Little remains of the camp’s infrastructure, which once housed a thousand buildings and 15,000 troops. Instead, you’ll find an expansive meadow, part of an area sculpted by a glacier a million years ago. The Eagle River, which flows down from Tennessee Pass to the east, bisects the site. In some ways, the geography more closely resembles the way it was when the Ute tribes would come here each year to gather medicinal plants and hunt game before they were evicted from their homeland in the 1880s.

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“You have to use your imagination that literally a city was built there for a period of time,” says Chris Anthony, a pro skier and filmmaker behind the award-winning documentary Mission Mt. Mangart, who grew up in Denver. “I remember as a kid, when we would drive through there, someone saying that there used to be a giant army base, and I would just think, ‘come on.’”

At its height, Camp Hale was abuzz with soldiers in formation practicing maneuvers on skis, daily supply trains belching out black smoke, and the hum of military life during wartime. Many of the buildings were demolished in 1945, but enough were left for other troops to train there in the 1950s and ’60s, including Tibetan freedom fighters secretly instructed by the CIA, until the camp was decommissioned in 1966. (After being reactivated in 1985, the 10th now trains at New York’s Fort Drum.)

Interpretive signs conveying the area’s history, from the Utes who lived and traveled here to the more recent military usage, are being revamped and expanded for this part of the monument. Some of it will go up this winter on a kiosk at the north entrance. Five additional panels, produced by the nonprofit 10th Mountain Division Foundation, will be installed at the south entrance next spring.

Visiting like a winter soldier

In winter, navigate Camp Hale’s wide, flat landscape—ringed by soaring peaks—on snowshoes or cross-country skis (rentals available in Vail or Leadville). You may see backcountry skiers heading to the Fowler-Hilliard or Jackal huts, part of the 10th Mountain Division Hut System. This network of 35 rustic cabins connected by 350 miles of trail was created in 1980 by Aspen architect and 10th Mountain vet, Fritz Benedict. The huts are popular year-round, with reservations booking up months in advance.

Another way to explore includes a half- or full-day snowmobile tour, or a three-hour tour in a heated snowcoach, run by Nova Guides, the only outfitter authorized to take guests by snowmobile in the monument. The routes may vary depending on weather and snow conditions, but they head up from Nova’s facility just outside Camp Hale to the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area. These outings often include a stop at Ptarmigan Pass below Machine Gun Ridge, so named when troops trained in the area. Guides share stories of the 10th along the way, and the outfitter offers three log cabins for overnight stays.

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About six miles east of Camp Hale, Highway 24 crosses the Continental Divide over Tennessee Pass. Here, the 10th Mountain Division Memorial honors the more than a thousand soldiers who died in battle during World War II, their names etched into the cold granite.

A side road off the pass leads to Ski Cooper, one of Colorado’s most charming old-school ski areas (think slower lifts, a no-frills base area, and comparatively lower-priced lift tickets ). The 10th Mountain troops trained here, too, before it was a public ski area, loading onto a T-bar that ran up the slope from where the administrative offices sit today. They also skied on Chicago Ridge, where the resort now runs guided snowcat skiing tours.

A new display on the base lodge’s first floor showcases some of the ski gear soldiers used along with vintage photos and a video about the 10th. Each February, the ski area hosts a 10th Mountain ski day for descendants of the troops that includes a group ski descent. The annual observation is especially relevant for Ski Cooper’s Torsell, whose uncle was a 10th Mountain vet and introduced Torsell to skiing as a child.

Highway 24 intersects Highway 91 near Leadville, about 10 miles south of Tennessee Pass. The national monument’s Tenmile Range section lies northeast of here, in roughly a “C” shape from just south of the town of Frisco, along the western flanks of Peaks 1 through 10, and south to Quandary Peak. Tenth Mountain troops on multiday expeditions ventured into this wild, rugged terrain. Today, the area has trails for backcountry skiing or snowshoeing (hiking and mountain biking in summer).

Leadville makes an appropriate place to end a visit if you’re keen on following in the footsteps of the 10th. Soldiers once frequented the Silver Dollar Saloon, which has been slinging drinks since 1879, until the men got too rowdy and were no longer welcome in Leadville, according to passed-down stories.

After a day of skiing and snowshoeing, you can still take a seat at the well-worn mahogany bar, order up a Colorado-distilled whisky, and toast to the history and landscape of the U.S.’s newest national monument.

Cindy Hirschfeld lives near Aspen, Colorado, and writes about travel, outdoor adventure, and skiing. Follow her on Instagram.

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