Out of Sight, On the Mind

Allow us to introduce this central Colorado gem

Out of Sight, On the Mind

Allow us to introduce this central Colorado gem

For those unaware of Monarch Mountain, let us introduce this central Colorado gem

WORDS • SANDY MAIT | FEATURED IMAGE • KJELL ELLEFSON

Many skiers drive Colorado’s U.S. Highway 50 through the mighty Sawatch Range on their way to Crested Butte, but few people realize they’re passing right by some top-notch terrain that’s worthy of its own visit. Monarch Mountain is hiding in plain sight, and skiers in the know have been reaping Monarch’s rewards for many years: deep snow, challenging and diverse terrain, low crowds and an unpretentious, authentic vibe that connects everyone on the mountain.

Since Monarch opened in 1939, they have never once turned on a snow machine—all of the snow on this ski hill comes straight from the sky. So, whether you’re skiing on- or off-piste, every turn you make at Monarch is going to be on the real stuff, an experience far and few for many resort-based skiers today. This is all made possible by Monarch’s unique microclimate derived from its location on the Continental Divide and its high elevation, with the base reaching almost 11,000 feet above sea level. It’s a combination that adds up to feet of snow getting dumped on Monarch during a storm, even when the forecast is entirely different five miles away. Yet, despite getting an average of 350 inches of snow annually, the mountain manages to stay under the radar. Short lift lines are the norm, and it’s not unusual to be harvesting hidden powder stashes many days after the most recent storm.

On the mountain, you can find everything from mellow cruisers to steep, technical terrain, as well as some of the best tree skiing in central Colorado. Expansive trails like Examiner off the Garfield lift make you feel like the mountain’s your personal playground, and make sure to head to Sheer Rocko under the Panorama lift for some adrenaline-inducing bumps that end in a Hollywood cliff drop right under the chair. For powder hounds, Geno’s Meadow is a great place to find stashes long after a storm. But if you’re on a quest for steep chutes, bowls and real backcountry-esque terrain, don’t miss out on an adventure to Mirkwood, which can be accessed by taking a fifteen-minute hike off the Breezeway lift—a piece of cake compared to Bilbo Baggins’ journey in the novel that inspired this zone’s name.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Monarch Mountain

For some wide-open glades, and some sweet, ridgeline views of nearby 14,000-foot peaks Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak, make sure to check out Elation Ridge at the far end of Mirkwood; hopefully Smaug won’t be waiting for you while you’re plundering his precious snow stashes.

This year, Monarch will be opening an additional 635 acres in its cat-skiing tenure, bringing the total cat-skiing acreage to 1,635 acres. The terrain accessible by Monarch’s snowcats can be challenging, complete with cliff drops and pillow lines, if that’s what you’re looking for; but the landscape also provides unprecedented access to powder-laden meadows where wiggling through waist-deep powder is the norm. Interestingly, Monarch’s cat-skiing territory doubles the number of acres available inbounds, further establishing Monarch as an ideal spot for hard-charging, adventurous skiers to explore.

The base area at Monarch exudes old-time charm, so be sure to swing by the Sidewinder Saloon before you call it a day. Here, locals, visitors, employees and everyone else gather around the large, horseshoe-shaped bar creating a lively and friendly atmosphere. Don’t forget to buy a pitcher from the bartender for the parking lot crew or your cat-skiing guide—it’s a small gesture that goes a long way in this tight-knit community. There are also plenty of opportunities to join the après scene in nearby Salida and Poncha Springs. Elevation Beer Company in Poncha is a local favorite that offers a variety of seasonal brews, while Benson’s or the Victoria Tavern in Salida are quintessential mountain town watering holes. For those looking to make a full vacation out of Monarch, check out The Palace Hotel in downtown Salida for a place to stay with a classic old western feel. Besides, if you’re looking to experience a true skier’s mountain, you might want to stick around a couple days.

STAT SHEET

Monarch Mountain by the numbers

Average Annual Snowfall: 350 inches
Total Skiable Acreage: 800 acres
Number of lifts: 6
Vertical Drop: 1,162 feet
Total Trails: 64
Regional Airport: Gunnison Airport (GUC)

TRAIL BREAKDOWN
Beginner: 22%
Intermediate: 27%
Advanced: 37&
Expert: 11%
Terrain Park: 3%

More From Monarch Mountain

Monarch Mountain Trail Map

Take a closer look at the terrain at Monarch Mountain