Secret Stash

An (almost) undiscovered powder playground awaits at Colorado’s Monarch Mountain.

December 2011

“There are no cool people here,” Greg Ralph tells me as we ride the Pioneer lift at Monarch Mountain. It’s a clear Colorado day, a rarity at these typically cloud-cloaked elevations. Monarch’s base area sits at 10,790 feet, the highest in Colorado, and the near-constant cloud cover means near-constant snow. These slopes, which funnel down the east side of the Continental Divide, get plenty of powder—but “cool,” says Ralph, is in short supply.

Ralph is Monarch’s marketing director and one of its owners, so his candor is startling. But I quickly realize he’s bragging, not complaining.

Taking advantage of the day’s see-forever visibility, I notice that the skier zippering down the slope beneath us shows plenty of finesse, but isn’t sporting printed pants, sparkly goggles, or other badges of hipness. There’s a family riding the chair up ahead, and the mom’s dated ski duds—yes, those are stirrup pants—place her decades behind the beautiful people on parade at glitzier resorts like Vail and Aspen. Even the park rats lack the studied swagger common among jibbers.

Ralph’s right: I can’t locate a shred of affectation anywhere, but everyone seems to be having a grand time. Suddenly, I feel totally at home at Monarch. After all, I hail from Steamboat Springs, another comparatively uncool area. (Believe me: That’s not a complaint.) Steamboat gets 350 inches of snow annually, so I don’t need to travel far to find the good stuff. Why would I leave paradise in search of paradise? Because from this vantage point, on this day, Monarch Mountain seems about as good as it gets.

I’d heard tales of the mysterious “Monarch Cloud” that dumps snow—350 inches annually at Monarch Mountain, matching Steamboat’s total—even when the surrounding summits are clear. And I was aware that Monarch, settled into the Sawatch Range 20 miles from Salida, is small: Five lifts serve 800 acres, with a vertical drop of just more than 1,000 feet, hardly quad-torturing for any in-shape skier. No condos cluster around the base area; instead, there’s a parking lot, a lodge, and a tent that houses the ski school.