Secret Stash

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

December 2011

But Monarch’s terrain was still a bit of a mystery to me. A 2006 expansion opened Mirkwood Basin, a steep cirque of chutes and glades accessed only by hiking (which limits traffic and preserves untracked lines). The lift-served runs were supposedly untrammeled—located well off the I-70 corridor, Monarch was said to be refreshingly crowd-free. So one midwinter Friday, my husband, Ben, and I loaded our ski gear, and our three-month-old daughter, Simone, into the Subaru and pointed it south.

Although a handful of lodging options exist near the resort (Monarch Mountain Lodge and Monarch Cabins sit within four miles of the ski area), we stayed instead at the brand-new Hampton Inn in Salida, a riverside town that offers a broader array of dining options. Our room was huge, with enough floor space to keep us from tripping over our exploding duffels and let Simone roll around happily.

Saturday morning, we downed a hasty breakfast at the hotel and headed west to Monarch, joining a handful of other cars on the snaking route up U.S. Highway 50. We pulled right up to the lodge, unloaded our skis and Simone’s baby gear, and claimed a table next to the fireplace. Ben took the first parenting shift; I headed out to ski.

Despite the blazing sun, the air was nippy, so the five inches that fell overnight were still cold and fluffy when I boarded the lift with Ralph at 10:30 a.m. He steered me to Gunbarrel, an ungroomed black-diamond run along the ski area’s southern boundary that—amazingly—was still untracked. I wove through the spruces along Gunbarrel’s left edge, floating through silky, boot-deep snow. It was a short run, maybe 500 vertical feet, but the solitude made it magical.

Then we migrated to the Panorama lift and rode to 11,952 feet, where we were treated to spectacular views over both sides of the Continental Divide. Pikes Peak was just visible to the east, while to the west, chiseled peaks gave way to the flattened Uncompahgre Plateau. Some skiers head out of bounds here, dropping off Monarch’s back side and skinning back to the resort via the abandoned Monarch Pass roadbed. An expansion proposal aims to incorporate this stash, potentially adding 130 skiable acres and a new chairlift in No Name Bowl to create lift-served skiing on both sides of the Divide. U.S. Forest Service approval is pending, but the scenario already had me contemplating a return visit.