An (almost) undiscovered powder playground awaits at Colorado’s Monarch Mountain.
Until then, Mirkwood beckoned. After cruising down a nearly empty, groomed boulevard and saying goodbye to Ralph, I rode up the Breezeway lift alone and hiked for 15 minutes until I found myself atop Mirkwood Bowl, which remains liftless per locals’ preference (and the owners’ fondness for freshies). The gladed options seemed to stretch out forever, but only a few tracks sliced across the open runs, so I plunged over the cornice guarding the bowl.
Mirkwood feels more like backcountry than anything you’ll find within most resorts’ boundaries, and Monarch’s overall vibe is unpolished—in a good way. The proposed expansion to the resort’s terrain seems unlikely to change Monarch’s untamed character because its owners are ski fanatics, not developers. Its president, Rich Moorhead, started working at Monarch as a liftie in 1976. Mountain manager George Cowherd, a 30-year veteran, also started in lift ops. Still more Monarch owners have ties to the ski area that stretch back into the ’40s. Over the next five years, this management team plans to invest almost $9 million in improvements, including a new parking lot, an expanded base lodge, a magic carpet for the bunny hills, and a rebuilt Breezeway lift.
The upgrades will improve the ski experience without upping costs, since the resort expects the terrain expansion to increase skier numbers (while still providing enough elbow room to avoid a cramped atmosphere). Parking is free. Sack lunches are welcome. An adult day tickets costs $57; a season pass runs $339 and includes half-price tickets at Alta and free skiing at Telluride, Silverton, Ski Cooper, Sunlight, Revelstoke, and several other resorts.
Not surprisingly, families flock to Monarch. When I rejoin mine at the lodge, I see Ben chatting with a mom who abandoned her novel to cuddle with Simone. She explains that her table by the window lets her watch her youngest son navigate the beginner slope. Because all runs funnel into one base area, it’s easy for families to split up and regroup. “My older kids ride the whole mountain, but they end up right here after every run,” she tells us.
For lunch, Ben and I tote Simone into the Sidewinder Saloon, on the lodge’s upper level, where wood paneling and leaded glass separate the booths and a big, brass-trimmed bar dispenses drafts to about 20 drinkers. We claim a table and enjoy the cheery ambience while we wait for our meal. A cup of spicy, house-made green chile warms us before my Southwest salad and Ben’s BLT arrive. Then I man our parenting station by the lodge fireplace while Ben heads out to make turns of his own.
When the lifts stop at 4 p.m., we load up the wagon and enjoy a low-traffic drive to Salida for dinner at Laughing Ladies. It’s one of a number of attractive eateries in town, where in recent years artists have renovated historic buildings and established galleries that attracted even more boutiques and restaurants. The atmosphere at Laughing Ladies is lively yet relaxed; our server’s footsteps creak on the hardwood floor, and Simone enjoys gazing up at the embossed tin ceiling and paintings adorning the brick walls. Like Monarch Mountain, Laughing Ladies offers a good value, but the dining experience here is far more indulgent, which somehow seems appropriate after a day of no-frills skiing. Monarch’s unsophisticated setting is precisely what makes it cool—but, we decide as we savor bites of house-made lemon meringue pie, man need not live on powder alone.
Kelly Bastone is a 5280 contributing writer. Email her at [email protected].