Department

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.

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.

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].