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Length: 2.5 miles round-trip
Trailhead: Old Monarch Pass/CO Forest Service Road 237 (38.50451, -106.32811)
Why we love it: Venture away from Denver and the I-70 hubbub to score solitude in the San Isabel National Forest. This mellow outing delivers just enough uphill to feel like you’ve earned the wonderful top-of-the-mountain views.
Pre-hike fuel: Near the intersection of U.S. 285 and CO 9, stop off at the Java Moose in Fairplay for a hot drink and a “world-famous” breakfast burrito.
Post-hike buzz: On your way back down the pass, pull off at Monarch Ski Area. Park in the free lot and pop into the base area’s Sidewinder Saloon where you can swap winter adventure stories with skiers and snowboarders over locally crafted cocktails and bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers.
This mellow, easy-access route across the Continental Divide follows a snow-covered 4×4 road that’s almost always packed down by snowmobilers and other winter recreationists. The lack of steep terrain reduces the risk of avalanches in this area, but it’s always important to check conditions before you go and take appropriate precautions.
This trail begins on the north side of U.S. 50, a short distance below (or north of) the crest of 11,312-foot Monarch Pass. From the parking area, a wide and obvious signed path wends west and southwest along Forest Service Road 237, which is closed to vehicles in winter. The route follows what is commonly called Old Monarch Pass, a path begun in 1919 to shorten the original wagon trail through this area. The 22-mile road opened in September 1921, and—fun fact—cost about $10,000 per mile to build. The “new” road over the pass, which is still in use today, was completed in 1939.
From the highway, the easy-to-follow route gradually ascends about 400 feet in elevation, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the towering, snow-covered clusters of lodgepole pines, Colorado blue spruces, and Douglas firs. All too soon, you arrive at the roof of North America: the Continental Divide, where you’re treated to sweeping alpine views from the San Juans to the Sawatch Range. Keep your eyes peeled for deer and elk who frequent the area.
Once you’ve enjoyed the panoramas, you can return to your vehicle or, if you’re up for more, continue west, descending along the road until you’re ready to turn around and climb back up to the pass. If you do continue, take care to avoid any steeper terrain that has the potential to pose any avalanche danger.
Getting there: From Denver, follow U.S. 285 south through Fairplay to the small town of Poncha Springs. Turn west here onto U.S. 50 and follow this road to just below the top of Monarch Pass. Park in the large, plowed area on the right (north) side of the highway near the “Old Monarch Pass” road sign, where the route begins.
Before you go: Always check winter conditions, including the local avalanche report and weather. It’s OK (and fun!) to hike in snow, but wind can make your outing miserable. Gusts up to 20 mph are perfectly manageable with the right gear.