Insider Guide: Monarch Ski Area
Monarch Mountain has been a locals' mountain since the first rope tow in 1939 -- grabbing consistently light powder snow from its 11,900-foot perch atop the Continental Divide. Not the largest (800 acres and five lifts) or longest (1,000 vertical), but Monarch has a down-home, fixed-grip character unlike its bigger Colorado neighbors to the north and west.
Owned collectively, Monarch attracts an unpretentious crowd from southern Colorado, northern New Mexico, and points east. Families love it, and busloads of school kids show up most days for lessons in a ski school that focuses strongly on newbies and novices. The mountain also draws a college crowd from Western State in Gunnison.
Lift tickets won't break the bank, especially ordered online and reloaded. If you have a season pass from elsewhere, show it and get a $57 "migration pass." Lots of partner resorts.
If you want a powder day, get up there early as locals will carve up freshies for a couple of hours before heading home. Or head to Milkwood Basin for hike-to-terrain and regular 'cat service.
Nearest commercial airports an hour away in Gunnison or two hours away in Colorado Springs. Main highways come in from all directions; ski area sits on east-west U.S. 50, about a half-hour up from Salida -- the commercial center of the Upper Arkansas Valley. Parking is right by the base. Shuttle runs from nearby lodge or Salida, and once-a-day bus passes through from Gunnison.
Five minutes from the slopes, Monarch Mountain Lodge is no-frills, mountain hotel with food, bar and room options. Otherwise, Poncha Springs and Salida offer all manner of lodging, with tons of VRBOs and motels of all style and price.
Three choices in the base lodge: Gunbarrel Cafeteria for breakfast or lunch; Sidewinder Saloon with sitdown, ski-day fare with full burger menu, craft beers and drinks; and, Elmo's Bar, the place the be apres-ski. No eateries on the mountain. Down below, Salida has upped its restaurant game recently, with more than a dozen now open. Brewpubs, gastro pubs, all latest chow-down machinations can be found. Boathouse Cantina hangs right over Arkansas River downtown, and Currents serves up top-end steaks and seafood.
Runs aren't long but they have all the variety that Colorado offers. Plenty of wide rolling groomers appeal to the easy-going crowd. Picturesque ridge run off Panorama mid-mountain chair has steep plunges peeling off, with tons of glades, and expansive bowls. Powder stashes can be had beneath the Garfield chair, with a short hike off Pioneer chair into Curecanti Bowl on skier's right, and the Outback off Breezeway lift on the other side of the mountain. Feelin' in shape? Take steep, a short hike into Milkwood or Southbound bowls. Or, if you book online early, you can get a seat on a snowcat that goes past the ropes into massive bowls off the Divide.
Two terrain parks on the north side of the mountain. Tubing park sits next to two moving carpets. Children's Center coddles young ones during the day with activities and naps. In Salida, the town runs a hot springs pool for apres-ski muscle relief. More hot springs up the road. In April, Kayaks on Snow is oddball, a local-flavor offshoot of pond skimming.