If you want a true, independent Colorado ski experience, head south to Monarch Mountain. This is a small and more affordable ski resort located about 20 miles west of the town of Salida.
It can be easy to overlook lesser-known ski destinations in Colorado and head where most of the tourists go, to the resorts with big budgets, shopping villages, mega marketing campaigns, and international fame. But consider veering off the beaten path a bit for a unique experience. Monarch Mountain is in south-central Colorado outside of Salida, near U.S. 50 and U.S. 285. It’s easy to access. The drive is just under three hours from Denver and about two hours from Colorado Springs. It is located in the San Isabel National Forest along the Continental Divide.
Here’s a closer look at Monarch Mountain.
Overview of Monarch Mountain
Monarch opened in the ‘30s, with a tow rope pulled by a Chevy engine. Back then, a day ticket cost a quarter and a season pass cost $1, and only 64 were sold.
The mountain began drawing more tourism to the region, and it helped spur the development of downtown Salida, now a certified creative district. Salida itself, established in the late 1800s, has a history in mining and agriculture.
Over the years, Monarch Mountain expanded to include backcountry terrain (Mirkwood Basin), conveyor lifts, and the Monarch Outpost, the central gathering spot of the mountain.
Today, Monarch is not as busy as many of the ski resorts closer to Denver, but it is popular among people who live south of the metro area. It’s a friendly and casual place with free parking and varied terrain.
Due to its location at 12,000 feet above sea level on the Continental Divide, weather on Monarch Mountain varies and can be unpredictable. (The mountain gets 350 inches of natural snow per year.) Also due to its altitude, make sure you drink enough water, get enough sleep, and take precautions to ward off altitude sickness.
The mountain at a glance has 800 skiable acres made up of 14 green, 17 blue, 23 black, and eight double black runs. A few of its famous runs include Skywalker, following the ridgeline, and Mirkwood Basin, with 130 acres of double-black diamond skiing
Monarch offers terrain for all levels—about 22 percent beginner, 27 percent intermediate, and 48 percent expert or advanced.
- Advanced: Start at the Picante run. Then head over to Panorama Lift off the Great Divide Run for an added challenge, or try out Kanonen (accessible through the Garfield Lift). Mirkwood Basin is extreme and only accessible via a 10- to 20-minute hike into nature (the snow is not groomed here). Staircase run is also for the advanced skiers.
- Intermediate: Take the Breeze Way lift to the north side, and head to Panorama. Other intermediate runs can be found on Pioneer and Garfield.
- Beginner: Beginners will feel at home on the Tumbelina lift, Caterpillar lift, Snowflake and Rookie (that one’s easy to remember).
- Also check out Monarch’s terrain parks, which can be more welcoming to beginners than some of Colorado’s other resorts but will still challenge advanced athletes. Don’t expect long lines here. Just fun. The Never Summer Terrain Park is best for people with experience in a terrain park, whereas the Tilt Terrain Park is better for newbies or intermediate skiers and snowboarders.
Adult tickets start at $89 per day. A child (age 7 to 12) ticket is $43. Children under 6 and people older than 69 are free.
Food and Drink
Monarch Mountain and the surrounding area includes a historic downtown (in Salida) and several places to eat and tip back a beer. Here are a few highlights.
- Sidewinder Saloon: This is the place to go for locally brewed beer and a full menu in a sit-down (but casual) restaurant. Offerings include burgers (including a burger with grilled onions and peppers, slow-roasted pulled pork, red chili, and pepper-jack cheese), nachos and bloody Marys. Don’t miss the happy hour.
- Java Stop: As the name makes clear, here’s where to go for a cup of coffee. Java Stop serves locally roasted coffee and espresso, plus the standard baked goods and light food you might expect in a quick coffee shop or cafe.
- Gunbarrel Cafeteria: This cafeteria has a wide range of food, from breakfast sandwiches to Angus burgers to homemade pizza and soups. This spot has breakfast, lunch, snacks, and drinks, including a salad bar.
- Elmo's Bar: Watch the slopes while sipping a bloody Mary with bacon in Elmo’s Bar. This joint is a full-service bar open weekends, peak periods and popular holidays.
- The Grill at Monarch Mountain Lodge: Looking for dinner? Most slopeside restaurants cut off when the slopes do, but this in-hotel restaurant has a great dinner menu from 5-9 p.m., where you can order burgers, tacos, sandwiches, wraps, pizzas, and salads. The Grill also has breakfast (and an inexpensive breakfast buffet).
Rentals and Gear
The main place to get gear on Monarch Mountain is the Outer Edge Shop. Make sure you reserve your equipment at least two days in advance during peak skiing.
Lessons and Clinics
Monarch Mountain has a ski school (that teaches skiing, snowboarding and telemarking) for all ages and levels. Here are some of the offerings you can enroll in:
- Private lessons.
- The Mini & Me program for kids ages 3 through 6. Parents learn useful coaching tips and techniques, too.
- Junior Mountain Kids, a class for kids ages 7 through 12.
- A teen group class with a certified instructor for kids 13 and older.
- A Ski With a Naturalist skiing tour on Fridays, where you can learn about nature and the wildlife of the area, as well as the history of the ski resort. It's educational and active, a different kind of guided ski experience.
Skiing and Snowboarding Alternatives
Don't feel like skiing or snowboarding? Monarch Mountain has plenty of other activities and events you can enjoy instead. Here are a few:
In the winter you can enjoy:
- Snowcat tours: Take a snowcat to backcountry terrain with bowls, chutes and glades galore. Eat lunch in a yurt and drink a beer when you are done (all included in the tour package).
- Snowshoeing, sledding, tubing and cross-country skiing up Old Monarch Pass Road.
- Snowmobiling in the backcountry as a guided tour or independently, depending on how you want to explore.
- Dog sled rides.
- The winter Kid’s Fest and Kayaks on the Snow events. The mountain has a variety of community events in the winter.
In the summer you can try:
- Hiking or mountain biking on the trails.
- Whitewater rafting or a relaxing float trip (May through August) on the Arkansas River.
- ATV rides.
- Fishing on the river.
- Golfing nearby.
- Exploring the Great Sand Dunes (try sand sledding) and the Royal Gorge Bridge (with its zipline, skycoaster and gondola), bother about a 90-minute drive away.
- Shopping and strolling the streets in downtown Salida.
- Various art, wine and food festivals, including FIBArk, which features whitewater competitions, live music and more.
- The Salida Hot Springs, the largest indoor hot springs facility in the United States, with two pools. (Enjoy this in the winter, too, after a long, cold day on the snow.)
- Enjoying the outdoors with animals, such as horseback riding and wildlife viewing.
Because Monarch Mountain isn’t as commercialized as many other resorts, there are not a ton of hotels and lodging. There are more VRBO-style properties, where you can rent a private residence.
Here are a few of the area’s lodging highlights:
- Creekside Chalets: These private, stand-alone, pet-friendly chalets are about 10 minutes from the mountain. Each rustic chalet includes a fully equipped kitchen, a porch for relaxing, fireplace for warming up, wifi, a private hot tub and, of course, great views. Because these buildings stand on their own, they are also popular for romantic getaways or honeymoons or just for travelers who want a little more privacy. The full kitchen makes refueling with food easy. No need to find a restaurant or wait in lines for a table during peak season.
- Monarch Mountain Lodge: This is the only hotel on Monarch Mountain. It offers a free shuttle to the ski resort, less than five miles away. Guests here get beautiful views, an indoor pool, outdoor hot tubs, a basketball court, a racquetball area, a coffee shop and casual food market, an on-site restaurant and even laundry on the premises. Traveling with a group? Ask about family rooms that can sleep up to six. The lodge has a variety of different styles and sizes of rooms.
- Ski Town Condos: There are vacation rentals located in the historic mining town of Garfield, just three miles from the Monarch ski area and steps away from the Arkansas River. These condos are located in the San Isabel National Forest and are ideal for groups, as each unit can sleep up to six. If you are traveling with a larger group, you can rent blocks of condos, too. Amenities at the Ski Town Condos include a fully equipped kitchen, TV, DVD player, wifi, laundry room with washer and dryer, an outdoor hot tub in the gazebo and warm, cozy down comforters on the log beds. These condos have a rustic, Colorado, mountain feeling that many visitors enjoy. Garfield is located about 18 miles from Salida.