Snowcat guide Andy Ruggles has a deeply cleft chin and an extravagant black mane streaked with gray that bobs at his shoulders. He looks like Beethoven, if Beethoven had been a skier. Outside the cat, Ruggles wags one of his mismatched poles like it's a baton summoning his orchestra, and we follow the maestro into Staircase, a tight glade that drops, pauses, then drops again, its snaky lines guarded by branches so low they require limbo moves. The run spits us out at the base area of Monarch Mountain.
Though you might not know the name, Monarch is one of Colorado's secrets, an entertaining little hill 120 miles from Colorado Springs that's off the radar of most of the state's skiers. Predictably, there's rarely a liftline and no jockeying for the 350-plus annual inches of powder. As if that weren't good enough, there's also Monarch Snowcat Tours, a spunky little operation next door (run by Monarch Mountain) that proves wrong the established wisdom that snowcat skiing at resorts holds no thrill for experienced skiers.
At the top of the Breezeway chairlift we're greeted by a sunburst-yellow snowcat with bucket seats, carpeting, heaters and a six-CD stereo. The only thing missing is a wet bar. The snowcat operation's 770 acres of terrain straddle the backbone of the Continental Divide where the Sawatch Mountains meet the Sangre de Cristos. Drop in to the east, and you'll find the wind- and sun-protected stashes. Several of these runs spit us out at the base area, where we ride a lift to meet the snowcat again.
If there's a crimp in the snowcat operation, it's brief runs; they average only about 700 vertical feet. When you're cat-skiing, though, the upside of brevity is volume. Strong groups can squeeze in 17 runs a day here, even with a pit stop at the ski area's lodge for a hot lunch.
In the afternoon, we head west of the divide to No Name Bowl, a broad splay of lightly treed faces with lingering runs. Above us lie the delicious lines and chutes of No Name Peak—steeper terrain that Monarch hopes eventually to open. The west-facing terrain gets buckets of bright sun and more wind, which can result in variable conditions. High on the ridge today, however, the snow is dense and smooth, like clotted cream, and we play for hours in the trees. By sundown, grinning and tuckered, we retreat to the base lodge with a thorough appreciation for the fact that bigger does not always mean better.[NEXT ""]
Salida, a former mining and railroad town just 21 miles east of the ski area, has become a vortex for those with a weak spot for the arts and/or adrenaline. Salida's brick Victorian downtown (designated a National Historic District) and its athletic, low-key locals (population 5,500) are surrounded by 15 of Colorado's 54 14ers, yet because Salida lies squarely in the state's banana belt, it's possible to mountain bike year-round or simply soak in the public hot springs pool after a day at Monarch.
Where to Stay
River Run Inn B&B Built in 1892 as Chaffee County's poor farm, the six-room brick building is now a National Register of Historic Places—listed inn three miles from downtown Salida. Rates begin at $90 for two. 800-385-6925; riverruninn.com
Gazebo Country Inn Freshly baked cookies await skiers who stay in this 1901, doilies-and—brass beds Victorian home a short walk from Salida's historic district. Four rooms and an adjacent cottage are available for $80 and up. 719-539-7806; gazebocountryinn.com
Monarch Mountain Lodge The sole lodging near Monarch's base is this 100-room hotel, three miles from the ski area. Good for families, the lodge has a restaurant, indoor pool, hot tubs, sauna, racquetball court and game room. Rooms begin at $69. 800-332-3668; monarchmountainlodge.com
Where to Eat
Laughing Ladies Restaurant Locals rave about the Laughing Ladies, which is named for the working girls who once made this town a must-stop for local miners. Look for modern American fare wwith an emphasis on seafood and fresh bread from the owner's bakery. 128 W. First St.; 719-539-6209
Amicas Pizza A locally owned brewpub in the historic district, Amicas serves wood-fired pies and its own cold microbrews like Bomber Blonde Ale and its signature Headwaters IPA. 136 E. 2nd St.; 719-539-5219
Dakota's Bistro Housed in the oldest building in Salida, Dakotas features a meat-heavy menu with entrees like Steak Sundance, a New York strip covered with New Mexico green chiles. 122 N. F St.; 719-530-9909
Where to Play
The Vic Locals adore the Vic (a.k.a. the Victoria Tavern), a quirky bar around since 1903 that one employee calls a "hysterical" landmark. The smoky tavern has pool tables and hosts live music on alternate weekends. 143 N. F St.; 719-539-9003
Benson's Tavern & Beer GardenKitty-corner to the Vic is Benson's, a starched restaurant/bar that specializes in martinis but has Colorado brews on tap. 128 N. F St.; 719-539-9391
Monarch Snowcat Tours 770 skiable acres; runs from 400 to 1,600 vertical feet; about 350-plus annual inches. $150 to $200 per day, depending on time of season; or $1,500 to $2,000 to reserve a full cat that seats 12.
Monarch Ski Area 670 skiable acres; 1,170 vertical feet; 350 annual inches. Adult lift ticket, $49.
Getting There Monarch is 120 miles from Colorado Springs. Take State Route 115 to US-50 West, which runs right to the ski area. From Denver, it's about 160 miles; head south on US-285 to US-50 West.
Information Monarch (snowcat tours and ski area): 888-996-7669; skimonarch.com. Salida: 877-772-5432; salidachamber.org