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Today Colorado is synonymous with world-renowned skiing, home to glitzy resort towns the likes of Vail and Aspen. But there’s another side to the Centennial State. Head further west and dip south towards the historic mining towns of Gunnison, Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride, and you’ll discover Colorado’s rugged side, where more than 100 years ago fur trappers, gold panners, and miners braved the harsh environment of the Rocky Mountains to seek their fortunes.
Most notorious of Telluride’s early visitors was one Robert LeRoy Parker, a.k.a. Butch Cassidy, who came to work in Telluride’s mines but ended up launching his spectacular career as the Old West’s most notorious outlaw by robbing Telluride’s San Miguel Valley Bank in 1889. In the following years Cassidy also found himself in Crested Butte, presumably while on the run from bounty hunters. Is it pure coincidence that such a notorious outlaw took refuge in what would become two epic Colorado ski resorts? Maybe, but a more likely story is that Cassidy thought the two mining towns—then extremely isolated, populated by hardened pioneers, and surrounded by steep forested mountains—the perfect place for an outlaw such as himself.
While today the ski towns of Telluride and Crested Butte are far from the rugged outposts they used to be, the wild spirit of those early pioneer days remains. Just venture out to the rowdy expert terrain of both mountains and sidle up to the bar of one of the authentic western saloons and see for yourself.
Total Miles Traveled: 274
Combined Vertical Feet: 8,362
Combined Skiable Acres: 4,347
Resorts Visited: 3
Indie Meets Epic
New for the 2018-’19 season: Epic Pass holders get unrestricted, unlimited access to CB’s slopes, and seven unrestricted days at Telluride, a VR partner resort. Monarch Mountain remains independently owned, and has partnered with the Powder Alliance to offer members discounted skiing options.
Terrain at a Glance
Beginner – 23%
True beginners can hit the meadows, a learning are with a new covered surface lift. Or head up sunshine express to meander down greens away from the experts.
Intermediate – 36%
Intermediate trails with sustained vert abound, and what’s more; each lift on the mountain accesses at last one blue, so intermediate skiers can explore the whole mountain.
Advanced/Expert – 41%
There’s no shortage of black and double-black runs off Black Iron Bowl, Palmrya Peak, and Bald Mountain. But you have to be willing to hike 20 minutes to get the goods.
Beginner – 26%
Painter Boy and Red Lady lifts serve up beginner-friendly free trails. If you have little ones in tow, ski under Painter Boy, then warm up at the Umbrella Bar.
Intermediate – 57%
There are plenty of wide open, cruisy blues on the back side of the mountain for intermediates working on their carving technique. Head over to Paradise Lift to explore Paradise Bowl.
Advanced/Expert – 17% (excluding Extreme Limits Terrain)
CB is home to amazing in-bounds extreme terrain- scary steep pitches and high glades- accessible from the North Face and High Lift T-bars.
Beginner – 22%
With trail names like tenderfoot, Rookie, and Little Joe, you can rest assured that Monarch has beginners covered with confidence-boosting gems.
Intermediate – 27%
Monarch has designated intermediate trails sprinkled throughout the mountain, but for those who like to link turns on a sustained pitch, stick to the west side of the hill.
Advanced/Expert – 48%
Mirkwood Basin, expert terrain that was formerly only open to cat skiing guests, is now open to anyone up for a quick hike. Trust us, its worth it. (but you didn’t hear that from us.)
Monarch Cat Skiing
You haven’t skied Monarch until you’ve plundered the pow beyond the ropes.
Monarch may seem like a little operation on the surface, but unbeknownst to most, this little indie-resort perched at 10,790 feet between Gunnison and Salida boasts some of the best snow and backcountry terrain in the area. Sure, some know about the epic hike-to sidecountry in Monarch’s Mirkwood Basin, but there’s an additional 1,635 acres of expert terrain beyond Mirkwood that remains virtually untouched throughout the season. And Monarch Cat Skiing holds the key to this powder heaven. A member of the CatSki US Association, MCS offers daily cat skiing trips beginning mid-December until the beginning of April, where professional backcountry guides will show you to some of Monarch’s best terrain beyond the ropes. Enjoy between 10-13 laps in chutes like Dog Heaven and wide faces like Ski No Evil, or test your moxie on No Name Cliffs—it’s all good, and there’s something for everyone.
Pricing » $400 per seat, or $4200 for full cat of 12 (regular season pricing)
What’s included » 10-13 laps; demo equipment if desired; lunch at the Monarch Cat Skiing yurt; après drink
Terrain » Variety of wide open ridges and bowls, steeps, and sub-alpine gladed or tight trees. All participants must be advanced skiers and have the ability to ski/ride extreme backcountry terrain.
Age restrictions » Minimum age of 14, and parent or guardian must be present for skiers and riders ages 17 and under.
Cancellation policy » MCS only run trips with a minimum of five participants. If a trip is cancelled due to lack of participants, MCS will refund or reschedule the trip.
info » skimonarch.com/cat-skiing
Watering Holes of the Old West
Looking for a glimpse into the Wild West’s historic past? Stop in to Telluride’s New Sheridan Hotel & Bar and Crested Butte’s Kochevar’s Saloon to do as Butch Cassidy did.
Opened in 1981, the New Sheridan is Telluride’s only historic hotel and one of Colorado’s few hotels dating to the early mining days still in operation today. Completely renovated in 2008, the hotel on Telluride’s main drag offers 26 rooms decorated in original Victorian style, and houses Telluride’s acclaimed Chip House restaurant and oldest bar (where Cassidy sat to case the San Miguel Valley Bank).
Built in 1899, the Kochevar’s Saloon operated as a bar until 1919, when it was converted into a general store (at least on the surface) during Prohibition. Cassidy ran into a spot of trouble here, and in a hurry to escape from the bounty hunter, left his revolver in the bar (now stored in a safe). Today, the bar is once again a favorite hangout of Crested Butte locals, serving up cheap drinks, live music and a down-to-earth vibe.
Timeline of Colorado Ski Towns
1878 – Crested Butte is established as a supply town for hard rock mining
1880 – Telluride is established as a mining camp
1881 – The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad is extended to CB
1889 – Butch Cassidy robs Telluride’s San Miguel Valley Bank
1894 – The Big Mine, the third largest mine in the state, opens in CB
1920-1950 – Labor strikes and crashing silver prices plague both towns, eventually closing all mines for good
1939 – Monarch Mountain opens as a ski area with a rope tow
1951 – A Salida couple purchases Monarch Mountain for $100
1962 – Crested Butte opens a ski area with Colorado’s first gondola
1970’s – White gold, a.k.a. snow, leads to the resurrection of Telluride and Crested Butte as ski resort towns
Remember, It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Unless the destination involves skiing. Then the journey calls for quick stops where you can refuel on the double.
Brown Dog Pizza, Telluride
Brown Dog is a staple of this ski town, renowned for its Detroit-style deep dish pizzas and 125-year-old Bolognese recipe. Even if you’re not a pie- or pasta-lover, we challenge you to find something on this extensive menu that doesn’t appeal.
High Alpine Brewing, Gunnison
Rustic Gunnison is worth a stop, and while you’re there, definitely make time for a slice and a pint at High Alpine Brewing. Bonus: the craft beers and delicious brick oven pizzas are made with locally sourced ingredients.
The Gas Café, Crested Butte
You can actually refuel your vehicle at this gas station, but that’s not the only reason to stop at the Gasser. This unassuming, no-frills joint makes breakfast and lunch sandwiches that will keep you fed and fueled until next winter.
Elevation Beer Co., Poncha Springs
Located in Poncha Springs, Salida’s little neighbor, Elevation Beer Co. serves up its popular craft beer in a rustic tap room where you’ll encounter both craft beer enthusiast as well as Chaffee County’s salt-of-the-earth locals.
Historic Hot Springs
Hot tub or natural hot springs – do we even have to ask?
Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort – Mount Princeton
Choose from a historic bath house established in 1867, individual creekside pools, upper pools with a 400-foot waterslide and incredible views of the surrounding Rockies, or the adult-only relaxation pool at the hot springs resort and spa located between Salida and Buena Vista.
Orvis Hot Springs & Spa, Ridgway
Stop in Ridgway on the way to Telluride to soak in the natural lithium water of the Orvis Hot Springs’ indoor or outdoor soaking areas. Clothing at this natural hot springs at the base of the San Juans is optional.
Ouray Hot Springs, Ouray
This hot springs pool built in the 1920’s in the historic mining town of Ouray features a lap pool and three different soaking sections with temps ranging from 85 to 105 degrees. Ask are fed by seven natural, sulfur-free hot springs.
Salida hot Springs Aquatic Center, Salida
The largest for springs facility in the country, this aquatic center features a large 25-meter, 6-lane pool, a smaller soaking pool and a play pool. All are fed by an underground spring that delivers clear, odorless water with temps ranging from 84 to 100 degrees.
Bonus: Salida & Buena Vista
Driving back from Crested Butte and Monarch towards Denver, you could easily miss these two gems, tucked just a little ways off U.S. Route 285. Both Salida and Buena Vista are river towns through and through, founded on the banks of the Arkansas River, which supplies both towns with world-class whitewater for rafting and kayaking. But there’s more to these towns than just the river. Both offer spectacular scenery and access to the surrounding fourteeners of the Sawatch Range (some of the highest peaks of the Rockies), multiple hot springs, endless hiking and mountain biking trails, a vibrant art scene, and plenty of good eats and watering holes that you don’t need a kayak to access, if you catch our drift. If you’re planning to turn Monarch into a multi-day ski vacation, make Salida your home base. Only a 30-minute drive from Monarch Mountain, Salida offers numerous lodging, dining, and down-day activity options.
Originally published in the January/February 2019 print edition of SKI Magazine.For more great road trips and resort information, SUBSCRIBE NOW.