Colorado's Secret Stash

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Nestled in the Sawatch Range in the south-central Colorado Rockies, Monarch feels worlds away from 1-70 and its whiteglove resorts. The parking lot is dirt, there's no snowmaking or high-speed quads, and Salida (population 4,737), the nearest town, is 18 miles away. In fact, while driving by on Highway 50, which runs through the heart of Colorado, some people don't even notice the entrance to this tiny ski area. Little do they know that almost half of Monarch's 670 skiable acres is advanced. And that its position straddling the Continental Divide puts it in the path of both southern and northern storms, meaning most of its terrain is accessible season-long on the 350 inches that fall from the sky. Those who know enough to stop favor Carhartts and cowboy hats to techy one-piece suits and helmets. Driving up to 12 hours, they're as likely to hail from Kansas or Oklahoma as Colorado's Front Range, and when you're buying your lift ticket, you'll probably hear the polite midwestern twang of "Thank you, mam." Camouflaged soldiers from nearby Fort Carson train on Monarch's varied terrain much as they did 50 years ago. And kids rule the hill after school and on weekends.

The ski area relies solely on lift-ticket sales to stay afloat. "We're on 100 percent Forest Service land," explains Rich Moorhead, vice president and general manager, "so we don't have real estate to bring in money." That's just fine with Monarch's down-home customers, who aren't the types to buy trophy homes or timeshares.

As the second-oldest ski area in Colorado, Monarch has seen its share of owners. Originally built in 1939 as a WPA project (Roosevelt's plan to provide jobs and utilize national parks and forests), the mountain was owned by the city of Salida for 12 years. Then, in 1951, a local family bought the area-for $100. The Seventh Elect Church of Israel, which had investment dealings with that family, took over ownership in 1989. The church sold the mountain two years later to a Japanese buyer, who in turn sold it to the current owners, a group of investors from California. Their laissez-faire approach has perpetuated Monarch's homespun atmosphere.

Since its inception, Monarch has averaged one new lift every decade and currently has four double chairs and one fixed-grip quad. The lifts may be sluggish, but the variety of terrain beneath them makes up for it. On a clear day, the view from the 11,961-foot summit is breathtaking. Fifteen of Colorado's prized 14,000-foot peaks can be seen, as well as the Uncompahgre, San Juan and Sangre De Cristo ranges. From here, ungroomed runs such as Sheer-rock-o, High Anxiety, Zipper and Dire Straits cater to bump enthusiasts. And the black-diamond Curecanti-a short traverse and pole push away-is favored for its cornice and often-trackless slope. Those who prefer wider, intermediate runs take the Breezeway lift to runs like Slo Motion and Little Mo. And for beginners, there's the Thumbelina lift, which loads just above the base lodge.

Two more lifts-Garfield and Pioneer-load to the left of the base lodge. Garfield accesses four of Monarch's most popular runs: two wide-open black-diamonds, Examiner and Cleanzer, plus two steep, narrow ones, Upper No Name and Upper Christmas Tree, which are flanked by tight but manageable glades.

Pioneer, a fixed-grip quad and Monarch's newest lift, affords skiers speedy access to the north-facing slopes at the ski area's southern boundary. Here, Monarch's real gems are accessible with a little work. Hike to Ricochet, North Forty and Tele Alley for natural bumps or thick glades. Or further east to Gunbarrel, one of Monarch's least skied runs. An old bull-wheel still stands at the top of the trail, a remnant from the mountain's first Chevy-engine-powered ropetow. Here, in the trees and on the hike-to terrain, there's almost always a fresh line to be found, because most visitors steer clear of the tougher terrain. "I skied more powder at Monarch the first month I worked thhere than I did in four years at Crested Butte," says Gail Binder, head guide at Monarch Snowcat Tours. "If it's snowing, you get fresh lines all day."

High praise from someone who now guides skiers through the 1,000 acres to the north of the ski-area boundary. "The ski area receives a lot of snow, but where the cat tours go there can be up to twice as much snow due to wind-loading," says John Kreski, a guide since 1987. Skiing in this nearly vacant backcountry is priceless. Especially on weekends when the ski area is busy.

For although liftlines are usually short and slopes uncrowded, Monarch has grown too big for its antiquated lodge, and finding a lunch table on weekends and during spring break can be a challenge. For now, Monarch's solution is to set up a tent outside to accommodate overflow, but there is a greater master plan. It includes a new base lodge, replacement lifts, trail widening and a snow-play area. "It will probably be a number of years before we complete all the proposed projects in our master plan," Moorhead says. "For us to be able to increase our revenue substantially, we need to upgrade our base facilities and maximize the potential from our revenue sources. But if we build it, will they come?"

The numbers say yes. Last season 147,266 people bought tickets or season passes-up slightly from the five-year average of 143,000. And this season-even with a soft economy-group and season-pass sales are on line with last season, a testament to the stability of Monarch's drive market.

Most visiting skiers stay in Salida, 20 minutes away. The historic town is also home to the majority of Monarch's employees and pass-holders. Dating back to the early 1880s, Salida was created by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad headed for then-prosperous Leadville. At the turn of the century, Salida's hastily built wooden structures twice burned to the ground, causing the town to adopt an ordinance that thenceforth all the buildings be constructed of brick. Today, the National Registry of Historic Places notes that "Salida has the finest collection of historically significant buildings in the state."

Art galleries, restaurants and retail shops have replaced the bars and brothels that once filled these historic structures. Majestic mountains appear at the end of every brick-lined street. And the Arkansas River-overflowing with kayaks and rafts in summer-runs through town. Everything you could want to do is here, and the climate is mild most of the year. If you're into recreation, this is it. And, for now at least, there's certainly enough space to go around.