Monarch Mountain lies in the Sawatch Range, 120 miles southwest of Colorado Springs, and while it isn't big, it offers a big variety of options for those willing to travel off the beaten path. If you look, you'll find two Monarchs: There's one that appeals to skiers looking for affordable and not-too-scary skiing within a day's drive of ski-deprived locations like Texas. And then there's the homegrown area that attracts experts who applaud Monarch's steep bump runs, tree shots and snow that often remains untracked two days after a big storm.
Consider the two fashion statements I observed there last year. The first took place on a blizzardy New Years Day when I rode the lift behind two teenagers from a Texas church group who decided to test their manly mettle by taking their shirts off. With snow falling and wind howling, it was no place for the shirtless. One kid re-robed after about 30 seconds, but the other, to my horror and, I'll admit, awe, lasted the entire four-minute ride.
Later that spring, I returned to ski with - or rather, behind - no less than freeski legend Scot Schmidt, who spends a few days each March with Monarch Snowcat Tours, which takes clients into 1,300 acres of what I found to be some of the steepest catskiing terrain in the state. The runs were straight and steep and intimidating in places, moving one of my fellow riders to don shoulder pads, elbow pads, knee pads, hip pads, and Terminator-like pectoral pads. (This seemed over the top to me.)
That's Monarch: shirtless Texans on the bunny hill and body-padded freeskiers on the steeps, with plenty of terrain in between for those of us who just like to pull on Gore-Tex and make some turns.
One of the great benefits of Monarch is spending your evenings in Salida, an old railroad town that has become a hub for Arkansas River boaters, artists, new-agers and skiers attracted by Monarch's low-key vibe. The town features a wealth of Victorian homes and local businesses. In town, stay at the Century House Cottages; if you prefer a rural roost, book at the spectacular Creekside Lodge Bed & Breakfast or at Antero Hot Springs. For fuel, Salida's Laughing Ladies Café has haute cuisine in a laid-back atmosphere; Amica's, a local favorite, offers outstanding pizza and calzones.