Before I moved to Colorado last year from California, I had never heard of Monarch Mountain. The bite-size powder haven has managed to stay under the radar for destination skiers, with Colorado's bigger, more glamorous resorts dominating Google searches and consequent travel plans. Local friends of mine, however, have been raving about it for a while, and I finally made the trip. Smart move.
Monarch is rare in the ski-resort world, running on 100 percent natural snow (about 350 inches annually) leading to the resort’s motto “We don’t make snow. Mother Nature does.” The resort’s base elevation of nearly 11,000 feet helps keep the snow fluffy and frequent. And most of the more difficult trails remain un-groomed, providing a true backcountry feel with the ease of chairlift access. And for anyone looking for more than a backcountry feel, there are 130 acres of hike-to terrain.
It’s a bluebird day when I arrive, but it’s been dumping big time, approaching three feet during the past forty-eight hours. I’m skiing with Jeffery Martin. He’s the VP of Sales and Marketing, and my on-mountain guide for the day. Despite being new to the Monarch team, he’s been skiing the mountain for going on 30 years, but he looks just as stoked to get on snow today as he must have in 1990.
As we head up the Breezeway lift, Martin explains to me that finding fresh tracks even a day or so after a storm is the rule here, rather than the exception. As predicted, the mountain is far from tracked out. We get off the lift and my skis quickly disappear beneath the pow. It looks to be a great start to a great day.
Located about 150 miles southwest of Denver, Monarch is a bit off the ski grid, and even the vibe here reflects that. What it lacks in base amenities, it makes up for in character. People come here to ski, and to be with their tribe. Everyone seems to know each other, with skiers saying hi to each other at just about every turn and mid-run breather. I’m guessing this is how it’s been since the mountain opened in 1939, which makes it one of the oldest ski areas in Colorado.
The unofficial motto here seems to be: “Don’t Judge.” The place is family-friendly and unpretentious. And then there’s the sweet terrain. From chill cruisers, to steeps, to wide-open bowls and glades, I feel like Monarch's got it all. And then I learn that it also has a thousand-acre cat skiing op. Rad.
With plenty of terrain variety and my season-best conditions, I’m a little surprised by the total lack of lift lines. Martin quickly provides local perspective, calling it a moderately busy day, and yet we still manage to rip down runs without another skier in sight. At 800 acres, the mountain skis bigger than its stat sheet. The lack of crowds gives it a feel of a private ski area.
My best takeaway about Monarch though is that the skiers here feel like a community, and it shows in every smile I see that day. It seems that everyone on hill is in on one of Colorado’s best kept secrets. “Monarch is a family,” Martin says. “If you come here to ski and to be a part of the mountains, then you’re a part of our family.”
Yes, there isn’t any lodging at the base. (I stayed at the Amigo Motor Lodge, about 20 minutes away.) There’s only one wait-serviced restaurant, the Sidewinder Saloon, and the only shopping is at the base area gift shop. But that’s not why people come here anyway. People come here for the skiing. And that works just fine by me.