Monarch Mountain, a secluded ski area located along the Continental Divide in Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest, offers the kind of organic winter sport experience you might imagine finding deep in the Swiss Alps: serene, uncrowded slopes with all-natural snow and breathtaking scenery. A hidden gem, tucked away in the Sawatch Range of the Rockies, Monarch Mountain provides an invigorating, yet stress-free ski environment, which makes it an ideal vacation destination for skiers of all abilities.
Waiting in line to check out of the Salida Super 8, I listened as a nearby young man gushed to his newfound lobby friends about Monarch Mountain. “I come back every year,” he said. “There’s always fresh snow and never any lift lines. Plus, you can get a season pass here for the same price as lift tickets for two or three days somewhere else.” He was so chuffed to be back in Salida, a charming small Colorado town like the one where he had grown up, and ready to snowboard again for the first time this season. I couldn’t help but smile along. Having just spent two blissful days on Monarch Mountain’s slopes with my children on our first-ever family ski holiday, I had to agree. Monarch Mountain is a pretty special place.
In operation since 1939, Monarch Mountain has long been a favorite of locals, but somehow word of this magical mountain has never traveled far beyond the Colorado border. As a result, it remains an unspoiled ski area — a well kept secret. Crowds are light and the 53 lift-served trails, through 800 skiable acres under permit from the US Forest Service, are wide open for exploring. Add into the mix that courtesy of it’s location along the Continental Divide, Monarch Mountain gets more than 350 inches of snow each year, making it one of only three mountains in the state to operate on 100% all-natural snow. The result is a dream destination.
Adventures with Non-Skiers
Before last month, my five children had never been skiing. I had, but not within the last two decades, so realistically we totaled six amateurs. Monarch Mountain, with its reputation for being low-key, friendly, and uncrowded, seemed like the perfect fit for our first family skiing experience.
It was important to me that my kids, ages three to 16, fall in love with the sport, so they would want to ski again and again. That seemed like a tall order for a whole passel of first-timers, but Monarch delivered. After two days in this slice of paradise, my kids and I were taking ski lifts with confidence and flying down mountainsides without fear. With breathtaking views in every direction, we were in heaven. The kids were asking when we could come back, before we had even left.
What We Loved About Monarch Mountain
Everything. We loved it all. But here are a few highlights:
Ease of entry – The 20-mile scenic route to Monarch Mountain from the nearby town of Salida leads through a gorgeous stretch of the majestic Rocky Mountains. Blue skies and snow-topped peaks around every corner, and then, seemingly right in the middle of nowhere, a sign for the Monarch Mountain parking lot. Friendly attendants guide you to park and voilà! You are mere steps from your winter adventure. There is no shuttle. There are no massive lines. You walk in, sign your waiver, rent equipment, hop right on one of the lifts, and off you go. If you’re returning for a second day, it’s even easier. Skip the check-in procedure altogether, and grab your skis from where you parked them outside the day before.
Fun Ski School – My four oldest kids went to ski school on the first day and learned very quickly in their small classes. The younger two (ages eight and 10) had lunch with their class, while the older two teenagers had a lunch break with me in between sessions. After just one day of ski school, all four kids were able to join me on the slopes. There were a few tumbles, but the kids had learned the skills they needed to get themselves up and back on track in a jiffy. They had a blast.
Engaging Childcare – While her older siblings were in class, my toddler enjoyed crafts and lunch in The Children’s Center. She had fun playing with the other kids, and I was able to ski alone for a few hours. She also went out for a private lesson with a ski instructor, which she loved. Look at that grin!
Amazing Staff – When we arrived on our second day, my teenage son’s ski school instructor ran over to greet him, asking if he had dreamt about “wedges.” My son’s grin was huge, he was so happy to be personally welcomed back to Monarch Mountain.
Family-Friendliness of the Mountain – Skiing with a bunch of beginners in tow, it was a great relief to discover that Monarch Mountain caters to families. There are lifts that only service green and blue trails, for the safety of young skiers. And there is only one lodge at the base of the trails, so you can find those young skiers again after they’ve raced ahead of you on the slopes.
Food Options Galore – Winter exercise works up quite an appetite, and you won’t be disappointed in Monarch Mountain’s many culinary delights! Although there is a convenient sack lunch area, I highly recommend trying some of the onsite restaurants. We loved the nachos (enough to feed a small army) at Sidewinder Saloon, pizza and delicious cheese fries from the Gunbarrel Cafeteria, and hot chocolate from the Java Stop.
Ski Slopes for All Abilities – There are so many trails at Monarch Mountain, that many of them never seemed to have any traffic at all, despite the fact that we were there the week of Christmas. In fact, a few times while on a lift, I was surprised to see someone pass below because I hadn’t even realized I was traveling over a trail. From uphill travel lanes and easy downhill trails to extreme terrain and freestyle terrain, Monarch Mountain has something for everyone.
Where to Stay in Salida
While there is no onsite lodging at Monarch Mountain, Colorado’s largest historic district, Downtown Salida, is a quick 25-minute drive through the Central Colorado Rockies away. We loved exploring this small town that sits along the western bank of the Arkansas River. All decked out for Christmas during our stay, festive trees lined Riverside Park and even the mountain was covered in holiday lights. One night, a hometown holiday festival offered caroling and hay rides. Friends and neighbors greeted one another and we found ourselves wishing we could stay in their merry midst a little longer!
I don’t think you can get wrong when booking a place to stay in or near Salida, but here are a few places with ski deals that I would recommend.
Super 8 – You can’t beat this hotel for price! We had a great stay here. The furnishings were lovely, the continental breakfast tasty, and the indoor pool heated. I also loved that we were able to get adjoining rooms. Deal: Ask about the Ski Breakaway Package, which includes lift tickets to Monarch Mountain and passes to Salida Hot Springs or Mount Princeton Hot Springs.
Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort – Do not miss visiting these amazing (odorless!) natural hot springs. Lounging outdoors in warm to hot pools of water, surrounded by snow and icicles, is a wild experience. This was one of the highlights of our vacation. You can choose to pay for a day pass, or stay in a cabin or a cliffside or hillside room overnight. Deal: Through April 15, 2017, guests who present a Monarch Mountain lift ticket or ski pass will receive a 20% discount on their stay.
Amigo Motor Lodge – This lodge is hipster paradise. We loved it. Stay in a boutique hotel for a bargain price! Deal: If you purchase single-day lift tickets to Monarch Mountain and book Amigo Lodge using the referral code 1powderplace, you can receive a 10% discount.
For more information on Monarch Mountain, visit the website and stalk the Facebook page. Be sure to read the glowing Facebook reviews too, because they all seem to start with a statement about how Monarch is the best mountain in Colorado.
Disclosure: Consideration provided by brands mentioned in this post. No compensation was received for this post.