Monarch Mountain: A Natural Wonder

Monarch Mountain on a sunny winter's day with clouds floating above it A slice of the jaw-dropping landscape surrounding Monarch Mountain atop the Continental Divide. Photo by Daniel Gibson.

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Monarch Mountain’s clever marketing language notes, “I don’t know if you have ever skied snow that hasn’t been modified (i.e., manmade). But I can tell you there is a difference; much like the difference between a snow cone and ice cream. We’re the ice cream.”

Sitting atop the Continental Divide in the mighty Sawatch Range of south-central Colorado, surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks, Monarch Mountain is one of the few ski areas left in the nation that relies entirely on natural snowfall. With a summit elevation of 11,952 feet and an average of 350 inches of fluff falling every winter, they can get away with it.

Great Mix of Terrain

historic T-Bar at Monarch Mountain
The historic T-bar at Monarch is testimony to its founding way back in 1939. Photo courtesy Monarch Mountain

While not nearly as well known as other So CO ski areas like Wolf Creek, Crested Butte or Telluride. Monarch Mountain is actually one of the state’s oldest ski areas. It was launched in 1939, and hosted one of the nation’s premier annual races down its steep run Gunbarrel. Today, it has a handful of fixed-grip chairs that spreads people nicely across its 800 acres. An excellent hike-to 130-acre sector of open bowl and steep tree runs called Mirkwood ups the pucker factor considerably on runs such as Orcs and Staircase.

What To Expect

The terrain at Monarch runs from wide groomers to the steeps and deeps of Mirkwood on looker’s right.

But most of its lift-served skiing ranges from tame beginners to lots of intermediate cruisers and a few steepish mogul runs. Runs tend to be relatively short, with a vertical drop of 1,162 feet. About a decade ago, acres of pine trees were felled by spruce worm infestations and clogged its formerly fine tree skiing. But the area has made a supreme effort to clear more than 20,000 dead and down trees, and its forest skiing is now better than ever. Countless small glades and wide expanses dotted with infrequent trees make for wonderful skiing on a powder day.

Cat Skiing

The ski area is also home to Monarch Cat Skiing. Its reserved 1,650 acres includes steep headwalls, massive bowls, delightful low angle and steep forest runs, and a tasty lunch served up in the backcountry. While lack of time precluded a day with the snowcat operation this trip, I have sampled those delights on previous occasions.


I was recently reminded of Monarch’s many attributes when I visited it and the nearby charming town of Salida, with skiing partner Chris Spier. Sitting almost atop Monarch Pass on US 50 about 20 miles west of Salida, the ski area does not have onsite overnight accommodations but has a cafeteria for family dining. The rocking Sidewinder’s Saloon offers up some of the best bar bites in Colorado and adult beverages of your choice.

Families will also enjoy its Tubing Park, with rental tubes and a lift. It operates Fridays-Sundays and on holidays. Parents will also appreciate the ski area’s Children Center, for kids from 3-6, so Mom and Dad can have free time of their own! A true community center, the ski area hosts many annual winter events. One of the last of the ‘23-‘24 season will be March Radness, to be celebrated on March 24 with a Slope Style Competition and a Fun Race.

Producing Many Young Rippers

The entire Monarch Mountain freeride team from 2023-24 ski season with the ski resort behind them
The Monarch Mt. Freeride Team 2023-24. Dean Baker is 3rd from right front row in red jacket. His bother Jack is 6th from right top row in yellow helmet. Head coach Kyle Blakely is on far right. Image courtesy: Monarch Mountain Freeride Team

This community spirit is also evident in its active youth programs, including the Monarch Freeride Team. The team, under head coach Kyle Blakely, owner of Salida River Adventures, has about 20 members, ages 9-18, and is growing rapidly. Dean Baker, age 13, is one of the rising stars of the program. He’s been skiing at Monarch Mountain since he was three years old, when his family moved to Salida.

Dean’s been on the team for three years “but I’ve been following them around the mountain since I was five on what’s called the Intro Team,” he recently explained. “For me, the biggest thrill is in conquering things I’m afraid of, things I’ve never attempted before—a bigger cliff, a longer, steeper line—and pulling it off. I’ve started other sports and said, ‘Okay, I like this.’ But then when I start to get even slightly good at it, I lose interest. Skiing never gets boring. I never really had a problem with fear in the past, but last season I crashed and got a concussion. A head injury is scary. I struggled with mental issues, trying to always be the best. So, I decided to be happy, to do it simply for fun. That has worked out well.”

As Far As It Takes Him

For a youngster, Dean seems to have an unusual level of maturity, displaying ambition mixed with self-awareness and sensibility. How far does he foresee his extreme skiing passion taking him?  “As far as it takes me,” he says. Will he compete on the international circuit one day? “If I get there, yes.”

So far, results look promising. Inspired by his older brother, Jack Baker—who notched a 1st place finish at the 2023 freeride competition held at Taos Ski Valley and a 1st at Arapaho Basin’s comp in the under-19 class on March 12, 2024—Dean placed 14th (out of 50 competitors) at the final comp of the season held at Monarch.

While super steeps and cliffs are not apparent at Monarch, Dean notes that they can be found in the Mirkwood hike-to terrain. That’s where he and the freeride team spend most of their time training. “You have to work to get to these spots, but they’re there. We are still finding new ones.”

If You Visit

As this is written (updated 4/3/24), Monarch Mountain has received 273 inches of snow this season and has a 71-inch base. It often runs into mid-April; it just extended its operations and is now set to close the 2023-24 season on April 21. For further details, call 719/530-5000 or visit


The mighty Sawatch Range towers over the town of Salida’s dry lowland pastures. Photo by Daniel Gibson

The nearby town of Salida is a charming classic Colorado mountain community. The state’s largest historic district is dotted with handsome stone and brick buildings sporting fancy piedmonts and quaint homes donning elaborate Victorian era woodwork. Sitting on the banks of the mighty Arkansas River, it offers tremendous fishing, white water rafting, and kayaking, swimming and other water sports spring through fall. The town itself has an engineered white water course running alongside a park with a music band shell for outdoor concerts. Hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, ranging from mellow cruises to white-knuckle routes, all converge in town. Add in numerous nearby natural hot springs and an inexpensive public in-town indoor aquatic center filled with geothermal waters. In summer, jeep roads to old mining towns beckon.

Dining and Accommodations

Its historic core has many fine choices for dining. Particularly noteworthy the Boathouse Cantina, including excellent and affordable prime rib on certain days; Currents, High Side!, Moonlight Pizza and Brewpub, The Fritz and Sushi Thai Salida.

There are also numerous choices for lodging strung out along busy US 50, as well as in the historic district, and short-term house rentals. A great choice is the Woodlands Motel. Within walking distance of downtown, it’s in a quiet residential area, with the Arkansas River Trail just across the street. It has on-site parking, all non-smoking rooms, and pet friendly rooms. There is also a nice hot tub. Free breakfast items—hot and cold cereals, fruit and coffee—are found in the lobby. Rooms are clean and come in basic rooms, plus three efficiencies with small kitchens (just $146 including taxes!), and two 2-bedroom condos. Click here for details and to check rates.

2 thoughts on “Monarch Mountain: A Natural Wonder

  1. Aaah, Salida! Gone are the sleepy Colorado vibes, now a vibrant community with small river side homes. The building speculators hit Salida a few years ago and gone are the reasonable priced cottages and the possibility of a river side view. Every thing you love about Colorado is in Salida. Summer fun with warm days and lots to do. Best part is all the good eats are within blocks of the river. Our favorite are the pizza joint and the riverside restaurant. Sneak out the back door and your feet from some of the best ice cream on either side of the divide. Downtown Salida is still old school Colorado. In the summer they close off part of the road to allow for people to walk. Lots of fun shops and people watching. Grab a snack and sit by the river and watch the kids trying to surf the small falls. Or just give Rover some grass to march around in.

    The part that bothers me is what is happening with the building speculation. Yes location location pays the high price but plopping down one small zero lot after another just kills the area. Apparently the PZ board of Salida is looking for tax dollars and boy they are getting it.

    Monarch, this area gets great snow. The pass is high and it sits in a zone that captures lots of powder. Big deal if you are driving up to Monarch, snow tires, maybe chains, and four wheel drive. On most winter days the road is covered. Top to near bottom. Lots of trucks use this road to get to Gunnison and beyond. It can take over an hour to get back to Salida. There are usually numerous wrecks, eighteen wheelers to the family SUV going over the edge of the road. The drive up is very scenic and for the unaccustomed driver a white knuckle experience. But once you get to the parking lot it’s all fun. Pack a snack for the trip back, it could be a long one.

    Lots of smaller accommodations and a few condos but now an ever growing number of VRBO and short term rentals from the new growth. Salida is a quaint little town. With a regional hospital and at the cross roads to lots of adventure.

    1. Thanks Kenny Mckee for adding to the story. We noted the lack of for sale signs in Salida; like many desirable mountain towns in the West, it has serious growing pains. And yes, Monarch does get great snow, as the story starts off saying. But not every day is a snow day, and US 50 is often snow free, especially moving into late February and March. This winter it rarely got gnarly. Do be prepared though for storms at any time of the season.

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