Snow search leads to Monarch
óBarb and Ty Belknap
Itís snowing outside the Signpost office today. Finally! Maybe there is still a chance that weíll enjoy some good skiing in New Mexico this winter. Colorado got plenty of snow in January. Right after the first of the year we were up to our thighs in powder, one day at Wolf Creek, and then, after the pass was closed and a lot of hard driving, a second day in Durango.
That should have been enough for one month, but, although somewhat depleted financially, we wanted more. So the following weekend we returned to Colorado to check out a place only dimly recalled from Tyís ski-bum days of yore: Monarch Ski and Snowboard Area. With gear affixed to the top of our car, we took our son Evan out of school a little early, drove north past Santa Fe, and took NM 285 all the way through Tres Piedras to Alamosa. The sun was setting copper on the snowcapped peaks of the Sangre de Cristos above the San Luis Valley, and we could see in the distance to the east a remarkable purple swath that was the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. We drove the final fifteen miles in darkness on CO 50 through Poncha Pass.
It took about five hours total to reach our weekend accommodations at Monarch Mountain Lodge, which offers a restaurant and lively bar, as well as hot tubs, a comfortably warm indoor swimming pool, redwood sauna, Ping-Pong and pool tables, a fitness center, and racquetball. All this for only $59 per night for guests who ski at Monarch. We had some of their excellent pizza in our room, then tried playing racquetball at the 9,200-foot elevation. That didnít last long.
Skies were clear in the morning for the three-mile drive to Monarch Pass and the ski and snowboard area on the eastern flank of the Continental Divide. Conditions were fifty inches of packed powder at midway with several inches of new snow. There are no snowmaking machines, but the annual snowfall is approximately 350 inches, plenty for the areaís 670 acres of skiable terrain.
The Monarch Ski Valley below
Monarch boasts fifty-four trails: 21 percent beginner, 37 percent intermediate, and 42 percent advanced. Its longest run covers two miles. The terrain is accessed by four double chairlifts and a quad chair lift. Lift tickets are relatively inexpensive at $44 for adults, $26 for seniors, and $17 for children under twelve.
At 11,961 feet in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, the view from the ski area summit of the rugged Sawatch Mountain Range is glorious. They groom half of several intermediate runs and leave moguls on the other half, giving a place to practice for the advanced terrain, which though nothing like Taos, is challenging enough for most skiers and too much for most snowboarders. There were glades winding through the woods and plenty of powder off the trails in the trees. We had a lot of fun and had no trouble wearing out our legs by the end of each day.
AprŤs-ski at Monarchís lounge and bar was also a fine place to be, with $2 happy-hour pints of local microbrew. Then we enjoyed the obligatory hot tub back at the lodge before venturing eighteen miles into Salida, which serves as the ski town. Salida has an historic district full of eating and drinking establishments with punched-tin ceilings and hand-carved wooden-back bars.
The view from the mountainís summit
Like many communities in Colorado, the town of Salida sprang up quickly with the coming of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, which ran trains to the mines and hoped to be first over the Rockies with a through connection to the West Coast. Advancing from the east through the Royal Gorge, the tracks reached Salida by 1880. As riches flowed from the mines in 1928, sightseers discovered they could traverse Americaís highest mountains in style aboard elegant rail cars. A museum in the heart of town holds the relics of this bygone era. The rails have been long since been replaced by highways.
Back on the mountain, Monarch Ski and Snowboard Area seemed to be the area of choice for families and mountain people who live nearby and in cities within a two-hour radius. They like it because it is uncrowded, unpretentious, and inexpensive. We liked it for the same reasons. Although it is five hours away, the drive is really quite painless on flat, straight roads through some of the most beautiful open country in Colorado and New Mexico.
For more information, call 719-539-4820, or visit www.skimonarch.com. The area also offers other seasonal activities such as whitewater rafting, hiking, mountain biking, fly fishing, and hot springs.