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Monarch Mountain: How this small resort reaches big heights for families

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I learned to ski on a tiny two-lift hill within Calgary, Canada’s city limits. As much as I love exploring large ski areas, I feel drawn to these smaller homegrown resorts that are solely about the skiing without the pomp, circumstance and inflated prices. A place where everyone knows your name…and that I don’t drink beer and my name is not Norm.

Monarch Mountain is such a place. Located 150 miles from Denver via U.S. 285, this small ski resort has soaring elevations, stellar family terrain, unbeatable views and big snow (it is second only to Wolf Creek for the biggest snow totals in Colorado). Unlike Summit County’s sardine-packed resorts, Monarch has no neighbors and there’s nothing fake about it—including the all-natural snow.

The Mountain

Monarch’s free parking lot provides quick, easy access to the base. My husband Jamie and I leave our gear in the car to avoid renting lockers while we check our kids into ski school. We pre-registered online, making the equipment rental process smooth. Within 20 minutes, my kids are whisked away with their instructors: Bode with 30-year Monarch veteran Dan and Hadley with her new BFF Sha.monarchinstructors

What’s left for a parent to do? SKI! We connect with Jack Sciacca, assistant vice president of guest services and the former president of the Rocky Mountain PSIAA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) who knows a thing or two (hundred) about the mountain. We do a full tour on all 6 lifts and only put a small dent in this 800-acre resort, catching a glimpse of the additional 130 acres of hike-to terrain and another 900 acres of backcountry accessible via snowcat tours.

I’m always curious when accomplished skiers like Sciacca settle in small places and ask him what sets Monarch apart. “It’s the quintessential local’s hill. It may seem small but it skis big.” He points to a cone-shaped peak. “You can ski 360-degrees off that mountain. There are so many areas like that for all levels of skiers and riders.”

He takes us up Panorama chair where we top out at nearly 12,000 feet along the Continental Divide with views of Colorado’s most iconic peaks, many of them 14ers.  From our vantage point along the spine of the Sawatch Mountains, we gape at 14,232-foot Mount Shavano, the San Juans’ ocean of crags, the Gunnison Valley, the West Elk Range and even Pike’s Peak is visible in the distance.   monarch2a

Insider’s Tip: Stop by their ‘Pick a Peak,’ a butterfly-shaped tool at the top of the mountain that teaches you which peaks you’re looking at from your perch. Also, the whole family can enjoy the views and ski the Continental Divide–there is green run access from the tippy-top to the bottom of the hill.

monarch3aBack at the base area, the Caterpillar conveyer lift is where beginning skiers transform into butterflies (hence the ‘Monarch’ connection?)  There is also a separate ski school-only area with two surface lifts. I fall in love with the idea of their Mini and Me program, a dual-teaching lesson where the instructor teaches the child while also teaching the parent how to teach the child. If you want the whole family to stay together, their Play Together lessons are designed for three to 10 people, ages seven and up, of similar ability levels. If your kiddos are too young to ski, there is an on-site childcare center.

We reconnect with the kids and eat lunch at the Sidewinder Saloon in the multi-level lodge, devouring our specialty burgers and gargantuan nachos that keep us fueled until dinner. We ski together as a family that afternoon. I catch some serious (1-inch) air at the two terrain parks while Hadley takes us down her favorite run, Short-N-Sweet. All is going well until we spot an unmarked, well-traversed trail through the trees. What we thought would be an easy glade traverse is actual a powder stash of narrow moguls. Hadley hates every moment while Bode and his short skis blow the rest of us away.

“We must do that again!” I indulge him at the end of the day while Jamie and Hadley wisely head to the lodge. This time I keep pace with him but not without a near tree encounter or twelve.

All in a good day’s fun at Monarch Mountain.


Monarch Mountain Lodge is the only property near the base and there are plenty of affordable lodging options 20 miles away in Salida, a whitewater rafting and mountain biker’s haven. We knock an item off my bucket list by staying at Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort in Nathrop, easily one of the most gorgeous locations in Colorado at the base of 14,196-foot Mount Princeton and the Chalk Cliffs. There are quaint rooms in the lodge but we opt for a cozy log cabin with two bedrooms and a loft that the kids fight over with Bode as the eventual victor.

A soak in natural hot springs is said to increase circulation, detoxify and reduce stress but all we care about is relaxing in the 100 percent natural and odorless geothermic springs after a long ski day.

mount-princeton-hot-springsThe Historic Bath House was established in 1867 and we start in the adjacent soaking pools that reach temperatures up to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and the exercise pool in the 90s. But then we spot something peculiar: people relaxing in Chalk Creek. In winter.

We investigate these creekside hot springs that are broken down into natural makeshift pools formed with river rocks. The idea is better than the reality. The water is shallow enough that to be fully covered, we need to lie down, a more desirable option in the summer but not with frigid outside temperatures.

We spot some people crossing a bridge over Chalk Creek and like the lemmings we are, we blindly follow. What we didn’t note was this Spa & Club sanctuary is reserved for guests age 16 and above. My kids are 9 and 11. For once our ignorance paid off and we repented later of our trespass (and trespassing).

This area of the resort is the most desirable and we soak in the relaxation pool. Bode marvels he’s never seen such bright stars and we’re lost in the sparkle of the Milky Way—an eruption of stars shooting out from Mount Princeton.

 We vow for a return visit in the summer to enjoy the kid-focused Upper Pool with a 400-foot waterslide fed by the natural spring but our contraband night of soaking at Mount Princeton  Hot Springs Resort under a titanic swarm of 300,000 suns bound together by gravity and time is one we won’t soon forget.


Colorado Ski Country offer a gem-of-a- deal to Utah’s smaller resorts. The $25 Gems Card entitles guests at eight Colorado ski areas to purchase one adult full-day lift ticket and receive another adult full-day lift ticket for free. Each Gems Card is good for one use per Gems resort, per season, and only a limited number of Gems Cards are available for sale. Gems Card holders also have exclusive access to Flash Deals, which are special promotions and additional ways to save that are unique to each Gems resort. Participating resorts are Arapahoe Basin, Eldora Mountain Resort, Loveland Ski Area, Monarch Mountain, Powderhorn Resort, Ski Cooper, Ski Granby Ranch, and Sunlight Mountain Resort. Available mid-September 2016 through February 2017.

Amber Johnson
Author: Amber Johnson

Amber is the founder and editor of Mile High Mamas, travel writer and former columnist for The Denver Post. She is a passionate community builder and loves the outdoors. She has two awesome teens and is happily married to a man obsessed with growing The Great Pumpkin.

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