Monarch Mountain plans new terrain as visitation, pass sales soar

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

Monarch ski area is busy. Pass sales more than doubled in the past three seasons. Skiers have flocked to the Chaffee County ski area, with visitation reaching more than 210,000 in 2022-23, up from 140,000 when Bob Nicolls led his investment group to buy the 800-acre ski area in 2002. 

“In the past, you have heard the old statement that if you build it, they will come,” Nicolls said. “Well, they are coming. Our significant increases in visitation and pass sales are telling the Forest Service that people like this access to their public lands at Monarch. We need to take care of them responsibly. We would like to reward our guests and open up more terrain. Now is the time.”

Last year Nicolls solved one of the thorniest problems of ski area growth — where to put skier cars — with his group’s purchase of the Monarch Crest tram and restaurant atop Monarch Pass a short spin from the ski area, adding more than 500 parking spots. The owners have already expanded existing parking lots and upgraded base area facilities. 

Now it’s time to add terrain. The Forest Service last week began reviewing a plan to expand Monarch’s ski terrain into No Name Basin. The proposal would add a fixed-grip four-pack chair accessing about 377 acres of north-facing slopes — with about 139 acres of developed glades and ski runs — in a basin that is already accessed by the ski area’s snowcat skiing operation. 

While there have been more than a dozen ski area terrain expansions in Colorado in the past several years, the Monarch expansion is the first in 15 years to seek Forest Service permission to expand beyond the resort’s special-use permit boundary. There are more than 120 ski areas on Forest Service land — which account for 60% of the nation’s skier visits — and all those ski areas operate with a special-use permit that outlines boundaries for lift-served skiing. 

Most ski areas only use a fraction of the acres inside that boundary and expansions are almost always inside the boundaries the Forest Service has designated for downhill, lift-served skiing.

The last time a Colorado ski area sought to grow beyond its special-use permit boundary was in the mid-2000s, when Crested Butte Mountain Resort planned to add 276 acres of new ski terrain on Forest Service land on the neighboring Snodgrass Mountain, where the ski area owner wanted to build a village on private land in the valley floor. The Forest Service, after five years of study, rejected the plan, sending shockwaves through the resort industry. 

Monarch is seeking Forest Service approval to expand its boundary by about 377 acres, with about 139 acres of developed ski terrain in No Name Basin north of the ski area. (Forest Service handout)

Crested Butte Mountain Resort owners hoped the expansion would help the Gunnison County ski area regain lost skiers. The Forest Service nixed the controversial expansion plan citing geological hazards. The federal agency has adjusted forest plans in the past two decades to concentrate ski area growth at resorts that are showing growing numbers and has been less inclined to approve expansions for ski areas seeking more terrain in hopes of drawing more skiers. 

That growth plan has led to additional terrain coming this year at Aspen Mountain, Steamboat and Keystone ski areas. Arapahoe Basin, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Crested Butte, Eldora, Loveland, Purgatory, Ski Cooper, Snowmass, Sunlight, Vail and Winter Park also have added new lifts and ski runs since the Snodgrass decision. 

All approved ski area expansions on federal land since the Snodgrass decision have been inside permitted boundaries. 

The 1991 forest plan for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests designated No Name Basin for existing and potential winter sports. Monarch’s 2011 Master Development Plan was approved by the Forest Service and included possible expansion of lift-served skiing into No Name Basin, even though the basin is not inside the ski area’s special-use permit. 

“Not only is the Monarch proposal consistent with the Forest Plan direction for the Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre and Gunnison National Forests, but it also includes terrain currently utilized by Monarch’s cat operation,” said Don Dressler, the mountain resort program manager for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region. 

Davey Pitcher, the owner of Wolf Creek ski area, added a 715-acre expansion to his resort’s Master Development Plan that includes about 200 acres of terrain outside the area’s permitted boundary. He’s going to be watching the process at Monarch. 

Pitcher has slowed his plan. He is waiting for the Rio Grande National Forest to begin gathering public input on an updated winter travel management plan that could change motorized recreation to Wolf Creek Pass. Pitcher’s plan for his expansion into a steep area known as the Matchless Pod does not include any motorized access. 

He is considering working toward an outfitter’s permit to bring guided backcountry skiers into the zone. And while he is showing significant growth with visits hovering around 260,000 for the last several seasons — up from less than 200,000 a decade earlier — Pitcher says his single-lift push into the expert terrain of Matchless is “an experiential expansion trying to keep the spirit of low density and uncluttered skiing.”

For example, skiers will have to hike to reach the zone, just as they have to hike to reach the area’s Knife Edge. 

“It doesn’t always have to be the cookie-cutter model you know,” he said. 

The National Association of Counties at its most recent meeting in June approved a resolution to ask the Forest Service to better engage local communities when approving those Master Development plans. The resolution cited “a chronic lack of Forest Service staff capacity and resources” and “a failure to adequately consider the full range of effects” of ski area expansion plans on local communities. 

The association asked the Forest Service to develop new policies to guide ski areas expansions with suggestions that included requiring ski area operators to meet several mitigation  and stewardship commitments before proposing expansions. The association also asked for better analysis of direct, indirect and overall impacts of ski areas expansions in mountain valleys. 

Ski area master development plans “are developed with little, if any, public input or significant consideration of anything beyond the ski resort’s interests,” reads the association’s resolution, which asserts that in-depth environmental review of terrain expansion plans by the Forest Service are narrowed to the ski area’s needs and “any input from the public and other stakeholders, including local governments, that does not conform to the stated purpose and need of the project is brushed aside as being ‘outside the scope.’”

The Forest service is hosting public events to solicit comments in Salida and Gunnison next month. The last time the ski area harvested public input, it was for its 2011 Master Development Plan.  

“There was universal approval for everything in the master plan, including this project,” said Nicolls, who hopes to begin cutting trees killed by the spruce beetle and adding ski runs next summer and installing a chairlift in the summer of 2025 to open  in the winter of 2025-26. “The bottom line here is that people want to use their forest. We can open this in a way that is not impactful while getting more people outdoors.”