Nestled within the Continental Divide, Monarch Pass serves as a gateway to some of the most exhilarating outdoor experiences in Colorado. This comprehensive guide aims to offer visitors a 360-degree view of what the area has to offer—be it hiking, camping, climbing, or even just taking in the panoramic vistas. We will also delve into the history of this iconic pass, offer some insider tips, and emphasize the importance of safety and Leave No Trace practices.
Table of Contents
History of Monarch Pass and Surrounding Area
Monarch Pass has a rich history dating back to the late 19th century, initially serving as a route for miners and later as a critical transportation link between the Eastern and Western Slopes of Colorado.
Early Exploration and Settlement
The area surrounding Monarch Pass was initially inhabited by Native American tribes, most notably the Ute people, who utilized the region for hunting and seasonal migration. With the westward expansion of European settlers and the discovery of precious metals like gold and silver in the Colorado mountains, Monarch Pass became increasingly important as a navigable route for miners and explorers.
In the late 19th century, the mining boom led to the need for reliable transportation routes to move ore, supplies, and people across the rugged terrain. The pass was originally developed as a toll road in the 1880s to facilitate easier passage for horse-drawn wagons. Mining towns sprang up in the vicinity, further reinforcing the significance of Monarch Pass as a crucial economic and logistical hub.
Development of U.S. Highway 50
By the early 20th century, the advent of the automobile necessitated the upgrade and maintenance of roads, and U.S. Highway 50 was eventually routed over Monarch Pass. The highway connected the towns of Gunnison and Salida and became part of a broader network linking the east and west coasts of the United States. The construction of the road involved considerable engineering feats, given the steep grades and challenging weather conditions of the area.
Modern Era and Outdoor Recreation
In the latter half of the 20th century, as mining activities dwindled, the focus around Monarch Pass shifted towards outdoor recreation. The Monarch Pass gift shop and tramway opened in 1655 and made the pass a major rest stop for tourists, putting it on the map for travelers. Today, the area is a popular destination for skiing, snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking, and fishing, drawing tourists from across the country and the world. Ski resorts like the Monarch Ski Area have also contributed to the local economy, turning the pass into a year-round destination.
Monarch Pass Photos
Here are some of my favorite photos of Monarch Pass from previous trips and visits to the area. Bring your camera to take some spectacular shots; the area is home to magnificent peaks, crags, and the autumn colors will leave you speechless.
You can approach Monarch Pass from the west via Gunnison or from the east via Salida and Poncha Pass. Here are some directions and travel tips for getting there.
To get to Monarch Pass from Gunnison, head east on US Highway 50, also known as Tomichi Avenue within the city limits. Continue on this highway for approximately 45 miles, crossing through beautiful landscapes with views of rivers, mountains, and valleys.
As you approach the town of Sargents, you’ll start gaining elevation. Follow US-50 East until you reach Monarch Pass. The pass is clearly marked, and you’ll find parking and amenities there for your convenience.
If you’re coming from the Poncha Springs or Salida area, you’ll want to take US Highway 50 West towards Poncha Springs, which is about 5 miles west of Salida. From Poncha Springs, continue on US-50 West as it starts to ascend into the mountains. You’ll drive through a series of switchbacks and curves, so exercise caution and enjoy the sweeping vistas of the San Isabel National Forest as you climb.
After approximately 18 miles from Poncha Springs, you’ll arrive at Monarch Pass. Like from the Gunnison direction, the pass is well-marked with ample parking and amenities available.
Monarch Pass Travel Tips
Here are some best practices to have a safe and enjoyable trip to Monarch Pass:
- Check Road Conditions: Before heading out, always check the latest road conditions, especially during winter months. Monarch Pass is subject to seasonal closures, and snow or ice can make driving hazardous. Always check to ensure the pass is open.
- Vehicle Preparednes: Ensure your vehicle is in good condition. This is especially crucial in winter months, where snow tires or chains may be required. Keep an emergency kit in your car with water, snacks, first-aid kit, light, and blankets.
- Fuel Up First: The nearest gas stations are nearly twenty miles away in either Salida and Gunnison. Make sure to fill up your gas tank before making the trip, as there are no fuel stations directly at the pass.
- Travel During Daylight: While the pass is open 24/7, it’s safer to travel during daylight hours when visibility is better, wildlife are easier to see, and help is more readily available in case of an emergency.
- Overtaking and Passing: The roads to Monarch Pass have several twists and turns, and visibility can be limited. Use designated passing zones and pull-outs. Be cautious when overtaking other vehicles, especially trucks or RVs.
Once you arrive at Monarch Pass, the real fun begins. Let’s turn to the many things to do and places to explore at and around the summit.
13 Things To Do Near Monarch Pass
What is there to do at and around the pass? Here are a dozen or so ideas to get you started. In reality, the options are endless!
The easiest and most obvious thing to do here is drive and enjoy the views and vistas along the pass. There are dozens of good spots to pull off and get out to breathe in the fresh mountain air, enjoy the autumn colors, and see if you can spot local wildlife like bears, deer, elk, and moose. There is a large parking area at the top of the pass to stop for a while above the tree line too.
Monarch Pass boasts an array of trails suitable for hikers of all levels. Some popular options include:
- Monarch Crest Trail: 31.5 miles, 1,965 feet of elevation gain. Read More
- Waterdog Lakes Trail: 3.2 miles, 1,062 feet of elevation gain. Read More
- Hunt Lake Trail: 7.2 miles, 1,919 feet of elevation gain. Read More
- Boss Lake Trail: 4.8 miles, 1,272 feet of elevation gain. Read More
- Greens Creek Trail: 13.5 miles, 2,923 feet of elevation gain. Read More
Monarch Pass is in the southern Sawatch Range, home to many of Colorao’s tallest summits. There are many high peaks in the area to hike and climb. Some of the closest fourteeners and thirteeners include:
Rock climbing around Monarch Pass mainly focuses on traditional routes, and the area offers a variety of climbing experiences, from single-pitch climbs to multi-day adventures. These routes are usually attempted by experienced climbers – this is not the best area for those just getting started.
The Monarch Crest Trail is a bucket-list mountain biking route that offers a challenging yet rewarding experience for those willing to tackle it. Ensure you are well-prepared and understand the trail conditions before embarking on this adventure. There are dozens of other single-track trails in the area as well.
Monarch Pass is unique among Colorado passes for its extensive scenic tramway. It takes visitors to the top of the Continental Divide, a few hundred feet above the pass to 12,012 feet, with stunning views and a small gift shop and cafe called Monarch Pass to take home a souvenir from your adventure. First built in 1966, the attraction was an immediate hit with visitors using the pass, especially Greyhound bus passengers who had to wait at the pass for the engines to cool before continuing down the mountain. It closes each fall and opens in the spring.
Monarch Pass is a great place to start your next backpacking trip. Both of Colorado’s most well-known backpacking trails pass through the area, with lots of parking available while you spend a few days (or weeks) in the backcountry.
- The Colorado Trail: One of the most famous long-distance trails in the U.S., the Colorado Trail runs for approximately 485 miles from Denver to Durango. The segment that passes near Monarch Pass offers a challenging yet rewarding experience, crossing the Continental Divide and providing breathtaking views.
- The Continental Divide Trail: The CDT is one of America’s great long-distance trails, spanning 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada. A section of the CDT intersects with Monarch Pass, providing an opportunity for ambitious backpackers to tackle a segment of this epic trail.
The old Monarch Pass road is still open and accessible to 4WD vehicles with high clearance. Once the area melts out in late July, it becomes a popular offroading destination. The road links up with other 4WD roads in the forest service road network. Tread lightly and only use official roads to reduce your impact on public lands.
For angling enthusiasts, the South Arkansas River and nearby alpine lakes offer an excellent opportunity to fish for trout in a serene mountain setting. Get your fishing license and bait in Salida or Gunnison before heading up the pass.
Monarch Pass has a rich mining history and several ghost towns. These abandoned communities are relics of a bygone era, providing a fascinating glimpse into the lives and hardships of those who tried to make a living during Colorado’s mining boom. Here are a few notable ghost towns near Monarch Pass:
- White Pine: Once a bustling mining town, White Pine is now a shadow of its former self. Rich in silver and gold, the town attracted prospectors and families alike in the late 1800s. However, depleted resources and economic downturns led to its decline. Today, it serves as a haunting yet picturesque relic, frequented by history enthusiasts and adventure seekers.
- Hancock: Nestled high in the Sawatch Range, Hancock was originally established as a railroad supply center before transitioning into a mining town. At its peak, it was home to about 1,000 residents and multiple businesses. Despite initial prosperity, harsh winters and dwindling ore supplies led to its eventual abandonment. Now, only a few structures and the remnants of the old Alpine Tunnel bear witness to its history.
- Saint Elmo: Perhaps one of the best-preserved ghost towns in Colorado, Saint Elmo was once a vibrant hub for gold and silver mining. The town was known for its saloons, dance halls, and general stores, serving a population of nearly 2,000 at its height. Today, its well-maintained wooden buildings, including a schoolhouse and a church, attract tourists and photographers looking to capture a slice of the Old West.
Skiing & Snowboarding
Monarch Ski Resort offers alpine skiing during the winter months at Monarch Pass. Popular with locals, the small ski hill is a favorite with many Salida and Gunnison residents. The area around the pass is home to backcountry skiing opportunities, too, for those with the right avalanche gear and training.
Not into skiing? Rent a pair of snowshoes in Salida or Gunnison and head up to the pass to try snowshoeing along the Continental Divide. While avalanche danger lurks in many areas, you can avoid it by staying on the ridge itself. Always check the Avalanche forecast and know before you go. We also recommend getting avalanche training and bringing a probe, transceiver, and shovel with you, along with a partner who can dig you out.
Mountain Towns Near Monarch Pass
While visiting the pass, you might as well check out one or two of the nearby mountain towns as well. Each offers its own charm and history to explore and enjoy. These are three of the closest towns with more than 100 people.
Poncha Springs, Colorado
A small town of several hundred between the pass and Salida, its downtown is home to several small cafes and shops that can provide necessities.
Known for its vibrant arts scene and outdoor recreational opportunities, Salida is a must-visit for anyone exploring Monarch Pass.
A charming mountain town with a rich history, Gunnison is another excellent base for your Monarch Pass adventures.
Where To Stay
Dispersed camping spots are located at numerous pull-offs and along the Old Monarch Pass road for those with 4WD. There are also multiple developed campgrounds and lodging options in nearby towns for those so inclined.
Camping Near Monarch Pass
- Angel of Shavano Campground: This campground offers basic amenities and serves as an excellent base for exploring the trails around Monarch Pass.
- Monarch Park Campground: Situated closer to the pass, this campsite offers easy access to a variety of outdoor activities.
- Mt. Shavano KOA: This privately-run campground isn’t the quietest or cheapest in the world, but it offers more amenities and is RV-friendly.
Lodging Near Monarch Pass
- Amigo Motor Lodge: A stylish motel in western Salida with a hot tub and sunroom for extra relaxation without hotel prices.
- Monarch Mountain Lodge: Ideal for those looking to make the most of their outdoor adventures, this lodge provides comfortable accommodations and a rustic atmosphere.
- The Lodge at Poncha Springs: A rustic motel near the pass with country-style rooms, free Wi-Fi, and a no-frills complimentary breakfast.
Remember to Leave No Trace
To ensure we can all continue to enjoy the beauty and serenity of Monarch Pass, it’s essential to follow Leave No Trace principles. Here are some key reminders for practicing responsible outdoor ethics.
Plan Ahead and Prepare
Before embarking on your adventure, do your homework. Know the rules and regulations of the area, including fire restrictions and camping policies. Proper planning will enable you to make informed decisions, reducing the risk of unintentional environmental impact.
Stick to the Trail
Alpine tundra is extremely fragile and can take nearly a century to recover from repeated trampling. When hiking or off-roading, stick to official trails and routes to avoid unnecessary damage to the ecosystem of Monarch Pass.
Dispose of Waste Properly
Always pack out what you pack in, including food wrappers, bottles, and other trash. Utilize designated waste disposal facilities when available. If you’re camping, dig small holes at least 200 feet from water sources to dispose of human waste.
Leave What You Find
It might be tempting to take home a souvenir like a rock, plant, or historical artifact, but the rule here is simple: don’t. Removing or disturbing natural and cultural features can have long-lasting effects on the ecosystem.
Minimize Campfire Impact
If fires are allowed, use established fire rings or fire pans, and keep your fires small. Always put out your fire completely before leaving. In areas where fires are prohibited, use portable stoves for cooking.
Monarch Pass is home to a diverse range of wildlife. Always observe animals from a distance and never feed them, as human food is harmful and alters their natural behaviors.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Maintain a courteous attitude towards other visitors. Keep noise levels down, and follow trail etiquette like yielding to uphill hikers. A collective sense of responsibility makes the outdoor experience enjoyable for everyone.
Monarch Pass, Colorado: Now You Know
Whether you head to the pass as your destination or as a waypoint along a bigger journey, it is worth your time to explore. With hiking and biking trails, climbing routes, skiing, snowboarding, ghost towns, and even a tramway up to the Continental Divide, you could spend a week here and still not see it all. Remember to leave no trace during your visit to protect the pass for future generations, and keep our travel and safety tips in mind to have a safe and enjoyable visit. Safe travels on the trails!
FAQs - Monarch Pass
Q: How hard is it to drive Monarch Pass?
A: Driving over Monarch Pass can be challenging, especially for those unaccustomed to mountain driving or operating large vehicles. The road features sharp curves, steep inclines, and declines, requiring drivers to be alert and cautious. In winter, the conditions can become even more difficult due to snow and ice. Make sure your vehicle is in good condition, and consider using snow chains if you’re traveling during the colder months.
Q: Is Monarch Pass safe to drive?
A: Monarch Pass is generally safe to drive if you take proper precautions and adhere to posted speed limits and road signs. However, like any mountain pass, it has its share of hazards, including steep grades and sharp turns. Weather conditions can also impact safety, making it crucial to check the forecast and road conditions before setting out. Drivers should be comfortable with mountain driving and prepared for quickly changing conditions.
Q: Is Monarch Pass open year-round?
A: Yes, Monarch Pass is generally open year-round. However, severe weather conditions like heavy snowfall, avalanches, or rockslides can lead to temporary closures. Always check road conditions and possible closures before you start your journey, especially during the winter months.
Q: How long does it take to drive over Monarch Pass?
A: The time it takes to drive over Monarch Pass can vary depending on road conditions and your starting and ending points. Generally, the stretch of U.S. Highway 50 that crosses the pass is about 12 miles long, and it typically takes about 20-30 minutes to drive, not accounting for stops to enjoy the view or any potential delays due to weather or traffic.
Q: Where does Monarch Pass start?
A: Monarch Pass is a high mountain pass located on the Continental Divide, crossing the Sawatch Range. It’s accessed via U.S. Highway 50. The eastern starting point is roughly near the small town of Maysville, Colorado, and the western end is near Sargents, Colorado.
Q: Does Monarch Pass ever close?
A: While Monarch Pass is generally open year-round, it can be temporarily closed due to severe weather conditions like heavy snow, avalanches, or rockslides. It’s important to check the latest road conditions and alerts before setting out, particularly in winter or during periods of heavy rainfall.
Q: What is the grade of Monarch Pass?
A: Monarch Pass has a relatively steep grade, with some sections having a grade of up to 6.4%. This makes it essential for drivers, particularly those in large vehicles or RVs, to be cautious and maintain a low speed. The steep grade can make descents especially tricky, so make sure your vehicle’s brakes are in excellent condition before attempting the drive.
Q: Is Monarch Pass paved?
A: Yes, Monarch Pass is fully paved. The road is part of U.S. Highway 50, which is well-maintained. However, like any mountain road, it can become slippery and dangerous due to snow, ice, or rain, so drivers should exercise caution and be prepared for a variety of driving conditions.
Q: Does Monarch Pass have guardrails?
A: Monarch Pass does have guardrails along certain sections of the road, particularly where there are steep drop-offs or sharp turns. However, it’s important to note that not all areas of the pass are equipped with guardrails. As with any mountainous driving route, the presence of guardrails should not be relied upon as a safety net. Drivers should remain vigilant, adhere to posted speed limits, and exercise caution, especially in challenging weather conditions.