Vail passes: Monarch Pass has spectacular views |

Vail passes: Monarch Pass has spectacular views

Rick Spitzer
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Rick Spitzer

Monarch Pass straddles the Continental Divide 23 miles west of the town of Salida. It is the only Colorado pass that has a commercial tourist operation other than a gift shop located on its summit. Departing from Monarch Pass and ascending 700 feet to an elevation of 12,012 feet, The Monarch Crest Scenic Tram offers visitors sprawling Rocky Mountain views, which include Pikes Peak and the Continental Divide. Built in 1966, the tramway begins at a large gift shop located atop the pass.

The Monarch and Little Charm silver mines were staked on what was once called Limestone Mountain and later renamed Monarch Hill. To reach the mines, Hugh and Sam Boone constructed the Monarch Pass Toll Road in 1880. They later extended it to the Tomichi and White Pine mining camps farther west in Gunnison County. The original route over Monarch Pass goes through what is now the Monarch Mountain ski area. Maps still call it Old Monarch Pass. It is a well-maintained dirt road that can be accessed off US 50, just east of the summit of Monarch Pass. Though the first few hundred yards of the road are very steep, the views from just above the summit are spectacular and well worth the trip.

The current route over the pass was completed in 1939 and, at 11,312 feet, is the high point for U.S. 50. At over 3,000 miles long, U.S. 50 is one of the longest highways in the United States. A July 1997 Time Magazine article called it “the backbone of America.” It is also known as “The Loneliest Road in America.”


The city of Salida constructed the Monarch Pass Ski Area, on the east side of the pass, with the help of the Works Project Administration (WPA), a program President Franklin Roosevelt initiated in 1935 to reduce unemployment during the Great Depression. They completed the ski area in December 1939 and dedicated it as the Monarch Winter Sports Area in February 1940. It is now called Monarch Mountain.

Indian paintbrush: a palette of color

The palette of color for Indian paintbrush includes an incredible range. The name “paintbrush” could not be more appropriate. The bright colors of the paintbrush are not actually its flowers-they are bracts, or leaflike structures, around the flowers. The flower itself is a pale green spike hidden in the bracts. Since the leaves contain the color, it appears that the plant blooms for an entire summer!

Indian paintbrush grows in North and Central America, Asia, and the Andes. The majority of species grow in the West, but some are found in the central portion of the U.S. and on the East Coast. Habitats include grasslands, deserts, woodland shrub, and bogs. A very short yellow version is common on the alpine tundra.

The plant actually depends on other plants for survival-it is a parasite and therefore unable to survive alone in the soil. A tissue that grows from its roots takes water and nutrients from the roots of other plants, such as grass, sagebrush, and buckwheat. For this reason paintbrush are seldom successfully grown in flower gardens. Some gardeners have been successful when they plant them with a clump of blue grama grass as a host plant.

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Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.

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