Any time you get above 11,000 feet, it can be hard to catch your breath. But atop Monarch Pass, a breath of fresh air has been pumped into a longtime outpost with the revival of the revamped Monarch at the Crest next to a 57-year-old tramway.
The restaurant and gift shop have gone through a few iterations, including a major fire. But last fall the operators of nearby Monarch ski area bought the property 2 miles up the pass, transformed the main building and are operating the gondola, which has six old-school buckets that each can hold up to four people.
The electric-powered tram – a slow ride to 12,012 feet on the Continental Divide in south-central Colorado – has been turning every year since 1966 (minus the 2020 pandemic summer).
“May or June in 1971 was the first time I rode it,” said Dan Bender, marketing director at Monarch ski area where he’s worked since 1982. “I remember my dad telling the operator ‘I gotta see that.’ And now I can every day.”
Like most iconic Colorado spots, the Crest has an intriguing history. A Gunnison County sheriff who patrolled U.S. 50 worked out a deal with the Forest Service to lease land at the 11,312-foot summit over Monarch Pass and opened a hamburger stand in 1954. The idea was to make a spot for travelers to let their cars cool down and take a break. The tram opened eight years later and made the pass an even more tempting roadside attraction.
The beautiful log building built in the 1950s, however, was struck by lightning on a Sunday night in July 1988 and burned down.
“I was finishing up college at Western (in Gunnison) when the original building burned. I was visiting my parents in Poncha Springs and heard it on my dad’s police scanner so I waited a couple of hours to make my trip back to Gunni,” Bender said. “I followed a fire truck up the pass the last mile or so and the building was reduced to just a few logs and was smoldering.”
Right away a new place was built that was more weatherproof – a series of interconnected concrete domes – but the restaurant slowly went dormant leaving a snack bar in the gift shop as the only option to get a bite. The property has changed hands a few times, but last year a twist of fate landed in the ski area’s favor.
A sale fell through for the property, and the ski area bosses happened to be looking to secure more parking for the booming resort. (They had an agreement with the previous owners who allowed some parking in exchange for clearing snow from the lot.) The new deal closed on Halloween, Bender said, and renovations led by Monarch general manager Randy Stroud started immediately.
The new space had a soft opening in May and the grand opening was June 10. The upgrades include a full-service restaurant and coffee bar, a large gift shop, and the staple of Colorado’s finest tourist stops: taxidermy. And Bender said one of the other big bonuses of taking over the summer spot is that more than a dozen seasonal winter employees at the resort now have full-time, year-round jobs.
When you’re ready to head to the top via the tram, pack some patience – and maybe a snack and drink – for the lift line, which can take a bit. (And you can always walk up the road, but be reminded of the rarefied air.) The 150-mile views from the observation deck at the top are breathtakingly beautiful. On a clear day visitors can see five mountain ranges: the Elk, Sawatch, San Juan, Uncompahgre and Sangre de Cristo.
In a state loaded with things to see, taking a trip to the top of Monarch Pass inside a 1960s tram then enjoying a nice lunch and some local history is pretty, well, Colorado cool.
Information on hours and tickets can be found at monarchatthecrest.com.