By Mike Rosso
For many years, I’ve driven right past this popular tourist attraction on top of Monarch Pass, but have never stopped in the gift shop or ridden the tram.
This morning I took advantage of some relatively clear weather to visit and learn about the Monarch Crest Giftshop and Tramway, the highest commercial business along the entire length of U.S. Hwy. 50.
It started with a visit to the 10,800 square-foot gift shop with Edie Schoenfeld who, along with her husband Jerry, recently bought the business from her parents, Jim and Deanne Littrell.
The original giftshop and restaurant was opened in 1954 by Elmo Bevington, a former owner of Monarch Ski Area, along with George Cope, a former Colorado state highway patrolman and Gunnison County Sheriff who often patrolled Monarch Pass. Cope had gotten wind that the U.S. Forest Service was offering up some land at the top of the pass for someone to open a hamburger stand. He contacted Bevington, and the two leased five acres from the Forest Service with an agreement to pay a small percentage of the profits to them.
The original business was also a rest stop for Greyhound buses making the journey over the pass, allowing the overworked engines to cool down while passengers disembarked for some high-altitude grub.
The restaurant and gift shop were sold by Bevington to Dick and Ann Fortune in 1976. In 1988, lightning struck the building and it burned to the ground. It was then replaced by a concrete structure incorporating a series of domes, using 172 tons of rebar. After the rebuild, the Fortune’s sold the business to their parents, Tal and Doris Ruttham, in 1989. The restaurant never reopened, but there is a snack bar in the gift shop which offers ice cream, homemade fudge and other food items.
In 1994, the operation was again sold, this time to the Littrells.
The aerial tramway, which opened on June 1, 1966, was actually run by the ski area until 1997. Built by Butala Construction of Salida, it was the first gondola tram in Colorado and is still its oldest working tramway. In the early days, Bevington was offering jeep tours up to the Continental Divide, and he built an octagonal, two-story, log-sided observation building at the top of the tram; the foundation remains to this day. (See the cover photo.)
Each tram car seats four and offers a thrilling ride up a mountainside to 12,012 feet, with an astonishing view of the Rocky Mountains in all directions. In fact, the tram building sits partially astraddle the Continental Divide. It is continually being upgraded to meet modern safety standards.
The bottom of the tram is in Gunnison County and the top sits in Chaffee County. The gift shop is in Chaffee as well, making for some interesting taxation for the Schoenfelds. The buildings are owned by them, but the grounds are on a 100-year lease with the USFS.
The giftshop was doing a very brisk business when we stopped in, and it is no wonder; they host nearly 250,000 visitors a year and the tram sees about 15,000 riders annually. They also employ around 22 locals.
Next time you are driving over Monarch Pass, take some time to stop in for a true Colorado tourist experience.
The tram is open seven days a week from May 15 through September 15, weather permitting, and the gift shop is open from March through November. Visit www.monarchcrest.net for more information.
Thanks to Edie Schoenfeld, Craig Cope, Duane Vandenbusche, Susan Jesuroga and Arlene Shovald for their help with this article.