When I first moved to Colorado from Boston back in the mid-1980's, I had an East Coast view of Denver as a backward cowtown inhabited by ill-mannered cowboys who chewed tobacco, rode horses and drove cattle. Denver turned out to be a beautiful, progressive city with lots of cultural opportunities and a fine place to live. Cowboys and cowtowns, however, do still exist throughout Colorado and the western states. Cowboys are not particularly ill-mannered at all, but they do chew, ride horses and they still drive cattle. They still wear cowboy hats, cowboy boots and Levis, but they've all got their iPhones.
As we drove up into the mountains recently, we couldn't help but appreciate the wild, wide open spaces of Colorado, so unlike the East. Views go on forever under clear, crisp blue skies. We climbed up, up, up over snowy Berthoud Pass into the high country.
Some mountain towns have been taken over by ski resorts and gambling. We choose to bypass them. We'd prefer sussing out the unique aspects of the little ranching and mining towns. Horse and cattle ranches stretch for hundreds of acres across the high country. Arched signs mark the dirt road ranch entrances and sometimes the ranch buildings are so far away, you can barely see them.
We passed through towns like Fraser, Hot Sulphur Springs and Tabernash, crossed the Troublesome and Muddy Rivers and drove along side the mighty Colorado. Snow-covered peaks named Granny's Nipple and Buffalo Mountain always catch our attention and our imagination.
We stayed one night in Kremmling, Sportman's Paradise, a small mountain town on US40, population ~1,400 and founded in 1884. David's family used to live here and we know the layout of this tiny town well. There's not much to know and not much changes. During hunting season (now), the population soars and talk at the local Quarter Circle Saloon vacillated from cattle issues and stock prices to symptoms of buck fever. Local residents, mostly ranchers, stop in for a beer or supper. Feed, water availability and weather topped the list of conversation topics we overheard. The local hunters discuss the best way to cut up deer hindquarters into steaks. The out-of-town hunters wander in dressed in their camo garb and brag loudly of their day's kill. We heard a little of both as we nursed our Budweisers at the bar …Bud and Coors, the only beers on tap. Across the street, there's a shop dedicated to chainsaw art.
Staying at the 1906-vintage Hotel Eastin was a step back in time. This large, pink clapboarded building started out its life as a sarsaparilla bottling plant and ended up a hotel with all sorts of odd additions, irregularly shaped rooms and a maze of long corridors. The theme is western. We stayed in Room #123, the Laramie Room, but couldn't resist sneaking peeks at the Zane Grey Room and the Cheyenne Room. Zane Grey stayed at this hotel once and wrote “Mysterious Rider” here. Admittedly rustic, the hotel has a certain western charm that made up for the tiny, antiquated bathroom and lumpy bed.
Our window overlooked the town park. We could see Dan Hoare's Smithy across the way. It's only a facade, but it's the oldest building in town. A brisk walk in 20F temps, had us eating Moosecakes and sipping hot coffee at The Moose restaurant for breakfast.
Over Rabbit Ears Pass and on to Craig, Colorado, population 9,000, Moffat County's center of commerce with three coal mining operations nearby, a huge coal-fired power plant and the only WalMart for miles around. Deer, bear, elk and moose roam within the town limits and American western style architecture is all you see on the main street. The Museum of Northwest Colorado is a must whenever we visit here. We linger over the vintage photos and mementos of ranch life in the early 20th century. The museum's collection of gunslinger memorabilia and cowboy gear is incredible. The thrift shop offers used saddles and cowboy gear along with the usual stuff you'd expect to see. You can buy copies of American Cowboy magazine at the drug store.
We opted to take the “back way” via Route 14 on our return trip to Denver through North Park to Walden, Moose Viewing Capital. While having a coffee and a stretch at the Moose Creek Cafe,we saw a sign for a local crafts fair in the school auditorium and decided to give it a quick view. Local honey and baked goods, crocheted and knitted items, fine quilts and heavy, rustic aspen bedsteads were all for sale along with hot chili and beans. All the townsfolk had turned out. It was an event.
Our enjoyment of little towns like these stems from the pride of place they all seem to exhibit. As tiny as a town might be, there always seems to be something special and unique to tout.