Neil Sowerby’s Colorado road trip hits the heights and the deep pits
GHOSTS of the Wild West never fade away. Billy, Jesse, Wyatt and Doc still ride into town, chewing baccy, Colt 45s on their hips, heading for some saloon brawl over a poker game. Gunslingers, card sharps, train robbers, greenhorns and settlers – the whole damn posse haunting our imaginations through a Hollywood soft focus.
Take Paul Newman, no, I mean Butch Cassidy. Long before ‘Sunrise’ the legendary outlaw, real name Robert LeRoy Parker, committed his first bank hold-up in Telluride, Colorado, on the morning of June 24, 1889.
Butch and an accomplice strode into the San Miguel Valley Bank and stole at gunpoint $24,000, more than half a million dollars in today’s currency, then made their getaway. The original bank building burned down not long after; the Mahr Buillding at 129/131 W.Colorado Avenue occupies the site along a row of frontier-chic fashion boutiques and small batch coffee shops that sum up today’s swanky Telluride.
Your reward is a beautiful set of waterfalls and an abundance of wild flowers, columbine, scarlet paintbrush and the like, among coppices of native aspen trees.
The heist was easy pickings in a booming mining town. At Telluride there really was gold in them thar hills – a salvation for owners the Rothschilds after the silver started to run out. Those 11,000ft plus hills ringing the A-list ski resort offer a different frontier story as we discovered on a jeep safari, organised by Telluride Outside (big thanks to our English driver, the splendidly named Rogan O’Herlihy, who negotiated some spectacular precipice-hugging bends on our behalf).
The story? For Gunfight at The OK Corral or Shane read Tomboy Wife. No, not a character reference for the feisty author (though Harriet Fish Backus certainly was). Tomboy was the big mining town (900 population at its peak) up high on the way to the Imogene Pass and this engineer’s wife from a privileged background chronicled a life of jaw-dropping hardship early in the 20th century. Weekly food deliveries by mule, single miners living in bunkhouses through long snowed-in winters above the treeline, the physical demands of hacking away at granite hundreds of feet underground. Tomboy is aptly set in The Savage Basin.
Today it is a ‘Ghost Town’, one of hundreds scattered across Colorado. Just a few ramshackle ruins, the capped-off mine shafts all there is to show for so much toil, but the spot takes your breath away, makes your heart miss a beat. So does the altitude in these San Juan Mountains.
Back down in today’s Telluride you are all the more aware how perfectly groomed the place is. Celebrities who own houses here include Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey – based near the separate Mountain Resort, reached by free gondola shuttle. It’s one of the best places in the USA for an experienced skier; like all such resorts it does nothing for me, a non-participant.
Downtown, in contrast, though also smelling of real money – a local estate agent is Sotheby International – is strollable, sociable and sophisticated Witness the number of festivals (bluegrass, film etc) and the care lavished on its prime music venue, the historic Sheridan Opera House, saved from demolition 25 years ago by the actor Keith Carradine and his wife.
It follows the town is good for places to eat. Both the contrasting Francophile La Marmotte (coq au vin? mais oui) and laidback authentic Mexican La Cocina de Luz (organic produce and the Grateful Dead on loop tape) were excellent.
Colorado’s stellar reputation for craft beer is upheld both at the Smugglers Brewpub (their Scotch Ale-Savvy recommended) and the impressive Telluride Brewery (the Fishwater DIPA is a hoppy highlight). Its neighbour on a trading estate a couple of miles outside town, the vodka-centric Telluride Distilling Company is a perfect add-on. The New Sheridan Hotel Bar, so historic it still has bullet holes in the walls, is a perfect, atmospheric end to a downtown evening.
For a head clearer I’d recommend the hour’s walk up Beaver Creek, which conveniently starts near The Smugglers. Your reward for one of the area’s less arduous walks is a beautiful set of waterfalls and (in July) an abundance of wild flowers, columbine, scarlet paintbrush and the like, among coppices of native aspen trees.
The flowers were in full spate, too, in the high meadows above Crested Butte 150 miles north of Telluride in its dead-end valley. Like its rival destination, this former coal mining town is divided into a ski resort village and the original settlement below, rescued by hippies in the Seventies and still not insufferably gentrified. I loved its bookshops and coffee hang-outs, kids selling homemade lemonade on the streets and, above all its specialist rum producer, Montanya Distillers, for its sustainable ethos and the quality of its acclaimed small batch product. Rum sounds an odd drink to be making in the mountains but owner Karen Hoskin believes the 9,000fy altitude helps the progress. “Our non-GMO sugar cane comes from family farmers in Louisiana, who grow and mill for us,” she says. “ Our water comes from one of the purest spring and snowmelt charged aquifers in the USA. Our rums are made by hand, from scratch, in a very traditional way using alembic copper pot stills from Portugal.”
One bonus of booking a Montanya tour is you get a complimentary cocktail in the garden bar. Karen discovered her taste for rum in Goa – try her signature, spicy Maharaja. You may never leave.
Or if you must, across the main drag Elk Avenue is Secret Stash, where award-winning pizza meets over-the-top hippified decor. Must-try on the pun-laden pizza list is Notorious F.I.G, winner of a world champion pizza shoot-out – topped with blue cheese, prosciutto and dried black mission figs. Oh and it’s drizzled liberally with truffle oil.
Time then for another mining ghost town, nearby Gothic in the West Elk mountains, The name is evocative and indeed the former town hall, now a coffee shop, could be a backdrop for Grant Wood’s iconic painting American Gothic. More prosaically the town was named after the adjacent Gothic Mountain, so called because its pinnacles resemble a cathedral.
The town was once home to a thriving silver mine from 1879 to 1896. When the silver boom went bust it was near abandoned leaving 200 empty buildings. Rescue came in 1928 when the site was purchases and converted into the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, which specialises in researching climate change, ecology, the study of marmots (cute squirrel cousins) and much else. So with academics spending their summers in bunkhouses on site it’s a kind of backwoods campus.
This corner of Colorado is full of such oddball spots. Such as workaday Fairplay, the visual basis for the Town of South Park, in the TV series (creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker attended the University of Colorado in Boulder); it milks the link with a mini-theme park. Or more attractive Ridgway, whose True Grit Cafe celebrates the town being the location for the movie that earned John Wayne a belated Oscar.
What is surprising is the variety of terrains beyond The Rockies. The spectacular desert-like Colorado National Monument could be one of those Utah canyons transposed. It’s certainly one of the US’s best kept secrets. Around nearby Grand Junction is Colorado wine country and a cannily irrigated fertile swathe that grows fabulous peaches and cherries. Heading on the freeway east back to Denver the Glenwood Canyon parallel with the Colorado River is one of the continent’s most exhilarating drives.
www.nps.gov/colmThe gateway to the Crested Butte valley is the college town of Gunnison. We stopped off for lunch at the newish High Alpine Brewing there. The brewtap building, now stripped back to the bare brick, dates back to the 19th century.
Brewmaster Scott Cline served us a flight of exquisite beers – pick the Italian Mountain Basil Ale – then led us into the basement to show us his pride and joy, the barrel ageing facility.
Casually he mentioned that back in the day Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday played high stakes poker in that very basement. So many owners cashing in would have rechristened the space ‘Wyatt’s Bar’ and let the paying punters in. Not Scott. The ale in used bourbon barrels comes first. Maybe the West has been won. By Craft Beer.
Neil Sowerby flew to Denver from London Heathrow with British Airways; Norwegian are commencing twice-weekly direct flights from London Gatwick to Denver from September 16, 2017, priced from £179 each way.
Tomboy Ghost Town/Imogene Pass Half Day Jeep Tour $95 with Telluride Outside. The operation also offers rafting, fly-fishing, mountain biking and further rugged pursuits.
Crested Butte is where Mountain Biking was invented back in the Seventies. To get a taste of the action go to Evolution Bike Park. Adult bike rentals are $72 for a half day on downhill or cross country bikes; Evolution coaching package $135 half day and $155 full day (adult).
Colorado National Monument – entry fee $15 per vehicle; $5 per individual (cyclist/on foot).