Heading for the Hills: Lacking the euros to tour Europe this summer, I hit the road to “Switzerland of America” country in southwest Colorado.
It’s got everything but Heidi: history-laden, colorful villages nestled in green valleys, pine-clad mountains flecked with wildflowers, and snow, even in early summer.
It’s also been gentrified since the cowboy days and the gold prospector era. I found farmers’ markets, coffee houses, proud talk of “agri-tourism,” hormone-free cattle, and gourmet restaurants featuring fish air-freighted in. It’s the New West.
Telluride, 8,750 feet high and once mule-trail land, now boasts ski lodges, posh condos, and multimillion-dollar homes owned by celebrities. A free gondola lifted me from downtown Telluride up to swank Mountain Village and its ski runs. Sue and I bunked at the nifty Mountain Lodge condos, which go for a bargain in summer. But if there’s a next time we’ll drop our bags at the restored 1891 New Sheridan Hotel, right smack in downtown Telluride and next to the best eatery in town, the Chop House.
It’s a beautiful, chandelier-hung room, where tourists dress up. Steaks are the big thing here and a 14-ounce 30-day dry-aged bison rib-eye goes for $42. We shared an excellent $18 burger.
Telluride and its neighbor Ouray are like fraternal twins who share the same mining era history. But Ouray clung to its roots while Telluride carved out fame and fortune as a luxury winter sports resort and summer vacation destination. Their main streets are similar and the towns aren’t far apart as the condor flies, about 18 miles. But they’re separated by the daunting San Juan Mountain Range. By highway it’s 48 miles; in summer they’re connected for the hardy by a rough Jeep road over hazardous Black Bear Pass, a jolting, jouncing ride.
In Ouray, we jumped into a red Jeep run by the Switzerland of America tour people and climbed into the billygoat country of snowy Imogene Pass and its high, windy, and chilly 13,000-foot tip-top. From there we gazed down at Telluride, took pictures and headed back home. The whole enchilada some other year.
Ouray is more down to earth than fancy Telluride. Its main claims to fame are the charming main street, magnificently restored 1886 Beaumont Hotel, a mine tour just outside town, and the Jeep rides up the mountains. Victorians line the streets above town. Teddy Roosevelt slept at the Beaumont. But the 12-room hotel was an abandoned wreck when genial Dan King bought it a few years ago and lovingly sunk $6 million into it which he will surely never get back. When we visited, it was on the market for about half that. Hot springs come gushing out of the mountain at the edge of town, and places like the Box Canyon Lodge pipes the stuff into its hot tubs. (800-327-5080.)
The Bachelor-Syracuse mine tour just outside Ouray took us for a tram ride 3,350 feet into Gold Hill for a look at what it was like to labor where the sun never shone. Ouray’s oldest restaurant still in operation is The Outlaw, opened in 1940 in a vintage building. It’s a honky-tonky steak house, noisy and fun. You can’t see where the Rio Grande bus crashed through the front back in the 1950s. John Wayne visited while making True Grit and fell in love with the place. His cowboy hat still hangs over the bar.
Higher on the food chain is The Bon Ton down the street, where grilled Colorado lamb chops are a favorite. (None of those New Zealand chops, thank you.)
To the south, the ancient Indian cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park are the main attraction. They’re on a high mesa outside the town of Cortez. You can see the dwellings from a network of roads and viewpoints, but we took several guided tours that involved climbing ladders. Not for everyone.
Either way, Mesa Verde was memorable, America’s first World Heritage Site, a step back in time. (For park information click here.) We spent the night at the 150-room Far View Lodge, 15 miles into the park. Sitting on our balcony watching the moon rise was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.
The lodge’s Metate Room is one of the area’s best restaurants, a place to grab a drink, enjoy the view, and dig into a buffalo rib-eye steak.
The town of Cortez, besides being gateway to Mesa Verde. and a progressive center of ranching and farming country, is refreshingly untouched by franchise fast food outlets. With no Starbucks, locals get their morning brew at the funky Silver Bean drive-past, a converted Air Stream trailer.
Nero’s Italian Restaurant features “sustainable cuisine with a Southwestern flair.” Organic Scottish salmon, with an orange molasses and cracked pepper glaze, wasn’t Italian or Southwestern, but still tasty. Cortez is also the gateway, out on Highway 491, to Hovenweep National Monument. To explore square, oval, and circular rock towers erected at a canyon sometime around 1200 AD, plan on a half-day excursion.
At Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch, Garry and Ming Adams are renovating a farm where you can gather eggs from the nests of free-range hens, pick vegetables from the organic garden, choose your meat course, sit down to a meal, and stay for $125 and up. They use no pesticides and work a growing herd of cattle without growth hormones. 7986 Road G, Cortez, 81321. Call ahead. Tel.: (970) 565-4288.
At 20057 Road G, Ruth and Guy Drew have started a thriving vineyard whose wines were so tasty that we shipped a half-dozen back home.
In a rural setting near the town of Mancos, Sue and Bob Scott’s Sundance Bear B&B occupies 80 acres and a bucolic hill. We spent a night in one of the Scotts’ cabins, enjoying the sunset, looking out toward the late author Louis L’Amour’s ranch, which is still owned by his family. 38890 Highway 184. Tel.: (970) 533-1504.
The town of Montrose doesn’t have a classic western downtown but it’s a few miles from the huge Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, an enormous gash in the earth with the river running 2,000 feet below the rim. You can drive down to where the river gentles and throw in a fishing line.
Young chef Shane Marcotte serves world-class food at Cazwellas, 320 East Main Street in Montrose. Most popular dishes are halibut and 12-ounce rib-eye steak with sizzling onions and sautéed mushrooms. The bread pudding is superb.
Within walking distance is Kendra Gallegos’ Canyon Creek B&B, 820 Main St. Tel.: (970) 249-2886.