What could be better than traversing a mountainous winterscape so glorious that it’s been painted, photographed, written about, and lauded in song for generations, a range of peaks revered the world over for elevation activities so incredible and challenging that the world’s greatest athletes come here to train. So we added a couple of stops on our journey: Glenwood Springs, Ouray, Crested Butte, and Gunnison to make it a real winter travel loop. First up, Glenwood Springs, the last known location of famed Doc Holiday. Read on, strap in, tie down, and lace up for this 5-day adventure in the Colorado mountains.
Glenwood Springs has a little of everything magical about Colorado mountain towns. A resort city known for its hot springs, it sits in the Rocky Mountains, surrounded by the White River National Forest. This forest is a glory to behold driving in from lower elevations. I was wide-eyed and drooling most of the way up. With ten peaks that top 14,000 feet and eight officially designated wilderness areas for the rich wildlife, the vast White River National Forest is the most visited National Forest in the United States, primarily to the twelve ski areas within its boundaries.
I’m a traveling person, an explorer if you will. I love to find a new place and Glenwood Springs has a little of everything magical about Colorado mountain towns. Glenwood Springs is a resort city in Colorado known for its hot springs. It sits in the rugged Rockies, surrounded by the vast White River National Forest, a maddening glory to behold as we moved from lower elevations to this distinctly gorgeous area. Why so maddening, you ask, wondering why I was wide eyed and drooling most of the way up? White River is the most visited National Forest in the United States, primarily to the twelve ski areas within its boundaries. It has ten peaks that top 14,000 feet, what we lovingly call 14ers, across eight officially designated wilderness areas full of deer, elk, mountain sheep, mountain goat, bear, mountain lion, bobcat, lynx, moose, raptors, waterfowl, trout and many other species of wildlife. Holy wild kingdom.
It’s home to Hanging Lake, with its striking turquoise waters, the Glenwood Caverns, which are ancient underground caves, and the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park has roller coasters and canyon swings overlooking the Colorado River – definitely something to check out during warmer months, if you’re adventure-lite like us.
We pulled into Glenwood Springs in the early afternoon for a 2 p.m. check-in at the gloriously antiquey Hotel Colorado, an inviting, accessible, and impossibly cozy hotel – one of the more historic in Colorado. It was built in 1893 by Walter Devereux, a silver baron and one of the early settlers of Glenwood Springs, who also built the Glenwood Hot Springs. A man of wealth and western inclinations, his “Grande Dame”, a nickname given to the hotel in its early years, the hotel is immediately luxurious. Devereux spared no expense. “The hotel has been used as a temporary White House, as [hospital] for the U.S. Navy during the World War II years, and a community focal point from its inception. Ownership changed hands frequently until the early 1990s, when the hotel was gradually restored to its former glory.”
Service is, of course, key. I love the staff at Hotel Colorado. I’ve never been to a hotel where I was so readily engaged, laughed with, helped, and with whom I ended up hanging out with at local spots, per their recommendations. In fact, it’s the first time in my life I ended up out and about with hotel staff. Always find the locals. They know what’s best about their hometown.
There’s so much to do and see, but Italian Underground, Doc Holliday’s Saloon, & Native Son Restaurant and Bar were the only places I got to when I was in Glenwood. Doc Holliday’s was the old timey, rootin’ tootin’, wild west saloon that transported us to the days when outlaws holed up in Colorado mountains with rum and beer while the law hunted them. A couple of locals sat at the bar, discussing the happenings, drinking with the bartender, but not much happening besides. The good news was we were specifically invited over to Native Son for karaoke night, which was awesome; a room full of locals enjoying the night, singing, drunk and playing pool, flirting, and showing us that small mountain towns have a ton of fun.
Extra love to Eva Kozmos for spending time telling us about her photographic work and modeling, Hanna from Hotel Colorado who invited us and introduced us to all her friends, and the lovely folks who thought I was a designer from New York. Hilarious good times. Now…about the fun.
Glenwood Hot Springs is a treasure. It opened to the public on the Fourth of July, 1888, celebrating 131 years of operation this year. Patriotic, no? “Stories have been written about Glenwood Hot Springs for over a century,” they point out, a premier destination in the state for those seeking the “Spa of the Rockies.” With shallow and deep pools, massage chairs in the water, and plenty of space to maneuver, you’ll never feel cramped or crowded. We popped in for an evening dip in the darkness and cold of late December. The pool was rather full, in spite of the hour and temperature, kids swimming with their parents, couples and groups spread out enjoying conversations and the magical healing properties of the springs.
GHS is getting more family-friendly with the addition of the highly anticipated Sopris Splash Zone and the three family based attractions that were added this past summer, so plan ahead. You can absolutely believe we’ll be back for more in warmer weather.
Iron Mountain Hot Springs is, dare I say it, better suited to an adult crowd. Kids are definitely welcome, as evidenced by the family changing rooms, so bring ‘em if you want. The more intimately sized individual pools, lack of splash areas, and [what felt like] higher temperatures had me feeling glad there were no kids around when I visited. We enjoyed this space a pinch more than Glenwood Hot Springs because of the mountain views, snow capped and awe inspiring,they are visible from every pool. GHS has a bit of a “surrounded by buildings” situation that is great on windy days and for more insulation, but doesn’t lend itself to the resplendent views Glenwood Springs is known for. Either pools you visit will be perfection.
Holy, Colorado, make me hold my breath and scream inside. This is quite literally the most spectacular place I’ve visited in Colorado, even if a mere 7,800 feet above sea level. In a state enamored of 14ers, I hadn’t expected Ouray to be this impressive. We made it to Ouray after a late departure from Hotel Colorado, arriving in darkness, and we had no idea what beauty existed just outside the doors of the Box Canyon Lodge and Hot Springs, our amazing hosts for the next two days.
The sun rises, I yawn in bed as I wake and squint, remembering it’s not just vacation but an opportunity to experience something new. I make coffee (impressed that they have organic, made-in-house grinds), and I step out on the pine terrace. BOOM!, smack, wow, what in the…? The walls of the canyon climb all around you, the sky blue with smoke signal puffs of cloudy goodness, and a deer skits down the street. You feel a little like Snow White – or in my case, maybe one of the dwarfs – the enchantment of it all settling in.
“With spectacular 13,000-foot snowcapped peaks surrounding it and hundreds of miles of historic trails, sulfur-free hot springs, the world-famous Ouray Ice Park and other singular adventures all within walking distance of downtown, the town has earned its two monikers: ‘The Switzerland of America’ and ‘The Outdoor Recreation Capital of Colorado.’”
We breakfasted at Goods Ouray, a wonderful little eatery where I almost died from pork intake. #ThisIsHowIWantToGo. We met with the local tourism and Ice Park Media Day organizer, Heidi Pankow, who walked our small group over to San Juan Mountain Guides right on the main strip of town to gear up for our Ice Park Tour. According to the media release, “the Ouray Ice Park is a human-made ice climbing venue operated in a spectacular natural gorge…”
“Each year a committed group of volunteers and staff unite to transform the beautiful Uncompahgre Gorge into an ice climbing mecca. Beginning in November, Ice Farmers spray water down the canyon walls of the Uncompahgre Gorge resulting in the creation of awe-inspiring walls of ice… Ice Farmers diligently work to bring both adventure and tranquility to those seeking respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Within a one-mile span of the Uncompahgre Gorge the Ouray Ice Park contains over 150 manmade ice and mixed climbs, 11 distinct climbing areas, and three miles of vertical terrain. Since its inception more than two decades ago, the Ouray Ice Park has become a premier destination for climbers, travelers and outdoor enthusiasts from around the world.”
We are lucky to count ourselves among those who have traversed the gorge. Our guides, including Ice Park Executive Director Dan Chehayl, made sure we took our time and kept it safe while hiking to the gorge bottom. From the top looking down it seems deep, but you can’t truly experience it’s brillance until you’re at the bottom, looking to the sky past all the blue translucent reflective ice hangs, the stalactites gleaming under the sunlight, the clouds drifting past high above. You’re reminded exactly how small you are and exactly how immense nature is when you choose to be an ant deep in the magnitude of the earth.
Following our Alive (1993 film) reenactment was a tour of Jeff Skoloda’s studio. He does incredible metal sculpture (hitting the big time with the Chipotle chair account), but focuses mostly on creative projects. We were able to view his Ice Fest sculpture – a brilliant 12 foot orb covered in dripping ice with a secondary orb in the center that is lit on fire, a marriage of fire and ice in a part of Colorado where “winter is coming” means something serious.
In the same event we were introduced to the Ouray Via Ferrata project – the only one in North America that meets US and European standards; according to the website, “The route is designed to meet or exceed all current ASTM and CEN (European) safety standards. In fact, the Ouray Via Ferrata is expected to be the first free public Via Ferrata in the US built to modern safety standards.” Via Ferrata were invented in Europe, the modern iteration of which were specifically for troop movement, though impermanent versions were already in use. Italian for “iron path”, a Via Ferrata is a protected climbing route found in the Alps and other areas throughout the world.
The team in Ouray are building a gorgeous route, growing the area’s year round sport attractions, which I fully intend to traverse for our upcoming June Adrenaline Issue (stay tuned).
After a full day of exploration, we needed a beer. Luckily there was a meet and greet of ice farmers and local officials at Ouray Brewing Company. Local brewing? You already know how Boulder County gets down. I highly recommend stopping in for everything they have here. Delicious eats, excellent brews. I took some crowlers of their amber ale to go.
I finished the night off with a hot springs night soak on my own. Ouray Hot Springs Pool is wonderful and surprisingly large. After my day in the icy climbs and the exhaustion setting in from the few days of travel complete, this soak was the first I truly needed. I went for a second soak, to be completely honest, in the wonderful natural tubs at Box Canyon Lodge. Sitting there with my crowler, continuing my muscle relaxation, we made friends both with some other travelers who were soaking and two absolutely gorgeous foxes who came to relax on a small mound near our pool, under the moonlight, as a light snow began to fall. Box Canyon staff told us the next morning that the foxes are regulars, though not everyone sees them. We had managed to cap a magical weekend with some natural magic. Ouray is something truly special.
CRESTED BUTTE & GUNNISON
Let me start by saying Crested Butte and Gunnison aren’t the same city. They’re not even that close to each other, requiring a near 30 minute drive up the pass from Gunnison to arrive at CB. The expanse between, however, was carefully cultivated for farm and ranchland, Andrew Sandstorm of the local tourism board tells me. This land is a little more wild, a little more beautiful, and a lot more empty than either Gunnison or Crested Butte, so many who work or play in CB live in Gunnison, and vice versa.
The route between Ouray and Crested Butte is stunning. It’s a stretch of road that reminds you to pull off, stretch, and stare in amazement. Somewhere between a two and three hour drive, the route takes you through Ridgeway State Park, along the Uncompahgre River, past the Ute Indian Museum, Eastward where you skirt the distant edges of Black Canyon (home to the tallest faces for rock climbing in Colorado), and over the massively wide Gunnison River, stretching off at its widest into farflung directions, reaching around hills, opening itself to ice fishing and sledding in the deep majesty of the winter that was descending as I passed through.
We were late arriving to town, but pulled right into the tucked away, old-timey, and very comfy Elk Mountain Lodge. With a few feet of fresh powder in the streets, we pulled up and were greeted by one of the owners clearing the front porch. Directed to a private parking area with direct rear door access, we were struck by how large the place is, three stories with 19 rooms and a paradoxically quaint, yet massive first floor of sitting areas, tv rooms, and dining areas. The gorgeous building was “erected as a hotel and boardinghouse for miners working for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1919”. In 1952, Austin Yarnel bought the building and reopened it as the Elk Mountain Lodge. In 2019, we visited and it felt as fresh and alive as ever. Our cozy little third floor room was quaint, with slanted ceilings and great views. We especially adored the long hallways with skylights and tall leafy plants reaching for heaven, crowding the dull winter light.
Andrew had put his heart and soul – and extensive local knowledge and community contacts – into making sure we were busy, well organized, and ready to experience a variety of the CB/G goodness. But first, beer.
I pulled into the parking lot of Irwin Brewing Company and immediately recognized it from my visit during the Crested Butte Film Festival (an event of immaculate success and worth a trip on its own next year, so plan ahead movie nerds). They don’t have a taproom at IBC, but they do have taps for tasting. Plus their beers are served damn near everywhere in CB, especially at the local badass watering hole, the Public House, where live music bumps from the renovated basement and all the locals show up to show out.
I was given a quick tour by Blaise, a very well informed woman who told us about the parent company holdings, the local projects (of which there are aplenty), and the history of the brewery. We tried a few beers, can’t pretend otherwise, and I fell in love with their Alpenlager Amber Ale: Malts: 2-Row, Vienna, Munich, Biscuit, Caramel 70, Carafoam and Hops: Magnum, Sterling, Tradition combining to make us wish we lived closer. My goodness, that Amber. I’m a sucker for a great ale, not overly hoppy, not too experimental, not trying too hard, aware of its own elegance but not dripping with pretension.It turns out the founder loves the classics and the head brewer – Dave Nornes – is happy to oblige (with minimal experimentation and collabs on the side).
After a few hours at Elk Mountain Lodge finishing the beer we were blessed with on our way out (yes, you got me, it was the Amber), we headed over to Montanya Distillery and let me say this: it was as good as my previous visit for the CBFF Red Carpet party. I sat down with head distiller, Gilles, for samples, cocktails, and lots of irreverent laughs. You know the spirit of a spirit – much like the feeling of food – is rooted in the heart of the founder, of the people whose sweat and heart go into every batch. The founder, Karen Hoskin, is a dynamo: world traveler, entrepreneur, lover of the great outdoors. “Female founded [in 2008] and female owned, Montanya is a certified B Corp and has been recognized as a Best for Colorado and Best for the World Company in recognition of its environmental and social responsibility practices,” according to their website.
I especially like Montanya for two reasons. First, I was told an interesting fact while enjoying a great convo with the team: while movies like to portray denizens of the old west as whiskey lovers, whiskey is a much more complicated process and many western towns didn’t have the ability to make it. Rum, on the other hand, is simple. It’s the original wild west drink of choice. Second, and this may be the crux for me, this is one of the only rums I’ve found that I enjoy. Not to speak ill of a spirit, but I’m not a rum guy. Maybe it goes back to the college blackouts, soaked through to the soul with Kraken and 151, but I’ve never really recovered a taste for it. Until now, that is.
In the middle of a Winter snowstorm, in need of nourishment, the heavy cold flakes falling in eternally frozen concentric and overlapping Fibonacci spirals surrounded us, we enjoyed a Parisian farmhouse modern dinner at Sunflower – right next door to Montanya – making our foray into the bleak thankfully short lived. So…let’s discuss farmhouse, farm-to-table chic in a snowstorm.
Sunflower is expensive, but not break the bank expensive. It’s a place where the small plates average $20 and you can expect dinner and wine to run into the hundreds if you’re not careful. That said, it’s absolutely worth it. We went all in and told our waitress to just “go for it.” There were three of us at the table and she brought out one dish at a time, paired with a glass of wine. This is the only way to eat.
Well curated, well done, well made, fresh, flavorful, and flawless: this is the experience awaiting you at Sunflower. The interior is striking, gorgeously lit, finely decorated, elegant without becoming opulent, playful without pretension. And with the husband and wife owner team working the bar, running plates, and laughing tableside with guests, you feel right at home being there.
After a refreshing night in the coziness back at Elk Mountain, we were ready for our morning drive down the mountain for our last day on the loop, in Gunnison. UncoverColorado.com tells us that, “By 1901, Gunnison has been known for being the first town on Colorado’s western slope to have a college – the Colorado State Normal College [now Western Colorado University, its third renaming]… Now, Gunnison thrives because of its local mining, ranching, tourism, and education.” It’s a small city, only 4.16 square miles, all land-no water, and a population of just over 5,000. Driving through, it looks like it could be a rust belt town, it’s mining and manufacturing histories showing more skeletons than Crested Butte.
Less dense and less expensive than CB, Gunnison is growing into its own, establishing new spaces, and building up its local culture, part of which is the penchant for getting out, even in winter. We’re not snowboarders, as I said, so we were out for some fat biking.
Yes, fat biking. Tim Kugler, Executive Director of Gunnison Trails, lent us some bikes and we drove out to Hartman Rocks for our first ever experience biking in the snow on those massively fat, half deflated tires that do so well on fresh, thin powder. “Gunnison Trails is a non-profit trail advocacy organization established to assist land managers and other organizations and stakeholders, in maintaining existing trails, educating users on responsible trail-based recreation and pursuing new opportunities for biking, running and hiking trails which promote sustainable trail use throughout Gunnison County.”
We started out our morning, thankfully, with an excessive amount of sticky sweet coffee goodness at Double Shot Cyclery, who “believe in meticulous maintenance and repair for all bikes [and] also serve espresso and fresh baked goods in a modern, fresh coffee bar.” I asked for a local favorite and the winter sports enthusiast/barista handed me a Salty Mechanic (salted caramel latte). Can’t lie, I definitely needed the caffeine and sugar for the adventure to come.
Tim met us here and before long I was skidding and slipping along a trail in the little brown Kia as we headed up to Hartman Rocks, a Bureau of Land Management controlled and exceedingly “popular mountain bike area”. It’s “a true backyard to backcountry riding experience,” according to the BLM, and “trails within this system provide a range of opportunities for all skill levels. There are plenty of natural technical slickrock features intermixed with traditional single track trails and natural surface roads.”
All skill levels means us. Skill level: none. But we gave it our all. While my colleague quit after a hundred yards of flat terrain, I stuck with it for the push to a first vista and back, a round trip of about 1.5 miles. Truthfully, it could’ve been a million miles from the way I was panting and sweating, my bike sliding around underneath me as my nonexistent fat biking skill set was being developed. It was hard. I can’t remember the last time my legs were definitive noodles.
While the view was heavenly, nothing was better than the ride back down. The limited pedaling, full speed descent, taking dips and curves and enjoying the light fishtails, my ears freezing in the crispness of cool air rising off snowy lands, and my grip tightening as I sped up to test my balance, all made for a rush that put a smile on my face and made my eyes water (from the wind, not emotion, relax…hah). I couldn’t have made it without the nonstop advice and encouragement Tim was dishing out. He’s the guy you want training you, a friend to go out in the world with knowing he’ll never leave you behind (even if he’s a little further ahead waiting on you, encouraging you with his distance), and someone you want to have a beer with…which was perfect.
Our next stop was at High Alpine Brewing, naturally, a relatively new brewery occupying a defunct bowling alley on Main street, walking distance from Double Shot (a stretch of Gunnison determined to become a destination instead of a pitstop on the way to CB).
The cavernous space has been beautifully retrofitted under the direction of owner and brewmaster Scott Cline. The skeletons of the original old building, one wall of the original still intact, as is the bowling alley lanes that you can clearly see make up the floor beneath you. Brilliantly ornate wrought iron hugs the wall and stretches over the border straddling the bar and the ktitchen, local art on the walls hinting at an even deeper vein of creativity in the area.
We had an assortment of pizza and charcuterie, gulped down with a few flights of the very well crafted beer, impossible to find in Boulder. As is my wont, I ended up in love with the Anthracite Amber, a beer named after coal of a hard variety, a nod to the area’s humble origins. Appropriate.
There are too many tales to tell about this place. You really need to pop in for a chat and a pint. There’s a basement where they found an original brake fluid style can of Schlitz Malt Liquor. There’s a tunnel that runs from the basement to the building across the way (formerly a bank, with the story being that illegal gambling happened down there, with folks smuggling it safely to the vault via the underground). And more…but you’ll have to go to hear the stories in person.
The world is a great big place. It gets smaller as you travel. Charles Dickens once said that, “Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering.” Taken together, Colorado is also a great big place, with an incredibly rich history – a history in the making – and we learn to appreciate our small place in her vastness by traveling throughout.
I visited Glenwood Springs, Ouray, Crested Butte, and Gunnison in a rapid fire, high speed, non-stop five day trip; to eat and drink and soak and saunter, to hike and ride and relax and discover. There’s nothing better – for the adventurer in all of us – than to know that so much amazing goodness is so close to home. You’re in Boulder County, friends, the epicenter of outdoor goodness. The mountains aren’t just for skiing and snowboarding. Exploration isn’t just for the summer. And, while Spring may arrive a pinch early in down here closer to earth, up in heaven it lasts a little longer. Get out there and enjoy a Winter Travel Loop. You can even follow my path and share your stories with us when you’re back. Tag us in the photos.