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Red Rocks — but Intimate

Red Rocks — but Intimate


Situated within staggering slopes on the banks of the Cache la Poudre River lies a modest, log cabin-like establishment with one helluva history.

The place was built a little over a century ago in 1916 by a musician named Walter S. Thompson. He discovered it on a meandering motorcycle ride within the enchanting Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins.

As he recounted, “We came upon a most beautiful spot, which seemed to hypnotize me, and I found myself with a longing to stay there … a wonderful stream gushed from the mountainside and rippled like sweet music.”

Thompson settled there and aimed to create a space for the community to enjoy music and the company of like-minded others. He homesteaded the place and built a lodge, roads, cabins, a general store, a dance hall, and even an apple orchard on his land of milk and honey. He called it Mishawaka after his hometown in Indiana.

And so, the Mish was born.

Creating this idyllic community space for live music was no easy feat. After Thompson retired, owners came and went, bought and sold, until the 1970s, when it fell into the hands of Jim Corr. He fortified the wooden stage that stands out back beside the river and made live music at the Mish something of a regular occurrence.

Over the years, this stage has welcomed an array of artists, from industry icons like Joan Baez and Bob Weir, to up-and-coming local bands. The established and rising stars alike have achieved immortality, their faces forever decorating the interior walls of the restaurant.

As live music ramped up, so did drug use, sex, and partying. The Mish earned itself a bad name; it was no longer a family-friendly place to go. In fact, the locals started to hate the place on account of its rowdiness.

Eventually, after a few more owners and a bit of a scandal, the Mish shut down — that is, until 2010 when a local arts advocate entered the scene.

Having come from a nonprofit dedicated to finding platforms for artists at all stages of their careers, Dani Grant felt like she could do good at the Mish. She decided to buy the place and set out to return it to Thompson’s original vision — with her own flare.

Her efforts were valiant and otherwise successful until June 2012 when the High Park Fire burned through the hills of the Poudre Canyon. The fire was on track to swallow the Mish in its unforgiving flames, but firefighters fought to protect it.

When the fire finally ceased, the Mishawaka remained. And on the restaurant’s bar, the firefighters left a letter and wrote, at the very end, “Long live the Mish.”

This miraculous and unlikely survival encouraged locals to welcome the Mishawaka back into the neighborhood. In return, the Mishawaka Initiative, its philanthropic arm, supports nonprofits and causes in the community that the Mish’s workers and patrons are especially passionate about.

There’s also Mishawaka Presents, another mode of community involvement, which provides music for local events like the Food Truck Rally in Fort Collins. During the almost 15 years Grant owned the Mish, she’s also worked to involve the river — what she calls the canyon’s lifeline — in new opportunities.

Already, the Mish works with Rocky Mountain Adventures to whitewater raft on the river’s Class V rapids, and Liarflies to host beginner fly fishing classes. Both excursions include lunch at the Mish. And if you arrive at a show from the river, you get in for free — so long as you leave the way you came.

You can score more free shows on Sundays, too, during the Sunday Summer Series. As long as there’s no wedding or event taking place, there’s free live music happening outside each and every Sunday. The first one of the season was on Mother’s Day.

Come Memorial Day, Grant hopes the new campground of tiny homes, cabins, and glamping sites will be finished. It’s three miles below the Mish, complete with a general store, coffee cart, fire pit, and pizza oven.

Though there are a lot of exciting expansions and newness on the way, Grant underscored the importance of the venue’s inclusivity. “We are not an arrogant music venue. There are a lot of venues that, you know, become somewhat arrogant like, ‘We’re this venue, and we’re super cool’ and ‘If you’re an opening act, we’re not really going to give you much attention,’” said Grant. “But my team is always focused on the opener because today’s opener is tomorrow’s headliner.”

Bands like Caamp, Lake Street Dive, and The Lumineers all played at the Mishawaka when few people knew their names. Even before the Mish, Grant’s work had been focused on uplifting artists, especially the up-and-coming ones, so they have a place to play.

“If we can support that artist moving forward, then they’ll always remember us,” she said.

She also said a lot of the artists remember the Mish because of its bewitching scenery and lack of cell service. Its remote, stunning location in the mountains forces everyone there to be present. “When you see a thousand people watching a show and no one has their phones up, it’s weird. But it’s awesome,” she said.

Grant said the musicians who play there are uniquely relaxed and approachable. She largely cites minimal access to social media and the outside world for fostering this wonderful, carefree space.

Like the time her eldest daughter connected with the pianist from Toad the Wet Sprocket the morning after the band played while having breakfast in the restaurant: She approached him in solidarity as a fellow piano player, and he proceeded to play piano with her, in the dining hall, for nearly an hour. “It changed her life,” said Grant. “She was a musician from then on.”

The Mishawaka, though it certainly has had its ups and downs, ebbing and flowing through tumultuous times and circumstances, has become something of a legend in the delightfully remote Poudre Canyon.


Cameryn Cass is a freelance writer and recent graduate from Michigan State University. She moved to Colorado in November and is enjoying finding her place in the colorful state.

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