Colorado First: Charming Old Towns, Part II

Editor’s note: EnCompass published Part I of its Charming Old Towns series in the May–June 2015 Summer Fun edition (p. 14–26). The article featured the old-town districts in Fort Collins, Golden, Grand Junction, Littleton, Louisville, and Salida.
Barbra Cohn

Editor’s note: EnCompass published Part I of its Charming Old Towns series in the May–June 2015 Summer Fun edition (p. 14–26). The article featured the old-town districts in Fort Collins, Golden, Grand Junction, Littleton, Louisville, and Salida.

Visiting six of Colorado’s diverse and picturesque historic towns is like peeling an onion, discovering legends through the layers of time. Autumn is a perfect season to enjoy Colorado’s colorful history. Maybe you’ll return from your trip to these destinations with a legend of your own.

Crested Butte

Whether you visit Crested Butte in the fall for its great events and spectacular hiking, or spring for its lush wildflowers, or winter for world-class skiing, it’s easy to see the passion that locals show for their little piece of paradise. Set against the jagged peaks of the West Elk Mountains and aspen-studded slopes of the Gunnison National Forest, the restored brightly painted Victorian buildings that house shops and restaurants in this Nationally Registered Historical District remind us of the town’s origins as a coal-mining camp. A down-to-earth vibe permeates this unpretentious town where bicycling and snowmobiling are common modes of transportation, and nary a cell phone is to be seen. People talk to each other, like in the old days. And that’s what I did for two days: talked, listened and explored.

I was attracted to the signage on the red facade of Izzy’s breakfast and brunch restaurant—“Live, Love, Latke”—because I love latkes and thought,—latkes, here? Located in a historic building with a story all its own, it’s a sure stop for homemade bagels, pancakes, latkes, and more. (AAA One Diamond rated, 218 Maroon Ave. 970-349-5630.)

We celebrated a birthday at Marchitelli’s Gourmet Noodle (AAA Three Diamond rated), ordering the home-baked bread, pasta and Caesar salad. We left room for homemade ice cream at Third Bowl, which makes every ingredient from scratch—even the marshmallows and cookies (upstairs—accessible by elevator).

During our delightful stay at Old Town Inn (AAA Two Diamond rated), the resident dogs, Pico and Cannon, and the human staff made us feel like old friends.

Also drive-worthy:

Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum, offers guided walking tours Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9 a.m., June through mid-October. Every building in town tells a story, including the museum, which originated as a hardware store in 1883 and was later the town’s first gas station. During the walking tour, I enjoyed learning about the architecture and history of preserved buildings, many of which are now retail shops. But I was more fascinated by the museum’s collection of photos and stories of Crested Butte’s illustrious residents, who were the heart and soul of the town.

International Film Festival, Sept. 29–Oct. 2, exhibiting more than 100 films. This is a great opportunity to connect with people from all over the world who like to talk about their passion: film. Word has it that you can even chat up filmmakers on the street, in a coffee shop or at a party. Riding your bike from venue to venue is the best way to get around without the hassle of parking, and it’ll give you more time to play outdoors or enjoy dining at a local restaurant. Check with the Chamber of Commerce for bike rentals.


Live music regularly entertains guests in The Diamond Belle Saloon inside the historic, AAA Three Diamond rated Strater Hotel in Durango. © Chuck Rose/Durango Area Tourism Office

When I recalled that Durango is the “Hollywood of the Rockies”—many Wild West movies were filmed here—I imagined cowboys in beaver fur hats, hand-tooled leather boots, and holsters, walking through Durango’s Nationally Registered Historic District on Main Avenue, and me in a blue bonnet, gathering the folds of my skirt to avoid the coal-fired steam at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum.

Durango began as a railroad town during 19th-century gold and silver booms. The railroad has been in continuous operation since 1881, and you can still ride on vintage 1880s enclosed coach or open-air cars for a nine-hour trip to Silverton. You’ll find 1880s photos, maps and railroad art in the roundhouse museum, and the gift shop has a good selection of train toys and railroad memorabilia.

Just a block down the street I time traveled to 19th-century France at the Jean-Pierre Bakery and Café (AAA Two Diamond rated), which has an affiliate shop in Paris, France. After ordering an éclair and coffee, I relaxed in the back, where the brick walls, wood flooring, and eclectic furnishings offer hints that the building once housed a livery stable, frontier tavern, and house of ill-repute.

The Strater Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, (AAA Three Diamond rated) offers a different glimpse into America’s wild but elegant Victorian past. In 1887, 28-year-old Henry H. Strater borrowed $70,000 to fulfill his dream to build the grandest hotel in the West. Once built, the hotel served as a winter retreat.  Some Durango townsfolk closed their homes during the winter and moved into the Strater, where each room had a wood burning stove, comfortable furniture, and washstand. Today, after going through numerous renovations, it contains the largest collection of American Victorian Walnut antiques in the world.

I entered yet another slice of history and unique culture in the Toh-Atin Gallery. Since 1957, this museum-like art gallery has been recognized as the best of the Southwest for Indian rugs, jewelry, pottery, artwork, Kachinas, and more.

I returned to the Strater Hotel’s Mahogany Grille (AAA Three Diamond rated) for a dinner of grilled Skuna Bay salmon and fantasized about what my Victorian dinner party might have discussed in the late 1880s.

Also drive-worthy:

Durango Cowboy Gathering, Sept. 29–Oct. 2. Celebration of the American cowboy with national performers, poetry, music, and parade in downtown Durango.

9th Annual Durango Heritage Celebration, Oct. 7–8. Grand Ball, Saloon dance/dinner, and more.


As soon as I got out of the car I knew I had stepped back in time. Major silver discoveries after the Civil War fueled rapid growth, and Georgetown blossomed into the largest city in Colorado. When silver prices plummeted, so did the town’s population, and its luster. What remains of the era can be found at The Hotel de Paris Museum. Founded by Louis Depuy in 1875 as a first-class French restaurant and luxurious hotel during the mining boom, it reamins the town’s crowning jewel. Museum director Kevin Kuharic is so passionate about the museum’s history that I’m convinced he was its founder, Louis Dupuy, in a past life.

I wanted to move into the Hamill House Museum. The Country Style Gothic Revival house is beautifully restored with a sunny solarium, walnut woodwork, and original furnishings and wallpaper. Peek in the outdoor two-chamber, six-seater privy. Apparently Mr. Hamill was opposed to chamber pots, but really? Who would want to share time in an outhouse?

The next time I visit Georgetown, I’ll bring a girlfriend or two to the Dusty Rose Tea Room (24-hour reservations required). Owner Jeannette Peterson advised me to allow a couple of hours to relax in the lovely Victorian tearoom. Guests can choose a hat to wear while enjoying a variety of tea and lunch options. As a special accompaniment to the Victorian High Tea, Peterson shares a story about the early days of Georgetown.

I couldn’t leave without a visit to Kneisel and Anderson, the oldest store in Georgetown, and a chat with Wendy Anderson, one of the fifth-generation owners. Customers come from far and wide for their imported Scandinavian, German, English, Swiss and Swedish foods, and European chocolate.

Also drive-worthy:

Georgetown Loop Historic Mining and Railroad Park. Ride on an old-time steam locomotive with open cars to Silver Plume. The train runs several times a day through Dec. 30.

Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. One of the state’s best drives for fall foliage. Stop at the Visitor’s Center in Georgetown to pick up maps and information about the pass.

Grand Lake

A man in gritty jeans and leather boots rode into town on his horse and tied it to a hitching post. His heels clacked as he walked down the historic boardwalk—lined with the original 1881 heartwood pine—that runs in front of more than 60 shops, restaurants and galleries in this tiny town. After the cowboy hitched his horse, a seven-foot moose sauntered into town. Moose and cowboy sightings are common here.

Still considered a “Town of the Wild West,” Grand Lake was the site of a bloody shoot-out on July 4, 1883, between political rivals who fought over whether the county seat should be in Grand Lake or Hot Sulphur Springs.

At 8,369 feet above sea level, you might also be surprised if it snows in summer and early fall as you paddleboard, kayak, canoe, swim or fish in the largest and deepest natural lake in Colorado. You and the kids can play and swim at one of the several sandy beaches around the lake. If the temperature suddenly drops, there’s plenty to do on the boardwalk, trails and parks around the lake, including a historic walking tour. Get a map at Grand Lake’s Visitor Center, just before you enter the town, at 14700 U.S. Hwy 34.

On weekends, Fat Cat Café (AAA Two Diamond rated) offers a buffet with a massive dessert table. Grab a cinnamon bun or slice of coconut cream pie. The Sagebrush BBQ & Grill (AAA Two Diamond rated) is in the same building as the town’s 1880s jail and contains the original jail doors. The menu is heavy on barbeque, but I enjoyed a Caesar salad as I joined in the fun of throwing peanuts on the floor.

After a walk on the beautiful lakefront (Lake Avenue) with views of Mt. Craig (a.k.a. Mt. Baldy), I stepped back in time at the Kauffman House Museum. Open through Labor Day and weekends in September.

Also drive-worthy:

5th annual Constitution Week, Sept. 12–17. Grand Lake is the only town in America that celebrates the signing of the constitution for an entire week with speakers, a 5k run and fireworks celebration.

Pancho & Lefty’s (AAA Two Diamond rated). Family-friendly restaurant, with arcade room, beautiful lake view, and live music schedule.

Manitou Springs

Annual Emma Crawford Coffin Race in Manitou Springs, Colo. © Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce

Exploring this town of 6,000 is like time-traveling with the Anasazi who lived at the relocated Manitou Cliff Dwellings, and with the Ute Indians, who later paid tribute to “The Great Spirit” that lived beneath the mineral springs.

Fast forward to 1871, when visitors sought the “cure” of restorative mineral springs. Manitou Springs was transformed into a health resort accommodating more than 2,000 people each summer. Eight springs still flow upward through fountains, each one beautifully sculpted and unique. Get a map at the Manitou Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau or download one at Remember to bring a water bottle.

Lunch at Adam’s Mountain Café (AAA Two Diamond rated) fortified us with a healthy sandwich and salad for our trek up to the Ute Iron Spring, one of the original springs.

Down the hill, we visited Miramont Castle, built in 1895 for a French-born Catholic priest and his mother. The Great Hall, which was used to entertain guests, is now a gallery of paintings by Charles Rockey, Manitou’s beloved artist and living symbol of the town’s colorful past. Visit the Manitou Springs Carnegie Library for a look at his highly praised book Love Songs of Middle Time Echoed through Illuminations and Fables.

We relaxed with a wine tasting at D’vine Wine Manitou in the historic Spa Building. The wine-infused ice cream was our prelude to a romantic dinner at Briarhurst Manor Estate (AAA Three Diamond rated). Once the center of Manitou’s social scene, it was easy to envision myself at one of Dr. William and Cara Bell’s costume balls or tea parties.

We spent the night at the comfortable, historic Avenue Hotel Bed & Breakfast (Not yet AAA rated). Owner Gwen David’s breakfast was so delicious, I bought her cookbook.

Also drive-worthy:

First Annual Waterfest, Sept. 30–Oct. 2. Educators, health practitioners, and water enthusiasts will celebrate the use and history of mineral water.

Miramont Castle’s Emma Crawford Wake (Oct. 28) and Coffin Race (Oct. 29). Dramatic 1800 wake and buffet dinner, festive coffin races.

Steamboat Springs

Originally a ranching and farming community that developed after the railroad came to town in 1906, Steamboat Springs maintained its western charm while also becoming a world-class outdoor adventuring destination. The historic downtown is the heart of this very livable town where ranchers, skiers, artists and tourists commingle in shops, restaurants, galleries and spas.

In the early days, almost everyone relied on skis—originally called “snowshoes”—for wintertime transportation. When famed ski jumper Carl Howelsen arrived in 1913, residents got into recreational skiing. For a walk through history, including Steamboat’s development, its Olympic ski heritage, and cultural development via the Perry-Mansfield School of Theatre and Dance, the oldest continuously operating dance and theater school in America, visit the Tread of Pioneers Museum.

If you drive to Steamboat via U.S. Hwy 40, entertain the kids by looking for the 100 or so yellow signs that lead to F.M. Light and Sons’ western wear shop. This store is owned and operated by the fifth generation of the Light family, which has countless tales to tell. Many of the fixtures and sales cases that are still in use today were carried on the stagecoach that Frank M. Light traveled on from Ohio with his wife and seven children in 1905.

Next door, I was transported to my childhood as I indulged in a chocolate milk shake at the soda fountain in Lyon’s Corner Drug. I don’t recommend a milkshake before lunch, but I do recommend the healthy lunch fare at Freshies’ (AAA Two Diamond rated).

Later, we had dinner at Cantina Steamboat (AAA Two Diamond rated), where Carlos, our server, made our “happy hour” a fiesta by sharing cooking tips and colorful stories. The building is one of the finest surviving examples of 19th-century river rock structures in northwest Colorado.

Also drive-worthy:

Wild West Air Fest, Sep. 3-4. 12th Annual Wild West Air Fest & Labor Day Celebration. Nationally renowned performers provide exciting aerobatics & formation flying at the Steamboat Airport.

8th Annual Steamboat OktoberWest, Sept. 16–17, Steamboat Mountain Village. 40 Colorado brewers, food and festivities.

Barbra Cohn is based in Boulder and is a regular contributor to EnCompass.