Mini Tour: Surprises along the Glenwood Loop

Story and Photos by Shelly Steig

Redstone coke ovens
Redstone coke ovens

I know it sounds odd to photograph a public restroom. However, this isn't your typical lavatory. It's a work of art so inspiring that any man would be motivated to close the toilet lid. This unique space, located in Hotchkiss's Creamery Arts Center, is just one of the many man-made and natural wonders I discovered as I drove a loop from Glenwood Springs south to Delta, up to Grand Mesa and back east across I-70.

The approximately 250-mile excursion showcases unspoiled mountain towns, colorful meadows and often wildlife. Despite the mileage, it's well worth the price of gas.

Big medicine

Nature created the ideal vacation spot in Glenwood Springs. The city is nestled in a valley, surrounded by snow-topped peaks and bisected by the Colorado River. The area's first residents, the Ute Indians, believed the local hot springs had healing powers and named them Yampah or "Big Medicine." Eventually investors realized the potential of the springs and the natural vapor caves, and built the world's largest hot springs pool. The attraction lured famous visitors, including gunslinger "Doc" Holliday and President Theodore Roosevelt (tradition claims this was the birthplace of the teddy bear). At the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, the Iron Mountain Tramway offers sweeping views of the surrounding peaks. The park is centered around miles of caves, where guides offer three tours of varying intensity. Visitors can also hop aboard thrill rides, including a 650-foot zip line and the first alpine coaster in the United States.

Sister cities

From Glenwood Springs, take Highway 82 south toward Carbondale, then Highway 133 south to Redstone. Carbondale and Redstone are sister cities in charm and situation. Located in the shadow of Mount Sopris along the Crystal River, they were founded during the mining boom. The pristine beauty of the Roaring Fork Valley (where Carbondale rests) and the Crystal River Valley (home to Redstone) have long drawn adventurers and artists.

Carbondale is the starting point for the West Elk Loop scenic byway, which overlaps this mini-tour from Carbondale to Hotchkiss. The town has several high-end restaurants, and wonderful shops including The Roadside Gallery, where I purchased nostalgic prints celebrating vintage cars.

After I left my lodging at the Avalanche Ranch, I spotted a mama bear ambling along the river with her cub. When she headed up into the hills, I headed to Redstone, a tiny town tucked off the highway and shrouded by trees. Its founder, mining pioneer John Cleveland Osgood, constructed the hamlet as an experiment in "enlightened paternalism." He built 84 Swiss-style cottages for his workers (some still dot the town) and a 40-room inn.

On the way out of Redstone, stop to photograph the old coke ovens, which are on the National Register of Historic Places. The structures-which resemble horizontal bee hives-processed raw coal into high-grade coke that was then used in steel production.

From industry to agriculture

McClure Pass is one of those rare sites in Colorado where the fall color includes crimson as well as gold. Highway 133 climbs the pass through a gap on the west side of Elk Mountain, then winds through deep forests to the community of Somerset, where coal is still mined.

The scenery quickly shifts from industrial to agricultural near the town of Paonia, Colorado's cherry capital. Bring a cooler and stop at Homestead Market, a farmers' and ranchers' co-op which offers elk and buffalo meats, as well as all-natural chicken and Colorado lamb. In summer, farm stands line the road from here to Cedaredge. Many wineries along the route offer tastings.

The route turns west on Highway 92 at Hotchkiss, where you'll find the arts center. For wonderful lodging, consider Leroux Creek Inn just outside of town. The prim vineyards, mountain setting and beautiful views are reminiscent of the French Provenšal countryside.

Egyptian Theatre in Delta
Egyptian Theatre in Delta

Tut-mania and Grand Mesa

Delta may be the town that holds the most surprises on this tour. Known for its colorful murals decorating the sides of downtown buildings, Delta also has one of the eight remaining Egyptian Revival-style theaters in the United States. These cropped up around the country during the Roaring '20s after the unearthing of King Tut's tomb led to a craze for all things Egyptian.

The town also has a wonderful museum, and a nice little B&B at the Fairlamb House. Each September, Delta hosts the Council Tree Pow Wow and Cultural Festival in Confluence Park, which borders Fort Uncompahgre. The park features a 70-acre lake with walking paths.

From Delta take Highway 65 north toward Orchard City and Eckert. Housed in the old stone Odd Fellows Hall in Eckert, the Surface Creek Winery & Gallery features paintings of Colorado by watercolorist Dale Russell Smith. A block away, North Road leads to Fruitgrowers Reservoir, which was the first designated "Important Birding Area" in Colorado.

About another six miles north, the quaint community of Cedaredge has two favorite tourist spots: the Pioneer Town living history museum, and the Apple Shed Art & Furniture Gallery, a huge building with a surprising variety of products. Cedaredge is the gateway to the Grand Mesa National Scenic and Historic Byway, a 63-mile drive meandering through huge aspen stands, densely forested groves of pine, spruce and fir, and over an 11,000-foot summit with stunning views.

Winding down

Grand Mesa comes by its name honestly since it's the world's largest flat-topped mountain. It's an enchanting place-lake-laden and evergreen-fringed-and a favorite for hunting and fishing. The area teems with wildlife, from elk to the "whistle pig" or woodchuck, a curious, fat-cheeked rodent that emits a high-pitched tune.

If you happen to get hungry at the summit, stop at Spruce Lodge Resort. The new chef at Over the Top Restaurant has spruced up their menu.

Once I'd come full circle back to Glenwood Springs, it seemed fitting to end my tour at the Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves. The modern-day spa offers the only known natural vapor caves in North America. As I steamed in the saturating heat, then was cocooned in a mud body wrap, I couldn't help but contemplate that, in this case, man had improved what nature provided.

Shelly Steig is a freelance writer based in Parker.

Scenic side trip

It seems that the historic towns of Marble and Crystal are the fulfillment of a Ute curse proclaiming that the greedy would never prosper here. Initially it looked like both locations would boom. The world's largest marble deposit was found here in the late 1800s, and produced stone of such a fine grade that it was used for the Lincoln Memorial in 1916 and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1931. However, under the shadow of war, quarry operations closed in 1941 and many Marble residents left.

Surrounded by the Maroon Bells/Snowmass and Ragged Wilderness areas, and both the White River and Gunnison National Forests, Marble is about six easy miles east of 133.

Similarly, the town of Crystal, named after beautiful quartz found in 1881, seemed destined to become a moneymaker. Buildings and homes popped up, yet Crystal didn't last as long as Marble. The mill closed in 1917 and today only about a dozen structures remain.

One of the most photographed sites in Colorado, the abandoned Crystal Mill (originally Lost Horse Mill, and often erroneously called Dead Horse Mill) once powered an air compressor to operate mining equipment. It is approximately five miles east of Marble over a rocky, one-lane road that is accessible in summer and fall with a four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle. The mill and town are also popular excursions by foot or mountain bike.

As is sometimes the case, the Ute curse turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The lack of progress has preserved the region's natural beauty.

If you go Glenwood Springs: 970-945-6589;
Carbondale: 970-963-1890;
West Elk Scenic Loop Byway: 970-963-2266;
Paonia, Delta, Cedaredge, Orchard City and Hotchkiss:
Grand Mesa National Scenic and Historic Byway:
Marble and Crystal: