July 13, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Read up and pack up. Take a Colorado literary trip this summer.

11 min read

Great literature is deeply rooted in place, and Colorado towns have been inspiring authors for decades. Ready to try a fiction-fueled vacay? Here’s how it works: Pick a title from the list below, read it solo or with your book club, then follow our travel notes to immerse yourself in a real-life literary setting.

Sink a line in Crested Butte

The Guide by Peter Heller

Knopf

The Guide by Peter Heller

Thrillers aren’t exactly known for their literary prowess, and yet Denver-based writer Peter Heller – a poet and former journalist – manages to weave high-quality nature writing into his page-turners. Most of Heller’s novels have Colorado connections, including “The Painter” and “The Dog Stars.” For an outdoorsy literary trip, try “The Guide” (Knopf), a national bestseller and action-packed mystery about a fishing guide who stirs up more than trout at an elite lodge outside Crested Butte.

Where to go: From Denver, take Interstate 70 to Glenwood Springs, then drop south to Crested Butte. You’ll get a real sense of the area’s natural beauty while crossing Kebler Pass – “One of the most beautiful passes in the world,” Heller claims, urging readers to plan a summer trip so they can stop for a hike off the road (check for closures). Look for hidden fishing holes as you walk. Heller won’t provide specifics – “We never do,” he says – but there are choice places to cast a line.

Where to stay: Quaint group lodging is available at Elk Mountain Lodge, a historic building built for miners in 1919. For a lavish escape, there’s Eleven Scarp Ridge Lodge, from the Eleven Experience group, drawing plenty of celebrities to its in-town resort.

What to do: Grab breakfast at the author’s favorite Crested Butte eatery, McGill’s, before heading south on 135, through ranching country, to reach Jacks Cabin Cutoff, which takes tourists to the Taylor River. Keep driving upstream until you find a public access pullout. Don’t fish on private land. Be sure to pack water, snacks and a list of book club questions: There will be plenty of time to chat about The Guide while wading. If you need a fishing license, or would be more comfortable with a guide, visit Dragonfly Anglers, one of several outfitters in the area.

Chat up locals in Redstone

Gilded Mountain (Scribner)
Gilded Mountain (Scribner)

In “Gilded Mountain” (Simon & Schuster), novelist Kate Manning’s beautiful prose brings to life the fictional town of Moonstone. The story picks up when Sylvie Pelletier leaves her family’s paltry mining cabin to take a summer job with the wealthy family that owns the town’s marble mine. Manning’s thoughtful juxtaposition of high country miners, freed slaves, and women leaves room for lively discussion.

Where to go: Redstone and Marble inspired Manning’s fictional plot. State Highway 82 – reach it via I-70 – gets you to Redstone Historic District, an intact example of an industrial company town. The setting is stunning, but Manning points out, “It’s the history that takes my breath away.”

Where to stay: When she visits town, Manning stays at the Crystal Dreams Bed and Breakfast, which is changing ownership this summer.

What to do: Redstone was the site of a coal mining camp founded by millionaire John Osgood. (Sound familiar?) See for yourself the discrepancies between workers’ cottages and Osgood’s 42-room estate, serving as inspiration for Elkhorne Manor, hosting, in its heyday, John D. Rockefeller and Teddy Roosevelt, among others. Tour Redstone Castle (reservations available online), then wander Redstone Park, home to the Redstone Historical Society, open daily May to October. Resuming in June, Redstone Walking Tours depart from the Redstone Inn on Thursdays at 11 a.m.

From Crystal Dreams B&B, it’s a short walk to Redstone Art Gallery. Drive 20 minutes south to reach Marble, home to a working quarry that supplied stone for the Lincoln Memorial. Check in at The Marble Hub, a non-profit visitor information center, for coffee, trail maps, historical tidbits, and free wi-fi (don’t count on cell service).

The hike to the marble quarry really fired up Manning’s imagination. “The road runs alongside Yule Creek,” she explains, describing “banks littered with marble chips.” Marble’s a tiny town with just a handful of year-round residents. “The one restaurant is all you need,” Manning says, referencing Slow Groovin BBQ. Known for its burgers and beer, it’s the place to “unwind in friendly company,” she adds.

Hike through history in Breckenridge

A reiling dredge in Breckenridge, described in Sandra Dallas' "Prayers for Sale." (Provided by Breckenridge Tourism Office)
A reiling dredge in Breckenridge, described in Sandra Dallas’ “Prayers for Sale.” (Provided by Breckenridge Tourism Office)

First there was mining, then came dredging – which brings Sandra Dallas’ complex characters to the fictional town of Middle Swan in the early 1900s in “Prayers for Sale” (St. Martin’s Griffin). The book is a bittersweet patchwork of yarns spun by 86-year-old Hennie Comfort, who has her own narrative to close before moving “down below” to bide her days in the Midwest with her daughter.

Where to go: Readers will recognize Middle Swan as the charming town of Breckenridge. From Denver, it’s about a 90-minute trip to Breck, via I-70 west to Exit 203 and onto Highway 9.

Where to stay: You’ll find quaint lodging at The Carlin, a Main Street tavern and inn where rooms have lovely touches, including outdoor patios and bay window seating just right for readers.

What to do: The welcome center houses an interactive display about the town’s mining past. The museum isn’t far from Ollie’s at the Dredge, a replica floating dredge boat on the Blue River. “The dredges were a thing of the past when I lived in Breckenridge in the 1960s,” says Dallas. “But,” she adds, “the rock piles were there, and so were the remnants of the dredge boats.”

See the impact of dredging firsthand while hiking Reiling Dredge Trail, just east of town, up French Gulch Road. Park at Reiling Dredge Trailhead, and follow markers through an aspen grove to a decaying dredge. New this year, on July 13 and Aug. 10, Breckenridge History is offering a 1.5-mile guided “hike through history” to Iowa Hill, a restored boardinghouse circa 1868.

Continue your historical research on Airport Road, at Breckenridge Distillery and Restaurant, where you can sample some “hooch” and tour the distillery. You might also want to check out the Gold Pan Saloon, purported to hold the longest liquor license west of the Mississippi.

Quilting is a big motif in Dallas’ novel, and there’s a gorgeous spread hanging at Summit County’s South Branch Library, courtesy of the Summit Quilters. Local arts organization Breck Create has a new resident, Kayla Powers, a fiber artist from Detroit. See her modern take on quilting during open studio hours, listed online at breckcreate.org.

Eat peaches in Paonia

“Go as a River,” Shelley Read (Spiegel & Grau, 2023)

Shelley Read’s emotional debut novel, “Go As A River” (Spiegel & Grau), opens on a peach farm in Iola, a legit underwater ghost town inundated in the 1960s to make way for the Blue Mesa Reservoir in Curecanti National Recreation Area. Drama ensues when the book’s 17-year-old protagonist, Victoria Nash, meets Wilson Moon, a drifter displaced from tribal land. Themes of courage, grit and friendship help temper all the hardship, and Tori finds her place in Paonia, a funky little wine town situated off the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

Read picked Paonia as a setting because, she says, “It’s a little town with big soul and, yes, exquisite peaches.”

Where to go: It will take about four hours of driving to reach this quaint Western Slope town, via Interstate 70 to Glenwood Springs, where you can catch Highway 82 west and Highway 133 south to Paonia.

Where to stay: Paonia’s Airbnb scene is strong, and yet it’s hard to beat a night at the 118-year-old Bross Hotel Bed & Breakfast, Delta County’s oldest inn, where owners Mike Yengling and Suzanne Tripp serve scratch-made breakfast.

What to do: Read recommends Paonia Bread Works for breakfast or lunch. “Other local treasures are Paonia Books, Blue Sage Center for the Arts, and KVNF community radio,” Read says, adding, “A late-summer u-pick is Big B’s Delicious Orchards, where you can fill a bushel basket then grab a hard cider, groove to live bluegrass, and pitch a tent for the night.” (OK, sold!)

Take a side trip to Montrose, 50 miles south of Paonia, to learn more about Colorado’s Indigenous history at the Ute Indian Museum, a History Colorado outpost with thought-provoking exhibitions. Montrose also claims the Museum of the Mountain West, a preserved ghost town off U.S. Route 50. Speaking of ghost towns, driving to the reservoir covering Iola will be tricky this summer due to the U.S. 50 bridge closure. Instead, try a 2.4-mile out-and-back hike along Pine Creek Trail, 45 minutes east of Montrose, on the far west side of Curecanti.

Don’t overlook the Eastern Plains

“Our Souls at Night,” by Kent Haruf (Vintage Reprint 2016)

You might know Colorado native Kent Haruf (1943-2014) as the award-winning author of “Plainsong,” a national bestseller and National Book Award finalist. For a short, soul-stirring narrative, try Haruf’s sixth and final novel, “Our Souls at Night” (Vintage Contemporaries), set in fictional Holt, described as “a little dirt-blown town” outside Denver.

Addie Moore thrusts the book into motion when she comes to a neighbor with a pretty strange request. A beautiful love story unfolds beneath Haruf’s idiosyncratic writing, characterized by rich dialogue and lean prose. You won’t find flowery descriptions in Haruf’s work, but the author’s choice words are all you’ll need to get a sense of Colorado’s Eastern Plains, the sweeping, oft-overlooked shortgrass landscape stretched out from the Front Range to Kansas.

Where to go: Head east on I-70. That’s it.

Where to stay: If you’re looking to stay overnight, there are three options, the homiest being the Harvest Hotel. For slightly more premium digs, try Cobblestone Inn & Suites.

What to do: Natural wonders abound on the Eastern Plains, including the Pawnee Buttes and Jackson Lake State Park, and rumor has it Yuma – 140 miles directly east of Denver – inspired Haruf’s fictional setting. You’re not necessarily going to drive 2 1/2 hours (each way) for Yuma alone, but isn’t that the whole point? Haruf wrote about a quiet place where people lived and survived, and Yuma is, well, exactly that.

The cute farming community of about 3,500 residents is planted about 40 miles from the Nebraska and Kansas borders. “Almost everyone out here has a hand in agriculture,” a resident told me when I was passing through. There’s not a farmers market, but you’ll find fresh dairy and good coffee at the Farm House Market, and the restaurant at the town’s public 9-hole course, Indian Hills Golf Club, serves up quality beef burgers. Down the road, Tumbleweed Brewing and Wine Co. proves you don’t have to be in a big city to find great food.

History buffs might want to check out the Yuma Museum, located near the Yuma Community and Enrichment Center. The museum doesn’t keep regular hours, so if you want to see it, reach out to Monica in advance at 970-630-1660. The non-operation Lett Hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is worth seeing.

Yuma has over 20 acres of greenspace spread across five distinct parks, and a walk down Main Street takes you past some of the area’s oldest buildings. Take the time to revel in a brand of understated realness that influenced one of the state’s truly standout novelists.

Spend a perfect day in Lafayette

“Alone” (Aladdin)

Colorado author Megan E. Freeman is racking up awards for “Alone” (Aladdin), a New York Times bestselling middle-grade novel about a girl who’s left behind when the fictional town of Millerville is suddenly evacuated for unknown reasons. Freeman’s fictional setting was strongly influenced by Lafayette, where Freeman was living when she wrote the book. “I named it Millerville because the real town of Lafayette was founded by Mary Miller, and I wanted to give locals a few Easter eggs,” Freeman explains.

In case you’re curious, Peakmont is Longmont, with its stellar views of Long’s Peak, and Lewiston is Louisville.

Where to go: Depending on the time of day, it’ll take you about 30 minutes from Denver, up I-25 and onto U.S. 36 west to Lafayette.

What to do: Families with tweens and teens can explore the book’s setting IRL, during a day trip to Old Town Lafayette, a charismatic Boulder County township. “There is so much to love about Lafayette,” Freeman says. But if you force her to list a few favorite destinations within walking distance of Old Town, she’ll recommend The Read Queen, a fabulous indie bookstore, as well as the Lafayette Public Library, Waneka Lake Park, and the family-owned/operated Lafayette Florist.

Work up an appetite walking, then try one of Freeman’s go-to restaurants: Panang Thai or Udon Kaisha, both locally owned and totally delicious. Eats and Sweets, a sandwich and ice cream café, abuts the splash pad at Festival Plaza. Art Nights Out are a fun family event held second Fridays, May through September, on South Public Road, between Emma and Cannon streets.

Find hope in the Black Forest

A wild land fire started around ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

The Black Forest fire, northeast of Colorado Springs raged on June 11, 2013. It became the most destructive fire in Colorado history, scorching 14,280 acres, burning 489 homes and killing two people.

Ana Crespo started writing “Hello, Tree” (Little, Brown) in 2013, in the wake of the Black Forest Fire. “We live about 10 miles from the fire,” Crespo says, and while her family members and belongings were spared, “It was overwhelmingly sad,” she recalls. The fire claimed two lives, and more than 500 families lost homes.

With her then-four-year-old son in mind, Crespo began writing a fact-filled children’s book about the life cycle of a forest affected by wildfire. Covering a period of about 30 years, the fictional story is perfectly pitched to young readers with its emphasis on hope and “regrowth after disaster,” says the book’s illustrator, Dow Phumiruk. Both the author and illustrator are locals, and they visited the forest together during production. Phumiruk remembers charred remnants of trees, but she also noticed “colorful wildflowers in lush grass and healthy, new saplings.”

Where to stay: If you’re vying for parent of the year, book a night at Great Wolf Lodge, a waterpark/hotel where little bookworms can splash around until bedtime.

Where to go: After reading “Hello, Tree” with your children, let them see the forest’s regrowth on an easy day trip to Black Forest Regional Park, on the north end of Colorado Springs, 10 minutes west of I-25. The park’s a hit with kids of all ages given its large playground, sports fields and interconnected hiking trails weaving through thick strands of evergreens.

You’ll find additional playgrounds at John Venezia Community Park and Fox Run Regional Park, and for a quick bite before heading home, Crespo likes Pikes Peak Brewing Company in Monument. “Black Forest Brewing Company is nice, too,” Crespo says.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelancer. 

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