To gain one sense of Del Norte — its small-town, dilapidated, land-that-time-forgot vibe — you have only to look as far as the Community Banks of Colorado clock. Though it's directly across Columbia Avenue from the historic Windsor Hotel, one of the oldest in Colorado, and doors down from the bustling Three Barrel Brewing pizzeria, the clock runs an hour fast.
Nobody bothers to fix it, just like nobody at the barbershop on the other side of Grand Avenue (also U.S. Route 160) cares about the misspelling in its list of hours, hand-written in window frosting. It's been present so long that Three Barrel, in a coup of perfectly on-point self-deprecation, has had time to brew, label and distribute the seasonally released Thurday Special, a killer coconut brown lager (reviewed on p. 28).
But although six blocks of depressed small homes and trailers separate the heart of the 1,500-person town from the Rio Grande's banks, Del Norte is less a stagnant backwater than a resource-rich pool rippling with amassed potential energy for redefinition and revitalization. New blood and young talents, returned from big-city educations, adventures and most importantly, business experiences, boast a progressive, collaborative vision for the debonair Del Norte of future days.
From top-quality gourmet dining and drinking to excellent single-track and rock-climbing opportunities, plus close proximity to winter sports, the town's renaissance has already begun.
It's July 4, and we've capitalized on our long weekend with a Friday push-off, stopping southbound to dip feet in the hoot-out-loud frigid waters of Zapata Falls, just outside the Great Sand Dunes National Park entrance. Ninety minutes later, we're seated inside the Windsor Hotel's bright, light-wood dining room, where white tablecloths don't mean informally dressed diners are made uncomfortable. A top-shelf creative cocktail list with ample Colorado spirits helps, as does a craft beer list dominated by special-release Three Barrel bombers, plus a 475-milliliter Chimayo Sour Ale.
It's the latter that stuns us as a pairing with our crispy trout, dancing deftly with the flavors of its saffron rhubarb beurre blanc. We also relish a charcuterie board of mostly local cheeses and meats, including a spicy Soppressata and barnyard-evoking Capicola produced in Salida; Fort Collins-made goat cheese; and Monte Vista-made Gosar Sausage (found locally at Mountain Mama's and Garden of the Gods Gourmet). There's also a stupid-good local lamb hit with a lavish and tart huckleberry Bordelaise (named for Bordeaux wine) sauce over celery root purée with caramelized Brussels sprouts.
After our dinner, we finally introduce ourselves to 30-year-old co-owner/server/sommelier Kodi Whitehead, who first emailed me a month prior to invite us to the area. He reached out both as a fellow Colorado College alum and as an alum of Tavern at the Broadmoor, where he was prior to working directly with Wolfgang Puck at Cut steakhouse inside the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles.
Soon, Kodi's wife Regan — the Windsor's chef, also a 30-year-old Broadmoor alum and a badass pastry chef with experience that includes L.A.'s Four Seasons and Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air — fills our table with superb dessert samples: dark chocolate soufflé, a strawberry-rhubarb crumble and (brace yourself) an orange-almond shortcake stuffed with vanilla bean-goat cheese whipped cream and honey-balsamic-tossed figs, garnished in bay leaf syrup and almond croquant (brittle). Toes curl.
The feeling of Broadmoor quality all-around jells when we meet assistant food and beverage director Kevin Hass, 35, who managed three Broadmoor eateries (and met Kodi and Regan) before bartending at fine Fort Collins spots and being lured here.
There's an extensive hotel history, told in part on the Windsor's website, but better heard in lively fashion through Kodi's father Steve, regarding the hotel's reprieve from demolition in 1993 by the Windsor Restoration and Historical Association, of which he was the VP at the time. Today, after a $3 million, two-decade-long restoration to re-open, 20 swank rooms go for as low as $88 nightly, which includes continental breakfast with Regan's pastries. That is, if you aren't saving your appetite for the nearby Peace of Art Café, a health food and retail store plus organic eatery, for fresh-pressed juices, earthy green chile burritos and Solar Roast Coffee, served among colorful cord-wood-and-wine-bottle-constructed walls.
Malts and Mecca
We could have caught fireworks in the nearby tourist town of Creede, which is known for its repertory theatre, but instead turned in early to prep for a Saturday morning jaunt 20 minutes outside of town, to the Middle Frisco Trail. There we climbed 2,350 feet (starting at 9,500) and a little over six miles, steadily uphill, aiming for San Francisco Lakes. We had to walk our bikes at times, for rests or through technical turns, and I bonked near the top with signs of altitude sickness. But before I could lament my condition too long, a Chutes-esque, all-out bombing downhill brought more oxygen and a perma-grin.
Three Barrel received us for recovery and a solid sampler, the hilariously awesome "adorable surrealism" works of local artist (and Windsor server) Henry Lee Blount gracing walls and tap handles. Will Kreutzer, who is brewer John Bricker's son-in-law, Three Barrel's distributor and the young president of the local chamber of commerce (where Regan is secretary), joined us to tell tales of the brewery's amusing label logos, its impending expansion, and its close relationship with Alamosa's Colorado Malting Company. They're increasingly sought-after by craft breweries for their San Luis Valley-grown grains, including gluten-free options: "There are times we get the bags and they're still warm," says Kreutzer.
Having moved from Denver, he says "those that get Del Norte see it as Mecca," citing not just the hiking, biking and climbing, but fishing, ATV trails and his strong desire to turn stretches of the Rio Grande nearby into a whitewater park for kayakers, like "a mini Salida."
Every Southwestern sports destination of course needs a cheap dining option for the river rats and car-camping-type gear heads, which is where the new Calvillo's Mexican restaurant enters the picture. Its all-you-can-eat buffet is $8. The grub is ... well, did I mention it's only $8?
Come Sunday morning, we're off five miles east of town to a turnoff on Rifle Range Road. Steve has arranged for us to pedal around with Jerry Duran, a former road and mountain bike racer turned high-end custom bike builder (to clients like Robert Redford) and assistant cycling coach at Alamosa's Adams State University. Duran and head coach Marshal Hartley are testing out the first two miles of a planned eight-mile Stone Quarry Trail being cut on BLM land.
Duran envisioned the network 20 years ago but his pitch to officials at the time went nowhere, so over the years he free-rode it, "picking lines around the cactus" and flagging the ground. Recently, he bumped into a BLM official hiking the spot, removing all the flags. When asked if he knew that the land was only open to horses or hikers, not bikes, Duran responded: "Well, how did you like my trails?"
A working friendship grew, and Duran was gifted a month to GPS the land for a management-plan submittal. Trail cutting began in late 2013 via volunteer organizations' labor, and Duran doesn't know when it'll conclude. There are no trail signs or maps yet, but he invites emails at firstname.lastname@example.org for previews.
We wind through intermediate-to-advanced terrain, with several tough, tight turns and cool climbs and descents of big rock faces. Duran touts Del Norte's geographic superiority: "It's the diversity of topography here. I've been riding 31 years and it's the most diverse I've seen — you can go from high-alpine to canyon land in the same ride, like going from Crested Butte to Moab ... there's nothing but thousands of square miles of public land all around Del Norte."
Which is just another of its charms and potentials. Come to think of it — a town clock that's an hour ahead doesn't seem as bad as one that's an hour behind. At least it's forward-thinking.