Northwest Colorado is a country of extremes. From forest land to desert, from wild horse herds to prehistoric fossils, from natural resource development to lands with a hundred-year history of ranching, the area is rife with the exact opportunities that tourists interested in culture and heritage are looking for.
"Where else in the United States can you go up to high country forests and down to the desert in one day?" asked Donna Hellyer of Hayden.
On Friday, 23 residents of Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties boarded a bus for the second leg of a two-part tour of Northwest Colorado to get a personal feel for what opportunities are available for tourists. Their goal is to assess those opportunities, determine which ones communities are willing to share and which ones visitors would be interested in and to develop plan to market those. The group is part of the Northwest Colorado Cultural Heritage Tourism Initiative, launched by the Northwest Colorado Economic Development Council. Residents in 10 communities in the three counties are developing plans that would draw those interested in cultural heritage, which studies show also happen to be the visitors with the most money to spend.
The cultural heritage tourists want an experience that stimulates more than one of their senses and makes them feel a part of history or another lifestyle.
Marsha Daughenbaugh, director of the Community Agriculture Alliance, thinks one of Northwest Colorado's greatest assets is its Western lifestyle, that visitors can still see cowboys walking down the streets wearing Stetsons, dusters and cowboy boots and see wild or domesticated horses from nearly every county road.
Friday's tour started at Hahn's Peak village, where gold had to be found twice before it actually was settled. Joseph Henz discovered gold, but didn't make it a year. Winter hit, and he and his friends ran out of supplies. Most left within a month, but Henz made it through the first winter -- barely. One of his friends left a baking powder can on the peak with a note in it, saying "this is Hahn's Peak." At its height, there were six saloons along its main street.
Hahn's Peak was the county seat for 22 years in the time when Routt and Moffat county were a single county. The schoolhouse is still standing, as well as the jail and the town boasts a small, spirited museum.
Some still search for gold in the hills.
The people of Hahn's Peak are self-described as independent, hermitish and rugged. The town is the gateway to Steamboat State Park, the most-visited state park in Colorado and residents already are concerned about the impact so many tourists will have on their town.
All the towns along the bus route boasted similar stories.
In Craig, tour participants visited Lou Wyman's museum, still under construction, and were impressed by a sheep-shearing demonstration.
Cultural Heritage Tourism consultant Judy Walden called the demonstration genius and said it was exactly the kind of experience visitors were looking for.
The town of Meeker offers a variety of experiences, ranging from recreating in the Flat Top Wilderness area, along the White River or at Trapper's Lake. For the person looking to learn a bit of the area's history, the town has the large Meeker Museum and a new museum that will be dedicated to Nathan Meeker and the Indian attack that killed him and 12 others. Visitors can travel the 82-mile scenic Flat Tops byway to the town of Yampa, another link in Northwest Colorado's Cultural Heritage Tourism Chain.
From Meeker, the bus tour continued to Rangely, where participants had a chuckwagon dinner and stayed at the Colorado Northwestern Community College dorms. Rangely boasts recreational opportunities at the Kinney reservoir, bird watching in nearby marshlands and a variety of area petroglyphs as well as a newly developed hiking and biking trail that might eventually connect to Meeker.
Through the tour, participants experienced pioneer and early Native American history, but when they entered Dinosaur, they went back even farther. Dinosaur's contribution to cultural heritage tourism is amazing vistas, geological wonders and scenic drives. Hiking, biking and camping opportunities abound. The town has quaint shops and borders the Dinosaur National Monument.
Maybell was the last stop on the two-day tour. There, participants toured a hotel rumored to have its own ghost, read some of the oral history diligently collected by residents and toured original stone homesteads. The town is the stopping point for the "Where the Hell's Maybell" bike ride, the host of annual dog agility trials and has more than 500 head of horses pass through on the annual Sombrero Horse Drive, something that Maybell residents made into an event for the first time this year and plan to continue in the future.
Armed with their own experiences, members of the Northwest Colorado Cultural Heritage Tourism Initiative will meet again June 10 and 11 for the "Share Your Heritage" summit. There, they'll narrow 83 themes to five and then begin working on a trail or a tour that links all 10 participating towns. For example, if the theme determined is wildlife watching, Hayden's sage grouse leks would be included, Craig's eagles, Meeker's elk, migrating birds in Rangely and so on. If the theme were mining, visitors might stop in Hahn's peak for a taste of gold mining history, in Routt county to tour an underground mine, in Craig to tour the power plant and in Rangely to see oil wells.
Eighty-three themes have already been identified, now the group is tasked with determining which of those themes would interest visitors, whether each of the 10 towns had something to contribute to that theme and whether that contribution is ready.
Bernie Rose is one of the Craig representatives in the CHT initiative. The biggest impact he's seen so far is how the program has brought 10 communities together.