“Come to Life” is one of the state’s slogans, and when our Colorado correspondent moved there years ago, that’s exactly what she did.
When I moved from crowded and congested West Los Angeles to the small artist community of Manitou Springs at the foot of Pikes Peak in Colorado, it marked a big lifestyle change. It meant not just a return to the equestrian life but the opportunity to really live — to come alive, as the state slogan goes.
My parents had bought me my first horse at the age of 10, when we were living in Hidden Hills, now home to the Kardashian clan, and I have owned and ridden horses ever since those days in the Santa Monica Mountains. But riding a horse in Colorado was unlike anything I’d experienced in California.
Soon after arriving — horseless — in Colorado in 1997, my friend and sometime-client for publicity projects William Devane, who had gifted me with an Arabian horse more than two decades earlier in L.A., decided that my husband and I needed horses in Colorado as well. Much to my delight, Devane, who is not just a famed actor but also an equine enthusiast and polo aficionado, bestowed on me two beautiful retired thoroughbred polo ponies. Emmy Lou and Adrian made the trek from his polo farm near Palm Springs to Manitou Springs, where their new home was a riding stables and boarding facility that backed onto the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.
I vividly remember my first horseback ride through the Garden of the Gods astride my newly acquired Emmy. Both of us were scared to death as we ventured for the first time into this enchanted world of red-rock beauty. Initially hundreds of acres officially bequeathed in 1909 by the family of Charles Perkins, who had previously let the public play on his private land, GOG, as locals lovingly refer to it, has grown to 1,367 acres over the many decades. In its wild expanse live dozens of species of birds, rattlesnakes, and all sorts of mammals, including bobcats and elk. I once witnessed a doe giving birth there. Perhaps polo horses were not the perfect fit to traverse the rocky terrain of the Garden, and I have long since traded in the technical challenges of riding there for the more serene horseback experiences in beautiful Bear Creek Regional Park on Little Man, my gentle quarter horse.
Fourteeners, sunrise, Windom and Sunlight Peaks. (Photography: Courtesy John Fielder)
The horses and terrain might have changed over the years, but coming to life in Colorado has for me always meant a deepening love affair with riding. Much of what I love about my adopted state I have experienced atop a horse. In fact, riding in Colorado inspired me to write the book People We Know, Horses They Love with Jill Rappaport. One of my favorite stories in the book is of Robert Wagner and Jill St. John, who were then living in both Aspen and Los Angeles with their horses, but now call the exclusive mountain community their full-time home.
The diversity of experiences in the saddle is just one of the many multifaceted things about the Centennial State that attracted me. There are five main regions here: the Great Plains, the Southern Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Plateau, the Wyoming Basin, and the Middle Rocky Mountains. The state’s 100,000-plus square miles boast alpine mountains, high plains, deep canyons, and even deserts with towering sand dunes. It is the home of Pikes Peak and the Continental Divide, the Mesa Verde of Ancestral Puebloans and the Mile High City of modern urbanites. It has rivers named for their colors: White, Blue, Green, Colorado (the Spanish word for “colored red”); their size (Grande); and their sound (Roaring Fork). Many of those place names resound in history and sport. The Green River famously carried John Wesley Powell and his men on expeditions in 1869 and 1871. The clear waters of the powerful and fast-flowing Roaring Fork deliver legendary fly-fishing and whitewater rafting.
Rivers, mountains, plains, forests, deserts — the ever-changing adventure-beckoning landscape has urged me to live in the outdoors as much as possible. From glimmering gold aspens in the fall to white-blanketed peaks in the winter, Colorado’s gorgeous scenery has been my companion along trails where I’ve witnessed, among other marvels, bighorn sheep muscling up mountainsides, solitary coyotes ranging their territory, and a mother bear and her two cubs peering down from a tree trunk not 10 feet above me.
With 58 mountain peaks exceeding 14,000 feet (known as 14ers), more than any other state, it’s a mecca for lovers of the outdoors, who revel in the rugged beauty, the wildlife, and the active lifestyle. One of my best adventures took me four hours from home to another geothermally active spot, Steamboat Springs, in the Yampa Valley. About 20 miles out of town I was immersed in pampered cowboy cool at the luxurious Middle Creek Ranch, dining on locally raised beef and homemade elk sausage and helping the ranch manager “cake” the resident herd of 48 bison.
There’s nothing like a few days on a working spread to remind a Coloradan of the state’s long history of ranching. But it was rumors of gold, not open ranchland, that changed the face of the place, surging the population of the region with untold numbers of westward-bound fortune seekers. And it was mining that became the state’s most important industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries (it remains a significant force in the state today). The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush kicked off in July 1858 and sent people stampeding; the changes that came with them remade the region politically, socially, and economically and in February 1861 led to the creation of Colorado Territory. The influx culminated in statehood in 1876, 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence — hence the nickname the Centennial State.
Mounts Harvard, Columbia, Yale. (Photography: Courtesy John Fielder)
Some of the old mining towns faded into ghost-town obscurity, and their weathered remains dot the countryside to this day. Others survived and thrived as ski resorts, mountain towns, adventure destinations, and festival meccas. Durango, Breckenridge, and Silverton all began their lives as mining centers. Towns that grew to support the railroads that penetrated the rugged Rockies to reach the rich mining areas have also transformed. Salida sprang up in 1880 after the Denver and Rio Grande (D&RG) reached the area; it would become one of the most important railroad towns in the state. Now billed as the “Heart of the Rockies,” it was a division point with engine-repair facilities, two roundhouses, and a huge three-rail yard for making up trains and transferring loads from narrow gauge to standard-gauge rolling stock. By 1900, the mining boom was over and Salida’s transformation to a tourist destination was already underway. There were at least two passenger trains daily from Denver to Grand Junction via Salida and many more freights. An outfit called Around the Circle tours advertised trips from Salida west to Durango and back around over Cumbres to Alamosa over LaVeta and back to Denver; its logo proclaimed “Scenic Line of the World.”
Turn-of-the-century tourists to Salida would have found several hotels and boarding houses, an opera house where traveling theater groups regularly played, and a well-established red-light district. Today, tourists find a picturesque art and adventure destination smack-dab on the Arkansas River — a shopper’s and paddler’s paradise with a riverside promenade for walking, a canyon for whitewater rafting, a tramway for scenic gondola rides, and a historic downtown for exploring. With 136 preserved buildings dating from 1883 to 1910, Salida boasts Colorado’s largest national historic district, now housing everything from art galleries and antiques shops to distilleries and specialty stores.
For all the wealth beneath the surface that propelled the state’s growth, Colorado’s allure lies above ground. The nickname Colorful Colorado — its “purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain” described by Katharine Lee Bates when she wrote “America the Beautiful” about a view from Pikes Peak during a trip to Colorado Springs in 1893 — might well have also been inspired by dozens of lakes stocked with rainbow trout and the changing colors of the seasons.
Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park. (Photography: Courtesy John Fielder)
Among the many colorful glories to behold here: aspen glow and alpenglow.
As much as it’s known for its outdoor attractions, Colorado has a great indoor scene, too. Sophistication abounds in the state’s Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-winning eateries. Home to some of the best restaurants in the West, it’s a true foodie destination, and you could be happily sated even if you never ventured beyond Denver’s famed food halls. The Buckhorn Exchange in Denver’s oldest neighborhood might be the state’s most historic (serving Western fare since 1893), but The Fort in Morrison, outside Denver, is certainly one of its most storied. Opened in 1963, it’s known equally for its Old West-themed menu (featuring beef, game, and range-raised buffalo) and its imposing adobe building (based on the 1833 fur trading post Bent’s Old Fort). There’s no shortage of old-timey saloons here, either. The oldest, the Buffalo Rose Saloon in Golden, got its start as a watering hole in 1859 during the gold era. For a good story along with a stiff drink, head up (literally: elevation 10,151) to Leadville and the Silver Dollar Saloon; established in 1879, it was once favored by Doc Holliday.
There are plenty of celebrity haunts, too. One of my favorites is just blocks away from where I live. Older than the state itself, Manitou Springs’ The Cliff House at Pikes Peak was originally built in 1873 in true Victorian style, and over its almost 150 years, it has catered to the likes of Clark Gable and Buffalo Bill Cody, who have suites named for them (the Buffalo Bill boasts a tepee-style turret). Many contemporary celebrities visit the state, and many also either call Colorado home or have second homes here.
One of Colorado’s most famous transplants was Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. He loved the state so much (and happened to need something easier for headlining marquees) that he took its capital as his surname. It was Deutschendorf — known the world over as John Denver — who in 1972 wrote “Rocky Mountain High.” The story goes that he was camping with wife Annie and friends around the tree line at 10,000 feet or so when he was inspired to pen the now-famous lyrics.
Aspen Splendor, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado. (Photography: Courtesy Stephen G. Weaver)
After Denver’s death, Colorado adopted “Rocky Mountain High” as its second official song. Denver adopted the state as his permanent home, living out his adult life in Aspen. There, in the heart of town next to the Roaring Fork River, you can find the John Denver Sanctuary and walk its scenic grounds amid perennial flowers and gray boulders engraved with his lyrics; in the summer, you can see performances by the local theater company and year-round generally do what one of the inscriptions encourages: “Earth, Water, Mountain, Sky / Pause, Reflect, Enjoy.”
C&I favorites Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn own properties in upscale Aspen. When Russell starred in Quentin Tarantino’s western The Hateful Eight, he couldn’t have been happier that it was filmed in Telluride, just a three-hour drive from his ranch.
With all it’s got going for it, it’s no wonder that in 2019, USA Today declared Colorado the second best state in the country to live in.
Photography: (Cover image) courtesy Gaylon Wampler/Visit Colorado Springs