Soul elevation: culture and nature in Colorado

Soul elevation: culture and nature in Colorado

This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, autumn 2019, issue 110


Colorado’s capital, Denver, boasts vibrant urban arts and cultural attractions; and for the outdoor adventurer, the state’s dramatic mountain ranges and national parks are calling. 

Denver’s Art scene is ever-growing with the Golden Triangle Museum District at the hub, and I’m determined to dive into it face first. Upon entering the Denver Art Museum, I gaze up into the cavernous atrium that’s nearly four storeys high. Not knowing where to start, I’m relieved to meet Fran, a volunteer tour guide.

She assures me there is plenty of magic to be seen, and my heart is immediately smitten with the exhibit, Stampede: Animals in Art, a witty curation that explores the presence of animals throughout time.

Soul elevation: culture and nature in Colorado
Large abstract works at Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. Image: Jenae Neeson
Soul elevation: culture and nature in Colorado
Exploring the Golden Triangle Museum District. Image: Matt Inden/Miles

Fran takes great delight discussing Chen Wenling’s flock of 56 political piglets, as well as explaining Yayoi Kusama’s Can-Can dog and her affinity for polka dots. The exhibition, which runs until mid-May, can be seen at the museum’s Frederic C. Hamilton building, a striking geometric structure that mirrors Colorado’s majestic mountain vista.

Next, I visit the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, a hoarder’s dream of furniture from the 20th century, along with Vance Kirkland’s studio and art school that shows how he worked suspended above his paintings. A final favourite in the Triangle is the Clyfford Still Museum which is magnetically minimal.

A quick Uber ride away is the RiNo (River North) Art District, which is touted as the neighbourhood “where art is made”. Here, art and its creators spill out onto the streets. I catch up with a friend at Denver Central Market – we can’t resist trying a selection of cheeses from one of the food vendors – before venturing deeper into the district. 

Soul elevation: culture and nature in Colorado
Denver Central Market. Image: James Florio
Soul elevation: culture and nature in Colorado
Tasty treats at the Denver Central Market

As we wander, vivid street art and murals adorn every building, laneway and sidewalk. A crowd that is just as dynamic as the surroundings enjoys the open-air bars that continue down Larimer Street. Finding ourselves at The Ramble Hotel, cocktails in hand, we take our cue from the wall graphic, Curiosity Awaits, and head to the rooftop to catch the sun setting on the Denver cityscape. Sitting under the neon sign that says ‘Wish You Were Here’, we enjoy our drinks as the neon lights shimmer against the deepening sky.

Later that night we experience Populist, a cosy, neighbourhood restaurant. Sitting at the bar we share small plates of the chef’s choice and watch the bartenders execute their own seamless dance with impeccable attention to food/drink pairings and the mixing of each libation.

Action and adventure

During the first day of my visit to Denver, it’s apparent this mountain destination isn’t going to leave a creative stone unturned. Inspired by its art-forward vision and tenacious landscapes, Colorado is a breath of fresh air. However, it’s also worth exploring what’s on offer throughout the rest of the state.

Getting into my rental car, I’m determined to see what adventures Colorado might hold. Travelling south of Denver, it doesn’t take long to find that Mother Nature has orchestrated one of her own masterpieces – the Garden of the Gods. This is Colorado Springs’ idea of a city park, featuring towering red-rock formations erupting out of the earth.

Soul elevation: culture and nature in Colorado
Sunset at Colorado National Monument. Image: Jenae Neeson
Soul elevation: culture and nature in Colorado
Central Garden Trail at the Garden of the Gods. Image: Jenae Neeson

My stop for the night is Zapata Ranch, a bison and guest ranch that borders the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The dramatic landscape changes as the sun moves across the sky while the wind sweeps through the canyon. We climb to the top of the dune for a few sandboarding runs before returning to the ranch for a tasty dinner of bison steaks and locally sourced vegetables. The following morning, ranch-hand Beth picks me up in an old Chevy for an up-close, but respectfully distant, encounter with the ranch’s bison herd.

My road trip weaves to and fro through the Rocky Mountains, where I encounter mountain towns such as Pagosa Springs. Here, natural hot springs are not just for soaking but also resourced by locals such as Riff Raff Brewing. During a tasting session, the Green Chile ale is certainly on point.

In Silverton, I meet Jeff Ellingson, the curator of Durango’s D&SNG Railroad Museum, who takes me back in time with a stroll through the wildly productive rail house. Authentic mining towns, such as Silverton, Ouray and Telluride, offer a mountain canvas of outdoor opportunity, be it a terrifying 4WD tour up the side of the mountain with a well-worth-it view of the Telluride valley below, or Ouray’s Uncompahgre Gorge, an ice-climbing mecca with five kilometres of vertical terrain and more than 200 ice climbs.

The last leg of my trip brings me to the Western Slope of Colorado, ideal for wine tasting and bike riding – perhaps this is Colorado’s best-kept secret. Home to Colorado National Monument, with unstoppable sunset views and a network of formidable mountain bike trails carved into the mesa, I will be back with my bike and tent in tow. That said, this time I opt for the easy trail with new friends, peddling from winery to winery, with a strong and deliciously crafted finish at Peach Street Distillers in Palisade. A sipper of “pure Rocky Mountain water and a healthy dose of old-fashioned tomfoolery” is the perfect ending to my Colorado adventure. 

Soul elevation: culture and nature in Colorado
Steamy morning at the mineral pools at The Springs Resort & Spa. Image: Jenae Neeson
Soul elevation: culture and nature in Colorado
A vineyard in the Palisade region scores a stunning backdrop. Image: Jenae Neeson

THINGS TO DO

Golden Triangle Museum District: Immerse yourself in art in Denver. – goldentriangleofdenver.com

Durango train: Take a day trip from Durango to Silverton, bus to Silverton and return to Durango via the historic Steam Train. – durangotrain.com

Ouray’s Box Canyon Falls: a spectacular waterfall and winter ice-climbing destination. – ouraycolorado.com

Telluride Outside: Live on the edge during a 4WD tour. – tellurideoutside.com/4wd-tour

Rapid Creek Cycles: Biking through the wine country. – rapidcreekcycles.com

TRAVEL FACTS

Getting there:

Qantas flies to Dallas Fort Worth and Los Angeles with connections to Denver International Airport. Flights are also available through United, American, Virgin and Air Canada.

Getting around:

Having your own set of wheels will give you the freedom to roam. – mycoloradoparks.com/road-trips

Staying in Denver? Use the A Line rail service to get from the airport to downtown Denver Union Station.

Where to stay:

Hotel Indigo inspires modern-day pioneers with its urban charm. – indigodenver.com

The Zapata Ranch, a 19th-century-built bison ranch with all of today’s modern comforts. – zranch.org

Soak in the 23 mineral hot-springs pools at The Springs Resort in Pagosa. – pagosahotsprings.com

The Rochester Hotel and The Leland House will be sure to win over your heart with its Western-movie-themed rooms. – rochesterhotel.com

Further information:

Visit Colorado – colorado.com

Visit Denver – visitdenver.com

Keep reading:

Snap it in Denver: 12 of the city’s best photography spots

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