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Five Small Mountain Towns from Denver
by Lisa Marie Mercer

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Denver is an excellent example of a well-functioning metropolis, and most people would agree that its neighboring ski areas have more than earned their stellar reputations. But this part of Colorado has some lesser-known and more charming attractions in a group of small mountain towns just off Interstate 70. They make a good day trip or weekend getaway, singly or as a circuit.


This 75-minute historic train ride travels between Georgetown and Silver Plume

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Photo Courtesy of the Railstar and Colorado Historical Society

 

 

Georgetown, Colorado
Travel time: 75 Minutes from Denver

This Victorian mining town holds a special place in my heart, as it marked the fourth day of my journey from my former home in Boston, to my new home in Dillon, Colorado. While stopping at the Georgetown Gateway Visitors Center to use the restrooms, I found an interesting selection of mining artifacts and history books. The center offers Internet access, an interesting gift shop, complimentary beverages, and a video about the Georgetown-Silver Plume National Historic Landmark District. It's a good place to get your mountain bearings and pick up brochures about Georgetown and other Colorado towns.

 

The Georgetown Loop Historic Mining and Railroad Park is Georgetown's most popular attraction. The exciting 75-minute train ride travels between Georgetown and the old mining town of Silver Plume. Its tracks rise 640 feet over some spectacular Rocky Mountain terrain. If you wish, you can take a walking tour 500 feet into the Lebanon Silver Mine, which is located at the halfway point on the railroad.

 


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My first ski run as a Colorado resident was in Georgetown at the Loveland ski area, a classic old-time ski area that is a local favorite. It was early October - yes, October. Every year, the Loveland and Arapahoe Basin ski areas compete to see which will be the first to open and the last to close; October and July dates are not uncommon. On Valentine's Day, Loveland holds an event called Mountain Matrimony, where you can get married or renew your vows in a mountain ceremony.

 

Silverthorne, Colorado
Travel time: 90 minutes from Denver; 20 Minutes from Georgetown

Silverthorne is synonymous with outlet shopping. In fact, the Outlets of Silverthorne often serve as bribery for non-sporty significant others ("Just come with me on this trip, honey. While I'm at the slopes, you can shop till you drop.") The outlets consist of three villages and hundreds of shops. After you park your car, a free shuttle will take you to your desired destination. The stores are your usual suspects, including

In warmer weather, ditch the shuttle and explore by foot. The outlets are connected by a system of bridges, which pass over the Blue River. The river is a gold-medal trout stream, one of the best in Colorado. This makes it a popular fly-fishing destination, and you can watch the anglers from the bridge that connects the Silverthorne Pavilion with the Silverthorne Recreation Center. The pavilion hosts a variety of concerts and art shows, and the recreation center has a huge water slide and swimming pool. Get your java fix at the Steaming Bean, 286 Summit Place, where you'll find free Wi-Fi, a book exchange, comfortable couches and a wide-screen TV.

 

Dillon
Travel time: 90 minutes from Denver; 5 Minutes from Silverthorne

The town of Dillon has some miles on it; its current location is actually its fourth. It was once located at the confluence of Ten Mile Creek, Blue River and the Snake River, where it served the mining and ranching communities in the lower Blue River Valley. Today, many of the descendents of these same families still operate ranches in the lower Blue River Valley area. The Denver Water Board moved Dillon to its current location in the 1960s when Lake Dillon was being constructed as a reservoir.

History buffs should head to 403 La Bonte St., where they'll find the 1883 Dillon Schoolhouse Museum. The museum features such items as a kerosene slide projector, a phonograph, hand-crocheted bookmarks, an old-fashioned typewriter, baseball paraphernalia and other interesting remnants of days gone by. The annex houses the historical archives for all of Summit County. These include newspapers, books, brochures, maps, photographs, governmental documents, clothing, correspondence and other interesting artifacts of local mountain history. You can tour the schoolhouse and other historic attractions by contacting the Summit Historical Society.

Water lovers will enjoy the Dillon Marina, which is the launching point for some world-class sailing, boating and trout fishing. Come summer, there are concerts at the Dillon Amphitheater. As long as you're in the neighborhood, check out Affordable Music. Located at 104 Village Place, it's a great place to find old CDs, even vinyl. The retro '60s ambiance is worth it, even if you don't plan to buy anything.

 

Frisco
Travel time: One hour and 40 minutes from Denver; 10 minutes from Dillon

Like Dillon, the town of Frisco has an active marina, but most of the action happens along Main Street. Be sure to visit the charming historic park, where you'll find an old schoolhouse, a trapper's cabin, a jail and other mining-era buildings. During the summer, lunchtime history lectures are presented in the park gazebo.

Frisco is also famous for its somewhat peculiar events. In June, there's a barbecue challenge that features pig racing. Visit in August and you'll see more than 500 vintage Corvettes parading down Main Street in the annual "Vettes on the Rockies" rally. While locals have a love/hate relationship with some of these events, most of us love Frisco for its consignment shops. The Funky Trunk and Rags to Riches, located across the street from each other on Main Street, feature designer clothes at very low prices. If there's room in your car for furniture, you'll find great buys at Alpine

For used ski and snowboard gear, head over to Recycle Ski and Sports on Summit Boulevard. While you're there, look across the street at the A&W sign. Underneath the advertisement for its cheese curds or other specials, you'll see a scripture quotation. The owners belong to the group Jews for Jesus. The town wanted them to eliminate the scripture quotes, but the owners had their day in court and won their

 

Breckenridge
Travel time: 2 hours from Denver; 20 minutes from Frisco

Once upon a time, a careless cartographer neglected to put Breckenridge on the map; it was known simply as "Colorado's Kingdom." Now, in June of every year, Breckenridge celebrates Kingdom Days, a festival filled with living-history events, gun fights and -- would you believe? -- outhouse races.

In fact, Breckinridge is very serious about preserving its history, and it offers a nice time-travel experience to visitors. Begin on South Main Street at the Welcome Center, which also serves as a museum. Here, you'll be transported back to the days when Breckenridge was a quirky Victorian mining town. Out back, there's a park along the banks of the Blue River. In summer, it's an outdoor concert venue; in winter, it's the site of a spectacular ice sculpture competition.

Two free museums are worth a look. The Barney Ford Museum, located across the street from the welcome center, honors a slave who escaped via the Underground Railroad; he made his way to Breckenridge, where he opened a successful restaurant. The Edwin Carter Museum, which will reopen in May 2009, memorializes a man who discovered that the chemicals used in mining were causing bizarre mutations in the local wildlife. Believing that these animals would one day be extinct, he taught himself taxidermy to show future generations the animals that once roamed our lands.

If you love Victorian homes, spend some time walking along French and Harris streets. For a true Victorian experience, contact the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance to arrange for a tea party at the Briggle House.

 

Getting There and Back

Interstate 70 is a modern, clearly marked highway passable in all seasons, though it sometimes closes in blizzard conditions and is famous for its multi-car accidents in winter. These usually occur because people are either driving without proper tires, or because they don't know how to drive in winter conditions. From Denver to Silverthorne, the road gains about 4,000 feet in elevation. One of the highlights of the drive is the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel, 60 miles west of Denver. Located at 11,013 feet, it is the highest vehicular tunnel in the world.

Throughout the entire drive, you might see deer and bighorn sheep. If you're fascinated by our favorite neighbors, stop at Georgetown's Bighorn Sheep Viewing Area, where you'll find coin-operated viewing binoculars and interpretive signs. It's a classic Rocky Mountain experience.

Lisa Marie Mercer
7/23/08

 

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