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The author one day before he reached Medano Pass. Photo by Matt Slaby.

Walking In Zebulon Pike’s Footsteps

Do the Colorado-based exploits of one of America's most iconic explorers deserve another look?

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It’s my second night in the wilderness, and I’m cold and feel as though I might vomit. My back and my feet ache. My ankles are stiff. It doesn’t help that I can’t 3move in my narrow sleeping bag. Truck headlights wash along the nylon walls of my tent: hunters, I guess, bumping up the dirt trail looking for a place to rest. I push the button that illuminates my watch: 12:17 a.m. Then: 12:46. 1:29. 2:02. 2:39. 3:17.

For the better part of the past year, I’d been on a quest to understand the Army officer and explorer Zebulon Pike; to learn about his expedition through Colorado more than 200 years ago. I’d studied page after page in history books, and I’d read Pike’s writings. Eventually, I decided to walk some of the places he’d been, to see what he might have seen as a way to understand his exploration of America’s Southwest. But now, it seems, I’m learning something about myself. Namely, I’ve figured out I’m not prepared for my own expedition. I’ve spent more than 30 years of my life in Colorado, but the firsts are stacking up. This is my first time camping, my first time hiking more than three miles in one day, and my first time carrying a backpacking pack.

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I had prepped more than adequately (or so I thought), but now my tent is shaking in the wind. I had been too tired to stake it into the dirt, and I’m suffering the consequences. Earlier that evening, when I’d set up camp, I’d also incorrectly attached the rain fly to my tent. Sometime around 3:30 a.m., the wind picks up. I hear the zip of nylon on nylon and realize part of my temporary home has blown away. I stumble out of the tent in my long underwear and chase a shadow in the moonlight.

I pull the rain fly off the trunk of a pine tree and snap its buckles onto the three-person dome. I’m restless and anxious. The wind blows harder. I look up and see hundreds of tiny stars, miniature pinpricks of light against the black sky.

Come morning, I’ll be on the trail again. A steep climb, a mountain pass, creek crossings, and miles of sand await. From my place in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, I stare into the night and wonder: What the hell am I doing?

The author’s camp a few miles east of Medano Pass. Photo by Matt Slaby.

Between July 1806 and February 1807, Zebulon Pike covered roughly 1,300 miles, according to his records, between St. Louis and the Conejos River in what is now south-central Colorado. The expedition, recorded in two journals and memorialized in biographies, took Pike and his men on horseback and on foot, from prairie trading posts and Native American villages in what would become Nebraska and Kansas, to the high-elevation deserts of Colorado. Along the way, the men were robbed by Pawnee, nearly starved, and spent much of their time lost in the Rockies. On February 26, 1807, Spanish troops arrested Pike at his stockade, which is believed to have been set on the banks of the Conejos.

Aside from the peak that stands watch over Colorado Springs and bears his name, Pike has mostly been pushed to the recesses of American history and our collective memory. His expedition is widely considered a poor second act to Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark’s Corps of Discovery, the westward excursion into the Louisiana Territory between 1804 and 1806 that has been preserved in museums, documented in a best-selling book, and memorialized with a federal trail system. Pike, on the other hand, has been seen as a conquering hero of the great, untamed West; as a bumbling wanderer; and as a traitor. Now he’s looked at by scholars with something that might be best described as historical ennui.

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Using a map that was little more than a best guess of the Louisiana Territory’s disputed southwestern boundaries, Pike emerged on January 17, 1807, from between two hills just north of what today is Westcliffe, a town of 591 residents situated in the Wet Mountain Valley. Pike and his men were coming off a more than 100-mile monthlong detour that had taken them to the headwaters of the Arkansas River and up the Royal Gorge’s sheer, icy cliffs. Pike had been forced to abandon his horses and left several men behind to care for them as he and 13 others searched for a route to the Red River, which Pike believed he could reach in a few days. As the men slogged into the valley, they were battered and frozen, wholly unprepared for the winter. Their summer uniforms were in tatters. Their boots had disintegrated, so they’d ripped up their blankets to use as socks. Scraps of bison and deer skins covered their feet.

The Sangre de Cristos, which Pike referred to as “the white mountains,” loomed in front of them. He wanted to avoid crossing the range. But with the Red River somewhere past the peaks, Pike needed to push on: The river made up part of America’s new border with colonial Spain, and Pike had been ordered to find it. Once they did, the waterway would offer them a route to the Mississippi River and, finally, home. First, though, they needed to survive the valley and the mountains. It would become the most difficult 12 days of the expedition.

Although Pike has been a divisive figure in American history, many scholars agree on one thing: His writings are less than compelling. Pike and his group were the first Americans to officially explore the majesty of what later would become Colorado, but his journals often read like a fifth-grader’s homework assignment. Pike’s entries lack the descriptive flourish any reader would want from such a historic text. “Marched at two o’clock; passed a point of red rocks and one large creek. Distance 10 miles,” he wrote on November 14, 1806. On December 28, he and his men “encamped at the entrance of the most perpendicular precipices on both sides, through which the river ran and our course lay.” That was his description of the Royal Gorge. In early February 1807, after setting up his stockade along the Conejos, Pike found himself with some free time. Instead of recording the site in detail—which would have contributed to a better understanding of the land—Pike brushed up on his French.

In other words, Pike’s writings didn’t do him any favors when it came to securing his place in history. After reading hundreds of pages written in Pike’s own hand, I put down the books. I needed to fill in some missing pieces. Those hellish two weeks through the Wet Mountain Valley and over the Sangre de Cristos ignited my imagination. Out there, I thought, I might find the true spirit of Pike’s expedition. I needed to see it myself.

Before my trip—walking 35 miles over three days along Pike’s route, with 50 pounds on my back—I read up on Pike and spoke to historians who’ve retraced his journey. There was no way I’d be able to make it to the stockade site from Westcliffe in the three days I had allotted for the trek, so I decided I’d end at the eastern edge of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, where Pike had climbed a dune 210 years earlier, pulled out a spyglass, and spotted the Rio Grande, which he mistook for the Red River.

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I studied Pike’s handwritten map and searched satellite images online. I put a finger on my computer screen and followed spindly creeks through fields and primitive, rocky roads into a great piney forest. I had advantages of which Pike never could have conceived.

The greatest benefit, for me, would be the weather. Temperatures rarely fall below 40 degrees at night in the Wet Mountain Valley in late summer, which is downright tropical compared to what Pike faced during the winter of 1806-1807. I’d be ascending 2,100 feet during my three days. The first day was almost entirely flatland, and I’d prearranged a place to stay that night: a ranch on property believed to be near one of Pike’s final stopping points before entering the Sangre de Cristos. The second day would take me on a four-wheel-drive road that roughly matches the route Pike drew in his journal. The third day’s hike—to Medano Pass at 9,931 feet, then through heavy sand—had the potential to be the most strenuous of them all. Still, it seemed more than doable, even for a novice backpacker like me.

One morning in early September, I parked my vehicle in Westcliffe and threw on my pack. I started beyond the two hills where Pike entered the Wet Mountain Valley. Then I walked south.

Zebulon Montgomery Pike was always striving. The son of a Continental Army officer who’d been left broken after his military service, Pike spent his childhood in the fields of western Pennsylvania, and in 1794, at the age of 15, he joined the Army. Nearly four years later, he received his first officer’s commission and eventually was stationed at a wilderness outpost at Fort Kaskasia in what is now Illinois. It was there, near the banks of the Mississippi River, that he met two fellow Army officers: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

In the military, Pike sought to elevate himself; it was, he thought, part of the path to becoming upwardly mobile in ways his father had never been. As an officer he was described as a “tolerable good English scholar” who spent his free time teaching himself Spanish, French, and basic math. Pike’s early military career coincided with nationalism sweeping the country, a post-Revolution fervor instilled in a generation of young men who would eventually help put into practice the divinely inspired concept of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the nascent country could (and should) expand and conquer and that God wanted it that way. Personally, Pike found inspiration in 18th-century author Robert Dodsley, whose popular The Economy of Human Life gave men like Pike directives on self-discipline and sacrifice as a means to happiness. When Pike married in 1801, he gave a copy to his wife, Clarissa Harlow Brown. She’d later call the book a “cherished memorial” of her husband’s virtues.

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The edge of the dramatic sand dunes Pike would have experienced as he crossed Sangre de Cristo range. Photo by Matt Slaby.

By 1803, Pike had become restless. He’d spent the better part of his military service working rivers, picking up provisions from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and other cities and then distributing goods throughout the Ohio Valley. The job was hardly fitting for a man who wanted to make something of his life. He felt stuck, especially when word spread that Lewis and Clark had been tapped by President Thomas Jefferson to lead an expedition through the Louisiana Territory, recently acquired from the French. As Lewis was putting together his travel party, Pike met with him. He later told Pike that the president planned to use the Army’s “most capable officers” for more expeditions into the territory. Lewis wanted to know if Pike might be interested.

It would be two years before Pike finally got his chance. In the summer of 1805, the governor of the Louisiana Territory, James Wilkinson, ordered the 26-year-old lieutenant to explore the Upper Mississippi River with 17 men while also confronting Native American tribes and British traders along the route. Leaving behind his wife and three-year-old daughter, Clarissa, Pike headed north. As he trekked with his group by boat and on foot for hundreds of miles, Pike had the sense he was finally about to accomplish something. Instead, frustrations quickly piled up. He’d become a controversial figure on the eight-month journey—abandoning his own men to rush ahead,
reportedly beating a soldier after his American flag went missing, and seeming ungrateful when he argued with British traders who’d helped him survive a rough winter. On top of that, Pike ultimately misidentified the headwaters of the Mississippi.

Even so, Pike received a second mission upon his return to St. Louis in 1806. His ambitions made him the perfect mark for Wilkinson, an opportunist and traitor who may have conspired with disgraced former Vice President Aaron Burr to start a conflict with Spain in an attempt to found their own country in Texas. Pike’s mission into the far reaches of the Louisiana Territory would include returning Osage travelers to their homes on the prairie in present-day Missouri, working out a peace treaty between warring tribes, and generally making it known to anyone who lived in the area that this was now American land.

Perhaps most important, Pike and his 23 men were to find the Arkansas River’s headwaters in the Rockies, move south to locate the Red River—then the border between the United States and Spain—and then return home. Pike also was ordered to keep track of the movements of Spanish troops he might see. As he was preparing for his journey, Lewis and Clark were returning from their expedition. Pike must have thought he was next.

Although his Western explorations would lead to an early understanding of post–Louisiana Purchase America and colonial Spain, Pike’s expedition would loom like a specter over his legacy. Unlike Lewis and Clark’s excursion, Pike’s mission wasn’t initiated by Jefferson and was retroactively approved by the administration only after Pike headed west. The origin of Pike’s mission has lent an air of mystery to the journey for historians. Was Pike used as a spy—whether unwittingly or willingly—for Burr? Was his capture in present-day Colorado part of an elaborate plan to incite tensions between the United States and Spain and start a war over territory, which had seemed imminent when Pike left St. Louis? Burr had dreamed of setting up his own nation and promised Wilkinson he’d be second in command. Sending a young, eager officer into the wild borderlands seems—at least in hindsight—like a perfect opportunity to provoke a dustup between the two countries.

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At the very least, two centuries of mapping and second-guessing tarnished Pike’s place in history. His failed attempt to climb the mountain that would later bear his name is most obvious. But Pike also got lost in the middle reaches of the Rocky Mountains, although he did find the headwaters of the Arkansas during a snow-swept, monthlong circle that left his soldiers and their horses lame. He misidentified the Red River twice; in fact, he never got closer than 400 miles from its headwaters.

On December 15, 1806, Pike’s men were “almost naked” and suffering in the cold. Three of their guns had “bursted.” They’d followed a Spanish trail, but deep in the Rockies the path disappeared. Over the next three weeks, the men marched nearly 100 miles and found themselves at the base of the Royal Gorge. On January 5, 1807, they thought they’d finally found the Red River. Instead, Pike realized he’d reconnected with the Arkansas. “This was my birth-day [sic],” he wrote, “and most fervently did I hope never to pass another so miserably.”

After searching for an easy through-route in what he then thought was the direction of the Red River, Pike looked to the southwest and came to a terrible conclusion. It was one he’d hoped to avoid: Crossing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains appeared to be his only chance.

My lower back feels like it has a dagger in it, and I’m slumped at my shoulders, which burn under the weight of my pack’s straps. I’m looking into a small stream called Grape Creek, which Pike used to navigate his way off the Arkansas River more than 100 miles north. In mid-January 1807, with snow falling and the temperature hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit, Pike likely crossed the creek near here. Where I stand on the Wet Mountain Valley floor, Grape Creek is maybe six feet across and is moving at a brisk pace through ranch pasture. Dragonflies dart among the grasses. I dip my hand in the water, hoping my pack’s weight doesn’t put me face-first into the creek.

I hear a truck’s rumbling engine on the road a few dozen feet away. The driver’s window is down. “That’s private property there,” he says. “You’re trespassing.”

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I wish I could say my efforts to follow in Pike’s footsteps took me to the middle of nowhere, that the ragged trail Pike blazed here is still very much as wild as it was two centuries ago. But that’s not the case. From my spot on the creek, as I make my way toward the edge of the Sangre de Cristos, all I can see is farmland, houses, and people. Lots of people. Maybe this is exactly what Pike’s work was meant to accomplish: I’m witnessing the results of Manifest Destiny. Tractors move back and forth across fields. Cattle meander through pastures. Homes dot the land. Near the foothills, giant, barren vertical streaks scar the hillside like acid pouring through the pine trees—the marks of a long-gone ski resort.
My plan had been to stick to Pike’s route where practical, to follow the lines he’d put on paper, and to use the latitude and longitude coordinates Pike historians had given me that showed educated guesses as to where Pike and his men might have stayed. But with private land and farm animals everywhere, there’s no way to stay on the path exactly as I’d hoped. Like Pike, I’d have to improvise.

The eastern side of the Sangre de Cristos looms in hazy triangles to my right. I wonder what Pike thought of this sight. Not surprisingly, he never described the range in detail, and none of his men published anything about the expedition when they returned home. Still, it’s not a stretch to imagine—with a blizzard coming and Pike’s men sick and running out of food—that the sight of these mountains would have at least made them queasy about their futures.
Having spent most of my life in Colorado, I know what big mountains look like. Before Pike’s mission, the Allegheny Mountains would have been the tallest natural feature Pike had seen in his lifetime; his reference point topped out at a few thousand feet. It’s no wonder that when he and his men spotted what’s now called Pikes Peak from today’s Eastern Plains, Pike repeatedly miscalculated the time it would take to reach the mountain, then erroneously estimated its height at more than 18,000 feet. As I look at the Sangre de Cristos bathed in summer light, pinnacles jutting like daggers toward the sky, it’s impossible not to feel some sort of kinship with Pike, the man who had struggled through parts of the state that almost two centuries later would become my home. Even in the best conditions, the mountain range is daunting.

At around 3 p.m., I’ve gone fewer than a dozen miles south, and I wonder if I’ll make it to my next planned camp. I dunk two empty water bottles into an irrigation ditch and drop in some iodine tablets. Heavy rain drenched the region a few weeks earlier, delaying the late-summer wheat-harvesting season. The usually peaceful valley has given way to the muffled growl of combines and hay balers. I set my pack on the side of the road and lie beside it while pickup trucks pass a few feet from my head. I notice one of the men driving a hay baler is staring at me. I don’t care. I’m exhausted. Part of me hopes he calls 911.

When I finally reach my camp a few hours later, thunderheads are developing along the mountains. Westcliffe is nowhere to be seen. It’s here that I realize something that would stick with me long after I returned home: It took me just one day to walk this stretch. Pike and his men—all of them trail-experienced—took four days to cross the same tract.

Early this past June, before I ventured to the Wet Mountain Valley, I met up with Harvey Hisgen, a former science teacher who’s spent nearly a decade helping protect national trails and is the president of the Pike National Historic Trail Association. Hisgen is 74 and an expert on Pike’s writings. He’s spent much of his time in retirement pushing for federal approval of a 2,697-mile Zebulon M. Pike National Historic Trail, work that’d helped him identify many of Pike’s 50-or-so temporary camps in Colorado.

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We met in Alamosa, then drove 15 miles south to a clump of cottonwood trees along the Conejos River. In the near distance was a wooden replica of the stockade Pike and his men had built in late January and early February 1807, just a couple of weeks after surviving their ordeal in the Wet Mountain Valley. The original stockade, which had been built as a sort of home base for Pike, is thought to have been 36 feet by 36 feet, with walls as high as 12 feet. Cottonwood trunks, sharpened at one end, were placed inside the walls and set upright at an angle, like pencils in a cup. A moat was dug around the site; it was among Pike’s last lines of defense against colonial Spanish troops and what he called “the insolence, cupidity, and barbarity” of encroaching Native American “savages.”

It didn’t matter. Shortly after the stockade was built on the Conejos—a tributary of the Rio Grande—Spanish troops arrived and arrested the group for trespassing. Pike had misidentified the Rio for the Red River. From the stockade, Pike and his men were taken to Santa Fe, then through Mexico and present-day Texas, before most of them were released in Natchitoches, Louisiana, in July 1807. From their starting point in St. Louis, the men’s full journey wound up taking them more than 3,600 miles.

Nearly 100 years later, historians—hoping to find perhaps the last tactile link to Pike’s work in Colorado—became determined to find pieces of the original stockade. San Luis Valley residents in 1910 signed an affidavit saying they’d seen rotted cottonwood logs and remnants of the moat along the Conejos years earlier, but any present-day evidence of the stockade’s existence has been elusive. At least three archaeological searches in the past 12 years have failed to find anything associated with Pike.

Hisgen and his group believe the stockade’s original location is actually about a mile southwest of the replica, but still along the Conejos. Their hypothesis is based on several things, Hisgen told me, but mostly it came down to Pike’s hand-drawn map of the area, which showed the original compound located on land that matches present-day bends in the river.

Hisgen took me to a point across the river from what he believes to be the location of the stockade. We could see the little slot of land on the Conejos’ northern bank that pushed the water in our direction. It was dotted with cottonwoods.

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“That’s it, right there,” Hisgen said.

I got out of his SUV and moved toward the water until we were close enough to touch it. On the other side of the river, the cottonwood leaves fluttered in the wind. The land, at least from our vantage point 50-plus feet away, seemed reasonably flat. There was a large hill to my right that could have served as an overlook Pike had written about. To my left, there was an inlet that led to a spring that would have kept this part of the river running through the winter.

Hisgen says his group’s members want to get ground-penetrating radar on the site to see if they can find anything. He seemed hopeful. “If we can figure this out,” he said, “it would be groundbreaking.”

We headed out a while later and were soon back in Alamosa. At lunch, Hisgen talked about his plans for the Pike trail and how it would encompass the entirety of Pike’s second expedition—seven states and maybe part of Mexico. He envisioned a combined motor route and trail similar to the Lewis and Clark Trail that spans from Missouri to Oregon and includes visitor centers and museums along the way.

A few years ago, the Pike association’s effort received the backing of U.S. Senator Michael Bennet for a review of potential sites, but there hadn’t been any other movement. Ultimately, Hisgen said, he thought a trail and the publicity it would generate would spark more scholarly interest in the expedition. Hisgen took a bite of his sandwich and sat silently for a moment. “You know,” he said, “Lewis and Clark get all the glory.”

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On the afternoon of my second day tracing Pike’s route, I finally reach the Sangre de Cristos. After walking on a trail for a couple of miles, I hook onto a jagged four-wheel-drive road that gives me the best chance to match Pike’s journey, footfall for footfall. The idea of passing over these pine- and aspen-covered mountains has me considerably more excited than Pike would have been. On January 22, 1807, he was forced to leave two frostbitten men at a campsite near the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range. He gave the men food and ammunition and writes he “made use of every argument in my power to encourage them to have fortitude to resist their fate.” Pike said he’d send for help as soon as possible. “We parted,” Pike wrote, “but not without tears.”

The remaining men, “dragging their weary and emaciated limbs along,” faced snow the next day. By now, Pike’s men were certain they were on a death march. One of them protested, and Pike threatened to kill the man if he complained again. Pike later went hunting for bison and reported the snowfall was so heavy he could barely see 10 feet in front of his face.

For me, however, this is merely a stretch of gently sloping land. I’m heading toward Medano Pass, the point that eventually will lead me to the dunes and the route Pike had sought. The entirety of the trail from here to where I’m going is 22 miles. Even in conditions like this, it can take a vehicle two or more hours to travel the distance. There are deep ruts and large rocks and at least a half-dozen creeks of various widths and depths. A few bow hunters, their faces greased in dark brown and drab green, pass in their all-terrain vehicles. One asks if I’ve seen any bears.

I realize I’m making terrible time. The sun’s already going down, and I haven’t reached my camp. Before the last bit of gray light disappears, I pull out a headlamp and pop on the light. As darkness envelops everything else, I hear the flapping of wings around me. A whoosh of air brushes my face. Then another. Bats.

Moments later, the sound is replaced by the whine of two engines in the distance. The wash of a headlight soon pours over the hill behind me. An ATV pulls up, followed by another. More hunters.

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“You OK?” one of them asks.

I explain I’m looking for a campsite I’ve marked on my map. The man nods and points over the hill in front of me. I’m about a half-mile away, he says. “Are those your footsteps all the way back up the trail?” he asks. “I’ve been tracking those for miles.”

I smile.

“You’re nuts,” he says, and then takes off, his light disappearing in the distance.

The next morning, I continually check the altimeter on my watch and make mental notes of how long it takes me to traverse the increasingly steep climb. When I reach Medano Pass, I’m expecting a grand view. Instead, it’s just a tangle of trails. As I make my descent, the dirt route eventually transitions to rock and then gives way to sand. I feel my feet sinking into the ground with each step. The solitude around me is broken every few thousand feet: snake carcasses smashed by tires. Farther along, there’s a man fly-fishing in a creek. A Jeep passes by with out-of-state plates. Someone’s set up a cloth tent on a hillside. There’s a campfire down from that, then another.

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In the distance, two massive rock outcroppings come together like passing ocean liners. I look at my map, then at those rocks. The dunes, I’m sure, are just beyond them.

They’re not. Past the outcroppings is another valley. This one burned during the Medano Fire in 2010. Charred aspens ascend the hill to my right; tree trunks are snapped and twisted. I hop off the trail to make room for another four-wheel-drive vehicle. The creek crossings quickly become a nuisance too. I tiptoe through the first, the water barely splashing atop my waterproof hiking shoes. By the fifth, the water’s far deeper and wider, and there’s no way I can avoid getting wet. When I step into it, the water is above my ankles and soaks my socks. The sand sticks like gum to my shoes.

If Pike’s journey had been one of exploration and reconnaissance, mine was a mission for context. And here it is: I don’t believe Pike was a traitor, and he certainly was not set up to succeed. The maps he was using, though they were the most advanced guides at the time, would be considered an embarrassment today. On top of that, Wilkinson dispatched Pike without the necessary provisions that we now know are necessary for survival in mountains like Colorado’s, especially in the winter.

Like many of us, Pike was determined to make his life a little better than his parents’ before him. Unlike many of us, he was willing to die for it. If my sliver of his journey—a small fraction of Pike’s total trek (including the miles after his arrest by the Spanish)—is any indication, the only possible outcomes for his expedition were capture or death. For the former, I’m sure his men were grateful.

I’m thinking about these things when it finally happens: Framed on the horizon, I see my first dune. It is brown and massive and makes me stop and send a whoop of laughter through the trees. I imagine what Pike’s men must have thought, traveling through the deep snow in rags only to see these huge sand dunes that seem so obscenely incongruous.

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“Sandy hills,” he wrote, to my frustration. I’m disappointed at Pike for not being more descriptive of this scene, for failing to note its stark beauty, the way the light glints off its surface. But I’m not going to judge him. I’m too happy, too relieved that I’m almost at the end of my trip. Pike had no idea what might come next. He saw the Rio Grande and thought it was the Red River. Maybe he thought about going home to his family, about a roof over his head. Maybe he was worried about the Spanish. We’ll likely never know, since his journals reveal so little.

As for me, I see that great dune in the distance, and every step of my difficult journey suddenly becomes worth it. As I stand on the sandy trail and look west, I can’t help but revel in my accomplishment. For the first time in my life, I’ve earned the view.

Robert Sanchez is 5280’s senior staff writer. Email him at [email protected]

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