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Although it’s a bit of a cliché, the phrase “unbridled optimism” is an apt descriptor for how we felt when we began concepting this inaugural edition of “Best Of The Mountain West,” a story spanning eight states that we’d hoped would become a reader favorite in the years to come (and still do!). That was, of course, in the Before Times. As in, before many of us were relegated to our houses by stay-at-home orders; before concert venues and museums and bars and restaurants and hotels and boutiques closed, many for good; and before adventure outfitters limited their operations. But put on your bolo ties and your best boots anyway, because despite our complicated reality, we’re still tipping our 10-gallons to the characters, landscapes, institutions, and objects molding the West right now. After all, even in 2020, our reverence for the great outdoors, our thirst for adventure, our connections to our past, our talent, and our pioneering spirit live on in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Idaho. Let us introduce you to 26 ways the Western ethos lives on today.
American Prairie Reserve
Out on the vast swaths of north-central Montana, a team of visionaries is slowly building an empire of sagebrush steppe and butte-lined river lands. The dream is as big as the prairie sky: to create a 3.2-million-acre preserve that restores an intact ecosystem, including grizzly bears, wolves, elk, and bison, the last of which biologists began reintroducing to the land in 2005. Over the past 19 years, the American Prairie Reserve, a nonprofit started by Silicon Valley consultant Sean Gerrity, has assembled a patchwork of almost 420,000 acres—acquiring 14,462 in 2019—through a combination of buying ranches and securing public land rights. We’re all invited to witness the primeval park-in-progress as it builds to its goal of becoming the largest nature reserve in the Lower 48: From the start, it’s been open to the public for camping (in its campgrounds, backcountry, or luxury yurts), hunting, and roaming across the trailless prairie.
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Black Canyon Water Trail
States: Arizona, Nevada
In 2012, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior established the National Water Trails System, a designation coordinated by the National Park Service that aimed to help Americans discover water-based recreational opportunities and encourage stewardship of the country’s “treasured waterways.” A couple of years later, the Black Canyon Water Trail—a 30-mile segment of the Colorado River that runs through Nevada and Arizona, starting below the Hoover Dam—became the Southwest’s first National Water Trail. It’s little wonder why this section of flat water was deemed worthy: The water is crystal clear; hot springs abound; there are caves and coves and side hikes aplenty; wildlife is everywhere; and sandy beaches serve as primo campsites. For the best experience, plan to launch at Hoover Dam (permit required through an authorized outfitter), spend at least one night under the stars, and take out at Eldorado Canyon.
The West is the birthplace—and beating heart—of American alpine skiing. Established in 1931, Howelsen Hill is the oldest ski area in continuous use in North America. But that storied slope isn’t the West’s only skiing bona fide: Nationally, Utah’s Park City is the largest ski resort; Idaho’s Sun Valley was the first destination resort; and Breckenridge has the highest elevation. In 2020, Colorado added one more legitimizer when Bluebird Backcountry became the country’s newest ski resort. Located near Kremmling, its 1,200 private acres of inbounds backcountry terrain on Bear Mountain are home to Colorado’s first human-powered ski resort. While there are no chairlifts, Bluebird does have avalanche mitigation, warming huts, food, rentals, lessons, and guided trips. “We’re blending the best from backcountry, the best from ski resorts, and the best from guide services and putting it in one place,” says co-founder Erik Lambert. After hosting 1,000 guests during a test run this past winter, Bluebird will open five days a week from late December to late March (day passes start at $50).
Four Corners Guides
Once upon a time, intrepid travelers used leather to strap wood planks to their feet in order to glide on snow. Outdoor adventurers continue to draw on that same pioneering spirit to invent new ways of crossing previously unnavigable terrain. The most recent example: bike-rafting. A combination of biking and packrafting (using portable boats that can handle white water but are light enough for backpacking), the sport remains niche, but one of the most experienced bikerafters in the world, Steve Fassbinder, lives in Mancos. In 2019, he and girlfriend Lizzy Scully founded Four Corners Guides—and became the only outfitter in the country to run guided bikerafting trips. If you can bike and have some basic rafting and backcountry skills, you can join Four Corners Guides for one- to- six-day bikerafting tours in Colorado and Utah.
Smith River Float Trip
Drawing a permit for Montana’s most coveted float trip has long been akin to finding one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets: This past year, the odds of landing a launch date in high season went as low as one in 120. Now, social distancing makes the journey, which winds along limestone cliffs between the Big Belt and Little Belt mountains, all the more attractive. After all, the Smith sweeps you off the map for 59 blissful miles without public road access—it’s just you, the black bears, the bighorns, and a billion stars.
Woodward Park City
Accessing a full range of Western terrain means mastering skills most people wouldn’t attempt in their dizziest daydreams. And while hucking off a cliff or screaming around a berm might sound like a blast, learning to do those things in a controlled environment is what Woodward Park City is all about. Billed as the region’s first action sports park, Woodward Park City opened in late 2019 with a 66,000-square-foot indoor space, 120 acres of outdoor amenities, and the Mountain Park, its lift-accessed ski and snowboard area. Related to Woodward Copper, this Utah-based cousin offers activities beyond the snow, including parkour, mountain biking, tumbling, and ninja-ing. It’s also set up in a way that’s perfect for daytrippers, who can sign up for a 90-minute session in the indoor space.
The North Fork river valley skirts the wild western edge of Glacier National Park, but that’s just one of the myriad reasons to brave the unpaved roads required to access this recreationist’s paradise. Another draw? The grizzly-paw-size huckleberry bear claws that await at Polebridge Mercantile, the state’s best bakery/general store/gift shop. The Merc’s red facade has lured hardy travelers for the past 106 years, but the relatively recent addition of on-site rental cabins and, as of this past summer, a new outfitting arm lending mountain bikes, inflatable kayaks, and paddleboards, keeps this damn-near-to-Canada outpost on modern-day wanderers’ checklists. In a region stuffed with gravel touring routes and riffle-y paddling on the North Fork of the Flathead River—but with nary a gear shop for miles—the Merc can now satisfy your need for well-outfitted adventure just as well as it does your craving for sugar.
Gear Organ Mountain Outfitters
State: New Mexico
About 10 miles east of the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, sit the rugged Organ Mountains. Their stark silhouette, taken from a photograph snapped by Chris Lang, became the logo for his feel-good apparel company, which started as a booth at the Las Cruces Farmers Market in 2016 and morphed into a brick-and-mortar and online sales success story by 2018. Poignant narratives about the entrepreneurial spirit give most Americans goose bumps, but Organ Mountain Outfitters’ drive to help fund school lunches for local kids whose families can’t afford the bill is what should elicit strong emotions in shoppers looking to purchase T-shirts, hoodies, mesh shorts, and more, all designed, produced, and branded in New Mexico. To date, the company has donated 100,000 lunches to Las Cruces Public Schools.
There are those who might quibble with the idea that a small piece of merino wool used to prevent blisters qualifies as gear. Those people would not be Westerners, who know how critical reducing inside-your-sock friction on a long hike can be. Founded in late 2018, Salt Lake City–based Wūru (pronounced woo-roo) offers a cozy line of wool apparel—T-shirts, base layers, etc.—but it’s the brand’s flagship product, made from 100 percent New Zealand wool, that feels like a tiny blanket for your toes, heels, and anywhere else you might get hot spots. It’s preventive medicine in a 0.75-ounce bag—and it only costs $10.95.
Although her uncle’s famous name (Charles Loloma) is often dropped when describing her work, Verma Nequatewa—who uses the artistic nom de plume Sonwai (the feminine Hopi word for beauty)—comes off as nothing if not modest. The 71-year-old Hopi woman deflects when asked what makes her jewelry so special. She’s also demure when talking about the first retrospective of her work, which was held in 2019 at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. She’s more chatty about the craft of jewelry-making itself. Using 18-karat gold, silver, and precious and semiprecious stones, the resident of Hotevilla, Arizona, does her own metallurgy and hand-cuts coral, turquoise, opals, and lapis to create patterns, asymmetrical inlays, and blocks of color. “It’s really about the combination of colors, knowing what stones work best next to each other,” Nequatewa says. “It’s also about working when you’re feeling good so you can bring that feeling into creating a beautiful piece.” Nequatewa does three to four shows a year, starting with (pandemic-willing) the Faust Gallery in Scottsdale in March.
With pearly snaps on its shirts and a Western yoke on its down vests, nine-year-old Stio fuses the Rockies’ cowboy aesthetic with technical fabrics to make apparel ready for all the hard-core skiing, running, and mountain biking available in Jackson, Wyoming, where the company is based. But these days, some of Stio’s biggest fans hail from the biggest coastal cities: Boston, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco are now driving Stio’s sales (growing by more than 50 percent for each of the past three years). That’s due, in part, to a direct-to-consumer model that relies on online purchases more than brick-and-mortar shops (Stio operates just three, two in Wyoming and one in Utah). But popularity outside the West also points to the widespread appeal of the mountain lifestyle, made even more desirable now that the pandemic is driving people to seek refuge in nature. “People are anxious to get outside in the fresh air,” says Stio’s Noah Waterhouse. Those urbanites’ “outdoors” might be Central Park rather than the Tetons, but Stio still meets their need for aspiration and authenticity.
Stewart Indian School Cultural Center & Museum
It should come as no surprise to anyone that the “American history” we learned in school left a few things out—like an accurate portrayal of how the U.S. government treated Native Americans. Opened in January 2020, the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center & Museum in Carson City, Nevada, is filling in the gaps in our education: in particular, how thousands of Native children were removed from their families and sent to assimilation-focused boarding schools. “My grandmother talks about being kidnapped at four years old to attend the Stewart Indian School,” says Stacey Montooth, of the Nevada Indian Commission. From her office on what was the campus of the school from 1890 to 1980, Montooth says she can see the dormitories where her family members grew up, the barns where male students were taught skills so they could be “productive members of society,” and the Bakery Building, where her grandma learned to cook. She can also see the Administration Building, which houses a new $4.5 million cultural center and museum. The history doled out here is what Montooth calls “heavy” but also incredibly necessary.
A tradition is a precarious thing; to keep one going, the next generation must want to assume the mantle, or the heritage dies. Thirteen-year-old Savannah Roberts may not even realize she’s shouldering a burden for cowboys and cowgirls across the West, probably because she’s having so much fun. With a father who grew up on a Texas ranch and a mother who was once part of the Westernaires, a mounted precision drills team in Golden, the Colorado Springs native was likely preordained to ride horses. That didn’t necessarily mean she’d be the star barrel racer she’s becoming, though. In 2019, Roberts competed in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR), a Centennial organization that honors Black cowboys and cowgirls and their contributions to Western culture. Roberts won the BPIR Ladies Barrel Racing Championship in September. She also qualified in 2019 for the Junior World Finals put on by the National Finals Rodeo, the Super Bowl of rodeos. While the teen might be making a name for herself among the boot-and-big-belt-buckle set, Roberts doesn’t get any special treatment at home. “Even when it’s really cold out,” says the eighth grader, “I have to go check on the horses before school.” She may not know it, but with her early morning trips to the barn and 12 hours of weekly practice, she’s keeping at least one other Western tradition alive: an unyielding work ethic.
State: New Mexico
The only Native-owned artists’ cooperative in New Mexico, the ARTZ (Ancestral Rich Treasures of Zuni) gallery opened in June 2019 to give the Pueblo of Zuni’s makers a way to sell their wares directly to consumers. “We rarely had a voice in our art market,” explains ARTZ site coordinator Elroy Natachu Jr. Typically, big-city art buyers come in and buy Zuni-made wares for cheap, then sell them for three times as much at stores and galleries in cities like Gallup, Albuquerque, and others across the region. But by placing their works on consignment at the ARTZ Cooperative, creatives earn a fair price. Shoppers, meanwhile, buy more than a generic piece of art: By purchasing direct from creators (or from the community of artists who know these works intimately), they can learn the pieces’ stories and meanings, because all ARTZ members are members of the Zuni Tribe and are “fluent in our culture, language, and traditions,” explains Natachu. COVID-19-related travel restrictions have slowed gallery sales, but artists are still displaying online. zunipuebloart.com
Bin 707 Foodbar
Josh Niernberg always knew there was something special in the ingredients growing along Colorado’s Western Slope. In 2011, the self-taught chef saw a chance to open a restaurant that would, he says, “provide a sense of place for where we are in the world.” Bin 707 Foodbar was born—and put Grand Junction on the culinary map. In 2017, Niernberg expanded with Taco Party, a fast-casual restaurant that uses Indigenous corn in its tortillas. In February 2020, Niernberg’s efforts to preserve and define Colorado cuisine earned him a Best Chef: Mountain semifinalist nod from the James Beard Foundation. Then COVID-19 struck, and the 45-year-old was forced to get creative: Dinner Party (a special-events dining room) was transformed into Bin Burger; he launched wine and cocktail clubs; and he assembled greenhouses on Bin 707’s patio to extend the outdoor dining season. At press time, his ingenuity was working.
State: New Mexico
For those who’ve never been to Albuquerque, New Mexico, there’s a requisite tourist attraction checklist. Old Town, check. ABQ BioPark, check. Petroglyph National Monument, check. The Sandia Peak Tramway—a 2.7-mile suspended cable car ride from the edge of the city to the 10,378-foot summit—is another must-do, but in 2019 the mountaintop destination got a serious upgrade. Ten 3, a fine-dining restaurant that offers New Mexican, American, Mediterranean, and other international flavors plus a slick bar area with trendy cocktails, opened in August with floor-to-ceiling windows that allow for near-360-degree views of the city and the surrounding landscape. In short, there is no better place to take in a Western sunset. During the pandemic, Ten 3 is operating at 25 percent capacity indoors, but it has also pivoted to provide casual outdoor seating as well as takeout. Reservations are required; tram ticket is not included.
Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm
With four consecutive James Beard Award semifinalist nods—in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020—it’s difficult to argue that Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm, based in Boulder, Utah, isn’t defining organic, seasonal, regional cuisine. Located in one of the most remote towns in the West, the intimate restaurant—owned by two women—has been around for more than two decades, but it’s more than just a place to get braised beef with farm vegetables; it’s part of the community. During the pandemic, Blake Spalding and Jen Castle have been worried not only about their livelihoods, but also about how their business is a significant employer for the town. As such, they’ve worked tirelessly to stay open—safely. If you visit nearby Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, stop by.
In a pre-pandemic life, there were two typical coffee dilemmas that played out across the country—settling for lousy kitchen-made drip or spending $5 for joe at a shop. In the West, there is a third java problem: picking grounds out of your teeth after a (bad) cup of cowboy coffee at your campsite. Jot, a coffee bean extract born in Boulder in 2019, solves all of these conundrums. First, coffee snobs agree that a tablespoon poured into hot milk is latte-rific. Second, at $24 per bottle (each makes 14 cups), the coffee part of whatever beverage you concoct only sets you back $1.71. And Jot’s tiny bottle allows you to leave the percolator out of your backpack.
Julie Bennett says that of the 10 pours she’s doling out right now in her Paonia tasting room, her favorites are the 2017 reserve Pinot Noir and the 2018 Syrah. But the bottle that launched three-year-old Qutori Wines into Colorado’s boozy limelight was the 2017 Syrah, which won a best-in-show prize at the 2019 Governor’s Cup Collection competition in Denver. “The win was a total surprise to us,” Bennett says. “We’re just glad it helped further expose the sleepy North Fork Valley to the outside world.” The exposure helped Bennett’s family-run cafe/vineyard/tasting room business, too. Even with COVID-19, Qutori’s business is up 15 percent over 2019. “We don’t distribute,” Bennett says, “so you gotta come to Paonia to see us.”
There are those who dream about the spaciousness of the penthouse suite, and then there are those who dream smaller—and smarter. For people who dig the tiny house movement (clever design, sustainable building, infill development) or maybe require a step up from glamping, Sedona’s two-year-old TinyCamp resort delivers five beautifully decorated, cliffside retreats that deliver the ahhhhhhhh you need in a big way. With cozy interiors, large decks with amazing views of Oak Creek Canyon and Wilson Mountain, hot tubs (with three of the units), and proximity to hiking trails in Arizona’s famed red rock terrain, these tree-house-like abodes make ideal home bases for a girls spa getaway, a romantic weekend with your SO, or even a quiet escape for a week of remote working. Worried that five teeny cottages might book up fast? Don’t fret: In 2021, a new TinyCamp village will be opening closer to downtown Sedona.
If there’s one thing you can say about HayMax Hotels, it’s that the small, boutique lodging company has great taste in location: two indie hotels in Aspen (Hotel Aspen, Molly Gibson Lodge) and, with the opening of Hotel Ketchum in 2018, two in Ketchum, Idaho (the other is the Tamarack Lodge). Of the four properties, Hotel Ketchum has the highest kitsch factor, hitting a cute-but-corny sheep theme (sheep heads on the walls, sheep art, sheep dolls and statues) that elicits a smile no matter how hard you try not to; it’s also the largest, with 58 rooms tucked into a fully remodeled building. Situated along Main Street, the hotel has a heated outdoor pool and hot tub, a poke restaurant, a tacos and tequila eatery dubbed Barrio 75, a forthcoming breakfast and lunch spot operated by the Hailey Coffee Company, and, maybe best of all, on-site ski and snowboard rentals so you can score first chair at Sun Valley ski resort, just 15 minutes away.
At the base of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, this 90-room hotel occupies the former Inn at Jackson Hole, which got more than just a decor makeover before its grand opening this past January. The property now lets travelers interface with Jackson-based Teton Gravity Research (TGR), the media company that helped pioneer the “ski porn” genre and continues to launch daredevil athletes into the limelight. Part of the hotel’s mystique lies in TGR’s ability to provide guests with opportunities to mingle with outdoorsy superstars, like skier Tim Durtschi and skiing prodigy Kai Jones, both on the slopes and during après activities. If the pandemic permits, this season’s events include chances to ride and film with such pros as snowboarder Mark Carter and skier Griffin Post. Even when those luminaries aren’t in-house, travelers can revel in design-focused digs that won’t empty the bank account. Like an old-school motel, Continuum’s exterior staircases connect open-air hallways; inside the rooms and suites, cozy wool rugs and blankets soften streamlined modern furnishings. The buzzy lobby bar serves wood-fired pizzas, burgers, and epicurean cocktails named for TGR films (try the Winterland, which combines vodka, vanilla bean, and mint).
Under the category of everything old becomes new (and cool) again fall the handcrafted leather goods—particularly, saddles made by Armando Delgado—at J.M. Capriola in Elko, Nevada. Having celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2019, the legendary Western store’s stubborn dedication to artistry and craftsmanship makes it one of the last bastions of what is becoming a lost trade. “It can take Armando 80 to 100 hours to make a basic saddle,” says Susan Wright, who manages the store with her husband, John, a third-generation owner. “In his 70s and after 30 years of doing this, he still puts everything he has—his talent, his attention to detail—into it.” Essentially, Wright says, Delgado creates functional pieces of art for ranchers and cowboys and cowgals alike. “His work is impeccable,” Wright says. “Nothing goes out the door that isn’t 100 percent, but it doesn’t hurt that he makes everything look so beautiful.”
As a kid growing up in Crow Agency, Montana, Christian Parrish Takes The Gun learned the dancing of his Apsáalooke ancestors then drifted toward poetry and rap (Supaman is his DJ name). Now, his music fuses all of it: Performing in Apsáalooke dance regalia, he merges hip-hop and Native styles with positive values. “All spiritual ways, I respect them. Whatever helps you be a better person,” Parrish says of his eclecticism, which converges into a consistent message of affirmation. In 2017, he collaborated with Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas and six other Native American artists on a recording that protested the Dakota Access Pipeline and won an MTV Music Video Award. Subsequent recordings with Taboo will grace a forthcoming documentary film about Native American musicians. He’s awaiting word on a pilot episode for a TV program he filmed with celebrity chef Eduardo Garcia. And he’s about to release Frequency, an album that pairs healing sound waves with beats from Nottz, a Grammy-nominated rapper and producer.
Wyoming Singer-Songwriter Competition
Seared into the icono-graphy of the Old West is the image of the cowboy crooner: the raspy-voiced horseman who balladizes the beauty of lonesome landscapes. Jon Gardzelewski’s music is more folk-rock than cowboy country, but this native son of Wyoming was so impressed with the musical stylings in the town of Laramie that he helped start a singer-songwriter competition there in 2012. When the talent pool needed a bigger place to swim, Gardzelewski applied for funding from the Wyoming Arts Council and took the competition statewide in 2018. The event encourages local musicians to write new material and perform it live. Music fans should put Labor Day 2021 on their calendars to attend the finals in Ten Sleep. In the meantime, Google Aspen Jacquet, Rob Weimann, and Jordan Smith to find music from the 2018, 2019, and 2020 winners (respectively).
Delia Owens and Tara Westover
Although we’re still searching for just the right mix of expletives to describe 2020, 2019 could easily be called the Year of the Idaho Author. Idahoans are certainly no strangers to national book awards or bestseller lists or Pulitzer Prizes (see Anthony Doerr and Marilynne Robinson); however, last year two books from Gem Staters floated atop the New York Times bestseller lists. In the nonfiction category, Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, details the author’s isolated upbringing by survivalist parents and her lifelong struggle to educate herself and escape Buck’s Peak. As of early November, Delia Owens’ Where The Crawdads Sing had been on the hardcover fiction list for 112 weeks. The murder mystery follows the story of a young woman abandoned by her family to live a life of isolation in the North Carolina marshlands. When a young man from a nearby town is found dead, though, locals point at the feral “Marsh Girl.” While one storyline is taken from real life and the other is fashioned from imagination, both books examine themes of family dysfunction, strong women, and survival.