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Naiomi Glasses' viral skateboarding videos gave the 25-year-old a platform that she's used to advocate for the Navajo Nation. Photo by Sharon Chischilly

The Best of the Mountain West 2021

These 23 people, places, and things exemplify the spirit and lifestyle of the Rocky Mountains.

From a TikTok-famous Navajo Nation skateboarder to a treehouse resort in Montana to a regenerative cattle ranch in Wyoming, allow us to introduce you to the people, places, and things winning the West right now.


CULTURE

Naiomi Glasses

Photo by Sharon Chischilly

As she skateboarded in bright Diné skirts across sandstone in the Navajo Nation desert a little more than a year ago, 25-year-old Naiomi Glasses​​ never dreamed the TikToks she posted would be viewed by millions—or help her embody the Indigenous representation she wished to see as a child. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have a lot of people in the mainstream [media] to look up to,” says Glasses, who started skateboarding at age six, when she says she was often bullied for her cleft lip and palate. “I would really hope to be that one day for the youth.” One could argue she already is. Since those videos went viral in late 2020, Glasses, who is also a talented seventh-generation weaver, has been interviewed by local TV stations, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar; served as the keynote speaker at last month’s virtual Cleft Con; and designed knitwear that graced the runways at New York Fashion Week in September. Plus, she’s used her newly massive social media following to advocate for causes closer to her home and heart, from collaborating on blankets whose sales benefit Chizh for Cheii (an organization that provides free firewood to elders on and near the Navajo Nation) to helping the Diné Skate Garden Project raise enough money to begin construction on a new Navajo Nation skatepark this spring. —Gia Yetikyel

Spaceport America

Photo courtesy of Virgin Galatic

Southern New Mexico’s Spaceport America, the world’s first facility built for commercial space travel, made headlines this past July when it served as the launchpad for billionaire Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson’s trip to the edge of space—a full nine days before billionaire Blue Origin (and, uh, Amazon) founder Jeff Bezos took his own sightseeing journey, out of West Texas. Since then, Virgin has fallen behind in the suborbital space tourism race, delaying flights and announcing that it will spend months improving its rocket planes while competitors Blue Origin and billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX execute more missions with paid passengers. Still, Virgin plans to begin shuttling the 600-some people who’ve already paid $200,000 to $250,000 for tickets (seats are now around $450,000 each) by late 2022. For the rest of us, Spaceport America offers tours (from $50 for adults and $30 for kids)—during which you will see mission control and can take a spin on a G-force machine to experience the disorientation astronauts feel upon re-entry—and the facility is currently constructing a launch viewing area. —JL

Steamboat’s Secret Benefactor

Photo by Noah Wetzel

Steamboat Springs is proud of its real-town character. Yet even this burg couldn’t escape the housing crisis—recently amplified by the influx of remote workers during the pandemic—facing so many tourism destinations across the West. Amid skyrocketing home values that are displacing Steamboat’s working class, one longtime resident waved a magic wand: The anonymous donor gifted $24 million to the Yampa Valley Housing Authority (YVHA) in August. “They felt like the town was slipping away, and they wanted to turn the tide,” explains YVHA executive director Jason Peasley. The windfall facilitated the purchase of a 536-acre parcel on the city’s northwestern boundary that YVHA will develop into affordable housing as early as 2025. The goal is to put a roof over some 5,000 shopkeepers, servers, and nurses, meaning both residents and visitors can expect shorter waits at the restaurants that line downtown Steamboat and even at the hospital, should their spread eagles take a nosedive. —Kelly Bastone


HISTORY

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Historic Trails West

Photo courtesy of Morris Carter

Health: Fair. Rations: Meager. And, oh no—you lost three oxen attempting to caulk the wagon and float the river! This year marks five decades of pixilated pioneers and two-dimensional Conestogas in the classic Oregon Trail computer game. Celebrate its golden anniversary—and the estimated 400,000 industrious individuals who made the odyssey back in the mid-1800s—by rumbling in the ruts of the actual path in Wyoming on a multihour or multiday trip with Casper’s 30-year-old Historic Trails West. Owner Morris Carter has studied pioneer diaries and even built six covered wagons by hand, and he shares that expertise during tours: Did you know that pioneers walked the trail alongside their wagons—only sick and injured travelers hitched rides—and survived primarily on salt pork, biscuits, and beans? Choose the outfitter’s five-day, 55-mile trip (starting at $1,495 per adult; don’t worry, you’ll be riding in the wagon even if you don’t have dysentery) for a chance to ford the Sweetwater River; no caulking and floating necessary. —CH


ART

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The Black Theatre Troupe

Photo by Laura Durant/Courtesy of Black Theatre Troupe (“Black Nativity”)

Oklahoma!, A Doll’s House, The Phantom of the Opera—America’s most popular stage productions haven’t always shone the spotlight on particularly diverse stories or casts. For the past five decades, Phoenix’s Black Theatre Troupe (BTT) has been working to change that. Founded by civil rights activist Helen Katherine Mason in 1970, BTT began as an intimate, safe space for Black artists to share both their work and personal experiences with racism in the Southwest. Today, says executive director David Hemphill, much of BTT’s focus is on getting more young people of color involved in the performing arts. But the company is also using its 50th season to inspire conversations in the larger community about the Black experience with a compelling lineup that opened this past fall with Sistas: The Musical, a rollicking off-Broadway show that celebrates African American women through Top 40 hits. This month, theatergoers can catch Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity, which BTT has put on (and, often, sold out) since 1975. —GY

Meow Wolf

Las Vegas’ Omega Mart. Photo by Kate Russell

Certain coastal critics still turn up their noses at the West’s art scene. But since 2016, when Meow Wolf opened its first immersive exhibit in Santa Fe, we’ve been seeing a lot less nostril. Although its wild popularity could have launched Meow Wolf to New York City, the collective chose to expand its oeuvre this past year with Las Vegas’ 52,000-square-foot Omega Mart, a comment on consumerism, and Denver’s 90,000-square-foot Convergence Station, which imagines an intergalactic collision of worlds. We’re hopeful the dozens of regional artists involved will count the high-profile gigs as a reason to stay in the West too. —Angela Ufheil


LITERATURE

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Brothers On Three

Photo courtesy of Celadon Books

Journalism is rife with reporters who, in the parlance of the trade, “parachute in” to places they’re not from to tell fantastic tales. Abe Streep’s narrative nonfiction work Brothers on Three, published in September, is not one of those stories. Streep, who’s based in Santa Fe, spent the better part of a year living on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, immersed in the lives of a group of boys who’d improbably won a state basketball championship in 2017. The resulting book—which grew out of an article Streep penned for the New York Times Magazine—is by turns a rousing tale of a singular basketball team pursuing a second and even more unlikely title, a chronicle of the persistent racism and college recruitment discrimination faced by the players and their families, and a snapshot of small-town life on the reservation. Streep is at his best when he’s recounting the complicated lives of the team’s players and how they care for one another through a series of tragedies. But his prose about the rugged landscape paints a portrait that will live in your mind long after you finish his book. —Geoff Van Dyke

 


MUSIC

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Logjam Presents

Photo by Neubauer Media/Courtesy of Logjam Presents

Western Montana wasn’t exactly on the map for major musical touring acts—that is, until promotion and production company Logjam Presents put it there. Owner and president Nick Checota had no entertainment experience, but the real estate developer saw potential in Missoula’s Top Hat, an intimate live music bar. He bought the midcentury venue in 2012 and pulled off a full remodel with the help of an acoustic engineer. What began as a one-off investment turned into musical empire-building. Three years later, Checota purchased the 1,500-capacity Wilma Theater around the corner and gave the 1921 art deco building a badly needed makeover. Then came the construction of the Kettlehouse Amphitheater, an outdoor arena tucked in a canyon along the Blackfoot River in nearby Bonner, in 2017. Kettlehouse, which can accommodate 4,250 revelers, quickly established itself as a destination for both fans and music royalty: In 2021, 40 percent of ticketholders came from outside the Missoula area to see acts including Brandi Carlile, Sheryl Crow, ZZ Top, and Death Cab for Cutie. And with the opening of the Elm (pictured), a sleek, midsize venue in Bozeman, three months ago, Logjam has given top talent yet another reason to come play under the big sky. —EKH


FOOD

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Laguna Burger

Photo courtesy of Laguna Burger

Lines at a gas station are usually signs of a fuel shortage scare—but at the Pueblo of Laguna reservation’s two 66 Pit Stop locations, a queue of people just means it’s lunchtime. For 15 years, hungry hordes have traversed the high desert west of Albuquerque via I-40 in search of the fast-food oases within: Laguna Burger. Their reward? Half-pound ground-beef patties—topped with Hatch green chiles, cheese, pickles, mustard, farm-fresh tomatoes, lettuce, and red onions—sandwiched in locally baked buns. Run by the tribe, this burger biz now has an outpost off the reservation. The 3,000-square-foot space in Avanyu Plaza (a north Albuquerque business and cultural corridor owned by the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico) may have a more polished feel, but the deliciousness of the fare is unchanged. —Robert Sanchez

Danielle Leoni

Photo courtesy of Danielle Leoni

When the city of Phoenix shut down the Breadfruit & Rum Bar in the middle of dinner service on March 19, 2020, chef-owner Danielle Leoni could have spent the rest of her evening guzzling mai tais. Instead, the alum of the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change put her training to work, drafting a letter to Arizona’s governor detailing the support restaurateurs were going to need to survive. Within 48 hours, she’d gathered hundreds of signatures, and combined with social media pressure, the effort resulted in critical state government relief, such as liquor license renewal fee waivers and a three-month eviction moratorium. Alongside household names like Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio, Leoni also advocated for the industry on a national level as a member of the advisory board to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which was instrumental in securing $28.6 billion for eateries and bars from Congress in March of this year. In fact, at press time she still hadn’t returned to her own kitchen, but she hopes to reopen Breadfruit soon with a new operational model that will result in more livable wages and career advancement opportunities for her employees. “It’s never been easy to run a restaurant,” Leoni says. “It has to be more sustainable; we have to figure out a way to make sure the people who work for us are treated well.” —JL

Bootheel 7 Ranch

Photo by Allison Williams Photography/Courtesy of Bootheel 7 Ranch

The fourth-generation owners of eastern Wyoming’s Bootheel 7 Ranch know good things take time: Their family has spent the past 100 years raising grass-fed cattle in pursuit of perfect tenderness and marbling. Then again, sometimes great things happen overnight—like their pandemic pivot from monthly pickup points for their dry-aged beef to home delivery ($50 order minimum) along the Front Range. Bootheel’s Black Angus cattle graze on thousands of acres of native grass in Lusk, replenishing each pasture with their natural fertilizer before ranch hands on horseback move them along. It’s a regenerative cycle that leans into the ranch’s “cowboy way of doing things,” says Kelly Kugler, who manages the distribution side of Bootheel’s two-part business from Parker while her brother-in-law’s family runs the ranch. For a flavor boost, the animals are fed a blend of hay, alfalfa, corn, beets, and spent grains from Colorado breweries for 30 days before being butchered. Apparently, it works: In 2019, then Urban Farmer executive chef Chris Starkus selected Bootheel’s 90-day dry-aged New York strip as the main course for his guest appearance at New York City’s James Beard House. —Courtney Holden


DRINK

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Brewery Row

Photo ourtesy of City of Las Vegas

While the rest of the West is known as the frontier of craft beer, Las Vegas still calls to mind cosmopolitan-filled martini glasses. At least, it did until mid-2021, when the city staked its own suds claim via an initiative called Brewery Row. Building on 11 existing breweries and taprooms, government officials created a map and signage to guide thirsty visitors through the area, between the Strip and Fremont Street, and offered incentives, including waiving up to $50,000 of liquor license fees, to attract more beermakers. Welcome to the party, Sin City. —JL


FASHION

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Kenneth Boggs

Photo by Rebecca Dahl/Courtesy of Kenneth Martine Boggs

How did a kid who grew up in low-income housing in Los Angeles end up designing custom suits for the likes of former professional boxer Floyd Mayweather and film director Deon Taylor in Utah? First, he moved to the Beehive State to run track at Utah Valley University; then, after studying criminal justice and briefly considering law school, he turned to fashion, a passion first nurtured when his grandmother taught him how to sew as a preteen. Today, 33-year-old Kenneth Boggs lives in Provo but flies around the world for consultations with celebrities, professional athletes, and stylish folks with funds (suits start at $800) about to head down the aisle. His clients’ individual desires and aspirations inform the pants and jackets he dreams up just for them. “When I create somebody a suit, I like to create their own story,” says Boggs, whose wearable tales are pieced together in Spain using high-quality fabrics from Italy, Morocco, Ghana, and Australia. “This is not work for me; this is a priesthood.” Although he hopes to open his first brick-and-mortar store in New York City this coming summer, Provo’s supportive, entrepreneurial environment keeps him in the West—elevating the region’s style cred one perfectly fitting suit at a time. —Sarah Kuta

Steamboat Hatter

Photo courtesy of John Lanterman Photography

Cowboy hats have long been an iconic symbol of the West, but these days, not many people are walking into local bars wearing 10-gallons. That’s why Kay McKenzie and Sam Daniels are making toppers inspired by those early designs but with 21st century twists at their five-month-old Steamboat Hatter studio and showroom in downtown Steamboat Springs. “The style we’re known for has a little more flair, fun patterns, and colors,” McKenzie says. “It’s definitely a Western vibe, but not your classic cowboy.” The self-taught couple—McKenzie has a background in metalwork and stained glass—sells ready-to-wear models (starting around $450) and fabricates custom lids ($600 and up) by hand using century-old machines and tools. The base of each is fur felt: beaver, rabbit, or a blend of the two. McKenzie then adds flourishes by incorporating family heirlooms such as buttons and pins, feathers, and vintage fabrics or even burning patterns into the felt. The results are one-of-a-kind accessories just as suited to the trail as they are to après—the West’s more modern hallmark. —Daliah Singer


ADVENTURE

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Taos Ski Valley

Photo courtesy of Taos Ski Valley

Coloradans who’ve watched their quirky ski mountains transform into cookie-cutter industry machines may well shudder to hear about “improvements” to an independent hill like Taos Ski Valley. As usual, however, the world’s only B Corp–certified ski resort did things its own way as it embarked on a refresh over the past couple of years. In summer, visitors will find a via ferrata with, yes, tourist-friendly beginner terrain, but also advanced routes on Kachina Peak’s gnarly rock faces. In winter, the renovated lower plaza—with a skating rink, in-ground radiant heat, and fire pits—is ringed by indie retailers, including an outpost of Taos’ Mesa’s Edge, which sells Southwestern and Native American jewelry and art. On Fridays and Saturdays, sleighs pulled by snowcats now transport guests to the beloved midmountain Bavarian restaurant for dinner. And along with white stuff produced by 13 new high-efficiency snow guns, this season skiers and riders will discover that Pioneer Glade has been renamed Free Tacos, a tribute to George Medina, a longtime Taos instructor who helped end the resort’s ban on snowboarders in 2008 and died in a truck accident in 2020. “Free Taos” was the mantra of the movement, but a misguided spell-check correction resulted in the printing and distribution of “Free Tacos” stickers. So, yes, Taos is still weird. —JL

Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route

Photo courtesy of Casey Greene

Bikepacking—like backpacking, but on a fat-tire bicycle—was anointed by Condé Nast Traveler as “The Travel Trend We’re Trying This Year.” This 517-mile loop through the glacier-carved heart of central Idaho might not be the easiest entrée into the increasingly popular pastime, but it’s among the prettiest: You’ll pedal past the Sawtooth Range, rivers with world-class trout fishing, and some 50 hot springs (40 of them natural and undeveloped). Planned by the Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association, the intermediate to advanced, roughly two-week-long journey links dirt Forest Service roads and paved streets as it careens up and down subalpine slopes where black bears, bald eagles, and elk roam. (Visit the association’s website to order the $16 main route map, which has lodging and camping suggestions, or spend $30 on a bundle that includes a supplement detailing hundreds of miles of singletrack extensions.) Your sore quads will make slipping into all those soaking pools feel all the sweeter. —Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

Hardrock 100 Endurance Run

Photo by Howie Stern

In the past, the start line of the annual Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run, an ultramarathon set in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, has been dominated by dudes. That’s not because women aren’t up for the challenge, says Gina Lucrezi, a Hardrock board member and founder of the online running community Trail Sisters. Instead, the race’s complex lottery system has given men an advantage in securing the 145 highly coveted spots, in part by assigning better odds to runners who’ve participated before. “Women are a little late to the game of ultrarunning, because of reasons that are embedded historically,” Lucrezi says. “In our attempt to play catch-up, [women] aren’t asking for handouts. But what we are asking for is a fair shake.” At July 2022’s Hardrock, they’ll get it: A new policy approved by all board members guarantees the percentage of women in the race will be equal to or more than the percentage of qualified women who apply. —Sarah Banks

Alex Honnold

Photo by Jimmy Chin

Las Vegas–based professional big-wall climber Alex Honnold was already toeing household-name status after the 2018 release of the Academy Award–winning Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary chronicling his unfathomable free solo ascent (that’s without a rope) of the world’s most notorious rock face, Yosemite’s 3,000-foot El Capitan. Then, Honnold upped his visibility further with an Olympic commentator gig during the debut of sport climbing in this year’s Tokyo Games. (Strange that one of the world’s best climbers didn’t compete? Not really; Honnold tends to chase adventure, not trophies.) Despite his considerable following—Honnold’s popular weekly podcast, Climbing Gold, launched its second season in July—and headline-grabbing conquests, the North Face–sponsored athlete has stayed humble, a refreshing notion in a sport that can skew toward bravado and elitism. In fact, Honnold’s highest calling might be the charitable foundation he started in 2012 to improve the economic prospects of people around the world through solar power access: This past fall, it installed panels at two nonprofits in power-outage-riddled Detroit that will save the groups an estimated $160,000 over the next 20 years. —Julie Dugdale


LODGING

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Humbird

Photo courtesy of Schweitzer

Views of glacier-formed Lake Pend Oreille (so deep it’s used as a submarine testing site) have always been a perk of schussing at the Idaho panhandle’s Schweitzer resort. Starting in early 2022, you’ll be able to catch them from your boutique accommodations too. All 31 of the new ski-in, ski-out Humbird’s rooms (winter rates start at $288 per night) have large window seats facing the body of water. After a day of exploring Schweitzer’s 2,900 acres—roughly the same size as Winter Park Resort, but with a quarter of the annual visitors—you can unwind in the 10-person hot tub, perched on a top-floor patio, or hit the on-site Crow’s Bench restaurant. The hanging globe lights above the bar may look randomly arranged, but they actually spell out “pray for snow” in Morse code. And with Schweitzer joining the Ikon Pass this year, you have even more reason to book a flight to Spokane, about two hours away, or, if you’re feeling flush, to charter a seaplane that can splash down directly on the lake. —JL

Yonder Escalante

Photo by Aaron Colussi

All but the most cantankerous backpackers seem to have come around to the charms of glamping, an industry that was valued at $1.88 billion in 2020. And when you consider operations like Yonder Escalante, which opened its first location—a 20-acre property surrounded by Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument—in March, it’s not difficult to see why. The 22 chic cabins, 10 renovated Airstreams, and 67 RV sites, bookable (nightly rates start at $169, $169, and $99, respectively) from February through November, are a vast improvement over tent pads, but it’s the amenities that make this locale feel more resortlike than rustic. Guests can wash away the grime from their dayhikes in a bathhouse with private outdoor showers, luxuriate in a pool and hot tub with desert views, and mingle with other visitors while spinning vinyl on the vintage record player in the open-air community lodge. Meal kits (think: local rib-eye steak, calabasitas, refried beans, queso, chips, salsa, and s’mores), available at the general store, come with cooking utensils for the personal fire pits. And after dark, the stars come out in more ways than one: Yonder honors the property’s past as a drive-in movie theater with nine restored, heated classic cars visitors can hop in to enjoy a big-screen flick. —DS

The Green O

Photo courtesy of The Green O

Take the sleek design of a Scandinavian cottage, mix it with the treehouse of your childhood dreams, and plop it in the middle of an evergreen forest, and you have the 12 standalone accommodations at the new Green O resort. Tucked into the corner of a 37,000-acre working cattle and bison ranch, this adults-only escape outside the western Montana hamlet of Greenough is designed to immerse you in nature—except with private hot tubs and French flax sheets instead of tents and sleeping bags. Among four different cabin styles, you might find floor-to-ceiling windows, 360-degree views, or, in the case of the four Tree Hauses, stilts elevating the dwellings 23 feet into the canopy. Nightly rates for two adults are elevated as well, starting at $2,100—but they include everything from credits you can put toward excursions, such as horseback riding, to airport transfers to meals at the on-site Social Haus restaurant. There, executive chef Brandon Cunningham gives you a more literal taste of the outdoors by incorporating foraged chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms and spruce tips from the property. —EKH


NATURE

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Working Dogs For Conservation

Photo courtesy of WD4C

Although all dogs are good dogs in our eyes, Finn is an especially good girl. The five-year-old, 50-pound chocolate lab spent this past summer with her nose to the ground in Wyoming, sniffing out harmful invasive plants that are displacing native species in the riparian habitat along the Snake River near Jackson. Finn, a detection dog trained by the 21-year-old Montana nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), helped locate dozens of small but mighty salt cedar and pepperweed plants that humans likely would’ve overlooked. These noxious weeds can completely overwhelm a region, killing off the normally healthy, diverse array of plants and instead creating a monoculture. “We see the world with our eyes, and that automatically creates biases,” says Finn’s mom and boss, Lauren Wendt, who lives in Washington but has trained detection dogs with WD4C for two years and hopes, pending funding, to bring Finn back to the Jackson area this coming summer. “The dogs don’t have those visual biases. They don’t care where the odor is or if the plant is one inch tall versus 10 inches tall. They’re much more successful at finding the plants with their olfaction than we are with our eyes.” —SK


GEAR

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Cotopaxi

Photo courtesy of Cotopaxi

Whether it was the retro-inspired color combos or the cheeky llama logo that caught your gaze, you’ve likely noticed Cotopaxi’s backpacks, fleeces, and puffy jackets in crags and cosmopolitan hangouts alike. There’s more to this adventure wear than rugged good looks, however. Launched in 2014, the Salt Lake City outdoor apparel and gear company has earned a devoted following not just for its form and functionality, but also for its dedication to social and environmental issues. Cotopaxi’s tagline, Gear For Good, applies to multiple aspects of its business practices: enforcing fair labor standards in its factories; purchasing enough carbon credits to earn a climate-neutral certification; and, through its eponymous foundation, funneling one percent of its revenue to nonprofits working to reduce global poverty. (Currently, that means aid for Afghan refugees through the International Rescue Committee.) It’s those efforts that captured the attention of private equity giant Bain Capital’s impact investment arm, which in September pledged roughly $45 million in funding to help Cotopaxi take its sustainable development mission well into the future. —JD

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