No doubt, Colorado is an exceptionally beautiful state. Tall peaks, idyllic lakes and abundant nature. But when pressed about their favorite area, Colorado insiders often relenquish a lesser known destination: Westcliffe and the Wet Mountain Valley!
Located in south central Colorado, the Wet Mountain Valley - with its hub, the towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, in Custer County - is considered by many to be one of the most magnificent and unspoiled regions in all of Colorado if not the entire West. Snowcapped peaks against the deep blue sky, 52 crystal clear high alpine lakes brimming with trout and the verdant green of vast ranches at the base of the mountains - this extraordinary valley (elevation 7,888 ft on the valley floor) is truly one of a kind. To the East the valley is bordered by the Wet Mountains (12,600 ft high) and to the West are the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the longest mountain range on Earth, with many of its peaks more than 14,000 ft high and world famous in the community of elite mountain climbers.
Thankfully, because it is somewhat off the beaten path, this area of mountain real estate has maintained its rural charm, yet it is within easy reach of several urban areas. From the towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, Denver is a 3 hour drive North and Colorado Springs - with its beautiful new and very convienient airport - is 90 minutes to the Northeast. In addition, Pueblo, Canon City and the fun town of Salida are each within an hour drive. But there is no need to leave Westcliffe anyway: From a variety of restaurants to plenty of shopping, from exquisive art galleries to excellent Shakespeare stage productions and even large scale music festivals - Westcliffe provides excitement for everyone. And not a single traffic light in sight.
For those looking for uncompromised beauty and solitude in the great outdoors, Westcliffe and the Wet Mountain Valley is Colorado at its absolute best. Hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing, hunting or simply relaxing - Westcliffe has it all in spades. Pure bliss. Even the weather plays along: With more than 320 days of sunshine per year and low humidity, the weather is very pleasant most of the time, with rarely an extended period of gray skies. And if you catch yourself star gazing and getting mesmerized by the brilliant Milky Way illuminating the ultra clear night sky, that's no wonder: Westcliffe has earned wordwide recognition for its amazing, high altitude night sky which is seemingly void of light pollution and has therefore been recognized as one of only 19 "International Dark Sky Communities" on our planet and the only one in all fo Colorado. Westcliffe's night life is indeed a star studded experience.
But the Wet Mountain Valley is also true ranching country. The real thing. Wide open spaces, grazing horses and cattle everywhere and expansive ranches and farms. In fact, hay grown in this fertile valley is valued as some of the very best in the West. 7.5% of the population in Custer County live on farms and ranches, compared to only 1.4% for the state of Colorado and 1.6% for the entire US. Here in the Wet Mountain Valley ranching is still a way of life. Currently there are approximately 4,900 people living in Custer County with a population density of 6.5 persons per square mile. Furthermore, 40% of Custer County's land is State and Federally owned and most of the Sangre de Cristo range is a designated National Wilderness Area. Plenty of elbow and breathing room.
Westcliffe and the Wet Mountain Valley: Mountain homes, Ranches and Land at its absoulte FINEST!
- Rainbow Trail One of the areas best know hiking trails, the Rainbow Trail runs horizontally along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at around 9-10,000 feet. The trail can be accessed by one of the many roads that head up into the Sangre range.
- Other hiking trails The Sangre de Cristo and Wet Mountains offer a variety of hiking options, too many to include here. We have several hiking trail books and maps at our office and local merchants also offer information on hiking in the area.
- High Mountain Lakes The Sangre de Cristo Mountains offer many high mountain lakes and streams for all varieties of angling. There are several hiking and mountain trail guides that identify many of the local lakes and how to get to them.
- Fly-fishing Southern Colorado and the Arkansas River offers some of the best fly-fishing in the state. Sign up for a 1/2 day or full day guided fly fishing trip, both on the river and along it's beautiful shores. Learn from the pros. RoyalGorgeAnglers/Arkansas River (888) 994-6743 | www.RoyalGorgeAnglers.com
- ArkAnglers FlyFishing Arkansas River (719) 539-4223
- Float Fishing Guides: Arkansas River Tours/Cotopaxi (800) 321-4352 | www.arkansasrivertours.com
- Arkansas River Tours/Cotopaxi (800) 321-4352 www.arkansasrivertours.com
- Journey Quest Whitewater Rafting (888) 623-7939 www.journeyquest.org
- Bear Basin Ranch Bear Basin offers horseback riding for beginners to experienced riders.
(719) 783-2519 | www.BearBasinPacktrips.com.
- Music Meadows Ranch Matching the right thouroughly trained horse to each riders skill level and confidence. Range Rides, Picnic Rides, Sunrise Ride, Horse Camping, Full Moon Rides, Unguided Trail Riding. (719) 783-2222 http://musicmeadows.com
- The Bluff Park At the west end of Main Street one block west from the heart of the downtown district. Dog walking, picnicing & relaxing.
- Hermit Lane Park (Tennis Courts/Soccer Fields/Covered Pavillion).
- Westcliffe Town Park Between 3rd and 4th Street. Playground.
FITNESS AND FUN
- Health Club and Pool 50 Main St, Silver Cliff - Altitude Community Fitness offers a 25-meter lap/swimming pool, gym, personal training, yoga classes and more. (719) 783-0750 www.atlitudecommunityfitness.org
- Bowling – Cliff Lanes, located in Westcliffe, offers 8 automated bowling lanes, an arcade, community room and the Rancher’s Roost Cafe. (719) 783-2031 | www.clifflanes.com
- Tennis Courts on Hermit Lane. To get to Westcliffe’s new tennis courts, drive into Westcliffe and make a left on 4th Street. Go to the Hermit Lane, just past the park, and make a right on Hermit Lane. The tennis courts are located immediately on your left.
- Jones Theater 119 Main St, movie and theater house; live theater productions, first run movies and concerts ranging from jazz to bluegrass to opera (call or check website for schedules)
(719) 783-3004 | www.jonestheater.com
Arts, Culture and Events
- International Dark Sky Association With stargazing like you've never experienced before, Westcliffe is an Internationally recognized Dark Sky Community.
Call for hours since some change with the seasons.
- The Alpine Lodge Located on the East slope of Sangre de Cristo Mtns (719) 783-2660
- Chappy's Bar & Grill 213 Main Street (719) 783-0813
- Tony's Mountain Pizza 630 Main Street (719) 783-9300
- Hwy 96 Roadhouse 404 Main St. (719) 783-3331
- Chopsticks Asian Grill 62 Main Street (719) 783-4040
- Rancher’s Roost Café & Banquet Room. 2 Main Street (719) 783-4147 www.clifflanes.com
- Westcliffe Wine Mine 109 N 3rd St (719) 783-2490
- Hunger Buster Drive-In 824 Main St (719) 783-9228
- Silver Dome Saloon 110 Main St. (719) 783-9458
- Subway 425 S. Sixth St. (719) 783-2748
- Candy's 103 S 2nd St (719) 783-9516
- Hillside Colorado Cottages 59424 CO-69 (970) 631-3786 www.townofhillside.com
- Alpine Lodge 6848 Co Rd 140 (719) 783-2660 www.custercountycowboygathering.com
- Lamp Post Lodge 59450 CO-69 (719) 783-2876 www.lamppostlodge.com
- Music Meadows Ranch 6076 Co Rd 119 (719) 783-2222 www.musicmeadows.com
- Westcliffe Inn 57975 S Hwy 69 (719) 783-9275 | www.westcliffeinn.com
- Dark Skies Vacations (720) 810-1260 www.darkskies.vacations
- Dazzler's Best Casita B&B 5001 Hwy 96 (719) 783-0924
- Grape Creek RV Park 56491 CO-69 (719) 783-2588 http://www.grapecreekrv.net
- Wet Mountain RV Park & Cabins 816 Main St (719) 783-2248 www.wetmtnrv.com
High Altitude Gardening
GARDENING IN THE WET MOUNTAIN VALLEY -- BY MATTIE BURTTYes, you can garden successfully in Custer County Colorado! Gardening at High Altitude (a minimum elevation of 8,000 – 10,000 feet above sea level) takes some special considerations. A gardener here in Westcliffe uses the same basic gardening principles as anywhere in the country, however there are a “few additional musts”. If these “few additional musts” are not applied, your gardening experience here will not be a great success. Besides sun, water and good soil (our soil here is mostly alkaline so add lots of compost or aged manure) you must have a plan for WIND, ANIMALS, HAIL and a SHORT GROWING SEASON.
Yes, Westcliffe has wind. Wind will wipe out tender young plants in a heartbeat, even newly planted 5-gallon container shrubs! Wind protection can increase temperatures behind the wall by 30 degrees! So, if you are in a windy area (probably 85% of the valley!) then block that wind some way. Some inexpensive ways are the use of plastic or stacking up straw bales or individual plants surrounded by old tires 3 or 4 high (this is really ugly but it works in an out of the way vegetable patch). Or plan to wall in your garden with a fencing of solid boards, concrete blocks or a stucco wall. At the minimum place your garden on the side of your house that is away from the wind. Also, remember the wind when hardening off the plants you have grown indoors before planting them outside. You need good quality strong plants for this high altitude growing environment.
The only sure way to protect against animals is fencing. You can try all kinds of remedies for keeping deer away i.e. hot pepper spray, coyote urine or other predators’ urine (available from mail order sources – believe it or not!) human hair etc. However, if the deer get hungry they will try to get at your garden. Fencing for deer must be high (seven feet or more) or wide. Supposedly deer can jump high but not wide at the same time. Specific deer fencing is available from many mail order sources. For a small garden area you can literally enclose a whole area with chicken wire fencing and take it over the top as well. Remember to bury the fencing 6 – 12 inches below ground level to keep out the little varmints like ground squirrels and chipmunks. In addition, deer will not jump over a fence that they cannot see through to the other side. Wood fencing would furnish this barrier and do double duty for blocking the wind!
Hailstorms in the summer will happen. I am mainly referring here to vegetable gardens. For flower gardens there are many plants and shrubs that will come back after a hailstorm and continue to flourish. However, if you are doing a vegetable garden, and particularly growing tomatoes and warm season crops, then a protection of hardware cloth (screen door screen) placed over plants will help protect from a total wipe out. Build covers of hardware cloth around the warm season crops such as tomatoes and peppers and leave them all summer since you never know when a hailstorm will hit. The hardware cloth will let in water and sun but protect against most hail. This works fine if you have an out of the way garden plot. Since my vegetables have to be mixed in with my flowerbeds, I have tried a new theory this year. I have planted many tomato plants (sixteen to be exact for two people!) at various locations around the house with no protection for hail. This way when a hailstorm comes maybe some plants will survive and I can still have some of those wonderful home-grown tomatoes.
Westcliffe Colorado has approximately 100 days of growing or frost free days from June 1 to September 10 however, no guarantees! Allow for the short growing season by planting specific short season varieties of vegetables. Many of these varieties will set fruit at much lower temperatures. The Siberian strains of tomatoes for example will set fruit below 50 degrees (some even as low as 38 degrees!). Growing your own seeds is the best way to get the varieties you will need. I look for varieties that mature in 65 days or less. Example: some romaine lettuces take 90 days to mature while there are some varieties that take up to 65 days.
Buying local grown plants (or that grown in similar climate) is necessary to insure success. Local grown plants weather vegetables or perennials are already acclimated to this elevation and have a jump start over plants brought in from lower elevations. Placing boulders and stones around your beds will add warmth to a planting bed and may help induce earlier bloom.
On a more positive note, in Colorado we do not have the bugs and pests that plague so many gardeners elsewhere in the country. Our dry climate, even though short, is not as conducive to bugs and many plant diseases.
Many of the Cole (cool season vegetables) love this growing climate such as spinach, peas, carrots, potatoes, radishes, lettuces, beets and Swiss chard to name a few. Many of these can be seeded directly in the garden as early as April since they can withstand some frosts. You can plant out tomatoes and peppers a month earlier (May 1) with the use of wall o waters. Be sure the soil is warmed up first by using plastic over the soil or set the wall o waters out for a week or two before setting out the plant. Leave the wall o waters on all season to allow steady growth with the warm soil. Raised beds are also great since they warm up sooner in the spring than the flat ground by as much as 15 degrees. The soil should be warmed to 55-60 degrees before planting out tomatoes. These kinds of season extenders will be needed for tomatoes and peppers. You can also use tunnels, hot caps or anything that will give a more protected growing environment. Even if you do not want to go to all the trouble to grow tomatoes, you can still have some wonderful homegrown produce with the cool season vegetables.
We have some absolutely beautiful flower gardens here in the Wet Mountain Valley! There are many flowers both annuals and perennials that grow very well here and vegetables are grown all around the valley even at 9000 feet elevation. It is just a different growing environment than many places around the country and we have to learn that environment. Besides the elevation and the intensity of the sun we do not have the rainfall that many of us are used to elsewhere in the country. Using drought hardy plants and learning about Xeriscape is a good idea. It’s also a good idea to join our local garden club – the High Altitude Garden Club – the name says it all!
ANIMAL & RANCH SERVICES