Denver travelblog: A Golden day in mountain towns

The welcome sign in Golden, Colorado. (Photo by Berry Tramel)

You’d think Denver is a city with which I’d be quite familiar. Colorado and Oklahoma are border states (barely). Colorado U. was in the Big Eight/Big 12 for most of my career. I’ve vacationed in Colorado almost 20 summers.

But no. I’ve never spent much time in Denver. My trips to Boulder to cover one of the Bedlam schools rarely took me through Denver. Fly into Denver – out east of town, either at old Stapleton Airport or the new DIA – and you skip most of the city when driving to Boulder, and that’s what we usually did, since Boulder is a cool town and a great place to stay.

And we’ve always vacationed in southern Colorado. Wolf Creek or Crested Butte. The farthest north you get going to either one of those gorgeous areas is Pueblo.

Back in 1995, I covered an OSU-Wyoming football game in Laramie. We flew into Colorado Springs and drove four hours north, so we went through Denver, but didn’t stop.

My best Denver exposure was courtesy of Sherri Coale’s Sooners, back in the Courtney Paris days. OU played two NCAA Tournament games in Denver, so that was four days in downtown Denver, and I enjoyed it.

But I returned to Denver on Thursday. Trish the Dish has a function to attend this weekend, so we decided to come a day early and make a short trip out of it. We flew out of Will Rogers at 6:40 a.m. and were in a rental car by 8:15 a.m. Colorado time. Two full days — and two partials – of adventure awaited us.


6:40 a.m. flights are brutal. I stayed up watching the end of Spurs-Lakers, then was up at 4:30 a.m., so I was going on less than fours sleep. But we dozed on the Southwest flight – direct to Denver; direct flights are glorious – and the Denver International Airport experience was good.

DIA gets a bad rap for being so far east of the city. And it is 28 miles to downtown. Old Stapleton was only about 11 miles east of downtown.

But man, it’s easy getting in and out of DIA. The place is so big, your bags are coming off baggage claim by the time you’ve ridden the train from your terminal. And the shuttle ride to the rental cars is quick. At Payless Rental Car, you don’t even have to check out through a security gate.

At Payless, I met Chris Rowell, who is in the oil business in Oklahoma City but also has businesses in Duncan, where he lives. Super guy. I love meeting people on the road.

The Payless agent asked where we were going and recommended a four-wheel drive, since snow is forecast on Friday. He said Colorado authorities require four-wheel drive in the mountains when it’s snowing. So we got a Toyota 4Runner and headed out.

Traffic was heavy once we reached the Stapleton area. The former airport was turned into a shopping hub. I remember the old Stapleton. Seemed as crowded and outdated as old Houston Hobby. Denver absolutely needed a new airport, and if it has to be halfway to Kansas, so be it.

We made it through downtown and traffic lightened up, and the scenery was spectacular. But you know that. This is Colorado. Those mountains as a backdrop to a metropolis like Denver is a magnificent view. I’ve always said that West Virginia served as a replacement for Colorado in the Big 12, and wasn’t that much farther. It’s 680 miles from OKC to Denver and 1,099 miles from OKC to Pittsburgh, where you fly to get to Morgantown. And truth is, Pittsburgh is a more stunning city than is Denver. But the Rockies trump the Alleghenies in terms of mountains.


We’re staying in Golden, one of Denver’s far west suburbs. We decided to tour some of the mountain towns west of Denver, our dinner Saturday night is in suburban Englewood, and Golden seemed like a good headquarters.

We got to our Courtyard by Marriott at 9 a.m., but they understandably didn’t have our room ready. The desk clerk mentioned a nearby mall and downtown Golden as possibilities to kill a little time. We, of course, chose downtown Golden, and it was fabulous.

I didn’t even have downtown Golden on my list of mountain towns, but that’s exactly what it is. The population is about 20,000, but the center core and the historical downtown is much smaller.

Golden sits between two magnificent buttes, at the base of the Front Range that launches the Rockies. The aptly-named Clear Creek – the clear part; we would call it a river – runs through town.

Washington Avenue in Golden is a several-blocks stretch of downtown that includes historic buildings and sculptures on most corners depicting Golden’s western heritage.

Golden was founded during the 1859 Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. Golden City is Colorado’s Guthrie – it was the territorial capital from 1862-1867, until it was moved to Denver.

The Colorado School of Mines is in Golden.

Of course, Golden is most famous for housing the Coors Brewing Co., which sits a few blocks off Washington and gives regular tours, though none were available Thursday.

The “Welcome to Golden” sign that spans Washington Avenue is one of the most-photographed scenes in Colorado.

We walked the streets and stopped in at Windy Saddle Café. The Dish got a fruit tart and a mocha. I never know what to order at coffee shops. I don’t drink coffee, and most of them don’t offer cherry root beer.

My old pal John Helsley guided me through many a Starbucks experience by getting me a vanilla bean Frappuccino, which tastes more like a shake than anything else. But if I’m not at Starbucks, I’m lost.

I once went to coffee with Sam Presti at some place in MidTown, and he tried to guide me through the ordering process. I ended up with some kind of cold coffee stuff that I bravely drank half of. Thursday, same thing with the Dish. She tried to order me straight, and I got much the same thing. I didn’t have to be brave for the Dish. I ate the whipped cream off the top and that was it.

We sat outdoors, in 50something degree weather, and enjoyed the scenes and feel of a Colorado mountain town.

Historical markings are everywhere in the city – one of the restaurants on a corner touts itself as the building where Adolph Coors founded a saloon in 1904 – and I especially liked one of the sculptures of an old-fashioned newsboy, hawking a paper. The Golden paper is called the Transcript, which of course has a warm spot in my heart, since I started at the Norman Transcript in 1978.

Just a great start to our Colorado adventure, and all because our room wasn’t ready.


We checked in to the Courtyard sometime after 11 a.m. I did some work, the Dish freshened up and we mapped out our plan. We decided to head west on I-70 and check out three mountain towns.

* First up was Idaho Springs. About 25 miles west of Golden on I-70. The mountains quickly became more steep, even on the interstate, and the white-caps view more stunning.

Idaho Springs is a charming place of only 1,800 residents, squeezed between the mountains and the north side of I-70.

Idaho Springs was founded during the 1859 gold rush but became a huge ore mining operation. In recent decades, it has become a tourist destination.

The strip east of downtown is a throwback to the 1950s, with tourist-related businesses. Reminds you a little of what Route 66 might have looked like back in the day, only you’re 100 yards from majestic mountains.

The historic downtown is charming, a little like Golden – or our old haunt of Creede, down near Wolf Creek – and we stumbled upon a pizza joint called Beau Jo’s. Turns out they have locations in several Colorado cities, and they specialize in mountain pies, which is sort of deep-dish pizza.

We ordered a small and it was fabulous. Seriously. Pepperoni, mushroom, black olive. One of the best pizzas I’ve ever had.

The place was full at 1:30 on a Thursday afternoon. The waitress told us it was Beau Jo’s 45th anniversary, so check our silverware roll for a possible prize. Turns out, we won two T-shirts.

I’m going back to Beau Jo’s. Maybe this week.

Idaho Springs sports the Argo Gold Mine and Mill against the base of the mountain, and it’s open for tours. I’d like to go through it some day.

* Winter Park is a classic Colorado ski town. About 10 miles west of Idaho Springs, you exit I-70 and drive about 25 miles up the mountain to Winter Park.

And it’s a spectacular drive on U.S. 40. The highway is three-laned all the way, with the middle lane saved for the uphill drivers.

Winter Park’s town center is 9,000 feet above sea level, with even higher points, of course, on the ski ranges.

I’ve never spent any time in a ski resort, other than Mount Crested Butte, which is just up the hill from Crested Butte. Winter Park is the classic version of what you’d expect from a ski town. Big lodges and resorts on the edge of town, with motels and restaurants and shops on the strip through the center of town.

I’m no snow skier and never will be. Breaking my leg doesn’t sound like fun. But drive slowly along U.S. 40, you could see skiers coming down the hills, and it was an elegant sight.

We stopped for a few photos but otherwise didn’t get out. No reason to, really. Seeing Winter Park was cool.

* We drove back down the mountain on U.S. 40, jumped back on I-70 and drove three miles west to Georgetown, another historic mountain town.

Georgetown, too, is an old mining town (silver) established in 1859. 1859 sounds like our 1889.

The estimated population of Georgetown is a little over 1,000. It’s not nearly as tourist-driven as Idaho Springs. But you’re in the mountains. The elevation is 8,500 feet.

Clear Creek runs through town – we saw one house that literally had a back porch over the creek – and its non-downtown is much more charming than is Idaho Springs’.

And downtown Georgetown is charming, too, just not quite as much going on. Nothing the Dish saw wanted to make her stop.

But it’s an aesthetic place. Several television shows and movies have been filmed in Georgetown.


We drove back towards Golden. I had a little work to finish up, so I dropped off the Dish at that nearby mall, went back to the Courtyard to work, then returned to get her. The Colorado Mills mall is probably 50 percent empty and a prime example of declining American retail. But she found a pair shoes on sale, so it’s all good.

By then it was after 6 p.m., so we headed out to dinner. A reader had suggested we go to White Fence Farm, a famous fried-chicken place on a beautiful piece of property in suburban Lakewood. Sounded a lot like Stroud’s, one of my favorite places in Kansas City.

We drove up, and it was indeed beautiful. Surrounded by suburbia, the farm is 80 acres of pastoral beauty. A massive, elegant house that serves as the restaurant, with all kinds of rooms – reminds you of “Clue” – and a barn that serves as a gift shop and small-concert hall with regular live music and other buildings that I’m not real sure of their function and a pond with a playground for kids. Just a fabulous place.

Bought and developed in 1948 by Lucas Wilson, whose son dreamed of opening a restaurant. But that dream didn’t materialize until 1973, and in 1981 that restaurant teamed with White Fence Farm of Joliet, Illinois, to mimic the operation in Denver. The operation eventually was sold in 2014, and White Fence Farm began adding carry-out locations all over Denver.

But there’s only one problem. The dinner wasn’t good. Not at all.

You guys know me. I don’t gripe a lot about food. But this wasn’t good.

You are served bean salad, cottage cheese, beets and corn fritters, which were sprinkled with powdered sugar and tasted like beignets. The bean salad was good, we passed on the cottage cheese, the Dish liked the beets and the corn fritters were fabulous.

But those appetizers came about two minutes after we ordered, and our meal came about two minutes after that. That’s not a good sign. Seemed pretty clear our chicken wasn’t hot off the grill.

The Dish says our mashed potatoes were instant. I don’t know about that. They seemed too lumpy to be instant. They weren’t very good. And the chicken pieces were small – almost miniatures – and lukewarm. I felt silly for ever comparing this place to Stroud’s. Or Babe’s, the franchise we love in Dallas.

Oh well. Can’t win ‘em all. At least we had a great lunch, although I was wishing we hadn’t gone small at Beau Jo’s, in anticipation of a great chicken dinner.

By the end of dinner, we were working on fumes, having been up since 4:30 a.m. Oklahoma time, and it was pushing 9 p.m. Oklahoma. So we came back to the Courtyard, watched a little NBA basketball and crashed, wondering how Friday could possibly be better than our first day in Colorado.

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