It has been a while since I shared an old hotel dispatch from the road. Here in the high desert of New Mexico, June is our hottest month and the only time when we get temperatures of around 100 degrees. That’s a good reason to head to a cooler location for a few days. I took a road trip north to Steamboat Springs in Colorado to do some fishing and just "chill". I was surprised to see tulips and daffodils blooming up there…it was still spring and the mountains had a lot of snow.
On the road to Tres Piedras
Anyway…The most direct route is north through Taos and then, following the Rio Grande, crossing into Colorado and passing through the San Luis Valley, over the rooftop of Colorado to Leadville and then down the Blue River Valley to the Colorado River at Kremmling, then over Rabbit Ears Pass and finally into Steamboat Springs…about 500 miles. There are many historic hotels along that route…some a little too historic, as in falling down. I stayed in Taos and Leadville along the way.
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument
Taos has been a meeting place for over 1,000 years. Taos Pueblo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America. The pueblo was a traditional trading center between the local Pueblo people and the plains Indians. The Spanish arrived in 1615 and established the town and the trading activity intensified, interspersed with occasional raids and later the Pueblo revolt of 1680. The region became US territory in 1847. The artists and writers began arriving around 1900 and it has been an important center for the arts ever since.
I’m starting out with a white lie. I didn’t stay at the Sagebrush Inn on this trip but did on an earlier one about eight months before. The place looks southwestern and is in the Spanish/Pueblo Revival architectural style common to northern New Mexico. It doesn’t appear to be all that old from the outside because, by now, you are used to seeing places that look old whether they are or not. Once you get inside the age of the place becomes more apparent. It looks authentically and honorably and expensively old. It would cost a lot these days to make something look like this without making it look plastic, as if Walt Disney had a hand in it.
The Sagebrush Inn had its start in 1933 catering to the travelers visiting Taos on their way to Arizona and the Grand Canyon. It was (and still is) a little bit of a distance from the Taos Plaza and the popular restaurants and shops. The Inn was a smallish place at first but expanded with a restaurant and additional rooms to accommodate more guests. Georgia O’Keefe lived in one of the rooms for a year in the 1930s…now called the “Artist’s Loft”. Ansel Adams stayed there and certainly made effective use of his time visiting photographic sites. He was already familiar with the Taos Pueblo by 1930 and the famous Mission of San Francisco de Asis is across the road and a few hundred yards south of the Inn. The village of Hernandez is about forty miles south near the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, called San Juan Pueblo in Ansel Adams’ day. Dennis Hopper was a frequent visitor at the Inn. Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Gerald Ford, and famed Navajo artist, R. C. Gorman all spent time at the Sagebrush Inn. Gorman’s original artwork is displayed at the Inn. In the 1950s, it had an illegal gambling room tucked away somewhere that was eventually raided.
In more modern times the Sagebrush Inn has expanded from the original twelve rooms to 156 rooms and become a conference center as well as a hotel. There was an automobile dealership event of some type while I was there.
I stayed in a comfortable modern guest room. The restaurant and lounge were popular with the guests and the food was very good. I suspect there are comparable lodging places at less cost but this is a place with some history and atmosphere if you look past the more modern additions. Another option might be the Hotel La Fonda on the Taos Plaza which has an interesting history dating back to 1880 but has also been modernized considerably over the years.
San Francisco de Asis Mission Church (1772)
On this recent trip, I wanted to stay closer to the Taos Plaza so I chose the Kachina Lodge, walking distance from the plaza and shops on Bent Street. I stayed on the way north into Colorado and again on the way back home a week later. I was scheduled to attend a literary reading at the Op Cit bookstore on Bent Street and this was a convenient and interesting location.
The Kachina Lodge is of a later generation, a classic 1960s sort of place that catered to visitors to Taos. That was the era when Baby Boomer kids, like me, were being dragged around the country by their parents in big-finned cars to see the USA in our Chevrolet. The lodge began in the 1960s but expanded considerably in the 1970s but with the same Taos style that echoes Pueblo and Colonial Spanish architecture. Of course, there is a large swimming pool, sort of in a pinto bean shape.
There are about eight buildings of guest rooms, called casitas (Zia Casita, Tesuque Casita, Santa Fe Casita, etc.). I stayed in the Zia Casita building both visits, once upstairs and once on the ground floor. I recommend the ground floor rooms – they are cooler and easier to get to but don’t have the little balcony sitting area. The room capacity of the place seems to far out-reach the number of guests. It must have been a very busy place at one time. The Kachina Lodge hosts conferences and meetings so maybe I just visited on at a quiet time. During ski season, it might be very popular because the room rate is attractive. During summer months, they have ceremonial dancers from Taos Pueblo perform every night in an open performance space. I was busy in the evenings and didn’t see the performances.
There is a lot of common lobby and sitting room space in the main building as well as meeting rooms. The lounge was closed when I was there. French doors at the rear of the building open on a spacious and shady portal with a view of the swimming pool. I can imagine the moms and dads of the 1960s enjoying an adult beverage while junior splashes around in the pool. Some of those Baby Boomers are still in the pool.
The 1960s are clearly evident if you just look around. I noticed the lighting fixtures and some of the furnishings seemed straight out of an old Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis, Debbie Reynolds, or maybe Jerry Lewis movie.
The Blue Mesa Café is the on-site restaurant and it is another classic 1960s space complete with a totem pole serving as the center support for a round, kiva shaped seating area. When I was there for breakfast the food was good but service was awful. Be prepared to tackle the waitress to get a menu. I must have been invisible on both visits. Guests get a fifty-percent discount for breakfast so the price was right and I wasn’t in a hurry anyway. The café is a good place to people-watch while waiting for your food.
The Kachina Lodge is a little quirky but I enjoyed staying there and would do it again. The room rate was very reasonable and you get a cheaper rate by calling the Lodge than by going through Expedia or another on-line lodging site. The location was convenient. It is a family run place and the “maid” is a sixteen-year-old boy who sings to himself as he works…a song only he knows.
Next door to the Lodge is the Taos Ale House/Burger Bar and about a half mile walk toward the plaza is the Taos Mesa Brewery Taproom. I visited both but the Ale House is a friendly and casual place if you don’t feel like walking a half-mile for craft beer. The food was fine at both and the Ale House had several familiar Albuquerque craft beers on tap. Taos Mesa had their own locally brewed beer. It was all good.
Colorado's High Peaks
The road from Taos to Leadville is scenic to say the least and goes through some of the oldest communities in Colorado. The Spanish conquistadors ventured up into this part of Colorado and the San Luis Valley was settled by people moving north out of New Mexico. The early settlers were sheep herders and there is a weaving tradition in some communities. Heading north the traffic thins out and you are in view of some of the highest peaks of Colorado. Leadville, the highest incorporated town in the US (10,152 ft.) was founded in 1877 but first settled in 1859 during the Colorado gold rush. Instead of gold, the place became famous and wealthy based on silver deposits.
The Delaware Hotel
Leadville was booming in the 1880s and needed properly designed and constructed business establishments to replace the mining town ambiance that permeated the place…and still does to some degree. Three brothers, William, John and George Callaway recently of Denver, arrived in Leadville in the mid-1880s and began what must have been one of the earliest attempts at urban renewal. There were about 25,000 people living in Leadville at the time and the brothers were very much interested in making a profit from the folks working in the mines.
The brothers first went to work building commercial space…the two-story Callaway Block on Harrison Avenue. Next, they started on the Delaware Hotel on the corner of Seventh and Harrison (named after their home state) and it was completed in 1886 at the substantial cost of $60,000. The first floor was reserved for commercial space with hotel rooms on the two upper floors. George King, the architect for much of the building boom, favored the then popular Second Empire style with ornamentation and mansard roofs. King also designed the Grand Tabor Hotel in a very similar style across the street from the Delaware.
When I made reservations I asked for a room with antique furnishings…why not? When I checked in I had a two-room suite that would have slept seven people. My four-poster bed was high enough that I would have injured myself if I fell out of bed. It was, indeed, furnished with some impressive antique furniture. The second room had a couple iron-frame beds and a nice writing desk. There was a walk-through bathroom connecting the two rooms.
The hotel is entered off Seventh Street. The lobby has a grand staircase leading up to the guest rooms. Antiques are everywhere. There is a breakfast room off the lobby through an arched alcove. At the other end of the lobby is a small (modernized) 1880ish bar for serving drinks and a seating area. There is some commercial space further toward the Harrison Avenue entrance. Upstairs there is a broad hallway leading to the guest rooms with space designed for seating and more 1880 period furnishings. The place has been modernized a little but still has the feel of a grand hotel in mining country of the 1880s. You can almost get a glimpse of Doc Holliday, Poker Alice, "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, and Baby Doe Tabor in and around the place.
The hotel offers a continental breakfast in the breakfast room each morning. You can smell the coffee brewing in your room. I was happily impressed with the place and would have stayed there again on my way home but it was booked thanks to a major mountain bike event. Leadville, and most of Colorado it seems, is mountain bike country. Those biker folks look healthy but scrawny by my standards.
Conveniently located across the street from the Delaware Hotel, a thirsty traveler will discover the Periodic Brewery – as in 'Pb', the designation for lead on the Periodic Table of Elements. You must be a little bit of a geek at his elevation. In fact, the Periodic Brewery is the highest elevation craft brewery in the world, they proudly tell me. The place was popular, the beer was good, and my pulled-pork sandwich was great. The brewery is small and only had four beers on tap and ran out of two of them while I was there (not my doing). There was a guy on the back porch brewing more beer but you better get there early. The staff was not the friendliest I’ve met but they seemed like they were good at finding more beer in the back room when the two taps ran dry. Maybe they were a little stressed out…the next weekend was going to be hectic with thirsty bikers. You soon realize that drinking a lot of beer at over 10,000 feet of elevation is a little risky and, luckily, the Delaware Hotel is just across the street. You can get there.
So, all in all the trip was enjoyable. Summer in Colorado is a little too crowded for my liking but that’s because I live in (almost empty) New Mexico. I’m not a skier but I imagine it is even more crowded in many places during ski season.
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