Winter’s undiscovered treasure lies just off the beaten path
It takes a little over a minute to drive through Rico, Colorado, at the posted speed limit. Most of the traffic on State Highway 145 passes right through the blink-and-miss-it mining town, settled in 1879, unless stopped by the marshal when they blinked and missed the speed limit sign, too.
“Rico shrinks in the winter,” said Brandy Randall, owner of the Enterprise Bar and Grill.
Slowing down through town, though, begins to reveal things otherwise missed. Rico’s modern treasures take some digging, as much as its minerals did back in the day, but are well worth dedicating an entire weekend to.
The astute weekend warrior immediately recognizes the most obvious treasures: a town surrounded by mountains accessible from a well-maintained winter highway, and beautiful river valley slicing through the middle of it all. The Rico mountains are their own geologic feature, with more than a dozen summits over 12,000 feet packed into 75 square miles and joined at the hip with the San Juan Mountains and the Wilson Range.
Rico is Rad!
Rico is a laid-back mountain town, but don’t let that fool you into passing through. Diving in for a weekend quickly reveals why the unofficial slogan is well-earned: “Rico is Rad!” The town hosts a 5-mile network of winter trails around town that the Rico Trails Alliance (RTA) calls “decidedly casual.” But the town and the RTA are anything but casual, even if they have a laid-back attitude.
RTA works fervently to develop and promote non-motorized trails in and around Rico from donations only. The group has accomplished impressive objectives in the three years since they were established. They recently acquired an easement to extend the town trail system through private property, and have worked extensively with the Forest Service and the Historic District to extend it another three miles down the river. The town employs a Nordic and skate ski groomer for the trails around town, and the RTA grooms for fat bikes alongside the Nordic track for singletrack riding.
Together, the town and RTA usually host a winter carnival and fat bike bash celebrating winter trail activities and local artists of Rico. Bike shops from Telluride, Colorado, often provide support with fat bike demos and places like Telluride Brewing showing up with libations. The local artists organize a snow sculpture contest for all ages that was celebrated in the past with a slideshow in the Enterprise Bar and Grill, with audience picks awarded gift certificates to local businesses.
There is even an ice-skating rink in town!
Self-guided snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and backcountry skiing adventure opportunities are endless with ample parking right off the highway just north of Rico at Barlow Creek and select locations along Highway 145. Although the Rico mountains may not quite boast the elevations of their neighbors, the terrain offers exhilarating opportunities for any skill level, along with significant avalanche danger. Any winter travel in the backcountry should be accompanied by the requisite skills, knowledge, and respect for the potential dangers and how they may be magnified by the current pandemic.
Eat, Drink and Stay
Adventurers exploring the Rico area will now be able to start their day with a little extra pep. A new coffee shop — Rico Coffee — is slated to open, warming winter bones before or after your next adventure.
Did I mention food and music? The Enterprise Bar and Grill occupies a historic building (conveniently right next to the liquor store) right in the middle of town that serves as the focal point of social gathering, even if it is at a distance these days. They stay open all winter and you might as well forget the idea that outdoor beer gardens are only a thing for summertime. Driving the speed limit through town often affords a whiff of the scrumptious barbecue in the smoker out front usually surrounded by hungry patrons.
The Enterprise often adds to winter weekend fun by showing ski flicks, hosting avalanche awareness classes and providing creative promotions — such as two for one shots of Chairlift Warmer while it’s snowing and $1 shots when the snowplow drives past. Between the beer garden, a popular back deck overlooking the river valley backdropped by snow-covered mountains and some interior rearranging, the Enterprise is amply suited to accommodate social distancing for the winter. Brandy and her staff give the place an easy vibe and you can speak to Brandy about the possibility of hosting private events.
Fret not about lodging. The Enterprise has several rooms upstairs that can be booked through Airbnb. The Mine Shaft Inn just across the street has seven rooms that can be booked on their website or by calling the owner, Jordan O’Hara, directly at (970) 967-4996. The Mine Shaft Inn serves up a hot breakfast and hosts occasional events. Lodging in Rico is in historic buildings with all the charms that once catered to miners and maximized the available space. Special considerations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 may be in place for rooms that share bathrooms, so book early.
At the Prospector, Modern American Kitchen, renowned Chef Eamonn O’Hara “creates fascinating flavors using regionally cultivated ingredients.” The future of the Prospector is uncertain, but private chef services may still be an option.
There are many more treasures hidden within Rico’s mountains. But naming them here might just spoil the adventure! The miners who established Rico had to dig for their treasure, and little has changed except what we identify as treasures. With the right amount of adventurous spirit, respect for the locals and respect for the natural resources, those treasures can be enjoyed by all.
If your winter weekend adventure style seeks to forego the crowds but not the experience, Rico is your place. For a killer winter weekend, Rico is Rad!
Hero photo credit: Cristal Hibbard
ROBERT STUMP is a project manager, outdoor adventurer and photographer based out of Cortez, Colorado. He enjoys promoting backcountry and outdoor adventure through his photography and professional pursuits that supports environmentally and culturally responsible enjoyment of our treasured natural resources.