From ranching and mining to recreation and tourism
By Sarah Lavender Smith
When I drove up Highway 141 for the first time last winter to explore the historic townsite of Uravan, about ninety minutes west of Telluride, I was searching for drier trails to run. At 5,000–6,000 feet elevation, this high-desert terrain of steep, red rock canyons carved by the confluence of the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers beckons hikers and bikers when winter white buries the high country.
I was searching for something else, too: a deeper understanding of family history. My grandfather, the historian David S. Lavender, spent winters in the 1920s and early 1930s working here at the Club Ranch, one of Western Colorado’s largest ranches. His stepfather Ed Lavender owned it for several years until the double whammy of cancer and the Great Depression took his life and foreclosed on the land. The ranch sprawled between the Paradox and San Miguel River valleys fifteen miles northwest of the town of Naturita.
I used to skirt this area without pausing to stop while driving between Telluride and Moab, never detouring to a trailhead and never getting a bite to eat in Naturita or up the road in Nucla. Those two side-by-side small towns sit about twenty miles west of Norwood on the way to Uravan. Perhaps the boarded-up storefronts and aging mobile homes flanking Naturita’s main street, which spoke of hard living and lost opportunity, kept me in my car. Or perhaps the myopic idea that Telluride and Moab were the places to be, and the region in between less interesting, fooled me.
In any case, better late than never, I started taking day trips to the towns and outer edges of the West End, so called because it sits at the west ends of Montrose and San Miguel counties, not far from the Utah border. The region’s history, its network of trails, and the pride and resiliency of every local I met there drew me to the gorgeous landscape and its communities. My perspective entirely changed, from viewing the area as a drive-through to thinking of it as a destination.
I’m not alone in this discovery and curiosity about the West End. Following decades of decline and an exodus of working-class households, more day-trippers, campers, entrepreneurs, and families are coming here, some setting down roots and revitalizing the economically hard-hit towns.
Residents in this conservative, rural region traditionally relied almost entirely on ranching and mining to make a living. Thanks to my grandfather’s memoir One Man’s West, I can vividly picture Grandpa and other cowboys on horseback driving hundreds of head of cattle from the ranch to summer grazing at the base of the Lone Cone in the last decades before vehicles pulling stock trailers, and fenced-off private lands, made cattle drives on horseback a relic of the past. They’d camp along the way as they covered a wild territory in the West End about a thousand square miles in size.
First gold, then another yellowish earthy mineral in the hillsides called carnotite, attracted a rush of miners. Carrying Geiger counters, the modern-day prospectors searched for carnotite, a radioactive mineral, because it contains uranium and vanadium (an element used to strengthen steel).
The region’s heyday of uranium mining during the Atomic Age gave rise to the bustling company town called Uravan—a portmanteau of uranium and vanadium—northwest of Nucla along Highway 141. Uravan grew to about 1,100 people when World War II and then the Cold War created a demand for uranium to build atomic weapons.
Eerily, no signs of the homes, mill buildings, stores, or its community swimming pool remain. A twenty-year, $120 million cleanup starting in the mid-1980s demolished all the structures due to their radioactivity and buried the materials under fields of rock, fenced off with warning signs, that can be seen up County Road EE22.
I parked near the historic Uravan Ballpark, where Nucla and Naturita old-timers gather annually to celebrate the memories of their parents’ and grandparents’ hometown. I ran north on the highway’s shoulder a short way to connect to the dirt County Road Y-11, which hugs the San Miguel River, and from Y-11, I picked up the Shamrock Trail that climbs a rugged 500 feet before transitioning to a mesa where cattle used to range.
Abandoned mining roads and trails crisscross piñon-juniper forest, and lumpy sandstone formations rise like giant sculptures. In his book, my grandfather describes riding down the Shamrock Trail on Christmas Eve 1934, braving snow and icy footing to get back to the ranch headquarters in time for a festive dance in Nucla. Descending the canyon trail, he and the other cowboys rode “with just the tips of our boots in the stirrups, ready to leap clear if the horses fell.”
Gazing over the gorgeous reddish and blond striated sandstone cliff walls that plunge down to the San Miguel River, I spotted a row of dozens of metal brackets suspended halfway up the canyon wall. Erected in the late 1880s by workers dangling from ropes, the metal supported an engineering feat known as the Hanging Flume, a wooden water chute some twelve miles long used for hydraulic mining. (The flume’s remnants also can be viewed from an overlook along Highway 141 at mile marker 81, a vista point above the two rivers’ confluence.)
The flume shut down only a few years after construction because the gold mine it serviced wasn’t viable, and locals salvaged its timber. My grandfather’s writing desk, which my brother still uses daily, is made of wood from that flume.
I asked myself why I hadn’t ventured here to explore and retrace my grandfather’s hoof-steps earlier in life, to discover these remote trails and stunning vistas. What took me so long to get here, to marvel at this land and its history?
Practically speaking, it took finding out about the West End Trails Alliance (westendtrails.org), a nonprofit devoted to building, maintaining, and promoting trails for non-motorized users. Hunters have long appreciated the West End’s public lands, but hikers, bikers, and runners like me have been discovering the area more recently thanks to WETA’s work to provide maps, signage, and improvements for the area’s trails.
Off-road vehicle enthusiasts are discovering backroads around here, too, since the completion in 2017 of the 160-mile Rimrocker Trail connecting Montrose to Moab. Officials from Montrose County, San Juan County (Utah), and the U.S. Forest Service linked and promoted the route for OHVs, 4WDs, and mountain bikers to showcase the scenery and promote tourism. The route travels directly through Nucla.
This October 23, more runners and hikers can tour the trails around Uravan by participating in an inaugural ultramarathon, the Hanging Flume 50K (hangingflumerace.com), started by three Telluride guys who are enthusiastic about the West End’s trails and want to support the nearby towns.
One of the race’s founders, Sheamus Croke, cares deeply about the area because his mother lives in Nucla, and Croke works for the Telluride Foundation on various initiatives to bolster the West End’s economy and livability. He’s also been working on a long-range plan to expand the region’s network of trails for mountain biking.
Croke says it’s only a matter of time before more people relocate to the area and develop it, which inevitably will lead to mixed feelings among locals and culture clashes with newcomers. “There’s a contrast between wanting to bring development and wanting to preserve the hidden nature of the place. Once more mountain bikers and Sprinter vans are there, there definitely will be people who wish Nucla could go back to the good old days,” he says. He hopes the community can guide growth in a way that preserves the area’s character and jibes with locals.
The region’s economy needs a comeback because Nucla’s New Horizon coal mine ceased production in 2018, and its Tri-State Nucla Station coal-fired power plant shut down a year later. The communities lost 130 good-paying jobs when those major employers closed—a severe blow to a population of about 1,500.
Now, locals are banking on recreation, residential, and retail growth to reanimate their historic towns, and recent developments give them reason to hope. “People get out here and say, ‘This is the most gorgeous area I’ve never seen in Colorado.’ We’re trying to help them find it,” says Deana Sheriff, executive director of the West End Economic Development Corporation, which is tasked with economic recovery for the region where annual household income averages about $37,000, and roughly two-thirds of families with children under five live below the federal poverty rate.
I interviewed Sheriff in a building on Main Street that symbolizes new hope in Naturita: The Collective Mine co-working space, opened five years ago, which features office space, conference rooms, and a commercial kitchen. The building buzzes with the activity of regional nonprofits and entrepreneurs.
Three miles up the highway from Naturita, CampV, a new lodge that calls itself “a boutique camp” combining art, history, and design, sits on a hilltop as the most fanciful and striking sign of optimism in the area. Combining fourteen refurbished historic cabins with Airstreams, camping spots, and a whimsical outdoor chapel imported from Burning Man, CampV drew DJs, hipster revelers, and curious tourists to its remote outpost when it fully opened this spring.
CampV started in 1942 as housing built by the Vanadium Corporation for engineers and managers at the nearby uranium mill. A trio of Telluride locals—Natalie Binder, whose grandmother worked for the Vanadium Corp., along with architects Bruce and Jodie Wright—purchased the property in 2018 and attracted investors to create a unique glamping retreat with funky art and luxury cabins that remain rough around the edges, preserving the structures’ original features.
Four miles away in downtown Nucla, a new café, Genesis Coffee Roaster, sits across the street from a recently opened bed-and-breakfast called the Vestal House. One block up, the colorfully painted Wild Gal’s Market, established in 2019, sells locally grown organic produce, homemade food, and other health store staples.
The pandemic last summer prompted more visitors to discover the West End, thanks to its campgrounds and the area’s high-speed broadband that allows remote working by urban escapees. The Nucla-Naturita Telephone Company invested in bringing fiber optic cable to the West End, so the region has internet connectivity that are the envy of other rural pockets of Colorado.
Sheriff ticks off other signs of renewal in Nucla and Naturita: a hot housing market for relatively affordable fixer-uppers and rentals, a surge of kindergarteners signaling younger families moving in, and heightened interest from guides and outfitters to do business in the area because of the outdoor recreation opportunities.
She echoed a sentiment I heard from others: that as much as they want economic recovery, they don’t want the Nucla-Naturita communities to become “another Moab.” “We really want this to be a small-business atmosphere. We don’t want Starbucks, and we’re not looking to bring in a City Market,” says Sheriff. “We’d much rather elevate our existing grocery stores.”
Sheriff relocated to Nucla when she took her job and fell in love with the region because, she says, “it’s so quiet, and we don’t have a stoplight for a hundred miles. It’s the outdoor nature. And this sounds a little woo-woo, but the energy here and the people here are amazing. Their determination to stay as a viable community is remarkable.”
The first time I hung out in downtown Nucla, driving past wide pastures full of cows to get there, the word “sleepy” came to mind while surveying its Main Street. Few cars or people moved about, and the well-maintained park with a playground looked deserted. But I’m told Nucla gets busy during summer and fall with Jeeps, bikes, and hunters.
I heard construction noise up the road and went there to meet Aimee Tooker on the sidewalk. Perhaps no one better personifies pride and love for Nucla and its neighbor Naturita than her. The sound came from workers improving the exterior of the liquor store that she and her husband own and sprucing up the empty lot next to it with planters and outdoor tables.
The Tookers also own the Tabeguache Trading Co. a couple of doors down, a general store named after the Ute band who first lived here. The store caters to visitors by selling outerwear, souvenirs, ammo, and maps. And early this year, she and her husband opened the Vestal House B&B (named after one of Nucla’s founders) next to the liquor store, an inn with four rooms and a couple of RV spaces. “I want people to know we’re open for business, and good things are happening here,” she says, taking me in to the B&B to tour its themed guestrooms.
The Uravan-theme room sports yellow and gray tones to represent “yellowcake” (uranium oxide, derived from carnotite ore) and industrial accents. Historic photos of the uranium mill decorate the wall, and bedside lamps are shaped like the atomic energy whirl. A sign over the door reads, “Buried on the hill under tons of rock our beloved town lies. Through our loving memories will the town stay alive.”
Tooker and her husband both grew up in Nucla, and their parents and grandparents raised them to weather boom-and-bust cycles with hard work and resiliency. “The older generation taught us to be self-sufficient,” she says. “You can your goods, you stock up on things, and you don’t rely on other people. So when COVID hit, that didn’t really affect us. We had our little grocery store and local produce, and everybody stocks up anyway.”
She says she used to know pretty much everyone in Nucla and Naturita, but that’s changing. “When I go to basketball on Fridays with my kids, I look around and think, ‘Oh my gosh, who are these people?’ A lot of people have moved here and are starting their businesses, taking pride in their yards. Young people who lived here before are bringing their families back.”
After spending time with Aimee, I bought a delicious and sophisticated kale salad from the Wild Gal’s market and then drove a couple of miles outside of town, just past the public rifle range. This town loves its guns—Nucla made national news in 2013 when the anti-gun-control town board passed an ordinance mandating gun ownership for all its households—but it apparently loves its trails and recreation, too. A trailhead next to the rifle range sports a brand-new kiosk full of information about the region’s 118-mile Paradox Trail.
I hiked up the hillside and broke into a run on a rocky, sandy portion of the Paradox Trail that meanders through a landscape defined by wind- and water-sculpted rocks dotted with juniper bushes. The snow-capped La Sals rose on the horizon to the west, and the San Juan Mountains beckoned to the east. I saw not another soul, and my cell phone showed “no service.”
It was a thrill adventuring alone in this frontier between Colorado and Utah, so unspoiled and far from the maddening Moab crowd. I felt the sweep of history—from the Utes and gold miners, to ranchers and uranium and coal miners, to a new generation of workers, seekers, and outdoor-lovers.
I also felt pretty certain I’d look back on this outing as a special time here, being immersed in nature without running into other hikers and bikers, before the West End became another hot destination in southwest Colorado.