BY RICH GRANT
If Golden, Colorado, had put together just a little more money in 1869, it would have become the most famous city in the Rocky Mountains. The town was in a race against Denver to build Colorado’s first railroad. Golden was the capital of the Colorado Territory; Denver was an upstart – a frontier town of saloons and gambling halls. But the upstart had money. When Golden’s railroad went bankrupt, Denver won the race and became a raucous boomtown and, ultimately, the state capital.
Golden had to settle for second prize. It was destined to become the largest producer of beer in the world.
Unlike Denver, which sits on high rolling plains, Golden is nestled in the Clear Creek valley – an area of outstanding natural beauty. To the east are rugged, high buttes formed 60 million years ago by lava flows. The fossilized bones of the first Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur ever found were discovered here.
To the west, Lookout Mountain looms above Golden. The 7,379-foot-high summit offers panoramic views in every direction. It was at this picturesque spot that the famous frontiers scout and showman, Buffalo Bill Cody, was buried in 1917.
But what really made Golden special was the pretty (and perfectly named) Clear Creek, that flows through the center of town. In 1872, a young brewer from Germany was walking near the river when he discovered many cool springs of crystal pure water bubbling up from the ground. He knew water was a major ingredient in beer, so with a partner, he bought the land around the springs and turned an abandoned tannery nearby into a brewery. His name was Adolph Herrman Coors, and today his brewery is the largest single-site brewery in the world.
Coors Brewery produces 13 million barrels of beer a year, which translates to 4.3 billion bottles – or about 221,000 bottles of beer for every resident in Golden. And Coors isn’t the only brewery in town. There are five other award-winning craft breweries located here, as well as a distillery. Buffalo Bill, who was known to have a fondness for alcohol, would be proud.
But there’s more to do in Golden than stop and smell the hops. The quaint Western-looking town has become a major biking center. The U.S. Pro Challenge (the most grueling professional bike race in the United States) has twice brought the world’s top cyclists to Golden to pedal the iconic 1,300-foot, 4.3 mile hill climb up Lookout Mountain. Nearby is what Rolling Stone Magazine once called the best outdoor concert venue in the nation. The top mountaineering museum in the United States is here, as is Colorado’s largest collection of trains. And of course, the “Wild West” lives again at the Buffalo Bill Museum.
So throw on that 10-gallon hat, belly up to a bar (or at least a brewpub) and enjoy the top things to do in the town whose slogan is, “Where the West lives.”
The brewery has a free, 30-minute, self-paced tour of the malting, brewing and packing of Coors Beer. You get to explore a room of giant copper kettles and then stop in the constantly whirling packaging room, where thousands of cans and bottles speed by, marching to being filled with beer and slotted into six packs. After the tour, those age 21 and over can sample three free glasses of beer. If you already know how beer is made, ask for the “short tour,” which is no tour at all – you go straight to the free tasting room.
Sample Some Samplers
The way you drink at the five craft breweries in Golden is by ordering a tray of samplers – usually six different four-ounce beers that let you taste a variety of handmade brews, from lagers and pale ales to India Pale Ales, porters, stouts and sours. Golden’s craft breweries don’t serve food (other than pretzels), so you can bring your own meal or order from different food trucks parked outside. Because there’s no kitchen, dogs are allowed in the bars, and it’s a rare day when there aren’t a half dozen dogs enjoying the atmosphere. The most fun stop is Golden City Brewery, which was founded in 1993 by two geologists, Charlie & Janine Sturdavant, in their own house. The beer garden is their backyard. In winter, there’s always an outdoor fire; in summer, there are often musicians playing. Order a beer through the Dutch door of the carriage house, find a table and relax in Charlie & Janine’s backyard. Their specialty is the Clear Creek Gold Pale Ale, an award-winning, traditional German Kolschbier hopped with Czech Saaz for a pleasant floral finish.
Rock the Rocks
The 9,000-seat Red Rocks Amphitheater, just 10 minutes from Golden, has hosted everyone from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen, and was declared by Rolling Stone Magazine to be the nation’s top bucket list outdoor concert venue. It is the only completely natural amphitheater on the planet. Two gigantic 400-foot-high red sandstone rocks flank either side, and a “bounce-back” rock is located behind the stage. It really doesn’t matter who is playing. When there is a Rocky Mountain sunset and all the lights of Denver are glowing off in the distance, and the flanking rocks are illuminated, and eagles and hawks are flying overhead – the amphitheater is the star of the show. Even when there’s not a concert, it’s an amazing sight to see, and there are hiking trails that wind up, around and through the towering rocks.
Meet Buffalo Bill
Buffalo Bill Cody was the world’s first super star – a 19th century Elvis. In the early days of the West, he was a buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider and scout for the U.S. Army. Beginning in 1883, he put the West under a tent and his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show performed in more than a thousand cities and in 12 different countries. Bill brought along 640 cowboys, Indians, Vaqueros, ropers, trick riders and sharpshooters. Sadly, he was visiting his sister in Denver in 1917 when he died and his funeral on top of Lookout Mountain was the largest in Colorado history. Today, a fun museum near the grave brings his incredible show back to life. The drive to the top of the mountain on the Lariat Loop Trail is a white-knuckle thriller, with cliffs on every turn (and no guard rails), but the view from the museum’s outdoor deck is worth it.
Walk or Ride a Train into History
In addition to providing water for beer, Clear Creek also yielded gold – millions of dollars of it. Today, you’ll find modern prospectors with gold pans still trying their luck. A paved trail follows the creek from the mountains, through Golden for 20 miles to Denver. You can bike or hike along the creek, or float down it on a tube or kayak through an ingenious manmade whitewater course with rapids and gentle falls – right in the center of town.
Two miles downriver, the Colorado Railroad Museum lets you sit back and have someone else do the pedaling. The museum has a half mile circle track – sort of a giant’s toy train set – on which they run steam locomotives and the famous Galloping Goose – a 1928 Pierce Arrow limousine put on train wheels with a bus welded on the back. It’s the only way to fly – on wheels.
Learn How to Climb Mount Everest
Located at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, Golden is the perfect place for the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum, the first and only museum in the nation dedicated to mountaineering history. You can see the actual clothes that the first American to summit Mount Everest was wearing, then study the routes up the world’s highest peak on a 12-by-12-foot model. There are exhibits on every aspect of mountain climbing – including a Colorado favorite, bagging a Fourteener, which means climbing to the top of one of Colorado’s 54 peaks that soar to 14,000-foot elevations.
After the museum, stop for lunch at Golden’s Sherpa House Restaurant and Cultural Center for some authentic Himalayan cuisine served in an authentic representation of a Sherpa house in the Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal. Try the Sherpa stew with yak meat, and wash it down with a Sherpa beer. No – the beer wasn’t brewed in Golden. It was made in Nepal. But the Nepal brewery is owned by our friends down the block at the Golden City Brewery, Charlie & Janine Sturdavant. Stop by their backyard for a beer and ask them how they came to own a brewery in Nepal. It’s just another amazing story about Golden … and beer.