Paradise. A place in the the world people escape when they no longer know how to unplug. And I’ve found it.
For the past 36 hours, I have been to one of my new most favorite pieces of dirt on this planet. Eight hours from Denver down route 285, good burgers but bad Thai in Poncha Springs, over Monarch pass, through the cozy town of Gunnison, past Montrose, turning off from Ridgeway and eventually on a road that turns to gravel… Twenty miles deep and off to the right you can see it: Dunton Hot Springs. Past the rusty gate you come upon a few old cabins, a lodge, a bathhouse…and one of the more awe-inspiring backdrops this stunning state can gift. On the property alone, the west fork of Dolores River runs through, along with a robust waterfall, a vista of Mt. El Diente (a 14er), and dense, unharmed Aspens as far the eye can see. If there were such a thing as discovering the ‘real’ Colorado, this might be the closest I have been to realizing the expression.
By nightfall we arrived, greeted by a friendly French woman who happened to be from Champagne (needless to say, we were instant pals, at least in my mind). Her sweet disposition was easy to attach to as she lead us to our lodgings. Inside what struck me most was that it actually smelled of a cabin. That sounds a little odd, I realize. But spending summers in Northern Wisconsin, there are a combination of elements that come together to form a scent that is unforgettable and difficult to replicate. It has to be genuine. This place had a soul–a history you could feel.
The story goes that this tiny, unincorporated town was born in the way many tiny Coloradan mountain towns in this area were–for mining. In 1885, a mining camp was set up about a half mile downstream from a village of roughly 50 people. When sold to some Eastern investors in 1987, the local economy boomed a bit, so a little more development took place and people settled down for a couple decades. The boom waned, however, and Dunton was deserted. It was fixed up as a tourist dude ranch in the ‘70’s and 80’s before closing down in the early ’90’s.
Finally, the current owners saw great potential for this property, bought it in ’94 and restored it to its breathtaking state today. Not too shabby, not too chic. People like to get away, but they want good food… People like to be active, but they crave a massage, too. Why not put it all in one place? So they did.
It was an instant success. Many famous people were known to nestle in, as there was no chance of being found, for it really is in the middle of frickin’ nowhere. The buzz has finally calmed, and what we have found are a few other very hardworking couples who enjoy travel, food, wine, culture, but also deep isolation and quiet moments to force oneself to unwind.
Dinner our first evening was good ol’ barbeque. Everything was cooked to perfection: the sweet ears of grilled corn, the kobe beef, the chicken, cornbread, asparagus. Over three courses, we sat communally and listened to other people tell stories, as we shared a few of our own. Every meal at Dunton has been like this. You share in the event, are forced out of your comfort zone and adapt remarkably fast! You become accustomed to (and eager for) the sounding of the lunch and dinner bell that invite the four to eight guests to ‘come an’ get it!’. The meals never feel like heavy restaurant food. Just purely wholesome, clean, American-inspired cooking. They are sometimes coursed out, other times ‘family-style’, and they always provoke interest and conversation. The chef is incredible, and the local wine never runs dry.
Sutcliffe Vineyards is partner to Dunton Hot Springs. They provide the wine that is available for guests. Anyone who knows me might be curious of my assessment. Do I pay extra to order the ‘better’ reserve list wines? In a word… no. As with most travel, I try and partake in what the region is drinking, eating, and generally all about. You don’t go to Tuscany and ask for Burgundy. And despite the inconsistencies I see throughout the burgeoning Colorado wine industry, I can say with genuine excitement that these Sutcliffe wines have been really impressive. I have particularly enjoyed their Sauvignon Blanc (more French in style than either New Zealand or Cali…sorry, the Francophile can’t just go away!) as well as the Cinsault (lovely, light and aromatic) and the Syrah (yes, much more like a rustic Cornas than a jammy Barossa).
Tonight is our last night, and we do plan to crack open one bottle from the reserve list to celebrate. The prices on their reserve list are more like retail prices, not restaurant, as they factor in the fact that you are paying for the inclusive beverages with your nightly fee. So, a ’95 Chateau Grand-Puy Lacoste Pauillac is $95, for example. Ridiculous. That just may be the one…
But stepping outside my seemingly myopic view of the world via wine and food, there are hundreds of other things I love to do. Many of which were found here. And really that’s the point. Relaxing and unplugging. I would wake up and curl up into a magazine with a large cup of coffee, a wooly sweater and fresh mountain scape to peer upon. We threw a few flies in the river and caught some rainbow trout, brown trout and even cutthroat (okay, that wasn’t me, but the others were!). We went on a long hike, where I realized it was almost dusk and was paranoid I would be eaten by a mountain lion (fine, it was only 330p, but still… poor JV). We walked up alongside a massive waterfall, took frequent dips in three separate hot springs, got an indulgent massage, and even went rock climbing! The kiddo brought his new telescope and shared with everyone on the site. He was able to point out craters on the moon, Mars, dippers and even Saturn (quite honestly magical when you have seen it for the first time).
It’s not cheap. But neither is medication. This place is intensely restorative. Justifiably worth it in every way if you can ever make it happen. The minutes, I promise, tick by with a happy lack of ambition. They are not hurried. They do not even really exist… until you hear the bell sound for supper like you were a child again on a hot summer night, busy capturing fireflies next door.
I write this from their old, hand-hewn log cabin of a library. I don’t hear anything but the typing of the keys. I am staring at El Diente, a marmot on a log and two elderly folks holding hands down the gravel path. It is idyllic. Almost absurd in this world we live in today. But I don’t want it to stop as we roll on out tomorrow after our steamy mugs of coffee and our homemade scrambled eggs with green chile back to cement and cell phones.