Welcome to the third installment of our “Trail Town” series. Every month we will feature an article about a trail running city that you should put on your bucket list of places to visit! This month we feature the old western town of Del Norte, in Colorado’s sprawling San Luis Valley.
“How do you say it!?” The biggest debate in the small town of Del Norte, Colorado is not whether or not they have an abundance of great trails, it is how you pronounce it. Some say “Del Nort” while others insist the correct pronunciation is “Del Nor-tay”. The locals can’t can’t even agree on it. Once you get past that debate you realize this gem of a town, with a population of just over 1,700 and situated along the Rio Grande River, has so much to offer that you forget about its pronunciation.
At the beginning of the summer months, Del Norte has the intense sun during the day, turning into chilly nights once it sets. That is what happens at 7,884 feet so, along with your trails shoes, be sure to bring your jacket.
In going to explore Del Norte for ATRA’s June edition of Trail Town, I was able to attend a 3-day event for mountain bikers and trail runners named the Del Norte Trail Showcase. What a perfect event for a Trail Town! In its second year, the Trail Showcase added a trail running group to the already diehard mountain bikers. What we were able to experience was the abundance of local trails in and surrounding Del Norte by personal guides and local mountain running legends Laura Haefeli, Haefeli’s Honey Farms business owner, and 2 X both Pikes Peak Ascent and Pikes Peak Marathon Champion, silver medalist at the 1975 Pan American Games Marathon and winner of famed Sierre-Zinal in Switzerland, Chuck Smead.
Haefeli, who was the first woman in US Mountain Running history to claim an individual medal at the World Mountain Running Trophy (bronze, 2007), showed us some of the newest built trails in Penitente Canyon, which is also known for its world-class climbing. We were very fortunate to have some of the trails builders, that build the very trails we were on, running alongside us. Jeff Owsley showed us his handy work as we climbed and wound around on new paths on the Bureau of Land Management-controlled areas, witnessing historic wagon tracks, jumping through huge boulders and keeping on track with a “Trail Confidence Marker.” Just so we were confident that we weren’t lost, you know!? Although, with elite trail runners like Team Colorado’s Megan “Good Karma” Kimmel, Brandy “Mile-a-Minute” Erholtz and Laura “Honey Bee” Haefeli, Trail Running Mag writer, Ariella Gentler and trail to ales beer and running geek, Dave Gordon, I felt pretty confident.
Another day, we met at Rifle Range and ran on the Stone Quarry Trails where, as implied, there is a rifle range and a stone quarry. The latter resembling a huge inverted pyramid of the pharaonic era. The rock harvested from this quarry are the very same that now make up many of the historic buildings in Del Norte.
When we ran another one of the impressive local trails, Middle Frisco Trail, I couldn’t figure out why this 3-5% grade felt so difficult, then I realized we were at 10,400 feet elevation. That explains everything! This US Forestry Service trail climbs from the trailhead at 9,000 feet, 6.3 miles to Frisco Lake at 11,500 feet and cuts through impressive aspen groves and along the very active Middle San Francisco Creek. This is where one of our fellow trailers, Sean, had a bad foot placement that resulted in a “pop” in the ankle and a 1.25 mile “hop and carry” evacuation. There are two methods of recover: the emergency room or beer and a live bluegrass band. Sean chose wisely and the band and beer did not disappoint!
Parking & Transit
No need for traveling if you want to climb D Mountain, just head south and you will be at the base of the climb in minutes. For the surrounding trails like Penitente Canyon, Rock Quarry and Middle Frisco, it is a 15-20 drive and the parking is well marked parking lots and trailheads. But who needs parking when you have your trails shoes! With a population of only 1655 people, Del Norte is too small and far from a major metro area to have public transportation.
Everyone I spoke to from Del Norte was so passionate about their trails, their river and their land that is was difficult not to feel the magic. The Del Norte Trail Showcase was the very way to show off to the outdoor community that they have not just trails but world class trails, world class establishments, world class people! The Trail Showcase was, in fact, a community event which raised money for the Del Norte Riverfront Project. The Del Norte Riverfront Project seeks to improve recreational opportunities while improving fish an wildlife habitat in the San Luis Valley.
When you have 7-time Mountain and Trail Running National Champion (Laura Haefeli) and a Pan American Silver Medalist (Chuck Smead) escorting you around the trails, the local agencies (Del Norte Trails Organization) and local people like Jeff Owsley, Dave Gordon cooperating with the local business owners (Kevin Hass, co-owner of the Windsor Hotel, Tom & Laura Haefeli of Haefeli’s Honey Farms), you have a perfect storm of growth and prosperity in your community.
If you live in Del Norte, you probably are an active, outdoorsy person with love for the land and waterways you live in and around. It is ingrained. The area is full of people connected to the land. For example, Haefeli’s Honey Farms has been in existence for 5 generations and over 100 years. The Windsor Hotel, a major sponsor or the Del Norte Trail Showcase, was established in 1874 during the gold and silver rushes and was almost reduced to rubble until local local entrepreneur and Trail Showcase founder, Kevin Hass, invested to revive this historic site.
If you have an expert guide, or a very keen eye, you will find native petroglyphs that are thousands of years old while out on the Stone Quarry Trails. This area was once the summer ground for the Ute, Kiowa, Navajo and Comanche Native American tribes, and more recently gold seekers, ranchers, farmers, fur trappers and merchants. The old Spanish Trail was a major route from Santa Fe, NM and Los Angeles CA. If you a curious to find out more about the the local history, you can visit the the Rio Grande County Museum and Cultural Center.
Penitente Canyon, which is internationally known for its world-class climbing, also is rich in geological and cultural history. The unusual rock formations and hoodoos in the canyon are part of the La Garita Caldera and this place was originally used as a grounds for worship for the Los Hermanos Penitente, a Catholic brotherhood. While on the trial, you will find an old painted image of the Virgin Mary high on the walls of this canyon as proof of the sacred area.
In this small town, you can get some grand coffee! If you venture down the main avenue, aptly named “Grand Avenue”, you will find The Perks serving up gourmet pastries and robust coffee. Be warned, you might need a death wish if you go in because those raspberry roll is TO DIE FOR! If you fancy a haircut, you can just walk next door to O M’s Barbershop and Stylist and get a trim or style but make sure it is the correct day as they are “OPEN Thurday, Friday, Saturday ONLY.” To celebrate these days of the week, Three Barrel Brewing Company right across the street, named their Coconut Brown Lager “Thurday Special.” And no, they are not missing anything!
If you are in the mood for a quick coffee, pastry or smoothie pitstop, you can do a walk-thru at the San Juan Mountain Coffee cart, say hello to Schmeis the barista and try some of the amazing locally roasted coffee from San Juan Mountain Roasters. It will get you nice and pepped up for a trail run.
Yes, please! What trail run is complete without a visit to your local watering hole…in this case, Three Barrel Brewing Company is a stones throw from…well, basically everything else in town because Del Norte is so small! First founded in 2005 as one of the smallest microbreweries in Colorado, 3BB utilizes as many local ingredients for their beer and food in an effort to support the local community.
This brewery, which recently moved from it’s small tasting room where specialty sour beers are still produced, to the new renovated location on Grand Ave. With an amazing patio to take in the Colorado sun, you can sample a flight of their numerous flagship and seasonal beers or take a walk on the sour side with beers that have been rested on oak barrels, spices with unique ingredients and inoculated with wild yeast strains.
For some local grub, you can check out Three Barrel Brewing for some handmade wood fire pizza, strombolis or calzones and more beer (you can never have too much beer!). I was there for three days and I visited the brewery three times. Some would call that a hat trick. If you are looking for some down-home cooking, check out Boogies Restaurant, where you will find hearty breakfasts, burgers, steak, sandwiches and salads. Their motto is “Great Food and Friendly Folk!” If you are looking for authentic Mexican food, take a trip to Calvillos Mexican Kitchen. And be sure to try to sopapillas.
For a more lavish, gourmet meal, you must visit the Windsor Hotel’s The Dinning Room. Again, Kevin Haas comes into play here as the barman and co-owner has created signature cocktails to pair with beautifully prepared dishes by chef Regan like grilled goat cheese polenta, pan seared salmon salad, local prosciutto and brie croissant, pan roasted Alamosa bass…I could go on and on. I highly recommend the chicken fried calamari and three cheese macaroni and cheese, it pairs great with bluegrass! Featured on the menu are locally grown Divine Ranch Lamb, Haefeli’s Honey, Gosar Organic Sausages, Off Family Ranch All Natural Beef and more. I might need to take a trip down to Del Norte just to have a meal!
Del Norte does not have local running store, but Kristi Mountain Sports in nearby Alamosa is a “mom and pop” establishment that offers all your gear and informational needs. In keeping with the local theme, Kristi Mountain Sports is invested in the outdoor community and is a major sponsor of the Del Norte Trail Showcase. If you have questions or want directions to any of the local trails, all you need to do it stop into Haefeli’s Honey Farms and you will probably catch Laura or her husband Tom working the retail store, if they are not out tending the honey bees. Not only is Laura a local running legend, she took over coaching the high school cross country and track programs when they were at risk of being disbanded. You can also stop in and ask Kevin Haas about what adventures he might suggest. In fact, the local knowledge is abundant, ask anyone in town. Are you seeing the theme here?
Trail Sharing & Cooperation
As stated, you will find world class climbing routes, biking and running trails scattered all over the greater Del Norte area. The cooperation of the athletes, trail builders, conservation organizations, businesses all invite and encourage visitors to take advantage of the amazing outdoor opportunities. The growing trail systems and well-managed land is accessible by all ability levels. Del Norte may not be on most people’s radar as an outdoor mecca like Moab or the Grand Canyon, but now that the word it out, this little town will have to showcase its trails year-round.
Who else but Laura Haefeli and Haefeli’s Honey Farms to put on a local race aptly named Bee’s Knee’s 5k Trail Run.This race takes place on the “town trails” otherwise known as D Mountain Trail and at an incredible $15 for registration, you are not going to find a better deal on race entry! Another new event to showcase the trails in Del Norte is the 12 Hours of Penitence, a mountain bike race at Penitente canyon which raises money for the Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado. In nearby Pagosa Springs, GECKO (Giving Every Child Knowledge of the Outdoors), an ATRA member, is an series of trail races that encourages children to get outdoors and gain knowledge of their natural surroundings. GECKO founder and ultra endurance athlete, Morgan Murri, raises funds to provide scholarships to teenagers to attend the nation’s leading outdoor education providers. The goal is to get “unplugged, off the couch and outside!”
So, not matter how you pronounce Del Norte, we are sure you will fall in love with this Trail Town!
Del Norte Trails – http://delnortetrails.org
Chamber of Commerce – http://www.delnortechamber.org
Dave Gordon, Trails and Ales, Dave’s Energy Balls – http://www.alamosa.org/a-travelers-blog/633-Del-Norte-Trail-Showcase, http://www.alamosa.org/a-travelers-blog/633-Del-Norte-Trail-Showcase