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Let me take you down: In defense of the lower valley

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If you complain that Aspenites don’t venture beyond the roundabout but never stop between Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction, this column is for you.

It’s certainly not for the host of folks we consider Carbondalians — including many pillars of our community like teachers and police officers — who commute from the oft-overlooked west side. They knew the charms of New Castle, Silt, Rifle and Parachute long before I did.

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But I know there are a few folks who, like me when I was growing up here, make Carbondale their whole world, whether they’re working, going out on the town or just relaxing at home. And while they may make the occasional jaunt to the Redstone Castle, Wheeler Opera House, Ruedi Reservoir or Glenwood Caverns, they may be missing some other gems.

Here, let me show you.

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As you head west on Interstate 70 through (or, more properly, past) South Canyon, a passenger could see the burn scars of several devastating fires. You can take the Canyon Creek exit and follow the frontage road upvalley to the Storm King memorial trail — a pilgrimage I think every local ought to make. There’s also a lovely schoolhouse just up the creek, which Violet Mooney can tell you all about.

From here, you could get back on the highway or wind along the frontage road. Either way, you’ll pass the location of a dinosaur find and notice the snow-free ribbon of burning coal in the hillside across the river.

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When you get to New Castle, you could swing by a diner that, thanks to common ownership back in the day, has strikingly similar food and decor to Red Rock (though not as much as the one in Eagle). But even better would be a stop in what I consider to be the cutest downtown around — particularly if there’s an event at Grove’s Black Dog Saloon.

Hang a right just before Elk Creek to put off passing through the Grand Hogback and, technically, out of the Rockies (before you get high and mighty about this, you do the same thing going to ski at Spring Gulch or Sunlight). You could keep on the Buford Road up into the Flat Tops toward Meeker and Trappers Lake, but this rhetorical device works better if you make a pair of lefts toward Harvey Gap. If you’re into open water swimming during the summer, Grass Valley Reservoir is a heckuva lot warmer than its upvalley competition. The actual gap is a notch in the hogback which takes you past the Crack in the Wall Gallery. If you’re lucky, George Cutting will be in to tour you through the tiny little stone-faced hut that hosts his photography and show you around what’s become a popular wedding venue.

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Assuming you can navigate the agricultural tic-tac-toe board of Silt Mesa, you’ll eventually find your way down into Silt proper. Once denigrated by “Silt Happens” bumper stickers, the town now boasts a “Skip’s Farm to Market” outpost and a planned cohousing community along the river. The essential stop in my estimation, though, is the Silt Historical Park — a collection of old buildings and farm equipment dragged there from all over the county. While you’re there, ask ‘em about that old silo with the tree growing out of it  and let me know what you find out.

In fact, drive right past it and over the Interstate on your way to Dry Hollow Road and the honey hut. It sits on an s-curve and is open around the clock with a dizzying array of honeys available for sampling and honor-system purchase.

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If you stay on the backroads, you’ll come into Rifle past its beautiful Colorado Mountain College Campus and Grand River Health Center. If you didn’t eat earlier, you could stop at Sonic, but I recommend getting on Railroad Avenue and keeping an eye out on the left for Polanka. While Shooters makes the headlines, Whistle Pig has breakfast on lock and Lilly’s Kitchen offers the novelty of Mexican and pizza under one roof, how can you pass up perogies and stuffed cabbage?

At this point, you could continue downvalley, past the site of the underground nuclear test at Rulison and toward Parachute and Battlement Mesa, which boasts a middle school with one of the best views around and a rest stop that commemorates the train robbery you might remember from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

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But if you’re running low on time, save it for a jaunt through Rifle Gap and up to Rifle Falls State Park — which is every bit as pretty as Hanging Lake in my estimation and much more accessible — and Rifle Mountain Park, which boasts spectacular ice caves this time of year.

If there’s light left when you’re done, I bet you’ll feel like meandering back along hogback to New Castle before getting on I-70 with a sigh, wondering why you ever looked down on downvalley.

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