There are places for which you aim, and those you aim to pass through. Ask anyone who can even point to Montrose on a map which type of place it is, and you'll likely hear the latter.
After venturing through Salida and Gunnison on U.S. Highway 50, the town of nearly 20,000 is virtually a straight shot west, around 4½ hours from the Springs.
Montrose is a way station: 20 minutes from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park; 30 and 45 minutes, respectively, from alluring hot springs in Ridgway and Ouray; roughly 90 minutes from both Telluride and Crested Butte; and within a few hours of some of Utah's finest park lands.
But as the optimist might assume, reducing any place to a rest stop fails to account for redeeming qualities that a patient eye will find. This in mind, I ventured for a weekend to Montrose to uncover what I could.
Duck out of work a little early Friday and you can make it about three-quarters of the way to Montrose for dinner at the Sherpa Cafe, located directly on U.S. 50 in Gunnison. Have a Yeti Combo of Smirnoff and chai tea, which lands White Russian-esque, milky with the vodka enhancing cardamom notes — basically The Big Lebowski Climbs Everest.
A complimentary cup of dhal acts as a brilliant gift to road weariness during a short wait for pot-sticker-like momo (steamed Tibetan dumplings). A vegetarian combo plate's most notable for a pleasantly less-creamy-than-usual saag plate, scooped with buttered naan. Included dessert kheer also goes atypical via an appreciable under-sweetness, with coconut flakes texturally filling in for almond slivers.
Onward to Montrose. Hear a little history, and I'll give you beer. And coffee. And the most interesting burrito on which I've supped in a long while.
Like much of Colorado, what's now Montrose once hosted Ute Indians. Near town, the Shavano Valley Rock Art site preserves petroglyphs dating to 1,000 B.C.
The modern town, founded in 1882, became an agricultural hub in 1909 with completion of a four-year project to build the Gunnison Tunnel, which transports water from the Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre Valley surrounding Montrose. At the time, it was the world's longest irrigation tunnel at nearly six miles, which gives some perspective today on Colorado Springs' 50-mile Southern Delivery System.
According to literature, when President William Howard Taft stopped by for the tunnel's dedication ceremony, he called the place an "incomparable valley with the unpronounceable name." (More like President Daft.)
Bucolic BLM, national forest and park lands compose most of the surrounding county. The San Juan mountains gift a dramatic, hazy cragginess to the southern skyline, and nearby plateaus fill in the foreground.
Montrose's farmlands abut residences, a mix of historic homes, modern urban sprawl and trailer parks. In the city, per capita income hits around $21,500, with 19 percent below the poverty level. Despite that, Montrose has three golf courses, with four more reachable within an hour. The town caters to hikers, hunters, fishermen, bicyclists, rafters and rock and ice climbers. Hence the city tourism bureau's slogan: "Stay here, play everywhere."
A friend grew up in Montrose and returned after our college time together, calling it a "multigenerational place ... a black hole to some." When I ask about day-to-day life, she says, "We're not up-and-coming for anything, generally about three to five years behind the Eastern Slope in trends, culture and economic swings." Still, she calls her home "the hub of everything the Western Slope has to offer."
So, pick your poison and lodging. I concentrated on what the hub tastes like.
Saturday morning: The season's ending, but during growing months, you'll see a morning farmers market in Montrose's Centennial Plaza, outside the Straw Hat Farm Market & Kitchen Store. Someone's brought pigs, goats and bunnies for a petting zoo, and a burro takes kiddies in guided circles. Heirloom tomatoes shine in the morning sun and yard-long Armenian cucumbers are somehow only $2, striped with elevation like a plowed field, curving and tapering at the end. We talk to charming old-timers and buy brandied peach syrup and cashew brittle before entering the store, which is a bit like Ranch Foods Direct's retail front mated with a Sparrowhawk aisle.
Local-pastured pork and grass-fed beef cuts rest in freezers near a produce rack. From a baked goods table we pluck a moist carrot-apple-pecan oat muffin. At the counter we pick up house-made breakfast burritos with Swiss chard, garlic, Monterey Jack, local eggs and a lively cilantro-parsley vinaigrette dip.
We inquire about local coffee and are directed to the new Buckhorn Coffee, 10 blocks away. (If not mountain biking, consider taking a cruiser bike, allowing scenic detours through back streets and pathways along industrial dilapidation that's both character and blight.) Inside Buckhorn, we meet owners Mindi and Charles Millican, she an attorney by day and he the roaster, who attended Coffee Lab International's School of Coffee in Waterbury, Vermont. A cup of coffee's only a buck (get it?), but we're drawn to samples of two cold brews on nitro that utilize two of their seven current blends.
Saturday afternoon/evening: Mindi points us to three existing breweries, saying two more are on the way. Horsefly Brewing Company's up first, on East Main Street, and we find a respectable 11 beers on tap, cool newspaper menus and — I'm not usually this guy — chicken wings I must try. We get a mix of Down 'n' Dirty, with garlic bits and bleu cheese on buffalo wings, and Phil's Hoppin, a sweet-and-spicy sauce garnished with fresh hop petals (love it) for a tinge of citric bitterness hard to find inside the sweetness.
Overall, beers filling two sample paddles hit their styles well, with a roasty red; easy raspberry ale; overtly honey brown; and robust porter. A conversation begins over different textures — a couple feel thin, while the IPA and Scottish in particular feel creamy, as if on nitro. I inquire, and am led to a brew dude out on the patio eating his plate of wings.
He explains how Horsefly runs on a CO2/nitrogen blend, generically called "beergas," because they have a rather lengthy line-run from keg to tap. The nitro's needed to push enough pressure, secondarily benefiting breweries by tending to yield less foam at that tap, thereby saving pour-off. Lastly, it thwarts improper carbonation, which can affect taste.
I'm actually in love with the taste of the Scottish — not normally my favorite style — which lands caramel-rich amid some smoke and roasty malt. This is the brewery to beat in town.
Just blocks away on Main Street we enter an Il Vicino-like Colorado Boy Pizzeria & Brewery, expanded out of a sister Colorado Boy in Ridgway. Stamped metal ceiling panels adorn a brick-oven pizza counter's half wall in back, adjacent to a tiny brew room. Sunlight filters down a long wall of exposed brick above booth seating. A bar offers six house taps of the usual varietals, executed just fine, plus a basic pub ale and Oktoberfest; one tap's a nice cask porter on a hand pump for a more velvety body.
The real show's the pizza, and our excellent Salsiccia affords the chance to try a fennel-strong sausage from nearby Olathe's Dayspring Farm. Other items include herbs and greens from an in-town hydroponic grower called City Farm.
We make sunset on the elevated back patio of Two Rascals Brewing Company on North First Street. Hop vines climb a boundary lattice and overhead trellis, and we throw a few lazy matches of cornhole. We find nothing remarkable to say about a sampler of seven house taps. I'd probably drink the cream ale if I returned.
Sunday morning: We bike into town early and drop into Riverbottom Park, riding wide sidewalks alongside Montrose Water Sports Park, a well-groomed play area for kayakers, with fly-fishing holes not far upstream. Further down the greenway, scented in segments by the faint smell of sweetgrass, ballfields stretch up to a skate park. Just off the path, a disc golf course traces up a hillside, where we climb more sidewalk and stretches of singletrack onto a plateau. On the far end we pedal into a stunning, serene cemetery with a panoramic view of the San Juans and a long city overlook. We meander through the headstones, one with many family dog names attached and some quite ornate with statuary. This place may be for the dead, but this sunny morning is for the living.
Folks back in town are spilling from churches into what restaurants actually open on Sundays. From the plethora of Mexican places, we pick what I'm told is the newest, called Mi Mexico. It opened in May after more than $500,000 in renovations, according to the Montrose Press. It's a sister restaurant to Falcon's Guadalajara Family Mexican Restaurant, and part of a small chain, I later learn.
In the dining room, stone pillars and wagon-wheel chandeliers lead up to the drop ceiling. Ornate woodworks comprise booth dividers and brightly painted carved chair-backs depict everything from animals to fruit. Waiters wear pressed shirts and ties. A woman labors at a tortilla station near the restrooms. The salsa's spicy-hot. And though our chicken mole's overly sweet and a creamy shrimp plate's just serviceable, a "healthy burrito" wows with a creative, black pepper-spiked, puréed carrot sauce over a generous portion of mushrooms, zucchini and other veggies.
We're full nearly until we get back home, leaving with the impression that even if Montrose isn't generally seen as an up-and-comer, some of its tastes say otherwise, whether you're passing through or staying to play.