Erika M. Schreck, Colorado Magazine, May 2004
If mountain towns, vast plains with buffalo, mule deer, mountains from every view and roadside red rocks comprise Colorado in your mind, you’ll get the whole deal when traveling west on Highway 24 from Colorado Springs. The drive alone is worth a day trip.
Every day trip begins with a hearty breakfast, and one of the best morning starts you can have is at the Pantry in Green Mountain Falls. Approximately 11.5 miles west on Highway 24 from I-25, past amazing, hovering red rock formations that you won’t want to end, take the first Green Mountain Falls/Chipita Park left. You can’t miss the aptly named “green” mountain on your left as you travel Chipita Park Road known as the Ute Pass approximately 1.5 miles until you reach the first stop sign. Just ahead is a cozy pond home to ducks and geese and a white gazebo; take your first right into the parking lot (Lake Street) where there are several small stores, and you’ll see the Pantry Restaurant in the middle of this run of establishments. Prepare yourself for divine bread pudding (declared “Grandma’s recipe” by waitress Fawn who will welcome you with “hon” and “sweetie”) and extremely generous portions of some of the best breakfast eatin’ you’ve ever done. Know that one scrambled egg seems like three and that the “mother lode” order of pancakes can rarely be finished by most visitors. And go for the homemade cinnamon-raisin toast – you don’t want to miss it. If the weather allows, take an outside table for the views, but know that the inside seating is just as grand with window views, local artist pieces and eye-candy antiques donned on high shelves. Owner Benjamin of admirable mountain man visage and ease and friendly waitresses Fawn and Melissa will make your Pantry experience even
Taking a right out of the Pantry parking lot, you’ll get back to 24, where you’ll want to continue west (left). Woodland Park soon appears on this continued journey, and you have the option of various shops or just the view. If you’re ready for a coffee, tea, smoothie or other tasty beverage, be sure to stop at the newly opened Java the Hut, a rustic coffee shop located on your right, about mid-town, that also offers maps, trail guides and outdoor gear. Or perhaps save this stop for your return. Picturesque, up-close-and-personal views of Pikes Peak’s north face will allow for amazing picture and gazing opportunities.
Shortly out of Woodland Park, you’ll see llamas to your left in some of the fields that will be your sign for fewer residential areas. Make sure the gas tank is full and prepare yourself for the true open road. If the gas tank is nearing empty, several miles west and after Divide you will encounter Florissant, which offers the Fossil Beds National Monument, just south on County Road 1 – and a gas station. If you’d like to hike a bit or even stop at the visitor’s center and view some of the non-trail fossils and petrified trees, this is a worthwhile stop that you could give a half hour to a few hours, if you do the trails (for a nominal park fee of $3/person). Wildlife such as deer, birds, elk and foxes are commonly seen here; though more rarely experienced, a friend and I saw fresh bear tracks in the snow on one of the longer hiking trails in January this year.
After Florissant, open fields will dominate, and the white-capped Collegiate Mountains will soon be in sight, including Mount Princeton, Mount Yale, Mount Harvard and so forth. At this point you’ll especially notice that the lush, green pine layers hugging the road are replaced with wide, open fields, distant hills and even more distant mountains. Take time to look eastward and notice the west face of Pikes Peak (not recommended for the driver, of course!).
Just near the end of 24 before it merges with the north-south Highway 285, a don’t-blink-so-you-don’t-miss-it town is Hartsel that holds a notable white semi trailer labeled Dorothy’s Homemade Tamales, a gas station and the Bayou Salado Trading Post which advertises “Native American Art” and “Espresso” on its signage. Just before and after Hartsel, watch carefully for the regular buffalo herd that can be on either side of 24, right at the fence that meets the road or as far back as the river and distant hills.
Once 24 meets 285, wide, open spaces continue. Go right, and you’re on your way north to Leadville (beautiful, despite its metallic, dull implication). Go left, and you’re headed to Buena Vista and Salida. I’d suggest that you’re best served going to Buena Vista where the restaurants and other businesses may be few, but the sites and Colorado splendor continue. Turning south onto Highway 285 from Highway 24 will take you to a place that convinces its passer-bys that this truly IS Colorado – it even says so on the sign as you enter Chaffee County. But that’s another article. If you decide to head back to Colorado Springs, consider stopping for a highly-rated tamale at Dorothy’s trailer in Hartsel (I know locals who don’t miss this stop when in that neighborhood and visitors who couldn’t pass up seconds) or for a beverage and snack at Java the Hut or any of the various restaurants in Woodland Park. Highway 24 will not fade fast from your memory and will call you back again and again.
© 2002 Erika M. Schreck. All rights reserved.