Head for the Hills and the Bucksnort Saloon, Colorado's Most Iconic Bar

Out on the Western frontier, the saloon played an important civic role. Whiskey (and, not incidentally, the threat  of a hanging) was key to the founding of Denver City on November 22, 1858, according to historian Tom Noel, who knows a thing or three about bars. In fact, the first Denver government was established in a saloon called the Apollo Hotel in what’s now Larimer Square. And today, deals political and otherwise continue to be hashed out in watering holes across the state.

Even so, it’s getting tougher and tougher to find a classic old-time bar in Colorado, as development swallows choice properties in both urban areas and the mountains. And the ones that remain often do not have an easy time of it.

This has not been a good summer for the Bucksnort Saloon, one of the most iconic bars in the state. The Bucksnort got its start shortly after the turn of the last century, when Lydia and Howard Newhouser ran the Sphinx Park Mercantile out of a circa 1919 wooden structure perched at 7,040 feet in the narrow canyon above Elk Creek. The store catered to railroad workers on the narrow-gauge Denver and South Park Railroad, which ran to Buena Vista, as well as miners who lived in the area and early vacationers trying to avoid the heat (and smell) of a Denver summer in rustic cabins that dotted the area of Pine and Sphinx Park. The spot has always been a community gathering place, and as the mercantile business trailed off in the ’50s, Pete Smaltz would host square-dancing events there. The store closed entirely in the ’60s, and the building turned into a venue for live performances and dances, then a full-fledged bar/restaurant. By the ’70s, it was known as the Bucksnort, reportedly because the then-owner’s dog was a noisy sleeper. Or maybe it was because of a certain decor item left by a rowdy patron.

Either way, the Bucksnort soon developed a national reputation as a must-stop in Colorado. If you can get there.

Scenic Elk Creek can be a barrier to reaching the Bucksnort.EXPAND
Scenic Elk Creek can be a barrier to reaching the Bucksnort.
courtesy the Bucksnort

There are only two routes to the Bucksnort, which is an hour southwest of Denver on a good day, and there have been very few good days this summer, since the Pine Grove Bridge closed for repairs in July. That leaves just one way to reach the bar at 15921 Elk Creek Road, off 285. Unless, of course, you do what two faithful fans did a few weeks ago: park your car by the side of the construction project and just wade in.

People will go to great lengths for the Bucksnort.

That’s certainly been true for Galina Bye, who bought the place with her now ex-husband, Joe Bye, twenty years ago, in March 1997.

She’d never really intended to run a bar. A native of Ukraine, Galina had moved to New York in 1981 when she was eighteen to join a brother who already lived there. She landed a job at the Long Island Transportation Authority and met and married musician Joe Bye. Galina was musical, too, and after they moved to Colorado in 1992, they played around the Denver area. One night they decided to head to this place in the mountains that they’d heard about from friends. They turned off 285 onto Elk Creek Road, but thought, “Nothing can be here,” she remembers, “so we turned around, right before that last turn. We got lost, almost fell off the cliff, then wound up there as the band was finishing up.” Joe had a guitar in the car and began playing.

“Wow, what a cool place,” Galina remembers thinking, which is almost exactly what anyone else who’s ever seen the place thinks. But none of those people buy it. The Byes did, after the couple learned from then-owner Jack Hargiss that the place was for sale. “It was sort of a mistake,” Galina admits. “We had no idea how much work it would be.”

Inside the Bucksnort: burgers, beers and bucks.
Inside the Bucksnort: burgers, beers and bucks.
Courtesy of the Bucksnort Saloon

And the workload didn’t lessen after the couple divorced. Galina was running the Bucksnort on her own, with the help of their three kids, when her art career started taking off. She’d been painting since she’d taken a class with a Russian impressionist, and began showing her work in Evergreen, where she lives; she even had an exhibit at the Center for the Arts. Deciding to focus on her art, she put the two-room, 2,000-square-foot Bucksnort and three rustic cabins also on the property on the market for $595,000 a year ago.

But during the winter, when she went to Mexico for an arts residency, she realized that she might be able to balance the bar with an art career, especially since the place is only open on weekends in the winter (and closed altogether during much of January). “I figured, it’s a seasonal business, and I have a half a year to myself to pursue art,” she says. Besides, she adds, “I found it would be hard to let it go.”

And besides that, she never got a great offer for what's definitely a great place, even if it can be a challenging spot to run.

Lately Galina has had more time than she’d like to work on her art, since construction kept some of the crowds away. “My summer was kind of diminished,” she admits.

Galina Bye paints when she's not running the Bucksnort.EXPAND
Galina Bye paints when she's not running the Bucksnort.
Galina Bye

But the Bucksnort stands as proud as ever, a true Colorado icon with a big patio overlooking the creek, plenty of rustic accoutrements inside, and walls and ceilings covered with dollar bills left by patrons. Galina estimates the current display at between five and eight thousand dollars. “The ambience is very interesting,” she says. “It’s an experience. Not just a bar and restaurant — it’s a human experience.”

An experience that has been featured in guidebooks and on TV shows around the world. “I don’t even advertise; it’s all word of mouth,” Galina says. “One woman even told me she drove to Colorado from Kansas, and at a gas station someone told her she had to go to the Bucksnort when she was in Colorado.” She did.

At the Bucksnort, it’s not required that you put a dollar on the wall, but you should definitely have a beer — maybe an Antler Ale, made by the Breckenridge Brewery — and get a Buck Burger, a half-pound monster made with local grass-fed beef. Or a Forest Fire, named after the wildfires that have threatened the Bucksnort before, topped with jalapeño cream cheese. Then sit back, listen to live music, and soak up the atmosphere. And a few more beers.

You couldn’t find a better Labor Day getaway, and the bridge might even be open by then (call 303-383-0284 or check the Bucksnort Facebook page to make sure). But even if you have to wade across the creek, a visit to the Bucksnort is nothing to sneeze at.

What do you consider Colorado's most iconic bar? Email your suggestions to cafe@westword.com, or post a comment.

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