If there are two major growth industries in Colorado right now, they are marijuana and music festivals. The scene has exploded, and many small towns are following the long-ago lead of places such as Telluride, Vail and Aspen by creating a calendar of events to draw visitors and boost their economies. Small-scale music events are easier to manage, and often are pitched to a specific crowd.
Additionally, a lot of these venues are out in the relative middle of nowhere, rocking a rootsy feel that has largely disappeared from the bigger, more mainstream Colorado music fests that draw thousands and overwhelm concert sites. These shows are for concert-goers who like to travel far, rough it and camp out. The raw, relaxed, improvised nature of the Colorado music scene can be felt at these places better than at many others. From polished small-stage gems to some tents in a field, here are some locales and events that deserve a visit, listed in order of scheduled upcoming events.
10. Mishawaka Amphitheatre
13714 Poudre Canyon Highway, Bellvue
It’s 23 miles west of Fort Collins up Poudre Canyon, but despite its isolation, the Mishawaka Amphitheatre has persisted since 1916. The intimate riverside venue is home to both acoustic and cutting-edge work from bands who are either on their way up, or who appeal to a specialized, dedicated crowd willing to make the journey. Dani Grant and Matt Hoeven are the current, savvy owners, who purchased it in 2010 from a premature potrepreneur who had to sell when he got caught with 280 pounds of merchandise on the property. Slated so far this season are groups such as Wookiefoot, Xavier Rudd and Face.
9. State Bridge
127 Trough Road, Bond 970-653-4444
statebridge.com Originally a stagecoach stop on the way to Steamboat Springs, the old State Bridge Lodge served as a speakeasy, an ice cream parlor and a commune before it burned to the ground in 2007. The new owners rebuilt and constructed an amphitheater, cabins and yurts. It’s 135 miles from Denver in north-central Colorado, which makes going to a show a reason to visit the area for a few days. Concert info is spotty; call for details.
8. Hideaway Park
78841 U.S. Highway 40, Winter Park
Winter Park is aggressively booking many events into this gorgeous venue, created in 2008. The long-running Jazz Festival is now joined here by the Thursday High Note Series and Leftover Salmon’s SolShine Festival, now in its sixth year. To date, the stage has been set up and torn down each summer. Now an ambitious new plan seeks to place a permanent stage there, along with year-round facilities.
6. A field
100 South Adams Boulevard, Westcliffe
The isolated town of Westcliffe, west of Pueblo, claims not one, but two unique venues. The Westcliffe Feed Store has been renovated completely by Garrett Carlson, and now holds a restaurant and apartments. Out back, a covered stage designed to look like an old mine shaft features concerts all summer long, with seating for 500. About a half-mile away, in the middle of a vacant lot, under tents, the High Mountain Hay Fever Bluegrass Festival will hold sway from July 7 through 10. Last year, 3,400 attended the twelfth annual event.
Read on for five more of Colorado's outdoor music venues worth the trek. 5. Alma, Colorado
At 10,578 feet above sea level, Alma is the highest incorporated municipality in the nation. The nineteenth annual Festival in the Clouds takes place July 16 and 17; the outdoor art and music festival usually hosts around 25 bands and forty artists each year. Given that the population’s only 300, the festival pretty much takes over the entire town – in a good way.
4. Side Yard, Gold Hill Inn
401 Main Street, Gold Hill (Boulder)
It’s exactly what it sounds like: a cute little space about the size of a playground. But it’s attached to the Gold Hill Inn, which has been around since 1872 and still serves great prix-fixe meals all summer long, as well as providing lodging and hosting for special events. The Yard has seen a number of stellar performances over the years, especially at annual events such as the upcoming Fourth of July Twang-Fest and barbecue, and the 27th annual Charles Sawtelle Mountain Jam on July 19, named for the late, great Hot Rize guitarist.
3. Challenger Golf Club
4905 County Road T, Crestone
Crestone, nestled up against the western flank of the Sangre de Christos, made a name for itself as a spiritual center; it's now home to a Carmelite monastery, a Zen center, a Hindu temple, and several new-age disciplines. “CrestFest,” set for August 14 through 16, has been going on for eighteen year, and always brings a wide-ranging, innovative selection of artists from around the world to play each year. In the past, artists such as Leon Russell, Edgar Winter, and Tower of Power have played here; this year, the headliners are the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The super-funkiest vibe of any festival on this list.
2. Jeff Guercio Memorial Ballfield
151 E Street, Nederland
Founded by “Michigan Mike” Torpie in 1996, NedFest outgrew its original home, Chipeta Park, rapidly, and has been staged on the Guercio ballfield ever since. It’s scheduled for August 26 through 28, and the lineup is always eclectic. This year it includes Taj Mahal, Paper Bird, and members of the String Cheese Incident. It’s just a ballfield (Idaho Springs’s Rapidgrass is staged on a similar one), but the small-town feeling is what makes the venue so pleasant.
1. Cottonwood Meadows
One mile west of Buena Vista on County Road 306
An as-yet-untested location. The inaugural Vertex Festival, slated for August 5 through 7, is an ambitious project that aims to create a complete festival experience from the ground up – a kind of pop-up, mountain Burning Man. There will be camping, a “village,” and a Creekside bazaar as well as music, set along a creek formerly occupied by tourist lodging and hot springs. The setting is breathtaking – but will the festival live up to its surroundings?
Other small festivals to keep an eye on: Palisade’s Bluegrass and Roots Festival; FIBArk (First in Boating on the Arkansas) in Salida; Rapidgrass in Idaho Springs; Meekerpalooza in Meeker; and the Golden Music Festival.
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Brad Weismann became an award-winning writer and editor after spending years as a comedian. He's written about everything from grand opera to movies for a diverse array of magazines, newspapers and websites worldwide.