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Colorado's Chautauqua park a fine mix of learning and fun


BOULDER, Colo. -- In 1898, the West decided it was in need of a little culture.

So a bunch of Texans wandered up to Colorado and settled on a nice place at the edge of the Rocky Mountain foothills as a likely spot for a "summer institution of learning and entertainment."

They bought the land, put up rows of nice white tents, built a big wooden auditorium and invited traveling artists and lecturers. And people came to hear, carrying their guitars and suitcases and a thirst for new ideas.

Nearly 100 years later, new ideas and entertainment are as close as the nearest television or bookstore. But people still are coming to the little settlement on the edge of Boulder for %J relaxation, learning and just plain fun.

Perched on a hill, the 26-acre Chautauqua Park and community is a sort of summer camp for all ages, complete with a rustic campus among the wildflowers, gourmet food, glorious foothill scenery and hiking, concerts and lectures on everything from the Old West to wildlife, jazz and poetry.

The pace is slow. Families play Frisbee with their dogs on the quiet village green lined with wrought iron benches. Visitors take long walks or lie on the grass and read books. It's quiet.

First, though, you've got to pick some lodging. The white tents of 1898 are long gone, replaced with rows of winsome log cottages set on one-lane streets.

During the winter, the cottages, which range from efficiencies to sprawling three-bedroom places, are rented to students at the nearby University of Colorado. But during the summer, families take them over, some staying the whole season and coming back year after year. Make reservations for these well ahead.

For shorter stays, there's the Columbine or Wild Rose Lodge, offering private rooms with baths and some with kitchenettes. If you need HBO, ice machines and a telephone by the bed, these aren't for you. But there is a pay phone downstairs, and the beds are comfortable. And there's no better place to read the morning paper than on the big sunny front porch at Wild Rose Lodge.

Downstairs at Wild Rose there's a stone fireplace and a kitchen, where you can store and cook your own food if you're on a budget and don't want to eat at the Chautauqua Dining Hall.

But that would be a mistake. Though eating at the hall can get a little expensive for a long stay -- dinners start at about $10 and a big breakfast at about $5 -- the food is spectacular.

On other nights, popular artists, from Lyle Lovett to Bill Monroe, perform. Perhaps the best and cheapest entertainment is the weekly silent movies with lively piano accompaniment, shown in the cavernous auditorium.

A few steps from the auditorium is the Academic Hall, which houses a history room and archives about Chautauqua.

Once, more than 12,000 chautauquas existed nationwide, all named for an educational camp created in 1874 at Chautauqua Lake in New York. They offered remote rural residents a chance to hear the new ideas of the day.

Today only a few remain, including the Boulder Chautauqua, the only one west of the Mississippi to retain all its original buildings.

One of those is the 1918 Community House, a gathering place in which lectures take place each day. Topics range from mystery writing to the environment, jazz and water rights. Plenty of programs and hikes for children also are offered.

A Chautauqua resident of four days or more can buy a weekly activities pass for $7 ($4 for a child) which includes movies, all lectures and seminars and all adult and child activities. Short-term visitors must pay a small fee for the events. All visitors must buy tickets for the big-name and classical concerts at the auditorium.

Some of the best fun at Chautauqua, however, lies outside of camp, in the adjoining Flatiron foothills, where destinations such as Bluebell Canyon and the Arches beckon across a grassy field thick with beautiful pink sweet peas gone wild.

But flatlanders be forewarned: The air is thinner here at 5,400 feet, and the dry climate pulls water out of you like a sponge. So carry plenty of water, far more than you think you'll need, and don't exert yourself at first.

You'll find all the maps and information you need at the Chautauqua ranger's station, just a short walk from the dining hall.

But take the classifications of the hikes with a grain of salt. In this city in which bicycling and hiking are a combination of art form and nearly a religion, an "easy" walk is not the same as an easy walk at home, especially if you haven't climbed hills for a while.

For those who don't consider sweating a vacation, there are plenty of other options a short downhill walk or free trolley ride away in Boulder.

First, there's Boulder Creek, which runs right through the city. Just about any gas station in town will sell you an inner tube, and all you have to do is hop in and float along, taking in the scenery and dodging an occasional kayaker.

Or walk down Pearl Street, where the local street performers will keep you entertained -- one can tell you the town that goes with every ZIP code in the United States -- and you can buy everything from first-edition books to locally brewed beer, Russian borscht, Indian artwork and Teva sandals.

For more information, write to Colorado Chautauqua Association, Baseline Road, Boulder, Colo. 80302, or call the association at (303) 442-3282.

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