Down the Road: The Wild West town of Yampa
Editor’s note: This is the final stop of a four-part series exploring the hidden gems when you head down the road in Routt County.
YAMPA — Remnants of the Wild West still exist, and the town of Yampa is proof.
Every time I visit — which, as a frequenter of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, is quite often — I half-expect Clint Eastwood to step out squinting from behind one of the false-fronted buildings along Main Street and challenge me to a gunfight.
Spaghetti-Western allusions aside, residents take pride in the area’s homestead heritage, the outdoor recreation and the small-town intimacy.
It is the kind of town where you are more likely to see a U.S. Forest Ranger than a sheriff’s deputy.
While the residents may be few, the sights are plenty. Nearby lakes and reservoirs provide scenic locations for a fishing trip, which may be the perfect way to celebrate Father’s Day.
Below is a list of activities and eateries to make the most of your next visit.
Where to eat and drink
Technically, the Causeway Cafe is in the unincorporated community of Phippsburg about 6 miles down the road toward Steamboat. But the quaint breakfast and lunch spot, the Causeway Cafe, deserves a mention as well as a visit.
Owner Tara Wernig just re-opened the business in May after the previous owners, Anita and Robert Hawkins, decided to retire. She worked previously as a manager for Winona’s Restaurant & Bakery in Steamboat, so she knows a thing or two about baking.
She hand-makes all of the focaccia bread that goes into the sandwiches, as well as the baked goodies. Her rotating assortment of scones, from the classic lemon poppyseed to the more experimental cherry almond pistachio, tend to be the favorites.
If you can’t find the place, look for the U.S. Post Office that shares the same building. In addition to being a convenient way to check her P.O. box, Wernig said having such close a neighbor brings other benefits.
“A lot of people come to the cafe when they get their mail,” she said.
Antlers Bar and Grill
A large, white building at the corner of Main Street, the Antlers Bar and Grill, is hard to miss. In Wild West fashion, a zoo of mounts and ranch antiques adorn the walls.
By 7 p.m. on Thursday, a throng of people filled the restaurant, most of them locals greeting one another and recounting the calving season or flooding in pastures.
Spencer Harden, chef and co-owner of the restaurant, moved to Yampa from Louisiana about three years ago. Before then, he cooked Cajun fare for restaurants owned by Marriot. Some of that Southern influence crossed the border and made its way into the Antler’s kitchen.
Take, for example, the brunch he offers on Sundays. The menu features New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp and grits, or a fried chicken plate for the truly indulgent. The restaurant is offering specials for this weekend’s brunch to celebrate Father’s Day.
Harden bought the place partly to have more freedom with what he cooks. For that reason, he changes up the dinner menu a few times a year. Some of the options may surprise visitors to such a small town.
Coconut curry mussels are on the appetizer list. As an entrée, I ordered a red snapper served over black beans and rice. A green, roasted poblano corn sauce gave a creamy balance to the char on the fish.
Those creative dishes sit alongside the more traditional staples, namely the chicken-fried steak that arrived at most of the tables on Thursday night.
Another dish that Harden said will always stay on the menu is the lamb pot pie, which uses meat from his own herd of sheep.
Whether you want an afternoon milkshake or a 3 a.m. stack of pancakes, Penny’s Diner will keep its doors open for you. It is the only restaurant open 24 hours in Yampa.
Operating under a contract with the Union Pacific Railroad, the diner and attached hotel were built to serve the rail workers who do not follow the 9-to-5 workweek.
Owner Vella Smith has only had the place since December — she moved from Wyoming to follow her husband’s railroad job — but already she is happy with her decision.
“It has been the best thing that’s happened to me,” she said.
Staffing a 24/7 restaurant in such a small town can be difficult, she admitted, but a few loyal employees have made it possible.
Kathy Foos, who was flipping eggs and hash browns on Wednesday, has worked at the diner since it opened in 2001. She recommended the breakfast burrito with green chili.
Built in 1890, Montgomery’s General Mercantile is one of the oldest buildings in town.
Behind the counter is Ken Montgomery, a slow-talking man who has lived in Yampa most his life and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. He claims his store is one of three remaining, and authentic, general stores in Colorado.
The shelves offer everything from hunting rifles to candy bars to plumbing supplies. He uses the original cash register, a large, silver contraption that rounds up customers’ totals like a slot machine.
As he rang up an order of sausages on an antique adding machine, I felt as if I was watching a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
Montgomery’s father bought the business in 1947, and he hopes to pass it along to his daughter when she gets older.
Where to play
Stagecoach State Park
This time of year, the place near Yampa with the least snow and mud on the trails is Stagecoach State Park. Fishermen can cast for trout, pike and walleye in the 820-acre reservoir, which also has hiking trails for those who don’t want to drop in a line.
Campsites dot the lakeside that can accommodate tents, trailers and motor homes. The reservoir is now open for boating, and boat rentals are available for people who don’t have their own.
Flat Tops Wilderness Area
Yampa does not take its reputation as the “Gateway to the Flat Tops” lightly. When I wrote about Oak Creek in May, I attributed that town with the same accolade. Ken Montgomery, who as I said is not afraid to speak his mind, called me the next day to correct my mistake.
And for good reason. For many visitors, the Flat Tops Wilderness Area is the main reason they come to town. The Routt National Forest boundary is just 7 miles from town down Routt County Road 7, which turns to Forest Road 900 at the forest boundary. From there, it’s only another 10 miles to the end of the road and Stillwater Reservoir.
Most hikers know the reservoir better as the trailhead to arguably the most popular hike in the area, the Devil’s Causeway. The crux of the trail is a 50-foot land bridge that gets as narrow as 3 feet, with cliffs on either side.
Unfortunately for thrill seekers — but fortunately for their mothers — the Devil’s Causeway, along with most of the nearby trails, still have snow on them. A longer winter, with snow storms as late as May, has postponed access to recreation areas all across Routt County.
For that reason, Amber Cramer, a visitor information representative with the Yampa Ranger District, did not recommend people venture off the road unless they have skis with them. She has had to give that advice a lot in recent weeks.
“Every other phone call is people asking about the conditions,” she said.
Outdoor options still remain. Cramer recommended Smith Lake, about a half-mile hike from the forest road through spruce and fir trees. People can also fish at the lake, an activity that seems to be the most popular in the area this time of year.
Yamcolo Reservoir and Bear River Reservoir are just off the forest road and saw the most visitors on Wednesday. People were camped in trailers in some of the designated dispersed campsites overlooking the water.
Two men, John Crawford and Roy Zimmerman are Front Range residents who have made a tradition of their fishing trips to the Flat Tops. The grey-haired men, decked with an SUV-full of fishing gear, were celebrating their 20th visit this week.
“It’s a rough job being retired, but somebody’s got to do it,” Zimmerman said jokingly.
The longtime friends prefer to come this time of year because the lakes have not been restocked yet, so the fish tend to be larger and hungrier.
“That way we don’t end up catching a thousand 6-inch fish,” Crawford said.
They caught an equal number of brown and rainbow trout, which make a quintessential campfire meal stuffed with some butter and wrapped in tin foil.
Later in the season, Hooper and Keener lakes on the southeast side of Stillwater Reservoir are home to some bright-colored, plump cutthroat trout — also a tasty campfire entree.
And that’s a wrap. This was the last installment of the Down the Road series, exploring the towns in Routt County outside of Steamboat. For a complete tour of the area, read the articles on Oak Creek, Hayden and North Routt.
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