Features & Essays

Hidden Northern Colorado

From artisanal popsicles to famous cats, honkytonk bars to haute couture, we’ve rounded up NoCo’s weird and wonderful secrets—and we’re sharing.

I’VE CALLED FORT COLLINS HOME for more than 30 years, and as a writer with keen powers of observation and an eye for the quirky, I’ve got a pretty solid stash of great finds and NoCo intel. In fact, if there was a Fort Collins version of Jeopardy! I always thought I’d nail it. Then I talked with my good friend Cynthia, who happens to be the President and CEO of Visit Fort Collins. I shared the hidden gems I was rounding up and asked for her input. I thought she might have one, maybe two new items for me to add.

As we talked, she affirmed my list of local secrets, but managed to add some surprises. I knew about the Avenir Museum, right? And the new popsicle shop. And the watchmaker. And the black-footed ferret conservation center…

The way things keep growing around here, there’s always room for cool new discoveries. Read on for some of NoCo’s best “who knew?” finds.

EATS

Rebel Popcorn

Like the name implies, this little company knows there are no rules when it comes to creativity with popcorn flavors. It all started when four friends began sharing their gourmet popcorn at local farmer’s markets. In 2016, they opened a small tasting room in Scotch Pines shopping center, offering 200 gourmet flavors including blueberry scone, caramel latte, French toast, Thai coconut curry, white truffle black garlic and birthday cake. Some classics like the Chicago Mix (sea-salt caramel and cheddar cheese) are available all the time. Other choices, like Guinness Gracious and pumpkin cheesecake, are seasonal. Regardless of the time of year, stop by the tasting room—you’ll find dozens of delish samplesrebelpopcorn.com

The Daily Doughnut at The Farmhouse at Jessup Farm

Each day The Farmhouse restaurant offers a different creation of this ultimate comfort food. Don’t let the name fool you—even though it implies you only get one, each order includes two of the special doughnuts in heart-stopping flavors like tiramisu, passion fruit or lemon cheesecake with a cranberry-basil drizzle. And they’re not just for breakfast. Find these light and sweet cuties served hot at any hour. farmhousefc.com

Copocos Honey

Raw, natural honey is great in tea, on toast and especially in a hot toddy. But when that honey is fresh, local and part of a family business, it tastes even better. Copoco’s small storefront is located on the north edge of Fort Collins on Hwy 287 before it curves to head west, and carries a wide variety of their housemade honey flavors like raspberry, wildflower, cinnamon, lemon and S.A.S.ssy (sunflower, alfalfa and sage). To save a little money, bring in your own container to fill with honey from the five-gallon buckets. Don’t forget to pick up some lip balm or beeswax candles. Wannabe beekeepers can get supplies at the store, take a beekeeping class and even buy live bees to start your hive. copocoshoney.com

Revolution Artisan Pops

Looking for a delish treat after a bike ride along the Poudre River or hike to Grey Rock? Then head over to Revolution Artisan Pops for an artisanal popsicle (yes, it’s a thing). The tiny shop, sandwiched between Stuft Burger and Ncompass Real Estate on College Avenue, is easy to miss, so be on the lookout. The store itself is just a little wider than a single door, but worth it once you find it. The popsicle flavors rotate depending on what local ingredients are available, and the choices are divided into three categories: fruity, creamy and special. The fruity ones are more refreshing, the creamy ones like dark chocolate or orange creamsicle are more substantial, and the special flavors like peanut butter banana or beet lavender are, well, delightfully special. revolutionartisanpops.com

OUTDOORS

Soapstone Prairie

When the Devil’s Backbone parking lot overflows, and Horsetooth . . . well, let’s not even contemplate Horsetooth… just back it up nice and careful-like and point your car north to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. The 50-plus minute drive is a weed-out factor and even on a bluebird Saturday you’ll be hard pressed to find more than a handful of users on the trails of the 28-square-mile conservation area. This protected corridor linking the plains to the mountains is home to pronghorn antelope, elk, golden eagles, swift fox and burrow owls, as well as a growing herd of Yellowstone bison—but there’s plenty of room for you, too. Just remember to pack for a backcountry hike when you go. fc.gov/naturalareas

The Historic Fire Tower Top at Running Deer Natural Area

From one of the initial trailheads at either Prospect Road or near the Welcome Center, you may not feel as though you are getting away from it all. But keep going. The farther you walk on this easy trail, the more you get to enjoy the sounds of the birds and the breeze rustling through the trees. After about ten minutes, you will come upon the historic fire tower—or at least the top of it. The 14-by-14-foot structure used to sit atop a tower 23 miles west of Fort Collins and had more than 40 steep steps to get to the top. Now, there are only a few steps and it’s not high enough to spot anything except mule or whitetail deer wandering by. Signs share photos and the history of this once useful fire-spotting tower. The serene location, built in bench seats and covered space make it a perfect place to enjoy a picnic lunch or some quiet contemplation, but keep your dogs and bikes at home, because they’re not allowed on the trail. fcgov.com/naturalareas

Hidden Clues Trail at Coyote Ridge Natural Area

Sometimes it’s hard to get the kids psyched about a hike, but consider this interactive hike at Coyote Ridge. One mile into the trail is a cabin with a short loop trail lined with colorful interpretive signs designed for kids. The goal is to get them paying attention to the insects, animals and birds they might see in the area and learn a few fun facts as well. On the way to and from the cabin, encourage the kids to listen to the meadowlarks sing, the crickets chirp and the prairie dogs bark. The whole hike takes about an hour and the only restroom and shade is by the cabin, so be sure to bring water. fcgov.com/naturalareas

Never Summer Nordic Yurts

Need to get gone and feel gone? Head deep into the State Forest State Park. You’ll find 12 rustic yurts waiting as basecamp for hikers, bikers, x-c skiers and those just wanting to unplug. Is it roughing it? Nah, not really; just enough to make it fun. Each yurt is stocked with wood, basic kitchen supplies and beds (it’s BYO bedding) and an outhouse. Most have potable water stations or creeks nearby where you can get and boil the water you need. Check the equipment list for each location for more details before you head in, and note that some are accessible by car and others you need to hike, ski or snowshoe in. Oh, and dogs are welcome in the summer months, but only a few locations allow dogs during the winter. neversummernordic.com

Monthly Evening Campfire

We all like to imagine an evening under the stars, sitting around a crackling campfire while enjoying stories and s’mores, but making that happen is another story. The Fort Collins Natural Lands Department has your back—it hosts two fall Fireside Frights programs, where you learn what animals do at night while you sleep. The one at the Coyote Ridge Cabin requires a one-mile hike to and from the campfire so you will want to bring a flashlight. The program at Nix Farm is wheelchair accessible and visitors are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and blankets. fcgov.com/naturalareas

CURIOSITIES

Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising

You may think you have a big closet—but the CSU Avenir Museum collection has more than 20,000 pieces of clothing and textiles. Included in that is the largest publicly held collection of designs by Richard Blackwell (known for his annual best- and worst-dressed lists, starting in the 1960s). Since the pieces can’t all be out at one time, they are rotated through the three gallery spaces every few months in different exhibits. Admission is free for the community. Don’t miss the Fashioned by Faculty exhibit (August 25 through December 15), where four faculty members get the chance to share their award-winning, creative couture inspired by a variety of influences, including Asian textiles, pop culture, superheroes and digital printing. avenir.colostate.edu

Washing Machine Museum

Eighty-seven-year-old Lee Maxwell, a retired electrical engineering professor from CSU, fell in love with his first washing machine trip in 1985. From there it grew to something you must see to comprehend: Now, more than 1,400 restored machines fill two buildings totaling 12,000 square feet on his property next to Eaton Grove Nursery. His tour takes about two hours as he winds you through history and the neatly organized rows of machines, while detailing their ingenius designs. Listen carefully, or you’ll miss his witty one-liners. Maxwell only does tours for groups of at least ten and a donation of $75. So, gather your history-loving friends, and call or email to arrange your personalized tour. oldewash.com

Statue of Liberty Replicas

How many times have you walked by the small Statue of Liberty sculpture in City Park without giving it a second thought? There are actually four of these statues in Northern Colorado: the one in City Park, then statues in  Loveland, Estes Park and Greeley. We have the Boy Scouts to thank for these small symbols of patriotism. As part of their 40th anniversary celebration in 1950, nearly 200 of these Little Sisters of Liberty were made and placed in 39 states around the country. Over the past 60 years, some of the statues around the country have been destroyed or are falling apart, and there is a current movement to save the Liberty Sisters and make sure the rest remain in good condition for future generations to enjoy. facebook.com/Little.Liberty.Sisters

Colorado Model Railroad Museum

The large charcoal-grey building on the edge of downtown Greeley doesn’t look like much from the outside, but once you step inside you realize you have entered something amazing. The Museum houses the largest model train set in America that operates like a real railroad, complete with a dispatcher and volunteers who keep the numerous trains running. The mainline HO scale trains chug along the 1,300 feet of track through a handmade, three-dimensional display set in the mountains and valley towns below—it takes about 45 minutes for one engine to travel the entire track. In the tiny, to-scale towns there are scenes of daily life; find miniature people having a picnic, strolling the streets or in line to go to the local theater (which is playing Monty Python and the Holy Grail). The museum provides scavenger hunts with lists of items for you to find and a prize if you succeed. Hint: Even if you spend hours, you won’t see everything. cmrm.org

Totally ’80s Pizza and Museum

Sure, there’s pizza, but the highlight at this joint is the side of nostalgia served with it. Signed photos of ’80s icons like Weird Al Yankovic, Cyndi Lauper and Anthony Michael Hall line the walls, along with toys and memorabilia. A life-sized Michael Jackson statue, Hans Solo encased in carbonite and Pee-Wee Herman’s bicycle add to the appeal. Impress your kids by slaying it at Centipede, PacMan, Galaga or Frogger, all to the background music of awesome ’80s videos. totally80spizza.com

DRINKS

Soul Squared Brewery Beer CSA

The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) concept is no longer limited to veggies and fruit. Farm-based Soul Squared Brewery is extending it to beer. By joining their beer CSA, which is like a beer-of-the-month club, you get your share of an exclusive, limited-release beer only offered to members. A full share includes a dozen 22-ounce bombers each month. Members can pick up their share the second Saturday of every month at the farm, or at Craft Beer Cellar in Old Town. Upcoming batches include Fresh Hop IPA, Acorn Squash Amber Ale and Caramel Coffee Porter. soulsquaredbrewing.com

Swing Station

Bikers, cyclists, ranchers, academics—you’ll find them all mixing at this local watering hole. Swing Station, a.k.a. “LaPorte’s Finest Honkytonk,” draws a diverse crowd of dedicated regulars who come for the beer, darts, and the killer live music.  Insider tip: Swing Station sits just off the Poudre River bike trail, and if you ride your bike in you get $1 off your  beer. swingstationlaporte.com

Cocktails at Ace Gillett’s Lounge

Ace Gillett’s isn’t the kind of place packs of swaying college kids or random tourists wander in and out of—you’ve got to know where to look. Down the winding Art Deco staircase in the historic Armstrong Hotel, through the double doors, into the dark, buzzing den of a bar. Somehow, even in the harsh light of (modern) day, this underground hideaway maintains its lost-in-time retro jazz bar feel. The best way to experience it? A retro cocktail, like a sidecar, Negroni or old-fashioned. Drinks are clever, pours are generous, the live music tight, and the crowd is vibrant, varied and random. Insiders know to drop by for $5 sidecars during happy hour, which has a way of seducing you to grab a menu and some bites while you settle in for an evening of classic jazz. acegilletts.com

Paddler’s Pub

The way to this bar is literally off the beaten path—down a little dirt trail next to Mountain Whitewater Descents rafting company on the northwest edge of Fort Collins, This pub is perfect for those who like to enjoy their drinks outside, with fantastic views, hawks flying overhead and frogs croaking in the pond. The bar itself sits under a huge all-weather tent, where you can get pulls of local beer and cider. Grab a table outdoors or take your drink and wander over to the sand volleyball court or kids’ playground. Hungry? Food trucks frequent the joint, and live music on weekends adds to the laid-back vibe of this place. Open only May through September. raftmw.com/paddlers-pub

CRITTERS

Oreo the Cat

For more than a decade, Oreo the cat has been an icon at the historic Armstrong Hotel in Old Town. Originally brought to the hotel as a kitten to be a mouser, she is now the official greeter and can be found roaming the lobby, eating treats, relaxing in the downstairs offices or trying to sneak in the elevator to the guest floors (where she isn’t supposed to go). Oreo gained national notoriety in 2014 when she was catnapped from the lobby by an unidentified man and a security camera recorded the incident. A few days later she was found in an alley near the hotel. They never found the guy who took her, but the hotel owners, staff and community were glad to have her back home. Give her a wave when you walk by the lobby window, or check her out on Facebook under “Oreo Armstrong.”

Lucky Three Ranch Tour

Meredith Hodges has lived her life with fame as the daughter of “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, but she’s earned fame in her own right for her internationally acclaimed work with mules and donkeys. She was introduced to these animals while working at her mother’s ranch and developed a fondness for them. In 1980, Meredith bought a ranch of her own in Loveland and began breeding and training mules. Her mules have competed against horses and won world championships in jumping, dressage and combined training. The Lucky Star Ranch is a 127-acre working ranch and organic hay farm where Hodges continues her work. She offers personalized tours for all ages by appointment only—expect to meet Roll, an 18-hand Belgian draft mule, and the two miniature donkeys, Spuds and Augie, as well as a host of other four-legged characters. luckythreeranch.com

Black-Footed Ferret Exploration Event

When the last black footed ferret died in captivity in 1979, the species was declared extinct—but that all changed in 1981, when Lucille Hogg’s dog brought home a dead black-footed ferret (BFF) to her ranch in Meeteetse, Wyoming. Shortly after,  the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center (FCC) in Northern Colorado became BFFs to the BFF. There are six breeding facilities in the country, but the FCC is the largest, housing 60 to 70 percent of all BFFs in the breeding program. This facility is not open to the public, but the City of Fort Collins is hosting two special ferret-related events. The evening will start with a presentation about black-footed ferrets, followed by a hike to search for the elusive creature in the wild. Registration is required (fcgov.com/register) and participation is limited to protect the animals. Events run on September 14, 5:30–10:30 p.m. and October 4, 5:00–10:00 p.m. blackfootedferret.org

AROUND TOWN

Greyrock Cohousing Community

As millennials age into the real estate market, we expect so see them shunning expensive and isolated McMansions in favor of communities that express their values—green, friendly, walkable, with more efficient living space. That makes Greyrock, founded in 1996, a newly hot discovery. Neighbors know each other’s names, meals are shared weekly and chores on the ten acres of common property are divided up among all residents. Thirty energy-efficient townhomes are clustered on six acres with a playground and large grass area in the middle to gather and play. The remaining 10 acres includes open space to encourage the local owls, birds, foxes and deer to come visit, and there are garden plots and a chicken coop. The community house has a large commercial kitchen for cooking the big meals each week. greyrock.org

Fine and Funky

Why be open every day when five days a month is all you need? Fine and Funky, a boutique located on the main street in Timnath, is a fantastic place to shop for women’s clothing, jewelry and accessories. For limited days and times each month, the two-level store opens its doors to share fun West Coast fashions. What started out as a small jewelry kiosk at the mall has now gained a huge following of women who anticipate the limited open days each month, when they know they will find trends and ideas that have yet to reach the rest of the retail market around town. Visit the website to find out the current schedule. fineandfunkystore.com

Michael Bashkin, Guitar Maker

For Michael Bashkin’s journey to becoming a luthier (okay, we had to look it up too: a maker of stringed instruments) began with a trip to a guitar repair shop. He was there to get his instrument fixed and fell in love with the idea of making and repairing guitars. He began building guitars while he was a graduate student in the forestry department at Colorado State University. For the past 20 years, Bashkin has been a full-time luthier. That forestry degree wasn’t for nothing. His incredible knowledge of the types of wood, their grain patterns and the sounds each make contributes to the craftsmanship and artistry that goes into every acoustic guitar he creates. He shares his decades of experience on his podcast, Luthier on Luthier. bashkinguitars.com

Cozy Cottage

There is no end of delicious boutiques cropping up around us, but in the wake of the HGTV Fixer Upper frenzy, this one bears mentioning. With two locations (Loveland and FoCo), Cozy Cottage is a a whitewashed, farmhouse feast of eclectic decor, antique furniture, jewelry, candles, lotions, hand-mixed potpourri and even clothing. With each new season, the store rejuvenates with new displays and merchandise, and while the gorgeous displays may make you gasp, the prices won’t. facebook.com/shopcozycottage

Vortic Watch Company

You could think of it as a watch, but most think of a Vortic watch as a timeless heirloom that also happens to tell time. Each one begins with an old pocket watch that is no longer in its metal case and from there, traditional watchmaking techniques are combined with modern, metal 3-D printing technology to create a one-of-a kind watch that has its own story. Each watch comes in a wooden case, along with a certificate that gives you its history. vorticwatches.com

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