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There's magic in the mountains at Red Feather Lakes

June 25, 2017 Updated: June 29, 2017 at 6:54 pm
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A giant sign on Red Feather Lakes Road directs visitors to Red Feather Lakes Village Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

RED FEATHER LAKES - Main street, as the locals know it, is a gravel lot where a three-legged dog hobbles.

He wanders by the Ace Hardware, a new, strange addition to this mountain village where major commercial names are as rare as cell reception. If the dog has patrolled here over the years, then he's more acquainted with the trading post, the lumber store, the auto body shop, the coffee shop and the post office, where business is business as usual on cloudy days like this before summer. Slow.

The man behind the office counter is Ross Reid, a true, tall mountain man with a booming voice, hard hands and a big belt buckle. He has stories handed down from his great grandfather, a blacksmith who was among Red Feather's first residents before it was even Red Feather. It was unnamed, unspoiled land that a businessman from Fort Collins foresaw as a tourist attraction.

I want to know how Reid has seen it since 1956, when he was born. I'm told he knows this village as well as anyone, which makes him chortle deeply. "Yes," he says, "it's weird turning into the old-timer."

Endless possibilities

Many things are the same, Reid says, such as those pearly lakes spotting the village, the woods of pine and aspen and sprawling granite outcrops, the frosty Mummy Range rolling beyond.

One of the valley's pioneers had a daughter named Amanda who wrote of images that remain: the yellow buttercups and blue iris, the multi-colored anemone and bushels of raspberries, the free-roaming elk and sheep. "Our new home was a paradise in the summer," Amanda wrote.

Three-year-old Hendrik Oberhamer pauses along the shore of Hiawatha Lake in April while looking for crayfish near Red Feather Lakes Village.  

A book by the village historical society alludes to people who have grown familiar with the unincorporated place in northern Colorado, nestled almost 8,000 feet high in the Roosevelt National Forest and reached by dirt roads weaving through the cabin-dotted foothills. Residents and visitors alike, the book says, "simply have that feeling. 'This is the place.'"

It is indeed an enchanting place, complete with the path known as "Elf Lane" or "Gnome Road," where mystical figurines reside in the trees. Deeper in the wilderness is the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, the palace-like tower of meditation that soars 108 feet as part of a spiritual retreat center.

Red Feather Lakes inspires endless possibilities. Always, serenity and outdoor adventure have been sought here. And always, there's been a money-grabbing prerogative.

"The other day I was riding my bike and came up to the golf course," Reid says from the post office, referring to the Golf Club at Fox Acres, reserved for a gated community. He laughs again. "I wondered why anyone would want to mow grass there."

On the property once sat a silver fox farm. Planners in the 1920s thought the fur business would be a good tourist attraction. During that decade, newspapers in Fort Collins were reporting bustle in the high country to the west: Truckloads of furniture and lumber were heading that way, as lodges and campgrounds were being developed. Also around then, the village was named for Princess Tsianina Redfeather, a Native American singer trained in Denver who entertained World War I soldiers in France and Germany.

Electricity came. More summer homes sprouted. Tourism managed to keep the village up through another world war. And later, through the 1970s, came two large housing developments - occupying land where some village people recall searching for arrowheads and antlers as youngsters.

A collection of stores and a post office along "Main Street" in Red Feather Lakes Village Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

The development in the '70s first brought Jimmy Miller to Red Feather Lakes. His dad helped build those homes, he says at the library, which acts as the village center of sorts.

He's discussing change with Debra Hawkins, another self-described old-timer whose family bought a cabin here 55 years ago. "We don't want to be Estes Park," she says. "A lot of people talk about that."

But change is inevitable, she and Miller agree. He works as a handyman at Beaver Meadows Resort Ranch, offering year-round fun for visitors. The resort, and others like it in the area, contribute well to the village economy, he acknowledges.

Still, Miller worries about commercial consumption of the land he came to know as sacred.

"There's a lot of magic in these mountains," he says.

Busy days ahead

He and Hawkins reminisce about their early days and the school buses coming to the village with wide-eyed kids from Fort Collins. "It was funny," Miller says. "The flat-landers thinking they know what the mountains are about."

They share the pride of staying in the hilly village through the winter. "Ice-in to ice-out" might as well be on badges of honor for those who call Red Feather Lakes their permanent home - roughly 500, according to the last census. "I still think they counted the dogs," Hawkins jokes.

A man stands on a rocky peninsula to fly fish at Parvin Lake Tuesday, April 11, 2017, near Red Feather Lakes Village. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

Red Feather Lakes is still small, still quiet. That's what Reid reminds himself when change becomes frustrating. "The feel of the place hasn't changed that much," he says. "Not too much."

But the village is expected to teem with more people than ever this summer - the trend as the years go on. Residents wonder about the demand, what that could mean for their home.

If they look to history, they know the concern is everlasting. "Old-timers are passing away fast," wrote the daughter of that 19th-century pioneer later in her life. "[W]here there were cow trails, there are now highways and cars. Everything has changed except the beautiful old mountains, the bright sunshine and the blessings of God."

The sun finally breaks through the clouds on this day. Light dances on the lake behind main street. And a hobbling dog makes his way to the water, finding a perfect place to rest.

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Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

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