Places: Bluff Park

By Elliot Jackson

The twin towns—hamlets, really—of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, nestled in the heart of the Wet Mountain Valley, boast a surprising amount of public park land. Each town boasts a town park or two with amenities ranging from playground equipment to ball fields to tennis courts. But for sheer, true enjoyment that is easy on both eye and foot, there is nothing like Bluff Park, a wide expanse of grass and walking paths at the end of Main Street on the west end of Westcliffe. Bluff Park offers not only a wide-open and easily-accessible space for strolling, dog walking, and kite or model airplane flying, but also a view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the floor of the Wet Mountain Valley—unencumbered by development and covered with fat, happy cattle grazing in the meadows watered by a series of ponds as well as Grape Creek—that is a must-see. The overworked adjective “stunning” would just about begin to cover it, if you mashed it flat and rolled it out thin enough.

Bluff Park in its current form represents a unique partnership between the town of Westcliffe, the San Isabel Land Trust, and Richard and Audrey Stermer, who own and operate the Rancher’s Roost grill and Cliff Lanes bowling alley, which stand just across the street from the park. The Stermers donated the Bluff Park lands to San Isabel in June 2014, with the view that it be preserved for the community. San Isabel Land Trust, in its turn, donated a conservation easement to Colorado Open Lands. The town of Westcliffe also owns and maintains some of the parklands as well as adjacent lots which all together add up to about 10 acres of space.

Photo by Elliot Jackson.

Thanks to the community spirit of the Stermers, and the collaboration between town and nonprofit organizations, Bluff Park is a monument to an ideal of development that includes—indeed, demands—open space, as well as dwelling and business space, in the Wet Mountain Valley. Thanks, too, must be given to the far-sightedness of the Custer County officials who, as long ago as 1971, recognized what a unique ecosystem and way of agricultural life the Valley floor represented. The county’s Zoning Resolution, passed nearly 50 years ago, limited subdivision on the Valley floor to lot sizes of no less than 80 acres, and is largely to thank for the fact that the view from Bluff Park to the foot of the Sangres still includes working farms and ranches, many of which still produce the hay for which the Valley is justly famed.

Bluff Park is a favored spot for gatherings from weddings to protests to festivals such as the Sangres Art Guild’s Arts Hullabaloo and the High Mountain Hay Fever, the bluegrass festival hosted by Dry Branch Fire Squad in July. These public festivals were, alas, sidelined this year because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Among the other attractive features of Bluff Park —also, sadly, closed because of COVID-19 restrictions —is the Smokey Jack Observatory. The observatory is named in honor of Suzanne B. “Smokey” Jack (1946-2004), who founded Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley. Dark Skies is dedicated to preserving the nightscape of the Wet Mountain Valley, which offers one of the most stunning—there’s that word again —views of the Milky Way to be found anywhere in the U.S., and indeed, anywhere in the world. Smokey Jack led the crusade for “night friendly” lighting for buildings throughout the towns and the unincorporated portions of Custer County. Her efforts, and the efforts of the Dark Skies membership, culminated in the designation of the Wet Mountain Valley as an official International Dark Skies site, the first such site to be honored in the continental U.S. The observatory, dedicated in 2015 and updated this year to include amphitheater seating, boasts not only one of the most powerful telescopes in the U.S., but also viewing pads for astronomers and aficionados to set up their own telescopes. In a normal year, enthusiasts would be able to attend a public Dark Skies viewing event, or contact a volunteer at www.darkskiescolorado.org/smokey-jack-observatory for a guided tour of the stars. But even though the observatory is closed, the stars and the seating remain for private delectation.

So, whether you are looking for a quiet spot to picnic, throw a frisbee, or simply refresh your spirit by lifting up your eyes unto the hills, make a point of seeking out Bluff Park if you are driving the Frontier Pathways Byway through Westcliffe. Grab a gourmet coffee at Peregrine Coffee Roasters (107 S. 7th Street, Westcliffe), or some delicious baked goods or breakfast sandwiches at Sugar and Spice Bakery (411 Main Street, Westcliffe), and come hang out at the Bluff!

GETTING THERE:

From Pueblo and points east, take Colo. Hwy. 96 West to Westcliffe. From Salida and points west, head east on U.S. Hwy. 50 and then take County Road 1A at Cotopaxi to Colo. Hwy. 69 South. Head west to the end of Main Street in Westcliffe. Parking is available at the site.

Elliot Jackson lives in Westcliffe, and can walk to The Bluff every day from work!

The Places column is sponsored by Mark Zander and Leslie Champ.