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Publication: Sunset
Author: Mishev, Dina
Date published: June 1, 2011

Day trip

Walden, CO

Why go now: The snow has finally melted, leaving the high peaks and deserted trails in a spray of wildflowers. And while crowds swarm Rocky Mountain National Park to the southeast, a day of alpine hiking, good food, and funky shopping awaits in and around this under-theradar town. Where the heck is it? In the center of North Park, a fertile valley ringed by pine forests and snowcapped mountains between Fort Collins and Steamboat Springs. Elevation: 8,100 feet Town population: Less than 1,000 Moose population: About 600 in North Park, the mooseviewing capital of CO. Real-deal wranglers: Walden's Old West vibe comes from the ranchers and cowboys who stock up on supplies in town before hitting the annual Never Summer Rodeo (Jun 25-26; $8; Jackson County fairgrounds). Dress code: Carhartt pants or Wranglers with cowboy boots. Hollywood connection: Um, none. But with a perfect-for-people-watching, four-block Main Street, no one minds that the nearest movie theater is Go-some miles away. Stretch out: North Park is about 1,600 square miles; that's nearly a square mile for every local.

1. Take a hike that'll wow you

The 4- to 6-mile round-trip Ruby Jewel Lake Trail, 20 miles east of town in State Forest State Park, has the same jaw-dropping scenery as nearby Rocky Mountain, but no sign of the hordes. Walk up the ridge, past rosy-colored talus rock fields (where "Ruby" is said to come from), and get ready for knockout views of a small lake beneath 12,954-foot Clark Peak. Snow on the trails can last through the month, so hit the Moose Visitor Center for updates. $7/vehicie; 56750 State 14, Gould; parlu.state.co.us

2. Throwback shopping

In town, warm weather means Hoopla can hoist the massive sliding front door to show off its vintage wares, much of it salvaged from local ranches: roller skates, Austrian china, costume jewelry, hat boxes, furniture, tulle and lace dresses, and even animal pelts (from a local trapper), saddles, and branding irons. MEN, IT'S NOT so PRISSY IN THE BACK, a sign at the front honestly promises. 421 Main St.; 370/819-4050.

Make it an overnight

Adjoining sister hotels the Antlers Inn and the Majestic Suites are cozy spots to camp out on Main Street. Look for fluffy sheets and towels, granite-tiled bathrooms, hand-hewn log beam accents, and a parlor with a fireplace that's roaring even in June, from i73; waldenantlersinn.com

3. The town art hub

Four local artists run Green Otter Gallery, where kids will love painter Karen Miller's Worth Park ABC's book ("A" is for antelope, of course), and adults will love the paintings, pottery, and wooden frames. Look for horse paintings by artist/ equine trainer Peg Brocker; her brush does the animals justice. 454 Main St.; 370/723-3323.

Getting to Walden

Gas up in Fort Collins, then take State 14 west. Even though it's only 101 miles to Waiden, allow 3 hours for the twisty, scenic drive.

INFO waidenchamber.com

4. Play in a giant sandbox

East Sand Dunes Natural Area, 12 miles from town, stretches from the valley to a forested mountain base like a massive beach. It's a s-mile one-way hike to the rolling dunes where you can play - they're easier to tromp than those at Great Sand Dunes National Park and ATV-free. 56750 State 74, Gouid; parlts.state.co.us

THE BESTGRUB AT 8,100 FEET

ALFRESCO LUNCH

Grab a table on the front sundeck at Moose Creek Café and introduce your taste buds to the Wild One Burger, a mellow mix of elk, beef, and pork served on a pretzel roll. The deck is right on Main Street, which makes for good people-watching. $; 508 Main St.; 970/723-8272.

WHERE THE LOCALS HANG

We love a bowling alley that doubles as a restaurant, and the folks here feel the same way about Paradise Lanes. Try the Paradise Sandwichham, home-roasted beef, green chiles, and cheddar and jack cheese in a grilled flour tortilla - before snagging a pool table or one of the six lanes. J; closed Sun; 688 Main St.; 970/723-8676.

BY THE FIREPLACE

The River Rock Café is the fanciest place in town, with a massive river rock fireplace and antler chandeliers. After your steak or fish, you have to try the carrot cake, which they make from scratch using an 8o-year-old recipe. It has the perfect cake-to-icing ratio and more carroty goodness than most. $$; 460 .Main St.; 970/723-4670.

SHARE YOUR WEEKEND FINDS. Favorite hiking discovery? Email your suggestions to the weekend guide editor at wgeditor@sunset.com

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