The Best of the Mountain West 2022

The Best of the Mountain West 2022


Our third annual celebration of the people, places, and things changing the way we live for the better—from a megasculpture in the Nevada desert to a riverside wine region in Idaho to a Montana bison preserve recently returned to Indigenous control.


ADVENTURE

Photo by Whit Richardson

The Raptor Route

Utah
One of the more challenging—some might say punishing—aspects of the Whole Enchilada, Moab’s legendary 26.5-mile singletrack from Burro Pass to the Colorado River, has traditionally been its finish. After already descending thousands of vertical feet across technical terrain, mountain bikers confront the Porcupine Rim, whose drop-offs and rock features have claimed countless collarbones—and even lives. But now there’s a more forgiving option. The Raptor Route’s 10 miles of new singletrack allow riders to skip the double black diamond descent on Porcupine Rim in favor of a more intermediate, flowy trail. Two of the Raptor Route’s stages, called Eagle Eye and Falcon Flow, debuted over the past two years, and a third segment, Hawks Glide, was slated to open in November. (A fourth segment, Kestrel Run, has also been proposed and is currently undergoing an environmental review.) Riders are already loving this alternate ending, which takes them through the slickrock of the Sand Flats Recreation Area. Their unbruised bodies and bikes are probably loving it, too. —Chris Walker

Wind River Rally

Wyoming
For the nomadic community, home is where you park it, and over four days in June, that was the tiny hamlet of Hudson for more than 120 camper vehicles. Souped-up custom vans, vintage Volkswagen buses with pop-up tents, and skoolies (converted school buses) descended on the mountain-nestled Wind River Country for the inaugural Wind River Rally. The gathering—which featured live music, gear swaps, performances by a traveling circus family, morning yoga sessions, and fresh ink from mobile tattoo artist Chris Montes—is slated to return in August. That’s good news for van lifers and overlanding enthusiasts and even better news for area businesses such as Svilar’s Bar & Steakhouse and Wyoming Whiskey. Local outfitters also got an economic boost by hosting add-on adventures like hot air balloon rides, guided rock climbing, bighorn sheep viewing, and historical mine tours. —Karyna Balch

The I. B. Perrine Bridge

Photo courtesy of Tandem BASE

Idaho
A year ago, MSN named this 1,500-foot truss arch bridge, which extends across the Snake River in Twin Falls, Idaho’s most terrifying attraction. That’s not because it’s structurally unsound, but because it’s open for BASE jumping, a pursuit in which parachute-clad thrill-seekers leap from high perches (per the name: buildings, antennae, spans, and earth). At 486 feet above the water’s surface, the Perrine is among the tallest bridges in the United States and the only man-made structure in the country where you can BASE jump year-round without a permit. That doesn’t mean just anyone should try it, of course, which is why local outfitters offer visitors the opportunity to take the plunge while strapped to certified instructors. Jumps with 13-year-old Tandem BASE and BASE Jump The Bridge, which opened in June 2021, include social-media-ready videos of your experience. If that still sounds too terrifying, you can spectate and take in gorgeous canyon views from the bridge’s pedestrian lanes instead. —JL


FOOD

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Natalie Young

Photo courtesy of Angie Ortaliza Photography

Nevada
About 2.5 miles from the extravagance of the Las Vegas Strip sits chef Natalie Young’s breakfast and lunch joint, Eat. Like its no-frills name, the restaurant’s menu is light on adjectives, with options such as “shrimp and grits” and “chicken salad.” But sample the homemade sourdough bread and aged cheddar that make up the grilled cheese or the Parmesan-rind-infused tomato soup and you’ll taste their creator’s dedication to fine-cooking techniques. “I keep it simple and approachable,” says 59-year-old Young, who was trained by a classical French chef at the Paris Las Vegas casino. Her food’s subtle depth is a big part of the reason why the restaurant is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year—an extraordinary tenure for a low-key, alcohol- and smoke-free eatery in a town full of glitzy, celebrity-chef dining destinations. Young says she still feels gratitude for each pancake- and Reuben-ordering patron: “Every person that makes their way over to my little restaurant makes me feel blessed.” —Courtney Holden

Don Guerra

Photo by Rebecca Noble

Arizona
“Bread is just flour, water, and salt, but all over the world, you have millions of representations of those ingredients,” says Tucson’s Don Guerra, who won the 2022 James Beard Foundation Award for outstanding baker. “Bread is about the artisan.” For Guerra, that means showcasing the heritage and ancient grains he’s worked closely with area farmers to bring back to their fields over the past decade. The varieties, dense with flavor and nutrients, are what was grown before maximum-yield, hybrid wheat became ubiquitous in the mid-20th century. Patrons flock to his Barrio Bread bakery for loaves of Sonoran white, Khorasan, red fife, and einkorn, a primitive wheat that’s naturally low in gluten and has notes of roasted corn and coffee. You can also taste his work in the tortas at Barrio Charro and the pizza at the Monica, both of which he’s partnered with as part of his mission to create a sustainable local grain economy. “The way to do that is to engage farmers and then use up all the grain that’s planted for food,” Guerra says. “It’s about creating jobs and agricultural opportunities, but it’s also about feeding my people.” —JL

Coelette

Wyoming
Coelette stands out in Jackson’s star-studded culinary scene by aiming high—6,000 feet high, to be exact. That’s the minimum elevation for the vast majority of ingredients used in the restaurant’s self-described “snowline cuisine,” which draws inspiration from high-country cultures such as those in Japan, Peru, and the Himalayas. Sam Dawson and Drew Madison, former sous chefs at two-year-old Coelette who took over the head chef duties in August, use pickling, lacto-fermentation, and preserves to extend seasonal produce year-round. Rotating dishes primarily feature goods from local farms, with a few far-flung surprises: Diners might sample poached beef with horseradish skyr (Icelandic yogurt) or a whole snow trout raised in an aquaculture system in Hokkaido, Japan. The cozy dining room is located in a restored 1915 log cabin while the bar—which slings cocktails such as a mezcal-and-brandy hot chocolate with marshmallow foam—is housed in a new, wood-paneled addition. This summer, diners will be able to embrace the high-elevation concept even more literally when Coelette’s rooftop deck opens. —Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan


LODGING

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Armendaris

Photo courtesy of Deann McBride

New Mexico
From rare Bolson tortoises to the discovery site of the Sierraceratops turneri dinosaur to one of the largest populations of Mexican free-tailed bats in the United States, this nearly two-month-old addition to Ted Turner’s portfolio of guest ranches in New Mexico offers plenty of unique reasons to visit. But the most exclusive aspect of staying at 362,885-acre Armendaris might be the fact that visitors are welcomed into the private residence of the billionaire media mogul and conservationist himself. The four-bedroom hacienda, which has been featured in Architectural Digest, comes complete with replicas of Turner’s museum-worthy art collection, a private chef, and a housekeeping staff. Guided activities—such as nature photography workshops, petroglyph tours, and wildlife safaris to see bison, African oryx (large antelopes introduced nearby for big-game hunting around 1970), and desert bighorn sheep—are once-in-a-lifetime experiences that are also included. That’s a good thing because a stay rings in at what would be, for most of us, a once-in-a-lifetime cost of $7,600 to $9,600 per night. —JL

The Virginian Lodge

Photo courtesy of Travis Burke

Wyoming
We have at least one good thing to thank the COVID-19 pandemic for: the resurgence of the great American motor lodge. Leery of crowded lobbies and sharing elevators with strangers, travelers found rooms with drive-up access particularly attractive—leading to investments in classic properties such as Jackson’s Virginian Lodge. Originally opened in 1965, this past January the 165-room property debuted an extensive multiyear renovation that merged Western and midcentury modern design elements into a travel influencer’s dream. The courtyard’s pool, two hot tubs, and fire pits are open year-round, and in the winter, skiers returning from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort on the complimentary shuttle can après there or in the on-site saloon, which kept its original sign. Meanwhile, the adjacent Outbound Adventure Center, operated by Backcountry Safaris and JH Skis, has everything guests need (including stand-up paddleboards, e-bikes, and guided fly-fishing, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting) to explore Jackson’s most timeless amenity: the great outdoors. —JL

The Gravel House

Arizona
When Heidi Rentz Ault and Zander Ault first visited Patagonia, a small town 18 miles north of the Mexico border, in 2015, they quickly realized they’d stumbled onto a gravel biking paradise. The then nascent cycling discipline steers riders off pavement and onto wider, less obstacle-laden trails than mountain biking singletrack, and the couple has since tapped into the fast-growing sport via a variety of ventures. In Patagonia, they hold gravel camps through their guide company, the Cyclist’s Menu; they launched the annual Spirit World 100 ride in 2019; they run Patagonia Lumber Company, a cafe and bar; and they converted two homes into Instagram-worthy Airbnb destinations in 2020. Their two-wheeled empire is built on the San Rafael Valley’s 100-plus miles of gravel roads, which wind between the Santa Rita and Huachuca mountain ranges that rise dramatically from the desert floor. In early 2023, the duo plan to expand their lodging offerings, all under the Gravel House moniker, to include a nine-room hotel in town—meaning even more people will be able to discover this gravel riding mecca. —JL


ART

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“City”

Nevada
Area 51 isn’t the only mysterious locale tucked away in the Nevada desert. For more than 50 years, large-scale sculpture artist Michael Heizer has been building “City,” a mile-and-a-half-long installation within Basin and Range National Monument composed of dirt, rock, and concrete. The project, which opened to the public in September, is reminiscent of ancient ruins while simultaneously evoking a futuristic metropolis. Actually seeing Heizer’s monumental work might be as difficult as spotting a UFO, though: Only six people (who are picked up in the nearby town of Alamo, nearly 100 miles north of Las Vegas) are allowed to visit each day. Heizer, 78, hopes the exclusivity will allow viewers to be fully immersed in the structure’s eerie geometry and shifting shadows instead of theme-park-esque crowds. Booking for 2022 has already closed, but the Triple Aught Foundation, which manages “City,” will resume accepting reservations ($150 per person) for 2023 in January. —Barbara Urzua

The University of Arizona Museum of Art

Photo courtesy of Bob Demers, University of Arizona

Arizona
The day after Thanksgiving in 1985, a couple entered the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The woman distracted a guard while the man went upstairs, and less than 10 minutes later, they left with Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre,” the canvas having been crudely sheared from its frame. The whereabouts of the abstract expressionist’s work remained a mystery for more than three decades. Then, in 2017, it turned up at the New Mexico estate sale of the deceased presumed thieves: schoolteachers who had hung it in their bedroom, where the piece was obscured by the door anytime it was open. In those intervening years, the 1955 painting’s valuation jumped to more than $100 million, even as its arguably misogynistic content drew controversy. (“Women irritate me sometimes,” de Kooning said in 1956. “I painted that irritation in the Woman series.”) After a painstaking restoration process at Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum, “Woman-Ochre” returned—with a U.S. Department of Homeland Security escort—in September to the Tucson gallery, where it hangs alongside an impressive array of works from other masters, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. —JL


GEAR

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Duckworth

Montana
The merino sheep that grow the wool destined to become base layers, socks, and T-shirts from this eight-year-old, Dillon-based brand have a side hustle: ecosystem restoration. This past summer, the city of Missoula tapped about 800 of third-generation rancher and Duckworth co-founder John Helle’s sheep to chow down on invasive and noxious plants such as leafy spurge, spotted knapweed, and Dalmatian toadflax on several thousand acres of the city’s public lands. “It’s a really novel—and in every sense of the word, organic—solution to a problem,” says Mike Somerby, Duckworth’s marketing director. And in a market where most merino wool is imported from abroad, raising the fluffy ovines in the Rockies not only helps to lessen the company’s carbon footprint but also yields an extra-crimped fiber (due to a combination of Helle’s breeding science and the local climate’s wide temperature swings) that makes for exceptional heat regulation and breathability in Duckworth’s gear. —EKH

RigStrips

Colorado
It’s a tale as old as time: You trudge back to the lot after an epic day on the slopes. You lean your skis against the car to de-layer. And, every time, they clatter to the ground, dragging those metal edges right down your paint job. Thankfully, Denver-based RigStrips founders Steven Graf and Zhach Pham created a $50 solution: a molded, magnetic bit of genius called the SnoStrip with slots where you can securely rest your gear. For summer, switch out your SnoStrip (an updated model, released in October, features deeper grooves and a grippier material) for the SunStrip, similarly designed to prop up fishing poles and bikes. —Julie Dugdale

Erem

Photo by Cameron Karsten/Courtesy of Erem

Nevada
Most athletic shoes are a combination of polyurethane, EVA foam, and polyester—which means we spend our time hiking, running, and otherwise Colorado-ing in plastics that take thousands of years to completely biodegrade. Fledgling footwear brand Erem is doing things differently by building trail-ready boots that return to the dirt they pound much more quickly. Led by fourth-generation shoemaker Noah Swartz, the year-old Henderson company designs its kicks for rugged environments using all-natural materials such as cactus-proof leather, eco-rubber, and upcycled cork. In the right conditions (i.e., if they were buried in your garden, not overwintering in your closet), Erem footwear will decompose within seven to 14 years. To ensure that happens, the company will even take back your worn-out shoes in exchange for credit toward a new pair. “Our view,” Swartz says, “is that green can outperform [the alternative].” You can test that theory with Erem’s new all-weather line, set to launch in January and designed for high-desert environments just like the Centennial State’s. —CH

Wild Rye

Idaho
Until recently, many outdoor brands making women’s gear were guilty of simply shrinking men’s apparel and turning it pink. Frustrated by the resulting dearth of properly fitting, shred-ready get-ups, in 2016 Cassie Abel launched Wild Rye, a women-focused bike, ski, and active lifestyle brand based in Sun Valley. Dedicated to function and fashion in equal measure, with a touch of fun (hello, pandemic-inspired houseplant graphics), Wild Rye makes clothing for women with strong, athletic figures. That means strategically using four-way stretch fabrics that move with a woman’s curves; including lots of pockets because, as Abel says, “women carry a lot of shit”; and testing products on women with a range of body sizes. “We are—and always have been—unwaveringly a brand for adventurers who identify as women,” Abel says, noting that’s precisely why her brand attained B Corp status this year. The certification, which is based on companies’ commitments to social and environmental causes, is “a way to really define who we are,” she says, “and who we’re going to be.” Whatever the future holds for Wild Rye, you can bet it will be female. —CH


CULTURE

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Brooke Pepion Swaney

Photo by Rebecca Stumpf

Montana
“A lot of what I’ve been interested in is the overall idea of justice in an unfair world,” says Brooke Pepion Swaney, the Polson-based writer, director, and producer behind a suite of film projects that focus on the contemporary Indigenous experience. Her first feature-length documentary, Daughter of a Lost Bird, follows a Lummi woman who was adopted by a white family as she meets her birth mother, reconnects with her tribe, and grapples with what it means to be Native. (The 2021 festival release is newly available for streaming on pbs.org.) Pepion Swaney’s first love is fiction, though, and she especially loves comedy—a proclivity that’s evident in her in-development sitcom, Tinder on the Rez, about a woman’s dating misadventures after returning to her family’s reservation. The project snagged a prestigious mention on the first Indigenous List, a collection of promising film and television scripts created by Sundance Institute, Black List, and IllumiNative in 2020. “When I came out of film school 10 years ago, there wasn’t faith that Native people could [create] content people would want to watch,” says Pepion Swaney, an enrolled citizen of the Blackfeet Nation who also has Salish ancestry. “Now, it feels exciting that there’s more opportunity for artists like me.” —EKH


DRINK

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Lewis-Clark Valley AVA

Idaho
The Lewis-Clark Valley’s vineyards were decimated during Prohibition, but a century later (and six years after an official American Viticultural Area designation), rows of grapes once again line the hillsides. Nearly three-quarters of the almost 307,000 acres, which span central Idaho and eastern Washington, are in the Gem State, and its nine wineries are already racking up accolades. Clearwater Canyon Cellars, for one, was named Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year in 2020 by what’s now called Great Northwest Wine, and its 2020 Renaissance Red tied for the highest-rated red at this year’s Bellingham Northwest Wine Competition—beating out more established vintners from Washington and Oregon. The Rhône varietals that thrive in the region’s steep canyons are reason enough to visit, but what makes for good wine here also makes for stunning scenery. The confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers sucks the cold air out of the valley, allowing grapes to hang longer on the vine and develop more complex flavors. There may be no better perch to take it all in than a seat on two-year-old Rivaura’s deck, where you can sip the winery’s Grenache and soak up views of vineyards stretching toward the riverbank below. —Andrea Clark Mason


CRAFT

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Photo by Tira Howard Photography/SWAIA

“100 Years In The Making!”

New Mexico
Although potter Russell Sanchez spent only (only!) one year crafting his best-in-show winner for the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts’ 100th Santa Fe Indian Market, he pulled inspiration from the event’s entire history. The black, red, and white of the polychrome piece—made of clay sourced from San Ildefonso Pueblo, where he lives, northwest of Santa Fe—is a nod to what his ancestors brought to the inaugural Native American arts bazaar in 1922, while the carving techniques and 400 inlaid turquoise and hematite beads are part of more recent Indigenous design traditions. Sanchez has sold out of his wares every one of the 45 years he’s attended the market and credits the event for his success in making connections with collectors and galleries, including Denver’s Native American Collections. But taking the top award (and its record $30,000 prize) in this centennial celebration year was a special honor. “Pottery was a very big part of the first market,” Sanchez says, “so it was nice to have a pot win this year.” —JL


MUSIC

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Obeeyay

Photo by Annie Whitehead/Courtesy of Obeeyay

Utah
Oba Bonner, professionally known as Obeeyay, could attribute any number of experiences to his musicality, from sitting in his mother’s lap at the piano while she taught voice lessons to showing up his seven older brothers and sisters (one of whom has performed on Broadway) in impromptu singing competitions. In fact, he still records gospel tunes with his parents and siblings as part of a group called the Bonner Family, with nearly 24,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. But that doesn’t mean Bonner isn’t forging his own path: As a preteen, he begged his mother and father to move to Los Angeles. Once there, he knocked on studio doors, offering to sweep floors and fetch lunches for musicians, and before long, he was working as an audio engineer with the likes of Queen Latifah and JoJo. Today, back in his hometown of Provo, 28-year-old Bonner is finally producing and performing his own music, and his first EP, Winnin’—a five-song collection of feel-good, melodic pop songs with hip-hop-inspired rhythms—dropped in March. Although the party anthems may seem at odds with his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints roots, “the family I have and the people who have loved me and I’ve loved over the years—they brought my hopes up,” Bonner says, and he wants to see his music do the same for everyone who listens. —KB

Vinyl Me, Please

Photo courtesy of Richard Edens

Colorado
These days, almost any song is just a few clicks away—yet annual vinyl record sales have mushroomed to more than $1 billion for the first time in nearly four decades. That growth includes Denver-based Vinyl Me, Please (VMP), which began as a service that sent curated albums, sometimes accompanied by cocktail recipes or art prints, to LP aficionados. Roughly a decade later, VMP offers four monthly subscriptions—classics, essentials, hip-hop, and country—to customers in nearly 50 countries. “We wanted to create not just a product but an experience around tangible music,” CEO Cameron Schaefer says. Now, VMP is expanding on that ethos by building its own pressing plant in RiNo. Once the 14,000-square-foot space opens to the public early next year, music lovers will be able to book tours to see the record-making process and stop by to purchase albums (VMP has struck deals for exclusive reissues from big names such as Run-DMC, Aretha Franklin, and Red Hot Chili Peppers) and grab a drink at the on-site bar. —Visvajit Sriramrajan


LITERATURE

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One Jump at a Time: My Story

Utah
From the first time he took the ice at age three in Salt Lake City to winning the men’s figure skating gold medal at the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, Nathan Chen covers the quadruple loops and lutzes that fueled his journey to international stardom—as well as the falls he endured along the way—in his memoir released in November. With the help of co-writer Alice Park, a Time magazine staffer, Chen opens up about knee and hip injuries that threatened his career, his difficulties navigating his relationship with his mother while she served as his coach, and the mental health struggles he confronted with the help of a sports psychologist. The lessons the 23-year-old shares—particularly how finding hobbies outside of figure skating and attending Yale University brought him the balance he needed to succeed on the rink—are poignant reminders for anyone, but especially for today’s anxiety-riddled teens. In February, Chen will impart more wisdom to the next generation in a children’s picture book. —JL


NATURE

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CSKT Bison Range

Chuck Haney/Danita Delimont/Alamy Stock Photo

Montana
In the late 1870s, the Ql’ispé people brought a handful of bison to the Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Confederated Séliš and Ksanka Tribes (CSKT), in an effort to prevent the animals’ extinction due to overhunting. A few decades later, in an all-too-familiar story in the West, the U.S. government seized a prize parcel of the tribes’ land to form the National Bison Range under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It took until 2022, but the 18,500-plus-acre preserve—a mountain-meets-prairie landscape with black and grizzly bears, pronghorn, elk, wolves, and, yes, 350-some bison—has been restored to the CSKT. “When our wildlife management and conservation efforts are guided by Indigenous knowledge developed over millennia,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said at an emotional celebration in May, “we all succeed.” Since taking over, the CSKT have remodeled the visitor center and produced a short documentary, In the Spirit of Atatice, about the tribes’ historical role in bison conservation. “It’s our story, told by us,” says Stephanie Gillin, information and education program manager for the CSKT’s Natural Resources Department. Currently, the main attractions for sightseers are wildlife sightings on a scenic driving loop, a few short trails, and a gift shop with goods from tribal vendors, but the CSKT are in the early stages of planning a new cultural center. —EKH


HISTORY

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Colorado Historic Opera Houses Circuit

Colorado
As prospectors unearthed mineral riches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they began building lavish opera houses in Colorado’s boomtowns to satisfy the growing demand for entertainment—and for places to be seen in their Victorian finest. The few venues that remain attempt to fill their plush seats by hosting cultural events, festivals, and musical and theatrical performances, many of which were canceled or limited during the pandemic. Ticket sales (in addition to donations and volunteer hours) are critical for their continued preservation, so the state, along with local and regional partners, launched the Colorado Historic Opera Houses Circuit in June. The awareness-raising tourism initiative includes a website with suggested visitor itineraries, a map, and an events schedule. The five buildings on the circuit—the Central City Opera House in Central City, the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride, the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, and the Wright Opera House in Ouray—were built between 1878 and 1913. “The memories of each performance, whether last week, last month, or a hundred years ago,” says Nicole Levesque, marketing manager for 133-year-old Wheeler, “live on in the walls.” —Sarah Kuta

This article was originally published in 5280 December 2022.