After miles of gravel road flanked by soaring aspens, verdant pines, lilac-coloured columbines and the Dolores River, an 1880s mining town appears, like something out of Legends of the Fall. And though we aren’t greeted by Brad Pitt, the amicable assistant manager of Dunton Hot Springs, Melanie, aptly fills his shoes, instructing us to leave our luggage and head for the communal lunch table.
Three farm-fresh courses ensue, each more artfully engineered than the previous one. Mr Smith and I feast on arugula salad flecked with parmesan, grilled bok choy over red-curry chicken and freshly baked almond shortbread paired with cantaloupe sorbet. If only all camp food was this good.
What better than a buffing to follow a feast? So I saunter off to the spa for a much needed 75-minute rose-infused Mountain Glow scrub. This is no ordinary spa: it’s in the former Pony Express building.
Meanwhile, Mr Smith – always ready to champion life in the buff as the ultimate nirvana – soaks in the clothing-optional mineral hot springs at the nearby bathhouse. Ever the eagle eye, he spies an upstairs balcony while he’s there and targets the spot for a late-night rendezvous.
With sensual visions dancing in our heads, we reunite and light a fire in our Western-movie themed cabin, aptly named the Dunton Store cabin, for its former life as the town’s general store.
Our crackling fire lulling us, we succumb to quick, but restful naps, then take off to explore the library. If Mark Twain were around today, I can picture him here sinking into the antique recliner, shoes off, brushing the bearskin rug with his toes while absorbing a Donald Judd art book or a Faulkner novel plucked from these shelves.
Since it is cocktail hour, we mosey to the bar, thinking about cowboys, outlaws and the dry whisky they’d likely have asked for if they joined us for a round. Lucky us. A case of Dickel Whisky has been found stashed under the dancehall floorboards, a hiding place that dates back to the town’s heyday. Had Mr Smith been behind the bar, he’d have claimed it all for himself, but our thoughtful and gracious bartender happily doles out pours. It’s a stiff drink and I imagine it’s what Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ordered when they darkened the saloon’s doors and left their mark with a hand-carved signature on the counter.
Here in the Wild West, it would be incongruous to throw in white tablecloths and stuffy French waiters. Dinner is signalled by a clang-clang-clanging bell, with everyone gathering round to share stories. Guests range from globetrotting retirees to movie honchos to a babymooning young couple. The differences in background or age are irrelevant: we’re all in this digging for the gold of an incredible getaway.
Over generous pours from the local Sutcliffe Vineyards, I hop up to chat with the restaurant’s acclaimed chef, Carrie Eagle. When I ask her about her approach, she speaks with the sincere straightforwardness that defines the whole place, ‘I am self-taught and I don’t have tattoos; I just shoot from the hip and cook with the heart.’ Her theory works brilliantly. Even Mr Smith, who prides himself on being among the pickiest eaters, marvels at her tender way with elk. A salted-chocolate pot de crème, sweetens the mood for our nocturnal adventure: a bathrobe-clad dash to the bathhouse, where we steamed to the soundtrack of crooning frogs.
In the morning as the sun rises over snow-capped mountains, Mr Smith – Leica in hand – ventures out to capture the chubby marmots playing on our back porch, then the raging waterfall just at the edge of Dunton Hot Springs. Using the excuse of no cell service as my reason not to check into work, I head for the Source. Disrobing, I timidly climb down the wooden ladder to where the natural hot springs bubble up from deep within the earth. Who cares if I smell like a rusty nail? I emerge from my thermal soak with silken skin and shinier hair.
Though the Navajo Lake Trail is the most scenic hike, it is also the longest. So rather than risk missing lunch, we opt for the Fall/Winter Loop hike past beaver-dammed rivers and tranquil ponds, then straight through dazzling meadows of dandelions. After pepper-crusted tuna with tomato chutney, it’s time to head home. Before we head off, we pause to draw in every last breath of the pure 8,700-feet-elevation air, exchanging info with newfound travel pals and nabbing one more freshly baked blackberry muffin for the road.
The original prospectors may have deserted the town in search of greater riches; but their loss is our gain: a place of restoration, peace and delicious abandoned whisky. And I’ll drink to that.