The drive south starts out barren, the empty ribbons of dusty road carving through towns of crumbling buildings and rusting trailer homes, past barbed-wire fences wrapping open land and fields slowly turning green.

Soon the landscape warps. Now Colorado 96 climbs into the San Isabel National Forest, and the rock outcrops show off their shapes and colors, red and pink, gunpowder gray and green with lichen.

And then a great blue clearing: the Sangre de Cristos to the west, the Wet Mountains to the east. And in the middle of it all, a little street.

“We’re like a diamond in the rough,” says Wanda Jennings, the wide-smiling clerk at Westcliffe’s Town Hall. She brings my attention to the framed picture on the wall, capturing the scene just down the street: the valley floor and the white-capped peaks soaring behind it.

The panoramic mountain view that surrounds Westcliffe, Colorado. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock; Colorado Springs Gazette.

“I mean, where else can you go to get views like this?” she asks.

You must come here, to Westcliffe, a place hiding from population hubs: 75 miles from Colorado Springs; 55 miles from Pueblo; almost 50 miles from Salida.

“We’re at the end of the world a little bit,” says Maria Aulich, a Midwestern transplant fitting right in with the sizable portion of residents who came from afar, seeking to settle with the silence and beauty.

Says Twila Geroux, one with deep family roots in the valley: “We’re on the road to nowhere. You have to come find us.”

On paths, a town brochure borrows a line from Robert Frost: “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Joe Gromelski, 53, wanted something different. Five years ago, he was living in the Springs, tired of the sirens, the construction, the bad news on TV. Now he’s here behind the counter of a nostalgic pawn shop on Main Street, listening to Bob Dylan on the radio and greeting the trickle of customers. “How you doing, my friend?” he asks one. “Hey, pretty lady, what’s going on?” he asks another. “Hey ol’ buddy,” he says to a caller.

Gromelski’s sweetest childhood memories are in this town, where his grandfather built a cabin in the 1950s. He learned to fish as a boy in the area’s many alpine lakes, learned to drive on the back roads, learned to shoot a .22. “I wanted to come home,” he says.

Westcliffe is home to roughly 500 people, many of them active in the great outdoors. Indeed, the opportunities here are great. Nine 14,000-foot peaks lurk on this side of the Sangres, and the town serves as a gateway to the Rainbow Trail, spanning nearly 100 miles through the mountain range, connecting with trails to those grand summits. Bike rides can be customized from relaxing to rousing. Fishing is big, as is hunting, as are four-wheeling and camping.

The town prides itself on being “one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets.” Yet there’s a paradox, with the continued effort to market those natural offerings, and with all the talk in Town Hall about attracting tourists. Leaders want to see more young families, more permanent homes and fewer secondary homes. They’d like to attract more employers – Custer County and the K-12 schools in town (enrollment 393) are the best chances for work around here. More doctors are desired – a small medical center, unequipped for surgeries, is all the town has in the way of health care.

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