It’s not easy to find a genuine and authentic classic old-time bar in the middle of Colorado these days; as development continues to swallow beautiful properties and nature. This is not just because it lays inside the Sphinx Park of the Colorado mountains. Bucksnort Saloon is a gem that was built by founding owners Lydia and Howard Newhouser; who ran at that time the Sphinx Park Mercantile around 1919 out of its wooden structure.
This building is perched at 7040 feet in the narrow canyon above Elk Creek, Colorado. Railroad workers were frequent customers as were miners who lived in the area. Early vacationers visited regularly trying to avoid the heat and smell of a Denver summer. They lived in rustic cabins that are to this day dispersed all over in the area of Pine and Sphinx Park. This place has always been a community. This places has always been a hideaway awaiting to be found.
Unfortunately, the mercantile business spiraled in the 50s, but Pete Smaltz took over and thought it would be the perfect place to host square-dancing events to uphold the charm and magic of this setting.
Bucksnort saloon, nestled out on the Western frontier, played an important civic role. Whiskey (and, not incidentally, the threat of a hanging) was key to the founding of Denver City according to State Historian, Dr. Thomas J. Noel, also known as“Dr. Colorado.” He wrote more than fifty books and articles on the history of the Centennial State of Colorado. I found out that the first Denver government was created in a saloon called the Apollo Hotel which is now known as Larimer Square. Does this sound like the perfect Western episode on a Netflix show to you? Perhaps. Perhaps there’s more to it though.
Bucksnort used to entertain many people in the 60s and 70s with live performances and dances. This social gathering then fused into a full-fledged bar/restaurant. By the 70s it was known as Bucksnort. Legend has it that the name came from the then-owner’s dog who was a noisy sleeper. Or maybe it was because of a certain décor item left by a rowdy patron.
When you step into the Bucksnort saloon you will immediately realize how this special space developed as a national reputation and must-stop in Colorado. You are surrounded by rich and colorful history that encompasses an incredible mountain route. Along this mountain route, the railroad town of Pine was founded. Pine Grove was once a favored destination place for tourists from the Denver Metro area back in the day when the railroad provided transportation from Denver through the Pine Valley to Pine Grove. Upstream on Elk Creek, the summer community of Sphinx Park was established. An incredible gateway to beautiful rustic log cabins perched precariously on rock outcroppings and ledges. The center of activity was the Sphinx Park Mercantile, which now houses the Bucksnort Saloon.
Today, The Bucksnort saloon is a favorite hangout for bikers, sight-seers and mountain bikers coming from Buffalo Creek and anyone who loves traveling off the beaten path. The ceiling is lined with dollar bills, signed by guests from all over the world!
People will go to great lengths for the Bucksnort. That’s certainly been true for Galina Bye, who bought the place in March 1997 with her former husband. She never intended to run a bar. A native of Ukraine, Galina moved to New York in 1981 when she was eighteen to join a brother who already lived there. She landed a job at the Long Island Transportation Authority and met and married a musician, Joe Bye. Galina was musical, too, and after they moved to Colorado in 1992, they played around the Denver area. One night they decided to head to this place in the mountains that they heard about from friends. They turned off 285 onto Elk Creek Road, but thought, “Nothing can be here,” she remembers, “So we turned around, right before that last turn. We got lost, almost fell off the cliff, and then wound up there as the band was finishing up.”
Joe had a guitar in the car and began playing.
“Wow, what a cool place,” Galina remembers thinking, which is almost exactly what anyone else who has ever seen the place thinks. But none of those people purchased it. The Byes did, after the couple learned from then-owner Jack Hargiss that the place was for sale. “It was sort of a mistake,” Galina admits. “We had no idea how much work it would be.”
The workload didn’t lessen after the couple divorced. Galina was running the Bucksnort on her own, with the help of their three kids, when her art career started taking off. She’d been painting since she’d taken a class with a Russian impressionist, and began showing her work in Evergreen, where she lives; she even had an exhibit at the Center for the Arts. Deciding to focus on her art, she put the property up for sale.
But during the winter, when she went to Mexico for an arts residency, she realized that she might be able to balance the bar with an art career, especially since the place is only open on weekends in the winter (and closed altogether during much of January). “I figured, it’s a seasonal business, and I have a half a year to myself to pursue art,” she shared. Besides, she adds, “I found it would be hard to let it go.”
Lately Galina has been enjoying Bucksnort with her fiancé, LJ. The Bucksnort stands as proud as ever, with a big patio overlooking the creek, plenty of rustic accoutrements inside, and walls and ceilings covered with dollar bills left by patrons. If the walls could only talk! “The ambiance is very interesting,” she says. It’s an experience. Not just a bar and restaurant — it’s a human experience.”
An experience that has been featured in guidebooks and on TV shows around the world. “I don’t even advertise; it’s all word of mouth,” Galina says. “One woman even told me she drove to Colorado from Kansas, and at a gas station someone told her she had to go to the Bucksnort when she was in Colorado.” She did. Apparently it's the 6th oldest bar in all of Colorado!
At the Bucksnort, it’s not required that you put a dollar on the wall, but you should definitely have a beer —maybe an Antler Ale, made by the Breckenridge Brewery — and get a Buck Burger, a half-pound monster made with local grass-fed beef. Or a Forest Fire, named after the wildfires that have threatened the Bucksnort before, topped with jalapeño cream cheese. Then sit back, listen to live music, and soak up the atmosphere. After a few more beers the beautiful stories each person carries come to life by sharing amongst one another.
Galina and LJ continue to create a welcoming atmosphere that bring people from near and far. I was introduced to this special place by dear friends who are family to me and have celebrated many special times together at this location. They brought me to this place as it was a lifetime favorite space to visit with an incredible spirit and now angel, Andrea Sederberg. The day couldn’t have been more magical. We observed the leaves from the trees and plants changing into multi-colored works of art before finally falling away. The bare and vulnerable branches that are created to reveal the true and beautiful scenery underneath were present.
We listened to the birds chirping as the sun hit our faces. Sitting on the deck and hearing the water rush over the magnificent rocks was cathartic. We reminisced about so many special memories and connections we share. We felt how nice it is to be reunited in person and to share the memory of a beautiful soul that left an impact on her family and community. Like Galina, Andrea found a new way, a drive and an opportunity to live a meaningful life. Also coming from the East Coast, she headed to the West for a change and a connection. She was a single mother who did whatever she could do to make her sons happy and feel loved. Bucksnort was a favorite hotspot of theirs spending precious time together in nature. Andrea was a successful woman and now leavesa a legacy of love letting her sons know that she is still present in nature and through loved ones coming together.
A retired group of state police officers dressed in motorcycle gear arrived on their shiny and bright motorcycles. They sat to our right and you could tell they were regulars. There were many commonalities exchanged with customers who came in that day. This place carries a strong energy of the past and continues to build upon the human exchange of connection and hospitality. Bucksnort is a familiar place where you will see LJ, Galina’s fiancé, greet you in the front. He’s definitely proud of his grill and knowing that people have come from near and far to support them, despite difficult economic times.
In these difficult times, it’s so important to come together and be better together. You may come in as strangers, but you leave with a familiarity of peace and connection. We watched a mother enjoying some time with her son. We could tell they were celebrating something special. We couldn’t resist so we asked. He was celebrating his 21st birthday and spending the day with his Mom before he continued with celebrations in the evening. Two older couples were sitting behind us reminiscing about their frequent trips to this magical place over the years. They kept passing their food around and sharing all of their favorite food together. You could tell this was a reunion of not seeing eachother for quite some time.
In this space and in that moment, you could feel the spirit of the Sphinx Park. The Great Sphinx at Giza, near Cairo, is probably the most famous sculpture in the world. With a lion's body and a human head, it represents Ra-Horakhty, a form of the powerful sun god, and is the incarnation of royal power and the protector of the temple doors. In Egypt, the Sphinx is viewed as a protector and a benevolent guardian. The combination of the lion's body and the human head is interpreted as symbolic of strength and intelligence. Perhaps this is why Andrea and Galina gravitated to this sanctuary. Perhaps this is why so many people do.
Nature performs major miracles for us every day – from giving us great views and helping to prevent floods to regulating the weather and keeping us supplied with clean water, fresh air and plentiful food. When running the tap or shopping it’s easy to forget that without healthy soils and diverse plant and animal species doing their thing, our lives would be tougher and poorer. However smart we’ve become as a species, without diverse nature and a healthy functioning natural environment we’ll be as lost as a tourist without their map app.
Mentally, we can become disconnected from nature because we’re now deeply embedded in a human-made world. Emerging research is showing that knowing and feeling this connection with nature is crucial for us, and it helps bring about the wider health benefits of exposure to nature. Knowing your place in nature brings meaning and restoration. The natural world is an incredible wonder that inspires us all. It underpins our economy, our society, indeed our very existence and the world unknown.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” -Albert Einstein