Tucked into the foothills just west of Lakewood and about 15 miles from Denver is the town of Morrison, home to about 500 people and the gateway to many popular mountain attractions.
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In the late 1800s Morrison became one of the most prominent locations of the “Bone Wars” between rival dinosaur specialists Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope. Geologist Arthur Lakes discovered massive dinosaur bones along the Dakota hogback in March 1877
He sent word to both Marsh and Cope and was eventually hired by Marsh to continue digging in the area. These quarries yielded the world’s first fossils of the Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus (better known as the Brontosaurus).
The site of those discoveries is now a National Natural Landmark, Dinosaur Ridge. The location includes a visitor’s center with an exhibit hall as well as two interpretive trails.
Along the trails, visitors can see geologic sites, dinosaur bones, trace fossils and a pristine site of dinosaur tracks. You can walk either trail for free, or take a shuttle tour for $8.
Since the early 1900s, artists have used the majestic scenery and natural acoustics at Red Rocks for music. (Photo: Denver Public Library)
The park was purchased by the city in 1928 and the Red Rocks Amphitheatre was built as part of a program by the Civilian Conservation Corp over the next 12 years. It held its very first event on April 6, 1947: the Easter Sunrise Service. (Photo: DPL)
Today, besides being surrounded by the stunning, natural rock formations seen throughout the 738-acre Red Rocks Park, the amphitheater is considered acoustically perfect and affords striking views of Denver and the mountains around it.
A draw for auto enthusiasts is Bandimere Speedway, a quarter-mile drag-strip venue that hosts events year-round.
They host professional and amateur racing series and car shows that are open to the public as well as the “Take it to the Track” series each summer. On those days, drivers can test their car's quarter-mile speeds and race against others for only $30.
One of the most popular and unique hikes is the Castle Trail in Mt Falcon Park. You can start either at the trailhead off Vine St near downtown for a 6-mile round-trip hike or park in the lot off Mt. Falcon Road near Parmalee Gulch and US-285
The second option will be a shorter, 2.3-mile hike and include a stop at an old lookout tower. Either way, the payoff is the ruins of an early-1900s stone home built by Cosmopolitan Magazine editor John Brisben Walker.
His vision was to create a summer White House. But the funds ran out and the home never progressed past its foundation. So, Walker built his own mansion on Mt Falcon. Unfortunately, the mansion was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1918
After your hike, on your way back down Parmalee Gulch Rd, stop in at the Sit N Bull Saloon before hopping back on US-285. Just outside Morrison, the dive is a favorite with locals.
They have live music every weekend from April until September and karaoke and trivia every other week. The fun mountain bar also serves food and has a large patio, perfect for summer afternoons and evening.
One of Colorado’s most famous restaurants, The Fort has been serving old-west style meals in Morrison since February 1963. The restaurant is modeled after Bent's Old Fort, an 1833-49 trading post outside of what is now La Junta
The building was originally intended just to be an intricate home for amateur historians Elizabeth “Bay” and Sam’l P. Arnold and their family. But when the cost of construction far exceeded their budget, the architect suggested putting in a business.
So, it was redesigned to have a restaurant on the lower level and the living quarters above. Today, a trip to the restaurant is a trip back to the frontier days, and the creative and tasty culinary experience is not one patrons soon forget.
Located in a converted 1873 home, Beso de Arte is a Latin Bistro located in the heart of Morrison. The menu includes both tapas and entrees hailing from Spain, South America and Mexico.
On a nice summer day, you can sip a mojito with the relaxing sound of a waterfall in the background on their stunning patio. They also serve brunch on weekends.
The Morrison Inn first opened in 1979 and has been a favorite for Mexican food ever since. The building it’s in was originally Henry F. Wolf’s Pool Hall, Tobacco and Barber Shop built in 1880.
It was then a mercantile and filling station before becoming the restaurant. They are now known for their massive margaritas, chips and salsa and homemade Mexican standbys.
The Cow is a casual diner along Bear Creek in Morrison. Originally named Blue Cow Eatery, the current owners took over and changed the name in 2014.
Grab a seat in the cozy interior or on the large back patio or grab an ice cream cone or shake at the window and take a stroll along the creek.
Featuring over 100 wines and beers from around the world, Flights Wine Café is a popular spot for happy hour in Morrison. They also have a large selection of appetizers and snacks to go along with your drink.
Once you make your selection, find a spot by the fireplace in the cozy 1870’s cottage or outside in their extensive garden seating area.
The quarter-mile strip of Bear Creek Ave is also home to unique shops and boutiques. From the nostalgic Morrison Country Store with quirky decorations for every occasion, to Sundance Sensations with reasonably-priced imported clothing and gifts
For an upscale dining experience in Morrison, visitors and locals rave about the Twin Forks Tavern, located outside of the historic downtown strip along US-285.
The menu includes fried Brussel sprouts with truffle honey, Chile lime scampi, pear and cheese with sherry cream, and pork short ribs. All paired with a fine wines and cocktails. They also offer occasional wine classes and food pairing events.
Where the dinosaurs roamed
The history of Morrison begins with the discovery of dinosaurs.
In March of 1877, Arthur Lakes, a professor and geologist, discovered massive dinosaur bones along the Dakota hogback in Morrison. Lakes hoped an expert would be interested in his find and would hire him to continue searching the area.
He first wrote to Othniel Marsh, one of the most prominent dinosaur specialists of the time, about his discovery. Marsh only vaguely responded and then stopped corresponded altogether, so Lakes sent a sample of one of the bones to Marsh’s rival, Edward Cope. As soon as Marsh got word Cope might be interested, he hired Lakes.
For the next two years, Lakes and his colleagues would continue excavating the hogback under Marsh’s direction. It would be one of the most prominent sites of the “Bone Wars” between Marsh and Cope during the late 19th century.
These quarries also yielded the world’s first fossils of the Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus (better known as the Brontosaurus).
After Lakes finished his work, the fossil beds were deserted and the site was lost for 123 years. However, Lakes had documented his discoveries in detailed field notes, paintings and sketches. In 2002, researchers were able to use them to rediscover those original quarries and begin digging again.
The site is now home to Dinosaur Ridge, a National Natural Landmark, that includes a visitors center and two trails where visitors can see geologic sites, dinosaur bones, trace fossils and a pristine site of dinosaur tracks.
You can walk the trails for free, or take a shuttle or guided tour for a small fee.
The history of the town
Morrison itself was named after George Morrison, a stonemason who founded the town.
Morrison had first helped found the town of Mt. Vernon before moving south to open the Morrison Stone, Lime and Town, Co. in 1874. He also helped bring the railroad through the area.
The railroad helped to bring stone from Morrison’s quarries down into Denver and tourists into the slowly-growing community. Over time, it became a supply center for towns popping up along the canyons and in the mountains to the west as well as to the ranches to its east.
The Town of Morrison was officially incorporated in 1906, and Pete Morrison, grandson of the town’s original founder, became its first mayor.
Since the early 1900s, artists have used the majestic scenery and natural acoustics at Red Rocks for music.
The famous red rocks that house the venue are actually part of a mountain range that predates the Rocky Mountains by hundreds of millions of years. Over time, water eroded the peaks and the sediment that was deposited reformed into dense, hard rock. The Flatirons in Boulder, Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and Red Rocks amphitheater are all part of the remnants of this ancient range.
Entrepreneur and publisher John Brisben Walker first had the idea of bringing artists onto a temporary stage nestled in the rocks, at that time known as the Garden of Angels. He would produce concerts between 1906 and 1910.
The City of Denver purchased the park from Walker in 1928. Over 12 years, Red Rocks Amphitheatre was built as part of a program by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a relief effort that was part of the New Deal.
The amphitheater was dedicated on June 15, 1941 and it held its very first event on April 6, 1947: the Easter Sunrise Service. Every year since then, the Easter Sunrise Service marks the beginning of the official Red Rocks season.
In its early days, Red Rocks hosted mainly opera and symphonic shows. One of the first notable popular music performances was by Nat King Cole in August 1956. By the early 1960s, many popular acts were beginning to play the venue, including The Beatles, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Today, besides being surrounded by the stunning, natural rock formations seen throughout the 738-acre Red Rocks Park, the amphitheater is considered acoustically perfect and affords striking views of Denver and the mountains around it. The Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2011 inducted Red Rocks as one of its first two honorees.
Red Rocks Park received National Historic Landmark status in 2015 and remains one of the most popular music venues in the country, both for performers and spectators. Thrillist also named the amphitheater among the 15 most beautiful music venues in the world.
Surrounding the amphitheater are miles of hiking and mountain biking trails (including the Trading Post Trail and the Geologic Overlook Trail). From there, the park's trails connect to surrounding trail systems, including Jefferson County's Matthews-Winters Park and the Dakota Ridge Trail.
Living in and visiting Morrison
Outside the world-famous park, the small town has plenty to offer on its own, making it a popular day-destination for Denverites.
This includes a trail system that snakes around the outskirts of the town and connects to the Bear Creek trail, and about 40 businesses.
Among its many eating options is The Fort, a pioneer in putting unique spins on traditional Old West foods. Located at 19192 CO-8, The Fort is modeled after Bent's Old Fort, an 1833-49 trading post outside of what is now La Junta. A trip to the restaurant is a trip back to the frontier days, and the creative and tasty (albeit pricey) culinary experience is not one patrons soon forget.
Along the town's main thoroughfare, Bear Creek Avenue, visitors will also find plenty of great dining options. The Cow Eatery (316 Bear Creek Ave.) is a quaint and casual family-run joint, and right up the street (109 Bear Creek Avenue) is a great wing spot: Willy's Wings, known for its many sauces. Red Rocks Grill (415 Bear Creek Ave.) serves up American dishes with a southwest flair and is another great option, especially if you're into microbrews.
A caffeine craving is soon quelled with a visit to Al's of Morrison Coffee Shop (211 Bear Creek Ave.), stocked with gourmet coffee, pastries, smoothies and Italian sodas. Ozzi's (101 Break Creek Ln.) affords visitors another sweet-tooth spot, serving up ice cream, cookies, mochas and more.
Bear Creek Avenue eventually turns into the windy and visually stunning Bear Creek Road (CO-74), along which are several trailheads, such as Lair O' the Bear (an easy trail that passes right by the Dunafon Castle), Corwina, Little Park, O'Fallon Park and more. The trails' close proximity to Denver and the western suburbs make them a popular day trip choice for families.
A train pulls a load of lime rock through the town of Morrison as a man stands on the railroad turntable. c 1880-1889 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
Engine #11 of the Colorado & Southern Railroad is at the depot in Morrison. c1913 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
Men and women sing, play a portable piano and cello at the Garden of Angels (Red Rocks Amphitheater) near Morrison c1906-1910 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
Civilian Conservation Corps workers building seating at Red Rocks Park Amphitheater c1937/1938 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
Mayor Ben Stapleton poses with a group of men at Red Rocks Park in Morrison, Colorado c 1920-1950 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
View of a concert by the Denver Chamber Music Society at Red Rocks Park c1940-1950 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
Morrison lies below. Dwellings, churches, commercial buildings, and the Denver Southern and Pacific depot are ranged around railroad tracks and Bear Creek. c1890-1900 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
The Cliff House Hotel in Morrison, Jefferson County, Colorado, is a three-story stone building with a cottage roof and external stairway. c1896-1908 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
A view of the Grand Staircase that leads up to the seating area during construction at Red Rocks Amphitheater c1930-1950 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
Morrison, Jefferson County, Colorado, is dusted in snow. Tracks of the Colorado and Southern Railroad are in the foreground near a frame dwelling with a square tower and balcony. c1890-1900 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
Shows the seating area under construction at Red Rocks Amphitheater c1930-1950 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
Outdoor portrait of a group of men and women at possibly Creation Park (Red Rocks) near Morrison c 1904-1915 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
Overview of the buildings at the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp SP-13-C. One of the nation's best preserved CCC camps, the site contains cottages and barracks that are still in use today (Photo: Denver Public Library)
View of the town of Morrison. Shows Bear Creek, a Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad train with a load of lime rock, the railroad depot and turntable, a church, commercial and residential buildings. c1880-1889 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
A side view of the stage and seating area at Red Rocks amphitheater under construction, Red Rocks Park c1930-1950 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
Frame and stone commercial buildings line Bear Creek Avenue in Morrison c1880-1890 (Photo: Denver Public Library)
Bear Creek Road is part of the Lariat Loop, a scenic byway with twists and turns through cavernous mountains. The Lariat Loop, which runs from Morrison west to Evergreen, then north to Bergen Park and eventually back south to Lakewood, is a popular drive for motorcyclists and sports cars, as well as for pavement cyclists.
Another draw for auto enthusiasts is Bandimere Speedway, a quarter-mile drag-strip venue that hosts events year-round. There, drivers can test their car's quarter-mile speeds, race against others on designated days and participate in a number of other events.
Homes in Morrison are pretty affordable, especially relative to Denver. The median price for all-size properties is about $358,000, according to real estate website Trulia.com.