In the remote northwest of Colorado, the seat of Moffat County is a town of just under ten thousand by the Yampa River.
Epitomizing the Old West, Craig is a place where wild horses roam over many thousands of acres of beautiful high desert, and 1,000-year-old petroglyphs adorn the deep sandstone river canyons.
The high elevation creates one of the most dramatic differences in temperature in the United States, and Craig can be a homey base for adventure as you head off to sample the cowboy life or navigate the rapids on the Yampa River.
There’s a whole slew of family-friendly events in Craig during the summer months, from rodeos to a breathtaking hot-air balloon festival, and enough attractions in town to keep everyone entertained.
1. Museum of Northwest Colorado
In the handsome State Armory building from 1922 is a fantastic museum charting life in this corner of Colorado.
The Museum of Northwest Colorado is acclaimed for its Cowboy & Gunfighter Collection, with an amazing array of historic cowboy gear.
You’ll see rare Winchesters and Colts, as well as saddles, chaps, spurs, gun leather and many more artifacts.
The museum has detailed exhibits on famous figures from the Old West, like the outlaw Harry Tracy, Wild Bunch associate Ann Bassett and the Afican American cowboy Isam Dart.
The museum also takes a close look at many other facets of local history, like coal mining, agriculture, pioneer life and palaeontology, and has a series of period room displays.
2. Wyman Living History Museum
Opened in 2006, this museum in the Yampa Valley just east of Craig is a showcase for wonderful collections painting a picture of Colorado life in days gone by.
The Wyman Living History Museum has been many years in the making, going back to when the founder Lou Wyman bought an abandoned 1932 Lincoln for $15 in 1949.
In this trove of curiosities are extensive collections as varied as Colorado license plates and chainsaws weighing from 12 to 200 pounds, and with blades up to five feet long.
Added to these are some strange farm implements, military memorabilia, a horse-drawn hearse and a historic sheep wagon.
Another compelling feature is the Wyman Barn, built by the founder’s father in 1918 and transplanted to this site beam by beam.
Also relocated here is the coal-powered Blacksmith’s Shop, which is a full-service business where you can watch Terry the blacksmith at work.
3. Sand Wash Basin
West of Craig there’s a vast Herd Management Area (HMA) in rugged landscapes of pinyon-juniper woodland, saltbush and sagebrush and bunchgrass.
On almost 160,000 acres, the Sand Wash Basin HMA is home to a beautiful herd of wild horses, most commonly with gray and sorrel coats.
These are descended mostly from Iberian Spanish breeds but are also related to gaited, North American and Arabian breeds.
The scenery is spectacular of course, and the horses are accompanied by an abundance of animal species including mule deer, pronghorn, elk, golden and bald eagles, foxes, coyotes, mountain lions, black bears and bull snakes and rattlesnakes.
Set mostly on public land, the HMA is free for everyone to visit, although you’ll need to come prepared and are required to keep 100 feet away from the horses.
4. Cedar Mountain
Rising 1,300 feet over the Yampa River Valley (7524 ft above sea level), this peak, just six miles out of Craig, is a prominent landmark commanding fabulous vistas.
Cedar Mountain is on BLM land so you’re free to come and explore if you’re in need of a quick but satisfying adventure.
There are two peaks, within a difference in elevation of just two feet, and both are topped with radio towers.
From the picnic area at the base you can pick up a 3.5-mile loop. This is equipped with plenty of boards pointing out the plant life, animal species (elk, deer, foxes, coyotes, marmots, raptors), as well as the majestic views over the valley.
5. Yampa River State Park
This park along the Yampa Valley is in fact three parks rolled into one. First off you’ve got the headquarters not far east in Hayden, where you’ll find a visitor center, nature trail with interpretive displays and camping for RVs (35 sites), tents (10 sites) and groups (5).
Then between Hayden and Dinosaur National Monument the park encompasses a 134-mile stretch of the Yampa River, with 13 access points along the way for camping, boating and fishing.
Coursing through canyons and past mesas and ridges, most of the river is calm, but there are some class III-V rapids and you can organize an adventure with whitewater rafting companies. The third park section is the Elkhead Reservoir, which we’ll cover next.
6. Elkhead State Park
Within ten miles northeast of downtown Craig, the 900-acre Elkhead Reservoir was established on a tributary of the Yampa River in 1974.
The surrounding state park quickly became one of northwest Colorado’s top flatwater destinations, ideal for anything from nature watching to jet skiing.
The reservoir is stocked with trout and smallmouth bass, while northern pike are often relocated from the main course of the Yampa River.
On the shore there’s a boat ramp (open in summer), 15 basic campsites, two swim beaches and a new trail system for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
7. Loudy-Simpson Park
The south bank of the Yampa River in Craig is a fine place to go for a bit of outdoor recreation without straying far from the town.
The obvious attraction here is the large horseshoe-shaped pond, a vestigial river meander, and stocked with large numbers of rainbow trout, brown trout and northern pike.
Also here is the Moffat County Ice Arena, offering public skate sessions, stick and puck and home to the Craig youth hockey league.
A little way along the road is the Yampa Valley Golf Club, with 18 holes among cottonwoods, wetlands and sagebrush.
Loudy-Simpson Park is also the setting for major events in Craig, like Moffat County Hot Air Balloon Festival and Whittle the Wood Rendezvous.
8. Juniper Hot Springs
Half an hour into the massive expanse of sagebrush west of Craig is a set of hot springs established as long ago as 1880. Juniper Hot Springs consists of five pools, one large and four smaller.
The water rises from the sandy clay bottom of the smaller pools at a temperature of 102 °F and their overflow fills the larger pool.
When the water was tested in the 1930s it was found to contain an impressive 24 different minerals. The springs are open during daylight hours and you can use them for a small fee.
There are also RV campsites, but you’ll need to bring everything with you for your stay. Thanks to the quantity of artefacts discovered close by, the springs are thought to have been used for centuries by Native Americans, who camped by the nearby Juniper Mountain.
9. West Twin Cinema
At the time of writing, this gorgeous brick-built Art Deco movie theater on E Victory Way had just been given a renovation after a few years looking a little worn.
This is the only place to go for a genuine cinema experience, unless you’re willing to make the 45-minute drive to Steamboat. But the West Twin Cinema more than holds its own, with new seating and bathrooms and fresh interior decor.
The venue has been an entertainment linchpin in downtown Craig since 1939 and owes its current layout to an update in 1947.
You can catch all of the latest Hollywood releases at the twin screens as well as plenty of fun throwback movies for a hit of nostalgia. And something worth treasuring is that the snacks and drinks are affordable but still high quality.
10. City Park
On the banks of the little Fortification Creek in the heart of Craig, City Park is an endearing public space with a host of facilities and adorned with numerous wood carvings by local artists.
Much of the park is taken up by a large grassy area, fringed by tall, mature trees and dotted with picnic tables, a shelter and a children’s playground.
Towards the south end you’ll find the tennis courts and on the west side is the Craig Pool Complex.
This is a cherished facility in the summer months, with a 25-yard, L-shaped pool for laps and a beach-entry wave pool, with tubes that can be rented. The pools are surrounded by grassy areas for relaxation and there’s a snack bar on hand.
11. Grand Old West Days
Craig’s annual kick-off to the summer takes place on Memorial Day weekend and brings four days of action and entertainment to the Moffat County Fairgrounds.
For a small taste of what’s in store you’ve for food and craft booths, a parade through the town, carnival rides, street dances, a golf tournament, tractor pulls, a junior rodeo, a horsemanship contest and a carnival.
Country Music is at the heart of the event, and on Friday and Saturday night are concerts by major recording artists.
12. Moffat County Hot Air Balloon Festival
This photo-worthy event is now into its second decade and goes down on the second weekend of August. On Saturday and Sunday the sky over Craig is filled with colorful balloons.
These launch as early as 6:30 am, so the earlier you arrive at Loudy-Simpson Park the better, and you may even be able to help the balloonists setting up if you come at dawn.
All day long on Saturday there’s a schedule of activities and entertainment including food and craft vendors, live music, chainsaw carving demonstrations, wagon rides and all kinds of fun for children.
13. Whittle the Wood Rendezvous
Now going for more than two decades, Whittle the Wood Rendezvous is a wood-carving competition held in Loudy-Simpson Park.
Taking place in late June, the event starts on a Wednesday when the talented carvers are given their stumps (by lottery), and over the next four days you’ll get to see magnificent works of art taking shape.
As this happens there are lots of fun side events, like a quick, hour-long carving competition, as well as a car show, arts & crafts booths, a silent auction for chainsaw art and then the awards ceremony on the Saturday.
On the Friday and Saturday night there will be live music, and this part is usually ticketed while the remainder is free to attend.
14. Great American Horse Drive
Based locally, Sombrero Ranches is the largest stable horse operation in the United States with more than 100 employees.
Every spring they drive hundreds of horses from their grazing land in the northwestern Colorado backcountry to the Big Gulch Ranch at Craig.
This is a huge undertaking, and if you want to experience the rigors of cowboy life you can sign up to take part, traversing 62 miles across six days with some 500 horses.
On the other hand you could simply head for the quaint little town of Maybell, 30 miles west of Craig, to witness the wonderful spectacle of the drive passing through on the first Sunday of May. Afterwards you could head into Sand Wash Basin to see the wild horses in their habitat.
15. Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaurs once roamed these lands, and their fossils have been preserved, embedded in the rock at this National Monument west of Craig.
Spread over more than 210,000 acres, the Dinosaur National Monument straddles the Colorado and Utah borders at the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers.
Although much of the land is in Colorado’s Moffat County, the prime paleontological destination for visitors is the Quarry Exhibit Hall at the park’s far west end in Utah.
Here, 1,500 dinosaur fossils can be seen encased in the rock, exactly as they were when discovered more than a century ago.
There’s much more to do in the park, from kayaking through the magnificent Yampa River Canyon, with its soaring red sandstone cliffs, to guided range hikes to innumerable fossil sites, fishing, horseback riding, backcountry camping and discovering millennium-old Native American petroglyphs and pictographs.