If you ever visit Denver and arrive after midnight, just curl up in a ball and cry. Don't be swayed to visit the Midwest’s premier city with an $85 airfare from New York either. After arriving late into the vast atrium of Denver International Airport (DIA), one discovers in short order that the fetal position is a decent option. Another option, of course, is taking a cab from the green pastures of DIA, which lies far beyond the city limits, to the city center for over $55.
The thought of enjoying a mountain getaway in the historic mining town of Black Hawk, just 40 minutes uphill from Denver, seemed wonderful from my air conditioned apartment. That is, until arriving after midnight to learn that the car rental center had closed.
Consultation with the airport police confirms that this phenomenon happens nightly to passengers arriving late.The officer then presented the most common options for late arriving travelers. They are as follows:
- Stay at the newly built airport hotel and continue the journey during daylight like most travelers of average intelligence.
- Run like hell and hope to catch the last commuter train at the opposite end of the airport.
- Hop that $55 cab toward the metropolis, only to discover Denver’s vibrant nightlife culture is largely a myth purported by hipsters.
- Curl up in a ball.
After midnight, many travelers already know you’re stuck between a rock-hard-floor and a hard place in the mile high city. But for those seeking low-brow culture in the high rockies there is salvation. In the northwest section the sleepy city runs an all-night casino shuttle. The transportation company runs the operation out of a double wide trailer in an unpaved,darkened lot adjacent to a desolate strip mall and acres of nearby modular homes. But every hour of every desolate overnight arrives a beautiful coach bus poised to transport up to fifty degenerate insomniacs up the canyon to the liveliest destination in all of Colorado.
When the bus arrived, a pissed off driver opened the door. Tasked with working the overnight shift, it seems Mr. Happy’s low seniority had forced the young coachman into the blessed fraternity of nocturnals. While laced with prestige in New York City, overnight culture is not so revered in the dark foothills of the Rockies.
Boarding the stretched bus as the only passenger at 2:30 a.m., one wondered if the overnight adventure could be better accomplished with a van- especially since the drive up the two lane winding road seemed complicated in a coach. The steep canyon walls combined with a falling rock zone and an angry, aggressive driver suggests we're a boulder strike or an abrupt turn from a gravity tour of the jagged rapids below. Driving through tunnels cut through the mountains leaves the impression that this huge bus may get wedged any point.
Upon arrival at Black Hawk one’s first impression is, “Why here?” Seeing the town come into focus around a bend in the road, the huge casinos strangely appear like a glowing special effects green screen built into the steep, canyon.
To create this casino row, engineers squeezed 16 gaming properties, into a passage roughly 150 yards in width, including parking garages. Therefore, all properties in Black Hawk are built long and not wide (Similar to the riverboats seen around the country.) except Black Hawk’s hotels can stretch upwards of thirty stories high.
Because properties are built so close to the canyon, the crisp rocky mountain air flows rapidly through Main Street, making a walk up the strip a pleasure in summer. Alternatively, winter in the historic mining village can whip through the average visitor. Many properties in Black Hawk are linked together with walkways offering minimal exposure during colder months. The casinos also offer a free shuttle service, between Black Hawk properties and the neighboring casino town of Central City.
The shuttle has become an attraction in itself and greatly assists any stranded traveler resourceful enough not to curl up into a ball. The shuttle comes in very handy during the uphill journey into Central City. The higher elevation sister town- though only a mile away- looks distinctly different from the stylized town downstream.
Offering many casino choices of her own, Central City differs from Black Hawk. The row of preserved two story buildings offers parlor type casinos along the historic strip. Also a superb walking village, the majority of day trippers arrive via automobile from Denver or the popular ski towns nearby. Central City- or uptown to any city slicker- has many information kiosks, benches and gazebos to take a break too. Strolling through the postcard-perfect community, one can reflect on the scene after a long day of prospecting. Remnants of smoke and whiskey filled evenings remain, when men sported handlebar moustaches and brothels were a spiral staircase above the saloon. Today, shopping for clothing, crafts, eateries, or just the great views, Central City’s environment is unmatched anywhere in America.
A lot, however, has changed since the heyday of the Colorado Central Railroad. The town’s overhead wooden tresels are long removed, and the quaint railway station has been converted into the pretiest casino in town. Patrons of the Lady Luck casino are treated to a refurbished version of the historic station complete with passenger platforms, an original locomotive, and the friendliest staff in town. For poker players, Lady Luck offers one of the few $2-$10 limit games in the country, and while many no limit players find the limit structure torturous, the game is warm and welcoming.
While awaiting the coach bus back to the big city, the entire room stopped playing to congratulate Brenda, a poker dealer, on her last day before moving. A kind, old woman in seat number eight had baked a cake, and at noon all action stopped to show respect, and everyone ate a thickly frosted sky blue cake without napkins.
Even though Black Hawk/Central City suffers from the same small town problems seen elsewhere, they just do it better. With a combined population of under one thousand residents, don’t expect amenities like an all night emergency room or auto mechanic. In fact, do not take a shuttle uptown and rely on a ride back late at night either. The free service is exceptional until the witching hour, when one discovers all transportation grinds to a halt. There are no taxis or Uber drivers in the higher elevation. In winter, one can swipe a garbage pail cover and ride the frost downhill. In summer, you can curl up in a ball, or hoof it. Fortunately, most casino’s serve liquor 24/7, so a solo game of bar golf will fight the doldrums. Don't expect to see any fast food franchises, gas stations, or Thai restaurants in the gulch either, but that's why so many drive up route 119 to begin with. If you do venture upward as a solo traveler, pack food, bring extra napkins, and never ever arrive in Denver after midnight.