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A Colorado high-country town struggles to save its identity in the shadow of a ski resort

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Oak Creek's Main Street is the town's only road with businesses. Bars, a grocery store and a few restaurants make up the town's downtown corridor.
Kate Perdoni/Rocky Mountain PBS

OAK CREEK, Colo. — Every Sunday, Nikki Knoebel takes a stroll down the hill her house rests on and walks down to the small Main Street in the town she runs as its mayor.

Main Street is the town’s only street with businesses. It’s a small slice of Colorado Highway 131 — a mountainous highway that begins just east of Steamboat Springs and runs about 69 miles south to Wolcott, with small, former mining towns dotting its path. 

A grocery store, two bars, a few restaurants and a coffee shop sit along Main Street in what Knoebel calls “downtown.” To an out-of-towner passing through on a weekday, the street may not look like much. A few cars line the road. Most business patrons are working 16 miles away in Steamboat Springs, a ski resort town just north of Oak Creek. 

Knoebel said about 80% of the town’s residents work in Steamboat — keeping its restaurants staffed and cleaning its hotels for wealthy visitors — then returning home for the night to a town where they can afford a living space on a service worker’s wages.

But on Sundays, the aroma of Franciosi Brothers Pizza, live bands outside Lupita’s Tacos and cheers from inside the Oak Creek Tavern blanket the town’s small Main Street in celebration. Young families with children walk around and mingle with old-time ranchers and miners, and Knoebel is proud to lead the town.

Oak Creek Mayor Nikki Knoebel stands at Decker Park, a gathering place for Oak Creek residents. (Kate Perdoni/Rocky Mountain PBS)

Oak Creek sits beneath a windy canyon, sandwiched between the Flat Tops Wilderness — a mountain range known for its strenuous hikes and unique peaks — and the mountains making up Steamboat Resort. Its outdoors are lush and emerald in the summer and sparkling white in winter, covered in thick blankets of powdery snow. 

“I used to say ‘give us a parking problem on Main Street and I’ll know we’ve been successful,’” said Mary Alice Paige-Allen, a former town administrator and clerk, who is still involved in Oak Creek. “Now we have a parking problem on Sundays.”

Like many towns in Colorado’s high country, Oak Creek was once a booming coal mining town. Between the 1920s and 1940s, Oak Creek reigned as Routt County’s most populous town, housing almost 2,000 people. But as Steamboat Springs solidified its status as a glitzy resort town and the mining industry shrunk, Oak Creek’s population fell and Steamboat’s grew. Oak Creek’s population was 889 at the time of the 2020 census. In Steamboat, it was 13,390.

A changing town in a changing world

Oak Creek’s story is one many mountain towns know well: coal mining and ranching brought people to the town in the first place, but as the world shifted, so did small towns. Some mountain towns just off I-70 like Vail and Breckenridge evolved into expensive ski towns, attracting visitors from across the globe while struggling to house workers who keep their businesses afloat. 

Other towns further off the interstate but nestled in the Rockies — like Toponas and Wolcott — are now home to just a few ranches. 

Then there are towns like Oak Creek, which exist as some of the closest semi-affordable options for resort town workers. While Oak Creek’s leaders and longtime residents enjoy welcoming Steamboat’s workforce with open arms, the town isn’t the bustling mining town it once was. And those planning the town’s future say striking a balance between welcoming new growth and holding onto the town's identity is paramount. But the task isn’t an easy one.

“We want growth,” Knoebel said. “But we want to do it correctly and we want to respect everybody in the town, from the elders to the new folks that are coming in.”

Knoebel is adamant that growth is good. People deserve an affordable place to live, she believes, and putting up a gate outside Oak Creek’s borders is impractical and inhumane.

But the town doesn’t want chain restaurants or a Walmart, nor does it want to become another mountain town where no one can afford to live. 

“We’re still trying to keep the history here,” Knoebel said.

In addition to mining, Oak Creek also made a name for itself as a ranching town. Despite a changing agricultural industry and skyrocketing property taxes, Oak Creek is still surrounded by ranches at its town borders, something multi-generational residents take deep pride in.

“Everything has gotten so expensive that it’s become hard for our ranching families to make a living,” said Linda Long, a rancher whose family has been in South Routt County for seven generations. “But that’s our roots and we want to hold onto them, so we still have a heavy presence of agriculture.”

Long’s family settled in Yampa, about 10 miles south of Oak Creek, and worked on ranches and in mines for generations. Long met her husband at a dance 50 years ago, and the two made Oak Creek home. 

“It’s a small town that takes care of each other,” Long said. “People feel like whatever their way of life, they’re welcome here.”

In the shadow of a ski town

Unlike Hayden — which sits west of Steamboat Springs and along its same highway — Oak Creek is slightly out of the way. To reach town from Steamboat, one needs to trek through a narrow canyon, which has no cellphone service and is often covered in snow, gaining 500 feet in elevation. 

Because of this, Knoebel and other town leaders have tried to ensure people don’t have to leave Oak Creek once they’re home from work. The town has yoga in its parks, cross-country ski and snowshoe trails on ranches around town and live music in its bars and restaurants. The goal, Knoebel said, is not to compete with Steamboat Springs for the title of “Routt County’s largest and most expensive city,” but instead, to hold its own identity outside of being a bedroom town.

“We see these families that are coming out and what they’ve asked for is not to drive to Steamboat to do things,” Knoebel said. “People drive to Steamboat for work and then they want to come and relax in their own communities.”

For a while, kids whose parents worked in Steamboat Springs also had to attend daycare and preschool in the city until they were ready to begin school at South Routt Elementary School. Older siblings and grandparents were also tasked with caring for younger siblings while parents were at work.

To combat this, Paige-Allen and Knoebel worked together in 2012 to create an after school and summer program for South Routt County kids. Eleven years later, the program serves 40 kids, which the two said is particularly important as Colorado faces a statewide childcare crisis.

“They weren’t here and weren’t part of the community because there was no childcare,” Paige-Allen said. “By providing childcare, it kept those kids in South Routt.”

Mary Alice Paige-Allen, a former Oak Creek town administrator and clerk, stands at Decker Park. (Kate Perdoni/Rocky Mountain PBS)

Also in 2012, Colorado voters legalized the commercial sale and possession of cannabis. As the first of two states to do so, Colorado towns and cities asked themselves what bringing weed to town would mean. More tax dollars was the big draw, but many people in the state saw the potential rise in out-of-state visitors and crime as possible drawbacks.

Oak Creek town leaders saw legalization as a lucrative opportunity.

“It wasn’t that we wanted to see a dispensary on every corner. What we wanted to see were jobs,” Paige-Allen said. “Instead of the dispensary side of the equation, we went to the manufacturing and cultivation side of the equation and we saw eight million dollars worth of infrastructure built in this community and an influx of workers coming from Steamboat to Oak Creek.”

The industry also employed many young workers who bought cheap houses in town, invested in the community and are now raising kids in South Routt schools.

As the cannabis industry continues to change, Paige-Allen said some of the cultivation buildings are now used for other purposes, but the point remains: jobs are jobs.

“We didn’t care what kind of widgets they were making as long as they were making widgets here in Oak Creek,” Paige-Allen said.

Familiar faces

Linda Long and Nita Naugle stood outside the Tracks and Trails Museum — a downtown Oak Creek site with information from the town’s past — pointing to mining artifacts and showing hundred-year-old photos. 

As the two walked through history, several town residents waved and honked. Some came up to greet, some asked questions about the week’s events.

Linda Long's family has seven generations in Oak Creek. (Kate Perdoni/Rocky Mountain PBS)

Long and Naugle share longtime roots in South Routt County. Naugle is the museum’s director, while Long is a rancher and part-time volunteer at the museum. The two are something of town celebrities.

Though Long is particularly famous for her deep roots in South Routt and Naugle is known for the museum, in a town of 889, most people are something of a celebrity. 

“Nobody moves to a town this small to be anonymous, because you can’t be,” said Skyler McKinley, owner of the Oak Creek Tavern, one of two full time bars in town. “Everybody is a celebrity if you live in Oak Creek. And people come [to the bar] to discuss the celebrity sightings of the day.”

McKinley bought the bar in 2021. He was vacationing in Steamboat and drove to Yampa — just south of Oak Creek — to visit a famous restaurant. The restaurant was closed for winter hours, which McKinley had never thought about, as a Denver man who grew up in Pueblo and had never lived in a small, rural town.

As a self-proclaimed “bar-fly,” McKinley makes a point to stop into a local bar each time he visits a new town. What was then the “Silver Buckle Saloon” caught his eye. While enjoying a drink, McKinley learned the bar was for sale. Hours later, he agreed to purchase it.

“I had sort of toyed with the idea and hoped in my 40s or 50s to have a little mountain bar someday, but that’s all it was, just an idea,” McKinley, age 31, said. “This was just dumb luck.”

McKinley had previously visited Routt County a couple times as a kid, but remembers little. Growing up in Pueblo, the far northwestern corner of Colorado felt like an impractically far drive. When he bought the bar, McKinley knew little about Oak Creek.

But ever since, he’s made a point to learn all he can about the bar: its previous owners, the faces and drinks of its regulars and what it means to own a bar in a small town, particularly as an outsider.

“You really are the caretaker of this part of history for the portion where it’s also your history,” McKinley said. “My responsibility is to the history, I don’t think I can try to change anything, but what I have to do is know about the history.”

The bar has been through several iterations in its lifetime. It opened as “The Big Six Saloon,” 100 years ago. 

Most famously, it was once known as “The Elks,” and run by a woman named “Shirley,” who regulars knew as “Miss Shirley.” She loved cribbage and reportedly smoked cigarettes behind the bar.

For McKinley, the bar is much more than a place to play music and sell drinks. It’s a communal space for people to share the news, commiserate hardship and celebrate achievement.

“My name is on the deed but the town owns the bar,” he said. “In a town this small, you have to be the place where people see each other.”

Skyler McKinley, the current owner of the Oak Creek Tavern, stands with a former longtime owner of his bar, Miss Shirley. The establishment was called "Elks" under Miss Shirley's ownership.

Routt county is home to three news sources: The Steamboat Pilot & Today is the area’s legacy newspaper; Steamboat Radio is a commercial sports, music and news station; and The Yampa Valley Bugle is a new online source run solely by a former Pilot & Today reporter. 

Because each news source covers an entire county but is based in Steamboat, McKinley said everyday news of people’s lives — childbirth, divorce, new dogs — is spread at the bar. 

“There’s good and bad to that. There’s always drama, there’s a lot of tragedy,” McKinley said. “It’s tough bartending in these small towns because you’re intimately aware of the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Still, McKinley said, providing a communal gathering place and being welcomed into such a small community feels like a lifetime calling.

“It’s being able to throw a really good dinner party every night,” McKinley said. “For my lifetime, I get to be the custodian of a town for a place they keep alive.”

Facing the future

While Main Street is paved, Oak Creek’s residential roads are not. Each year, town board members are faced with the debate: to pave or not to pave. While paving could provide convenience, it’s a costly and timely process. But more so than that, it signifies a changing town and brings change not everyone is ready for.

“Instead of a thriving mining town, we’re now a bedroom community for a resort town,” Long said, commemorating the town she and her family knew long before most of its current residents were born. “Our highways aren’t made for that and we have an awful lot of traffic from the resorts.”

Though Paige-Allen encourages growth, she wants to see Oak Creek’s small-town status as first priority.

“We want housing and we want young families and we want a successful school district, but we also want people to keep the small-town mindset,” she said. “This community needs to be careful that they don’t lose that.”

Alison Berg is a reporter at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at

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