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Curating for the curious: Big fun at Colorado’s small museums

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Colorado may boast 300-plus days of sunshine a year — even TV weathercasters know that — but there are also fine reasons to stay indoors, especially when it comes to the state’s myriad museums.

We’re not talking about the big cultural draws such as the Denver Museum of Nature & Science or the Denver Art Museum. Both are fine institutions, but really, do either of them offer a gander at a Cold War-era B-1 Lancer bomber or the goosebump-inducing noose used on the last prisoner hanged in Colorado?


This is where a variety of small museums take center stage.

Ranging from the unique to the downright offbeat, here’s a roundup of off-the-beaten-path slices of history that are worth a visit.

Colorado Railroad Museum

All aboard! This Front Range homage to the iron horse houses some bona fide engineering icons. More than 100 locomotives, coaches and cabooses are displayed.

Railroads played a crucial role in Colorado’s development, from narrow-gauge trains that served the mining industry to the big Pullman cars and freight trains that imported people and exported goods.

Visitors can watch train restoration projects from the roundhouse viewing area. There’s also a nifty gift shop.

17155 W. 44th Ave., Golden, 303-279-4591,

Museum of Friends

This little museum in Walsenburg is neither a shrine to Quakers nor a tribute to the cast of a certain popular ’90s sitcom.

Instead, this is an appealing contemporary art space with a range of rotating shows. Recent highlights include a 2012 exhibit by photographer Zoe Childerly called “Where’s Walsenburg,” a compelling portrait of Huerfano County’s landscape and residents.

A new show opens April 24 called “Water is Gold.” It’s being done in conjunction with a conference about water use in the state. The non-juried show concentrates on works involving a water theme.

109 E. Sixth St., Walsenburg, 719-738-2858,

Colorado Ski Museum

Housed atop the Vail Transportation Center, this museum highlights the history of Centennial State schussing. (Yes, there’s a snowboard section, too.) Marvel at sepia-tone photos from old mining camps, where folks donned skis the length of sailboat masts. There is also a compelling look at the American ski industry’s roots in the 10th Mountain Division’s World War II training facility at Camp Hale, between Red Cliff and Leadville. It’s a fascinating look at how ski technology has evolved.

231 S. Frontage Road, East Vail, 970-476-1876,

Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame

Yeeee-haw! This terrific museum — which includes the Museum of the American Cowboy — in Colorado Springs is an homage to the cowboy, specifically, the competitive version with the bravado to climb aboard a half-ton bundle of horns, hooves and testosterone. And the saddle bronc and bareback riders, ropers, steer wrestlers and the rest.

You’ll see exhibits on both two- and four-legged icons of the sport, from longtime record-holding rider Larry Mahan who ruled the sport in the late 1960s, to the ferocious bull Tornado.

101 Pro Rodeo Drive, Colorado Springs, 719-528-4764,

Museum of Colorado Prisons

Have a kid who’s acting up? Give the miscreant a tour of this monument to misery.

The museum sits just a long leg-iron toss from the Arkansas River. The collection includes re-created cells, the noose that slipped around the neck of the last man executed by hanging in Colorado, confiscated weapons, a gas chamber and photographs of life in stir. There are also displays of disciplinary equipment that go far beyond getting your knuckles rapped by a ruler.

201 N. First St., Cañon City, 719-269-3015,

Fort Collins Museum of Discovery

This nifty museum is housed in a gleaming building that resulted from a $27 million capital campaign. It’s quite a trove of family-oriented attractions, from a pair of black-footed ferrets, a species once thought extinct, to the OtterBox Digital Dome Theater, which is a planetarium but much more.

408 Mason Court, Fort Collins, 970-221-6738,

Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum

A massive hangar at the former Lowry Air Force Base holds more than three dozen historic aircraft spanning the history of the wild blue yonder. Star exhibits include a B-1A Lancer bomber from the 1980s and a North American Aviation F-86 Sabre fighter jet.

The museum does a good job with explanatory material, and friendly guides — many of them military veterans — are happy to chat.

7711 E. Academy Blvd, Denver, 303-360-5360,

Denver Firefighters Museum

The museum offers an up-close look at 150 years of Denver firefighting. Ranging from the days when water wagons were pulled by horses and pumped by hand to today’s sophisticated engines, breathing apparatus and dispatch systems, this museum has it all.

Housed in a two-story former firehouse in downtown Denver, the museum is a firefighting buff’s dream. Kids can enjoy an interactive exhibit.

1326 Tremont Place, 303-892-1436,

The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum

Think your job is hard? Drive to Leadville and visit this museum. By tour’s end, you’ll slink back to your vehicle and thank heaven you don’t have to earn your paycheck as a hard-rock miner in the 19th century.

Mining history is on display in what could be the world’s loftiest museum, given this former silver boomtown’s 10,162-foot elevation. Old photos, dioramas and equipment give you a taste of what it was like to wrest ore from unforgiving stone.

120 W. Ninth St., Leadville, 719-486-1229,

William Porter

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