Originally published: September/October 2017
By John Lehndorff
First came the sound of distant thunder from over the prairie horizon. Then the ground shook and soon after, a wave of wild, black fur spilled across the unfenced plains of unsettled America. Bison numbered in the thousands, commanding a diarist’s full attention.
“Far as the eye could reach the prairie was literally covered, and not only covered but crowded with them,” wrote Warren Angus Ferris, an 1830s trapper, in Life in the Rocky Mountains (Charleston, S.C.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017). “[A] gallant show; a vast expanse of moving, plunging, rolling, rushing life—a literal sea of dark forms, with still pools, sweeping currents, and heaving billows, and all the grades of movement from calm repose to wild agitation. The air was filled with dust and bellowings, the prairie was alive with animation, —I never realized before the majesty and power of the mighty tides of life that heave and surge in all great gatherings of human or brute creation. The scene had here a wild sublimity of aspect, that charmed the eye with a spell of power, while the natural sympathy of life with life made the pulse bound and almost madden with excitement. Jove but it was glorious!”
That was long ago, nearly two centuries, yet bison still impress today, whether in smaller numbers at several Colorado sites, on the college football gridiron, in memorialization of Western lore, or at a Denver-area restaurant honoring Native American culinary tradition.
Bison herds, various locations
The joke at Colorado’s most famous spot, the Buffalo Herd Overlook at Genesee Park, is that you sometimes must overlook the fact that there were no bison to see. Bison herds tend to go where the people are not, but Colorado has a surprising number of locations where your odds of encountering bison are good.
Start with Colorado’s top under-the-radar natural attraction, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in sight of Denver near Commerce City. Besides a well-curated Visitors Center that teaches about the site’s natural and industrial origins, the highlight of the Refuge is a self-guided, 11-mile, 45- to 60-minute drive through diverse terrain. It feels a tiny bit like Jurassic Park when you ride through the giant cattle guard gates and big warning signs but thankfully minus the scary John Williams soundtrack.
The Refuge website offers some helpful tips for visitors on encountering bison. “Stay in your vehicle while driving through the bison area. … Bison are wild, unpredictable animals—do not try to attract their attention. Keep at least a 50- to 100-yard distance between your vehicle and the bison.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes that it is not responsible for the damage if a bison charges your Range Rover.
Meanwhile, the bison still roam in Genesee Park. The herd began 103 years ago with some of the last bison saved in Yellowstone Park, but now there is a nice new area available to view them. Keep driving to the Chief Hosa exit, where you can access the other side of the bison pasture along a dirt road. There you’ll find a lovely park setting away from the highway roar with restrooms and picnic tables next to a fenced area where the bison are known to hang out. The best time to catch them is in the early mornings or late afternoons.
2400 Colorado Ave., Boulder
Ralphie the buffalo runs the field at every home University of Colorado football game in Boulder, Colo. © Boulder Daily Camera, MediaNews Group, Prairie Mountain Publishing/Cliff Grassmick
Every college football team mascot is beloved, but only the University of Colorado venerates one that weighs 1,200 pounds and runs 25 miles an hour. CU students chose the bison as a mascot in 1934, but it wasn’t until Oct. 28, 1967, that Ralphie first ran on the field, in a game against Oklahoma State, and a tradition was born. The NCAA in 2016 named Ralphie’s run across the field the “best entrance in college football.”
“Ralphie is only on the field twice a game for about 25 seconds, but the power and energy when she’s charging—well, there’s nothing like it across the nation,” said John Graves, director of CU’s fan-funded Ralphie Program.
Upwards of 70 students try out yearly for the rare open roster spot in the Ralphie Handler Program. “We ask about their experience working with animals and their athletic activities,” Graves said. Handlers train 30 hours a week.
Ralphie’s location is kept secret to protect her from pranksters.
The 50th anniversary celebration of Ralphie, a female, is Oct. 28 at the homecoming game versus the University of California. Other 2017 home games include Washington (Sept. 23), Arizona (Oct. 7), and USC (Nov. 11).
987 1/2 Lookout Mountain Rd., Golden
Always the self-promoter, Buffalo Bill ordered hand-painted lamps created for his daughters. One of the lamps is on display with other items at the Buffalo Bill Museum near Golden. © AAA Colorado/Tom Hess
Celebrated Western showman William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody died in Denver on Jan. 10, 1917. More than 25,000 people filed by his casket in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol, but the final resting place he chose, atop Lookout Mountain above Golden, proved too difficult for many to reach.
“He liked the view here on the edge of the plains and the mountains,” said Steve Friesen, Director of Buffalo Bill’s Grave and Museum.
On the 100th anniversary of Buffalo Bill’s demise, the museum created an exhibit about the burial and ongoing controversy about choice of sites with the city named after him: Cody, Wyo. The museum’s collection of artifacts includes firearms, the Stetson Cody worn at his last performance, Chief Sitting Bull’s bow and arrows, early recordings of Buffalo Bill’s voice, and giant full-color Wild West Show posters. Buffalo Bill Fall Roundup, Sept. 17, includes free admission to the Buffalo Bill Museum.
The Buffalo Bill Museum opened in 1921. “It was one of Denver’s first tourist attractions, and the first to celebrate the West,” said Steve Friesen.
In Golden, Cody’s legacy is celebrated at the annual Buffalo Bill Days, a lively community celebration that began in the 1940s as a trail ride up Lookout Mountain to visit Buffalo Bill’s grave.
3536 W. 44th Ave., Denver
8181 E. Arapahoe Rd., Greenwood Village
Tocabe restaurants works with local Colorado bison ranchers to supply its Bison ribs. Courtesy of Tocabe
Bison can be as impressive on the plate as they are in person. Bison meat is quite lean and only gets tough when overcooked. The taste is like grass-fed beef but a little earthier.
Bison stars on the menu at Tocabe, Colorado’s only American Indian cafés, which offer Mighty Bison Ribs—three slowly-braised bones finished on the grill with berry barbecue sauce.
“We source our bison from Rock River Ranch, a small operation in Eastern Colorado,” said Ben Jacobs, co-owner of Tocabe and a member of the Osage Nation. “They treat the animals well, and the owner hand delivers the fresh bison to us. We get aged bison ribs, ground bison, and brisket and other cuts that we braise. For us, the Plains Indians, the bison has great meaning, it was very much a food that sustained communities. It was a true relationship between human and animal.”
Tocabe is an unpretentious fast casual eatery decorated with Native American culture—ancient and modern—minus the stereotypes like tomahawks and such. Recipes from various tribes are featured including ground or shredded bison on fluffy, Osage-style fry bread with toppings from roasted green chilies to hominy salsa.
John Lehndorff is the former Dining Critic of the Rocky Mountain News. He hosts Radio Nibbles weekly on KGNU (88.5 FM, kgnu.org).