Like U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, we raced up the mountain with anticipation and determination burning in our gut. But our prize wasn’t a low-down dirty outlaw, rather the most famous scenery from the beloved 1969 Western “True Grit”.
When I discovered that most of the legendary John Wayne movie had been filmed around Ridgway, Colorado, I knew tracking down the movie locations was a no-brainer. Dad grew up watching a steady diet of Westerns. From TV shows like Gunsmoke and Rawhide to movies like “High Plains Drifter” and “The Magnificent Seven”, he eagerly soaked up stories of the vast, untamed American frontier and the folks who lived there.
An art festival brought us to Ridgway, but I quickly informed Dad of our post-festival activities. The Ridgway Area Chamber of Commerce printed a brochure called “Ridgway’s Western Movie Heritage” that revealed all we needed to know. Hollywood loved filming in and around the tiny town. The marquee included “True Grit”, “Tribute to a Bad Man”, “How the West was Won”, “The Sons of Katie Elder”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid” and most recently “The Hateful Eight”.
While Hollywood directors loved the scenery around Ridgway, not everyone lauded the decision to film there. Charles Portis, author of the book “True Grit” (upon which the movie was based) said he thought Colorado looked more like a “big sky” Western than Ft. Smith, Arkansas, the real setting of the book.
“True Grit” movie director Henry Hathaway later said, “Yes, I know, but it didn’t matter because all Western movies were fairy tales, more or less, and a specular landscape was expected.”
“If I go to a movie, and I’m thinking “Holy mackerel! I’ve gotta go see this place!’ then the director’s done his job well. I’m always curious what the real place looks like,” Dad said. “Obviously directors go to a lot of time and trouble to find the best places to film their movie. If you pay attention to scenery in movies and can find out where it was shot, you save yourself some trouble. It’s basically location scouting done for you. Plus it’s just cool to see the place for yourself.”
Visual story telling drove Hathaway. According to movie historian Fredrik Gustafson’s blog, “He (Hathaway) was very particular about what he wanted. He would sometimes wait, and hold up the production for days, until the light was exactly right for a particular shot, dismissing angry calls from producers.”
In fact, Hathaway commented, “I’d say my greatest directional strength is my stubbornness: I know what I want and I go after it.”
Hmmm…sounded like another guy I knew. That led me to conclude if the San Juan Mountains possessed jaw-dropping scenery good enough for Hathaway’s “True Grit”, they’d be perfect for Dad.
“Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!”
We tackled the movie trail backwards, finding the end-of-the-movie scenes first. Locating the stunning meadow where the final show-stopping firefight takes place between Wayne’s character Rooster Cogburn and Ned Pepper’s gang of misfits topped our list. Locals called it Katie’s Meadow.
We headed out north on Highway 550 from Ridgway and turned off at County Road 10 going towards Owl Creek Pass. Cattle once plodded along this dirt road on the way to market. We followed the long, winding path 14.7 miles up through the Cimmaron Mountains, enjoying the picturesque ranches, dramatic bluffs, the sparkling creek and hundreds of towering trees as we crept toward the meadow.
We completed switchback after switchback. Then, just as the directions stated, the meadow unfurled to our left. And what a glorious meadow it was! The sun backlit hundreds of golden corn lilies in the meadow as a lazy, crystal-clear stream meandered toward the road. Chimney Peak and Courthouse Mountain soared high above the field adding drama and the “wow” factor to the scene.
We spent the morning exploring the meadow. We easily found the creek where Rooster, Mattie and Laboeuf camped as well as the rock on the far side of the meadow where Pepper shot Cogburn’s horse right out from under him.
Apparently plenty of people visited the meadow over the years, leaving their own mark on the aspens that follow the creek. I found tree after tree carved with dates, initials and art. If you watch the movie, those aspens had just started to turn beautiful shades of yellow, something Henry Hathaway purposely waited on before filming the grand fight scene.
Next to the creek, Dad and I discovered a wooden fence line that lent an air of the Old West to the meadow. By then, we’d noticed storm clouds building around the peaks and the light shifting to a favorable position. Like Hathaway, Dad knew what he wanted and he went after it.
He wasted no time venturing through the corn lilies to capture his piece of Colorado beauty and movie history. I hung back to capture Dad working his magic in the grand landscape.
At the end of the day, we’d joined hundreds of other Wayne aficionados in taking a piece of movie history home with us in the form of pictures. We couldn’t wait for the next day’s “True Grit” adventures.
Join us next Wednesday when Dad and I track down the Mattie’s ranch and learn how Ridgway, Colorado became Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
If You Go
- Head north from Ridgway on Highway 550. Turn right about 1.7 miles out of town on County Road 10. Follow the signs on this unpaved road toward Owl Creek Pass. County Road 10 will eventually become County Road 8. Travel 14.7 miles from your turn off. Just after a series of switchbacks you’ll see Katie’s Meadow on the left. There are no signs marking the meadow, but there is a place to pull off and explore.
- Continue up the switchbacks a little less than a mile until you come to Owl Creek Pass. The rock that Mattie slept on is on the right near the creek.
- The road leads to Silver Jack Reservoir and eventually comes out at Cimmaron.
- Take a high clearance vehicle. It’s not required but a good idea.
- Take food, water and gas. There are no services along the way and cell service is spotty.