Rockey River Resort celebrates 50 years
An oasis on the banks of the Gunnison
Times Staff Writer
Originally published 2013-07-25
In a world where everything is too complicated, the Rockey River Resort stands as a monument to yesteryear.
A half century ago, many people aspired to completely escape suburban life on their vacation, heading to places where there was no traffic, television or telephones. They sought out places that offered peace and quiet. Places where they could toss a fishing line into a pristine mountain stream, sit on the porch of a cabin and read a book or walk along a riverbank and recharge their souls by doing nothing more than contemplating the beauty of the world around them.
To many people today — more than a few of whom have not experienced solitude since the womb — this sounds like the vacation from hell. They eagerly await their next cruise, road trip or week at Disney World, where schedules and itineraries rule.
To others — raised to cherish solitude and quality time spent together — places like the Rockey River Resort nurture their souls, building fond memories that remain vivid long after any recollection of day-to-day living the rest of the year has faded.
Rockey River Resort has been providing this service to vacationers for 50 years now. Multiple generations of countless families have spent “their” annual week at the resort, coming back year after year, even as time passes and grandparents and parents are no longer able to join them.
In that time, the resort has only had three owners. Two are from the same family. The present owners, Rob and Dani Wattles, purchased the property from Dani’s father, Joe Marvel, in 1993. Joe and his wife, Peggy, had purchased it from founders Charles and Helen Rockey in 1983. While the Gunnison River — which borders the property on the east — is certainly “rocky,” the name of the resort is often misspelled without an “e.” The true spelling is “Rockey,” the family name of its founders.
The Rockeys purchased the land for the resort from Fred Monson in 1959, according to a brief history of the property compiled by Helen. It was approximately 60 acres located on County Road 10 that spanned both sides of the Gunnison River and had originally been the Verheul Ranch — a dairy farm six miles north of Gunnison that dated to the late 1800s. The Rockeys subdivided and sold off much of the property to finance transforming a parcel on the west bank into a resort.
Among the ranch’s many features were a large log barn, the original homestead cabin, a bunk house and the milk house — which had an irrigation ditch running through it so the cans of milk could be kept cold. All still stand on the property and have been restored and upgraded over the years to meet various needs of the resort.
John Cranor, a neighbor, built shells for the first three log cabins. Charles did the electrical and plumbing work. Charles and Helen did all of the varnish and finish work. They opened the resort in the spring of 1963 with these three cabins.
At that time, many resorts were located along the Gunnison River west of town in the area that would be inundated by Blue Mesa Reservoir. The loss of those resorts would create a need for replacement facilities elsewhere on the river. It would also provide a ready source of cabins that could be relocated to the Rockey property.
The final season for resorts in the path of Blue Mesa Reservoir was the summer of 1963. That fall, the Rockeys attended an auction at the Columbine Resort and purchased four multi-room cabins that dated to the late 19th century. They were soon relocated to Rockey River Resort and upgraded.
Five more cabins were purchased from local rancher Sheldon Trampe, whose father had run the Cottonhurst Resort. After being moved to the property they, too, were upgraded by the Rockeys. Over time, RV spaces with hook-ups and a log office building containing a small convenience store were added. The Rockeys would operate the resort for 20 seasons. By the end of the 1982 season, they were ready to retire and placed the property on the market.
Denver residents Joe and Peggy Marvel and their family had been vacationing in the area since the mid-1960s and decided they wanted to give up city life and get into the resort business. Their daughter Mary Jo had graduated from Western State in 1982 and remained in the area. They asked her to check if any resorts might be for sale. The Marvels soon bought Rockey River Resort and began operating it in 1983, with the help of six of their eight children. They kept the well-established name. Charles and Helen Rockey retired to a house just north of the resort, right across County Road 10.
One of the first changes the Marvels made was to expand the operation from summer-only to year-around. As Joe explained in a 1983 Gunnison Country Times interview, “We want to keep it open for hunters, skiers, snowmobilers, and cross country skiers, in addition to fishermen, RV travelers and campers.” They began winterizing the cabins and installing wood burning stoves.
River life took a tragic turn when Peggy was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away in 1985, leaving Joe and the children to carry on. One by one, the children grew up and left home. Changes in how people vacationed — with guests that were more likely to run into town on a whim instead of just checking in and relaxing — made the convenience store unnecessary, so it was closed.
By 1992, Joe was ready to pass the torch. His eldest child and her husband, Dani and Rob Wattles, lived in Damascus, Md., where Dani was a nuclear medicine supervisor and Rob was a railroad construction supervisor. They had just remodelled the house and were raising two children. Joe visited them in Maryland that Easter and announced he planned to sell the resort.
“He wanted us to come out,” Dani says, believing that selling to her and Rob was a motivator for his trip.
They gave it serious consideration. Rob’s job kept him on the road. A promotion was also in his future, which would have him away from home even more. The decision became a choice between career opportunity and family. Dani and Rob decided to buy Rockey River Resort from Joe, though they weren’t quite sure what would happen next.
The Wattles family arrived in Gunnison and took over operation of the resort on July 7, 1993. Their children, Sarah and Joe, grew up helping to run the business. Dani’s father continued to live on the property.
Horticulture was one of Dani’s interests. The grounds of the resort had long been somewhat barren. She soon changed that. Lawns, trees and lots of flowers turned it into a paradise. Her efforts have continued through the years. More recently, she replaced the first generation of non-native plants with native trees and perennials that regenerate each spring. They decrease the amount of time needed for upkeep and require little, if any, watering.
In 1997, after Helen and Charles Rockey had passed away, Rob’s father, Robert S. Wattles, bought the house that the Rockeys had occupied during their retirement years and moved there from Virginia. While the two fathers-in-law were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they became friends of a sort. Dani’s father passed away in 2003. Rob’s father passed away in 2004.
Today, the resort consists of 15 cabins, 24 recreational vehicle spaces and various support structures situated on 7.2 acres that border one-third mile of the Gunnison River. They have built a replica of an old time railroad depot that serves as their home. Rob, an accomplished guitarist and rock band member, also has a space in the barn which serves as a music room.
While there has long been a strong repeat business at the resort, the interests of many guests have changed over the years.
“People used to sit on porches more,” Dani observed. “Kids played more.”
As activities like river rafting — which didn’t exist in the resort’s early days — grew in popularity, some guests began using the resort as they would a motel; a place to sleep before embarking on area adventures during the day.
The winter business that the Marvels had sought in 1983 grew and then declined. Wood stoves were deemed hazardous and dirty, so they had been replaced by propane heat. Dramatic increases in the cost of propane during the 2000s and the economic downturn in 2008 caused Dani and Rob to reevaluate winter operations. Their season is now May 1 to the third week in November.
The cabins have also evolved from rustic and basic to quaint and comfortable under Dani’s and Rob’s watch. The office has a large library of books where guests can sit and read, and a table for playing games or visiting. The coffee pot is usually on. A fleet of bicycles is available for those who choose to take a spin around the grounds. Even little touches make a big difference. Guests notice that the sheets on the cabin beds have been air dried on a clothes line, as opposed to being tumbled in a dryer. The soft sheets, comfortable beds, quiet surroundings and gurgling of the Gunnison in the background can’t help but provide the basis for the best night’s sleep anywhere.
While many things have changed over 50 years, one thing that hasn’t changed is the friendliness of the resort. Many guests who come back year after year and have become friends. They are greeted with hugs, coming and going. Personal backgrounds are known and upon arrival everyone catches up with what has transpired in their lives over the preceding year. Departures are sad times made bearable by encouraging words about “next year’s visit.”
While they admit that operating the resort is a “labor of love” and much of the revenue ends up going back into upkeep on the property, Dani and Rob have not tired of it and have no plans to retire.
“We hope this place will continue to find the kind of clientele that need an escape from city life,” Dani said.
It is impossible to guess what the world might be like in another 50 years; only that it will be as markedly different from today as our world is from the one 50 years ago. Hopefully, that future will still have room for places like Rockey River Resort.