The band Chicago performed at Caribou Ranch.


High-Altitude Hits: Six Incredible Songs Recorded at Caribou Ranch

Some of the most iconic musicians of the 1970s and ’80s came to record among the soaring peaks and high-mountain valleys around Caribou Ranch. The music made there influenced artists around the world.

Stephen Stills

Singer and songwriter Stephen Stills at Caribou Ranch in the mid-1970s.

Donated to the Denver Public Library by the Rocky Mountain News, RMN-052-4249

The Colorado high country has a special place in music history. For more than a decade, Caribou Ranch, a recording studio built in an abandoned barn tucked into the foothills above Nederland, Colorado, cranked out some of the most recognizable and most influential records of the 1970s and ’80s. Producer Jim Guercio began building the Caribou Ranch recording studio in 1971, on the former Van Vleet Arabian Horse Ranch. Once the studio was completed the following year, it quickly became a premier destination for the best musicians of the era, including Stephen Stills, John Lennon, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and more, who stayed at the ranch both to record and visit the splendor of the Rocky Mountain retreat. In 1985, a fire at the ranch damaged the studio, closing its operations. However, the legacy of Caribou Ranch lives on in the songs and albums recorded there, like the ones below—many of which will be instantaneously recognizable to music lovers in Colorado and beyond.

1. “Rocky Mountain Way,” Joe Walsh.

In the spring of 1972, guitarist Walsh was the first musician to record at Caribou, while the studio was still under construction. He had just moved to Colorado, where he formed his group, Barnstorm; he later joined the Eagles in 1975. “Rocky Mountain Way” came out on Walsh’s second album recorded at the ranch, The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get. Famed for its talk box vocals, the lyrics reflect Walsh’s love for Colorado and the new directions it provided for his music: “Spent the last year / Rocky Mountain way / Couldn’t get much higher…’Cause the Rocky Mountain way / Is better than the way we had.”

2. “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” Rick Derringer.

Fans of “Dazed and Confused” and classic rock radio will instantly recognize this emblematic, guitar-driven 1970s rock tune. Though it was first released in 1970 while Derringer was a member of the band Johnny Winter And, it’s the Caribou Ranch version that made earworm history, recorded at the studio in 1973 for the musician’s first solo album, All American Boy. Derringer played nearly all the instruments on this recording: guitar, bass, tambourine, and lead vocals, with only drummer Bobby Caldwell and three backing vocalists accompanying him.

John Lennon and Elton John

Two music legends, Elton John and John Lennon, together in the Colorado high country in the mid-1970s.

Donated to the Denver Public Library by the Rocky Mountain News, RMN-052-4251.

3. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” Elton John.

The British musician recorded three albums at Caribou Ranch: Caribou (1974); Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975); and Rock of the Westies (1975). This highly personal track, arguably the best on the album, details the pianist’s suicide attempt in 1968 and was written by John’s longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin and recorded at Caribou in August 1974. The song’s anthemic chorus features the classic Caribou Ranch sound: high vocals that studio engineers claimed were made possible by the thin air at the ranch’s nearly 9,000-foot elevation in the Rocky Mountains. At 6 minutes and 45 seconds, it was not an obvious contender for a hit, yet it charted at No. 4 on the US Billboard Top 100.

4. “Give A Little Bit,” Supertramp.

he progressive rock-turned-pop band recorded their fifth album, Even in the Quietest Moments…, at Caribou Ranch during the winter of 1976–1977. Like many albums recorded at the ranch, the cover reflects the mountain setting: a grand piano topped with snow, photographed at nearby Eldora Mountain ski resort. This track, which became an international hit, opens with a now-iconic acoustic guitar riff recorded in the studio’s elevator —and closes suddenly to cut off an inopportune wail by Frank, the studio cat, that was inadvertently caught on the tape.

The band Chicago performed at Caribou Ranch.

The band Chicago performed at Caribou Ranch.

Donated to the Denver Public Library by the Rocky Mountain News, RMN-052-4250

5. “Devil’s Sweet,” Chicago.

No Caribou Ranch list would be complete without a shout-out to Chicago, who were produced and managed by studio founder Jim Guercio from 1968 to 1977. “Devil’s Sweet” is an unusual deep cut from Chicago VII, which was recorded and mixed at Caribou in the fall of 1973 and marked an ambitious turning point for the band, who showcased their jazz influences on the double album. This ten-minute instrumental track, written and led with ferocity by drummer and founding member Danny Seraphine, is a stunner, highlighting Chicago’s virtuosity and musicianship, with nary a Peter Cetera vocal in sight. 

A rainbow stretches over Caribou Ranch in the mid-1970s.

A rainbow stretches over Caribou Ranch in the mid-1970s.

Donated to the Denver Public Library by the Rocky Mountain News, RMN-052-4253.

6. “Shining Star,” Earth, Wind & Fire.

Inspired by a walk that singer and songwriter Maurice White took under the night skies at Caribou, this track, co-written by vocalist Philip Bailey and keyboardist Larry Dunn, was indeed a star, charting at number one in the United States. But at the time of White’s walk in September 1974, during the band’s three-week recording session at the ranch, the soon-to-be soul-funk-R&B superstars had yet to break through to pop radio. The a cappella outro features White and Bailey’s classic harmonies, which the pair recorded twenty times and layered to sound like a full chorus of voices.

The original recording studio at Caribou Ranch.

The original recording studio at Caribou Ranch.

Donated to the Denver Public Library by the Rocky Mountain News, RMN-052-4247

For more Caribou Ranch recordings, check out this Spotify playlist, brought to you by the good people at the Colorado Music Hall of Fame!