Colorado Part 1: South of I-70

Overview:

For nature enthusiasts looking for endless opportunities, Colorado offers up the most options of the 49 states we have been to – everywhere you look there is something to see or a trail to hike. The catch? Everyone is in the know about this and you may have to deal with a lot of other nature-lovers while trekking. This 2-part post will cover our clockwise travels around the state during the first week of July 2018.

Colorado Part 1- South of I-70 Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Drive – Chicago to Lincoln, NE (stayed in Lincoln)
  • Day 2: Drive-Lincoln, NE to Colorado Springs, CO; Garden of the Gods (Stayed in Co. Springs)
  • Day 3: Garden of the Gods, Renaissance Faire, Cheyenne Mountain State Park (Stayed in Co. Springs)
  • Day 4: Drive-Colorado Springs to Grand Junction; Royal Gorge, Great Sand Dunes, Highway 50 (Stayed in Grand Junction, CO)
  • Day 5: Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado National Monument (Stayed in Grand Junction, CO)
  • Day 6: Colorado National Monument, Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway (Stayed in Grand Junction, CO)

 

One of the struggles I have with traveling is making plans to revisit places I have already been to. Though there are many places I want to  revisit, there are so many places on my list of “must-sees” that it’s rare I will plan an entire trip returning to areas I have visited in the past.

There is an exception to this rule – if I was there prior to being married, a revisit  guarantees it to be a entirely new experience with the two of us. Colorado met that criteria – here are some of our adventures.

Getting There- The Trip West on I-80

We’ve made the trip out west along I-80 numerous times – and with few exceptions, we have bypassed many of the side trips available through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and eastern Colorado in order to get to our primary goal. Generally this is done with the false promise that we’d stop at some of those sights on the return.

This trip was no different. It is a long 14+ hour haul from Chicago to the Denver area. Starting around noon, we made good timing to the Des Moines area, about 2/3’s of the way through Iowa.  Just west of Des Moines we jumped off of I-80 and caught sight of Bandit Burrito, an independently owned and operated joint. They had a number of vegetarian options, which was a minor blessing 6 hours into the ride. The burritos were solid, the chips and salsa were not! The meal fortified us for the remaining few hours until we reached Lincoln, NE, where we stayed at a very reasonably priced Comfort Suites – Hotwire.com brought the price down about 40%.

We were on the road by 8:00am the next day with approximately 8 hours in front of us to Colorado Springs (CS), our first real destination. The roads were flat and not particularly exciting – we were anxious to START the trip. We had booked a room at Fairfield Inn a few miles north of CS. The general prices for a night’s stay in CS this holiday weekend were pretty steep at $200+, but the Fairfield was $129/ night on Priceline.com. Not bad for a new hotel just minutes from CS proper. Normally I would not take a lot of time to discuss a chain hotel, but this one had a few things going for it: 1. The free breakfast was actually good – fresh cooked oatmeal with varied nut and dried fruit toppings, as well as vegetarian sausage. 2. As of 2018, this hotel sat on the outskirts of CS, so the area was not congested like CS. 3. The staff was really nice.

Colorado Springs

In our limited planning for the trip we had decided that Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) would be the capstone. Based on prior experiences, we have learned that ending with the capstone is better than beginning with it – if you begin with the gem, the other places you visit are unfairly compared to the gem, and can be left underappreciated.  Therefore, we began in CS and headed clock wise around Colorado for a few days before digging into RMNP.

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Our official launch began at the Garden of the Gods, a small but powerful red rock “garden” on the edge of CS in the shadows of the 14,000 ft. tall Pike’s Peak and the surrounding Rockies. It was later in the day as we made the 20 mile drive south to the Garden. Despite iffy weather and a minor hail downpour about halfway through the drive, it was worth it as our arrival was greeted by 3 large rock formations, visible from all angles of the park. After a quick stop at the visitor center we headed out for the short (5 miles?) driving loop, and about a mile in we decided to jump out of the car and onto the main garden path.

With a setting only minutes from downtown CS, Garden of the Gods gets a lot of visitors. The ominous cloud coverage and occasional drizzle seemed to suppress the crowds at this time, but the main garden path remained fairly congested. We spent about 20 minutes gazing up at the formations before we found some trail spurs which took us hiking a little higher in altitude, giving us an eye-level view of the larger of the formations. As with all of the parks we have been to, if you are willing to walk 5 minutes off the main path you are provided the reward of reasonable solitude, which was the case for us on the Bretag Trail. We spent about 25 minutes on the trail, enjoying the view from above and being greeted by some of the local wildlife on our walk.

2 hours in, the park satiated our needs for nature and a good stretch of the legs. Garden of the Gods was free to enter and accessible to anyone in the CS area, and was a splendid introduction for what Colorado offers. Growing hungry, we headed to our car and ordered a pizza from the independently owned Papa Bear Pizza. Located just down the road from our hotel, the staff was great and the pizza was solid. We went to bed fairly early in anticipation of another busy day.

I returned to the Garden the next morning to view it in a literally different light, and noted there were quite a few more trails available at the other end of the park. Though we would not have a chance to do those hikes on this trip, if we returned to the CS area we would take advantage of them.

After my quick morning visit to Garden of the Gods, we officially started the day with a visit to the Colorado Renaissance Faire. I will build another, more detailed post for our Ren Faire visits-we enjoy these fests with their Sherwood Forest vibe, tasty snack food, and overall atmosphere of a good time for fellow freaks.

Outside of the 90-minute drive to the Chicago-area Bristol Ren Faire we generally don’t travel to other Faires, but will gladly make use of the opportunity if one is taking place near our travel destinations. In this case, this was a perfect way to begin our Sunday. Since this is not really a road-trip topic, I’ll make it short: if you are a fan of Ren Faires you’d enjoy this. It was a perfect setting, surrounded by pines with the Rockies in the background. The buildings were really well designed and this appeared to be the most kid-friendly of the Faires we have been to. That being said, we both felt there was something a little too chill about the atmosphere – this should not discourage a visit, but is worth noting.

After a few hours spent in medieval times, we were ready for diving back into nature. Disappointed by the recent closing of the Pike’s Peak train, which we had been hoping to ride, we decided to make an unplanned stop at the Cheyenne Canyon State Park just south of CS for some hiking – and what a great last-minute choice this was.

It was clear from our initial ascent into the pine forest that the park was crowded – the weather was perfect and this is easily accessible for those in the CS area. We passed several packed pullouts, including the popular “Falls” lot, and made our way to the final trailhead, the “Gold Road.” Though the lot was very full, we were not going to let that deter us from what looked like a very promising hike.

The trail itself is crushed gravel and about the width of a road, leaving nature lovers fully exposed to the sun at this higher altitude, though the entire trail is lined with pines. It’s worth noting the trail is multi-use-hiking, horses, and motorbikes-though no cars. We walked for about 1.5 hours, occasionally hopping down to the creek below, but mostly just gawking at the never-ending blanket of pines covering the canyon and the red tinted mountain walls. This was an absolutely beautiful park and our visit left us satisfied with what we had accomplished with 24 hours in the CS area.

Royal Gorge and The Great Sand Dunes

We awoke in CS the next morning having a hotel reservation in Grand Junction on the far west side of the Colorado. Our plan was to get to the Great Sand Dunes National Park (GSDNP), though our intended route was disrupted by forest fires in the south of the state. Instead, leaving CS by way of 115 south to Hgwy. 50 allowed us to stop at Royal Gorge, one of the more famous sites in the state. Known for an enormous suspension bridge crossing the gorge carved by the Arkansas River 1000 feet below, the nearly century old bridge didn’t call to us in our initial planning, but due to our re-routing and being in the area prior to 10:00am, we decided on a stop.

The surrounding area has a Niagara Falls type of feel – tourist trap, though no where near the scale of what exists around the Falls. Upon entering the privately owned Royal Gorge site, we purchased tickets for the pedestrian bridge – apparently these are only available in the early morning, for $18 each – and truly this was a steal.

41544529150_2092b0500a_zThe bridge and vistas were awesome. Hovering, and occasionally shaking high above the gorge, we were able to view the river below from the sides of the bridge or between the wooden planks we walked upon. We took our time crossing the bridge, feeling the cabled bridge shift beneath our feet. On the other side of the bridge we made our way to a few of the viewing points and, similar to the feeling one has at Hoover Dam, we wondered how this marvel was constructed so long ago without the benefits of modern engineering and technology.

The Royal Gorge “experience” could certainly take up the better part of the day if desired. For an extra $10/each, visitors get the whole package, including a gondola ride across the gorge, and a number of other entertainment options. If we were to revisit, we would likely take the time to catch a ride on the Royal Gorge train and/or a white water rafting excursion, both taking place at the base of the gorge from other companies. This was an unplanned visit, but we were very happy to have had our change in plans work in our favor. It would be a perfect one-stop shop for a family outing.

29483330558_072c513854_zLeaving Royal Gorge after about 1.5 hours, we had one true goal for the day – to check out the Great Sand Dunes National Park. We had passed within 45 minutes of the park a few years back on our return from an amazing yet exhausting Route 66 trip, and ever since I’d had some regret about bypassing them.

The total drive from CS to the Dunes is about 3.5 hours, and from Royal Gorge about 2 hours. Leaving the gorge, we hugged the Arkansas River on Hgwy. 50 until hitting the town of Salida for some snacks and coffee before changing direction and heading south. The drive through the valley between the Sangre de Cristo and Rocky Mountain ranges was splendid – baby blue skies with cottonball clouds. It was not long into the drive that we were able to see the enormous dunes, despite being an hour away.

42635925234_c1386f653b_bThe Great Sand Dunes NP is what I would consider a “passive” NP experience. Yes, there are hikes available, even the option to climb the 700 foot tall dunes. But at the end of the day, the Dunes capture your eyeline and do not let go. They are commanding – the tallest in the U.S., and though we always appreciate the opportunity to hike around, we just wanted to stop and stare.

We did a short trail right outside the visitor center, allowing for a vantage point of the dunes with shrubs providing the foreground – a simple 15 minute loop. From there we made our way to the official access point for climbing the dunes. Once parked, we wandered out to the sand.

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Looking up from the top of the small dune.

Though the dunes take up almost all of your line of sight, upon entering the sand area, its’s still a solid 25 minutes before you ascend the “foothill” dunes. I made the trek out there to the baby dune, did a little bit of climbing, and left both satisfied and exhausted as my feet shoveled sand the entire way. I had stood and stared for a good while before heading back to the car. I have no need to conquer the nature in our National Parks – sure it feels good to climb high up any trail, but I can just as easily appreciate the magnificence of a site without having to make it to the top – and this is one example where the view from below was perfect.

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The Dunes with the Sangre de Cristo Range as the backdrop.

Initially we thought about doing a hike in the local forest at the base of the mountains, but realized we had a 5+hour drive in front of us, so we took a few more glimpses of the dunes from nearby before hitting the road.

Highway 50

Let me be frank – we enjoy being on the road. Though it can occasionally be taxing, there is just something about seeing the country by road that we are attracted to, and that attraction often grows exponentially when not using interstates.

Our ride to Grand Junction had us take Hgwy. 50 for the majority of the trek from the Sand Dunes and I’m really at a loss for words to describe it. This was one of the most stunning drives we’ve been on – and that’s saying a lot given the mileage we’ve accumulated traversing the states. Throughout the drive we drove between canyon walls, hugged rivers that cut through emerald green cattle pastures, ascended to pine forested high altitudes, and eventually descended into the Curecanti National Recreation Area, where gorgeous blue lakes are contained by the high walls of hoodoos and other rock formations. This drive should have felt long but the time flew by on what may have been the best drive of my lifetime. I highly recommend this over taking I-70 across the state – it packed a lot of Colorado into a half-day drive, and if time had permitted, there were plenty of areas to get out to hike, stare, and boat along the way.

The drive took us through the historic town of Montrose – not a whole lot to see, but we stopped for a nice Italian dinner at Trattoria di Sofia. Reasonably priced and pleasantly filling, it quenched our desire for fresh salads and pasta. This held us over for the rest of the drive to Grand Junction.

The Grand Junction Area

We had passed through Grand Junction (GJ) on a prior trip and had not really considered a return. However, after deciding on some of the possible destinations for this trip, GJ seemed like a perfect home base – 1.5 hours or less from Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, Arches NP, and Colorado National Monument. We booked a Clarion Inn for $55/ night (again, using Hotwire.com) and this was ultimately a great choice- we pulled into the hotel about 10 pm.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP (BCGNP) was a park we knew existed but had not really heard much about. If you have read our other posts, it’s probably apparent that we have a thing for National Parks, so we carved out a day to backtrack down Hgwy. 50 and headed to the park.

Arriving before 10 AM, we ascended a few thousand feet from the valley, and shortly after entering the South Rim entrance of the park was a viewpoint and trailhead for the Canyon Rim Trail. Immediately after exiting the car, we were face-to-face with the canyon below, which had been carved by the Gunnison River. Deep and narrow, the canyon’s jagged walls looked as though it had been carved by one of the old gods’ serrated bread knives. We hiked the Rim trail for about 45 minutes – hiking shoes helped to keep our feet planted on the ground. The hike had a number of brief climbs and valleys – 20 feet up, 20 feet down, but was not taxing outside of the escalating temperatures. Along the uncrowded rim trail the canyon is never outside of your line of site and we were occasionally within earshot of the roaring river nearly 2000 feet below.

We retuned to our car and hit the visitor center another 1/4 mile down the road. This NP has two major sections – the North Rim and the South Rim. A park ranger told us it was about 2 hours to the North Rim and didn’t provide an enthusiastic “yes” when asked if the trek to the other side was worth including in our visit. With that answer, we walked out to the trail directly behind the center for what were some of the best views of the canyon. An immediate descent down 30 stairs out the back doors provided a nice viewing spot, but we ended up on another trail accessible from the center. Just a few hundred yards from the visitor center we found ourselves nearly alone for the beautiful views of the jade green Gunnison River below, carving deeper into the canyon.

The park ranger’s information led to us recognizing this was another “passive” experience. There are a few shorter hikes available aside the rim trail, and some folks even descend to the river. For us, we took our time driving to a number of pullout viewpoints, taking in different views of the canyon with the Rockies in the background. This was a cool park and it is certainly worth taking a few hours to check it out if driving along Hgwy. 50, yet it did not provide the engagement we were really beginning to crave after spending a number of days driving – we really wanted to get out and wander.

42635903884_1e69f3aebf_bWe headed back north, satisfied with another stamp in our NP Passport and wondering what the reactions of the first humans to see sites like this were. We had a good bit of time to discuss this as we made our way back to Grand Junction.

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We stopped for a quick pizza before jetting off to an evening ride to and through the Colorado National Monument. Sitting about 20 minutes west of GJ, this monument was reminiscent of our drives through southern Utah – an ascending white-knuckle drive rising through canyon walls tinted red, orange, pink and white, saturated by the setting sun. Words nor pictures properly capture the beauty of this place. Though this park was also quite passive, with only a few marked trails and a number of pull-out stops along the way, it was magnetic enough to bring us back the next morning to do a little minor hiking outside the visitor center, traipsing the dusty orange paths for about a mile or so. Good hiking boots are a must to prevent slipping and sliding. The drive through the park is about 90-120 minutes if you make a making a handful of stops, and we highly recommend a sunset visit to the monument for the vivid display of the rocks illuminated by the sun.

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Though locals or those who have recently visited the Mars-colored lands of Utah may feel this place is redundant, we’ll never grow tired of opportunities to visit parks such as this. One word of caution – if heights are not your thing, or if driving without guardrails through a lot of twists and turns makes you nervous, you may want to consider bypassing. Though you’re going to be safe at 25 mph, it’s easy to be distracted by the surroundings.

Before our return to the monument the next morning, we made our final deliberations on what else we had wanted to do on this 4th of July. We strongly considered the 1.5 hour drive to Arches NP, a park we had been to before and felt deserved a second visit. While we were deliberating our next step, my wife stumbled across a description of the nearby Grand Mesa Scenic Drive. The description piqued our interest, and after descending from the Colorado Monument around 11:00 AM, we headed back through the GJ valley, only to ascend the Great Mesa on the east side of the Valley.

The Grand Mesa, visible from everywhere in the GJ region, is the largest flat-top mountain in the world, flattened from the volcanic top exploding in the distant past. From GJ, it looks like a gigantic piece of the surrounding landscape rising out of the ground in the foreground of the Rockies.

The town of Mesa is the Gateway to the Grand Mesa, and we stopped for a cup of coffee at Blink. The staff at Blink were enthusiastic to answer our questions about this area we knew next to nothing about. They recommend a few hikes with the gentle reminder that at 11,000 feet oxygen levels may leave us gasping from time to time.

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Once to the top of the Mesa, having made a brief stop at the Mesa Lakes along the way, we certainly gasped, but in astonishment of how much we loved the Mesa. Though we had been in an arid 100 degree setting just an hour before, we were now hiking in 70 degree weather through alpine forests and meadows on the Mesa Top Trail #417. Without a doubt this had been the best surprise of the trip, and one of the best surprises we have had in our travels. In our 1.5 hours of hiking the level dirt trail, we meandered through pine forests, the floors of which were covered in an abundance of wildflowers. On our hike, we crossed paths with a local couple who recommended another hike. We discussed the area for a few minutes with them saying this was a nice primer for Rocky Mountain National Park – without the congestion. We continued on the trail a bit longer and would probably have said this was the best hike we had been on in the last year if it were not for what was to come.

We made a quick stop at the Visitor Center about 10 miles down the road, situated amongst a number of small lakes. We considered just hanging out and relaxing there, but were really interested to check out the other hike which had been recommended, the Land of Lakes Trail. Our fellow hikers had mentioned it provided some good views, and they also made sure to advise us to not be intimidated by the steep initial ascent. We appreciated the warning- we got to the trail and were met with immediate switchbacks trading off into the forest above. Though the switchbacks were all of what was visible from the parking lot below, they only lasted for about 5 minutes. After another 5 minutes we arrived at the end point – a viewpoint from what felt like the top of the world. Below us were a number of lakes hidden on the ground by the thick pine forests. Looking out into the distance you could see a number of mountain ranges as far as 50 miles away.  And the sky – a beautiful cobalt blue with tufts of puffy clouds gently making their way across the sky. In one word- PERFECT.

We took a chance on the Grand Mesa, and I had sort of predicted we were going to be disappointed that we did not return to Arches. I could not have been more wrong. This place was astounding – perhaps because it was a surprise, perhaps because of the weather, perhaps because we just really favor pine forests and meadows, but this was definitely a highlight of the trip.

Part 2

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