While most visitors to the USA flock to its big cities, I think that it’s wide open country and national parks are the real treasure. For those who love mountains, beautiful Colorado is an absolute delight. In the US, there are 64 mountains over 14000 feet, affectionately called “Fourteeners,” of which 54 are in the state of Colorado. We had a chance to travel around this beautiful mountain state one summer.
Our 1 week itinerary was as follows:-
- 2 nights in Colorado Springs
- 2 nights in Durango
- 1 night in Aspen
- 2 nights in Estes Park
Using a rental car we drove to Colorado Springs and as we drove in, we saw the famous Pikes Peak, also a Fourteener, in the horizon. We checked into the Doubletree in Colorado Springs, just off I-25 and had enough time to rest and stock up on supplies like bottled water and snacks for the week, from the Target right opposite the hotel.
The next morning, after breakfast, we visited the Garden of Gods with interesting red rock formations. There is a bus tour at the garden although you can easily drive around if you pick up a map at the visitors center. From there we drove straight to Seven Falls just a few minutes’ drive away. We did not attempt to climb the 224 steps, instead, we took the elevator up to see the view from up high. Feeding the fish in the stream and squirrels amused our younger child. We skipped the pikes peak cog railway which many visitors consider a must do in Colorado Springs because it looked really cramped and there are no restrooms on the train.
After lunch and some rest in the hotel, we drove to the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs which is set in the most beautiful mountain setting ever. A quick security check at the entrance and we took the scenic drive into the campus. We stopped at the visitors center and after quickly browsing around, we drove to see the famous multi-faith chapel at the Air Force academy. Striking modern architecture and the serene and beautiful surroundings touched my soul and I was really glad that we visited the academy and chapel, despite the light rainfall that fell as we ran to the chapel to see it before closing time.
The following morning we drove from Colorado Springs to Durango. The drive took about 5 hours with 2 quick stops. The first stop was at Walsenburg at the intersection of 25 south and 160 west and the second was for Lunch at Alamosa. The elevations during the drive went from 4400 feet to 10848 feet with most of the drive being at around 6000-7000 feet. The scenery was particularly lovely on the descent after you reach 10,848 feet just past the Rio Grande forest. The weather was a very pleasant 70F degrees. After spending a relaxing evening at the Residence Inn in Durango and a delicious Nepali/Indian dinner from the Himalayan Kitchen, the next morning we took the train ride from Durango to Silverton. This is a coal train that runs along the Animas River, through forests and the San Juan Mountains. We saw lovely scenery of farmlands, old stagecoach roads, the rapidly flowing river, and mountain peaks reaching over 14,000 feet. The scenery was lovely although with no narration on the train, parts of the 3.5 hour train journey felt a bit dry. If possible, try to get seats on the right side of the train going into Silverton since most of the scenery is on one side. Because this is a coal train, you do have to deal with a lot of soot smell and smoke, but it is still a worthwhile journey due to the scenic views. On reaching Silverton at an elevation of 9,305 feet, the weather was simply gorgeous – cool and pleasant. Silverton by the way gets only 14 frost free days in a year, which usually runs the last week of July and first week of August. At Silverton we had only just enough time to grab a few sandwiches and some tomato-basil soup from the Stellar Bakery and pizzeria which is just a short walk away from the train depot on Blair Street, before it was time for the return bus journey. We did not want to spend 3.5 hours on the train again, so we took the bus return option and we were so glad we took this option. Our bus driver kept us entertained with a constant narration during the 1.5 hour bus ride back to Durango. The bus took a different route and we saw a different scenery roadside and we were back in town 2 hours before the train.
The next morning, we started on our journey from Durango to Aspen, along the very aptly named Million Dollar Highway passing through the town of Ouray on the way. Ouray is nicknamed ‘Switzerland of America’ and a possible detour could include 1 night in Ouray. The Million Dollar Highway stretches for about 25 miles in western Colorado and follows the route of U.S. 550 between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado. It is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. This route is certainly not for the faint of heart. Several portions of this mountaintop road have no guard rails and there are many hair pin bends; a steady hand is needed at the steering wheel. Sitting on the passenger side I was both awestruck at the stunning scenery and scared at the precipitous drops on the road side. At times the speed limits dropped to 20 and 10 miles per hour at some of the very sharp bends and this was one drive when my husband carefully followed all speed limits exactly. It was a beautiful drive and the elevation peaked at 11,018 feet at the Red Mountain Pass. There is a nice viewpoint at Molas Lake just past Molas Pass when you reach 10,910 feet. We passed through so many small towns and one little old mining town, I remember, had this tiny one room building post office. When you live in a huge metro area, you simply don’t realize how many such small towns still exist in the US. We stopped for lunch in the town of Delta right at the turn toward 92.
We arrived at the town of Aspen which sits at an elevation of 7908 feet around 3.25 pm. Aspen, even in summer time is very charming and we enjoyed strolling around the sophisticated town and seeing the gondolas around Aspen Mountain. We picked up two wraps for dinner from the Big Wrap(they really are big), at 520 E. Durant Ave., luckily right before it closed at 6 pm. We also enjoyed a short stroll around the Rio Grande Trail close to 300 N. Mill Street.
In the morning, after a quick breakfast of hot oats which we made in the little kitchenette of the Tyrolean lodge, where we stayed overnight in Aspen, we drove to the Aspen Highlands center, parked our car, and caught the very first bus to Maroon Lake. The majestic beauty of this lake surrounded by mountains took my breath away. We walked on a short trail just for half-hour or so, and although we wanted to linger some more, we had to leave.
Next on the agenda was the drive from Aspen to Estes Park. The shorter route originally given by GPS involved tricky mountain driving. Having had our fill of mountain driving, this time we took the easier route through Glenwood Springs and onto Interstate 70 East where speed limits were much higher even though longer in miles. We stopped for a late lunch in Frisco at exit 201 near Breckenridge at the Butterhorn Cafe. Driving through Boulder, we finally arrived at Estes Park, which is the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park. We had booked our stay at the Riverview Pines but in hindsight there maybe better options. The setting of this hotel was nice, right by a flowing river, which was just steps outside our room, but condition of the rooms was pretty bad. Their cabins may be better but the place also allows dogs so the noise of barking may be an issue as well.
The next morning, we drove up to the verdant Rocky mountain national park and had to use the free park and ride buses because several parking lots were full. We hiked two of the small and easier hiking trails around Bear Lake and to Alberta Falls. We spent the entire morning at the RMNP, enjoying the scenery and the green oasis of mother nature. As it started to get hot in the afternoon, we headed back into town for lunch and some rest. Summertime, afternoons in Colorado there are rain storms and so most of the time, we tried to do our sightseeing in the morning. We enjoyed a takeout dinner from Nepal’s cafe in Estes Park. It surprised me that across Colorado we ran into several Nepali restaurants. Perhaps because Nepal is also a mountain country, immigrants from Nepal have settled down more in Colorado than in any other state.
Our last morning in Colorado, since our flight was only in the evening, we had a quick breakfast and drove from Estes Park to Denver to visit the state capitol in Denver. America, young as it is, does not have any palaces but the Colorado State Capitol building is majestic. Gorgeous rose onyx on the walls, marble floors, brass railings, murals on the walls, the capitol building in Denver is historic and beautiful and well worth a visit. When in Denver, the mile high city, of course a picture on the steps of the capitol building marked one mile above sea level is a must for every visitor. Be sure to join one of the free guided tours in the capitol to hear more of its history. Right after we saw the capitol, we drove to Pete’s Greek Town Cafe in Denver for lunch. We enjoyed the Moussaka and rich decadent Baklava for dessert. We had plenty of time to have lunch and return the car and reach the airport.
We enjoyed our summer time visit to the mountain state of Colorado. Here are a few notes to make the trip better.
1. If possible fly into Colorado Springs instead of Denver and if you do fly into Denver try not to have a flight that lands close to rush hour as we did and end up stuck in Denver traffic.
2. If you are visiting the Air Force academy, reach at the visitors center no later than 3 pm. The center and chapel close at 5 pm.
3. Adding 1 more night in Durango to see Mesa verde, is probably a good idea.
4. This trip involved a lot of driving for 1 week and perhaps it would have been better split into two trips instead.
5. Avoid travelling into roads that lead into the Denver metro area on Sunday. It’s when the locals also return home after a weekend of play in the various towns like Aspen, Telluride etc . We ended up being stuck in traffic an extra two hours on our way from Aspen to Estes Park on Sunday.
6. To avoid altitude sickness, drink lots of water all the time, and spend at least 2 nights in Colorado Springs or some intermediate elevation before heading to the mountains.
So long for now.