On the Road to Shangri-La

And off we are, once again, with the open road before us and no home awaiting our return.  We drove west from Denver, heading over the Independence Pass to check out Aspen.  The drive over the pass and to Aspen was gorgeous and looked to be a hiker’s paradise.  If we were planning to stay in the area for the night (we weren’t), we definitely would have checked out a couple of the trails in the area.

The View from Independence Pass

The View from Independence Pass

Instead, we headed to downtown Aspen to find a spot to picnic and check out the town.  Alan predicted I wouldn’t think much of Aspen.  He was right.  So on we drove to Carbondale, a town we visited briefly a few weeks earlier.  As we got out of our car, we heard the not-so-distant sounds of a funk band.  Following the music through some backyards and alleyways, we found our way to a park with a large playground for Van.  He played and played and clearly got over his temporary fear of slides while we listened to the funk band warm up for the evening’s concert.  After Van was thoroughly played out, we walked out of the park between a heated croquet game and about fifty or sixty folks doing yoga.  It turns out you don’t need to cut through backyards and alleyways to get to the park, so we took a much more direct way to the main street and did a little wandering before getting back in our car.

Our original plan was to camp for a night just south of Carbondale, but given Van’s mood (it was good), and where we wanted to get the next day, we decided to make today a long driving day and just drive all the way to Curecanti.  We arrived just before the sun was setting, set up a quick camp, and feasted on a smorgasborg of hard-boiled eggs, cheese, crackers, and raisins.  Living the high life, I know!  The campground left some things to be desired for tenters, but it was practically deserted and overlooked the Blue Mesa Reservoir, so we couldn’t complain.

After our first of three nights in Curecanti, we hit the road to check out Crested Butte.  How do I describe this area in a blog post?  Shangri-La comes closest, but it’s hard to describe in words or in pictures – you kind of just have to go there.  The day after we were in Crested Butte we met a family who had been there the same day as us.  As we were sharing our stories of the hikes that we each took, our new friend told us that if she had seen a unicorn, she wouldn’t have been surprised.  This, my friends, is the perfect description of Crested Butte.  Crested Butte: the native habitat for the elusive unicorn.

The Hills Just South of Crested Butte

The Hills Just South of Crested Butte

On the Road to Crested Butte

On the Road to Crested Butte

We started our day in Crested Butte hiking along a river, through wildflower meadows, and up a hill to aspen groves.  Every few steps I proclaimed this to be the most beautiful hike I had ever taken.  And then it would proceed to get more beautiful.  This is the Colorado of postcards and magazine advertisements.  I wanted the hike to go on forever.  But, as all things naturally come to a conclusion, so did our hike.  But not before we waded into the river to a gravel bar in the middle to play and eat lunch.  It was a perfect morning.

We spent the afternoon poking around town and checking out the library, both to entertain Van and to read up on how to change the light that went out on our car just hours after leaving Denver.  The town did not disappoint.  The people were friendly, the architecture was perfect for the location, and the sun was shining.  Now I just need to find someone who has a vacation home in the area and needs a caretaker.

Where There’s Smoke…

What began as a short camping trip to explore the Great Sand Dunes National Park and nearby Alamosa, quickly turned into a lesson on the impacts of wildfire.  It goes without saying that wildfires have been a huge problem in the western United States yet again this year.  After last year’s disastrous fire in Colorado Springs, another, even more destructive fire broke out, known as the Black Forest Fire.  That fire, along with several others in the state, garnered a fair amount of attention on the local news.  With this in the back of our minds, we set out to drive southwest to one of our nation’s newer national parks, Great Sand Dunes National Park.  It is the home of the tallest dunes in North America and one of the strangest natural sites I’ve ever witnessed.  The dunes seem to arise mysteriously out of the valley against a backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Since we didn’t have reservations (we never do), we opted to head straight to the park campground and claim a spot.  After battling the wind to set up our tent, we decided to check out Alamosa that afternoon and then explore the sand dunes early in the morning when they wouldn’t have absorbed as much heat.  As we were heading down the long straight road that would take us toward Alamosa, we drove right by a bush that was on fire.  Just one bush, completely engulfed in flames.  Given its proximity to the road, we concluded that it was likely the result of a careless and inconsiderate driver who threw a cigarette out of the window.  Luckily we had cellphone reception and were able to speak with a 911 operator to let them know about the fire.  As we continued on down the road, we eventually saw a water truck and then a fire truck coming towards us, about fifteen minutes after we made the call.  They got there pretty quickly considering how far the burning bush was from a town.  When we drove back by the spot to reach our campsite later in the day, we were completely shocked at how large of an area had burned in the short time between the single burning bush that we saw and the arrival of the water truck and firefighters.  It just goes to show how quickly a wildfire can spread with the right weather conditions and plentiful fuel.

A portion of the burned road-side just south of the Great Sand Dunes National Park

A portion of the burned road-side just south of the Great Sand Dunes National Park

After our burning bush sighting, we had a relaxing afternoon in Alamosa playing on the playground and grabbing an early dinner at a local brew pub with, what seemed like, everyone else in town.  But, the whole time we were there, we kept eyeing the smoke coming over the mountains from the southwest, surprised with how imposing it was.  We didn’t realize that the largest wildfire in the state was burning right over the mountain range, the West Fork Complex Fire.  We would be much more acquainted with the fire as the evening progressed.  Just as the winds blew the sand over the San Luis Valley to a natural pocket in the Sangre de Cristo mountains to create the Sand Dunes, the winds blew the smoke from the West Fork Fire to the same pocket, right where we were camping.  Breathing in fairly thick smoke all night did not make for a relaxing night, but with no alternatives, we toughed it out and i thought of all the folks who have to breathe in this smoke on a regular basis.

By the time we awoke, the smoke had begun to clear and we packed up our campsite, ready to explore the dunes.  Alan and I had very different reactions to the dunes.  He thought they were cool, but nothing worth going out-of-the-way for.  I cried the first time I saw them up close.  Yes, very different reactions.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

We had a great morning walking across the sand to begin climbing up the closest dunes.  Van and Alan loved running down the dunes and I gave sliding down on my butt a try.

After we were tired and ready to head on, we drove east, puzzling at the smoke coming from the southeast, an area that was perfectly clear when we had driven through it yesterday.  Again, unbeknownst to us, a new wildfire had begun overnight, now known as the East Peak Fire.  We passed a number of TV crews setting up to get shots of the smoke coming over the Spanish Peaks as we passed through La Veta and felt like we were in a game of pin the tail on the donkey.  Blindfold us, spin us around, and whichever direction we walk in, there will be smoke.

Smoke coming over the Spanish Peaks from the East Peak fire

Smoke coming over the Spanish Peaks from the East Peak fire

As of July 4th, over two weeks after we visited the Sand Dunes and a month after it began, the West Fork Complex Fire has burned over 110,000 acres and is only 20% contained.  Also as of July 4th, the East Peak Fire has burned over 13,500 acres and is 95% contained.  These are only two of the many wildfires that have raged (and continue to rage) in the west this summer.  Please keep the brave firefighters and local residents in your thoughts as they continue to live with the threats and discomfort of these destructive fires.

From the Mountains to the Semi-Desert

The only thing that made me excited to leave Rocky Mountain National Park was our plans to visit our friends in the Breckenridge area (Silverthorne to be exact).  We had seen Rebekah and her son Rhyer this past Thanksgiving, but before that she and I had not seen each other since college!  Even though it had been so long since we’d spent any meaningful time together, within minutes it felt as if no time had passed.  Those are the best kinds of friendships!  Van had a blast playing with Rhyer.  He basically became a parrot, mimicking everything that Rhyer (who is a couple of years older) would do.  This was a huge benefit when it came to eating.  Van was keen to skip breakfast so that he could get extra time with the toys, but after seeing Rhyer eating a nectarine, it took no convincing to get Van to follow suit.  Healthy eating for the win!

On our first afternoon with Rebekah, we headed up to the nearby town of Leadville, which just so happens to be the highest incorporated town in the country.  As we were wandering around town and checking out her old stomping grounds, she thought it’d be a treat for Van to see the fire station.  Since she knows several of the local firefighters, we were able to take Van on a grand tour of all of the fire and rescue trucks.  And these are no ordinary fire trucks.  These firefighters cover a huge, mountainous area and face building as well as forest fires.   Their trucks were massive!  We finished the day feeding fish at the fish hatchery, grabbing a great dinner in Leadville, and staying up late and chatting over glasses of wine.  A perfect day!

Downtown Leadville

Downtown Leadville

Manning the Leadville firetrucks

Manning the Leadville firetrucks

The next morning, Rebekah and Rhyer took us to Cataract Lake, a fantastic hiking spot in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.  It was a perfect hike for kids – not too difficult but not too easy.  Van wound up walking about half of it and being carried the rest of the way on Alan’s back.  The hike was around a lake and to an impressive waterfall with a small wooden bridge over the rushing water.  The views were insane (no filters or adjustments of the photos below – it was that beautiful), but the coolest part was how the trail passed through several different types of environments.  The number of changes in scenery, plant life, smells, and colors were pretty remarkable for a trail less than three miles long.  This would be the kind of trail you could keep coming back to during different seasons and not get bored.

Hiking with Rhyer and Rebekah

Hiking with Rhyer and Rebekah

Aspens

Aspens

Cataract Lake

Cataract Lake

After an afternoon and evening of more fun, great food, and even better conversation, we woke up and struck out for Breckenridge.  We spent the morning wandering around, eating crepes, and stocking up on food for the next few days before saying our goodbyes.  THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING REBEKAH AND RHYER!!!

We continued westward, headed for Colorado National Monument.  We decided to overshoot the park and first check out Rabbit Valley, a beautiful and completely deserted area along the Utah border.  We could have camped there for free, but we decided to opt for a campground with water where we wouldn’t be so far away from anyone else.  We made our way to Colorado National Monument and set up camp for the next couple of days in a beautiful spot up on a cliff overlooking the town of Fruita.

Rabbit Valley, near the Colorado/Utah border

Rabbit Valley, near the Colorado/Utah border

Colorado National Monument

Colorado National Monument

Now that we are out of the mountains and into the semi-desert, the weather has changed dramatically.  The sun had us up and out of the tent by 6am and on the hiking trails by 7.  We were able to get some beautiful hikes in each day before it got too hot, and then proceeded to do some exploration by car in the middle of the day with stops for water play and ice cream in Grand Junction and a shaded picnic in Palisade.  Across the valley from CNM were the Book Cliffs, so named because the edges of the buttes appear similar to a shelf of books.   Though they lacked the punch of the rock formations in Colorado National Monument, I found them strange, beautiful, and all the more compelling.

Exploring

Exploring

Posing

Posing

The Book Cliffs

The Book Cliffs

The Book Cliffs

The Book Cliffs

We capped off our trip with an afternoon wandering around and picnicking in Glenwood Springs on our way back to the Denver area.  We also swung through Carbondale during Van’s nap and vowed to come back and check it out again when we’d have time to explore.  I was instantly taken by how it was situated, between towering mountains still covered in snow in one direction and red rock cliffs in another.  Those are views I could get used to!

Heaven

Up in the clouds in Rocky Mountain National Park

Up in the clouds in Rocky Mountain National Park

No, we weren’t in heaven, but it certainly felt that way.  I’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park before on two occasions, but I’d never had the opportunity to spend more than a day in its embrace.  For a million and three reasons it was my absolute favorite place we’ve visited thus far on this trip, and definitely in the top five of places I’ve ever visited.  Everything, from the wildlife to the heart-swelling views to the camping to the hiking to the peacefulness, contributed to me declaring that I was ready to stay forever.

We chose to arrive on a weekday, knowing that the campgrounds fill up quickly on the weekends.  We were lucky enough to secure a home for three nights in the beautiful Moraine Park Campground near the east entrance to the park.  As we began the process of choosing a campsite, Alan asked whether I’d prefer to be closer to other campers or further away.  Hahahaha!  We laughed about that question during the rest of our stay.  While the campground may not fill up before noon on weekdays, it does fill up!  But, the sites are well situated so that you’re not on top of your neighbors and there are plenty of places to amble off to explore right from your site.

Our home base in Moraine Park Campground

Our home base in Moraine Park Campground

On a walk from our campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park

On a walk from our campsite in Rocky Mountain National Park

On our first full day in the park, we spent the morning hiking up to Gem Lake, a great spot for a picnic.  The hike itself provided fantastic panoramic views of Estes Park and the surrounding area, but Gem Lake was definitely the highlight.  The hike was about 3 1/2 miles round trip, with about a 1,000 foot elevation gain on the way up.  A pretty short hike by our normal standards, but with a two-year old (who spent most of the time riding on dad’s back), this was a great length.  Once we returned to the car, Van quickly fell asleep and we decided to drive up towards (and past) the Continental Divide to see some of the towering views the park has to offer.  We made a decision to return the next day when Van was awake so that we could leave the car behind and do more exploring.

Gem Lake

Gem Lake

Before heading back to our site, we headed to one of the trails where Alan and I had previously hiked so we could take Van on a walk before dinner.  He was getting pretty feisty around water, so we decided to turn around.  That turned out to be a pretty great idea because we would have missed this…

An elk staking out his territory

An elk staking out his territory

Two elk in a minor tussle

Two elk in a minor tussle

Peaceful elk

Peaceful elk

After a great second night in the park, we headed back up to some of the higher elevations in the park so we could do some exploring while Van was awake.  The views were amazing.  I simply don’t have the words to describe them.  This is definitely a place that everyone should come and explore if they have the ability and opportunity to travel to Colorado.  I have vowed to make regular camping trips up to the park when we visit our family in the Denver area.

The Rockies

The Rockies

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn sheep

Alan in the snow!

Alan in the snow!

Views from the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park

Views from the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park

Mountain Views

Mountain Views

In addition to the bighorn sheep (one example in a photo above), countless elk, and Van’s Buddy the Bison (photo below), we were also lucky enough to cross paths with three moose.  Alan served as photographer extraordinaire while I tried to keep Van from making too much noise that might spook the moose.  This proved to be much more difficult than expected as Van just wanted to keep shouting MOOSE loudly and repeatedly in their direction.

Van and Buddy the Bison

Van and Buddy the Bison

Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park

Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park

Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park

Moose in Rocky Mountain National Park

The only downside to our visit to Rocky Mountain National Park was that we had to leave.  But, now I can just get excited about our next trip to this little slice of heaven.

Salida, Pikes Peak, and Garden of the Gods

We’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a significant amount of family time over the past month and a half.  Much of that time has been spent around the dinner table or in the backyard, but we’ve also taken weekly family day trips with Alan’s parents, Carole and Bijan.  On one of our first weekends in Colorado, Alan, Van, Carole and I set out for a day trip to the beautiful mountain town of Salida, Colorado.  The drive took us just under three hours and we were treated to spectacular mountain views along the way.  Salida is wonderfully situated along the Arkansas River in a large valley with the towering Rockies all around.  I imagine that its distance from the Denver and Colorado Springs metro areas keeps it from being overdeveloped, because this is certainly an ideal place to visit or call home.  We spent the morning poking around the streets and getting a feel for the place.  We had a fabulous lunch at Laughing Ladies, which was not nearly as crowded as it should have been given the quality of the food.   I couldn’t get over the view of the mountains around every corner.  I clearly hadn’t been in Colorado too long at that point!

Downtown Salida

Downtown Salida

On our way home from Salida, I convinced Alan to take a detour to the St. Elmo ghost town.  The ghost town was excellent fun to wander around, but even better was the route to town. About fifteen miles north of Salida, we turned left and drove another fifteen miles to reach the ghost town.  About half the road was paved, but it was all spectacular.  That stretch of road was (up to that point) the most beautiful stretch we’ve driven during this entire trip.  The chalk cliffs were on the north side of the road, Mount Princeton was ahead, and a creek and campgrounds that made me jealous we weren’t staying overnight were along the south side of the road.

St. Elmo Ghost Town

St. Elmo Ghost Town

DSC_0166_01

One of many spectacular views on our drive to the St. Elmo Ghost Town

We finished our day trip with a short jaunt through the river town of Buena Vista (apparently pronounced Boona Vista by locals).  This town is definitely in the throes of being discovered, especially by the numerous kayakers and rafters we saw around town.  Not surprising given its setting.

The following weekend, we all piled back in the car (this time with Bijan) and drove south to Colorado Springs.  Our first destination was the aptly named Garden of the Gods.  This is a place I’ve always wanted to see and was so lucky to visit on a gorgeous late-spring day.  We spent most of our time in the central garden trails area, but if you wanted to get away from the crowds, this is easily doable by heading out on any of the number of trails that are not in the main, developed area.  Van had a blast watching the climbers and running around like a wild man when he was through with being toted around in his stroller.

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

I think we found a new career for Van - baby fashion model!

I think we found a new career for Van – baby fashion model!

Garden of the Gods

Garden of the Gods

Our brilliantly-colored company in Garden of the Gods

Our brilliantly colored company in Garden of the Gods

This is so much fun!!

This is so much fun!!

After a lunch of pizza and calzones, we made our way to the road to Pikes Peak.  The drive is a bit different from the drive to Mt. Evans.  It’s a lot more expensive ($40 for all of us vs. $3 or free with a National Parks Pass at Mt. Evans), has many more signs warning drivers to have a full tank of gas and to use low gears when descending the mountain, and is wider and generally a little less nerve-wracking.  That being said, the drive up (and down) was fantastic, and the two cars we saw being towed down the mountain reinforced why there is that much signage  about how to drive properly up and down a mountain.  Clearly this road sees a bit more traffic than the Mt. Evans route.  The views from the top also could not be more different from the views atop Mt. Evans.  Instead of being right in the midst of the mountains, Pikes Peak is set off, which gives you a broad and unique view of the Rockies and the plains.  Instead of feeling like I was in the mountains, I felt like I could see forever.  Both pretty cool feelings to have!

At 14,114 feet atop Pikes Peak

At 14,114 feet atop Pikes Peak