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!

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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

At Altitude

Over the past month we’ve taken a number of glorious excursions into the mountains.  On my (and Van’s) first trip to the top of a fourteener, we opted to use the assistance of four wheels.  While we would love to climb one with our own legs, that will have to wait until our toddler gets a bit older.  Instead, we opted to drive up the highest paved road in North America.  When we reached the forest service entrance, the ranger on duty informed us that the road to the summit was closed, but that we could get as far as Summit Lake, about five miles before the summit.  We began the drive with crossed fingers, hoping that the snow would clear up and we’d be able to make it to the top.  We drove as far as we could and got out for a romp through the snow.  Van did amazingly well hiking over snow, slush, and ice at a very high altitude, but we knew better than to keep him out for too long.

Most of the way up Mt. Evans, hoping the road to the summit will open for us

Most of the way up Mt. Evans, hoping the road to the summit will open for us

Once he started to show signs of exhaustion, we headed back to our car and watched as another car began ascending the road to the summit.  The road had opened!!!

Mt. Evans Road - the highest paved road in North America

Mt. Evans Road – the highest paved road in North America

View from the summit

View from the summit

The temperature was reading in the twenties without the wind, and the wind was practically blowing us over.   Needless to say, we didn’t subject Van to the cold wind (we don’t want him to hate us too much), but we both took turns exploring the summit.  While most of our drive was into the clouds, some of the clouds began to clear as we were at the summit.  Instead of viewing the Rockies from afar, here we were, in the mountains!

On our way back down from the summit, we stopped at Echo Lake for a picnic lunch amidst the pines and a short walk around the lake.  While this isn’t as exciting as hiking to an alpine lake, it was a perfect spot to stop and enjoy the fresh (albeit thin) air and the local wildlife.  Apparently, we brought some wildlife of our own along for the day.

Echo Lake

Echo Lake

Our lunch companion at Echo Lake

Our lunch companion at Echo Lake

Yes, he's a lion...

Yes, he’s a lion…

and a cutie pie...

and a cutie pie…

with an extra helping of sass.

with an extra helping of sass.

A few days after our trip to Mt. Evans, we set out to explore the town of Evergreen.  We spent much of the day hiking at several of the many county parks in the area.  This would be an amazing place to live if you’re into hiking or mountain biking.  We were incredibly impressed by the number and quality of parks in the area.  You’d never be bored!

One of the charms of not having GPS or regular data access on our phone is that we have to use maps and intuition to find our way.  When the maps are incorrect or woefully inadequate, we wind up in some new and exciting places.  The photo below is taken along one of the roads we incorrectly but oh-so-happily drove down in our quest to find yet another park in Evergreen.  Now if only that could be our view from our (currently non-existent) front porch.

Views in Evergreen

Views in Evergreen