We took a trip out to Colorado late this summer. It's been something that we've wanted to do for quite sometime. Cindy hadn't been out to the Rocky Mountains since the mid-70's when she was a little girl, and I hadn't been out to the mountains since the mid to late 80's. (Although I've been to Denver many times for business over the years.) I had a lot of Hilton Honors points saved up, so we spent many of our nights in Hilton properties, including The Curtis Hotel, a fun, funky and edgy hotel in downtown Denver. (Click here to see my entry on The Curtis.) We spent time in Denver, Boulder, Estes Park, and Colorado Springs ending up on top of Pikes Peak (pictured above). The weather each day was warm to almost hot - temperatures were in the 90's at lower elevations with temps in the mid-80's at higher elevations. It was even sort of warm on Pikes Peak - 48 degrees around 10:30 in the morning.
We were lucky - the next week was when all the horrific flooding hit the areas we were at the week before. We walked along beautiful Boulder Creek one warm afternoon and a week later it was a raging torrent of water. (Pictured left - courtesy ABC News) Roads in and out of Estes Park were closed due to flood damage. The town of Manitou Springs outside of Colorado Springs was completely cut off by flood waters for a couple three days. We took the road through the Big Thompson River canyon from Estes Park to Loveland and today the road is impassible due to damage from flooding. It will be months before many of the roads will be fixed and reopen.
Like I say, we were lucky. We met some people from Grinnell, IA (which is near where I grew up) at a rest area on our way home. They were heading out to Colorado and up to Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park. We told them we had just been out there and that the weather - save for the occasional mountain rain shower - had just been beautiful. I'm sure they got caught up in the mountains during the storms.
In order to help save money, we decided to drive out to Colorado. We made it out to Kearney, NE the first day, about a seven hour drive from the Quad Cities. Then we drove the rest of the way to Denver the next day. During the Kearney to Denver part of the trip, a near-disaster happened as I hit a 6"X6" block of wood going 80 miles an hour on Interstate 76 about 160 miles from Denver. I couldn't change lanes and I was on a bridge which had no shoulder to veer into. It flattened the tire and we had to wait for 60 minutes in the literal middle of nowhere until AAA showed up to change the tire for us. Then we had to drive 45 miles to Sterling, CO on a space-saver spare tire to wait in line at a WalMart to see if the tire was salvageable. It was not, but the rim was OK, thank God. After sitting at a WalMart in Sterling for over two hours, I bought a new tire and we ventured on to Denver. We had expected to be sitting in the Cherry Cricket having one of my all-time favorite burgers around noon that day, but we ended up getting there about four hours late. That was lunch and dinner for us that day.
The next day, we went up to Coors Field to buy tickets for a Colorado Rockies game the following evening. Cindy has been a Rockies fan for about four years and I've promised to take her to a game when we went to Colorado. It turned out the Los Angeles Dodgers were in town and we got a couple tickets along the first base line for the game.
After getting our tickets, I had always wanted to go out to the Red Rocks Amphitheater, one of the more famous concert venues in the world. Formed out of rock formations, Red Rocks seats just under 9500 people and hosts all types of musical performances from late April/early May until early October.
One of the things that amazed me about Red Rocks were the number of people there using the facility to work out. Dozens of people were running the rows or jumping steps from the bottom of the amphitheater to the top in the light mountain air (Red Rocks is about 6400 feet above sea level). I went down to the stage against my better judgement - it's a long way back up those steps and I had to stop several times to catch my breath. But it was worth it to get a picture like this:
This is center stage at Red Rocks, the same stage that has hosted the likes of the Beatles, Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, Jimi Hendrix, Dave Matthews Band and Bruce Springsteen. U2's breakout concert video "Under a Blood Red Sky" was filmed at Red Rocks in 1983. I was frankly surprised that the stage wasn't built up all that much and the people in the first row were almost at the same height as the stage deck.
After getting back up the hundreds of steps to the top of the amphitheater, we went down into the museum that they have on the grounds. They had a number of plaques with a yearly list of performers who had played at Red Rocks since the early 60's. I didn't know that they banned rock acts at Red Rocks for nearly five years in the early to mid 70's due to a riot that broke out during a Jethro Tull show in 1971. Over 1000 people without tickets to the sold out show came out to Red Rocks and some rushed the gates trying to get in. Denver police responded with tear gas and it became known as the Riot at Red Rocks. A promoter successfully sued the city to allow rock acts to be re-booked into Red Rocks in 1976 and the venue annually won the Pollstar award for best concert venue. In fact, Red Rocks won so many times that they were eventually taken out of consideration and the award for best concert venue was renamed the Red Rocks Award.
From Red Rocks, we drove up to Boulder, a place that Cindy hadn't spent much time in, if any. The Pearl Street Mall was active that day and we stopped into a small brewpub along Pearl Street for a couple beers and some appetizers. (We had a big breakfast that morning at Sam's No. 3, the great breakfast place in downtown Denver. Click here to see my entry on Sam's No. 3. I had a sausage, mushroom and cheese omelet topped with Sam's exceptional green pork chili. It was outstanding.)
Our second day in Denver took us over to the Denver Botanic Gardens, a wonderful urban setting filled with colorful flowers and plants with a number of sculptures with walkways through small ponds, around fountains, through herb and flower gardens. Even though it was over 90 degrees outside, it was a great place to go and hang out for a couple hours.
We went to see the Colorado Rockies play the Dodgers that evening. We went to see a series in St. Louis between the Cardinals and the Rockies about three or four years ago. Our seats were right in front of the Colorado family seating area at Busch Stadium. During each of the three games, a young Hispanic woman with a baby was seated behind Cindy. She was the wife of one of the Rockies relief pitchers and she spoke little to no English. She was so shy and quiet that Cindy fell in love with her and her baby. And it didn't help that the Rockies swept the Cardinals in St. Louis that weekend, so Cindy became a Rockies fan. That's one of the reasons why we have the Major League package on DirecTV just so Cindy can watch the Rockies play.
Coors Field was a very nice ballpark and we sat about 30 rows above the Rockies dugout so we could get a glimpse of both the field, but also the purple foothills of the Rocky Mountains off in the distance. We had a pretty bad hot dog (it was $1 Hot Dog night) and a few beers. Surprisingly, they sold Budweiser products at Coors Field. Frankly, I was completely surprised with that. I knew that they sold a number of Colorado microbrews at the ballpark, but I thought that with the merger of the Miller and Coors breweries they'd keep Budweiser out of the concession stands. They certainly don't have Budweiser products at Miller Park in Milwaukee, just like they don't have Miller or Coors products at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Oh, yeah. I had a Budweiser at the game.
The next morning, we took off up through Boulder to Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park. It had been years - back in the 70's - from the last time either of us had been up in the park. Cindy wanted to go hiking. I'm in no shape to go hiking - especially on mountainous terrain at over 9,000 feet above sea level. So we found some easier hiking areas. I'd call it hiking - Cindy would call it "taking a stroll".
This a panoramic shot of Bear Lake, one of the most popular spots in the park. We got up there around 10:30 and we were told by a park ranger that no parking was available and that we'd have to go back down the road and catch a shuttle bus back up to Bear Lake if we wanted to walk around it. Fortunately, we did the loop around the parking lot and a car was pulling out when we were coming up to it. We whipped in to take the parking space and we were able to go on our little hike around the lake without any delay.
Later in the day, we decided to take U.S Highway 34 - known as Trail Ridge Road - the road that takes you up to the Alpine Visitor Center in the park and further on to Milner Pass which sits on the Continental Divide. Cindy was there as a little girl and I was there in the mid-70's. I don't remember the road being as winding and somewhat scary as the first time I drove it. But I was young and dumb - as compared to old and dumb, now - and things didn't scare me as much as they do now. First of all, I don't like heights. Secondly, I have a tendency to drift to the right while driving and looking at stuff. When you begin to get up toward the tree line on Trail Ridge Road there are no safety rails or no road shoulder on the roadway. A quick turn to the right and we'd be over the side. That's all I could think about as we kept going up and up the mountain road.
On top of all that, we started to encounter a nice little mountain shower at about 8500 feet above sea level. However, the nice little rain soon turned into a torrential downpour and then it began to hail around 9000 feet. We reached Rainbow Curve on the road and there is a parking lot that looks out into a large valley. A number of cars were parked there waiting out the hail storm. The hail stones were small - about pea-sized - but they were starting to accumulate. We waited about 15 minutes before venturing on.
When we started out heading up Trail Ridge Road, the temperature was a beautiful 82 degrees F. By the time we hit the rain and hail, the temperature had dropped to the mid-40's. With water rushing down the road straight at us along with accumulating hail on the roadway, it made for a treacherous slow climb up the mountain road. Remember, there's no guard rails or shoulders between the roadway and sliding 7000 feet down the mountain to a certain death. My sphincter was tight and I was nervous as all hell. Finally at about 10,500 feet - about three miles from the Alpine Visitor Center and another 10 miles to the Continental Divide - I found a little turn-in on the opposite side of the road. I pulled in there, turned around and started back down the mountain. Cindy protested, "If you're that nervous, I can drive!" Uh, no you can't, dear. I'd be in the passenger seat looking straight down the mountain from the roadway. She finally realized that the conditions were too treacherous - my acrophobia be damned. We made it back down the mountain, out of the rain and into Estes Park.
We stayed at a place that we found on the Internet, the Appenzell Inn. It was a Swiss-chalet-style hotel with rooms that opened to a common deck that overlooked the mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park. It had a little restaurant/lounge there where we went and had a drink on their patio deck, but decided to eat elsewhere. We saw the menu for both dinner and breakfast. We wouldn't have had a problem eating either meal there, but we're the adventurous types who like to find stuff. And if we had eaten at the Appenzell Inn that evening we would have missed the best meal on our trip.
Estes Park is still a tourist-based place, although it isn't quite as schlocky as I remember it to be over 30 years ago. (I particularly missed the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum that I remember seeing on my previous visit to the area years ago.) It was also one of the very few places where we saw any type of indigenous wildlife. A herd of elk were grazing on the fairways of the Lake Estes Executive Golf Course just down the road from our hotel. We counted a total of 16 elk including this big-assed buck (above right) that had about a dozen points on his rack.
We went back up into the park the next day and started to take backroads that we found on the map. We saw waterfalls, rushing trout-filled streams that emptied into beautiful mountain lakes, and stunning vistas. We hiked up rocky formations, down through grass laden valleys and stopped off at scenic overlooks to get pictures such as the one below of Long's Peak, the tallest mountain in the park.
It was around 2:30 when we decided to head down the road through Big Thompson Canyon, toward Loveland and down Interstate 25 through Denver and on to Colorado Springs. The only problem was that the Denver Broncos were slated to open their season that evening and coupled with rush hour traffic and a wreck that turned the road into a parking lot, it took us about 90 minutes to drive through Denver.
When we got into Colorado Springs it was just after 6 p.m. We saw an exit for the Garden of the Gods, a national natural landmark in Colorado Springs. Cindy had that on her list of places to see and we took the exit and ended up at the park (see map). The sun angle was perfect for taking pictures of the rocky faced sandstone towers with deep crevices in the face of the walls. The rocky formations are popular with technical-trained rock climbers and there were a handful of guys who were scaling the sandstone walls while we were there.
The Garden of the Gods was originally owned by railroad magnate and a resident of Iowa, Charles Elliott Perkins. Perkins was the president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railway and he purchased much of the land that was home to the Garden of the Gods in 1879. Upon his death in 1907, his will instructed the family to turn over the land to the city of Colorado Springs with the provision that it would always be a free public park. On Christmas Day in 1909, Perkins' family turned the land over to the city. The city purchased more land around the park over the years and it is now up to over 1350 acres that includes a visitor and nature center across the road from the park entrance.
As the sun set and pictures became harder to come by, we decided to head to our hotel for the evening. We stayed at the historic Antlers Hilton in downtown Colorado Springs. General William Palmer founded Colorado Springs in 1871 with the intention of making it a tourist destination with the many therapeutic mineral springs in the area. He opened his high-end Victorian-style resort, The Antlers, in 1873 and it became a popular stop with people seeking Colorado Springs' warm days and dry climate. The original Antlers burned to the ground in 1898 and was rebuilt later that year. The second incarnation of The Antlers hotel lasted until 1964 when it was demolished and a new, modern hotel was built in its spot. That is Antlers Hilton of today.
The Antlers also holds the distinction of being the place that Katharine Lee Bates, a visiting teacher at Colorado College, wrote "America the Beautiful". After taking a trip by wagon and mules up to the summit of Pikes Peak, Bates went back to her hotel room and penned the words for the song. Several years later, a hymn song adopted the words and it became the song that we know today.
When I booked the room on-line, it indicated that we would get a "corner room, city view". Knowing that they had stunning views of Pikes Peak and other mountains in the range west of Colorado Springs, I requested an upgrade for a charge for a mountain-view room during the reservation process. When we checked in to the Antlers Hilton that evening, the young lady behind the desk was extremely helpful, treating the two tired and weary travelers who looked rather disheveled after a long day of hiking and driving like royalty. She said, "Oh, by the way, we were able to honor your request of a mountain-view room and we were able to get you into a corner room like we had you in originally." The room was on the northwest corner on the 11th floor, and when we woke up the next morning around 6:30 this is the sight we saw out of the west window of our room. Pikes Peak was getting the first rays of sunshine while the foothills in front of it were still in the shadows. The picture taken through the glass window doesn't do the scene justice. It was breathtaking.
That morning, we set off for Manitou Springs, just south and west of Colorado Springs, to go to the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the world's highest operating rack railway. The diesel locomotives are fitted with cog gears on the bottom and still use conventional tracks for the train. This allows trains to work at grades better than 7%, the maximum grade allowed for conventional adhesion track rail trains. The grade going up to Pikes Peak was as much as 25%.
We initially contemplated driving up to the top of Pikes Peak, but I decided that if I had trouble with getting up to the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, I'd probably have trouble getting up the steep Pikes Peak Highway. We decided to look into the Cog Railway and we had our choice of either first thing in the morning at 9:20 a.m. or late in the afternoon. We took the morning train.
The train was nearly full and the seats in the cars face one another. Most of the people on the train were either old retired people or families with little kids. We were lucky to get paired with a couple from Los Angeles who were about our age. He owned a software company that dealt with many of the movie and television production studios in Southern California. It was quite evident that they had money, but they were also very nice and down to earth.
Most of the 90 minute ride up was punctuated by commentary from our guide, a younger guy who had kind of a strange delivery that made him sound somewhat annoying after listening to him after about a half hour. But he did point out some interesting landmarks and I did learn a few things. For one thing, I found out that Zebulon Pike was not the first man to go to the top of Pikes Peak. That honor went to a man by the name of Edwin James. Pike led a group to explore parts of the Louisiana Purchase in 1806 and ended up in what would eventually be the Colorado Springs area. They tried to ascend to the peak of the tallest mountain in the region three times during the fall of 1806, but were turned back by weather each time. Fourteen years later, Edwin James was part of an expedition to explore the region and he is the first documented white man to climb to the top of Pikes Peak. When he sought to have the mountain named "James Peak", he found out there was already a James Peak in the region. He then decided to call it "Pikes Peak" after the man who first documented the sight of the mountain years before. After his service was over, Edwin James settled in Burlington, IA and lived there the rest of his life. (That's the second Burlington, IA/Colorado Springs-area historical connection that we found in our visit to the area.)
The terrain heading up was a mix of rocks, coniferous trees and running mountain brooks. The side of the train we were on gave us good views of the mountain. However, the other side of the train had some breathtaking views of valleys between the mountains. We couldn't get any pictures of those views that looked good.
We began to get up to the alpine tundra of the mountain and the trees began to disappear above the tree line. Since it was late summer, there was little to no snow on the mountain. Before we decided to go up to the top of Pikes Peak, we found that the temperature at the summit usually doesn't get above 50 degrees F. A sometimes stiff breeze can make for a chilly visit to the top. I hadn't packed any jeans or brought a coat with me (like I said - the temps were in the 90's in the lower elevations and in the 80's further up the mountains). We had to stop at a store before we got to Colorado Springs to buy a pair of jeans and a sweat shirt for me to wear.
Less than a mile from the summit, we had to stop for a moment because a herd of big-horned sheep decided to use part of the tracks as a resting place. The engineer of the train couldn't plow through them, so we had to wait until they got up from the tracks and got safely out of the way. Most of the sheep were young, but there was a young male (to the left in the picture above right) who was beginning to get his horns.
We made it to the top and, quite actually, the weather was very nice. There was little to no breeze, the temperature was in the mid-40's, but with the light atmosphere and being closer to the sun than you'd be 14,000 feet lower it felt warm. I realized that I could have gotten by with just a sweat shirt and a pair of shorts. The views from the summit were spectacular as shown by the picture at the very top of this blog entry and this picture of Cindy. Most of the air was hazy closer to the valleys. The light air also made me a little woozy at first, feeling a little light-headed when we first got off the train. After a few minutes, I got a little more acclimated to the thin air, but it was still a little disconcerting.
When we were at the top of Pikes Peak, Cindy remarked that there were no cars in the parking area. She asked someone who was working at the gift shop/restaurant on the summit what the deal was because she remembered driving up Pikes Peak with her family when she was a little girl. The lady told Cindy, "Oh, the road up to the peak is closed. There's some movie company filming on the road today and they didn't want any cars getting in the way." It turned out that they were filming scenes from an upcoming "Fast and Furious" movie. So, even if we wanted to drive up Pikes Peak that day, we wouldn't have been able to.
After about 35 to 40 minutes on the summit, we made our way back down the mountain on the cog train talking with the couple across from us. The lady was originally from Western Colorado and they were heading out to her hometown of Montrose after spending the weekend in Colorado Springs watching their nephew play for the Air Force Academy football team. They were telling us that there were some spectacular state parks in Western Colorado and Eastern Utah that they were going to visit. The guy told us, "Forget the national parks and the tourist areas. The state parks are the hidden gems." Cindy immediately put "check out Colorado and Utah state parks when we get home" on her to-do list.
It took us about an hour to get back down the mountain and we took off back to the Antlers Hilton to change our clothes thanks to a late check out I'd asked for the night before. After lunch, I wanted to find out where the United States Olympic Training Facility was and we drove there to take a look around. Actually, there wasn't much to see without taking a tour of the facility. We looked through the grounds, the gift shop and a hall of fame that they had in the Visitors Center. We were there about a half-hour, tops. Still, it was neat to see.
We had heard there were some nice falls in the area and one person told us to forget about the highly tourist-y Seven Falls - "They charge you for everything," we were told. "And it's not that great for the price." On that person's recommendation, we ended up at the Helen Hunt Falls named after Helen Hunt Jackson, a 19th century writer, poet and activist for Native American causes, and not after the actress Helen Hunt. Actually, it was pretty underwhelming.
After seeking out and quickly finding the spectacular Broadmoor resort, we made a loop around the property looking at the stately buildings, golf course and spa areas. We could have parked the car in a ramp that was designated for day visitors and taken a closer look around, but it was getting later in the day and I still wanted to make it up to the Air Force Academy to look around before the sun set. I have my mind made up that I'd like to spend a couple more days exploring in and around Colorado Springs at some point down the road.
We made it up to the Air Force Academy a little before 6 p.m. Technically, visitors hours end at 6, but they still let us through the check point after a quick look at our identification and a snoop through the trunk of the car. We immediately drove to the heart of the academy and found the beautiful Air Force Chapel. Since it was after 5 p.m., the chapel was closed so we couldn't take a look inside to see all the colors radiating from the stained glass windows. We hung around the grounds for awhile, learning about some of the buildings and looking at the parade walk and honor court that was just below us near the chapel. We ended up driving around, going over to see the football stadium - Falcon Stadium - and taking in a few other sights before we headed back to Denver for the evening and the start of our journey home the next morning. Cindy and I decided that our time in Colorado Springs was too short, that we could have cut our earlier stay in Denver down to two nights and done two nights in Colorado Springs. There was just more that I wanted to see in Colorado Springs and we didn't have the time.
Our trip to Colorado was too short, but we certainly saw a lot of things. We'd like to get back at some point to see more out of the way things such as some of the state parks in the Western part of the state and to go to the heart of the Rocky Mountains in the central part of the state. Denver is a nice town, as is Boulder. And Colorado Springs is a great town, too. But we found that the traffic anywhere we went is somewhat annoying. We could easily see why people want to live in Colorado. It's beautiful, the weather is nice most of the time and it has a very vibrant feel with the people. I suppose like anywhere you'd get used to the traffic, but it was certainly good to get back home to the Quad Cities.