Rocky Mountain High
 By Robert Ross



As the flight took off from the Denver International airport, I reviewed the adjectives and descriptive phrases I would be using in the following article about Colorado. Awesome, majestic, awe-inspiring, looming - as in mountains - dramatic, jaw-dropping beautiful and moving, were going to be some of my tools to draw a picture of our Colorado experience.  

Glancing out the window of the airplane as we headed home to San Diego, the snow-capped mountains were in plain sight; Mount Gunnison, Pikes Peak, Longs Peak, and Ute Peak (to name a few), spoke volumes of Colorado's natural beauty. In comparison, my adjectives seemed weak, unimpressive, almost silly. Words are O.K., but, Colorado has to be seen, touched and felt.

The state of Colorado is diverse in its topography, from rolling plains in the eastern area to the dramatic mountain ranges which cut through the western portion of the state. With a population of a little more than four million, there is plenty of land to fulfill the dreams of those who long for open spaces.

We started our eight-day adventure by heading north from Denver to Boulder, then on to Estes Park. Both Boulder and Estes Park are gateway towns to the Rocky Mountain National Park. And both, because of their proximity to the mountains, attract bicyclists, river rafters, skiers, hikers and just about anyone who loves the outdoors.

As luck would have it, the day we entered the Rocky Mountain National Park, they opened the road through the entire park (it had been partially closed for the winter). It was also the same day that my wife and I would begin using our basket of adjectives ... awesome, unbelievable, incredible. In fact, it was to be eight days of: "I just can't believe how beautiful this place is!" types of declarations.

Entering the park, we drove the Trail Ridge Road (open Memorial Day through mid-October), which took us up above the tree line to the 12,000 foot level. This road is a series of switchbacks often carving its way through eight-foot walls of snow on either side. At times, we entered cloud-banks, only to re-emerge viewing snow-capped mountain peaks and majestic valleys below.

This drive was an introduction to what Colorado has to offer. These were the Colorado mountains that inspired John Denver to write about a rocky mountain high, and the mountains that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write American the Beautiful.

Driving down the western side of the national park brought us into some lower elevation valleys, out of the park and eventually onto Highway 70. Highway 70, designated as a scenic highway, runs from Denver to Glenwood Springs and has more ski areas than you can imagine, including the famous Vail ski resort.

After stopping at a resort town, we continued on Hwy. 70 to Glenwood Springs, which took us though some narrow gorges along the White River. With tall jagged rock canyons towering on either side, and a raging river hugging the road only feet from our car; it was one of those jaw-dropping beautiful drives.

Glenwood Springs is home of the famous thermal hot springs that have attracted, over the years, such notables as Doc Holiday, Tom Mix and even Al Capone. We, of course, didn't want to be outdone by Al Capone, so we spent the afternoon luxuriating in the hot springs.

Those of you who have seen the movie Wyatt Earp, know Doc Holiday, Wyatt's sidekick, ended up in Glenwood Springs "taking the waters," in an attempt to recover from tuberculosis. We visited Doc Holiday's grave site in a cemetery overlooking Glenwood Springs.

From Glenwood Springs, it was on to what can only be described as a magical site known as the Maroon Bells National Park. We entered the park and drove six miles up through an aspen tree forest. The aspens had just opened up in full green splendor. The road ended in a parking area where visitors were surrounded by mountain peaks; some were still covered in snow, others exposed a maroon coloring and bell-like peaks, which gave them the name Maroon Bells.

We continued south to the village of Ouray. Ouray is a picture-postcard hamlet, nestled between looming jagged mountains. It's one of those places that had me exclaiming "I'm comin' back!" Awesome, majestic, awe-inspiring, dramatic are just a few adjectives that make a lame attempt at describing the beauty of the area.

There were more passes to cross as we made our way south to Silverado. We took the Million-Dollar Highway, named, not for the cost of the highway, but for the million-dollar view. I suppose in today's parlance it would be called: The Trillion-Dollar Highway.

There's a saying in Colorado, that if you don't like the weather, just wait an hour. That was certainly true of our adventure. By now we had seen beautiful sunny skies, cloudy days, rainy days, passed through a snowstorm on a mountain pass, experienced sleet and hail and witnessed some beautiful electrical storms. Like they say, "just wait an hour!"

Our next stop was Durango. Before leaving for Colorado we had pre-booked our hotels, allowing for three-to-four-hour drives between hotels. In Durango, we altered our schedule slightly and stayed an extra night so that we could see Mesa Verde National Park. I'm glad we did. Mesa Verde was ... you guessed it ... awesome!  

We have all seen the photographs of the cliff dwellers of the area, the Anasazi and Pueblo Indians. But, it's one thing to see the photos and another to see dwellings up close and personal; to experience the altitude, the climate, and imagine living and surviving in a harsh, high desert-like environment. Definitely worth a visit!

From Mesa Verde, it was on to Sand Dunes National Park. By taking our Colorado adventure slightly early in the tourist season, we were able to enjoy the tourist sites without the crowds. Sand Dunes National Park was a case in point. In  seventy-degree temperatures, we took off our shoes, rolled up our pant legs and crossed a fifty-yard, ankle high stream, to get to the actual sand dunes.

There were just a handful of people in the area and it felt like we were on Mars - a vast desolate area. In August the temperatures rise to a hundred and ten plus degrees and the tour buses fill the parking lots. But, in late May, we were relatively alone to marvel, contemplate and enjoy the unique sights.

We ended our journey by visiting the Garden of the Gods National Park located on the edge of the city of Colorado Springs. It's another "must do," with beautiful golden-colored boulders jutting from a hilly terrain. But in Colorado, just about everything is a "must do."

We spent the last day or adventure, touring Denver. Denver is nice, but, it is a big city, and I was a bit reluctant to let go of my own "rocky mountain high."

What is that saying about leaving the best things in life for last? In the case of Colorado, it definitely is one of the best things, but one need not save it for last.

Robert Ross can be reached at:

Copyright  2009 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved


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