We arrived in Colorado just over a month ago, on June 10. As the map of our travels on our homepage shows, we circled the western two-thirds of the state hitting some of the highlights but missing many, many more. During the month, we were rarely under a mile above sea level, and we twice hiked to over 12,000 feet.
Colorado boasts four national parks, and we visited all of them: Black Canyon of the Gunnison (see Lorrie’s June 21 post), Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes, and Rocky Mountain.
Mesa Verde National Park. It was a real treat to visit two of the more extensive cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde with a ranger who spoke eloquently about the Ancestral Puebloans who built the dwellings and their connection to those who came before and after. He explained that they lived on the mesa for 600 years before descending to ledges beneath the rim where they built dwellings and ceremonial edifices, some with as many as 150 rooms. The communities thrived on the ledges beneath the rim for over a century while continuing to tend crops on the mesa. Around the year 1300 they abandoned the infrastructure they had built and moved south into what is today Arizona and New Mexico, possibly because their numbers had grown beyond what could be sustained living beneath the cliffs and farming on the arid high mesa. I also fit in a late afternoon 40-mile bike ride from our campsite in the park to the end of the road at the mesa’s edge, and it was hotter, steeper, and windier than I had expected. The road passed through a dark tunnel at one point. Why did I leave my commuter bike light at home? Yikes!
Great Sand Dunes National Park. Thanks to friends Tim and Jill in Grand Junction for insisting that we visit Great Sand Dunes (“you can see it from space!”). What a weird and wonderful place! Approaching from the west, we drove across the flat scrubby desert landscape of the San Luis valley past small houses scattered here and there with lots of space in between. Many of the houses had an RV parked nearby, and one day I’ll write about all the camping vehicles we’ve seen. As we neared the park we began to see the sand dunes with the Sangre de Cristo mountains behind them. The tallest dune stands over 750 feet tall, and the dunes are constantly growing and changing as new sand blows in, is deposited on the slopes of the mountains, and then washes down into the dunes with the spring snow melt. We trudged up to the top of the highest dune and looked around at the bizarre view that we couldn’t really capture on our iPhones. We did post a couple of pictures on our website, though, including a short video of Lorrie running part way down and dumping sand from her shoes at the bottom. If you watch the videos on Instagram (@boblorrie), both videos are pretty funny continuous loops. The park campground was full but we were able to pitch our tent in an adjacent private campground which actually turned out to be quite natural and lovely.
Rocky Mountain National Park. This is the largest national park in Colorado and most accessible to the populous front range cities. Last year over 4.5 million people visited the park from all over the world. As is the case throughout the park system, the National Park Service faces the ever more difficult challenge of striking a balance between protecting the natural environment (Rocky Mountain preserves some of the most spectacular and important high alpine ecosystems in the United States) and continuing to make it accessible to all of us even as visitation rises each year. After decades with about three million visitors each year, more than four million people visited the park in 2015. The infrastructure is clearly straining, and the campgrounds, trailhead parking lots, and overlooks fill early and are crowded all summer. There is a limited shuttle service to the Bear Lake trailheads, but the road is not closed to other traffic (as it is at Zion National Park, which receives about the same number of visitors in an even smaller area). See Lorrie’s discussion of crowd management at Zion, Bryce and Arches in her June 21 blog, including the Park Service’s decision to concentrate most of the impact in a very small area of each park. Several of our friends have professional experience working in the national parks and other public lands, and we would welcome comments on the challenge of managing the impact of such rapidly increasing visitation, including keeping people safe while they visit the parks. How does the park service determine the carrying capacity of existing infrastructure? How much of a park should be designated wilderness, and essentially off limits, as visitation increases? Rocky Mountain, for example, is still 95 percent wilderness. Is it even feasible to build more infrastructure in order to expand the area of visitation to say 10 percent, which would keep 90 percent still in wilderness?
But let me not give the impression that hiking in Rocky Mountain is like a walk in New York’s Central Park. Despite crowded facilities, roads, and overlook parking lots, most visitors do not stray far from their car, and we saw very few people once we left the trailheads and walked even a few hundred yards up the hiking trails. We hiked about 35 miles over five days through some really spectacular scenery and up to beautiful mountain lakes and never saw more than a few people at a time except at one waterfall that was just a mile from the trailhead parking lot. We were able to get a backcountry camping permit on short notice (yay!) so we could backpack up to our campsite and spent two nights on the banks of the Roaring River. From there, we did a 10-mile day hike to a high alpine lake, and we counted less than 25 people along the way. All of the trails were very well maintained, and at one point we saw a trail crew with pack llama (which are less damaging than horses or mules). As we’ve said before, many thanks to the dedicated staff of the National Park Service for doing such a great job for all of us! And a special shout-out to our friend Robert who worked as park ranger and educator for 30 years. Robert, we think of you every time we see an exhibit in a visitor center or an interpretive sign at an overlook or trailhead with excellent information about the natural environment.
In addition to our time in the national parks, we camped for six days in the national forest outside Ouray in the San Juan Mountains. If I ever decide to live in a small town in the mountains, it could be Ouray. It is nestled in a valley almost 8,000 feet above sea level and has great hikes up into the mountains in every direction. It has a laidback vibe, active hiking and cycling communities, and a couple of breweries (like most towns in Colorado, it seems). Durango is on the other side of the San Juan Mountains via the “Million Dollar Highway” through Silverton, and offers many of the advantages of Ouray in a small city. We also camped for five days in a national forest campground in the Collegiate Peaks (Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, etc. — all “fourteeners” towering over 14,000 feet above sea level) up the Cottonwood Pass from Buena Vista (pronounced “BYOO-NA VISTA,” ouch!) and three days in another national forest campground below Pike’s Peak.
A few words about National Forest campgrounds. One of these days, we will write a blog about public lands, managed by the National Park Service, the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and others, each for a specific objective or for multiple objectives. The Forest Service manages publicly owned forests mostly for production of timber and other forest products, but it also maintains many relatively small campgrounds. In our experience so far, National Forest campgrounds are smaller and more primitive than those in the National Parks, and we like them better. Most don’t have potable water but they do have clean vault toilets (see my June 25 blog), and each campsite has a picnic table and fire ring. We now travel with about 10 gallons of drinking water in our truck, filling up whenever we see a public spigot, and we are often able to fill our sun shower with water from a nearby stream or lake so we can take a warm shower after hiking. The price is right too – often just $5-10/night after the half-price discount from our National Park Service interagency access pass.
Finally, our time in Colorado wasn’t only about camping and the checking out the state’s natural beauty. We did visit a few of the principal cities – Grand Junction, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Boulder. Friends in each of those places generously shared their city’s particular charms. Thanks to Tim, Jill, Dave and Trix in Grand Junction, and our nephew Matt and his partner Brett in Colorado Springs. Our friend David, who we met over 35 years ago in college in Chapel Hill, lives in Denver and works for the city. He led us on a terrific 25-mile bicycle tour through the neighborhoods of Denver, including three microbreweries. We watched Denver’s Independence Eve fireworks on the lawn in front of the municipal building. And thanks to Matt and Sally for putting us up for two nights in Boulder (which is as terrific as everybody says it is!) and to Matt and daughter Nora for leading me on a terrific 50-mile bike ride up to the Peak to Peak highway where the air is thin and down the long snaking descent through Left Hand Canyon.
Thanks Colorado! What a great playground! So much to do, and so many people who really cherish this beautiful environment. We’d love to hear your memorable Colorado experiences.
On to Wyoming next – THE COWBOY STATE!