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  • Writer's pictureSarahjane1971

Roadtripping in Colorado - Mountains, canyons and deserts

We just returned from an incredible road trip in Colorado. We spent a wonderful afternoon and evening exploring Denver’s downtown and then headed north to Estes Park, gateway to the Rocky Mountains National Park, via Boulder, a wonderful little university down at the foothills of the Flatirons.

Literally just as we entered Estes Park we encountered a large herd of elk at Estes Lake – what an incredible start to our adventure.

We spent our first afternoon in the park driving up trail ridge road, which winds across the Alpine tundra to the highest point in the park, at an elevation of 12,183 feet. The road afforded us some amazing vistas.

I awoke bright and early, before sunrise the following morning, determined to find the elk herd at the lake and photograph them in the early morning light. I drove around the lake to the spot we’d seen them the previous day, but to my disappointment they were no longer there. Then I scouted the lake and saw them on the opposite bank, literally a stone’s throw away from our hotel. I headed back around the lake and used my brilliant sense of direction to find the exact spot that I’d seen them. They have become so habituated to humans that it was easy to get extremely close to them and get some amazing shots.

Later in the day, when we were eventually permitted to enter the park, we hiked up to the spectacular Loch Lake – a 2-hour uphill hike to an elevation of 9,240 feet. It was a challenging hike, especially for two flat country Floridians, but unbelievably scenic, with waterfalls, incredible views and splendid Fall colours. A change in wind direction this afternoon brought in smoke and ash from the raging forest fires in the north, blocking out the sun and resulting in dark and colourful skies. The park was illuminated in a red glow, which was incredible for photography, but at a terrible cost. Heading back down the mountain we took a detour to Bear Lake, reaching it just before sunset for some splendid Fall reflections. Driving back to Estes park we (along with hundreds of other tourists) were lucky enough to see a large herd of elk at Moraine Park. The bulls were bugling back and forth across the valley and the red glow created by the fire was a recipe for picture perfection.

After 2 wonderful nights in Estes park, we headed south, on the Peak to Peak scenic highway to Black Hawk, and then via Breckenridge and Vail, to Aspen. We also took a bit of a detour to Marble to see Crystal Mill, apparently one of the most scenic spots in all of Colorado. However, google failed to tell us that the only route to the mill was via an off-road track, 4 miles up a steep mountain. We gave it our best shot, but eventually the road proved too hair-raising and challenging for our little Equinox and we had to turn back. Next time we’ll definitely rent some ATV’s to explore the area properly. It was rather disappointing, but at least we made it out alive!

After all the hype, we found Aspen a little disappointing and very pricey, and after just one night we continued on to Telluride an incredibly scenic little mountain town surrounded by ski slopes. On route we visited the Black Canyon of Gunnison Gorge. We got (or should I say I got us lost - according to Christof) lost along the way and we landed up in a near desert landscape on the opposite side of the gorge to where we were supposed to be, once again doing some unexpected off-roading. Black Canyon, once we eventually found it, was mighty impressive indeed!

In Telluride we stayed in a wonderful lodge in Mountain Village, overlooking the town, which was accessible by free gondola! Our first full day in Telluride was spent hiking up to the top of Bridal Veil Falls. It was another steep and challenging hike, but as before, the splendid scenery and numerous waterfalls kept me slogging on.

Bridal Veil falls was a little lacking in water, but still impressive in its sheer height. From the base of the falls onwards it was necessary to continue on the gravel road to the top of the falls, via a number of switch backs. We reached the pump house at the top to discover that there had been an awful accident and a young woman had fallen over the cliff and plummeted 30ft onto the skree below. Miraculously she had survived, but the rescue team at the top, who were still attempting to lift her out, prevented us from hiking further and we had to turn back. En route back down the road was further blocked and we were forced to take an off-track detour back to the parking lot. The alternative was to wait a few hours until the rescue was completed. We had to “bundu-bash” down a skree filled gully on hands an knees, but eventually we made it, if a little wobbly in the legs!

After returning to our hotel to freshen up, we returned to Telluride via gondola! At my friend Meriechen’s recommendation (and a damn good one) we enjoyed burgers for dinner at Steamies Burger Bar!

Day 2 in Telluride found us hiking up to Bear Creek. I decided to forego my camera backpack and just carry my camera slung over my shoulder. What a huge difference that made – for once I was keeping up with Christof! It was a fairly easy hike through wonderfully colourful Aspen groves. Heading back down we veered off trail to explore the river, where we heard a lot of shouting and discovered a group of people wading through a deep river gorge below us. We were determined to find a trail leading us there. I had seen a river trail and the Bear Creek trail head and we set of to explore it. It didn’t really lead to the gorge, but somehow after a number of wrong turns, we eventually managed to locate it. The gorge ended in a deep pool at the base of a small waterfall. There we discovered what all the shouting was about that we’d heard earlier – my husband (Christof) shouted in the same manner when he jumped in the freezing cold water! Crazy man!

After a cold walk (for Christof) back to the car, we said goodbye to Telluride and made our way to Ouray for the night. Ouray really exceeded our expectations and, if possible, was more beautiful than Telluride, and definitely less touristy. Ouray is known as the Switzerland of America and it was easy to see why. This quaint little hamlet is surrounded by majestic mountains. With only one night in Ouray we had little time to explore, but managed to do a short hike to Box Canyon Falls before sunset. This 85 foot waterfall spills thousands of gallons of water each minute into a narrow canyon surrounded by 100 ft walls. I don’t think I’ve ever seen, or heard such an incredibly force of water – it’s highly impressive.

From Ouray we travelled further South. The region outside Ouray is known for its mining and we saw the remnants of many mines and mining towns in the hills. This area also boasts an abundance of off-road trails and we are determined to rent a 4x4 next time and take a few days to explore the area.

We passed through Silverton and Durango en route to the semi-desert landscape of the San Luis Valley – a rather drastic change from the mountains we’d become so accustomed to! From the town of Alamosa we explored wetlands in search of birds. I was specifically looking for Sandhill cranes which use the San Luis Valley as a stopover point on their migration. I saw many birds flying overhead, but was unfortunately unable to locate many on the ground.

Alamosa is also the gateway to Great Sand Dunes National park – our primary reason for visiting this area. Great Sand Dunes is a vast outdoor playground situated between the San Juan and Santo do Cristo Mountains. Besides the spectacular sand dunes, the area also boasts an abundance of wildlife including mule deer, proghorns, rabbits and of course chipmunks. I was also privileged to see a coyote up close.

Heading back to Denver on our last day we happened upon a herd of bison (farmed) and also chanced upon a wolf sanctuary. Although not on our itinerary, we had to stop in for a quick tour. Unfortunately, I neither had the time or money for the up close and personal encounter, so most of my photos are taken through a fence. Our last stop was just outside Colorado Springs at the Garden of the Gods. It was literally just in and out for a couple of pics, but we’ll spend longer here next time as this red rock country is definitely worth exploring.

We had an amazing adventure and will definitely return again, maybe for good!

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