Colorado in Summer 2009

(February 21, 2010)

In July 2009 I made another serious attempt to patch up my rather spotty coverage of the state of Colorado. In particular I wanted to take care of my last major western city (Denver) and last western national park (Rocky Mountain). I was partly successful - I did a pretty good job on the park, but not on Denver. Oh well, another year.

Interstate 70 Through the Colorado Rockies
On my way to Colorado I spent almost a week crossing Nevada (coming soon), then drove right through the middle of the Rockies on Interstate 70. First I enjoyed the old hot spring resort town of Glenwood Springs on the Colorado River. Then I walked the length of Glenwood Canyon, where the river, highway, railroad and a hiking/biking trail all squeeze through a narrow rocky gorge. It is considered to be the most impressive feat of road engineering in the country, environmentally sensitive and dramatically scenic. It was for this stretch of the railroad that the classic "vista dome" cars were invented.

A little further east along the interstate is the lavish ski resort of Vail and its western expansion known as Lions Head at Vail. Together they form a huge recreation and tourism complex, carefully planned and really quite impressive.
Central Colorado Rockies
Backtracking a bit I went up the Roaring Fork River to Aspen, an old mining town that has morphed into the richest resort community in the world, its residents including movie and music celebrities, corporate bigwigs and royalty from a dozen countries. Despite the glamor and pretension it remains a pleasant small town in a beautiful mountain setting. Further up the canyon I stopped at the ghost town of Independence, founded on the 4th of July 1879 just west of Independence Pass.

Later in the trip I was back in the central Rockies, coming up from Colorado Springs on the plains. The weather was not promising for a mountaintop excursion, so Pikes Peak remains on my list for next time. My goal was Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, one of the last on my list of national park sites in the west, and noted for its upright fossilized stumps of giant Sequoias. Just a few miles further up I stopped to shoot the old mining town of Cripple Creek. The town has been amazingly well restored, funded by legalized gambling. On the outside the old buildings look great, but inside they are mostly the same - long narrow high-celinged rooms filled with slot machines.
San Luis Valley and the Spanish Peaks
From the central Rockies I headed down towards the New Mexico border, to the huge San Luis Valley. The main attraction there is Great Sand Dunes National Park. In the middle of a trip that had been mostly driving, it was pleasant to take an all day hike, along the base of the Sangre de Cristo Range and back along the creek at the base of the dunes.

Exiting the valley to the southeast I discovered the charming small town of La Veta in the foothills of the Rockies on the edge of the Great Plains, an area I intend to return to. For many years I have been meaning to explore the isolated twin pyramids of the Spanish Peaks. I followed a scenic road up almost to timberline, then took a short hike to a tremendous view of the peaks and miles out over the plains. From there I followed an old CCC-built road down the other side to the Picketwire Valley and on to Trinidad.
The Plains of Colorado
The Purgatoire River (Picketwire Valley) leads down from the Spanish Peaks to the plains. A county park here features an exposure of the iridium-enriched Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) boundary, marking when a comet impacted the earth, resulting in mass extinction -- the end of the age of dinosaurs. Trinidad, at the bottom of the valley, is a very interesting historic town. It was a key stop on the Santa Fe Trail and later the railway, which ran over Raton Pass to Raton in New Mexico. But Trinidad's heyday was based on coal mining in the foothills. Just north of town is the site of the "Ludlow Massacre" clash between striking miners and the Colorado National Guard in 1914, in which 20 people died.

Leaving the mountains far behind I followed the Santa Fe Trail through the Comanche National Grassland, wide open country with wonderful skyscapes. My destination was Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site on the Santa Fe Trail and Arkansas River. This was a fur trading post and at one time the westernmost outpost of the United States. The fort has been painstakingly restored, with many historically authentic rooms inside.

I had planned to spend several days in Denver and the other cities of the Colorado piedmont and plains but, though the cities were interesting and the weather beautiful, I decided I would rather be up in the mountains. On my one morning in Denver I visited REI and Confluence Park on the South Platte River. Maybe in a year or two I will find time to do justice to the cities of Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park
By the time I finally got to the park I was almost out of time and only had two days to look around. It is one of the most popular national parks and in summer can be very busy. Plus there were widespread afternoon thunderstorms both of the days I was there. Although I got some good panos I don't think I have done it justice -- a return trip will be required.

Estes Park has a lovely setting but is over-run with tourists. The other "parks", a local term for broad glacial valleys between the high ridges, are protected inside the national park, and were beautiful. Bear Lake is the signature beauty spot of the park. Despite the free bus service, a lot of people manage to drive to the trailheads here, and the loop trail around the lake was mobbed. Plus it clouded over and began to rain as soon as I got there - not a very satisfactory experience.

The high point of my trip, both experientally and altitudinally, was Trail Ridge Road, which climbs steadily up above the parks, then follows a ridgetop for miles through alpine tundra. I made this drive twice, each time watching the clouds build. The second day was marked by fierce bursts of rain and hail, which can be seen in some of the panos. The west end of Trail Ridge crosses the continental divide and drops down to the headwaters of the Colorado River. Intense rain and hail alternated with bright sunshine as I made my way down out of the mountains and started on my long drive home.
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