Paradise in Our Own Backyard
by Doug McQuiston
Go Outside for Goodness' Sake
Here it is, June already. You’re plotting out the big summer drive, counting the bathroom stops between here and Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, etc. But before you go buy that on-board DVD player for the family minivan, and lay in the stock of motion sickness pills for the kids, I want you to stop. Right now. Go to your office window. That’s right, pilgrim, them's the Rocky Mountains. They’re why you moved here from wherever it is you came from, aren’t they? So why haven’t you visited them lately?
You live in God’s Country. Throw away the atlas; forget the DVD. All you’ll need this summer is a Colorado map, and the view out the back windows. Saddle up, slap a few John Denver tunes in the CD player, and take a look at where you’ll be going this summer.
Colorado is several states in one — the Great Plains and rolling prairie out east; high meadows, alpine lakes, sheep and cattle to the northwest. Straight west, we can go from haute cuisine in Vail to dinosaur hunting and Napa-esque wine country in Grand Junction in a single day. Southwest, there are mountains that might move you to a full-voiced rendering of " The Sound of Music. " But please, don’t — nobody needs to hear that. To the south, you'll swear you’re in New Mexico, cruising through the badlands around Alamosa, the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, even Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta.
What? There’s nothing to see east of Denver? How do you know? All you’ve ever done is fly over it! Just a half hour east of Fort Collins lies one of the most amazing shortgrass prairies you’ll ever see — the 193,000 acre Pawnee National Grassland (www.fs.fed.us/arnf/districts/png/). You can hike, bike, bird watch, camp, or just stare goggle-eyed at the awe-inspiring views of the endless grass sea at sunset.
Camp on the eastern plains this weekend. You’ll see the sun break over land so flat (as the saying goes), " you could watch your dog run away for a week. " The Pawnee is a great place to start your summer journey. When the mountain camping areas are still too cold, the Pawnee will be just right.
Now head west. Tell the kids to imagine the Aerostar is actually a Conestoga wagon. Then explain what a Conestoga wagon was. Look it up if you have to. Just past Loveland, the plains suddenly swell up into the Rockies. Fish your way up the beautiful Big Thompson River, and you’ll pull into Estes Park. Stop just long enough for a quick burger and some beaded belts for the kids at one of the countless turista tchotchke shops.
Back into the family wagon, you'll drive through Rocky Mountain National Park to Trail Ridge Road, over the spine of the Rocky Mountains, and down the headwaters of the Colorado River into Grand Lake. The Park is worth a stay all by itself though, so enjoy yourself and take your time.
But if you’ve got the road Jones, and can’t stop, (and the Dramamine has kicked in), keep heading west, over U.S. 40, up over Rabbit Ears Pass into Steamboat Springs. You’ll want to stay awhile, because there’s a lot to do here (www.rockymountainfun.com). Don’t miss the Strawberry Hot Springs — it’ll remind you of your hippie past.
This is a trip you’ve probably taken many times. It’s Ski Country U.S.A. You may have spent hours behind the wheel, barely moving, on your way home Sunday evening after a weekend skiing in Vail. Have you been back in the summer? You wouldn’t recognize the place. It won’t take you four hours to get there in the summer. Bring your mountain bikes, and haul them up the Lionshead Gondola for an exhilarating ride down from the top. Wear your helmet, and bring some really big Band-Aids in case you find yourself bouncing off the seat on the way down.
Then, there’s the Colorado Classic family trip: a ride up to Glenwood Springs and a stay at the Hot Springs Resort. It’s a pilgrimage we try to make every year, and one my wife’s family took when she was a kid — to " take the cure " at Colorado’s biggest natural hot springs. Sure, it's filled with large, older men and women in ill-fitting swimsuits and pasty white skin, but let’s be honest — doesn’t that description include us now? The water smells like rotten eggs, so it must be really great for those arthritic knees, especially after the bike ride.
Further on, its Grand Junction. On the way into town, stop in at the wineries. Oh, don’t be such a snob — the wine is great, and the tours are a blast. Grab a few bottles for now, and a few more for later, and plunge on — you’re headed for another bike ride through (or maybe just a picnic in) the Colorado National Monument (www.visitgrandjunction.com).
This is the part of Colorado I know best. I have spent a couple weeks almost every summer of the last 45 years in the best place on earth — Lake City, Colo. Once you find it, you’ll see what I mean (www.lakecity.com). Stop in at Poker Alice Pizza — it’s " to die for. "
There’s also Telluride, Ouray, Silverton, Durango, Cortez, Creede, several fourteen thousand foot peaks, wilderness areas, camping spots, and Gold Medal trout fishing streams packed into the most beautiful mountains on earth. Don’t forget to hit Mesa Verde, down by Cortez — a climb through the cliff dwellings will make your old dump seem like a palace.
Just east of Alamosa is the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. You won’t believe it until you see it — a vast sand sea, nestled just west of the Sangre De Cristo range. Bring an old set of skis and your video camera. The folks back East will really be impressed that you actually went sand skiing. I hope you have a few of those big Band-Aids left.
Check out these Web sites for more travel ideas: (www.colorado.com; www.coloradovacation.com).
So stick around this summer. If you happen to see me in the Hot Springs pool on the bubble chair next to you, though, don’t laugh — you ain’t exactly Brad Pitt anymore, either.