Tag Archive | Colorado vacations

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Montrose County, CO

Another Covid-19 vacation is in the books! My family is vaccinated but we are still trying to avoid crowds when traveling. We have spent the past year renting homes/cabins and cooking most of our meals when out of town. This rural southwest part of Colorado seemed like the perfect place to check out a National Park and visit with our adult children for a few days. It turned out to be a great trip.

We took a morning flight from DFW to Montrose. The direct flight was only an hour and thirty-eight minutes – quick trip! The Montrose airport was small (4 gates) and very easy to navigate. Getting our rental Jeep was a breeze. Our Vrbo house actually ended up being a convenient ten minute drive from the airport. So far, so good! We were ready to explore the area.

The first excursion to check off our list: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This area has only had National Park status since 1999 and I was not that familiar with it prior to our trip. After seeing a few pics on a National Park social media page recently, it got on my radar. Though not as popular as the Grand Canyon, it certainly seemed less crowded and had some spectacular views with towering walls, spiky peaks, narrow openings and startling depths. I put in a little bit of research, found out how to get there, and off we went!

The Black Canyon National Park entrance was only twenty minutes from downtown Montrose and the drive up to the park was quite scenic as our elevation changed (and ears popped!). This route took us to the park’s visitor center that featured cool displays, info on the canyon, picnic areas, restrooms, a gift shop, campgrounds, a nature trail and a great observation platform. It was well worth a stop. I got a map, a walking stick and went on my merry way.

The route through the park along the South Rim Road was easy to drive and well-marked. It allowed us beautiful views of the Black Canyon from many overlooks, most of which only required short walks. I loved seeing all the different landscapes, plants and trees along the way. Hiking there can be as simple as strolling to the various viewpoints and overlooks or as challenging as a 2,700 foot descent down into the inner-canyon to the Gunnison River, which we didn’t do (because we are sane people!).

The Black Canyon itself was breathtakingly beautiful with its dark, solid granite canyon walls that tower almost 3,000 feet above the greenish river snaking far, far below. The canyon gets its name due to the fact that certain parts of the gorge only get thirty total minutes of sunlight per day. The walls literally look black due to the shadows. It is very, very narrow and very deep! For you geology nerds, the canyon has some of the world’s oldest exposed rock that dates back two billion years to the Precambrian era. Today the impenetrable, steep cliffs provide homes and protection to the world’s fastest bird, the peregrine falcon.

We enjoyed many of the twelve lookout points along the rim with Pulpit Rock, the Painted Wall and Dragon Point being my favorites. The Painted Wall is the highest cliff (tallest vertical wall) in Colorado. From the rim down to the river, it stands 2250 feet high and as my daughter described it, “it looks like a big ole slab of marbled steak.” It is a huge, dark granite wall with wide, white “marble” streaks running through it. The size is somewhere in the neighborhood of ginormous!

At Dragon Point, the Painted Wall was across the gorge from us and far below was the Gunnison River. The river actually looked very curvy and small from our vantage spot so high above. Our view was quite deceiving. The Gunnison River actually drops an average of 43 feet per mile through the canyon, which is six times more than the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon – just to put it in perspective.

If we had more time, I would have liked to experience the canyon from the bottom up. There is a road at the park entrance that follows a steep, switch-back route into the canyon’s depths. This would certainly be a memorable day for hiking, fishing, kayaking or rock climbing. I would have loved to have seen the mighty river up close and personal. Maybe next time…

The Ute Tribe that inhabited these tribal lands for thousands of years referred to this area as “much rocks, big water.” I don’t think anyone could have said it any better.

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Seven Falls

Colorado Springs, CO

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Seven Falls is a towering waterfall located in Colorado Springs just a few miles from the Broadmoor Hotel. It is actually not “seven” falls as the name indicates – but one continuous waterfall that flows over seven granite plateaus. This beautiful waterfall is located at the end of a natural box canyon and is flanked by pink granite walls called the Pillars of Hercules that rise 1250 feet above you. The views here are quite impressive!

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The best way to get to Seven Falls is from the Broadmoor Hotel (due to parking and GPS issues that can be a nightmare). Admission tickets can be purchased inside the hotel for $14 and then you simply catch one of their private shuttles that drops you off right at the gate. The Broadmoor shuttles run every 10-15 minutes.

From the front entrance of Seven Falls, you may choose to ride a tram up to the falls or decide to walk the one-mile hike from the base – which is what we did. It was quite a scenic adventure! This journey up to the falls is named “the grandest mile of scenery” in all of Colorado. You walk along on a comfortable, paved trail with a slight incline that leads you through some breathtaking scenery.  You are surrounded on every side by high mountains, rocky cliffs,  rock formations, dense forests, colorful wildflowers, and the icy cold South Cheyenne Creek. The hike was peaceful, beautiful, not crowded, and most enjoyable.

 

Once you arrive at Seven Falls, there is an Eagle’s Nest platform for some great viewing opportunities a short distance from the actual falls. You can take the 180 steps up or ride the elevator to the overlook. The elevator passageway has several interesting photos, exhibits and artifacts regarding the history of the falls so I highly suggest at least popping in here for a few minutes, even if you do choose to take the steps up. Whichever route you take to the Eagle’s Nest, the views of Seven Falls are pretty awesome from this vantage point. #greatphotos!

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When you exit the Eagle’s Nest, venture on to the base of the falls and experience the power of this water up close and personal. It is loud and powerful! From this point, the “more adventurous” can hike the 224-step stairway that leads alongside the falls for a closer view of the water and take advantage of hiking trails at the top. There are two nature hike trailheads above the falls (a one-hour trail and a 1/2-hour trail) that offer different views of the falls, the canyon, and the stream that feeds the falls.

The less athletic people (me!) can find several small shops near the falls that are filled with souvenirs, snacks, apparel, jewelry and minerals for purchase to commemorate your visit here. When your sightseeing has concluded, kick back and enjoy a snack or meal at the scenic Restaurant 1858 on the property. This rustic-styled restaurant is run by The Broadmoor and offers a varied menu – everything from salads, burgers and nachos to wood-grilled steak and trout. We had a late lunch here and really enjoyed it.

As you exit Seven Falls and walk (or ride) back down towards the gate through the canyon, look up and see if you can spot any zip-line cables, rope bridges, zip-liners, or wooden platforms high on the mountain sides. The Broadmoor’s Soaring Adventures offers zip-line tours of this canyon and falls area. If you desire to balance on rope bridges, zip-line over canyons, or rappel down rock cliffs – this may be for you! My family did this course one morning during our stay in Colorado Springs and LOVED it!!

My family and I certainly enjoyed our visit to Seven Falls. The actual waterfall and this gorgeous canyon has attracted visitors for over 160 years (since 1880) and now I see why.  I hope you get a chance to visit and see it all firsthand! 

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Seven Falls is currently owned and operated by The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.

 

Rocky Mountain National Park

Estes Park, CO

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Lace up your hiking boots and get ready to head to one of Mother Nature’s brightest stars – Rocky Mountain National Park. Not only is this one of my favorite places on earth, National Geographic agrees and named it “one of the best trip destinations in the world.”

The park entrances are located 75 miles west of Denver and on the edge of the scenic town of Estes Park, Colorado. The drive to Estes Park has some stunning views and once inside the park, the scenery is even more breathtakingly beautiful. This vast mountain wilderness is a natural masterpiece with views of jagged peaks, high mountain lakes, waterfalls, wooded forests, grassy tundras, and 130-million-year-old glaciers. The Continental Divide runs right through the center of the park and the headwaters of the Colorado River begin here. It is a very impressive place, to say the least.

Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915 and covers 415 square miles. It is one of those places that can be enjoyed by all ages and activity levels. You may choose to see the entire park while riding in the comfort of your vehicle. Drive along the Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved highway in North America, to the Alpine Visitor Center (elevation 11,800 ft.) and you will feel like you are on top of the world! If you are a more active person, you can take advantage of all the hiking, rock climbing, camping, fishing and winter skiing that the park allows. There are almost 400 miles of maintained hiking trails throughout the park that go through the grassy valleys, aspen and pine forests, and around mountain lakes. Some of the more challenging trails run along rock slides, waterfalls and on up to several mountain peaks. How about a hike up to the 14,260 ft. summit of Long’s Peak? Yep, me neither!

I have had the opportunity to visit this park in spring, summer and fall and I must admit that each season was very unique in its own way. Early spring had many of the park roads closed due to snow and ice – but it was wonderful hiking around frozen lakes in the snow and watching locals suit up for cross county skiing and snowshoeing. It was truly a winter wonderland with pristine snow, bright blue skies and few people. Summer brought out the green grasses, new forest growth, and fields of beautiful wildflowers. The temperature was great and the streams and lakes were crystal clear and very cold from the icy snow melt. Fall was a burst of colors. The trees turned every shade of yellow, orange and red and stood out from all the green pines, spruces, and firs. Animals were more visible as they were “chowing down” and storing fat before the winter came. Each season brings something new and different to the park and I was lucky to witness the various stages.

I have many favorite memories from my visits here. I loved hiking at a couple of the lakes with my husband last April. We trudged through deep powdery snow and followed trails through the forest along the water’s edge. The weather was mild and the sky was bright blue. John Denver’s music played in my head, “the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake” could not have been more appropriate. We sat and drank it all in. On another visit the following year, we hiked over a field of granite boulders and enjoyed a picnic at the Alluvial Fan. The waterfall here was amazing! One of the best experiences I had at Rocky Mountain National Park was a late summer morning when my friend Britten Echols and I arrived early to spend the day there exploring. Our first stop was at Sprague Lake. We were immediately shocked at the sight of a nearby momma moose, a baby moose (hidden in the grass close to us) and a young male moose  – both calmly standing in the lake eating moss. It was a “pinch me” moment and certainly not something we were used to seeing everyday in Texas! We walked around this entire lake and had a great picnic lunch before heading off for an afternoon hike around Bear Lake. By the end of this magical day, we had encountered several chipmunks, mule deer, a huge rutting elk, and a whole herd of bighorn sheep. It was an unbelievable day.

If you enjoy wildlife, adventure and nature – add Rocky Mountain National Park to the top of your bucket list! This whole park encompasses a breathtaking collection of mountains (most with elevations over 12,000 ft.), high tundras, gorgeous vistas, dense forests, 7 glaciers, 2 waterfalls, 147 lakes, and a treasure trove of animals. You can camp, rent a cabin, book a hotel in nearby Estes Park, or drive from the Denver area for a day trip. The park is open 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Cost can range from $20-$70 per day, depending on the season, and I can promise the trip will be priceless!

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

Me too, John….me too.

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Chautauqua

Boulder, Colorado

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Chautauqua National Historic Landmark sign at the park entrance

If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself near Boulder, Colorado with some free time, make your way to Chautauqua National Historic Landmark. Located in the shadows of the Flatirons on the southwest side of Boulder, you will find picturesque views, hiking trails, a dining hall, and over 60 lodges or accommodations for overnight stays.

This is a favorite place for locals and visitors alike. There is a Visitor’s Center at the park’s trail head where you can learn about the plants and animals in the area and also pick up a map showing the 151 miles of trails. There seems to be a trail for every level of hiker. Most of the trails start out on the large meadow in front of the Visitor’s Center and go up into the Flatirons. You can hike for 30 minutes or all day. Some trails meander along the base of the mountains through dense forests. Other trails have moderate to steep inclines and wind up well into the Flatirons for breathtaking views. Trail markers are visible all along the way. According to the season, you may see many types of flowers, flowering trees, tall pines, boulders, streams, cacti, birds, chipmunks, deer, and sometimes – black bears.

Chautauqua is where the locals go for their daily exercise. While many “flat-landers” like myself have to stop every few yards to catch their breath in the higher altitudes, locals come running by or hurriedly walk past with one baby strapped on their front and a toddler on their shoulders – moseying along like it takes no effort whatsoever. Really?! Embarrassment on the trail is when a couple, likely to be in their eighties, scamper by at a quick pace and smile at you as you sit on a boulder gasping for air. I do admit, as hard as some of the hikes have been – it has ALWAYS been worth it!

Another thing I love about Colorado and Chautauqua in particular – it is a dog’s paradise. All the trails are dog-friendly and you see all shapes and sizes of canines. All the dogs seem to be smiling, have pep in their steps, and are loving every minute of their life!  We actually parked by a “doggie van” last time we were there that picks up dogs at their homes and then takes the dogs for hikes or runs at Chautauqua. What a great idea for “doggie day out!” This could easily be my dream job….if I was in a little better shape.
Not only humans and canines enjoy hiking up Chautauqua. On one visit, I actually saw a guy coming down from the Flatirons with a big ole yellow tabby cat riding on his shoulders. Yep, it is the truth….only in Colorado.

We have been to Chautauqua during all seasons. In summer, you need to get an early start before the sun beats down on you. In the spring, the wildflowers are glorious and the trees and grass are all shades of green. In the fall, all the trees turn golden yellow, orange or red and the views of Boulder from the mountain are a burst of colors. In the winter, the snow turns the Flatirons into a silent, winter wonderland (and people are still hiking!).

Chautauqua actually became a place of refuge for me several years ago. My son, a CU college student, had spinal surgery and I lived with him in Boulder for several weeks following his surgery. When he was well enough to return to classes, I would drop him off at campus and head directly to Chautauqua. Most times I hiked short distances- other times I sat on rocks and reflected, prayed, read books, or just enjoyed the solace. It became my calming getaway and will always hold a special place in my heart.

I recently came across a travel magazine article on Chautauqua that explained in detail the history of this wonderful place. It seems there is a very strong Texas – Colorado connection. Who knew? In Austin, Texas in 1897 the Texas-Colorado Chautauqua Association began. Its purpose was to conduct a summer school for Texas school teachers. Boulder, Colorado was chosen for the location due to the cooler summer temperatures. A $75 fee covered the 6-week session for each teacher. The tuition included room and board, lectures, entertainment, and round-trip rail fare from anywhere within a 100-mile radius of Ft. Worth. The “continuing ed” for these early teachers included cello, guitar, mandolin, piano, vocals, math, chemistry, botany, physics, psychology, education, English, Latin, Greek, French, German and English Literature. When not in class, the participants enjoyed symphonies, motion pictures, burro rides, horseback rides, hikes, and stagecoach rides. This association was very active for over 30 years before the attendance began to decline. If you go on the property today, you see many of the original buildings from this era. The Dining Hall has many old photos depicting some of the summer sessions – very interesting for history buffs.

For those of you who are wondering, “Chautauqua” is an Iroquois word with a few meanings— “a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together,” and describes the shape of Chautauqua Lake, located in southwest New York. This area was the setting for the first educational assembly (Chautauqua Institution) and provided the name for the movement.

I hope you get the chance to visit Chautauqua one day and enjoy it as much as my family does. Go early, dress comfortably, and take plenty of water to drink along the way. Enjoy your hike and then afterwards, have a meal at the Chautauqua Dining Hall. Ask to sit out on the veranda and have a great meal while overlooking the park.  Order the “Rachelette” and tell them Southern Savvy sent you!

Garden of the Gods

Colorado Springs, CO

Garden of the Gods is a National Natural Landmark located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This is a great place to spend part of a day or a full day. You can choose to hike, go rock climbing, bike, ride horseback, or take a leisurely drive (like we did). There are 15 miles of well-marked trails (22 total) throughout the park.

We began at the Visitor & Nature Center and Museum at the park’s entrance. This is a wonderful building with geology, ecology, and cultural history exhibits. (Be sure to read about the 125 million-year-old, one-of-a-kind dinosaur fossil found here in 1886.) There are many hands-on exhibits and activities for adults and children. The visitor’s center also houses a gift shop, restrooms, a cafe, theater, and an information desk where you can pick up a free full-color trail map of the park. Step out of the center onto the observation deck for spectacular views of Garden of the Gods. This is the perfect spot to take a photo of the dramatic 300′ towering sandstone formations with the foothills of the Rockies and Pike’s Peak in the distance.  What a backdrop!

When you leave the visitor’s center, the entrance to the park is across the highway. There is not an entrance fee – the park is free. 

All the roads, trails and parking areas are well-marked and easy to find. Each turn seems to bring a different, amazing sight. All these rock formations were created by a geological upheaval 300 million years ago. The bright red, pink, gray and white rocks are various shapes and sizes – all motionless and silent. Many were tilted vertically and formed into “fin-like” spikes. Others have been toppled, slanted, pushed around, overturned and eroded.  Most of the rocks are sandstone, limestone or conglomerate and each one is a true masterpiece of Mother Nature.

As the road winds through the park, you can stop for photo ops and explore “Balanced Rock,” located right next to “Steamboat Rock.” Cathedral Valley houses the “Three Graces,” “Gray Rock,” “Sleeping Giant,” and “Kissing Camels” to name a few. There are plenty of pull-offs and parking areas throughout the park. We actually stopped at one trail head and hiked a short distance before having lunch at one of the many picnic areas. There are many trails for easy hikes if you want to check out all the natural flora and fauna. There are also more difficult trails for the athletically inclined people who want to do some actual rock climbing. 

We chose to drive the park on our own this particular day. If interested, there are several other options for exploring the park: private car tours, bikes, jeeps, segways, ATV’s, luxury buses, or horseback. The Park Program also offers 45-minute Nature Walks and Nature Talks daily through the Visitor’s Center. Your call!

We truly had a wonderful day here and I will always remember the sight of those gigantic rock formations. The colors, shapes, and prehistoric-looking landscape will be difficult to forget. It reminds me of how powerful this earth can be, how old this planet actually is, and how land is constantly changing. I sincerely hope you have the opportunity to visit Garden of the Gods.

 

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