Our road trip through western Colorado rewarded us with stunning vistas of natural beauty at every turn. For two weeks we travelled along its historic byways and visited some of its principal attractions.
Our first stop was the Garden of the Gods in Manitou Springs. It was an absolutely perfect May day with not a cloud in the sky. The red sandstone rocks contrasted vividly with the azure blue sky. With Marmot, our guide, in the driver’s seat we circled the Park in a 1909 style trolley. En route, he identified many striking rock formations carved over millions of years. Such descriptive names as “Kissing Camels”, “Rattlesnake Ridge” and “Sleeping Giant” challenged our imaginations. Marmot also identified for us some of the Park’s native trees including the slow growing single-seeded juniper and bristlecone pine, many of which are over 1,000 years old.
The next morning the air was fresh and crisp as we drove up Pike’s Peak, America’s Mountain, which stands at 14,115 ft. As the winding road zig zagged steadily upward, the trees became more stunted. On our uphill journey we passed through five different climatic zones. Overhead were swirling puffy white clouds. As we headed higher patches of snow appeared until at around 12,000 ft. snow banks lined the road. At 13,000 ft. snow ploughs were busy at work. We could go no further. The ranger guided us to a parking spot. Kindly, he told us that the best views were just over yonder. It was now only 10°F but clear and sunny. Luckily we had dressed warmly. We felt on top of the world. Above was the sky. Below were alpine views. It was grand and majestic.
A full day’s drive brought us to Durango where we explored the Mesa Verde National Park with Kellie, an interpretative guide. She continuously threw out small gems of information. Over 700 years ago this was the home of the Ancestral Puebloan people. Initially, these hunters and gatherers lived on the mesa top sites but around 1190 they took up residence in sheltered alcoves in the canyon walls. In the civilization’s heyday more than 30,000 people dwelt on the mesa top, another 30,000 lived in the valley. Then in the late 1200s, they upped and left. Quite simply “it was time to go”. President Theodore Roosevelt established this Park in 1906. In 1978 it was designated as a World Heritage Site. We felt dwarfed beneath the 8,500 ft. high mesa swathed in shades of sage green, brown and grey. Outside the Visitor Centre was a sculpture of an Ancestral Puebloan climbing up a cliff face using only hand and toe holds. This was their daily routine. Thankfully such strenuous exercise was not in our itinerary. Being Kellie’s passengers was just fine with us. Kellie pointed to numerous cliff dwellings and guided us around the mesa top sites. Some caves contained multi-storied buildings. In most there was at least one kiva (a room originally used for religious rituals) and many rooms with T-shaped windows. However, for us, the Cliff Palace, a large prehistoric cave dwelling was the undoubted highlight. We descended from the mesa top by a series of wooden ladders wedged between two rock faces being careful not to get stuck. Tucked beneath a protective overhang were several clay and stone structures. It was an eye-opening experience revealing much about the history and culture of the inhabitants.
And so we motored on … to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison outside Montrose. This narrow steep-sided canyon is 53 miles long, over 2,700 ft. deep and only 1,100 ft. wide. It was formed by a dramatic uplift of the land. Gunnison Point is known for its pegmatite dikes, a striking geologic feature. These were formed by magma forcing its way through cracks in the surrounding rock and then cooling very slowly. Further along the road at Pulpit Rock Overlook we peered down the steep gorge carved by the Gunnison River where sunlight rarely penetrates. At Painted Wall View, colourful striations were visible in the rock face. Light and shadows danced an ever changing pattern across the canyon walls.
A drive along a scenic byway brought us to Grand Junction. Next morning we toured Rim Rock Drive as it twists and weaves its way through the Colorado National Monument. It is an area of desert land high on a plateau which stands about 2,000 ft. above the Grand Valley. The Monument was established in 1911. For John Otto, its first Superintendent, these rugged red rock canyons were the heart of his world. He named many of these unusually shaped formations which have been sculpted over time by the powers of erosion.. These include the “Praying Hand”, “Independence Monument”, rising 450 ft, the “Coke Ovens”, a series of large buff-coloured mounds, and “Balance Rock”. We gazed across deep ravines to broad, sweeping panoramas and towering monoliths. Stands of prickly pear cactus, pinyon pine and juniper forests peppered the terrain.
Our last stop was at Estes Park, eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. We only explored a small part of this designated 415-square-mile wilderness which spans the Continental Divide and is the source of the Colorado River. It encompasses protected mountains, lakes, forests and alpine tundra. From here water drains to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It was nearly the end of May but last winter’s heavy snowfall still blocked Trail Rim Road beyond Rainbow Curve. At this viewpoint, we looked down on steep wooded and boulder strewn slopes. Beyond majestic snow-capped peaks, many over 11,000 ft. in altitude, extended to the horizon. On our descent, we parked at picturesque Sprague Lake where we relaxed awhile and soaked in the peaceful mountain scenery.
Western Colorado is blessed with an abundance of glorious scenery. Here we experienced nature in the raw. During this awe-inspiring road trip, a breathtaking vista greeted us wherever we looked. These memories will remain with us forever.