We just returned from a terrific two-week vacation driving through Colorado in July 1998. What a fabulous experience! We rode horses, river rafted, saw ancient Anasazi dwellings, hiked to the tops of mountains, and drove through spectacular scenery. We dropped a thousand feet into a gold mine, saw a turn-of-the-century melodrama, soaked in a hot springs pool, and ate BBQ and beans while watching a cowboy show. And we had some great restaurant meals, including two Italian places that make me pine to have anything as good near where I live. We're exhausted, but boy do we have memories to last!
Who are we? Well, I'm Kevin, my wife is Debby, and our 8-year-old son is Chris. We hope some of our discoveries might prove useful or interesting to you! Your comments are very welcomed.
As midwesterners, our first challenge was the sheer size of Colorado. Here's how we tried to make it easier. Cut out the rightmost quarter; that's flat and is much like vacationing in Nebraska. (I'm sure Nebraska is wonderful, but that's not why people visit Colorado.) From what we've read, the northernmost strip of Colorado features some pretty wonderful country, but is duplicated by sights elsewhere. (Keep the Rocky Mountain National Park, though.) There, now we've got a piece of geography we can deal with!
In our research, we learned that the southwest portion of Colorado is the not-to-be-missed area. We also wanted to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, and Kevin had a business meeting in Vail. That pretty much set the outline for our trip:
Our route missed the entire south-central area of Colorado, which has some significant scenic areas, historic towns, and an area of vast sand dunes. You may want to research more to see if your interests warrant venturing in that direction.
For years, I had been telling my son about riding trains, and this was the time to finally do it. He's at an age to appreciate the experience, and the California Zephyr daytime crossing through the Rockies is said to be one of the most beautiful routes in the Amtrak system.
To take advantage of that view, we decided to ride west all the way through to Grand Junction, on the western edge of Colorado. Some highlights:
- We left Chicago pretty much on time, about 3pm
- Cross the Mississippi River, peruse Burlington, Iowa
- Dinner in the dining car
- As the scenery slowly gets more hilly, we watch some of "Grease" in the sightseer lounge car
- Bedtime, and our son gets the upper bunk (of course).
- We wake up as the train is crossing the Nebraska/Colorado border. We've clearly moved from the land of beans and corn into ranch country.
- Breakfast in the dining car
- Denver, with enough time to stretch our legs in the old train station.
- The mountain adventure begins, with 28 tunnels as we climb ever higher. The ultimate is the six-mile long tunnel at Moffet Pass. This is the first of several crossings of the Continental Divide we'll make on this trip.
- Clouds are playing with the mountains, giving a dramatic rather than an exhilarating look. Our view was great: We were lucky enough to get a "family bedroom", which is unusual in that it has windows on both sides of the sleeper car.
- After Granby, Colorado, we follow the path of the Colorado River, watching it widen and turn colors, from clear, to muddy, to a bright red.
- Lunch in the dining car
- At Glenwood Springs, we see the town's famous hot springs pool nearby. Some travelers may prefer to leave the train here, in order to visit the pool. Also, Glenwood Springs marks the end of the most mountainous territory and offers easy access to points south.
- Finally, Grand Junction, about 27 hours after leaving Chicago. The trip seemed to go so fast! As a special thrill, our car's attendant let our son give the announcement for Grand Junction on the P.A. system.
A bonus of riding Amtrak is that our son really "got" the notion of how the country changes, from flat farmlands, to ranches, to high mountains, to open range.
Grand Junction: This pleasant city is named for the junction of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, and is near to several natural wonders. We started the day with a tasty all-you-can-eat breakfast at Lenny's, themed around (of all things) the Chicago Bears. A very friendly place. Next, we made the obligatory stop at Dinamation, formerly the Devil's Canyon Science Center, for an all-dinosaur museum, featuring animated, life-size models of the old guys.
Just a few miles away is the Colorado National Monument, a taste of the scenery that makes Arizona and Utah famous. We took several short walks, and were amazed by the color and geometry of the formations and strata. It's the kind of experience that makes you hungry to know more about geology. Beautiful, just beautiful, and a startling sight to let us know we had really made it to Colorado!
Montrose: We passed through here on the way south, but I mention it because Montrose looked like a healthy-sized town with a number of amenities. (For some reader of this page, it might make a good base for visiting Grand Junction, Telluride, Ouray, and the Black Canyon.) There is a Ute Museum just south of Montrose, and though we didn't visit it, it looked attractive from the outside.
Ridgway: Ridgway is the northernmost point of the "San Juan Scenic Loop" that circles through the San Juan Mountains and passes Telluride, Mesa Verde, Durango, Silverton and Ouray. Ridgway itself is a small but attractive mountain town with a few likely looking stores and restaurants. (The "True Grit Cafe" lovingly preserves a section of a wall seen behind John Wayne in True Grit!)
Telluride: We had to take the one-mile detour off the main road to see this famous town. It is heavily developed on the outskirts; the main town has a too-trendy but nonetheless welcoming look.
Cortez: Think western, or southern Arizona. That kind of conveys the look of this small but appealing town. We only got a brief view at Cortez, which is a shame because we walked by several intriguing looking restaurants. (We decided to try to beat some looming thunderstorms to Mesa Verde.) Most inviting were Francisca's, a Mexican restaurant, and Nero's, an Italian restaurant with a great menu and a modest outdoor seating area.
There is an Anasazi Heritage Center, 10 miles north of Cortez on Hwy 666, at State Hwy 184. The appeal is a major collection of Anasazi artifacts.
Just FYI: We saw brochures for some unusual places in the area: "Kelly Place" describes itself as "a bed and breakfast and archeological preserve", offering a pampering B&B experience run by the host of the "McElmo Canyon Research Institute". In nearby Dolores, there is an "Old Germany Restaurant" (!) with Bavarian specialties and rathskeller. Also in Dolores is the "Lebanon Schoolhouse B&B" that says that it welcomes kids, and is hosted by ex-schoolteachers who love to converse with visitors.
Mesa Verde National Park: A highlight of our trip was visiting this important archeological site, with dozens of ancient Anasazi dwellings, some built right into the sides of high cliffs.
But first we had to get there! Those thunderstorms caught up with us as we were driving up the long road to the lodge and visitor center. (No, it is not reasonable to leave the park for a "quick" drive into town.) It was more than a little scary to be driving on a road with new-fallen rocks and a big boulder in the road, at the highest altitude for many miles around in the middle of lightening flashes with no pauses before we heard thunder.
We safely made it to the Far View Lodge in the park, where we were staying. (The place gets booked up fast, so make reservations early.) Our room was very nice and comfortable, and every room (I think) has a balcony with a fabulous vista over the mesa. The view goes for hundreds of miles. A profound disappointment was that storm clouds spoiled our chance to see the stars from this high altitude, under unpolluted skies, miles from any major light source.
In the evening, a multimedia "tour" is presented in the main lodge (though we arrived too late for that). We very much enjoyed a southwest dinner in the main dining room. It was comfy enough and offered good kid-type menu items for our son, but still conveyed a sense of casual elegance. And our meals were delicious. Just right.
Now here's the scoop on seeing Mesa Verde: There are two principle mesas with important sights, and it's a 25-minute drive between them. The biggest tourist draws are Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House. To try to control crowds (although it really wasn't too bad when we were there), the park service sells tour tickets. Tickets are sold on a first come first served basis at the visitor center, so get there first thing in the morning. On any one given day, you are only allowed to tour either Cliff Palace or Balcony House, but you can also get a ticket to the Long House tour. The visitor center warns you about Balcony House, noting that it involves climbing on a tall ladder, crawling through a (short) tunnel, and walking along cliffsides. Being basically chicken, this almost dissuaded me from Balcony House. I'm glad I went through with it: it was fun, and even this paranoid dad had no worries. (It should be avoided by persons with medical problems, or those physically unable to do these things.) In taking the Long House tour later in the day, we learned that it really was much like Cliff Palace. So there you have it: my recommendation is to buy tickets to Balcony House and Long House, allowing enough time to travel between them and to visit the museum (near Balcony House). Another site, Spruce Tree House, can be seen from a short trail from the museum.
What we saw at Mesa Verde was honestly captivating. To see exactly how (and where!) people lived, to walk where they walked, and touch the stones they worked -- all of it was a penetrating history lesson.
Durango: Now here is a place for some serious fun, whether you are a family, or if you are a 20-year-old single! Durango offers rafting, horseback riding, jeep tours, skiing, shows, rodeo, trains, history, scenery, good eating and nightlife.
We started one morning by walking through the very lively downtown (this is a real working town, not just a tourist center), with a delicious breakfast at Catalyst Coffeehouse on Second Avenue, a block off the main street. (I'm still savoring the pesto and sun-dried tomato bagel.)
For convenience, Durango has 25 cent scheduled trolley service down Main Avenue every half-hour.
We river rafted with Outlaw Tours, which (like other area outfitters) offers a range of rides varying in length and challenge. (Other outfitters that seem to be spoken of well include Mountain Waters Rafting and Mild-to-Wild.) We chose a two-hour mild ride for our first river-rafting experience. We absolutely loved it, and we were over our concerns almost immediately and were routing for the occasional livelier rapids. Note: We got a dramatic discount by booking through our motel's desk rather than direct. It would be wise to shop around for discounts and deals on raft trips.
A major attraction is the Durango-Silverton steam railway. Train fans come from everywhere to ride this authentic train through some beautiful scenery. We decided to pass, since we'd be driving through the same beautiful scenery anyway. Riding this train takes a certain commitment: it's an all-day adventure to do the round trip, and the optional open-air car is said to be loud and a bit sooty. Ilana, who read this page, liked the ride: It was great! We only went one-way, and I would recommend that (get the bus in the other direction, or have someone give you a ride). The open car had the best view -- I wouldn't want to sit inside. Not too sooty at all.
An unusual and special treat was seeing the Diamond Circle Melodrama at the downtown Strater Hotel. A talented and appealing company performed a four-act turn-of-the-century melodrama. The fun is the rapid-fire delivery, wildly excessive mannerisms, and a clever piano-playing host. The play itself was followed by several blackout vaudeville sketches that had our son in serious belly laughs.
On our other night in Durango, we went to the Bar D Chuckwagon for a "cowboy dinner and show". Rain dampened the fun a bit, but the food was good, we got to talk to other folks at our long table, and the entertainment was corny but honest. (See more about "chuckwagons" at the end of this page.)
We stayed at the Iron Horse Inn, a motel which we can heartily recommend. It's a few miles north of town, where the scenery starts to get really gorgeous. The Iron Horse is very unusual in that every unit has two rooms on two levels, so kids can have the thrill of being in their own secret-feeling place (with what our son called "spyholes" to see what was happening down on the main floor). Both levels look out over a wide green field bordered by a mountain ridge, and, right next to the parking lot, are the tracks of the Durango-Silverton steam railroad. When the whistle blows, the motel rooms empty out as people rush to capture the train on their cameras and camcorders. Despite the view, the two-level room, an oversized TV, and a very nice indoor pool and spa, and a pleasant restaurant for breakfast, the Iron Horse is a bargain as well!
The Iron Horse itself has a stable for horseback rides just across the tracks, but other stables in the area might offer a somewhat better view for the ride. We heard good things about both the Red Mountain Ranch and Rapp Guides, both about 15 miles north of Durango.
During the summer, there are two different rodeo series in progress in Durango. Our visit didn't coincide with either, but we saw the arena and this would probably be a fun adventure for other city slickers like us.
Purgatory: This ski resort is 25 miles north of Durango, but there is little there other than the resort itself. The best bargain of our trip was the free (!) chair lift rides for spectacular mountain views. For $6 each, we also rode the Alpine Slide toboggan, which was pure fun. We had considered staying at Purgatory while we were planning our trip, but the frighteningly complicated cancellation policy scared us away. Durango was more fun anyway.
Silverton: The old west never died at Silverton. That's the appearance at least of this historic town. Today, Silverton's main claim to fame is that it's the northern terminus of the Durango-Silverton steam train. A gunfight is staged outdoors at the train station everyday at 5:30. There are enough gift stores, restaurants and curiousities (the old jail is interesting) to merit a day visit, but Ouray may be a better bet for an overnight stay.
Million Dollar Highway: Between Silverton and Ouray is a short 20-mile stretch of road that one guidebook describes as "one of the most scenic drives anywhere on Earth". Earth! And it's indeed mind-boggling. This is the kind of view we came to Colorado for. The northern part, nearest Ouray, is especially awesome, with exposed mountain strata at crazy angles.
Ouray: Ouray ("your RAY") calls itself the "Switzerland of the Rockies", in observance of the mountain views in its area. Although it's small and appealing, it's not at all overly developed, and keeps a good deal of charm.
The city of Ouray owns Box Canon Falls and offers a worthwhile low-cost walking tour of these rushing falls in a narrow, dark gorge. It's quite a sight and it's geologically very interesting.
We visited the Hot Springs Pool Park, where a huge (huge!) pool area is subdivided into different depth and temperature areas. Our son loved it (we did too), but every pool after this is going to feel cold.
For dinner, we went to Buen Tiempo, which had great Mexican food (but somewhat confused service) in a rambling old hotel building.
We stayed at the Plain Jane B&B, after seeing a mention in Family Fun magazine. The whole place is themed around mining: the owner's husband was a mining engineer who worked in a number of places around the world. The Plain Jane was very comfortable, the morning breakfast was delicious, and our son was welcomed. However, there was no common sitting room, which eliminated the chance of talking to other travelers. Also, the owner was away when we visited, and I suspect that she has more enthusiasm for B&B'ing than her daughter who filled in for her.
Heading north from Ouray, we again passed through Ridgway and Montrose (mentioned earlier) on our way to the Black Canyon.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison: One guidebook describes this as "a spectacular gorge cut deep into the landscape". The Black Canyon is unusual for its depth given its width. Whereas the Grand Canyon is much wider than it is deep, the Black Canyon has an almost ominous feeling of depth. Just navigating through the thing took heroic efforts for the first explorers.
We would suggest that kids may better appreciate the Black Canyon if they experience it before the color and sunniness of the Grand Canyon.
Between the Black Canyon and Gunnison is the Curecanti recreation area and Blue Mesa Reservoir (Colorado's largest lake). It's apparently very popular, but our midwestern eyes couldn't see the appeal. Tell ya what, we'll trade ya a couple of our genuine lakes for a few of your mountains, OK?
Gunnison: Although it's very central and at the crossroads of major paths through the state, Gunnison is nonetheless pretty small, and offers limited choices to the traveler. Upon arrival, we found that most motels had no vacancies, so we wound up at the EconoLodge. No prob, it worked out great: we had a clean, large room, and free coffee and donuts (the yummy kind) in the morning.
But the best surprise was the place we found for dinner: We saw a sign for "Mario's Pizza", and that unpretentious name sounded just right after a hard day of sightseeing. But what we got was much better! I feel like one of my life quests is to find a friendly casual Italian restaurant like this anywhere near where I live. A long and imaginative menu presented a serious challenge to decision making, and a discrete glance at other tables only worsened the dilemma -- everything looked great. Well, the three of us each wound up raving about what we ordered. Delicious, warm, friendly, checked tablecloths -- what more could one want. Sigh.
(If you insist on something a little more stylish than Mario's, well, you shouldn't be reading this page at all. But if you insist, Garlic Mike's, another Italian restaurant just north of town, had an appealing brochure and looked attractive, and may satisfy you better. You fussbudget.)
Crested Butte: We wanted to visit here as soon as we learned of the bumper strip that said Crested Butte was "like Aspen used to be and Vail never was". Indeed, we thought that this town had a wonderful balance of history and trendiness, modern stores and restaurants and charming old buildings, and scenery. Reader Ilana says, Crested Butte has always been my favorite ski town. One summer we did a van trip there with our bikes and rode up the canyon to Tincup.
East of Gunnison: The obvious route between Gunnison and points east goes through Salida and Monarch Pass, but one guidebook pointed us to Tincup and Cottonwood Pass instead, and we're sure glad of that. This is a neat experience, and it provided some of the most dramatic mountain views of our entire vacation.
Tincup: It takes a detour of a few miles on a gravel road to get to Tincup, but it's worth it. This is an old gold mining town, with only a handful of residents keeping it from being a ghost town. Seeing the "real thing" prepared us to enjoy South Park (see below) even more.
Cottonwood Pass: Just beautiful. The west side of this road, between Tincup and the Pass, is gravel, but don't be discouraged. It's a good, safe road and we never felt in risk or uncomfortable. (It might be preferable to drive east if possible, since it seems easier to drive up on gravel rather than to brake while going down on gravel.)
The view just gets better and better going up. At a major turnout (with rest facilities) near the top, there are some trails that give truly, truly spectacular vistas. And at the very high point of the Pass, there are short trails to go right to the peak for a once-in-a-lifetime (maybe) view. Here was the golden opportunity to click off a roll with the panoramic feature on our new camera!
Buena Vista: Driving down from Cottonwood Pass and heading across flatlands to Buena Vista, a look at the rear-view mirror explains the town name. What a gorgeous, pleasant view of the mountains. We just drove through Buena Vista, which we thought was an appealing small town. Several folks had recommended Buena Vista as a good base for those interested in serious white-water rafting. (Most-mentioned outfitter: "Wilderness Aware".) Too bad we weren't hungry at this point, as two guidebooks highly recommended "Casa Del Sol", which indeed looked very appealing, but we had B&B reservations waiting for us in Leadville.
Leadville: The claim to fame here is Leadville's legendary mining history. Several notes online and some guidebooks had many good things to say about Leadville, but somehow we couldn't quite get our heads in sync with the place. Many buildings look in poor repair, and a few restaurants and stores looked to be struggling.
We had dinner at the modestly named "The Grill", a great Mexican restaurant. We received huge portions of very tasty Mexican entrees, with excellent salsa and margaritas. Ilana (reader of this page) wrote, It's traditional after a trip in the mountains, such as a hut-to-hut ski trip or a backpack in that area -- we *always* go to the Grill and eat huge platefuls of yummy Mexican food.
We stayed at "Peri and Ed's Mountain Hideaway", another family-friendly B&B. We had a very comfy room, a soothing hot tub, and a satisfying breakfast.
At 10,152 feet, Leadville has almost twice the altitude of the "mile high city", Denver. Unfortunately, Leadville also has sodium vapor lighting on side streets, spoiling what should have been spectacular views of the stars.
Imagine you give your heart and soul in a labor of love, helping to restore an important part of your local history. You're struggling along on a shoestring, recreating your town's past in an effort to provide a moving, captivating and educational experience for visitors.
Now imagine that a major cable network expropriates (without compensation) the name of your historical town for use in a foul-mouthed (though admittedly funny) television series. That's the situation of the fine folks at the South Park City Museum.
This place is wonderful: if you want to show your kids an old-west "ghost" town, with an amazing collection of in-place furniture, tools and decoration, then you must stop here. South Park includes 34 authentic old buildings, stocked with an astonishing 60,000 artifacts to give a true perspective on life in an old west mining town. In the drug store alone, the wall displays are considered one of the most extensive collections of patent medicines in existence anywhere.
I enjoyed chatting with the folks in the admission booth and gift store. A college-aged girl clearly was in love with her work in preserving this place. An older woman welcomed our raves but said that their big problem was in generating enough revenue and visits to expand their preservation work or to encourage more people to visit.
Hey, Comedy Central: how about sending some cash or airing some promotions for the real South Park, so that these people can continue their efforts to preserve a valuable part of our real culture?
Vail: We went to Vail because Dad had a business meeting. Vail is a corporate ski town wedged in a mountain valley. We stayed in the Vail Cascades resort, which was pleasant, but a little overfriendly. Like most fancy resorts, everything could be had but at a stiff price, making us recall the just-right free morning coffee and donuts back at the EconoLodge in Gunnison.
Silver Plume: This is a very small but charming town hidden in the hillside.
Georgetown: The is a cute, small, appealing town surrounded by mountains, with a decent selection of gift stores, restaurants and B&Bs, and an easy drive to many other interesting locations. Just east of town is an official "Bighorn Sheep Viewing Site", which we visited but the sheep didn't seem to be up for the show.
Idaho Springs: We didn't stop here, but nearby Mt. Evans is said to offer the "highest paved road in the U.S.".
The park is a vast area northwest of Denver and Boulder, preserving some of the best mountain scenery Colorado has to offer. The whole national park is referred to simply and affectionately as "Rocky".
There are two main approaches to the park: east, through Estes Park, and west, through Grand Lake. Between them, the Trail Ridge Road offers a breathtaking route through the northern side of the park, with impressive mountain sights. The park is laced with trails, ranging from easy to industrial strength. Our first trail was a simple walk around Bear Lake, but we quickly graduated to a nearby, more challenging trail through woods and over boulders to Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and ending with a wonderful mountain vista at Emerald Lake. We were exhausted after this, but we loved every minute of it!
Rangers at Rocky offer a wide program of presentations, tours and talks. We went to an evening talk on "mountain women of the Rockies", energetically given by a woman ranger, and also to a talk on animals of the park. We stopped by an evening astronomy program sponsored by a local group, but cloudy skies put the damper on that.
We much enjoyed visiting the Moraine Park Museum within the park, with novel exhibits on geology, animal life and weather.
The park offers some great-looking campsites, which should satisfy the most serious camper's tree lust. For lodging with walls, you need to stay in one of the nearby gateway towns, Estes Park or Grand Lake or thereabouts.
We were fortunate enough to hear about (and be able to get reservations at) the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center (phone (970)586-3341). It's rare to find a place so completely satisfying that you immediately envision returning again. A beautiful "campus", a wide range of things to do, good eats, easy access to the national park, and a fair price. Ahh!
Upon checking into the Y Center, we were handed this big book of activities! Well, it was actually a thick packet on classes, craft sessions, tours, events, and other fun things that we could attend while at the Y. Many or most of the simpler options were free.
We took a two-hour horseback ride from the stables at the Y into the national park, through wildflower meadows and across streams and cliffs. Just perfect!
A highlight for our son was the Y's pool, which easily struck as one of the cleanest, clearest, and most enjoyably designed pools we had ever dipped in. With this being the Y, you know that kids are always in mind, so the pool has very large areas of 3 and 4 foot depth. It was hard for us to get our kid out of this pool so we could go see other sights (like some of the most impressive mountains in North America!).
The Y Center offers food in an all-you-can-eat cafeteria style facility, or at a sit-down restaurant service. Actually, we made most use of the simple "Rustic Cafe" in the administration building: it offered all kinds of sweets in the morning (hey, we deserved it the way we were burning calories during the day!), substantial sandwiches (thoughtfully without mayo or mustard so that they could be added later from packets at lunch time picnics), and jumbo hot dogs and tangy BBQ sandwiches at dinner. And the prices were great.
We stayed at the Y Center for three nights. The first night we ventured to town (Estes Park) for dinner, and found most everything overpriced. We ate at Ed's Cantina, though we were relegated to a room with all the charm of a Denny's. At one other point, I took a peak inside of the guidebook-recommended Dunraven Inn, just down the road from the Y: it looked pretty cozy and interesting, and the Italian menu looked good, but we never quite had just the taste for it while we were in the area.
On our last day in the park area, we finally took the whole route of the Trail Ridge Road, crossing Rocky over to the west gateway at Grand Lake. We took the time for two short trails on the west side. It was fun to walk along the "mighty" Colorado River, which at this point is barely a stream!
Grand Lake is much more compact than Estes Park, and far more informal. We stopped for lunch at the Chuck Hole restaurant, recommended by two guidebooks. I guess the reviewers had a much higher tolerance than we did for smoke and stuffiness, so we left and found our way to a simple take-out stand at the end of the main street. I think it's name was something like "Munchies", and we enjoyed generous and tasty baked sandwiches in the outdoor tent next to the stand.
Colorado Springs: The Air Force Academy occupies a huge tract of land north of Colorado Springs, and it's nice to visit to see your government in action. (One bumper strip on sale in the gift store says, "My cadet and your tax dollars go to the Air Force Academy". So there!). Our son did like seeing the B-52 on display at the entrance, and there was a nice little film about about life at the academy.
Just across the interstate from the north entrance to the Academy is the nonprofit Western Museum of Mining and Industry, which we happily recommend. The museum has exhibits and working models of mining equipment and methods, and presents an interesting video looking at the social history of western mining. Kids can also take a free crack at gold panning, though the staff encourages a "catch and release" policy: if you find anything, you're encouraged to put it back. (Hey, it's a non-profit organization, and these are nice people doing this out of love.)
On the northwest side of Colorado Springs itself is the Garden of the Gods, which is actually a city park. We thought we had seen everything, but this was truly unique! The rocks at the Garden are parts of ancient beaches and ocean floors, for goodness sakes, which over time have compressed into rock and shifted to straight verticals. The geometry and the deep red dust color give the area an otherworldly appearance. Admission is free (there is a tram tour for a fee), and it's very easy to make as short or as long a visit as you like.
On the way to Cripple Creek, we drove past Manitou Springs, which looked like it would offer a more tranquil and picturesque alternative to the more citified Colorado Springs.
For dinner, we found a humdinger: Guiseppe's Old Depot Restaurant, which rambles through a dozen rooms in an old passenger train station. Every room was captivating. For dinner, an imaginative and wide-ranging salad bar was almost irresistible, including such kid-pleasers as three kinds of pudding. Us grownups had fabulous Italian spinach lasagna dinners, following a tough choice among great-looking pizzas, calzones, pastas, as well as Italian specialities, steaks and prime rib. The kids' menu is designed to enchant even the fussy, with names like "Li'l Engineer's Spaghetti", "Brakeman's Shrimp", "Candy Dancer" and "Roadhouse Pizza". Let's make it simple: Just go there! It was one of our favorite meals in Colorado (along with Mario's in Gunnison).
Cripple Creek: Famous, historic, and superceded by gambling: that's what Cripple Creek looked like to us. Virtually every storefront on the main drag is a gambling parlor. (And judging by the appearance of the homes surrounding downtown, the largesse hasn't yet spun off to the citizenry.) We had considered making plans to stay here; one look told us we were right not to.
However, this is a beautiful area, and we were delighted by our stop at the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine, which was a terrific gold mine tour! Several of the other gold mine tours around the state involve a tram of some sort that takes you horizontally into the mine. At the Molly Kathleen, we were lowered a thousand feet down into the mine. Our tour guide was a personable, experienced miner who laced his fact-laden speech with personal stories and wild turns-of-phrase. It was most eye-opening to actually get a feeling for the manner and method of the workings of a gold mine.
Cripple Creek does have a melodrama theater (which we were curious about after our great fun at the Diamond Circle in Durango), but we didn't really have any desire to stay in town longer than we intended.
Canon City: Another short drive from Colorado Springs goes to Canon City, which we didn't visit but wanted to mention here in case it fits other folks' plans. The main attractions seem to be the Royal Gorge (we had already seen the Million Dollar Highway and the Black Canyon) and Buckskin Joe, a commercial "authentically reconstructed gold mining camp" (and we had already been to the fabulous South Park City Museum ).
Denver: The Cherry Creek neighborhood on the southeast side seems to be the center for interesting shops, bookstores, and restaurants.
A must-see for us was the Tattered Covers bookstore, said to be one of the two best bookstores in the U.S. (along with Powell's in Portland).
We visited Denver only at the very end of our trip, when we were nearing a state of vacation overload. So, we didn't really attempt too much, and so we do not have a great deal to report. Our guidebooks had said that the best time to see the Denver Mint was at the very start of the day before the crowds hit, but we were much too exhausted by then for that!
I should mention Central City, which we passed through on our way to Rocky Mountain National Park. This mountain valley town, west of Boulder and well south of Estes Park, has been taken over by huge developments of casinos. The casinos in Cripple Creek at least preserved the original historic buildings; Central City was much more get-out-of-my-way aggressive in appearance.
Denver International Airport: We flew home via the new Denver International Airport, which is actually in Nebraska. Just kidding: it only seems that way. Denver is hoping to entice the Democratic National Convention for 2000. One look at DIA should sell this right away: DIA is a fabulous example of what $6 billion in a runaway government program can concoct: a monstrously huge, wildly ill-designed, and ultimately people-hostile environment. If you have to come into or leave Colorado through DIA, allow plenty (plenty!) of time to navigate through this awesome example of what massive government spending can reek when the powers that be set their minds to it. (And Frederico Pena got a cabinet position for this!) It was nice to come home to a nice, small airport -- O'Hare in Chicago.
If one is good, why not have a dozen? That's the apparent principle behind three types of enterprises that are almost as pervasive in Colorado as McDonald's is in Chicago.
Fine, but in planning a vacation the challenge is to sort out which ones are the "best" ones to do. Heck if we know the definitive answers, but we'll try to give some tips here.
- The "real" train: Amtrak provides California Zephyr service roughly paralleling I-70, from Grand Junction to Denver, and then to the northeast. The trip is scheduled so that it passes through the mountain area in daylight. The Southwest Chief also passes through the southeast corner of Colorado.
- Antonito: Cumbres and Toltec Scenic RR
- Canon City: Royal Gorge Scenic RR, $5.50
- Cripple Creek: Cripple Creek and Victor RR, 4 mile roundtrip, $7/$3.50 (a comparative bargain)
- Denver-Winter Park: The Ski Train. This is a real train, running during the winter from Denver to the ski resort at Winter Park.
- Durango: Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge RR: highly popular, the D&SNG travels a gorgeous route, but it's a long trip and is fairly expensive.
- Georgetown: Georgetown Loop RR
- Leadville: Leadville, Colorado & Southern RR. This is a 2 1/2 hour ride, for $23 adults, $12 kids.
- Manitou Springs: Pikes Peak Cog Railway: "the world's highest cog railway"
Colorado tourism has a website on these train adventures.
The main differences in the mines seem to be price, proximity to towns, and whether you go into or down into the mine.
- Aspen: Compromise Mine
- Aspen: Smuggler Mine
- Breckenridge: Country Boy Mine
- Cripple Creek: Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine: we thoroughly enjoyed this one! See our notes above.
- Georgetown: Lebanon Silver Mine Tour
- Idaho Springs: Argo Gold Mine
- Idaho Springs: Phoenix Mine
- Lebanon: Lebanon Silver Mine, requires riding the Georgetown Loop Railroad
- Silverton: Old Hundred Gold Mine: A little cheaper than the nearby Bachelor-Syracuse mine, and gold panning is included.
- Ouray: Bachelor-Syracuse Mine Tour
If you're interested in mines and you're in the Colorado Springs area, you'll probably want to visit the nonprofit Western Museum of Mining and Industry, which we found to be very intriguing. We also enjoyed the geology exhibits at Moraine Park Museum in the Rocky Mountain National Park. The guidebooks say good things about the Creede Underground Mining Museum in Creede.
It sounds so utterly unique: Build a little mini-theme park, with shops and a large serving area. Make sure that people browse the gift shops by giving the best seats to those who come when gates open. Sit a few hundred people to a dinner of barbeque beef or chicken, cornbread, foil-wrapped potato, beans and chunky applesauce on metal plates. Then, after dinner, do a stage show of cowboy humor and songs. Yup, sounds utterly unique, but there are a dozen of these operations, at least! Not that they're not fun. But they do seem to run from a master plan, right down to the chunky applesauce.
We went to the Bar-D Chuckwagon in Durango, which seems to be one of the most long-lived of its kind (along with the Flying W in Colorado Springs). We did have a lot of fun, but it wasn't a see-at-any-cost kind of thing.
I have no idea how to recommend any of these from any others, except to note that the show personalities seem to vary (from young to old, from all-male to mixed) and the size of the crowd is much larger at some that at others (it may be easier and more pleasant to get your food or seconds at smaller venues).
- Dolores: Line Camp
- Durango: Bar-D
- Colorado Springs: Flying W
- Estes Park: Lazy B
- Between Grand Junction and Delta: Hanging W
- Montrose: Z-Bar
I Wanna Take You Higher
Colorado seems to inspire creative bragging:
- Leadville has the highest elevation of any incorporated place in U.S. (10,152 feet)
- The road to Mt. Evans is "highest paved road in the U.S." (14,264 feet)
- Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is the "highest continuous paved road in the U.S." (12,183 feet)
- The road through Cottonwood Pass (west of Buena Vista) is the "highest continuous unpaved road in the U.S." (12,126 feet)
We're not skiers, but it's hard to avoid ski towns driving through Colorado. Nonetheless, here are a few capsule observations about the ski towns we encountered:
- Breckenridge: newish-looking, antiseptic, crisp rather than charming
- Copper Mountain: aggressive development
- Crested Butte: our vote for best balance: trendy, developed, but with a beautiful location, interesting-looking restaurants, bookstores, etc., old quaint buildings, and real history.
- Purgatory: no real town except for the Purgatory resort. Seems to offer easy bus transport to Durango and Telluride.
- Telluride: very trendy, but very scenic with some real history.
- Vail: somewhat claustrophobic embedding in a mountain valley, but that may be exactly what skiers are looking for. Very corporate environment, sort of like a no-nonsense version of Disney World.
How do you determine which guidebooks are any good? Here's our theory: see what they say about some not-so-obvious places that you really like, and which have been around long enough and are so good that they really should be mentioned.
Here's our nominations for "guidebook testers" for Colorado: If the book doesn't rave about these, look for something else:
- Mario's in Gunnison: Fun, casual, inexpensive, and wonderfully delicious
- Guiseppe's in Colorado Springs: Fabulous menu, great food and a visually captivating environment
- Iron Horse Inn in Durango
- Diamond Circle Melodrama in Durango: If a reviewer doesn't find fun here, then who needs to take advise from such a sourpuss?
Here's someone else's notes from a Colorado trip. This one is much more adventurous than ours!
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