(If you would rather skip my banter and just look at the photos, click HERE.)
Scratching the travel itch in 2021? Yes, please. Or maybe just an attempt to return to 'normal' (or what I hope is a new normal.) What a great time I had in Colorado, and I rank it in my overall top 10 places to visit! Okay, maybe top 6 or 7 is more accurate. Hey, Colorado - you're gorgeous!!
The Colorado trip was booked at a time when the pandemic was appearing to taper, and the Universe was giving me a green light for the trip. Everything just fell into place and there was no backing out. I mean, who am I to question where the Universe puts me? Especially when an airplane and National Parks are involved. We wore masks on the bus and at all indoor locations, and also on a couple trains when required.
The story behind the trip.
I follow a Meetup group "WNC Solo Travelers" orchestrated by Travel Advisor, Janice Adkins, out of Brevard, North Carolina (Brevard Travel link). Janice sent out an email for 'female roommate needed' and she told me about the trip. We had two meet & greet events and I met a few of the ladies traveling to Colorado before the trip began. The actual excursion was hosted by Mayflower Cruises & Tours (click for link to their website). We all met in Denver, Colorado and began our journey together there. The awesome tour director was Kevin Morrissey and Arrow Stage Coach driver, Nick Jones, ensured our safe and timely arrivals all around Colorado. Both were extremely knowledgeable about the area and our excursions. I cannot say enough good things about these lovely people! They truly made this trip a bit extra.
Day 1 - travel to Denver
My flight out to Denver was a non-stop from Charlotte - so up and out of the house by 6am to catch my 10am flight. Note: Charlotte now offers 30% discount on parking if you book it in advance on their website or app. Easy peasy, made my way to Denver and the hotel without issue. Checked in with Mayflower (Kevin) and napped until time for dinner with the group. The only photos from today were in the car park so I could remember where I left the car.
Day 2 - Rocky Mountain National Park
Quick breakfast and on the bus by 7:45am. We saw lots of Elk in Estes Park. We drove the longest, continuous paved road in North America, Trail Ridge Road, and made a couple stops along the route. We were already at 12,000 feet elevation by our first stop. I spotted some bull elk just hanging out among the rocks (first photo.) We also stopped at the Alpine Visitor's Center for lunch before crossing the Continental Divide. Bus driver, Nick, got some intel about a moose grazing just beyond Milner Pass near Lake Irene. Sure thing, the female moose was still in the area! We were able to stop for photos and the telephoto lens came in handy.
The next stop was at Kawuneeche Visitor's Center on the west side of the park. A Park Ranger talked to us about the area and led dialog about the devastating East Troublesome Fire from 2020 that burned thousands of acres around the Visitor's Center. His talk was very heart-felt as the one-year anniversary of the devastation was coming up. The photos below don't really convey the magnitude of the fires. The town of Estes Park was spared due to a freak snowstorm, the earliest measurable snow on record. In an unusual twist, I experienced the same freak snowstorm last year while visiting Yellowstone and Grand Tetons. My route was originally supposed to include northern Colorado, but had to be changed last minute due to the fires and the snow. It gives me chills to think I was so close to the fires last year, just over the mountain range.
Let's talk about the weather. Denver and most of Colorado has been socked in with smoke from the California wildfires for weeks. This day was a little cloudy, but behind the clouds was a bright blue sky. And we could actually see the mountains. There were two ladies on our bus that claimed they were our 'good weather gems.' We all appreciated being able to see long range views over the mountains. Our overnight was in Dillon, CO at the Comfort Suites.
Day 3 - Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad
This was our first train ride of the trip and we headed out for the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad. The ride was 2.5 hours of winding through the San Isabel National Forest and is rumored to have had famous riders like Molly Brown and Doc Holiday. It's a standard gauge rail with Diesel engine. We had plenty of space to move around and I took advantage of an open, standing-only car for much of the trip. We were probably 10-14 days early for full fall foliage, but saw several Aspen groves beginning to change over to yellow. The views were incredible. We could see the two tallest peaks of Colorado, Mount Massive and Mount Elbert as the train followed the Arkansas River valley.
Next stop was Monarch Pass in Salida, Colorado with optional gondola ride to the top of the mountain. Again, we were at 12,000 feet elevation. I could definitely feel it! But, not to miss anything, I climbed into the gondola car and made some new friends along the way: Joan (who was afraid of heights) and Teresa, both from Brevard, and new friend Rose from the great state of New Jersey. The gondola operators had told us about the wind blowing out the plexiglass in one of the cars earlier in the day, so that tidbit weighed on our minds as we climbed into the car. I think we were all nervous, but we ended up laughing though it. The majority of the bus opted out of the gondola, and man did they miss out. It was an amazing 360-degree view from the top!
The lines on the mountain side are ski slopes. Great views at 12,000' elevation. Again, can we talk about the bright blue skies for a moment? There was an occasional cloud, but they were few and far between! Here in NC we call that a Carolina Blue sky. At one point I saw a downburst a ways out from the bus. It was awesome to watch and I'm thankful we didn't have to go through it.
Overnight in Montrose, Colorado at Hampton Inn.
Day 4 - Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Woke up super excited to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Bus driver, Nick made a few stops as parking allowed. Incredible views here as well. The nickname of the park labels it as the "Grand Canyon of Colorado". Some areas see only 30 minutes of sunlight each day due to the steepness of the canyon. That, combined with the shadows is why it's a black canyon. We were limited on our time here, so may need to re-visit in the future to take in more activities. Apparently, there is a boat ride you can take in the river below and the view from the bottom is pretty special. We stopped at Pulpit Rock, Painted Wall and the Visitor's Center.
Photos - partial group photo, and me and Joan
Leaving the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we drove the Million Dollar Highway, Rte. 550 towards Silverton, Colorado. This is a famed stretch of roadway for it's seemingly narrow lanes on the edge of sheer drop off cliffs. Nick navigated perfectly (obviously, I'm here to write about it! haha) My seat on the bus was on the mountain side, so I wasn't able to see down and over the cliff. Again, maybe I'll find myself back in Colorado some day and can drive it myself? (In my mind, it can't be any worse than the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier. )
We found ourselves stuck in construction traffic which was only letting a few vehicles through at a time. Since we were stopped, a few of us jumped off the bus to take photos. The area around Ouray was heavily mined, but the backdrop of the Red Mountain Pass was incredible. Note: this is also the section of highway where Kevin played the John Denver song, Colorado Rocky Mountain High. See video clip below. That song hits me in the feels!
Elevation somewhere between 11,000 - 12,000' (just outside of Ouray on the Red Mountain Pass.) Another great weather day for long range mountain views!
Once we made our way through the construction zone, we headed towards Silverton to catch the train to Durango. The little cowboy town of Silverton was pretty cool. It had one paved road (Main Street) and the remaining streets were dirt. It had flat store fronts like back in the day, and the last known brothel was the Shady Lady Saloon now serving as a family diner. Would love to have had more time here before boarding the train. The train ride was a bit cramped and sold out. It was a narrow gauge rail with seats to match. The scenery was beautiful and I was glad I had the window seat. New friends Larry and Margi sat in front of me. Larry was so excited to be on a narrow gauge railroad, and I was able to capture his joy in one of my favorite photos of the trip.
Overnight in Ignacio, Colorado at the Sky Ute Casino (2 nights). They had a spectacular pool and hot tub area, and I promised not to share those photos..haha. Also, Lady Luck was in the building!
Day 5 - Mesa Verde National Park
The details of this day are difficult to put into words. Mesa Verde National Park took me by surprise and it hit me deep in the feels. As soon as we turned into the park there was a noticeable energy about the place. Maybe it was vacation mode settling in and being relaxed and having a great time, or connecting to nature, or the energy of the Ancestral Pueblos who inhabited the land many moons ago, or the altitude? Who's to say... And, adding to my energy sensitivities was Nick playing flute music from Native American, R. Carlos Nakai (Link HERE.) Whatever it was, I AM GRATEFUL for the connection and I had no idea what was in store. Looking back on the day to write this post, I will just say..Mesa Verde...has some serious vibes happening! I will definitely return some day as this visit was way too short.
Not long after we entered the park, I spotted a herd of wild horses. Just look at the expansive terrain these horses have to roam. The fact that they were so close to us is astonishing! There is some potent energy here - and even trying to find words to fill this block of text has me all in my feels again. I'm full of gratitude for the experience and the connections discovered on this trip! Just - wow!
Tour guide, Kevin, had arranged for a Ranger to hop on the bus and lead us around Mesa Verde NP. He was very knowledgeable and witty. We made stops at a Pit House and the Cliff Palace where the Ancestral Pueblo Indians lived in deep caves. We didn't have time for tours of the dwellings, so again, hope to return again someday. We had a great lunch at the Far View Terrace near the Visitor's Center, and I got another National Park stamp.
Day 6 - Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
I'm excited to share with you the train ride from Chama, New Mexico to Alamosa, Colorado aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. This was by far my favorite train ride of the trip. The railroad has an option to only go to half way (in Osier, Colorado) and return to the original station. Our group rode the entire length of the highest and longest narrow gauge scenic railroad - about 5.5 hours of steam engine and a stop for a hearty, homemade lunch in Osier.
We encountered several cows during the trip as the tracks crossed their open pasture. At one point the train had to stop as the cows were trapped between the train and a cliff/tresel. Someone had to jump out and shoo them off to the side so the train could move through.
Many railroad crossings had train spectators or locals waiting to wave and/or photograph the historic train passing by. This was fun to see and made us aware how special it was to be riding on an actual historic railway. There was a follow-up fire car that trailed about a mile behind. The purpose of the fire car was to ensure no embers from the coal-fired engine had sparked a fire along the route. I will say that I had to wash my hair 3 times to get all the coal deposits out.
Our overnight was in a Hampton Inn in Alamosa, Colorado. The weather was so great on this trip, I came home with a tan! Enjoyed being outdoors each day and the temps were perfect for a beautiful fall day.
The photo of the train Conductor was his signal to the Engineer. The Engineer communicated through various whistles and the Conductor acknowledged with the waving of the orange card. The whistle sequence this time was letting everyone know the train would be stopping at the water tower to take on more water for the remaining trip.
Day 7 - Royal Gorge Railroad
Soon after departing the hotel, we drove past the Great Sand Dunes National Park. We could clearly see the dunes from the road and in my family, if you can see the main feature of the park it counts as a visit. So, I'm adding this to my list of having seen it. :)
After passing through Poncha Springs, the drive up to the next train reminded me of Western North Carolina quite a bit. The roadway followed the Arkansas River for miles and miles on the left and had mountains on the right. Colorado, you're gorgeous!
The Royal Gorge Railroad had a feel of luxury. The seating was quad style and you could order food or drink before departing. I enjoyed getting to know some of my new friends and we were half way through the train ride before we headed out to the open car. The Arkansas River runs along the tracks and apparently there were rafters, etc. in the water that I missed. I was able to photograph the suspension bridge high above on our way back to the station. This was a short ride with views of the gorge. No expansive scenic views like some of the other trains. There was a definite party vibe on this train and I enjoyed the open car. And that's why they are called the Rocky Mountains.
We arrived in Colorado Springs and drove through Garden of the Gods Park. This place was on my bucket list of places to visit, so I was glad we got to drive through. We stopped at Balanced Rock and had some time to explore and shop. Overnight in Colorado Springs at the Radisson Hotel.
Day 8 - Cripple Creek and Pikes Peak
I was nervous for this day due to the elevation of Pikes Peak (our only summit of over 14,000 feet elevation). Before Pikes Peak, we trekked up to Cripple Creek, Colorado and had a short ride on the Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad. It was described as Thomas the Train, and I tend to agree. It was more kid-friendly than the other trains we had experienced, but the views from the train were incredible. The soot output was terrible and I'm embarrassed that my photos showed the remnants. I didn't know it was that bad until I got back on the bus. Please overlook all the black specks...hahaha.
Readers may have noticed I haven't mentioned food yet. On Day 1, Kevin told us this wasn't a 'Foodie' trip and that was mainly due to staffing shortages, pandemic closures of restaurants, and other places not being able to accommodate an entire bus load of people. But when I receive great customer service, I like to give credit. If you ever find yourself in Manitou Springs, Colorado, I highly recommend a little cafe called Good Karma Cafe (link HERE.) The lady who took my food/drink order is a Greenville, SC native and we enjoyed a chat about 'back home' for both of us. She loves it in Colorado and I can see why! I had an inside out grilled cheese with bacon! Yum! Several locals were in for lunch as it seemed. Two guys from Austria were sitting behind me and were in town for the final touches of renovation of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.
Another beautiful spot I found in Manitou Springs was Anna's Apothecary (link HERE.) They had some really cool items including some loose teas and tinctures. They ship as well in case you find yourself in need. Very friendly, helpful staff inside! I really enjoyed the quick lunch stop in Manitou Springs. It had an artsy vibe, similar to the small towns around the Asheville area.
Next up - and saving the best for last - is the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. The cog is a third rail that assists with climbing and breaking of the train cars. Spacing was tight inside the cog and there are no open cars. This train was STEEP and wasted no time climbing over 4,000 feet within minutes. The view was socked in with Bristlecone Pines and not too impressive until we got above the tree line. Everything opened up to very expansive views after that. The top of the mountain is 14,114 feet in elevation. I brought a can of air just in case I needed support at that altitude. Surprisingly, I didn't need it - or maybe I could have used it, but my brain wasn't fully functioning. I described the experience as feeling like I had several shots of liquor. I knew my thinking and reasoning had slowed, and it was taking more effort to coordinate my feet and legs to walk around without being wobbly. The more I tried to take deep breaths the worse I felt. I felt like I was drunk and making bad decisions, so I headed back towards the train. I just laughed and enjoyed the buzz for the 40 minutes we were up there. It was a trippy experience.
The Cog had been closed during the pandemic and underwent extensive renovations. It had recently just re-opened, and I'm glad we got to experience it. The history of the Cog Railway is extensive and no way could I retain everything I learned. Click HERE for a link to the cog railway website for additional reading. Someone from the group had a photo showing the current temperature at the summit as 36 degrees. It didn't feel that chilly to me, but I was more focused on not passing out. (smile)
We all shared a dinner together as a large group on our last night of the trip. Most of us met as strangers and became friends pretty quickly. And one of my most significant life lessons is oftentimes, the time we have with people just isn't enough time.
Day 9 was a short ride to the Denver airport where we all said our goodbyes and parted ways. I made some great friendships and hope to keep in contact going forward. I am blessed to have been able to do this trip. (insert heart emojis).
The Great Peach Debate....
Driver Nick tried to convince us southern ladies that Colorado grew the best peaches. Most of the group from Brevard has grown up eating Georgia/South Carolina peaches our whole lives. Palisades, Colorado and the Palisade Peach was talked up time and time again. Then finally, Nick found a fruit stand for Palisade Peaches that would accommodate the bus. He whipped into the parking lot and bought a whole case of Palisade Peaches to share with everyone. Honestly, I felt like I was betraying my roots by trying a non-southern peach. But, he may be on to something there. I'll let you find your own Palisade Peaches to compare on your own. Ha! And the debate continues.... Link HERE
Other images that didn't fit anywhere else.
Enjoy and if you've made it this far - thanks for reading and following along! See, I told you ladies I would leave the pool and hot tub photos out of my blog! :)
The stained glass is from the beautiful St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Manitou Springs. Episcopal to Apothecary to Good Karma...this town has it all. (Click HERE for St. Andrew's website.)
The feathers. Well I seem to be a collector of feathers and often see them when traveling, and if you've traveled with me then you know. They just appear in my path, and I like to think they are signs of good will, or maybe an angel sending a gift. And I acknowledge that finding a feather just off the bus on a very windy overlook might sound crazy, but there it was. The other was on top of the pillow in my first hotel room in Denver. There was another at the Denver airport on my way home.
Again - if you've made it this far, an astounding THANK YOU! I enjoy sharing my travel with others. If you're keeping up with me, I have 9 states left to visit and about 25 National Parks remaining. As of today, I don't have my next "new" destination planned, but I'm thinking I may find myself exploring the state of Oregon in 2022.
My Gear - Camera: Nikon D750, Nikon lenses 24-120mm, 18-300mm; Bag: Sherpani eSpirit AntiTheft Travel Bag