10 days in Colorado’s National Parks

Last Summer, we flew into Denver for over a week of exploring the national parks in Colorado; I wrote a partnered post with Hanes but never fully described the “rest” of the story, so here it is.

After we landed, we headed south toward Great Sand Dunes National Park, which shouldn’t have been too bad of a drive on I-25, (about 3.5 hours), but there were wildfires west of us that covered the roads with thick smoke, and before we’d gone too far, we saw signs indicating road closures and detours ahead. Waze directed me off the highway toward a mountain range via a dirt road, so I took it in our rented Kia minivan, feeling smug about all the time I was saving by going through the mountains instead of around them. Occasionally, I’d see a Jeep or a raised Land Cruiser, but we’d be fine in our minivan; I was sure of it.

After a half hour or so, thedirt road turned to gravel and became bumpier and hillier as we snaked up the mountain. At one point, the car started spinning its wheels, unable to climb a hairpin curve of loose gravel. I told my wife and children to get out of the car and set the parking brake to think about how to proceed.

I felt if I got some momentum, I could probably make it up this inclined curve in our rented minivan. But my fear was that we’d encounter something worse up the road, and if we were forced to head back the way we’d come, I was not confident we could drive back down this steep curve without plummeting off the side of the mountain road, into the woods, and onto the rocks below us, ending both our vacation and our lives.

I really did not want to give up and turn back. I also did not want to send this Kia off the side of the mountain. My patient bride and children stood to the inside of the curve, waiting on me to weigh our options. I decided we’d best turn around.

We pulled up to the above-pictured AirBnB (a former spiritual retreat) 8 hours after we’d left the airport for our 3.5 hour drive to Crestone, next to Great Sand Dunes, happy to be alive. We’d eat at a brewpub that night and explore the park the next morning.

The next morning, we had breakfast, rented wooden sleds, and entered Great Sand Dunes, hiking to High Dune, waxing our sleds, and flying down like I imagine kids in the north do in snow. We did this until we were tired of the sun and the sand, retreating into the visitors center to let the children complete their junior ranger workbooks before heading west to Durango, where we had dinner at an old saloon en route to our yurt somewhere outside Mesa Verde.

The next morning, we met for our guided hike at Mesa Verde National Park.
I could hardly sleep, I was so excited, as we got to do the somewhat dangerous hikes I didn’t get to do when my folks took me in 1987, up to Balcony House and Cliff Palace. It was a great experience to climb ladders, hike winding rocky trails in the side of cliffs, see prehistoric dwellings, and learn about the natives.

At the end of one our hikes led by a ranger who was Native American, he played a ceremonial flute he’d carried on his back in a sling, and the somber melody carried over and across the cliffs, causing other tour groups to stop walking and talking, as everyone within earshot did nothing but listen for a few minutes. Then we applauded, and groups far away applauded, and he re-sheathed his flute, and we climbed back up and out of the canyon, feeling closer to nature, to history, and to God.

We drove to Four Corners and by the most unassuming of all the National Park Service properties I’ve seen out of nearly 100, Yucca House National Monument, so that I could continue my quest for all the passport cancellations one can get in a NPS passport book.

We had dinner in Telluride, where there was live music for July 4, and we drove to our next Air BnB near Black Canyon on the Gunnison, where we’d spend the next day.

I think this national park was the one in which we had the lowest expectations, but we all loved it. Hiking atop the steep black cliffs and looking into eternity toward the river below, before driving down a 16% grade to the bottom and seeing a bear eating next to said river–just a few feet from us–made for an unforgettable July 5 in Colorado.

We stopped for lunch in Grand Junction before heading to Denver, where we checked into the Hyatt Regency for my legal conference at the convention center featuring an enormous blue bear.

For dinner in Denver, we went to Casa Bonita (of South Park fame), an enormous Mexican restaurant with a diver who periodically climbs atop the 30′ indoor waterfall and dives into the pool below while you stare over your queso and enchiladas.

The next day, I had my conference all day, so the children explored the zoo or botanic garden, and that evening we ate at the Buckhorn Exchange, where one can eat all kinds of wild game while their taxidermied heads watch from above. Then I went to a speakeasy hidden behind a bookstore called Williams & Graham while the children went to Little Man Ice Cream, and we were all happy with our choices. Once the children turned in for the night, my bride and I met some friends at the Peaks Lounge high above the city for nightcaps.

On July 8, we had breakfast at Syrup before driving into Rocky Mountain National Park for more hiking and exploring, but at > 2 miles up in the alpine tundra.

That night, we stayed at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, and I took my most favorite picture ever taken by anyone, and even though it will likely take years for the children to appreciate said picture, it sure made me happy to stage it and take it, and look how awesome it is!

We had dinner outside until the rain became torrential, and then my eldest and I, along with her American Girl, Saige, stayed in the Whiskey Bar at Cascades Restaurant while I had cocktails, and my 12-year-old had mocktails, and her doll and I quoted dialogue from “The Shining” scene in which Jack and Lloyd the bartender banter eerily, and I put said exchange on Instagram stories, and it was the most fun we’d had in quite some time.

The next day, we went back into the national park to do some hiking and exploring of lakes, waterfalls, and mountains, and the children earned their 4th junior ranger badge of the trip.

That night, the two eldest and I signed up for a ghost tour of The Stanley after we’d completed a history tour earlier in the evening, but my boy got a bit frightened, so just my 12-year-old daughter and I did it, and we didn’t see any paranormal activity per se, but there was definitely some odd things to observe, and like this:

The next day, on July 10, we visited the Colorado Railroad Museum before seeing the Colorado Music Hall of Fame and then a show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre – my favorite music venue in the world; Neko Case followed by Ray Lamontagne played that evening, and we saw it from row 11.

The railroad museum was really well done and, even though we scheduled it as a treat for our boy, we all enjoyed crawling over and through the old trains on display while learning about the history of the industry in that part of the country. Concluding our trip through Colorado with a show at Red Rocks–a bucket list experience for many people–was magical. The next morning, we flew back to Atlanta.

We loved this exploration of Colorado. As much as I love exploring other countries and cultures, I find it as important (perhaps even moreso) to explore the natural beauty available in these United States: from sea to shining sea. I’m halfway to seeing all 60 National Parks now and have been in all 50 states as of my 39th birthday a few years ago, so clearly we need to make sure my children get there, too!

One Comment

  1. OMG I just have so many feeeeeelings about this!! We covered a lot of ground, and some of this stuff has already become “remember that time when…” stories for these babies. Also: I <3 tundra, now and forever.

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