Colorado Road Trip: Denver, Pikes Peak, and Sand Dunes NP

In my freshman year of college, my mom and I began planning a post-graduation road trip through Colorado. The itineraries varied; my first idea was a two-week exploration of the entire state, which was kind of a lot. Ultimately, I spent four days in Colorado – three with my family and one bonus day on my own. While this by no means sated my desire to see The Centennial State, it was an excellent taste of what the state had to offer. And, most importantly, we got to drive on Wolf Creek Pass, which was kind of the motivation for the whole trip (more on that later).

Much as I desperately needed that New Mexico trip back in March, I both needed and really wanted this Colorado trip. A year and a half of Zoom classes is very draining and not very fun, so I loved being able to travel again and visit these amazing places. I didn’t actually walk for graduation because that seemed both boring and stressful at the same time, so I celebrated graduating by freezing on top of Pike’s Peak. I wasn’t really prepared for the temperature, but the experience was worth it (which is a sentence that also applies to going to school in Arizona). Ultimately, I loved visiting Colorado, and I need to go back and see more of it, but for now, I’ll share what we did and what my tips are for visiting the places we explored!

From the top of Pikes Peak

Itinerary

First, an outline of our trip:

All the Details

Going to Colorado was definitely a fun experience, but it was also a little weird because I didn’t actually know what to expect. I’d seen some pictures of Rocky Mountain National Park, and I knew that the mountains were a big part of the state and that Denver is a mile about sea level, but that was kind of it. The first big shock for me was really just flying into Denver because with my conception of big mountains + mile high city, I was not picturing the mostly flat plateau with a sprawling metropolis that I saw from the airplane window. Generally speaking, Colorado was much flatter than I expected with the mountains being more of a backdrop than something you’re driving up and down and around constantly. Also, the drive from the Denver airport to the hotel reminded me a lot of the drive from the Prague airport to my Airbnb there. That’s not especially relevant, but it was kind of the main thing I was thinking about on the ride.

Anyway…we stayed at the Clarion Hotel Denver Central, which was convenient to downtown but not right in the middle of everything. The only disadvantage is probably that there aren’t a lot of restaurants nearby, and especially not in walking distance. That’s really my only comment on the hotel because I enjoyed it overall. I ate a lot of pizza and watched some old TV shows, so I had fun during my downtime in Denver.

A great spot for lunch in downtown Denver

Denver

Though I usually like to get started with exploring places early in the morning, my day in Denver was my first traveling alone experience since 2019, and I felt a little out of practice. Also, Denver has a lot of cool things, but it’s not an extremely walkable city, so I limited myself to downtown, which itself was somewhat limited. Since my ticket to enter the Denver Art Museum was for 10:30 am, I decided to have a slow morning in the hotel before getting an Uber to the museum. So, after a few episodes of M*A*S*H* while eating breakfast, I headed to the museum, which was absolutely phenomenal.

To be fair, I hadn’t been to an art museum in over a year, so I would have loved anything, but the exhibits here were all awesome, and I loved them. One focused on fashion, and, specifically, the fashion of Véronique and Gregory Peck throughout the 20th century. I started with this one because I figured it would be the least interesting, but the clothes were actually really beautiful and interesting, and I also learned that Véronique met Gregory Peck while he was filming Roman Holiday, which is one of my favorite movies of all time (as in, when I went to Rome, I very intentionally visited sites from the movie). So I loved that exhibit, and then the next one focused on “The 19th Century in European and American Art,” and that’s my favorite period of painting, so obviously that was great. Also, going from the fashion exhibit where I knew very little into this one where I could spot the Monets and Cézannes from across the room felt a little like seeing old friends after a long time apart. The final exhibit I saw here was called “Each/Other” and featured art by two artists Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger. Their work was all stunning, and I spent a long time wandering there and reading the comments provided by the artists on the work and their processes. So, in conclusion, I loved the Denver Art Museum.

After that, I feasted on some Green Chile Enchiladas because Google told me that green chile is a Denver special, and I ate at La Loma because Google said it was really good – and it was! Since I was only one person, I was seated at the bar with no wait, which reminded me that the ease of getting a seat at a crowded restaurant is by far my favorite part of traveling alone. After a filling and delicious lunch, I wandered 16th Street Mall, which I learned is an actual mall. I was a bit confused by what I read before going, so I thought that the street was just a pedestrian thoroughfare called a “mall” because it had a lot of shops and restaurants. And while that’s true, the main appeal is an actual three-story mall. To be honest, I was a little let down by that. While it is probably the coolest mall I’ve ever been to, I wasn’t in Denver to go to Sephora or any of the other national chains that I could visit anywhere. I stopped by the I Heart Denver Store to look for souvenirs but mostly just walked down the road (which reminded me a bit of Las Ramblas in Barcelona). Ultimately, I ended up at Novo Coffee to read in the air conditioning before continuing to the Museum of Contemporary Art where I had a 3:30 ticket.

I know a lot of people aren’t that into contemporary art, but I really enjoy it. This museum was a bit on the smaller side, so there wasn’t that much to see, but I’m definitely glad I went. There were several pieces and installations that I really loved spending time with in the museum, but my favorite by far was Soundscape 2020 by Nathan Hall, which could be heard in the in-between spaces of the museum (like the stairwells and elevators). Signs in these places noted which part of the program you were hearing and how it connected with the other pieces to create a musical story of 2020 and the pandemic. It was really cool, not just because of how beautiful the music was but also because it took the afterthoughts of the buildings construction and made them into galleries as well since you could – and were encouraged to – pause and listen. Also, the museum has a rooftop cafe and garden with views of the city, and that was a nice little end to my day. I’d originally planned to do a bit more, but I was tired and wanted to relax a bit. My parents and sister arrived on a flight that evening, and from here we all traveled together.

15 foot tall bronze John Denver statue at Red Rocks

Day 2 of the trip probably had the most revision in our planning. We’d originally wanted to go to Rocky Mountain National Park, but due to COVID, they have a somewhat complex timed entry system, and we decided it was more than we wanted to deal with on this trip. So, instead, we went to Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater outside of Denver (after stopping by the massive REI flagship store to buy things because we don’t have REI in West Virginia). In my early planning, I’d wanted to go to Red Rocks and hike in the morning of my solo day in Denver, but then I calculated Uber prices there and back, and I realized that wasn’t going to happen. So I was actually okay with skipping Rocky Mountain because I’d really wanted to come do a trail here.

Side Note: There are also concerts here in the evenings (that’s kind of the main attraction), but they start a bit later in the summer or else I would have tried to go to one of those too.

I’d looked into trails a bit on AllTrails, but what I didn’t realize is that the park also has a tribute to John Denver whose music I love. In addition to the statue pictured above, there’s also a tribute to him inside the Trading Post to commemorate the fact that Denver was the first inductee to the Colorado Music Hall of Fame . John Denver performed at Red Rocks multiple times as he loved the area (hence taking the surname “Denver”), and he actually debuted the song “Rocky Mountain High” on the Red Rocks stage in 1972 four months before it was released on his album of the same name.

Red Rocks is a really fun place to explore, and I would absolutely love to come back for one of the famous concerts. However, even if you can’t go to a show, the park is still a fantastic stop. We did the 1.5 mile Trading Post Loop and got to see some of the titular red rocks up close. From there, we continued on to Colorado Springs for some more fun rocks.

Garden of the Gods

In 1859, surveyors M.S. Beach and Rufus Cable were exploring the Colorado Springs area with the goal of establishing a town nearby when they came across these red slabs of rocks jutting up from the ground. Cable remarked that it was “fit for the Gods,” and thus gave the future park its name. Some years later, the head of the Burlington Railroad, a man named Charles Elliot Perkins, bought a total of four hundred and eighty acres in Garden of the Gods but left the area largely undeveloped to preserve the natural beauty. Perkins’s children gave the land to the City of Colorado Springs with the understanding that the park would remain free and open to the public, so that people could enjoy this beautiful landmark for many years in the future.

Today, Garden of the Gods is still free to visit, and you can pick up maps at the Visitor Center (which also has a restaurant and gift store). A loop drive showcases the park’s beauty and takes you the the parking areas for various trails. I’d hoped to do the Perkins Central Garden Trail, but ultimately we only did the loop drive – though we did do it twice since we missed the exit the first time around. Like many free places in the summer, this is a major destination, and it was frustratingly crowded in the afternoon while we were there. If you really want to hike here (which I’m sure would be an amazing thing to do), plan to arrive early in the summer. However, even just doing the loop drive and stopping at pullouts lets you see some of the beautiful landscape and take pictures. The featured image at the very top of this post is also from Garden of the Gods (it was taken from the restaurant terrace) because even with the very little we did here, it was a definite contender for the most beautiful part of the trip.

Pikes Peak

Day 3 was all about Pikes Peak, which, like Harpers Ferry does not have an apostrophe even though I consistently think it should. But what can you expect from a peak named for a man who never actually made it to the top?

A lot. Actually, you can expect a lot from Pikes Peak because it really lives up to the hype. Due to construction, the main road up to Pikes Peak was partly closed when we visited, but the Cog Railway was open, and that’s the way I recommend visiting the peak. Though you can get spectacular views from either side of the train, I think they way to go is to sit on the three-seat side for the very best views and on the two-seat side if you’re afraid of heights. In addition to the scenery and the fun of riding on the train, riding the Cog Railway means you also get a running commentary about the history and ecology of Pikes Peak on the way up (there’s no commentary on the way down, partly due to the fact that the altitude change makes people tired, and many sleep on the way down).

Pikes Peak is named for Zebulon Pike who led expeditions into the Louisiana Territory. Seeing Pikes Peak from a distance, Pike realized that he would probably have a great view from the top to make notes about the land. However, Pike and his company were unprepared for the winter weather and had to turn back before reaching the summit. Long before Zebulon Pike though, the mountain was an important landmark that had many names both from Native American tribes in the area and from other Europeans like the Spanish explorers who called it El Capitan and Pike himself who called it simply “Highest Peak.” However, I think my favorite name is the earliest recorded one, which comes from the Ute people who lived in Colorado around 500 AD. They called themselves the Tabeguache, which means “People of Sun Mountain” and is derived from their name for Pikes Peak, Tava, meaning “sun.”

The view from Pikes Peak was astonishing – although the wind was a little bit chilly, especially when it blew up my shirt and directly onto my skin. It was worth it though to see the snow here in June and to look out to Kansas in the East and to the Continental Divide in the West. The only downside for me was that the Visitor Center is still undergoing construction and was not open although it was supposed to have opened around April. It is open now, but construction is expected to continue until September 2021. Even with the Visitor Center closed though, this was an amazing stop, and I really loved being able to stand on top of the mountain. It’s not something to miss on a visit to Colorado.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Following our morning at Pikes Peak, we drove to Alamosa, Colorado – after stopping for lunch in Manitou Springs at La Casita Mexican Grill, which was amazing! The drive down to Alamosa was beautiful and scenic on its own, and I really enjoyed just driving through the Rockies to get around Colorado.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is about half an hour outside of Alamosa. We actually stopped there before continuing into town for a first look at the park, and I took a few pictures with the overcast sky (that aren’t included in this post). Though it was overcast and a little chilly, I did appreciate being here without a huge crowd for my first look at the park. When we came back in the morning, it was packed, and I did not enjoy that as much. Though I’d wanted to do a short trail and/or drive closer to the dunes, we didn’t do either of those because of the massive, frustrating crowds.

We happened to be at Sand Dunes during the brief time of year when a stream is flowing (visible in the first picture above), which is peak tourist season and draws huge crowds. Because I didn’t get to spend a lot of time at the park (and wouldn’t have wanted to deal with the crowds even if we’d had more time), it’s somewhere I want to return in the future. However, I will definitely plan on visiting in the off season or at the very least arriving around sunrise to hike around and enjoy the park and leaving around the time that the Visitor Center opens. We did see some antelope though, both at Sand Dunes and on the drive there, and that was one of the really cool highlights of the Colorado trip.

Driving Wolf Creek Pass and on to New Mexico

After leaving Sand Dunes and Alamosa, we were on our way to the place that kind of inspired the whole trip: Wolf Creek Pass. In 1975, country singer C.W. McCall released a song called “Wolf Creek Pass” about driving this somewhat dangerous mountain pass, which has 6.8% grade and two runaway truck ramps (which were apparently not useful to the truckers in the song).

After stopping at the top to take some pictures on the Great Divide, we headed down the mountain while listening to the song. And though I still love the song, I have to say, I think there are a few roads in West Virginia that are a bit scarier to drive. It was fun to actually drive the road from the song as our last stop in Colorado though.

From Pagosa Springs (at the bottom of the mountain) we continued onto New Mexico after a brief pause for lunch in Durango. I would love to spend some more time in Durango, but for the half hour or so that we were there, I really enjoyed our stop at Durango Joe’s. After that, we were out of Colorado and continued down to New Mexico and Arizona to pick up all the things from my apartment and go home to WV.

Wolf Creek Pass, which is up on the Great Divide

Final Notes

I really enjoyed my time in Colorado and getting to explore some of the state. While four days in Colorado is not nearly enough, it was a great trip, and I look forward to returning to see more one day in the future. This was also probably the most enjoyable part of the road trip (plus the two days of doing fun stuff in NM and AZ) because after Tucson we were basically just going across the country without too many stops, and it was nice to have this little vacation exploring a new place before the long, long drive across the middle of the country. Hopefully, I’ll get to visit Colorado again in the next few years, and until then I look forward to exploring more of this great state!

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