May 18, 2013
If you're in Colorado for very long, you'll discover there are far more than five must-see places.
In limiting that list, there is a temptation to advise a visitor to tour the state's four national parks, then spend an evening in Denver's LoDo neighborhood. Let's be more incisive and assume that you can find your own way to bars and restaurants, and that some national parks are more special than others, and that you might have children or other folks with you who are not likely to wander too far from the vehicle.
The obvious thing not to miss in Colorado is the Rocky Mountains. In something more than three hours from Colorado Springs, you can reach Estes Park, the gateway town to Rocky Mountain National Park and Trail Ridge Road.
Trail Ridge Road is a 48-mile tour through the heart of the American alps. Fully paved and full of twists and turns, the road reaches an altitude of 12,183 feet. There are a number of turnouts where you can park and a few trails you can hike. Elk and marmots (we call marmots whistle pigs) are routine sights, along with numerous wildflowers in July.
If you have more than a day, consider spending the night on the west side of the Continental Divide in Grand Lake, a quiet little town that is home to the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theater, among other delights.
Here's one most Coloradans don't know about: Tucked into a beautiful canyon 12 miles south of U.S. Highway 50 between Delta and Grand Junction is a series of wading and swimming holes locally known as The Potholes.
After a few miles on a gravel road, signage will direct you to The Potholes. An easy turnout leads to a short trail to Escalante Creek, which has carved its way through a stunning limestone canyon. The creek doesn't carry much water, but each pothole must fill before the creek flows so they're always full. Each has a little waterfall before dropping a step to the next. At the last pothole, you can jump in from a rock that is 15 feet above the water.
Warning: This is wide-open Bureau of Land Management territory. There might be no one there; there could be some nudity.
Even in a fast car from Denver, it takes five hours to reach Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the Colorado-Utah border in northwest Colorado. Yes, it's a long haul and it's not on the way to anyplace else, which is why many Coloradans never have visited.
That's their loss. Dinosaur has an active archaeological dig, but the place is perhaps misnamed because the real draw is the collision of the Green and Yampa river canyons, which provides magnificent, remote scenery and some easy places to car camp.
Famed explorer John Wesley Powell's expedition camped for a while at Echo Park, where the two rivers join. Steamboat Rock, a gigantic formation, looms over this area, 38 miles from the entrance to the Monument.
There are no services here so you must take everything you need. But you'll be in the middle of the glorious West, and there won't be many people around you.
Far to the south of Dinosaur near the Four Corners, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet, lies one of the more mystical places in the state - Mesa Verde National Park. More than 800 years ago, thousands of Anasazi (The Ancient Ones) built small cities in the cliffs of Mesa Verde's canyons and they irrigated crops on the canyon rims.
The well-preserved ruins take a bit of hiking to reach, but the walking isn't too extreme. It somehow seems impolite to make noise there; you might find yourself, as if by instinct, whispering to your traveling companions as you gaze at these old fortresses, which contain plenty of evidence the Anasazi were a devout people who built several kivas in each city - places where religious ceremonies were held.
Mesa Verde is near the city of Cortez, but a park visitor could leave and depart for Durango, a fun town in the San Juans - the Rocky Mountain chain deemed by many to be the most beautiful in the state.
To immerse yourself in the San Juans, you could travel to the fifth don't-miss place on this list: the high mountain town of Telluride. Also known as a high-tone ski area, Telluride has some kind of festival virtually every week during summer.
Telluride has perhaps the most beautiful municipal setting in a state with loads of them. From a main street full of bars and eateries, you can see Bridal Veil Falls, which gush from a steep mountain. A free gondola takes visitors from the downtown area over the hill to a large ski area. As you come over the hill above downtown Telluride, you can see Wilson Peak, a 14,017-foot mountain that dominates the landscape from the Lizard Head Wilderness Area.
There is no way in or out of Telluride that is not bodaciously beautiful and you'll be glad you made the trip.
Noreen is The Gazette's Voice of the Reader columnist. He's lived in Colorado since 1978.