Looking over the valley at the rain in the mountains while the sun is shining in the foreground

Colorado

Durango – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – South Fork – Great Sand Dunes National Park- Colorado Springs – Pikes Peak – Denver

To European tourists Colorado is seen as a winter destination for winter sports enthusiasts and apart from Mesa Verde we generally stick to the loop around southern Utah and California where you have a concentration of amazing National Parks and the weather is generally hot and sunny in the summer months.  We didn’t encounter many European tourists on our travels in Colorado; although it seemed quite popular for North Americans at this time of year enjoying places like the spa town of Pagosa Springs.

As our first taster of Colorado we wanted to see as much as possible in the short time we had; we planed a zig-zag route around the valleys before making our way to Denver where we had planned to spend a few days getting to know the city.

After leaving the rain of Durango we drove the US-550 north (or better known as The Million Dollar Highway) to Montrose before making a quick stop at The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and then driving back down the next valley on the 149 south to South Fork where we were to spend the night.  The road between Durango and Montrose is a spectacular route of natural beauty with breath-taking views and frighting sheer drops that makes driving rather exciting if not a bit nerve-racking, whereas the 149 is a more gentle road, but just as breath-taking.

Colorado

As with all the USA National Parks you can either quickly visit by sticking to the main roads, stopping at the main points of interest or you can get off the main roads and fully explore the park; we have done this a number of times and never been disappointed.  But for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison we just stuck to the main route as we had another long drive before our over night stop in South Fork. The park was not that busy and we were able to enjoy all the designated view points (sometimes alone); the canyon is very impressive and well worth visiting if you are in the area, but unfortunately I would not specifically make a trip to visit this park, maybe we were missing something?  But again saying that the drive on the Million Dollar Highway is a must and en-route you have this beautiful park, so why wouldn’t you visit?  The park won’t disappoint, and making the trip to get there is truly wonderful for those of you that enjoy scenic driving.

The drive down to South Fork was beautiful, the valley is gentler than the Million Dollar Highway, but just as spectacular; if you have the time it’s really worth the trip.  South Fork is obviously a winter ski resort town and in the summer is mostly quite and closed.  We stayed at the Wolf Creek Lodge which was very clean and comfortable if not a bit expensive for the time of year.  The breakfast/reception room was warm and comfortable and I can imagine warming myself and drying off after a day on the slopes.  Unfortunately the breakfast and coffee really let the lodge down.  The quality is too poor and I personally prefer to go to a café or restaurant to find something of higher quality. If you happen to book there, don’t order breakfast and go to the diner down the road.

Desert scrub with a fence crossing the desert near the Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

The next day we were visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park and then making our way to Colorado Springs for our evening stopover. The drive down to the Great Sand Dunes National Park is nice and you really feel you are leaving the mountains arriving in a large plain.  In Alamosa we stopped at Walmart to pick up some food and drinks and our cashier told us about Zapata Falls which was a small turn off before getting to the Great Sand Dunes.  The walk up to the falls is fairly steep, but totally worth it and we saw a old couple in their 70’s walking up there with no problems.  If you do decide to visit, it is really worth taking shoes that you can walk in a river with and a walking stick for balancing as you have to walk up the river a little bit before you can see the falls.  You don’t have to walk much in the river, but at one part there is no path on either side as it’s sheer rock and the water can move quite fast; this is why I recommend a walking stick and shoes for walking on the rocks in the river.  We never had either and after trying to cross decided against it as breaking a leg while on holiday is not what we were prepared to chance.  If we pass here again we will be sure to have the right gear as it’s a wonderful little hidden place. The drive down was really amazing too with a superb view over the plains and to the Great Sand Dunes and the mountains in the backdrop.

Great Sand Dunes National Park is truly impressive but unlike the White Sands National Monument it is not as accessible as the dunes are really massive and require a lot of climbing.  Many (mostly) young people were hiring boards to surf the dunes and it looked like a lot of fun; it was like being at the beach without the sea and a very impressive mountain of sand before you.  I can imagine sunset here on top of the dunes could be a wonderful experience. But we were on the move, as our real reason for coming to Colorado was near, we wanted to drive Pikes Peak.

We made our way back to the mountains and over to Colorado Springs via route 24 passing our stopover for the next day, an early start for the drive up Pikes Peak.  We stayed in some motel near the Interstate 25 on route 24 that gave us easy access to the entrance to Pikes Peak, it was fairly close to downtown, Colorado Springs which is a nice shopping area with independent shops and cafés, and some chain cafe stores.  I was quite surprised as generally speaking from what I saw of Colorado Springs was a generic North American city, and this is really the impression I could have been left with if not having stumbled upon the downtown area looking for coffee at 5 in the morning.  The evening before we visited the chain restaurant Black Bear Diner and my partner became very sick after eating the ribs special which resulted in a very uneasy night for him. As to say I did not get much sleep so was looking for coffee in the early hours.

The next day was unfortunately very cloudy and damp and our drive up Pikes Peak was very limited in what we could see.  Adding to this, my partner who was still very sick and was sleeping in the passenger seat (although this was his thing and a place he wanted to visit for a long time) could only manage about 1 km at the wheel of the car.  So I drove him up there in the clouds while he slept, dragged him out for a picture at the top and drove back down and bought him a t-shirt at the gift shop.  Pikes Peak was a blow out, but we will visit again.

The rest of the day was spent make our way over to Denver via the 381, Guanella Pass Rd.  Typical stunningly beautiful Colorado mountain roads.  We were so high in the mountains sometimes the car we had, had trouble getting enough air to function properly.

Denver and the Denver Wrangler

Pikes Peak to Denver