During my three and a half months of exploration, I found tons of fun things to do in Colorado, despite traveling during the apocalypse. By that I mean during the Covid-19 pandemic or just 2020 in general. So get ready for one big heaping bowl of awesome because I’m proving you can a good time even in tough times starting with:
10. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
This place wasn’t even on my radar until I spoke with locals about what I should check out while I was in Colorado. The more people I asked, the more I realized that I needed to check out the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I ended up taking my friend’s advice and got there before sunrise to watch it crest over the canyon. The transition from a black void to a geological wonder is truly something to behold. I highly recommend checking out the different vistas because each one offers another incredible view. I’ll even give you a hint to find my favorite vista: “Find the devil and you’re going to have a good time.”
9. Maroon Bells
As one of the most photographed places in the US, Maroon Bells was an obvious choice. However, when I arrived, I found out that now because of Covid-19 you need to make a parking reservation (even if you have the National Parks Pass, which I did). Getting a parking reservation is pretty much impossible unless you do it weeks or sometimes months in advance. Normally, they have a shuttle from the Aspen Highlands Parking Structure, but it was no longer running for the season by the time I got there. Undeterred, I pressed on and parked on the side of the road before the guard shack and started the five mile hike to see Maroon Bells. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because a forest ranger suggested her favorite trail (Maroon Creek Trail #1982), which leads to Maroon Bells. As I started the trail, I took in the aspens, which were changing their leaves to a glorious golden hue. The cherry on top was when I came within a few feet of a deer while hiking and didn’t even realize it until it casually moved away. I didn’t think the hike could get any more beautiful and then I arrived at Maroon Bells and was proved wrong.
8. Royal Gorge Bridge
This incredible feat of engineering is the highest bridge in North America and is still one of the highest bridges in the world. Needless to say, I was excited to spit over the edge. But when I stepped on and began walking across, I could feel it sway beneath my feet in the high winds from that day. As the bridge moved, I looked between the floor boards and noted the thousand foot drop below. For some reason my pace picked up until I was safely on the other side. But being a suspension bridge, movement is to be expected, especially on windy day. However, the bridge wasn’t the only reason I visited. The Royal Gorge is also home to North America’s highest zip line. As I zipped across and looked 1200 feet below, I remembered how much I loved being on the ground. It was definitely a butt clincher, but it was a lot of fun and you get an incredible view as you’re going across, provided you don’t shut your eyes.*
*Note: I had to come back the following day to ride the zip line because the winds were too strong on the first day I was there. So check the weather forecast when you plan your trip.
7. Great Sand Dunes National Park
My biggest piece of advice when visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park is don’t go on a windy day! I made that mistake. While it was absolutely beautiful with desert in the forefront and mountains in the background, the wind can make the sand bite. As I hiked around taking pictures, I had to constantly turn my back to the sand hurricane because when it hit, it hurt. My second piece of advice is don’t take anything with you that you are afraid to get sand in. Unfortunately, I decided to take my film equipment to get some good shots of this natural wonder. While I did indeed get some good footage, I got sand in every piece of equipment I took out due to the wind/sand combo. However, if you are smart unlike me and go on a day that isn’t windy, see about renting a sand board and surf some dunes.
6. Red Rock Amphitheater
If you’re looking for some extraordinary scenery, but also want to rock and roll, then the Red Rock Amphitheater is the place for you. Musicians from all around the world come to perform here and it’s easy to see why. The natural terrain flows together with the man-made structure to create a one-of-a-kind experience. Unfortunately, no one was playing while I was there (COVID cancellations). However, there is some great hiking in the park as well and the Colorado Music Hall of Fame Museum. So if you want to get your rock on in Colorado, make sure it’s red.
5. The Flatirons
Another place that shows off Colorado’s incredible terrain is the Flatirons. These natural monoliths make the hike around them super scenic. However, I advise you get there early though as it is a popular destination and can get crowded. Also be sure to hit up the royal arch trail for another geological wonder and one phenomenal view.
4. Pikes Peak Scenic Highway
If you’re going to see America’s mountain there are two main ways to do it. You can either hike it or take the Pikes Peak Scenic Highway. I chose the latter as I was already going to be hiking the highest mountain in Colorado in a few days. The highway is a different level of human ingenuity as the amount of planning, cost, and labor was mountainous (see what I did there?). The best part is you get all the breathtaking views without the intense strain hiking up, plus you get up to the top much faster. The downside is the crowds and the mountaintop construction of the new visitor’s center. Despite these though, seeing all the highway’s switchbacks near the summit with the mountain range in the background is worth the drive.
Tips for the drive:
- A/C off windows down or heat on when driving up. This helps take some of the strain off of the engine.
- When coming down, for the love of God DOWNSHIFT! That means throw it into 2nd or 1st gear, so you don’t blow out your brakes. I know because this happened to me when I first got to Colorado and I didn’t know about downshifting. I ended up spending $2100 to get everything fixed. If you ride your brakes the whole way down, they heat up and can boil away the brake fluid, crack your pads, melt the wheel bearing grease, warp your rotors, catch fire, or worse…go out completely while you’re going down mountain road. Downshifting takes the stress off the brakes by slowing down the vehicle so you’re not braking as much.
3. Garden of the Gods
It’s one of the most visited parks in Colorado, for good reason. The astounding rock formations on the landscape with the mountains in the background make it one of the most beautiful places in the state. However, this is one I’m truly glad I did my research on because I didn’t expect the amount of people that actually visited. On the main trail, it was no joke, close to shoulder to shoulder with people. But my research paid off and I was able to get off the main trail and hop on the Susan G. Bretag trail which leads to the Palmer trail. My enjoyment went up ten-fold as this serene hike still lets you explore most of the park with only the occasional passerby.
2. Mount Elbert
The highest mountain in Colorado (14,440 feet) and one of the most brutal climbs I’ve ever done. Being a 14er, I naturally camped at a high elevation to prevent altitude sickness as I climbed. So I stayed near Leadville (the town at the highest elevation in Colorado) to acclimatize. As for the climb itself, there are two main reasons why this is one the most brutal climbs I’ve ever done. The first reason is because for about two weeks before the climb I was working on finishing my first book. I wasn’t hiking or getting much exercise because my sole focus was finishing it. So I wasn’t in optimal shape. The second reason is because of the wind and cold. I climbed Mt. Elbert in October and as I got up to higher elevation, I felt the temperature drop and the winds howl at 40+ mph gusts. If I hadn’t been prepared and brought a good winter jacket, I wouldn’t have made it because I didn’t think to bring gloves and nearly got frostbite on my hands due to using trekking poles. Approaching the summit, I stopped using them entirely because I had to keep my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. As my fingers warmed up, it felt like hundreds of needles were stabbing them (that’s how close I was to frostbite). Another thing that made the climb so tough is how many false summits there are. Every time you see one and get your hopes up, only to have them crushed by seeing a higher point (note: there are three false summits). However, if you do make it to the top of the third highest mountain in North America, you’ll find that the view makes the strenuous climb worth it.
1. Rocky Mountain National Park
If you’re looking for deep woods, abundant wildlife, and scenic mountain views, Rocky Mountain National Park is the place to go. There are tons of awesome hikes, wonderful waterfalls, and magnificent mountain lakes. But with so many options, it’s easy to get stuck with indecision because of wanting to do it all. Luckily, you’ve got me to guide you to one awesome trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Pre-trip Prep work: Before you go, there are some things you can do to make your trip much easier, both terms of travel and the amount of time you have to explore these verdant woods. First is to get a National Parks Annual Pass. If you’re going to be doing more than one National Park a year, this pays for itself in no time. Its $80 and you can buy it online at https://store.usgs.gov/pass or at any National Park. It covers the entrance fee to every national park. At $30-50 dollars per entrance fee; this is an absolute must for a savvy traveler.
Second is to book in advance! Campsite reservations fill up fast, especially in the summer months. So book a few months in advance.
Covid Restrictions: One seriously annoying thing I found out right before I went to explore the park is now you have to get an online time reservation (www.recreation.gov) to enter the park. This severely limits the amount of time you have to explore the park if all the morning slots are filled. So be sure to book in advance and try to get a morning time slot because if you don’t and plan on doing one of the ten mile hikes, you may not have enough time to make it to a shuttle stop before they shut down for the day. If that happens, you’ll end up doing some additional hiking back to your car. However, I do know of a loophole that a kind shuttle driver told me. If you get there before 6:00am then you don’t have to worry about the Covid time reservation to enter the park.
Update: They stopped doing the timed entry permit for the off season, but may start it back up during the 2021 spring/summer season.
Parking: One golden rule for this National Parks is “GET THERE EARLY!” I attempted to get to the Glacier Gorge parking lot early, but it was still filled by the time I got there (5:45a.m.). However, I was able to park at the Bear Lake Parking Lot, which is a good staging point for some of the best hikes in the park. If you get there late or the lot is filled up by the time you get there, you can park at the Park and Ride parking lot and take a shuttle to the trailhead you need. Be sure to download a copy of the shuttle schedule though because they do not post them around the park for some reason.
Hikes: I spent a three day weekend exploring the park and got to go on three epic hikes. The first day, my buddy Kyle and I took on the Bear Lake to Fern Lake trail. It’s a nice ten mile hike with plenty of scenic views without the crowds. Unfortunately, we had two major setbacks during the hike. The first is that I had to get an afternoon time reservation to enter the park (didn’t know about the loophole yet). The second is that during the afternoon, thunderstorms are common and we didn’t bring any rain gear or jackets. The temperature also drops significantly at higher elevation. But it was still a really good time especially due to the lack of crowds and the deep woods. Definitely, stop at Lake Helene on your way through and the overlook right before it (just be careful because the rocks are slick).
At the end of the day, soaked and freezing, but still having a good time trying to get our hands to work to take pictures because there is natural beauty around every corner, we arrived at the shuttle stop. We waited…and waited…and then grew worried. There was no cell reception or a shuttle schedule posted anywhere and we were at least five miles from where we parked.
We looked at each other and started walking. I thought of hitchhiking, but getting a ride during a pandemic is kinda tough. About a mile into our trudge to the parking lot a shuttle bus came around the bend. We flagged her down and found out it was the last one of the night. We were saved! The shuttle driver also kindly told me about the 6:00a.m. loophole to get into the park without a timed entry reservation, which I intended to take full advantage of.
Now being in a campervan you would think I would stay in the park. However, I am also budget conscious and couldn’t justify the $30-60 per night and besides all the campsites were booked months in advance. So I went out of the park to camp for the night.
The next day I was a bit stiff and sore and decided to sleep in and just went at the assigned timed entry I had reserved. This was an easy day and went to do the most popular trail in RMNP, the Emerald Lake trail. Remember what I said about the golden rule of national parks (get there early!). Well, it definitely applied to this hike. It was super crowded and hard to get shots of the scenery without someone in them. But the hike itself was great and each lake was more beautiful than the last.
After the hike, I made a pit stop at Sprague Lake on the way out (definitely worth it). Then I headed up to Trail Ridge Road (one of the highest paved roads in North America). It was definitely a butt clincher with sheer cliff on one side and cars headed toward you on the narrow road on the other. Throw in a thunderstorm and you’ve got a party. That was how I crossed and boondocked on the western side. Then I started back around 3:30am to be back before 6:00am, so I wouldn’t have to do the timed entry. While I was driving across Trail Ridge Road for the second time, I got to see something absolutely breathtaking. I have never seen more stars in my life. I parked at the visitor’s center at the top and just stared at the heavens. It was like looking through a powerful telescope and seeing the entire Milky Way. No light pollution and being the only one there made it one of the most special experiences of my life.
After taking it in, I got back on the road and arrived just before 6:00a.m. and then started my trek to Sky Pond. This was the most advanced level hike I went on and also the most beautiful. Some sections are particularly challenging, so I wouldn’t recommend this one for your occasional or novice hikers. Also get there early and you’ll only have the occasional passerby. Get there late and you find a steady stream of people. There is also a lake right before Sky Pond called the Lake of Glass. Many people confuse the Lake of Glass for Sky Pond, but it’s further up. When you see the mountain peaks surrounding the beauty of this natural aquatic wonder up close, you’ll know you’ve arrived.
All in all, this Rocky Mountain state has plenty of places to explore and countless adventures to be had. If you like the outdoors, you’ll like Colorado. It’s definitely one of my favorite states, but I still need to explore 44 more. So the adventure continues. I’ll see you on the road!
Conundrums Hot Springs – Get your soak on near Maroon Bells.*
Durango to Silverton Train – Ride it when they repair the tracks (summer 2021).*
Hanging Lake – Check it out when they open the trail back up (hopefully, spring/summer 2021).*
Mount of the Holy Cross – The snow forms a natural cross on the mountainside.*
*Didn’t get to do, but wanted too.