How to get Rocky Mountain High in Colorado

With all of the places we have both traveled, neither one of us had been to Colorado. We had both wanted to, but neither of us had managed to get there. Oh, we did land in Colorado last year, when we had to switch planes on the way back from Wyoming. But we never actually set foot on Colorado soil, or breathed the Colorado air, or experienced the Colorado altitude.

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Landing at the Denver airport was kind of cool when looking at the interactive flight map and seeing that the plane is at an altitude of 5,400 feet and, yet, we are on the ground taxiing in on the runway. And they warn you about that altitude. And, yet, again, we just shrugged it off. Until we had trouble shrugging because we were too busy gasping…for air.

Given the tight timeframe we had, we needed a plan. And we HAD a plan. It’s just that we either didn’t think it out clearly enough or we were drunk when we deduced this little itinerary. Because we planned one night and the early part of the next day to explore Denver, drive north to Estes Park for two nights to explore Rocky Mountain National Park, after a quick stop in Boulder, then drive south back through Denver to Colorado Springs for one night, to drive back north to Denver to fly home the next evening.

First stop was mile-high Denver

We got in towards the later hours but in just enough time to get dinner. It seems that everything closes early in Colorado. It felt like we were better off keeping our watches on East Coast time because that’s how everyone appeared to be operating. Until the morning. Because then it appeared everyone was on Pacific Coast time.

Parking is an issue anywhere you stay in the downtown area. For the cost of overnight parking, especially since you are almost obligated to do valet parking, you can get your vehicle its own room with a bath. It’s that kind of expensive.

Union Station in Denver, Colorado

The next day we set out to get an early start. We walked from the center of downtown to Union Station and had a great breakfast at a real retro dining experience in the Station called Snooze. They are known for their Upside Down Pineapple Pancakes and those pancakes definitely live up to the hype. The décor is cool, the servers were attentive and personable, and the prices were more than reasonable. Heck, those pancakes alone make it worth the trip.

Upside Down Pineapple Pancakes at Snooze in Union Station in Denver, Colorado

We were walking around taking in the sights, and yet, the streets were barren. Considering it was a weekday, workday…there were very few people milling about. We took a walk to Coors Field which was a mere ¼ mile from Union Station, and then walked down through Larimer Square, known as the Heart of Denver. It’s a cute little one block area with some nice shops and eateries. But not a single establishment was open that early on a weekday.

Larimer Square in Denver, Colorado

We continued to meander through the downtown and saw the Denver Arts Complex which has facilities for multiple shows all in one area. It’s like NYC condensed all of the Broadway shows into one small outdoor mall.

We had to go to the spot that is marked as one mile above sea level, which just happens to be on the steps of the State’s capitol building. And, actually, there are three spots marked within a few inches and a few steps of each other, marked by three different organizations. We just picked the one in the middle.

One mile high in Denver, Colorado

A bit of a ways outside of Downtown Denver, we stopped at the famed Red Rock Park and Amphitheater. Now who would have thought to put a music venue within a naturally formed rocky enclosure within the side of a mountain?

Red Rock Park and Amphitheater in Denver, Colorado

There are plenty of hiking trails in the area, and it is a hike just to get to the actual concert venue. The path is on the side of the mountain and there is quite a bit of the path that is kind of narrow and has a minimal metal hand rail that I guess is supposed to prevent people from going over the side? How does that work if people are stoned (marijuana sales have long been legal in Colorado and is openly smoked everywhere) and/or drunk (there are clearly marked beer concessions in the amphitheater)?

A concert. More than a mile high in the air. Beer. Pot. All sounds a bit risky to me.

Gotta love the heart-shaped pizza and beer in Boulder for Valentine’s Day

It was cold…it was windy…and we were trying to keep to a tight schedule so we quickly headed toward Estes Park with a quick pass through Boulder. We had heard about Colorado pizza and we found that a place right across from the campus of Colorado University in Boulder had the Colorado style pizza. So, what the hell, lunch!

The Sink restaurant and bar is a long-established campus icon. It’s a bar alright. There is a long bar as soon as you walk into the dining area with a long line of taps on the back wall dispensing a long line of local brews. And you might not even notice it because your eyes are immediately drawn to the cartoon murals on the walls and the utterly THOUSANDS of signatures of patrons on the walls, the pillars, the ceilings…some dating back decades. Typical college environment.

The Sink in Boulder, Colorado

But the pizza wasn’t so typical. What is Colorado pizza anyway? We all know New York pizza. And, of course, there is Chicago pizza. But I had never heard of Colorado pizza. Well…Colorado style pizza is made with a thick-braided, whole wheat crust and topped with a sweet and thick tomato sauce (with toppings of your choice) along with a side of…get this…honey.

It was Valentine’s Day and they were running a special – a medium heart-shaped pizza and two beers for $25. We’re in!

Heart-shaped Colorado Pizza at The Sink in Boulder, Colorado

I was not sure about putting honey on pizza. But, then, I have eaten pineapple on pizza (for which I have been ostracized from my Italian family and the general pizza community) so why not try the honey? Believe it or not, it was pretty damn good. I know, I know…nothing beats good ‘ole New York pizza. But I have come to like Chicago pizza, and I could get used to this Colorado pizza. The beers were both really good too. And, no, they were not Coors. But they were local.

Speaking of local, we made one more stop before leaving Boulder…at the Mork and Mindy house. I don’t know why we feel compelled to go to people’s homes, stand in front, and take pictures. Nanu…nanu…and it was back on the road again.

The Mork and Mindy House in Boulder, Colorado

On the road again…a long and winding road through the Rockies to Estes Park

Estes Park is not only the place where you can find two entrances to Rocky Mountain National Park, but it is also home to The Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel The Shining. And, no, the movie was not filmed there, but all of his details about the hotel were taken from his experiences during his actual stay there.

We checked in…looked around…and got the lay of the land. It was old. It was upscale but charming. And it was even a bit creepy? I don’t know if that is the right word to use. But as someone who has always been interested in the spirit world and sensing energy, etc., I can tell you I felt some heaviness all around me, and it was not the altitude affecting me.

We had our Valentine’s Day dinner at Twin Owls Steakhouse, just a little UP the road and little UP the mountain. Why is everything UP in Colorado?

Melissa enjoyed a salmon filet, and I had, believe it or not, a lobster tail. Who’d a thunk it? We’re in Colorado not along the coastline.

Dinner at Twin Owls Steakhouse in Estes Park, Colorado

We had a nice dessert before heading back for a restful night channeling Stephen King.

Channeling Stephen King at The Stanley Hotel

We started the next day off with breakfast at The Stanley Hotel including lobster benedict for me and…The Danny Boy for Melissa (notice the knife).

The Danny Boy for breakfast at The Stanley Hotel

We planned to spend a full day in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was cut a bit short as a result of some closures we didn’t account for because of the winter season, and later in the afternoon, by snow coming down creating hazardous conditions with ice on twisty turny roads.

We hadn’t had much luck recently with Park Rangers, however, we were very fortunate to run into Park Ranger Jake at the Fall River Visitor Center. He gave us some great tips and made it easy to enjoy what would be a very short visit to this National Park.

No matter that it WAS a short visit, the views were absolutely breathtaking. The snow-capped mountain tops were all around. It is a photographer’s playground.

We normally like to get in at least one three-mile hike. However, truth be told, it was cold…it was windy…and, the biggest issue, the altitude. We were both really struggling. Now we had been at similar altitudes just weeks before in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks…anywhere from 7,000 to about 9,000 feet. But we were AT those elevations and not continuing to climb. It was much different in Rocky Mountain National Park. And we felt it.

Usually we have our own agenda (the agenda is usually some thoughts and then we wing it…because we never know what we are going to find) but this time we pretty much followed along with Ranger Jake’s suggestions.

We stopped at Sheep Lakes for a great view of the mountain range and some meadows where wildlife often roam (we didn’t get to see any wildlife there, though) and then we continued on to the Alluvial Fan Trail where we got to see Horseshoe Falls…well….some of it because most of it was frozen. But it was really cool to hear the water flowing quickly under the ice.

Sitting by the snow and ice-covered water at Horseshoe Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park

We were told that the best views were at the Bear Lake area. And so we decided to head up that way. And it was a pretty good distance. We knew the weather was going to go downhill, and so it did, as we were going Uphill…on a twisty turny road.

Me: Melissa…wanna turn back? Remember…Flagstaff?

Melissa: No. It’s nothing. It’s just a little further.

We got to Glacier Gorge Trailhead, just minutes before Bear Lake, and we couldn’t even walk. It was pure black ice in the parking lot. Just trying to get our feet settled to take a quick picture was an effort.

Rocky Mountain National Park Glacier Gorge Trail

We went back to the car and I, again, asked Melissa if she wanted to turn back. But…no…we came this far so…

And I agreed. Why turn back now? But what I didn’t realize is that we were coming upon a huge incline and a switchback (tight hairpin turn) on the edge of the mountain. Uhhhhh….no. So just beyond the hairpin turn, I pulled over, put my hazard lights on, let two vehicles pass me, and I was about to turn around when a Park Ranger pulled up from the other direction, rolled down his window and said, “You’re turning back? You know…the parking lot is really just around the bend.”

And so…we pressed on…around the bend. To our surprise, the lot was kinda filled. The snow was really coming down now. And the parking lot was so slick. There were dozens of people not getting IN their vehicles but actually getting OUT of their vehicles with heavy duty snow gear…skis…snow shoes…I mean…serious stuff here. We were way out of our league here.

And in usual Melissa fashion…”Okay…I’ve had enough.”

And then it is the ride back down. I took it VERY slow and it seemed like the snowstorm was directly behind us…like it was chasing us…and we were staying just ahead of it.

Snow-covered road in Rocky Mountain National Park

We did get to see some wildlife along the roads on the way back. And we got to take the obligatory picture at the Park sign as we exited on a different road than we entered. The Park is awesome, but would be more awesome outside of the winter months, at least for us.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Back at the hotel, we did something we don’t normally do, which is take a tour – The Shining Tour of The Stanley Hotel. It was extremely interesting although it focused more on the history of The Stanley Hotel, rather than the movie. The guide, Reagan, was excellent…a great storyteller and extremely personable and entertaining. He did a great job with all of the background information, and transitioning into how Stephen King devised the storylines for The Shining.

The Shining Tour of The Stanley Hotel

Following the one-hour tour, we ventured out for dinner at the local Rock Inn including local favorite trout for me and not trout for Melissa. It’s really a bar where the locals appear to hang out, but there were a lot more offerings than the usual bar fare and the place looked straight out of the old West.

The Stanley Hotel Room 217

Before heading back out on the Colorado Rocky Mountain roads, we just had to explore The Stanley Hotel one more time. We had to ride the elevator and see Room 217; and do a quick tour through the maze…even though it wasn’t actually there when Stephen King conjured up his great story.

The Colorado roads

We drove Route 36 back to Denver and then I-25 on to Colorado Springs the home of the United States Olympics…considered Olympic City, USA.

Colorado Springs sprung some surprises on us

So how’s this for a welcome? About an hour before we are arriving in Colorado Springs, we are alerted that there is a shooting, a murder, resulting in a lockdown of the local college campus. And we come to find out, that the night before there had been a stand-off with police in one of the local neighborhoods.

And, let’s see, as we enter the friendly confines of Colorado Springs, we see the streets overflowing with homeless people. Now there is obviously a huge homeless problem within the perimeters of every major city in the United States, but we didn’t think we would find it in a place like Colorado Springs.

In fact, we had trouble finding “downtown” Colorado Springs. I mean, we drove, and we drove, and circled around, and it really didn’t appear to be the old, quaint downtown that we believed we were going to find. It certainly wasn’t what was advertised in the brochure.

It was kind of desolate…it was…the word I use a lot…downtrodden…regarding Old Colorado City. It was depressing. There were some cute little shops. But it looked more like a neighborhood being gentrified then one that was a hub for visitor activity.

Garden of the Gods Balanced Rock

Before settling in at the hacienda…we visited the Garden of the Gods park…even though the weather was getting worse and it was difficult to see all of the rock formations for which it is known for. And we certainly couldn’t see even a glimpse of Pike’s Peak, the famous nearby mountain top, as the clouds were rolling in before the snowfall predicted for the area.

We did get up close to see some pinnacles, but it was cold, wet, and windy. And we did get a glimpse of a number of big horn sheep canvassing the mountainside.

Garden of the Gods and some big horn sheep

Melissa, as usual, because she is so great at finding these things, found a cute Airbnb just a block off the main drag of Old Colorado City. It was on a street that you would be hard-pressed to find if you weren’t looking for it…right next to a small park…and across the street from an old church that was apparently turned into some kind of ministry.

The exterior view of The Trolley in Colorado Springs

From the outside, the place looked like a box. But inside, it was clear to see the converted trolley car. It was done up right with all of the amenities needed for a short stay, including a working kitchen. The only thing missing? A place to put your suitcase or to place your clothes as there was no dresser and no place to rest your suitcase other than the floor.

The interior of The Trolley in Colorado Springs

Oh, and one other thing…there were windows on the front door that weren’t covered. So I had to be resourceful and I used paper towels and band aids to cover them up so that wandering eyes couldn’t peer in. And that was not without good reason. The area was definitely sketchy. Homeless encampments were in some of the alleys around the block, and there was what appeared to be a “shanty town” just a half block away around the corner. And…AND…I woke very early in the morning, before the sun came up…to see someone dumpster diving directly across the street.

The Trolley’s front door…modified by me…for the conditions outside

I mean, the place itself was adorable and decorated very nicely. But the area is extremely questionable and disappointing. Maybe it was the time of year. Maybe it was the poor weather. But it definitely was not the picturesque quaint “Main Street” that is projected in all of those magazines.

We didn’t even make it to a restaurant for dinner, mainly because we were reticent about going somewhere, after dark, that was questionable. So we found a grocery store and got ourselves some Uncrustables peanut butter and jelly and Cup-O-Noodles. And we roughed it for breakfast too…instant oatmeal and bananas.

After an overnight snow that covered the streets, we made our way back to Garden of the Gods for one last look.

Garden of the Gods Siamese Twins

We wanted to see Pike’s Peak and I had seen a picture posted by someone of Pike’s Peak viewed through the window of a formation called Siamese Twins. We were on limited time as we had a flight back home and we had to get back to Denver. But we got to the Siamese Twins Trail and made our way up the snow-covered incline. A bit crazy because we did not have our poles and we did not have spikes on our boots.

We managed to get up to the pinnacles and, lo and behold, while Siamese Twins is an amazing formation, the clouds covered Pike’s Peak off in the distance. We could see the sky clearing, and the clouds VERY slowly moving. So after taking some pics with the cloud cover, we made the decision to attempt to wait it out and hope we would get that view and that picture that we wanted.

PIke’s Peak through the window of Siamese Twins at Garden of the Gods

Sure enough, after braving the cold (that’s ME braving the cold…Melissa loving it) for about 40 minutes…it appeared…Pike’s Peak peeking from behind the clouds and just enough to get that shot that I was waiting for through the window of the Siamese Twins. An epic shot at the Garden of the Gods.

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