My mind had been racing with excitement ever since my husband spoke those words. He’s been listening to me rave about Colorado for a while now. So, I was thrilled for the opportunity to show him the Rocky Mountain State!
Wanting to experience Colorado as organically as possible, we chose to camp. What better way to be immersed in the beauty of the state's wilderness?
Did you know that in the US, you can camp for free in National Forests and on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management)? It’s called dispersed camping (camping in approved areas other than campgrounds). Free and private, you can’t beat that.
There are many ways to camp and primitive camping is a popular way to go. But let’s be honest. My husband and I are not in our early 20’s anymore. A few amenities like showers and electricity would go a long way to making our extended stay more enjoyable. A single outlet would keep my photography gear charged and allow me to work on my edits in the evening.
After checking out what had to be every campground in the state, we decided on the KOA in Cotopaxi. Located almost in the middle of Colorado, we would have easy access to all the roads we would need to traverse the state. We chose a secluded and shaded tent site right on the Arkansas River with views of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains.
Because it’s a KOA, we also had access to a washer/dryer, swimming pool and Wi-Fi. We didn't care at all about the swimming pool. We had God's swimming pool a few steps from our campsite. But having a washer and dryer meant we could pack less. By only bringing 3 days worth of clothes that we could wash and put back into the rotation, we had more room to pack camping gear.
It would be nice to stay disconnected to the outside world and not need Wi-Fi. I'm realistic though. We all have families and jobs. If the peace of mind of being able to check-in at home allows you to relax then it's an added benefit. But if you're watching Netflix in your tent then we need to talk!
Keep in mind, there's nothing like a big mountain to obstruct data/cell service. So even if you have access to Wi-Fi, it doesn't mean the signal will be worth a darn. Plan accordingly if there is something at home that will need your attention.
Even if you took away every single amenity this campground had, I would have still stayed there. The view of the river, the sound of the rushing water, the sunset over the canyon and the sky packed with stars made this an amazing camping experience. I miss it already.
The most direct route was to come down from Denver on I-25 and exit CO-115 just south of Colorado Springs to Cañon City and then go west on US-50. Of course, the more scenic route is to go west from Denver and come down through the mountains. But it was important to us to find our campsite and get it set up before dark.
So I'm going to say this next part with all of the diplomacy I can muster. The Colorado Springs area is not my cup of tea. It's just too darn crowded. Sure, Pike's Peak and Garden of the Gods are cool. Driving up Pike's Peak two summers ago was an exciting experience for me. Read the Colorado Springs Blog. But judging by the crowds, you would think Colorado has nothing else to offer. Even during off-season times, traffic is heavy, parking spots are difficult to find, and lines are long. Just makes my skin itch. (ok, not so diplomatic)
But we were literally driving by the area and it seemed silly not to make a quick detour. We drove the loop around the Garden of the Gods park and I tried to point out each red rock formation. My husband paid little attention while he maneuvered around bottle necks and tried to avoid hitting tourists in the road. Sensing his frustration, I suggested we get the heck out of there. Pike's Peak would have to wait for another trip.
It was lunch time and I remembered a wonderful little restaurant nearby called Adam's Mountain Cafe. They serve heavenly dishes using local and organic ingredients. After each bite, my husband and I would alternate saying, "Oh, this is good!" We ate our lunch, recovering from our brief but frantic Garden of the Gods experience and continued on to find our slice of heaven on the Arkansas River.
As we got close to Cotopaxi, the road cut through Bighorn Sheep Canyon. The rocky red landscape was beautiful and unusual. Most of the drive ran between the rushing Arkansas River and sharp bends in the canyon. You definitely needed to pay attention to the road. We were told that early in the morning bighorn sheep come down to graze and drink from the river. We were lucky enough to spot a few.
We had a wonderful night's sleep in our cozy tent. There is something very soothing about sleeping to the sounds of the rushing water. We woke up at 4am ready for our first adventure!
TRAVEL TIP: If you are a coffee/tea drinker look into a portable immersion heater. It's a simple heating element that boils water very quickly. With instant coffee packets or tea bags you can quickly and simply make your morning brew. You can get one with a traditional plug or one that plugs into the car's lighter socket. (I learned this trick when I was living in Hungary and they supplied us with an overly-complicated espresso pot)
For our first adventure, we decided to drive up to the highest paved pass in Colorado, Independence Pass. At 12,095 ft on the Continental Divide it is without question one of the most exhilarating drives anywhere. Extreme weather conditions only make it safe to be open in summer months. (So if you are trying to drive through to Aspen during non-summer months you will have to find another way!)
The drive there from Cotopaxi is filled with amazing sites. We began on the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway on HWY 291 in historic Salida traveling north towards Buena Vista. The byway is called by some "Avenue of Fourteeners" as the Collegiate Peaks, Mount Princeton, Mount Yale and Mount Harvard rise above the 14,000-foot mark.
From HWY 24 turn on to HWY 82 towards the old mining village and reservoir of Twin Lakes. This is a good place to get out and stretch your legs and take a restroom break. Or how about a picnic lunch while admiring that amazing lake view. You can also explore the history of the area by taking a self-guided walking tour. Twin Lakes Historic Walking Tour
At this point in my story, I'm going to direct you to a blog I wrote 2 years ago about the drive to the top of the pass. It's about 6 weeks later in the season and much warmer weather. I'll meet you at the top!
Driving down a mountain can be a lot of fun, as long as you remember these 2 words: low gear. Oh, and these words: gravity is a real thing. You can get a great view of the valleys when driving downhill so have your camera ready to shoot out the window. Yes, shoot while the car is moving. (Obviously, I am talking about the passenger. Please don't drive and take photos at the same time.) Remember to choose a high shutter speed and focus on objects far away. If you try to capture objects close to you while you are moving they will be blurry. If you really want a photo of the pretty flowers on the side of the road pull over and get out of the car.
TRAVEL/PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: The reason I say "shoot out the window" is because it's generally not safe or practical to pullover on a mountain road. Of course, if there is a flat turn off and you feel comfortable pulling over, by all means do it! I learned early on, sometimes you have to accept there is no safe way to get some shots. Just enjoy the moment and record the image in your mind. It's a lot less frustrating to follow the "Let it go" philosophy.
At the bottom of the mountain we pulled over so we could walk around and stretch our legs. It was such a pretty little area complete with a babbling brook.
Amazing what you can see when you climb up on the rocks!
We drove back the way we came going south on HWY 24 to HWY 285. The ghost town of St. Elmo was next on our itinerary. Taking HWY 162 (Chalk Creek Drive) just south of Northrop, we drove west along the creek towards Mt. Princeton. It's a gorgeous drive, following Chalk Creek all the way up the mountain. Yes, this is another one of those nail biter drives so pay attention. Along the way we passed Mt. Princeton Hot Springs. It's a crowded and touristy water park/resort using the hot springs that bubble out of the ground. I didn't come all the way to Colorado to sit side by side with total strangers in a packed swimming pool. So, moving on.
At about 10,000 feet you will reach the well preserved ghost town of St. Elmo. Originally founded for gold and silver mining, the town grew large enough to support a telegraph office, a town hall, five hotels, a local newspaper, school, saloons and dancing halls. The St. Elmo General Store is still standing and in operation. It's really more of a souvenir and antique shop than a general store but it's still a neat experience.
We walked around admiring some of the original buildings that line the main street. It's hard to imagine how they built such a thriving town so high up in the mountains that long ago. We drove it with a modern day vehicle and needed some time to recover.
If you are feeling particularly adventurous (and have a high clearance vehicle) drive Tincup Pass. It connects St. Elmo with the tiny town of Tincup at an elevation of 12,154ft. It's one of the highest mountain roads in Colorado and remains snow covered until July.