In this installment of my series of insider guides to great locations to visit in the United States we visit the glorious State of Colorado. Our tour guide is my Embassy colleague Libbie Wride, who will highlight great things to see and do in our Rocky Mountain State, including some of her favorite Colorado places and adventures off the usual beaten path.
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ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH
by Libbie Wride
It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beauty of Colorado’s magnificent landscape is unquestionable. The State features high plains in the east, adventurous canyons in the west, and the majestic Rocky Mountains in between. Colorado blends outdoor adventure with urban sophistication. Where else can you hike up a 14,000-foot mountain in the morning, and then catch a Broadway-style play later that evening?
Colorado is located in the heart of the United States. The eighth largest State in America by size, it is approximately the same overall square mileage as New Zealand. The eastern part of the State is high semi-arid plains once covered in 4-foot tall grasses and massive herds of bison and prong-horns, and is now covered mostly in grazing lands, and dry-land and irrigated crops, including sweet corn that rivals the summer corn of New Zealand.
The western half of the State is of course the southern Rocky Mountains, rich in history and opportunity, with skiing, hiking, biking, kayaking, and just plain relaxation. Wyoming and Nebraska bound the state on its northern border, with Utah to the west, New Mexico and Oklahoma to the south, and Kansas and again Nebraska to the east. Interestingly, the four States of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet at one common point known as the Four Corners, which is also known as the heart of the American Southwest.
The State was named for the Colorado River, which early Spanish explorers named the Río Colorado due to the red colored silt the river carried from the mountains (in Spanish the word Colorado means Colored). On August 1, 1876, then U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant signed a proclamation admitting Colorado as the 38th state. Colorado is nicknamed the Centennial State because it was admitted to the Union in 1876 — the centennial year of the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The highest point in Colorado is Mount Elbert, soaring a whopping 4401 meters above sea level in the majestic Rocky Mountains. Colorado is the only U.S. state that lies entirely above 1,000 meters in elevation. In fact, the lowest point in the State (1,011 m) holds the distinction of being higher than the high elevation points of 18 states and the District of Columbia. Just over five million people live in Colorado, giving it one of the lowest population densities (37th out of 50th States).
Denver, the capitol of Colorado, is the most populous city in the State. The Mile-High City, which is officially measured at 1,609 meters above sea-level (exactly 1 mile), settles the hills and plains that mark the eastern barrier of the Southern Rocky Mountains. The backdrop of craggy mountains scraping the bottom of clouds to the West and blue skies pulled taught over smooth plains to the East maintain the same rugged, outdoors atmosphere of the original frontier settlement from 1858.
Denver’s citizens have a pronounced love for the arts, going so far as to voluntarily tax themselves each year to increase funding for venues such as the Denver Museum of Art, and the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. An established and active jazz and folk music scene has attracted some of music’s greats to live in the state, including John Denver and Bob Dylan. The Mile-High City doesn’t stop at auditory and visual delight, though.
The city is famous as much for its art and museums as for its parks. More than 200 urban parks make up a massive network of rest stops for tired citizens. The largest of these, the City Park, is 314 acres (130ha), contains the Denver Zoo and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Outside the city, hikers and bikers will find a further 14,000 acres (5,665ha) of well-maintained mountain parks.
For those who would rather kick back and enjoy a Coors Light (brewed in Golden, Colorado) while watching a game, the Mile-High city hosts a bevy of professional sporting teams with large, enthusiastic fan bases. The Denver Broncos play American Football at Mile-High Stadium, and have 6 Super Bowl appearances, with two wins. The Colorado Rockies, Denver’s baseball team, play at Coors field. The Colorado Avalanche, who have 2 Stanley Cup victories since they arrived in the city in 1995, are housed in the Pepsi Center alongside the Denver Nuggets, the city’s basketball team.
The folks in Colorado also practice the high art of brewing. The largest breweries in the state include Coors, Anheuser Busch’s Budweiser plant, and the New Belgium Brewing Company. Denver’s breweries combine to make the city number 1 in beer production per capita in America, and number 2 in number of total breweries.
Any student of the art can come to the Great American Beer Festival, held each fall in the city, to sample as many of these masterpieces as they choose. The festival is an annual tradition in Colorado which dates back to 1982. An entry ticket not only lets you in the door but will also entitle you to unlimited one-ounce samples of any beers you choose.
Given Colorado’s intense physical beauty, it is natural that our tour will take us to Rocky Mountain National Park. Northwest of Boulder in the north-central region of the State, the Park covers 416 square miles, is entirely situated above 2,200 meters, and contains over 60 mountains higher than 3600 meters.
In the Park you can witness the full grandeur that Colorado has to offer including the Continental Divide and the headwaters of the Colorado River. Established in 1915, the Park’s long and varied history includes evidence of 10,000 years of human occupation. Its landscape is not limited to mountains; clear lakes and rivers, alpine tundra, beautiful meadows, flora, and sub-alpine forests also dot the terrain.
Over 300 miles of excellent trails offer opportunities for mountain biking, extended hikes, day hikes, short walks, fishing and picnics. In winter you can try cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Rocky Mountains National Park is a must see attraction – after all over 3 million visitors a year can’t be wrong.
You can’t talk about Colorado without highlighting the amazing skiing available in the state. With 55 peaks over 14,000 ft (4267 meters), Colorado’s “14ers” make for some of the best skiing and snowboarding found in the United States, with powdery slopes beckoning to everyone from beginners, to the double black diamond crowd. Colorado has the highest altitude lift terrain in the United States, contributing to massive amounts of powder during peak season.
Ski season runs from October to April, and resorts range from posh celebrity enclaves like Aspen and Vail, to family-friendly Durango with activities for children and teens, to the adventurous Steamboat Springs, which has produced 69 Winter Olympians – more than any other town in North America. Check out ColoradoSki.com for information on Colorado’s premier winter sport opportunities.
For our next stop, we shift south to Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, world famous for the distinctive carved-stone and mud-brick cliff dwellings. It was home to the Ancestral Pueblo people who made the mesa tops and valleys their home for more than 700 years, between the 7th and 14th centuries AD. A mesa is a flat-topped, steep sided rocky outcrop, typical in parts of the U.S.
The word Mesa Verde literally means green table in Spanish. Many of the Native American peoples currently living in the American southwest (particularly close to the Four Corners area I mentioned earlier) are direct descendents of the ancient Pueblo tribes.
Today the park is home to almost 5,000 Puebloan archeological sites. Of the 600 or-so cliff dwellings, the Cliff Palace and Balcony House are perhaps the best known. While the complex apartment-like cliff dwellings would have been occupied by hundreds or even thousands of people at their peak, their main means of protection were simple wooden ladders which could be lifted up and into the dwelling in the event of an attack. These and other sites can be reached independently or with a guided tour.
Now that you’ve seen a bit of what the State has to offer, I’ll take you a bit off the beaten path to some of the spots most dear to my family’s heritage and Colorado’s history. We start with a journey to Craig, in the northwest corner of the State where my great-grandfather Alvor Milton Ranny first settled in 1883.
Alvor spent a year traveling the Colorado wilderness and building his homestead, and kept a diary of that year, jotting down one or two sentences each day. In early 1883, Alvor, his brother Edwin, and three friends left the state of Michigan for the wilderness of Colorado. A two-day train ride to Pueblo, followed by a one-week mule-train to Denver where they bought horses and supplies marked the beginning of the long journey to establish a new home.
The group left Denver, traveling west along what is now Interstate 70. Alvor’s diary kept a tally of deer and elk that were shot each week, a huge amount of meat for just the five men. As Colorado was in the midst of the silver mining boom, and the meat must have been sold to the miners. About 100 miles west of Denver, the men turned north, traveling up through Yampa to Steamboat Springs, turning west to end in July in what is now Craig. The remainder of the year was spent building cabins and clearing land, establishing the township and a school district. A website of Ranny family genealogy quotes from Alvor:
“In the summer time of 1883 a brother and myself took Horace Greeley’s advice, and went to Pueblo, Col., thence to Denver. Bought a pair of horses, wagon and camping outfit and made a trip over the Rocky Mountains. I kept a daily diary, but the experiences of this trip are fresh in my memory. We traveled slowly, taking plenty of time to catch trout and shoot game. The scenery was charming. The month of June was perfect. We reached this place on July 7, 1883. Here each of us located a 160 acre farm covered with sage brush. We built log cabins bringing the logs from the river bank a mile distant.”
Returning to present day, Fort Collins, along the Front Range, is my home city. Fort Collins boasts an excellent school system, a large high-tech industry, including HP, Intel, LSI, and the cutting-edge Orthopedic Center of the Rockies medical facility. Like the rest of Colorado, the Fort Collins area is a natural and recreational paradise. To the west of town are two splendid 1-day hikes – Horsetooth Mountain and Gray Rock. Or you can sit at Fossil Creek reservoir and watch the bald eagles.
To end the day, head back into town to Coopersmith’s for dinner and a pint of Poudre Pale Ale on the Old Town plaza, or stop at the New Belgium Brewery which has been an industry leader in sustainability and conservation in northern Colorado. New Belgium is the best micro-brewery around, despite what another of the Ambassador’s guest bloggers previously said about Portland, Oregon. A nice, cool Fat Tire amber ale, their flagship brew, or Blue Paddle pilsner lager for a hot summer day always hits the spot.
Fort Collins is also home to Colorado State University, a nationally rated public school of about 25,000 students with the #2 veterinary school in the nation. To celebrate the start of the new scholastic year, each August brings the New West Fest to town.
The entire downtown area is closed off, filled with arts and crafts vendors, beer gardens, street performers, local talents, national performing groups, and thousands of people for three days. The last time I attended, in 2010, Earth, Wind and Fire headlined the event. This last year was Allison Kraus and Union Street Station. Wow.
One of my favorite family vacations when I was younger was a road trip across southern Colorado. Our first stop was Garden of the Gods, another Natural National Landmark just outside Colorado Springs. It has formations of beautiful red sandstone uplifted by the movement of the Rocky Mountains and carved out over eons by rain and wind, telling the story of ancient shallow seas, estuaries, and sand dunes.
In the early 1900’s, Garden of the Gods was a popular honeymoon spot. Elvie Grace Ranny, daughter of Alvor, married Harry Wride (my grandparents), and this is where they came in 1918. It was a full day’s drive over dirt roads at that time. Elvie’s diary of their honeymoon still exists, and it is cute reading.
I am a bit of an historical geology buff and was enthralled with the fossil records during our trip. I could have spent a week trying to determine the prevailing winds that formed the dunes or which direction the water flowed to form the ripples caught in the rock record. Most people however would be content with just one day. So was my family.
So, on we went to Royal Gorge. When it was built in 1929, it was the world’s highest suspension bridge, built 956 feet over the Arkansas River. Today it is more amusement park, but for all that still an interesting place to visit. I suggest you take a walk across the bridge and stand in the middle looking straight down on the white water rafters zipping through the canyon.
Better yet, take the incline railway to the bottom of the gorge where you will get wet from the mist of the water rushing by. You will see an entirely different perspective of the size of the canyon, the river, and the bridge. New in recent years for the thrill seekers are the zip line where you sit in a small seat and are dangled over the canyon, plus the skycoaster which will drop you at 50 mph from a free-fall tower.
From there, we drove to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. More sand dunes! These are much cooler, however, than the fossils of the Garden. Located just northeast of Alamosa, these 750 foot high dunes look completely out of place against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range.
What is so fascinating to me is the closed system in this valley. Prevailing winds are from the southwest, constantly moving the dunes towards the mountains. Mendano and Sand Creeks run down the east side of the dunes at the foot of the mountains, carrying the sand with them and re-depositing it on the valley floor where the winds pick up the sand and blow it once again toward the mountains. Activities include swimming in Mendano and Sand Creeks, hiking the dunes and sliding back down again, bird watching in the wetlands, or star gazing through the clear, cool nights.
Our final stop on that trip before returning home was Telluride for the annual Bluegrass Festival. This festival over the third weekend in June, is one of several outdoor music festivals held each year in Telluride, and one of many various music festivals across the state. For three days, the stage in the middle of the town’s fairgrounds is filled with acoustic instrument musicians from across the country. More than 10,000 people descend on Telluride for this family-friendly festival.
Most festival goers camp in designated forest areas outside the Telluride city limits. If you are lucky, you can get a camp spot in town next to the festival grounds, but don’t expect to sleep much! Everyone brings their instruments, and there are impromptu jams all night long. The Festival grounds are on a first come first served basis – the earlier you get in line, the closer you get to put your blanket to the stage. We put our blanket close to an easily recognizable land mark, and let the girls, ages 10 and 6 at the time, wander where they would. No one would bother them, and everyone would look out for them.
And of course, any mention of Telluride circles us back to Colorado’s world-leading ski culture and beautiful natural surroundings. An old mining town of approximatey 2200 residents, Telluride sits in a box canyon surrounded by steep, forested, snowcapped peaks, with beautiful water falls at the head of the canyon. There is a free gondola that carries you up to the ski areas. An all-season resort, Telluride has world-class hiking, campaing, mountain biking, rock climbing, and more, in addition to skiing.
Had enough? I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. There is so much more to talk about … Dinosaur National Monument … Denver Center for the Performing Arts … Denver’s 16th St Mall … Fort Collins Symphony and Larimer Chorale … Cheyenne Mountain Zoo … the Million Dollar Road from Durango up to Ouray … Boulder’s Pearl St Mall.
All of those and more are must-see attractions. I encourage you to come see for yourself.
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I can vouch for what Libbie says. I have been to Colorado several times, from the dynamic city of Denver to the extraordinary ski towns of Beaver Creek, Aspen, and Vail (but unfortunately not yet Telluride). It’s very easy to fall in love with the State, particularly if you like outdoor activities. (I would also suggest that with its superb recreational options, extensive seasonal job opportunities, and strong tertiary education institutions, Colorado is a particularly great place for students.)
For more information about travel to Colorado, things to see and do in the State, and how to plan the details of your trip, take a look at Colorado – Come to Life.