The American landscape between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains is dominated by the Great Plains, a tremendously flat expanse mainly utilized by ranchers and farmers. This is an overwhelmingly horizontal environment. Outside an occasional small hill, the only vertical features are man made. Windmills, silos and signs stand out from a great distance, appearing almost monolithic in the great open landscape. It is both exactly what we expected and also somehow alluring.
One of the best surprises was the presence of birds. Everywhere. Thousands of swallows swooped dramatically through the air around us whenever we stopped to rest. Their songs filled the air and reminded us that while the Plains may look empty, they are very much alive. It is a place to look for details, small flowers and weathered old buildings, smaller scenes that tell a story of endurance and the passing of time. And what do the birds eat? Insects – thousands of which pelted our car as we drove through the Midwest. Seriously, it got hard to see through the windshield at times and regular wiper fluid does NOTHING to clean them off; serious squeegee effort is needed.
As we crossed from Kansas into eastern Colorado, the story changed little at first. We were still in some of the most sparsely populated places we’d ever seen, where you can see for many miles in all directions and still can’t spot the next cluster of silos or a gas station. But as we got closer to Colorado Springs, what appeared at first to be clouds near the horizon started to come into sharper focus and we knew we were finally approaching the legendary Rocky Mountains. This is where the west begins!
It’s funny how when you see the mountains from eastern Colorado, you think you must be pretty close, but they’re still about 100 miles away. As we neared Colorado Springs, we thought about the pioneers and explorers who arrived here from the east and wondered how they felt. The Rockies definitely do not suggest an easy way over or through! Luckily for us, we had a few days to play and explore in their shadow before going any further west.
Troy’s sister and brother and their spouses live in Colorado Springs and Denver, so we got to stay with them and share some of our adventures together. After meeting up in Colorado Springs, we all decided to head to the Paint Mines in Calhan, CO. Even baby Claire came along! The Paint Mines are a natural wonder of colorful sandstone rock formations, hoodoos and meandering trails. The rich colors come from iron oxides in the clay, and this clay really was collected and used for pigments by people at least 10,000 years ago. Walking among the hoodoos felt like being on another planet. Because the Mines are about 40 minutes east of Colorado Springs, this is a lesser-visited park, but trust us- it’s a must-see. Even after the spectacular sights we saw further west, the Paint Mines remain a trip highlight.
After a night of hanging out with family around a fire, we were ready for a busy day of exploring the Rocky Mountains themselves. First of all, we prepared ourselves for the increased sun exposure. Did you know that UV exposure increases by 10% with every 3,280 feet in elevation? Colorado Springs is 6,000 feet and Pikes Peak is 14,114 feet, so serious sun protection is essential. We used plenty of sunscreen, and also wore protective clothing that covered most of our skin. We always keep hats, sunglasses and bandanas on hand when venturing outside in the sun. For Troy especially, clothing that’s functional, durable and stylish is kind of an obsession, so we’re seldom unprepared for extreme weather.
Our first stop was Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. This is a very popular park because it’s so close to town, easily accessible and totally FREE! A walk through the excellent visitors center and museum makes the free part especially unbelievable. Garden of the Gods is a range of spectacular rock formations towering over a series of pleasant walking paths. Despite the history of the rocks having been forced up violently by seismic activity, the place has a very peaceful atmosphere. It really does evoke a garden, with paths following the natural contours of the monoliths and smaller formations appearing almost like garden statues. A few of the larger rocks have trails up to the top for panoramic views, but most of the park can be enjoyed from the comfort of the smooth, paved paths; this is a very wheelchair- and stroller-accessible park. The museum also provides hands-on exhibits for the visually impaired, so this is truly a park for everyone – even Zorro, although we had to keep him on a leash!
We stayed for a couple of hours at Garden of the Gods, but like most of our stops, we could have easily spent much longer there. It’s kind of like our own Fort Williams Park in Maine, home to Portland Head Light. Visitors to Maine always want to see the lighthouse, and most stay less than an hour, but the park could easily fill an entire lazy afternoon if there weren’t so much else to see and do. In our case, we had really BIG plans for the rest of our afternoon: Pikes Peak, the most visited mountain in North America.
There are two options for getting to the summit of Pikes Peak: by personal vehicle or cog railway. The train was closed, but we would have taken the adventuremobile either way. Before we set out from Colorado Springs, we unloaded some of our heavier cargo to make the climb easier. Several years ago, we drove up the Mt Washington auto road in New Hampshire. At 6,289 feet, Mt Washington is less than half as high as Pikes Peak, but we found that the drive can be pretty intense and hard on your vehicle.
Although it was warm when we began climbing through the forested lower slopes of Pikes Peak, the ranger at the road entrance told us to leave our AC off so we didn’t overheat our engine on the way up. Luckily, it quickly got much cooler as we ascended. There were many places to pull over and enjoy the views, which of course we did at nearly every opportunity. The higher we got, it seemed there were ever more mountains to see in nearly all directions. The Rockies you see as you approach from the east are just the front of an enormous range that continues far into the west. Again, we thought of the explorers who, upon reaching these mountains, climbed up to see that there appears to be no end in sight.
With higher elevation comes less oxygen, and about 1,000 feet from the top, it finally started to hit us. Troy was driving and noticed himself feeling slightly dizzy and fatigued. Talking started to seem difficult and even slow, deep breathing felt shallow and insufficient. When we made it to the top and parked at the visitors center, we were amazed to see how far we’d come, but also worried we might get sick if we stayed too long. A surprising curiosity at the peak given the scarcity of plants and animals was the abundance of insects, mostly small gnats and flies. This is especially strange since Colorado Springs is weirdly almost insect-free. My (totally unsubstantiated) theory is that the mountain winds funnel the few existing bugs up to these higher elevations, where they mostly land on tourists or die. Sounds legit, right?
If you drive to the top of Pikes Peak, you must get a doughnut from the visitors center. Maybe it was the elevation, but they tasted amazing to us and it’s a nice reward for your effort. If you hike up to the peak, you have our unconditional respect and admiration and we will gladly buy you a doughnut.
Before long, we had to head back down to Earth. After the first couple thousand feet, the effects of the elevation gain subsided and we were able to enjoy the even more spectacular views coming down. One of our favorite sights was a pair of marmots perched on some rocks, taking in the view themselves.
After returning to town, the whole family went out to eat in downtown Colorado Springs at The Rabbit Hole, an underground restaurant with an “Alice in Wonderland” theme. As much as we enjoyed our adventures in the Rockies, it was this time we shared with our siblings (and our sweet niece, Claire!) that made these last couple of days sparkle. As we mentioned in our last post, this is a big country, and having family and friends to meet up and share it with is one of our favorite things about traveling.
The next morning, it was time to say goodbye and discover what lay on the other side of those mountains. As it turned out, the best was yet to come, but that’s a story for another post. Keep following along to find out where the road takes us next!