I'm no stranger to the beautiful state of Colorado. I've been four times since high school. The first was a missions trip to Denver with my youth group. The next was to visit a friend in Wyoming that took us down into Steamboat Springs and then again to Estes Park for that friend's wedding several years later. Two winters ago, my girlfriend at the time (now she's my wife!), Kim and I went with the Purdue Ski Club to Telluride, by far the most beautiful place I've ever been snowboarding.
About a month after coming back from our Honeymoon in Belize, my parents extended an invitation to join them out west for a few days south of Denver. As much as it drained us, I'm still going to recommend driving from Indiana. As soon as you eclipse the 1 passenger mark, flights become illogical and you're going to want your own transportation to get through the mountains. If you're camping (and you probably should be), a car is going to make it even more convenient for hauling all of your gear and keeping you safe in a hail storm (see below).
We arrived in Denver late Saturday morning, greeted by blue skies and the silhouette of adventure in the distance. We drove straight through the city out to Morrison, to hike around Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre. I had previously stopped there twice before, but it's one of my favorite parts of the Denver area, so I wanted to make sure Kim had a chance to see it. We hiked a couple of trails and climbed around off the trails as much as possible without getting in trouble. While I've always wanted to see a concert at the amphitheater, neither of us were really keen on spending the big bucks on Ed Sheeran.
Regardless, it was a great time and I suggest you check it out next time you're in the area. This trip was very last minute for us, so we opted out of planning our nights that we weren't with the family. Our assumption was that finding camping in or around Denver would be easy. We were wrong. We checked out several campgrounds to no avail. Thankfully we were able to locate a campground at Pike National Forest outside Bailey with a couple available sites, and set up camp with a few beers and a bottle of wine.
The next day was off to an equally gorgeous start as we packed up the car and headed out to find some good trails. Our original plan was to check out Pike's Peak; on a day with full visibility the view was sure to be perfect— but at $25/person, it wasn't worth it for us. We drove back up and down the highway looking for a good place to stop and hike and eventually wound up on a dusty road leading out to Cheeseman's Reservoir, which turned out to be a fantastic hike.
On the forefront of a storm, the first leg of the hike was spent in a light rain, watching lightning strike the mountains in the distance. It was a beautiful sight, and luckily stayed far enough away to keep us semi dry for the remainder of the hike. The highlight of the Upper Cheeseman's Trail is reaching the river below the dam, making for some beautiful photography. After leaving the reservoir, we headed over to Monument and killed some time in a lovely park just outside of town. We met up with my family just in time for some pizza and PBRs, before crashing on the floor to avoid yet another storm.
The next day began bright and beautiful as we headed south into Colorado Springs to check out the Garden of the Gods. This is a destination I would recommend stopping to check out. It's completely free and offers a decent amount of walking for those looking for exercise and a convenient parking in and around the park for those just looking for sights. Like much of the area, staggering red rocks jut out high above the ground, creating a great opportunity for some rock climbing. Unfortunately the weather foiled all of our attempts at climbing during the week. Alas, Colorado Springs was in our rearview mirror and we hit up an Airbnb with the family closer to our next destination: whitewater rafting.
Noah's Ark Whitewater Rafting and Adventure Company came highly recommended from an ex-guide, and they lived up to the hype. Everyone in the family, including Kim, had been rafting at least once before in West Virginia, except for me. I was the n00b for once. Although the water was freezing, the trip itself was a lot of fun and our group managed to survive all the rapids, while other groups went under one after the other. My one wish is that there could be three times the amount of rapids and shorter stretches of flat water.
The real excitement came later in the evening while setting up our tents in Mueller State Park. Kim and I pack light, so we didn't have much equipment to carry. We finished the rain fly right as it started to hail. The storm started out light, but aggressively worsened as we scrambled to get my parents' tent up. The four of us spent the next half hour huddled under one small umbrella trying to survive the torrential downpour of rain and golf-ball-sized hail. Our tent survived, while the rest of the group (my parents, brother, and his friend) slept inside a heavily dented Ford F-150.
The next day was supposed to be a climbing day, but the morning was spent salvaging my family's campsite. Kim and I took off for what was supposed to be a short hike before heading out to check out the fossil museum in Florissant. Our hike ended up being over 7 miles and ended with a 30 minute walk of shame up the park's only road in yet another steady rainfall. Fed up with the rain, we jumped straight in the car and drove to get pizza in Woodland Park. It did rain again during the night, but it didn't stop everyone from sleeping well inside their tents.
Our final day, Day 6, started with a farewell to my family as they headed east, while Kim and I headed north to Estes Park. After a beautiful drive through Boulder and Roosevelt National Forest (some of the most gorgeous rock and river scenery around), we drove straight through Estes and looked for camping at Rocky Mountain National Park. The park ranger at the gate directed us to Long's Peak campsites which were free, but in high demand due to the coming holiday weekend. We found a spot with a couple bikes and hoped it wasn't actually taken as there were no tents or notes claiming it. Rather than waiting around to find out, we hiked up straight out of the campground on the Emerald Lake trail, which sits at the bottom of the Long's Peak summit trail.
An hour of wooded trail opens into an open tundra trail that winds slowly upward for another hour or so. This hike was especially interesting because we found ourselves traversing through snow in July. While the journey up was worth the panoramic mountain views alone, the trail ends at a lake sitting at the bottom of a sheer cliff below Long's Peak. Partially frozen, it's the perfect place to sit and enjoy the best that nature has to offer while furiously consuming a Clif Bar. The hike back down flew by as we nearly jogged to avoid the onset of yet another summer storm. Back at the campsite, we were greeted by an Israeli couple who were using the campsite we were hoping to claim. They offered to let us camp with them, but as we debated, it began to rain and we opted to head for home rather than suffer through another rainy night.
After this many trips to Colorado, I can safely say that I will still be going back. I've enjoyed every single visit, and there is always something new to see. Next time we go west will certainly involve stops in Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks. If you are looking for adventures in Colorado, I encourage you to search for campsites ahead of time, rather than expecting to find something. I recommend every one of our adventures, though I don't know that Mueller State Park sticks out as spectacular. The great thing about Colorado is that as long as you can spend time in the mountains, you are going to have a good time.
(All photos by the author)