A Rocky Mountain Roadtrip


Born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I have a natural calling and drive to head uphill to the woods. No matter where I am, there is always something in me that whispers the sound of the wind rushing through pine trees in my ear. I can feel the brisk chill of early morning mountain air, and smell columbines and honeysuckles blooming in the early alpine summer.  So, upon returning to Colorado, Elizabeth and I immediately packed up the car and went camping.

Our first stop was to Great Sand Dunes National Park. We arrived just as a furious thunderhead broke loose. We hurriedly put up tent and hid, drinking IPAs and chatting as the rain drummed against the nylon walls. Early the next morning we rose and climbed to the top of the 700-foot tall dunes to peer at the surreal horizon of sand in the middle of Colorado.

Next, we drove through the smoke of two large wildfires as we made our way towards Mesa Verde National Park. The orange haze of a smoke-filled sky gave an eerie glow to the scrublands. Things grew darker as we approached the larger of the two, which was also nearer to the highway. The acrid and somber smoke of burning homes burnt our lungs and eyes, and we were forced to alter our route and head north away from the flames. We ended up in San Juan National Forest, camping amongst cows driven out of their pastures by fire.

After that, we continued north to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a 2200-foot deep gorge cut by the Gunnison River. After spotting some wildlife and hiking around a bit, we continued towards the ski town of Crested Butte. Here we found a beautiful spot north of Mt. Crested Butte, just south of the majestic Maroon Bells. The following morning we drove across a 37-mile dirt pass towards Carbondale. Along the way, we spotted some nice looking wetlands, and pulled over to count 18 different species of bird. It was almost overwhelming to try and identify one bird before zooming my binoculars over to the next.

The next night we slept at our highest elevation of nearly 11,000 feet atop Independence Pass. After pushing my Jeep up several miles of nasty 4×4 trail, we found a great, secluded spot next to a creek.  Recent bear activity had prompted the Forest Service to post lots of signs, and we hoped that we would be lucky enough to spot one of the beasts (at least from a distance). Unfortunately, no bear encounters this go around. The next morning we packed up, and headed down the pass for Leadville, where we biked around the city on a twelve mile trail that takes you through the storied past of the old mining town.

After five nights sleeping under the stars atop the Rocky Mountains, we packed up our dusty tent and pointed our dirty, Chaco-tanned toes back towards Denver. It was a wonderful welcome home for me, and hopefully gave Elizabeth a different perspective on a mountain range she knows from Montana, but had never seen this portion of. In our travels, I have learned a lot about what ‘home’ really means, but one thing I know for certain, is that I feel it when I am high up in the Colorado air.

Great Sand Dunes National Park after a rainstorm.

A Mountain Bluebird shows off his indigo primaries in San Juan National Forest.

Sunset over Carter Lake.

An American White Pelican scours the shore for a place to rest.

Elizabeth peers south through the San Luis Valley from atop the dunes.


Coming from New England, I always had a preconception about Colorado involving swanky ski resorts and phrases like “shred the sick gnar.”  I thought of it as California, Jr.  So when Kevin and I hit the road after returning from our East Coast adventures, I was in for a surprise.

We took the trip mainly to have some alone time after over a month of visiting family, but I was also motivated to see what was out there.  There were the ski resorts, but even those blew my previous notions out of the water.  Aspen quickly revealed itself as a hub for the world’s rich and famous, the downtown lined with Gucci and Armani shops.  Only the finest gear for these skiers.  Vail was even more absurd in my eyes.  There wasn’t even a town, but rather Disneyland: Mountain Edition.  The commercialization of the landscape in these two towns left a bad taste in my mouth.

But then we also visited places like Crested Butte, the San Juan National Forest, and Black Canyon.  These places were vibrant with culture that celebrated the wild aspect of the Rockies.  There is dispersed camping available, and a few dirt roads, but aside from that, the wilderness is left untouched.

I was also surprised to see how the Southern part of the state felt completely different.  It feels far more like New Mexico with cacti, tumbleweeds, and long flat stretches of highway.  There were some forest fires in this region that added smoke to the extreme heat, and it wasn’t my favorite part of the state, but it did contain the Great Sand Dunes National Park.  The bizarre and seemingly out of place dunes are so stark and surprising that I’m still thinking about them weeks later.  We arrived during a thunderstorm, and after it cleared, walked out on the still damp sand, marveling at the strange striations and patterns left by the moisture.  The next morning we woke up before anyone else in the campground and took a long hike to the top of the dunes.  Walking in the sand is tedious, and it really brought to light how immense they are.

Colorado surprised me in its diversity of landscape, culture, and attitude toward the wilderness.  I had no idea there was so much to state, and since we did this whirlwind tour in five days, I know there is so much more out there to discover.  I was able to let go of those negative preconceptions a bit and find some things I really love about this place.  My favorite of course, is that it produced Kevin.

Kev looks out over the sand dunes after an evening rain storm.

The sand dunes stand proudly in front of the Sangre de Cristo range.

We hiked around Black Canyon where we saw three snakes in one hour.

Our bed for the night at Independence Pass due to bear activity.

We biked 12 miles around Leadville, an old mining town that has the highest elevation in the US.


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