We’re high on Rocky Mountain grandeur
The first time I drove to California from the East Coast, trying to escape a run of bad luck in love, life and career in my mid-20s, the Rocky Mountains loomed from the prairie, welcoming me to a new life.
This past June, I had the opportunity to immerse myself once again in the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains on a road trip with my wife, Katherine. We looped from Denver through Boulder, Grand Lake and Winter Park before ending a week later back at the airport.
Options for outdoor exertion
Boulder, Colorado, at 5,300 feet, gave us an opportunity to adjust gradually to the altitudes of the Rockies. Boulder has a small-town feel with big-city amenities, especially its excellent restaurants, many of them clustered in the downtown area on or near the Pearl Street Mall, the spine of the food and entertainment district.
But what Boulder is really about, aside from a major university and an exploding tech sector, is fitness and outdoor recreation. The town offers a wide range of sweat-inducing, muscle-burning, lung-busting outdoor activities. In our day and a half in Boulder I had the opportunity to indulge in a couple of these activities.
Most notable was a downhill mountain bike ride on the Switzerland Trail. The trail is probably a piece of cake for experienced mountain bikers, but for novices like me, it took considerable effort and concentration to avoid rocks and keep upright.
Terror helped me focus on the task at hand. Once I got the hang of it, though, it was exhilarating, especially when the guide told me that I was the oldest person he had ever guided on the trail. (I turned 80 this year.) I’m sure the scenery was stunning, but to be honest I rarely took my eyes off the trail.
While I was clenching and sweating, Katherine tried “goat yoga” at Growing Gardens, a nonprofit that runs programs in sustainable urban agriculture. After an hour of exercising with free-range goats, she reported, “They are sort of like dogs, but they don’t show any affection.”
Wildlife and kayaks at Grand Lake
After two nights in Boulder, we drove through Rocky Mountain National Park via the Trail Ridge Road. This nationally designated “All American Road” is spectacular as it climbs through thick forest to alpine tundra above tree line to an elevation of over 12,000 feet before it heads downward on the other side of the pass, the highest of the three mountain passes in the park.
The first thing we noticed as we approached the town of Grand Lake was the huge burn scar left over from the East Troublesome Fire, which burned almost 190,000 acres in October 2020. Fortunately, the fire stopped just short of this quaint village on the shores of the largest natural lake in Colorado.
The second thing we noticed was the large moose by the side of the road, the first wildlife sighting of our trip. He ignored us as he munched on weeds, brush and other roadside delicacies while we gawked and took photos from the safety of our car.
In Grand Lake we continued the active pace set in Boulder, including two easy, close-by hikes (the Coyote Valley Trail and the hike to Adams Falls) and a two-hour kayak that started on Grand Lake and continued through a narrow channel into the adjoining Shadow Lake.
While Grand Lake is ringed with grand homes, Shadow Lake feels wilder. There are some structures on the lake, plus a road running between the two Lakes. But the further we paddled, the more untamed it felt.
We also took a slow boat tour around Grand Lake and ate dinner one night at the historic Grand Lake Lodge, which offers rustic but upscale cabins, fine dining, and spectacular views of Grand and Shadow Lakes from its location several hundred feet above the lakes.
While we were eating, a bear toured the grounds — to the delight of the guests and my wife, who leaped to their feet and ran to the windows to squeal and take pictures. True to form, I instead opted to continue eating my meal before it got cold.
Winter Park wonders
On our way to Winter Park, our final destination, we took a short side trip to the best hike of the trip, a four-mile loop around Monarch Lake. The lake, a deep blue gem, is surrounded by thick forest and snow-capped peaks and nothing else.
Except for the other hikers on the trail, plus some fishermen, families and paddlers, it felt like a true wilderness experience. The trail is rated as easy, but the rocks and stream crossings made it a bit more challenging for my 80-year-old body.
We only spent a day in Winter Park, just enough time for a hike along the Fraser River Trail, which runs through town and parallels the main highway. It’s easily accessible, groomed and mostly flat with some gentle rises.
From the trail you can see snow-capped mountains in the distance, and the burbling water masks the traffic sounds from the road a couple of hundred yards away. Along the trail are benches, picnic tables and interpretive signs describing the birds, flowers and other flora and fauna you can observe along the way.
Before heading back to the airport on our final day, we visited Headwaters Rivers Journey, an excellent museum that makes it clear that Colorado is not just about mountains, but water too.
Rivers, lakes and reservoirs support the plants, flush the toilets, and slake the thirst of most of the American Southwest and California — another reason to appreciate the beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the life-giving waters that flow from its peaks.
Don and Katherine were hosted on this trip by Visit Boulder, The Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Grand County Colorado Tourism Board.
For more photos, suggestions for places to eat and stay, and things to do, check out Don’s blog at adventuretransformations.com/wordpress/rocky-mountain-high.