Friday, December 30, 2011

Colorado: This one's for you, Kimmer!

OK, I haven't blogged in months. In my defense, life gets crazy busy sometimes, and 2011 has been the uber craziest. But my friend Kimmer and I were just talking about a trip to Colorado, and the blog seemed the easiest way to dedicate photos and links to the topic. So, Kimmer, this blog post is for you!
In 2009, we took an amazing trip to visit my son in Denver, which included mountain hiking, seeing the Garden of the Gods and a glimpse at Pike's Peak from Colorado Springs, a side excursion to an old arcade, a bus trip to Colorado's gold-covered capitol building, and a tour of a working gold mine.
We traveled via Amtrak's California Zephyr, reported to be the most scenic route in America. While the segment from Chicago to Colorado was mostly a look at lots of scenic cornfields, the part of the trip that ends in California is both a little scary and amazing, I'm told.
My youngest loved traveling by train, because you can move around, you can buy breakfast sandwiches on the snack car, and because there's an outlet for video games or other devices. It seemed like the trip from Chicago to Denver took about 20 hours. The coach seats recline during lights-out hours, but it's a little tough on the behind. If you have the moolah, I'd spring for the sleeper car with its own restroom. (Hint: If you're a coffee fiend taking the train, I'd recommend packing a small coffeepot. Since sleeping in coach isn't easy, we were up long before the snack car opened at 7 a.m..) 

We rolled into Denver's Union Station, a beautiful retro building with old-fashioned oversized wood benches. I just learned the station is not currently operational. According to the Denver Destination Experts, as of February 2011, Amtrak moved to a temporary station at 1800 21st Street, due to construction, a move expected to last about three years. Here's a link for updates. 
Colorado is a beautiful, mountainous desert region with a rich role in U.S. history. It's known for a focus on healthy lifestyles, and is home to lots of free or inexpensive recreational opportunities. The weather is a bit warmer than I'm used to in Michigan, but the low humidity generally meant good hair days! Although my son's apartment at the time wasn't in a ritzy part of town, we felt pretty comfortable walking to the local park and King Soopers grocery store while he was working.

Our first car trip was to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, renowned for being "the only naturally-occurring, acoustically perfect amphitheatre in the world," a big draw for many performers who take the stage there. Unfortunately, there were no concerts going on during our visit, but it was still open.
While in the area, we took the opportunity to go hiking. I was keeping a sharp eye out for snakes, but what we ended up seeing was a deer ─ a mule deer, I think.

There were only a few challenging parts of the hike. Good thing, since I wasn't used to the altitude.
It's hard to capture how high up we are unless you notice how tiny the cars are in the photo, or that the flash of metal you see is actually the top of a building.
I look like a major lush, but I'm really just holding the bottle of hard cider we'd taken to Colorado as a gift to my son. Once up on the rock, I found it a little more difficult to get down and had to scooch down on my behind.
Both Red Rocks and Garden of the Gods, which is in Colorado Springs, were places I visited as a teenager. It was raining the afternoon we got to Garden of the Gods, which I understand nearly always happens for a little while each afternoon.
Garden of the Gods is a huge area with lots of quirky natural rock formations; with some, it's hard to understand how they've kept from toppling for all these years. From what I've read, the park is supposed to remain free of any admission charges, although they do have a gift shop and other things that they charge for.

We didn't see any wild animals here, although we saw signs of them. It's actually a pretty easy hike, since the path through much of the areas we went had very gradual slopes. From Garden of the Gods, you can get a glimpse at Pike's Peak, which is literally a high point of any trip to the Rocky Mountains. You can go up Pike's Peak via a cog railway, although we didn't because we were short on both time and cash.

After Garden of the Gods, we went to Manitou Springs for a while to play at an old arcade. This town, which is nestled at the foot of Pike's Peak, was cool, but kind of a tourist trap. If you go there, be very vigilant about looking for parking signs. We parked in a lot during a rainstorm and came back to the car to find we'd gotten a ticket for parking there. Turns out the sign announcing it was a paid lot was plastered really high on a pole. Schmucks.We were also hit up by some really aggressive panhandlers from California, who got right in our faces to beg for money. Since young son wasn't feeling well, his brother asked them to give him some space. They slinked away, calling us "mainstream." Funny, that was the first I'd ever thought of myself as mainstream!

My youngest and I explored downtown Denver on our own while we were in town, including a tour of the Capitol Building. It's beautiful, but be warned, it's not air-conditioned, except for the governor's office. Make sure to go on the optional tour to see the inside of the dome. After touring the capitol in Denver, I realized I needed to take my son to see Michigan's capitol building in Lansing, where we noticed lots of similarities. Turns out both buildings were designed by the same architect.      

Just taking a bus was a bit of an adventure, since we don't have a lot of public transportation in our part of Michigan. We messed up our transfer but there was no hurry, and our bus driver was a sweetheart. We ended up getting our own private tour of the city, and learned about the Cinderella Mall, now razed but once an enormous shopping complex. I could be wrong, but I thought our driver said the mall was built over an abandoned mine and began sinking, although online references only mention "structural" problems.

While most of our Colorado trip perfectly suited our budget, Hidee Gold Mine in Central City was a worthwhile splurge. It cost around $50 for the three of us, but we got to chip gold ore from a vein that runs through the working mine.
If you go, make sure to wear closed-toe shoes that are comfy enough for hoofin' it through the mine. It goes without saying that with all the hiking you'll do in Colorado, you'll want to take some kind of bag to protect the contents of your luggage from your dirty shoes. I still have dirt from the mine on my camera bag.
My video of chipping gold ore from a vein in Hidee Gold Mine, a small working mine in Central City, Colorado.

There's so much more to Colorado than we were able to see on this trip. If you can get in, the Denver Mint tour would be interesting. There's also a Denver Mint Robbery Tour, which sounds like a fun scavenger hunt. The state offers fly-fishing, whitewater rafting, mountain biking and camping in warmer months and of course, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and snowmobiling in the winter. I won't include those links, Kimmer, since I know you're considering a summer trip. There are all kinds of eats, beverages and festivals too.

Since the state is pretty huge, there's plenty more to explore. Someday, I'd love to see Mesa Verde, a whole city built into the rocks of southwest Colorado by ancient cliff-dwelling people. I'm also jonesin' to try out the natural hot springs that Colorado has to offer.

Colorado is an awesome vacation destination. This trip down memory lane has me stoked to go again!