“Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” - John Muir
How does one begin to describe their first trip to their favorite place on earth, to their home away from home, to the place where their soul belongs? Is it even possible to put into words the way that that place makes a person feel, the absolute nirvana that comes along with the sense of total belonging?
In all honesty, I stared at a blank document for far too long, attempting to find the right words to start this post. Not only is Colorado easily my favorite place on earth, but every time I visit, I’m also with my favorite person on earth. Add those two things together, and there are just no words meaningful enough to describe it. That’s why this post took me nearly a week from start to finish – much longer than most.
The first time we visited Colorado, I had no idea how quickly I would fall in love with the state. I went into it with an open mind, excited that we had the opportunity to go on another trip. We had just gotten married, but hadn’t yet gone on our honeymoon. Needless to say, we were ready for vacation. What I didn’t realize was that that trip would also be when I would truly fall in love with hiking, and those wonderful views that come with some of the most difficult climbs.
Past the difficulty of figuring out how to word my thoughts around Colorado, I also struggled with what about our trips I should highlight. We have gone to Colorado so many times, hiked so many mountains and trails, and visited so many cool places. It makes it difficult to pinpoint which parts of our many trips would be the best to share.
There is no way to see all of the best places in the state in just one trip. That could be said about any of the places we have been, to be honest. I would love to go back to any of the places we have visited, truly. One week just doesn’t seem to be long enough to explore anywhere appropriately. With the ease of a twelve-hour drive, the added bonus of visiting a beloved family member every time we visit, and our overall love for the place, Colorado just happens to be where we go time and time again.
One of the best ways to describe Colorado might be to go back to that first visit, the one where I absolutely fell in love with everything about the state and the mountains. We actually took the trip with Zac’s dad and uncle – to visit Zac’s uncle that lives there (a special shout out to you, Barry, if you’re reading this!).
We had decided the best place to start would be with Red Rocks Amphitheatre. It has been years since we’ve been there, but I remember getting out of the car, walking up to the Amphitheatre, and being amazed at the atmosphere of it all – and we weren’t even there during an event! There were people picnicking on the risers, others running up and down to get their fitness in for the day, and more yet (like us) just standing there to take in the beauty of the location.
After Red Rocks, we were off to Rocky Mountain National Park. If I hadn’t already decided I was in love after the Amphitheatre, I definitely was after Rocky Mountain National Park. It was at the park that I realized just how high of an elevation we were visiting, and how much different it was than home. Zac and I ran up a flight of stairs to stretch our legs – and we felt it. At the top of the stairs, they had an informative sign that shared how low the oxygen levels were there due to the thinner air, just in case we wondered why we felt so out of shape.
The thin air wasn’t the exciting part of the park, though, of course. I will never forget one of our stops to take in the views along the drive through the park. There were chipmunks everywhere, and they were not shy around people. They scurried back and forth along the rock safety railing, scavenging for crumbs and food. I put my hands on the rock, and waited. Soon, chipmunks started scurrying right over my hands, even stopping to sniff my hands and say hello.
After we rolled through the national park, we decided to make a stop for the night in Estes Park. For fans of The Shining, we did not stay at The Stanley Hotel. If there are readers that do not know the significance, feel free to read more about the creepy hotel here.
Typically, we can pretty easily find a hotel last minute for our travels if we aren’t camping. We normally do well with it, finding places along our route with ease. This time, though, as we drove through Estes Park, we saw hotel after hotel with the NO VACANCY lights on out front. What we didn’t know at the time was that we had actually driven right into the middle of Elk Fest in Estes Park, an annual festival that draws a huge crowd.
Of course, we poked around at the stands and activities at Elk Fest since we were there, and made sure to check out some of their local brews too. Finally, we found a hotel on the edge of town that had vacancies.
I remember the next morning, Zac and I walked around and explored a bit in town. I think we grabbed coffee, but what truly still stands out to me is the signs on the shops. Nearly each and every privately owned shop (which is a lot of their shops) had hours listed something like, “Open when we get here to around 5:00.” The lifestyle there was just so different than the regular, strict 9-5 style lifestyle we had back home. Everyone there seemed to have that laid-back mentality that their signs shared too.
After our walk around town, and after a quick continental breakfast, we headed out again, staying the next night in Grand Lake Colorado. A special shoutout goes to Barry for the reminder. I just have to say that I did think that we stayed in another town before heading back to Summit County, but Zac was positive that we didn't. Since I couldn't remember the name of the town, I went with what he said, assuming that maybe we had just stayed in Estes Park two nights in a row.
This, I remember, is where Zac and I woke up at the buttcrack of dawn to go out to explore a small waterfall. I remember it was absolutely freezing, and he was still sure that he wanted to climb his way down into the bottom of the waterfall for a photo op. It was also where they had a very Western-style main street, complete with wooden sidewalks and places to tie up horses out front of some of the buildings.
Then, we were back on the road to our main destination, Summit County. It was then that we moved into our home away from home for the rest of the week, Beaver Run Resort.
We spent our time that week hiking and adventuring the area, drinking coffee, and shopping along main street in Breckenridge. We also made sure to check out the real life South Park, Colorado. At the time, it was hilarious to both Zac and me. Over the years, though, South Park has become just as much of a home away from home (if not more) as Summit County.
It was that very first trip that Zac and I – with the help of our incredible uncle and tour guide, Barry – also hiked our first Colorado fourteener, Mt. Democrat. At the time, we were both still quite new to hiking. I am embarrassed to think that I actually wore jeans for our hike (which I will never do again). Barry even had to lend us a hydration pack because we were so severely under-prepared.
We grabbed some snacks, filled our waters, and bumped our way up the gravel road to the trailhead. I don’t remember much about the hike up besides my legs and lungs burning, and my heart rate skyrocketing. I also remember how many times Zac and I had to stop and catch our breaths. Finally, I remember the exact moment when Barry finally decided we were close enough to the summit that he could blaze ahead of Zac and my out-of-shape, slow hiking.
What I remember very clearly, though, was reaching the top – after we peaked the false summit, and a while after Barry had reached the top. I talked about how the trip started my love for Colorado, but that hike was what started my love for mountains. There is absolutely nothing like the view from the top of a mountain, turning a complete 360° to see miles of other mountains in every direction. It was then that I truly understood the saying the best view comes after the hardest climb.
When we were finally able to rip ourselves away from the trip, we drove back to Iowa across what a friend of mine calls the “longest and most boring mountain in the world,” – Nebraska. However, our trips to Colorado had just begun, as we have driven that long and boring drive over and over again since that first vacation in 2015. In fact, we have made sure to go at least once per year since then, always being sure to visit as a way to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
I know that this post does not begin to cover all of the incredible things we have done or seen in Colorado. We’ve visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park, a beautiful little town called Ouray that prides itself on being “Little Switzerland,” Mesa Verde National Park, and more. We’ve camped in our tent at trailheads, seen more waterfalls than I can remember, biked on trails, and Buzz and I have even ran a short dog race in Frisco.
With all that, though, I know there are even more things for us to do there. Our Colorado adventures are not done. We plan to continue visiting, continue exploring, and continue marking peaks off of our Conquering Colorado 14ers map.
Until then, I think we could all take some advice from Colorado –
Spend time outdoors.
Enjoy life’s peaks and valleys.
Climb to new heights.
Live with the seasons.
Cherish wide open spaces.
Take a hike.