Why Colorado? 

If there is one state in the country that is synonymous with mountains more than any other, it has to be Colorado. Sure, Alaska has loftier mountains (and California still has the highest in the lower 48) and half of Colorado is flat plateau, but the instant image that the name Colorado evokes is one of jagged mountain peaks jostling one another for space as well as the famous river that originates in those mountains.

If you haven't heard of the Colorado 14ers, now is a good time to acquaint yourself with them. They stand for the 56 (even this number varies in different lists owing to that hazy quality known as prominence) mountain peaks in the state that are higher than the 14000 feet elevation above sea level. They are not known outside the USA (due to the metric system). A much better known and much loftier set are the 8000ers which are the 14 mountain peaks in the world that are over the 8000m level. Of course, mountains don't care for which unit of measurement we use to classify them, but we humans like to make clubs like these and they enhance the enjoyment that we feel when talking about (and travelling through) these mountains.
  Next, the national park lands. Colorado has 4 national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Mesa Verde National Park. We had previously managed to visit Mesa Verde owing to its proximity to the Four Corners area which we had explored a few years ago. Rocky Mountain National Park has been on our must visit list for quite a while.

The map on the left (from the NPS site) illustrates the geography of the state of Colorado. Colorado is one of two states that is a perfect rectangle (Wyoming being the other one). The southern portion of the Rockies dominate the left half of the state. The Continental Divide runs diagonally across the state cresting the Rockies. Interstate 70 runs east-west and crosses the mountains in a series of passes including the Eisenhower Tunnel (completed 1979) that cuts right through the Continental Divide. Interstate 25 runs north-south and lies on the plateau just east of the mountains. The capital and largest city in the state, Denver lies at the crossroads of the two freeways.

But it is not all about national parks alone. It would be a mistake to think that the Rockies can be experienced just by visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado is full of scenic byways that provide access to its various mountain vistas and its historic past.

Below is the Colorado Scenic Byways map with the ones visited on this trip circled.  These were the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway, the Trail Ridge Road, Collegiate Peaks, Highway of Legends, Top of the Rockies and Mount Evans.

Bagging a 14er does not have to involve arduous climbing or even driving a car. You could get to the top of Pikes Peak in an hour on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway from the base station near Colorado Springs. Despite getting to the top by sitting on our backsides doing nothing besides taking pictures, we still weren't shy of posing for pictures at the sign on the top.

And one can always take a break from mountains in the cities of Colorado Springs and Denver to visit other points of interest like the fascinating US Olympic Center and the impressive Air Force Academy or the excellent Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Click the panel at left for the Colorado photo album                                                 


Day 1 Visit Denver State Capitol and 16 Street Pedestrian Mall. Drive Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway.
Setup Camp in Moraine Park Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park. Old Fall River Road-Trail Ridge Road Loop
Day 2 Hike 10 miles through Lake Helene, Odessa Lake, Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Day 3 Rocky Mountain National Park: Trail Ridge Road to west exit crossing Continental Divide at Milner Pass.
I-70 to Grand Junction crossing Continental Divide.
Colorado National Monument: Rim Rock Drive
Day 4 Colorado National Monument: Visit Monument Canyon. US-50 to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
US-50 to Poncha Springs crossing Continental Divide at Monarch Pass. Collegiate Peaks view
US-24 to Colorado Springs
Day 5 Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Colorado Springs (Garden of the Gods, US Olympic Training Center, US Air Force Academy)
Day 6 I-25 south to Trinidad. Highway of Legends to La Veta. Hwy 160/150 to Great Sand Dunes National Park
Day 7 Hwy 17/US-285 North to Salida. Collegiate Peaks. Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway to Aspen/Glenwood Springs. I-70 to Idaho Springs
Day 8 Mount Evans Scenic Byway. Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Total Miles driven: 2000

Rocky Mountain National Park

The Rocky Mountains stretch 2700 miles from Mexico to Alaska. The mountains were formed when earth forces thrust the Rockies skyward 70 million years ago, but many of the exposed granite rocks are much older. Rocky Mountain National Park is set in the Southern Rockies (in northern Colorado State) and holds 72 named peaks above 12000 feet in elevation. Longs Peak, at 14259 feet is the northernmost 14er peak in Colorado and is the highest peak within the park boundary. The park was established in 1915, one year before Congress created the National Park Service.

Longs Peak and Estes Cone

The park's major features - vistas of the mountain peaks and meadows can be accessed from Trail Ridge Road, the 54 mile stretch of US Highway 34 which happens to be the highest through highway in the US (the highest road Mt. Evans Scenic Byway, dead ends at the summit of Mt. Evans). It traverses the park from Estes Park in the east to Grand Lake in the west. It crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass (10758 ft.) and reaches a maximum elevation of 12183 ft. near Fall River Pass. The road is closed in winter and its seasonal opening and closing depends on the extent of the snowpack. For motorists and motorcyclists, it offers access to the park's heights, tree line and tundra. There are several pullouts on the road to allow visitors to enjoy the mountain vistas (sadly, construction crews closed some of them during our trip). The Alpine Visitor Center marks the junction of the Old Fall River Road (unpaved, one way from east to west) and the Trail Ridge Road making for a nice round trip loop from the eastern edge of the park.

We entered the park at its east entrance which is close to the town of Estes Park after driving through the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway. Originally conceived as a link between Longs Peak and Pikes Peak, this route now skirts between Roosevelt National Forest and Estes Park. The 55-mile route covers the historic gold rush towns of Central City and Black Hawk and the former mining town of Nederland. Anxious to get to the national park, we just drove through these towns without stopping. The only stop we made was at the viewpoint of Longs Peak and Estes Cone (picture above). We also did not try to drive through the Oh My God Road, a narrow byway winding a tortuous course from Idaho Springs to Central City, opting instead to take the more straightforward Hwy 119.

During our visit at the park, we camped at Moraine Park Campground just near the eastern park entrance. The shuttle system helped us to carve out a 10 mile trek through a series of lakes. We drove up the Old Fall River Road one evening and returned in the twilight on the Trail Ridge Road. We eventually crossed to the west side on a rainy morning which eventually cleared by the time we crossed the Continental Divide. Click here for a 3-D view of the higher elevations of the Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Panorama

What the Divide really means to adjacent raindrops...they end up in different oceans

The vistas did not cease when we exited the park at Kawuneechee Visitor Center. The town of Grand Lake is by Colorado's largest natural lake. Next to it are the two man-made lakes, Shadow Mountain and Granby Lakes. Near the small town of Tabernash, we could catch sight of the solitary rock column called Devil's Thumb rising from the crest of the ridgeline that lay in front of us. Any thoughts of us driving up the Mount Evans Scenic Byway (highest road in North America) that afternoon were quickly dismissed on seeing the dark clouds that loomed over the area. We still had one more climb up Berthoud Pass (11307 feet) and crossing over to the eastern side of the Continental Divide before we reached the Interstate.

Click the panel at left for the Rocky Mountain National Park photo album.                  


Having reached the Interstate after crossing the Continental Divide (Milner Pass and Berthoud Pass) twice earlier in the day, we headed west towards Grand Junction and the Colorado National Monument. But there was no respite from the scenery on the freeway. First came yet another crossing of the Continental Divide which was through the 1.7 mile long Eisenhower Tunnel (completed in 1979) which reaches a maximum altitude of 11,158 feet, making it one of the highest in the world. The freeway drops steeply after the tunnel to spectacular scenery and mountain communities. Click here for a 3-D view of the mountain ridge through which the tunnel passes.

After crossing the ski resort town of Vail, the freeway winds its way through the spectacular Glenwood Canyon with the Colorado river alongside. This 15 mile stretch of the freeway is even more recent than the Eisenhower Tunnel and was completed in 1992 and is considered an engineering marvel due to the difficult terrain. The speed limit is reduced to 50 mph due to the sharp corners and narrow spaces.  Apart from the freeway, Glenwood Canyon is also on the path of the California Zephyr passenger train which runs from Chicago to San Francisco. Click here for a 3-D view of the Glenwood Canyon section of the freeway.

Interstate 70 near Glenwood Springs, CO and the Colorado River

What is noticeable even to the layman is that the landscape had changed from the granite look of the Rockies to the reddish sandstone hues of the mesas that are typical of the Colorado Plateau. After crossing the Glenwood Canyon and driving to the Grand Valley with the Colorado River for company, we reached Grand Junction, so named because of the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. Click here for a 3-D view of the junction of the two rivers as the muddy brown Gunnison river meets the blue-green Colorado river. The combined river flows further on as the Colorado river but the Gunnison river makes up for the loss of its name by dominating the color of the outcome. Also seen in the view are the mesas in the background and the "book cliffs".

Click the panel at left for the I-70 photo album                                                             

Colorado National Monument

Forgetting about man made state boundaries, we can consider Colorado National Monument as situated on the Colorado Plateau, which is an area of about 150,000 square miles that straddles the common boundaries of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Apart from the distinctive red rock look that can be seen in places as far away as the Grand Canyon, the terrain is characterized by broad plateaus and deeply dissected canyons. It is also characterized by the greatest concentration of national parks and monuments (returning back to man made institutions). Among the National Parks in the Colorado Plateau are Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and Petrified Forest National Park. Among the National Monuments are Dinosaur National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, Wupatki National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and Colorado National Monument.

Colorado National Monument is one of the national park service's best kept secrets. Just a few miles from Grand Junction, it seems to hide its wonders from the world around it only to reveal itself to those who venture into the 23 mile long Rim Rock Drive. From viewpoints on the drive one can see the deep canyons (Columbus, Red, Ute, Monument and Wedding Canyons) and sandstone spires that stand alone or huddled together in groups amidst the canyons. The escarpment is steep in places with the difference between the canyon floor and the plateau reaching to 2500 feet. The scattered spires and monoliths are in various shapes and stages of development. Some, capped with a layer of resistant rock, stand tall and angular. Unprotected ones are more squat and rounded. Balanced rocks, some as big as locomotives, rest precariously on narrow perches and seem to be ready to topple over at any moment. The fancifully named Wedding Canyon does get used for real weddings with the rock structures, though passionless themselves, seeming to suggest comparisons with real people in similar situations.

Panorama at the Coke Ovens Overlook, Colorado National Monument

We reached the eastern entrance of the park and drove through the 23 miles of the Rim Rock drive in the late afternoon light. We returned to the western entrance and spent an hour near the Monument Canyon enjoying the view in the morning light before moving on in the direction of the Gunnison River. This happily reunited us with the epic US Highway 50 which stretches more than 3000 miles from Sacramento, CA to Ocean City, MD on the east coast. We had spent the previous year's Thanksgiving holiday weekend experiencing the winter solitude of the Nevada section of the highway which is dubbed the Loneliest Road in America. On this occasion the highway would lead us through to Poncha Springs, which marks the northern edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains whose southern section in New Mexico we had encountered during yet another Thanksgiving holiday weekend back in 2005. Enroute to Poncha Springs, we spent the better part of the afternoon in yet another national park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Click the panel at left for the Colorado National Monument photo album                 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Gneiss-Schist. These are the names of the (metamorphic) rocks that give the canyon its distinctive appearance. The finer grain rock called schist results from lower temperatures and less strain compared to rocks that get lowered deeper into the earth which increases the temperature and pressure. This results in coarser grain rock called gneiss (pronounced 'nice') with crystals that tend to be larger. Various rock types lead to a variety of metamorphic stone, and minerals in some of these Black Canyon rocks suggest that they were once sedimentary.  In some locations, it appears that the rock was of igneous origin, a lava flow or a layer of ash. An approximate age for the metamorphic rocks in the Black Canyon is 1.7 billion years.

Later, molten rock combing up from below intruded into the schist and gneiss, sometimes melting the existing rocks and sometimes just yanking the rocks along the side, folding them into the mix. Still later, more magma intruded into all of this rock. The additional ingredient of water in this magma made it a little more fluid. Instead of swallowing everything like the undiluted magma, this diluted magma oozed into the existing schist and gneiss or the mixture of both. Rich in potassium, this magma also cooled slowly and formed pegmatite. All of this happened deep inside the earth's surface. And that is where it metamorphosed due to the intense pressure and temperature to form the rock walls of the Black Canyon.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is steep and deep, with cliff walls that are more than 2700 feet deep in places. At the heart of the canyon lies the Gunnison River. The river sliced through this aged rock, revealing eroded features. Nearly 50 miles of the river are in the national park and the adjacent Curecanti National Recreation Area. The comparisons with the Grand Canyon are inevitable. What is similar is that the South Rim is visited more due to its accessibility and paved road. The North Rim is relatively remote and is only reached by unpaved road. Unlike the Grand Canyon, the rims are much closer making the canyon much narrower, sometimes as close as just a quarter mile across. While the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon drops an average of 7 feet per mile, the Gunnison river averages 43 feet per mile. In fact, in just 48 miles in Black Canyon, the Gunnison river loses more elevation than the 1500 mile Mississippi River does in its entire length from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. This rapid drop results in the steeper erosion profile in the Black Canyon compared to the profile in the Grand Canyon. Click here for a 3-D profile of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Painted Wall View, Black Canyon

The South Rim Drive from the Visitor Center is only 7 miles long to the terminus at High Point and has 12 scenic overlooks. We spent about 2 hours in the park stopping at a few of the overlooks including Tomichi Point, Gunnison Point, Pulpit Rock Overlook, Devil's Lookout, Chasm View, Painted Wall View and Sunset View.

  Click the panel at left for the Black Canyon photo album                                           

Collegiate Peaks

After exiting the Black Canyon National Park and returning to US 50, the highway passes through the scenic Curecanti National Recreation Area. The highway crosses the Blue Mesa Reservoir and then skirts the shore on the other side for quite a distance. Once past the town of Gunnison, it is quite going for a while before we encounter yet another Continental Divide crossing at Monarch Pass at 11312 feet. We are now in the vicinity of several unique geographic features. As if the landscape we left behind was not enough, we now descend towards the towns of Poncha Springs and Salida. The Sangre de Cristo mountain range (sub-range of the Rockies) begins here and extends south as far as New Mexico. This sub-range boasts of 9 peaks over 14000 feet. Next to the Sangre de Cristo range is the vast flat San Luis Valley that has been described as the highest largest mountain desert valley in the continent. To the west of this valley lies the San Juan Range, the largest sub-range of the Rockies. Packed in a corner of the valley at the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range is a landscape that contrasts with everything else we have seen elsewhere in Colorado. These are the Great Sand Dunes. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We will worry about the dunes and San Luis Valley later.

At Poncha Springs, we turned left to Hwy 285 that is part of the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway that stretches 40 miles north towards Granite. To the left of the highway is the highest concentration of 14ers in the country. Part of the Sawatch Range (sub-range of the Rockies), the mountains were named in 1869 for prestigious universities - Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Oxford. Together they form the sturdy backbone of the Continental Divide. To the south of the Collegiate Peaks are two other 14ers, Antero and Shavano.

Unfortunately, it was past 6 pm when we reached here and the sun was directly behind the Collegiate Peaks. We stopped at the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Overlook but had to make do with unfriendly light conditions.

The Collegiate Peaks - Mt. Princeton (14197 ft.) is at center and to the right are Yale (14196 ft.), Columbia (14073 ft.) and Harvard (14420 ft.). To the left of Princeton is Mt. Antero (14269 ft.).

Three days later, I had another opportunity to return to the area in the middle of the day (on my way to the Top of The Rockies Scenic Byway) and had a much better view of the Collegiate Peaks.

Panorama at the junction of Hwy 285 and Hwy 24 just outside the town of Buena Vista

After crossing yet another pass (Trout Creek Pass at a mere 9346 feet, a trifle compared to the Continental Divide crossings we had done so far), we were so captivated by the beauty of the green meadow that lay in front of us (Antero Reservoir) that we forgot to make the right turn to Hwy 24 towards Colorado Springs and instead continued on Hwy 285 north towards Fairplay. We even took the photograph below that shows the path to Hwy 24 without realizing that we should have been on that road.

Junction of Hwy 285/Hwy 24 near Antero Reservoir

US-285 was another blast from the past as we had encountered this highway in another state, New Mexico in 2005. At that time it led us from Carlsbad, NM north to Las Vegas, NM. We also cut across the highway when we proceeded from the Rio Grande Gorge west towards Chama, NM.

Click on the panel at left for the Collegiate Peaks photo album                                   

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

Pikes Peak seen from a Colorado Springs street

Cresting at 14115 ft (4303m),  Pikes Peak was named for Zebulon Pike, who led an expedition sent out in 1806 by President Jefferson to survey the newly acquired lands of the Louisiana Purchase. He glimpsed the peak from a distance but could not scale the mountain and concluded that the summit could never be reached. Despite this prediction, it is perhaps the world's most "climbed" mountain given its proximity to two large cities and the presence of a well paved 19-mile highway (opened in 1916) and a cog railway (opened 1891).

The Pikes Peak Cog Railway offers visitors an easy opportunity to reach a 14er peak without any effort. Just drive to the town of Manitou Springs outside Colorado Springs, park your car outside the railway depot (on busy days they will only let you do this if you have reservations on the next departing train), collect your tickets at the window and board your coach and take your seat. A conductor/guide provides the narrative as the train makes its way from the Manitou Depot (6530 ft.) to Pikes Peak (14115 ft.) in a little over an hour. The journey passes through several life zones and eventually drops you at the top of a very large level peak which has room for a large gift/snack shop, a parking lot for several vehicles and generally room for a big crowd. One should not be fooled by the warm temperatures at the bottom as it is usually cold and extremely windy on top. Altitude sickness will also be a factor for those not acclimatized.

There are stations and a private residence on the way. The initial views of Moraine Lake come up on the left side of the train (reference facing the direction of movement) but as it nears the top, they appear on the other side. Given the relative isolation of Pikes Peak (no other 14er for miles and miles), the view from the top covers a huge swathe of Colorado from this central location. We could see Denver's downtown skyscrapers (60 miles away) but our cameras could not. The proximate streets of Colorado Springs gleamed in the morning sunlight. Katherine Lee Bates wrote the words ("purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain") for "America the Beautiful" after a trip to Pikes Peak summit in 1893.

View looking east from Pikes Peak with the city of Colorado Springs below

Click on the panel at left for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway photo album                      

Colorado Springs

Once a booming mining town, Colorado Springs (alt. 6035 feet, founded 1871).was founded as a model community for "upright" people and counted as its assets its clean, high altitude air and plenty of sunshine days. Within a decade the area was booming with polo and cricket fields(!), palatial hotels and sumptuous homes. Today it is a city of around 300,000 and is one of the top places for technology companies. Nearby Pikes Peak can seen from most of the city. After the Pikes Peak Cog Railway trip in the morning, we spent the afternoon visiting some points of interest in and around the city.

Garden of the Gods

Unlike other urban parks in the USA, the Garden of the Gods was built around existing wonders of nature. It contains red sandstone rock formations that would have probably felt more at home in Utah. On a warm summer day, it was full of young revelers who were crawling all over the place. We spent just a short time there and enjoyed the view of Pikes Peak from the park.

Pikes Peak seen from the Garden of the Gods 

US Olympic Training Center

The US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is one of three such centers dedicated to training US athletes for the Olympic games. The other two are in Lake Placid, NY and Chula Vista, CA.  Some athletes preparing for the games live in one of these campuses for several months to a few years. Others visit periodically for participating in training camps etc. The facilities are mostly meant for US athletes but foreign athletes are occasionally granted access to the facilities.

The Colorado Springs center was the first built and has been the home of the US Olympic Committee since 1978. One of the factors for the location is its high altitude which is thought to improve training effectiveness. Its facilities include an Olympic size swimming pool, a shooting range, a velodrome, two sports centers housing numerous gymnasiums and training rooms.

Our enthusiastic guide favored the casual say-it-like-it-is approach and was frank in his views on the facility. He was simply in awe of the resources (he went on and on about the cafeteria!) as he showed us around the gymnastics room, the wrestling room, the swimming pool and the outdoors.

 One of the displays in the visitor center showed the distribution of US Olympic medalists from the various states. We were impressed by the high concentration of US Olympic gold medalists that are born in the state of California. 94 gold medalists were born in the Golden State. The next highest number is 47 from New York and Texas/Illinois come in third with 22.

At the entrance to the visitor center is a statue of four athletes that is quite remarkable in that the females are airborne.

Statue at the entrance to the US Olympic Training Center

US Air Force Academy

The US Air Force Academy is the youngest of the US Service academies. In 1954, President Eisenhower signed a bill of legislation to establish the USAFA. It operated at Lowry AFB in Denver before moving to its present location in Colorado Springs in 1958. The Academy stretches 18,500 acres along the foot of the Rampart Range of the Colorado Rockies. Approximately 4000 cadets are enrolled in the Academy. Nearly 50% complete majors in science and engineering. Upon graduating they are commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the United States Air Force

Visitors to the academy begin their visit at the Barry Goldwater Visitor Center which features exhibits on the history of the academy and cadet life. The 35,000 square foot building has a theatre, a restaurant and a gift shop featuring a large selection of Air Force and Falcon Athletics apparel and merchandise. From the visitor center, a 1/3 mile paved trail takes the visitor to the impressive Cadet Chapel which has halls for several religious denominations.

Cadet Chapel, USAFA

After viewing the impressive campus and chapel, we had the opportunity to watch a group of cadets being put through the motions by their seniors. They ran uphill and then got on all fours to crawl up the hillside while the seniors kept barking commands and taunts at them.

Click on the panel at left for the Colorado Springs photo album                                  

Highway of Legends

Southern Colorado, already a captivating blend of mountains and valleys, also witnessed the meeting of three separate cultures: Native American, Spanish and pioneer American. Tales of paradise, of hidden gold and of miracles spread like wildfire through the region in days long gone. Today, Hwy 12, dubbed the Highway of Legends, is a feast for the eyes during the late summer season with wildflowers blooming throughout the route.

The profile of the two Spanish Peaks (West 13626 ft. and East 12683 ft.) are visible from as far north as Colorado Springs and stand out due to their relative isolation. Directly west of the freeway are the Wet Mountains (and not the Sangre de Cristo range as I mistakenly thought as I drove past).

Spanish Peaks (left) and Wet Mountains (right)

After stopping briefly at the town of Walsenburg which is the starting point of the Highway of Legends Scenic Byway, I decide to do the route in reverse, starting from Trinidad which is further south. This would put me in a clockwise path around the Spanish peaks and allow me to reach Great Sand Dunes before the park visitor center closes. I stopped briefly at the Ludlow massacre site (to commemorate striking miners families from 1914) enroute to Trinidad. A quick shower led me to drive on through the town of Trinidad before I got onto Hwy 12. Once on the highway, the sky cleared and I found myself totally unprepared for the beautiful landscape ahead. The pretty highway was dotted with wildflowers which forced one to keep stopping frequently. After passing the town of Stonewall and two lakes, the highway climbs up the picturesque Cucharas Pass (9941 ft.). The two Spanish peaks made a dramatic reappearance. On reaching the town of La Veta, I turned left onto US-160 to get to the Great Sands.

East and West Spanish Peaks (seen from US-160)

US-160 is yet another of those blasts from the past that this trip seems to specialize in. It is the very same highway that stretches west past Durango and Cortez and then passes very close to the Four Corners Monument. It cuts through New Mexico for less than a mile (during which a right turn on a small road takes you to the Four Corners monument) before entering Arizona at Teec Nos Pos and then on to Kayenta (near Monument Valley). We had visited the area in 2005 and 2001.

Click on the panel at left for the Highway of Legends photo album                             

Great Sand Dunes National Park

The Great Sand Dunes National Park is the youngest in the National Park system. Fearing that the dunes will be destroyed by tourism and commerce (mining etc.), the area was designated a National Monument in 1932 by President Hoover. It only takes a presidential proclamation to create a National Monument, but an act of congress to designate a National Park. Congress authorized the expansion of the national monument into a  national park in 2000. The designation followed in 2004.

It is a bizarre sight to see a 30 square mile dune field at the foot of the Rocky Mountains (Sangre de Cristo sub-range) with no sight of a sea or a lake. The huge dunes comprise about 11 percent of an enormous sand deposit that covers more than 330 square miles. Eroded from mountains, shattered by freezing and thawing, tumbled and moved by streams and wind, the sand grains cycle through the Great Sand Dunes system as if it were a living thing. Most of the sand deposit outside the dune field is stabilized by plants. Rolling around the edges of the dune field are the creeks - Medano Creek and Sand Creek. They are sources of precious moisture in this desert valley. The creeks are seasonal and springtime play and exploration of the surging waters (where the dunes may actually resemble a beach) are favorite pastimes for the young.

The Great Sand Dunes as seen from the park visitor Center

Where did the sand come from? Most of the sand originated in the San Juan Mountains over 65 miles to the west. The larger, rougher grains and the pebbles originate in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains.

How did it get here? Wind and water are the primary movers of the grains. Streams, creeks, melting snows, and flash floods brought bits of rock out of the mountains to the valley floor. Southwesterly winds then began the slow process of bouncing the grains toward the low curve of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There they piled up at the base of the mountains or dropped into creeks to be washed back out toward the valley floor.

How old are they? Age estimates range from 12000 years to over a million years (That's narrowing it down!)

Why are they so tall (The tallest is Star Dune, 750 feet high)? Huge quantities of sand are carried downstream by Medano Creek, then redeposited by the southwesterly winds on the eastern edge of the dunefield, accounting for the tall dunes. Also, less common but stronger winds blow from the northeast. These northeasterlies blast through the passes and pile the dunes back upon themselves, producing startlingly crisp ridges-and the tallest dunes in North America.

My visit: I spent an hour in the park late in the evening with the twilight darkness further enhanced by approaching storm clouds. From the dunes parking lot, it is a 5 minute walk to the base of the dunes. I was able to climb up to the first crest when the imminent rain shower sent me scurrying back to the parking lot. I drove through the rain out of the park. As soon as the rain stopped, I stopped and looked back to see the sun shining on the dunes.

The Sand Dunes up close

Apart from the dunes, the park's unique location is also something to savor. On the eastern side are the Sangre de Cristo range with nine 14ers in the vicinity. The clutch of four 14ers around Blanca Peak (Little Bear Peak, Ellingwood Point, Mt. Lindsey and Blanca Peak) can be seen on the way to the park from Hwy 160 and Hwy 150. The other five (Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Humboldt Peak, Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak) are directly north of the dunes. On the west side is the massive high desert San Luis Valley that seems to stretch forever. The isolated thunderstorm activity during the late summer season was quite a spectacle to watch from this location.

The wide San Luis Valley with distant rain clouds in the west. The mountains at right are the four La Blanca 14ers.

Click on the panel at left for the Great Sand Dunes photo album                                

Top of the Rockies

The Top of Rockies Scenic Byway is a collection of highways that are mostly above 9000 feet and centered around the historic town of Leadville. The route can begin at Copper Mountain Ski resort (Hwy 91) or Minturn (Hwy 24) going south to Leadville where the two arms meet. Then it stretches further south till the junction of Hwy 82 at Twin Lakes.

A 40-mile extension to the byway was recently approved from Twin Lakes, over Independence Pass on State Highway 82 and into Aspen. Independence Pass starts at 9,200 feet and climbs to 12,095 feet at the summit, which is ringed with peaks of 13,000 feet including Mt. Champion, Geissler Mountain, Twining Peak, Grizzly Peak and Casco Peak.

My visit: It was the 40 mile extension that I explored during my trip since I had heard about the beauty of Independence Pass. I learnt of the scenic byway only when I was on Hwy 82 and saw the Scenic Byway highway signs (Columbine flower). After crossing Independence Pass, I went down the other side to Aspen and then onward to Glenwood Springs. In retrospect, I should have retraced my way back on Hwy 82 and covered the rest of the byway. This would have allowed me to experience Tennessee Pass, the town of Leadville and the vista of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive from an eastern viewpoint. This would also have shortened my journey by at least 50 miles since my destination for the day was Idaho Springs. On the flip side, I got to see the town of Aspen and drive once more through the amazing Glenwood Canyon section of I-70 albeit in the other direction.

In the picture below at Twin Lakes, the mountain massif that is just right of center is Mt. Elbert (14433 ft.), the highest mountain in Colorado. To its right in the distance is Mt. Massive (14421 ft.) which is the second highest. To the left of Mt. Elbert is La Plata Peak (14336 ft.) which is the fourth highest in Colorado.

After driving for a few miles along a lush green meadow (see pic below), the road curved up and rose sharply. In the picture below, Mt. Champion at left and Star Mountain in the distance. Lackawanna Peak (part of the Mt. Elbert massif) is in the middle. None of these are 14ers and so I won't bother you with elevations.

And finally the view from the top of Independence Pass.

Click on the panel at left for the Top of the Rockies photo album                               

Mount Evans

The Mount Evans Scenic Byway begins at the junction of Interstate 70 and State Highway 103 near Idaho Springs, Colorado and continues on State Highway 5 through the Mount Evans Wilderness where it ends near the summit of Mount Evans. The byway is 28 miles long and gains over 7,000 feet of altitude. Achieving a final altitude of 14,130 feet (4,310 m), this is the highest paved road in North America.

Given its closeness to Denver (one can reach the starting point of the byway in an hour drive from there) we had tried to schedule this trip earlier in the week. However considerations of altitude sickness, time of day and weather conditions kept us away. We wanted to do it after acclimatizing ourselves to the altitudes in Rocky Mountain National Park (8000-12000 ft.) so that we can comfortably drive up to the summit of Mt. Evans. We considered it on exiting the park after crossing Milner Pass but it was afternoon by the time we did that and we did not want to risk getting caught in a thunderstorm that seemed to be hovering in the area anyway. A couple of days later, I called the ranger station and they told me that winds were howling at 60 mph at the summit and advised against it. So, it was left to the last day in Colorado to complete this important trip due to its stature.

An early morning start from Idaho Springs helped and it was easy going all the way to the top in clear mild conditions. The Hwy 103 section to Echo Lake was nicely paved and the Hwy 5 section beyond that was in good condition barring some damage near the Summit Lake area. The final switchbacks were quite thrilling and the appearance of mountain goats at the top added to the scenery. As expected, it was cold and windy at the top but not unbearably so. It took about an hour to get to the top from Idaho Springs.

View from the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway enroute to the summit: Echo Lake below is the point where Hwy 5 begins.

At the summit of the Mt. Evans Road, a mountain goat admires the magnificent state of Colorado

Click on the panel at left for the Mount Evans photo album                                        


Denver is the capital of the state of Colorado and also its largest city. It is just east of the Rockies and is just a short (but steep!) drive away from the mountain wonders. The signage on I-70 East as you descend from the west keep warning truckers to stay focused and in gear as they drop rapidly down from the heights ("You are not done yet! Still a few more miles of this steep grade to go!" etc.).

Even those who never visited the city most likely spent a few hours in transit at Denver International Airport which is a United Airlines and Frontier Airlines hub. The airport has a distinctive white tensile fiberglass roof that is designed to mimic the snowcapped Rockies. It is the largest airport in the US in terms of surface area (third largest in the world after King Fahd and Montreal-Mirabel).

16 street Pedestrian Mall, Denver

Denver is popularly known as the Mile-High city due to its elevation of 5280 feet above sea level. One of the steps leading up to the main entrance hall of the Colorado State Capitol building is marked as such.

Click on the panel at left for the Denver photo album                                                  

Videos: The Complete Playlist

Below is the link to the YouTube playlist. These are HD videos and can be viewed at 720p if you have a high speed internet connection. The videos are also embedded in the photo albums above. 

Trip Tracks

Click here for the KML file for the trip. This can be opened in Google Earth.

Alternatively, you can view the waypoints and trip tracks in Google Maps below.

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Photos and Text: R. Venkatesh and Malini Kaushik