Rocky Mountains High


We ticked two long held dreams off our list in one weekend in the second week in August. For a long time we have wanted to go to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, I guess all of those John Denver songs from years back had melded into our DNA, and we wanted to see Billy Joel in concert while we were in the US. The stars aligned.

A few months ago, we were looking for Billy Joel tickets and discovered he was playing Corrs Stadium in Denver. Bingo! Two ticks. We booked tickets in about March (I think) and made some tentative plans for visiting the Rockies in the days following. Wow!

We flew into Denver on Wednesday evening and caught an uber into town. We were surprised by the flatness of Denver. Colorado and Utah sit on the Colorado Plateau; a massive area at the foot of the Rockies. Denver is called the mile-high city because it has an altitude of 5280ft (1600m). This plateau gets a lot of sunshine and not much snow but quickly rises up to the huge mountain range with many mountains over 14,000ft (called the 14ers). The Uber driver told us that Denver has more days of sunshine than just about anywhere else in the US. 300 days of sunshine in fact. However, the truth seems to be that the 300 days is actually a myth. Denver gets 300 days where, at some point, the sun shines. Anyway, that being said it was mostly sunny when we were there.

Once settled into our downtown hotel we went for a walk to find some food. Denver downtown has a terrific mall that stretches from Union Station to the Capitol Building. As the weather is so nice, there are lots of cool alfresco eating places and good bars. A free bus/tram system runs up and down the length. It was super pretty. The flower boxes were abundant and overflowing everywhere, the streets were clean and people rode bikes or walked much more than we see in Houston (which isn’t difficult).

We found a late-night bar and sat watching the sidewalk. Nearby there were tables on the median strip area with chess boards. It’s true most seats were occupied by drunks and homeless people sleeping haphazardly across the tables, but some were being used for chess. (Later that weekend, I did see people sitting playing chess in the afternoon sun.) Colorado has legalized cannabis and like Nimbin (where I don’t think it is yet legal) they advertise hippy trips to cannabis dealers etc. Now, I’m not saying it necessarily has a direct correlation, but, compared to Houston, there did seem to be quite a lot of homeless people who were either having intense conversations with themselves or screaming abuse at passers-by in that “I’m really disturbed and paranoid” kind of way. I think that was the only downside of a wonderful stay.

Denver on the first night

The next morning, we got up early and headed to the capitol building for our free city walking tour. We arrived quite early and viewed the impressive statue of a civil war soldier. The morning was beautiful and the flowers in the gardens were lovely. The group swelled to nearly 40 by the time the guide started. Our guide Janice was a little dynamo. Full of energy and enthusiasm. She explained that the Capitol building was constructed in the late 1800s out of Colorado granite and that the dome on top is really gold (leaf). This is because Denver, Colorado was really (European) settled by gold miners in the 1850s. This followed a period of Spanish then French ownership and Colorado was sold in the Louisiana deal to the USA by the French in 1803. The borders of Colorado were finally decided in the mid-1800s and it became the 38th state in 1876. Denver became the capitol and flourished as a silver and university town until gold was found again in the 1890’s. Another fun fact about Denver and gold: Denver has white fire engines and the story is that they ordered fire engines in the late 1800’s and decided that they wanted gold fittings on the outside as befitted their gold city status but when they had done that they found that there was no money left for red paint so the engines stayed white.

As I said, the capitol building has a dome covered in gold, really. Originally it was Colorado gold then Italian and now again its Colorado gold. As it is gold leaf it has to be replaced every 20 years or so. Impressive.

the gold dome on the capitol building

We headed down into the flower filled parks and streets. Denver has quite a lot of street art and we found a giant chair outside the library with a horse on it. Apparently, the chair was originally commissioned for a school but when the artist decided to add the horse, the school didn’t want it anymore, so it ended up in Denver outside the library. The Convention Center has a huge blue bear looking into it. It’s very cool. It was a lovely morning walk. We really recommend the free walking tour in Denver; we try to do these types of get to know the place tours when we can. We probably would have just walked by most of the buildings without understanding the significance and the history. The walk finished at the Union Station which has been beautifully restored. Railway stations were so important to settling the west, but Colorado was not on the main line. It was a spur built from Wyoming, no doubt to help with getting all of those rich minerals and mine owners safely back to the east.

art in the parks

One of the main reasons to go to Denver was to go to the Billy Joel concert on Thursday night at Corrs stadium a huge baseball stadium for the Denver Rockies baseball team. It was a magic night and when 50,000 fans sang Piano Man it was spine tingling. We (naively) thought we would just pick up food somewhere on the way to the stadium but as we walked towards it we realized that 50,000 other people were thinking the same thing and there was just nowhere to fit. That is until, of course, we got to the stadium which easily catered for that number. Our seats were actually on the field just in front about 14 rows back, it was awesome.

Next day we picked up a car and headed into the mountains. We took a scenic byway (Highway 9) through to Frisco via Fairplay, Alma and Brekenridge. Fairplay has a street called South Park City where the shopfronts like a wild west movie. We ended up in a shop that seemed to sell everything, chatting to an old couple about the animals that visited their home just out of town. Bears, moose, elk were apparently regular visitors. They also described some Aussie tourists they had rescued after they were stuck in the snow, completely unprepared for the weather. Not surprising really when they also said that they usually got 10ft of snow each winter. The backdrop is straight out of an old western movie. Alma is the highest town in the USA at 10578ft. The scenery soon became amazing. Huge mountains and deep valleys forged by glaciers and rivers. It was (naturally) rocky and steep but there were wildflowers growing everywhere and towering pine trees. We passed through a few towns that had been or still were involved in mining at some stage.

They call this the top of the Rockies because there are so many 14ers; (these are mountains over 14,000ft). So, we started the day at around 5300ft in Denver and went across the continental divide and Hoosier pass, which is 11,500ft. We got out at Hoosier pass as we had decided to do a short 3mile walk to the top of a lookout are which took us to 12200ft. While we were aware that we needed to drink lots of water to help stave off the altitude headaches we were completely unprepared for the tiredness of walking at that altitude. Seriously, (I’m pretty fit I jog regularly in Houston and usually work out more than 3 times a week) we really struggled to walk up to the lookout even at a slow pace. It was a good lesson in the effect of altitude. My brain was just taking all the oxygen for itself and vital organs so the little mitochondria in my muscle cells were starving. My heart was racing, and I was breathless. Not nearly enough ATP being produced on that day to go for a walk. Lucky, I didn’t choose the 6mile up to 14000ft hike I was thinking of doing. The guidebooks do warn you that everything will take longer at altitude but of course I didn’t believe them. We were much better after a couple of days up in the clouds.

The treeline ends at about 12000ft so looking across at the mountains all around you can take a guess at the altitude. There was evidence of avalanche damage in some valleys along the road; the trees are just missing or pushed over in the downward direction and then up a little bit on the other side of the valley too. We were glad we were driving in summer. Another great thing about this area was the number of cycle paths. There seemed to be paths all along the roadside and we saw quite a few intrepid cyclist peddling up these enormous mountains.

Towering mountains with snow and flat grassy plains in front.

Brekenridge was a busy place. It was full of summer holidaying families and flowers. The shops wer generally upmarket and beautiful. We went into a shop selling huge crystals: they were thousands of dollars but staggeringly beautiful. You would need an enormous atrium to display one. Brekenridge has a series of chairlifts and Gondolas that will take you up to 14000ft but we arrived too late in the afternoon to do it that day. Instead we sat in a lovely outdoor pub and ate pizza and drank wine. 😊

We were staying just a few miles out of Brekenridge at a cute little town called Frisco. Its main street had some older buildings and lots of places to eat. The whole area was having an art festival that weekend so there were lots of stalls and fetes going on all over.

Next morning, we headed out on a mini road trip to Aspen and back. We took a byway on the way there which took us through some impressive mountains and the ski resort of Vail. Vail was busy having a kids festival. Lots of tiny kids racing through a series of challenges including tubing down the river, mountain biking and running. It was packed. We didn’t stay very long, but it was beautiful and very European looking. The road continued to wind up through fabulous mountains and wide glacial valleys. Again, the wildflowers were everywhere.

Towering mountains with snow and flat grassy plains in front. We stopped at the lookout near Camp Hanes. This place was where the US trained their snow soldiers during the second world war and for a while after. There was nothing left of the camp that we could see but it was certainly steep and remote. As we walked to the lookout Rob struck up a conversation with an old gentleman who was walking very slowly. It turned out he was from Houston! During the walk, which was about 150yrds and back he told us a story about his father who served in PNG during WW11 and how he thought that Aussies were the toughest breed on the planet. We heard that story at least twice on our slow walk.

We finally arrived in Aspen. It was much bigger than Vail or Brekenridge but the ski area did not seem as large. Again, it was busy having end of summer festivals and there were lots of people around. We wandered through a lovely tranquil park dedicated to the memory of John Denver, an Aspen local and had a drink outside a pub where we met a guy who had been riding his dirt bike through the mountains for a few days. He was living in the UK but was another Houston local. Small world.

The drive back was via a different route on a major highway. We were very surprised to see that the cycle path continued for nearly the whole 200 odd miles of the trip. Because the road and bike path followed the river it was also mostly flat. Well done Colorado.

On our final day we went back to Brekenridge to ride the Gondola and hike down. Unfortunately, it was raining this day and we were not able to go right up to the top of the mountain. We did walk down through one of the ski routes called the 4o’clock trail. It was a wide path. We saw a sign indicating moose crossing but sadly didn’t see any moose. Back in Denver, it was sunny again and warm. (Back in Houston it was HOT. The next day the thermometer hit 104F with a “feels like” 108F.)

Colorado was flowery and fabulous, and the Rockies were magnificent. We sang a lot of Rocky Mountain High and of course Billy Joel. We ticked off a couple of bucket list points and had a lovely time being tourists. This is a quick turnaround because as I write this, we are sitting in a plane bound for Vancouver and a cruise to Alaska. Stay tuned for the next blog post.

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