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Rocky Mountain High (as in 8,000+ Feet, High)

Jeff and I are in the middle of planning our next few adventures. I say ‘few’ because we have a list. And it keeps growing every time someone shares an adventure with us.

This summer, we had planned to knock Iceland off of that list but, well, COVID. In all honesty, Iceland was never on the list. This spectacular country was a destination that we added on the spur of the moment when WOW Airlines was offering ridiculous fares out of Cleveland. We had no idea what we were in for until we actually began exploring our options.

But once we decided on Iceland? Everyone seemed to be heading there. Who knew? Now, we are pulling out all of the stops to plan an epic trip to the largest geo-thermal field in the world.

Unlike Iceland, Denver was always on the list. I grew up in the Adirondack mountains, and sang into my hairbrush as John Denver crooned about the Rockies. Jeff grew up in New Jersey, and mountains weren’t even on his radar. He was more interested in bears after we were the only people who did not see one on a trip to Yosemite National Park several years ago.

No surprise then, when we began planning the No Regrets List after the worst of my health issues had passed, Denver was way up there (*groan*).

As always, there were dozens of options to consider: Fly or drive? Rent a vehicle or use our own? Hotel, Airbnb, VRBO, cabin, tent? How long? Where to hike? Kayaking? Glaciers? Which parks? The list was endless.

We had time, but not a ton of money to spend. Camping was clearly our best option, but there was no way I was spending 10 days in a tent at 8,000 feet. The result? Five days at the KOA Denver West/Central City ($50 avg/night), and five days at the Embassy Suites Denver Tech Center ($144 avg/night).

It is amazing how much gear you think you need for 5 days of camping in the mountains. Especially when you prefer to ‘glamp’ rather than ‘camp’. Our Honda CR-V was loaded with the usual stuff – a tent, sleeping bags, etc. But I also stuck in my Keurig. No, seriously. I did. If you’ve ever seen me without coffee first thing in the morning, you would not question this decision. Don’t judge me.

We each had our own bed because there is such a thing as too much together time. When we’re up close and personal in a car for 22 hours, the last thing we want to do is snuggle!

We have to give the staff at this KOA a ton of credit for customer service, too. One of the hazards of camping at any altitude is the fact that it rains most afternoons. That didn’t bother us, as it was the perfect time for a nap after the super early mornings.

One afternoon, we made it off the mountain in plenty of time, but raced a storm back to camp. As you can see, this wan’t a gentle shower, but a major thunderstorm. It was fierce, but we figured we would hole up in our cozy tent and wait it out.

We raced from the car, quickly unzipped the tent and…stood stunned as rain poured through the roof of the tent like a rain-forest shower-head. Everything was soaked – and it was still raining.

I immediately ran to grab tarps from the camp store. They didn’t have any. I think I must have looked freaked out, because the staff immediately ran to their homes and brought back several of their own tarps. One young man braved the storm to help us secure the tarps, and helped us drag our sopping wet gear to the laundry room.

Two hours later, the tent was dry and our beds were, too. We ditched that 15-year old tent on our way out, and bought a new one. It was beyond saving.

Breathing is not optional

Our first lesson in hiking Colorado came at the hands of the Broome Hut trail.

To first-timers, the description of this hike seems pretty simple. I mean, it’s only a mile, right? Yeah. About that. It was one mile with an 800 ft. elevation gain. As in, we were pretty much heading straight up. We are solid hikers, but that in no way prepared us for the lack of oxygen at 11,000 ft..

Thankfully, given that we needed to stop every 50 feet to breathe (literally, people), the view was gorgeous.

Once we made it back to the bottom, we headed back to the campsite where we absolutely crashed.

St. Mary’s Glacier

The next morning, we were a little more acclimated and a lot smarter. We chose the hike to St. Mary’s Glacier. Advice, get there early. This is a heavily-trafficked out-and-back trail and parking is at a premium. You’ll see families with small children hiking alongside more adventurous groups packing in their skis in order to glide down the icy slopes of the glacier.

This hike is a bit of a lift, but not crazy. The incline is not drastic, moving steadily upwards. It’s a little rocky, as you can see from the picture below, and you want to bring water to keep yourself hydrated. Dehydration has a significant impact on altitude sickness, so don’t go anywhere without it.

We had crampons – metal plates with spikes attached – to fit to our boots. They added virtually no weight to our day packs, and made it possible to walk out onto the glacier itself.

Wearing shorts in the snow was a whole new experience. The glacier was cold, of course, but we were sweating at the same time. It was weird. And awesome.

Rocky Mountain National Park

By our third day, we had adjusted to the altitude and felt ready to dive deeper into the gorgeous hikes Colorado is famous for. A 90-minute drive found us at the Estes Park entrance around 7:30am. We thought we were early, but there was already a line of cars waiting to pass through the gates. Shuttles run regularly, so you’ll park your car in one of the huge parking lots and hitch a ride to the closest trail head.

We chose the Bear Lake drop-off because of the number of trails in that area. From flat paths suitable for strollers or wheelchairs, to more arduous hikes that make you really glad you brought your hiking poles, you’ll find a hike that suits the needs of your group. Just keep in mind that this trail head is a busy one, so early arrival is a must.

The trails here are just stunning. June is a great time to go, as snow melt and rain create stunning waterfalls and roaring creeks. Nearly every destination involves some type of water!

Whitewater? Yes, Please!

So, you might have noticed that we have a love affair with water. Wherever we go, we need to be on it. In a raft or a kayak or a paddle board – it really doesn’t matter, as long as we are out there.

Denver was no different. Almost as soon as we picked our campground, we began researching outfitters. We found exactly what we were looking for in Downstream Adventures.

Unlike traditional rafting, ‘creeking’ involves a smaller raft with a guide who acts as a rudder, expertly navigating the rapids, rocks, and drops that make up the creek.

Our trip was on Clear Creek, and was pretty close to the craziest trip we’ve ever been on (check out Bus Eater courtesy of Wilderness Tours on the Ottawa River).

Guide Jordan Mikle was one of the best guides we’ve ever had. New to @downstreamadventures, Jordan has years of experience on the water. And it showed in the way he kept us on track. Killer trip, Jordan!

Red Rocks

Our adventure on Clear Creek wrapped up the camping portion of our trip. We packed up and headed toward soft sheets and hot showers.

On our way ‘down’ the mountain, we paused to take in Red Rocks Park. There is no way to convey the beauty of Red Rocks. The amphitheater – which is the only naturally-occurring, acoustically perfect amphitheater in the world – emerges from the massive rock formations that make up the park. It is the site of everything from sunrise yoga to concerts under the stars, and is well worth your time.

Very fit people using the amphitheater as a gym – say what?

We did not have time for a full day at Red Rocks, so we elected to hike a 6-mile loop around the Red Rocks Trail. The hike took a little less than three hours, and we wished we had brought way more water than we carried. We took a beating under the sun. Be warned, there is virtually no shade on this hike.

Garden of the Gods

We continued our exploration of the massive monoliths and rock formations in this region with a stop at Garden of the Gods.

Aptly named, the Garden of the Gods is south of Denver, near Colorado Springs. There are a wide variety of hikes here, too, and outfitters offer rappelling trips for the more courageous. At the time, my response to that was an “I don’t think so!” But now that I’ve rappelled near Moab, Utah, I really regret not taking on that challenge. Jeff does not agree.

There is a flat path that winds through the lower section of the park, perfect for strollers and small children. A casual stroll was just what we needed after the constant physical challenges of the previous few days!

Denver

It is a sign of how amazing this area is that Jeff and I actually stopped at a rental agency in the 15th and Platte neighborhood. The cost of a one-bedroom was more than we wanted to pay, however (*sigh*), so we did not sign a rental agreement. But we really wanted to!

We found 15th and Platte during an all-day bike trip around Denver. After pedaling around Denver’s incredible shopping areas, including LoDo and Writer’s Square, we coasted along the river, finally searching out Little Man Ice Cream.

We met up with a former student of mine – the incomparable Sarah and her husband, Andrew – who graciously took us to RiNo and introduced us to Voodoo donuts on Colefax. As I said in a previous post on Circles on the Square in Medina, Ohio, we are not doughnut people. I could be for Voodoo donuts. Especially at 11 pm. Warm.

There has to be pictures of the Denver portion of the trip that do not involve food, but darned if I can find them! We weren’t planning on starting a blog when we went on this trip. Sorry!

You’ll just have to trust me when I say that Denver has everything you could think of to do, combined with an easy-going attitude and passion for life lived out of doors that is just a breath of fresh air.

(I just had to get that last pun in there!)

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