Journey through West Colorado

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We summited the mountains,
We saw through deep lakes,

We basked in the sunlight,
And stars did we gaze,

We rode on the Cog Rail,
We drove through the states,

We awed at the river,
And desert did we embrace,

We hiked amidst canyons,
We probed into caves,

We blossomed our friendship,
And fears did we face,

We wish we could stay longer,
Colorado, you never cease to amaze!

Two of my friends wrote this poem at the end of the trip. I was amazed not at the poem itself but at the trip which inspired them to come up with this. We drove in a mini-bus, rode the Gondola, hiked to a beautiful lake, climbed on cliffs, rolled down on sand dunes, chugged to 14k summit in a train, cycled down the same, dived at 3Gs into the canyon, ducked into the caves all in 4 days at Colorado. This was a fantastic trip where we experienced many things, where each one of us became a child again, had so much fun and got closer to each other.

We were planning to visit Florida but somehow I wasn’t feeling that plan wouldn’t work out especially since the visit included many theme parks during holidays. It was a good decision to pass Florida as later we learned about Zika breakout and inclement weather. We decided Colorado and I charted out a plan covering most of the west Colorado. We did the bookings not too early and excited for the trip, we waited for Labor day weekend. We were 9 of us including my team-mate and a friend’s mother, so we booked a 15 seater van.

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Day 0:

We all flew to Denver on Friday night and at first I was quite intimidated at the size of the van or as others called super shuttle/mini bus. I was like, it would be great if we pulled off the trip without any issues while driving. Owing to the empty roads in the night, it didn’t take much time to get used to it. We drove to Estes park near Rocky Mountain National Park(RMNP) late in the night and stayed at a hotel to get few hours of sleep.

Day 1 – Rocky Mountain National Park :

We were pretty much roaming the RMNP till late afternoon. After parking the van at a RV/bus designated spot, we took the shuttle to Bear Lake Trailhead. There was a group of kids in the shuttle and they were having a gala time singing loudly. Along the way we saw beautiful high mountains all around. The trail around the Bear lake was very easy but the lake was very clear and the surroundings looked stunning. Especially the green patches and the majestic mountains made the lake all the more picturesque. I was surprised at how detailed the trail was mentioned with details like %age grade, etc. We then picked our van and started driving on the trail ridge stopping at various view points.

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The high mountains and the valleys reminded me of my visit to Himachal Pradesh in India. I hadn’t seen many 8k feet+ tall mountains in large number in US before and I think barring Alaska, Colorado is unique in this aspect which has number of 14ers. One of them, Long Peak was in sight for most of the morning. We didn’t do any other hikes for the day and drove to Glenwood springs in the evening. The last 20 miles of the drive was through Glenwood canyon and it was one of the best scenic drives I have had. Colorado river cut through the canyon along with an interstate and railway track beside it. The red canyons in the evening time looked amazing and gave a feel of Zion National park. On reaching Glenwood springs, we noticed a Gondola and took a ride to Glenwood Caverns adventure park. Since it was late in the evening most of it was closed. I wanted to try at-least the alpine coaster. I didn’t know about this park while planning and it was quite a miss. We went to sleep early since we had to leave very early next morning to find a parking spot at the Hanging lake trailhead which was 20 miles away.

Day 2 – Hanging Lake:

Even though we left at around 7:30 AM after the breakfast, we saw the sign on the interstate that the parking was full at the trailhead. Given that it was Sunday and a long weekend this wasn’t surprising. Nonetheless, we drove to the parking lot and the rangers accommodated some 15 cars to be in the waiting line and fortunately we were one among them. We had just made in time. We waited for 1.5 hours before we got a spot and started our hike to Hanging lake. The trail ascends 1000 ft in 1.2 miles. It wasn’t terribly steep but still a moderate hike for a beginner. Most of my friends except one found it quite comfortable and went ahead maintaining decent pace. I stayed back with the last person and kept motivating her for almost the entire hike. The trail crossed a creek multiple times and ascended to hanging lake surrounded by some nice views. The lake itself is not so big and kind of cute. We could see fishes in the clear water with greenish hue. Water dripped into the lake via multiple small falls and these drops looked like jewels in the bright Sun. Though, it was quite crowded, the place radiated peace and it was one of a kind.

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We hiked up to see a slightly bigger water falls which came out of the mountain. We could go behind the waterfalls and it was a nice experience as well. We hiked back after some time and had lunch at an Indian restaurant at Glenwood springs. The next stop was at Mesa Verde National Park and it was a long ride in the evening. As we got closer to Utah border, the terrain changed into that of desert and we could see barren mountain-canyons. The van had 5 rows of seats including the driver’s. We had put our luggage on the last one and food on part of the 4th row. So whoever sat in 4th row was called as food manager and that person was responsible for distributing the food to all. Sai, usually being the ultimate food lover, was called Bhattre and Smitha was called Su-Bhattre. Since Aiswarya had a spotify account, was the DJ for the trip. She would take requests from others and play the songs. Akhil, Lisha and I managed the driving part. Almost everyone had a role to play and it’s always fun to travel with this group which is why we have been going out almost every long weekend. Since it was Ganesh Chaturthi, even after being careful about not seeing the moon, some of us saw it including me. We had dinner at an amazing Mexican restaurant which had good food and people. We reached Cortez quite late in the night so couldn’t go to the visitor center to get the tickets for the tour.

Day 3 – Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes National Park :

I got ready early and went to visitor to get the tickets for the ranger tour. The amount of positive energy these rangers radiate is impressive. I was few minutes early before the doors opened, but still there was a ranger outside the door handing out some booklets and answering our questions. We got the tickets for 1 PM tour. Mesa Verde National park consists the sites of numerous cliff dwellings of ancestral Pueblo people who stayed there from 6th to 12th century AD.  The dwellings were high in the mountain so we drove gaining good amount of elevation. We roamed around visiting museums and viewpoints till afternoon. It was interesting to see that the average age of people visiting was over 40. One of our friends had misplaced the phone in a washroom and we got it back from the museum reception. Even though it was an iPhone, someone was nice hand it to lost and found. At the gift store, I bought a new cap which said “National Park Service” celebrating its centennial year.

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We had FryBread at a stall which was named “Indian food” and co-incidentally it was like Batura from the “Real India”. It was time for the tour and went near a cliff dwelling called Balcony house. Here there was a trash bin which needed some maintenance and wearing the NPS cap, Lohith and I fixed it. We met the ranger soon with other 40+ people who were all ready for the next adventure. The ranger named Jackey was funny and gave us some information about the place. We walked beside the cliff and reached a place where we had to climb a tall ladder to get into Balcony house. The house was made of bricks and contained multiple rooms, balcony overlooking he valley and a well like structure called Kiva. It was interesting to see the blackened ceiling which was caused due to the fires used for cooking/household. To get from one house to another, we had to go through small tunnels and we had to crawl through the final tunnel to get out of the houses. Once outside we had to climb the not so vertical cliff face using the railings. It was a fun experience knowing the place and moving around like Pueblos. I was glad to see everyone being a sport and actively participating in the tour. We were behind the schedule and I was doubtful if we could make to next place for the day, which was Great Sand Dunes national park. Some of us really wanted to visit that so without much delay we left for the park. It was a long drive again and we played questionnaire about interests/hobbies and listened some interesting answers. Just when the trip was turning into just another one, the next 1.5 days changed the course and face of the trip.

We reached the Great San Dunes National Park by late evening and the Sun just set behind the sand dunes before even we parked the van but still there was plenty of daylight. We parked the van and kind of dashed to the dunes. There was a flat open space between the dunes and the lot and the dunes rose as high as 750 feet across a mile. It was stunning to see those dunes beside the tall green mountains. The fun had just begun, everyone started climbing a small dune and went back to childhood. They were getting crazy and explored the place like a kid. I rolled down the dune, did a somersault, someone crawled up, gave poses, it was nice to see everyone enjoying the beautiful evening. We could see people climbing all the way till the top. The sky turned into orange, then dark and stars slowly started appearing. We were sort of lit by the Crescent moon.

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We realized we could star gaze and waited for more stars to appear. In no time, we could see Milky way and everyone was mesmerized by the shining stars above us. It started getting cold and we decided to head back. While walking back amidst the surreal sand dunes lit by the crescent moon, I felt like I was exploring some planet in the universe. We dusted the sand from our clothes but kept the cherish-able memories and drove to Manitou Springs for the night.

Day 4 – Pike’s Peak and Cave of the Winds:

More elevation and adventures were lined up for the last day. We took the Pike’s Peak Cog railway – the highest train in the US – to reach the summit of at 14,110 feet. The rail consisted of red bogies high windows on either side. TC was on the mike giving information about the flora and fauna. The most impressive part for me was the way the rail handled the incline. The bogies were slant and did an incredible job in chugging taking the passengers up. The higher we went, we were treated with panoramic views. The wind started blowing heavily from 12000 feet and we had to close the windows. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride to the summit but it was only half the journey. There was snow at the summit and we spent some time looking at the surroundings.

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My cap flew off to an edge and just for the sake of thrill, I risked my safety to get it. A person was cheering for me all the time while I got the cap safely. Lohith and I had decided to cycle down the peak while others chose to go down the same way. Our rental cycles and guides were waiting for us with mountain bikes. I wore double gloves, layered up myself and was all excited to cycle. We started down the winding roads amidst the breathtaking scenery. The wind was so strong that it was literally pushing the cycle during the hair-pin curves. It was a fantastic sight to see the fellow cyclists making the curves on the smooth highway which gave a feel of Tour De France to me.

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I was enjoying every moment of the ride and by the time we reached lower elevation roads got less windier and we picked up super fast speeds topping at 45 mph. Some of us were vocal and were making weird sounds which kept the atmosphere lively. We took around 1.5 hours covering 20 miles and lost 6700 feet in elevation. This was one of the best adventures I have done yet. I would like to recall some of the scenes during the ride: sight of a cyclist on the high mountain road in the middle of panoramic view, sight of cyclists making the hair pin curves on the dark tar road with brown terrain on the side, sight of cyclists with the tall peaks and forest in the background – simply spectacular. I forgot the same cap at the cycle rental shuttle which I had dared to get from the edge on the summit .

Our next set of attraction was at the Cave of the winds. First, Lohith and I went for adventure ride called Terror Dactly. This ride is perched 200 feet above Williams Canyon, and the riders would be launched off of the cliff’s edge, at almost 100 miles an hour like a pendulum. I had seen the videos and expressions of the people looked horrifying. I was scared but excited to try it. During the preparation for the launch, I double checked my safety belt, and got ready for the adrenaline looking at the depth below me. As soon as we were launched, the rush was unbelievable and I started screaming involuntarily. The first 2-3 seconds was somewhat like in a free fall accelerating with 3Gs. We swung to the other end and we were between the valley. As the description on the website says, “Prepare to scream, laugh and love every second of this adventure!” I did exactly the same – the scream turned into laughter and I loved it. The camera attached to the ride had captured all our expressions and I couldn’t wait to see them.

Our friends had joined by then and since there was no line, the ride master asked us if we wanted to try the ride again so that our friends could see. We happily agreed and faced the terror again. Soon 4 of my other friends tried too and all waited for the videos. The video guy finished editing everyone’s video and called us for the screening. We were ROFLing looking at each other’s expressions.

We then headed for lantern tour in the caves. In this tour each one of us carried a lantern while we made our way through dark narrow pathways in the caves located in the hills. A guide was touring us with a ghost story as backdrop. He would make sudden loud voices and tried to scare people with some tricks. The cave was so low sometimes that we had to duck and go for some distance. The floor was damp and we could see stalagmites at some places. It was quite an experience. We finished the tour and then drove to the last place of the tour – Garden of the Gods. It was a nice park with unusual red rock structures protruding from Earth. We spent some time there and left for the Denver airport.

Colorado being a beautiful state, hosted us with tons of opportunities for adventures, sight seeing and other experiences. Yet another fantastic tour came to an end but we amassed crazy memories. As always, looking forward for the next long weekend trip.

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Nikhil Navali

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