Colorado: you will be entranced
Our parents lived in Boulder in the 1970’s when they were pre-hippie newlywed naturepeople, spending their weekends tromping through the state’s many mountain ranges with their best friends. As kids we heard a lot about Colorado (and saw numerous slideshows of these weird flannel-clad people who looked vaguely like our parents) but growing up on the Eastern Seaboard my idea of vertical land formations were the dunes in Virginia Beach.
For vacation this summer, I deferred to my older sister’s ideas for a destination and let her take the lead in planning, asking but one small request: to be outside somewhere beautiful. We met in Denver, Alex bringing an atlas with federal campgrounds denoted by cute tent-and-pine-tree icons, and me a three-month-old tent begging to be let out of its bag for the first time. The “most photographed peaks in Colorado” seemed like as good a place as any to begin, so setting out on the road we scanned the map for a home base near Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
Leaving the (very small) outskirts of Glenwood Springs we were greeted with a picture-perfect view of Mt. Sopris in the early afternoon sun. I turned to my sister and queried “Um, does everywhere in Colorado have a requisite awesome snow-capped mountain in the background and signs to ski trails?” Apparently so.
The handy scenic view placard, which appeared to be last updated about when our parents left the state in 1975, set the bar high:
Crystal River Valley
You will be entranced every inch of the 30 mile drive up Highway 133 as it climbs from 6,180 feet here in Carbondale, to 8,755 atop the gorgeous McClure Pass. Though the trip is pure pleasure, at the top, stop and turn around for the icing on the cake. Take a moment to be inspire [sic]. Steep cliffs, narrow canyons, heavy forests and shimmering aspens…What would you like to do? There’s hiking biking, four-wheeling, horseback riding, fishing, camping, backpacking and wild flower [sic] viewing. Get river-bound in kayaks or whitewater rafts. This is what life is all about!
I WILL be entranced?! Damn. [Aside: imagine, if you will, Thea's skeptical face, complete with irreverent laughter at quaint sign filled with typos.]
Oh, the hubris of the jaded East Coaster with rosy memories hiking in the Andes. I’d stood on a mountain pass at 16,000 feet in the desert, quite literally twice as high as this supposedly “gorgeous” McClure thingie; I’d walked up AND down a 9,000 foot peak on my own two feet, with a stop at an ancient city in between. Twice. The cities in Peru didn’t need to brag about mountains, they had volcanoes and mythic ruins. Scoff.
What followed was a mesmerizing hour drive down (or up?) 133 filled with silent staring and the occasional reiteration of “Wow, this really IS beautiful” or “It’s too pretty to stop and camp here…let’s keep going.” We drove the highway twice that afternoon, from Carbondale to McClure and back again to the Redstone Campground (the idyllic Bogan Flats wasn’t yet open for the season). Every picture below was taken from the window of the car–not an exaggeration. You don’t have to even stop the car to be captivated by the scenery, you just have to open your eyes.
The next morning, breakfasting in a tiny aspen grove we felt like fairy princesses sipping warm beverages in the brisk morning air, waiting for the sun to sparkle warmth into our blonde hair and the fluttering new leaves all around us. And while I sadly don’t have the pictures to prove it,* standing at the foot of the Bells at Crater Lake was just as magical.
I can’t decide which exotic animal warnings I love more: the Atacama Desert’s “Zona de Vicuñas” or Maroon Bells’ “Marmot Xing.” Squelching through 18 inches of snow in 90 degree weather was almost as otherworldly as zigzagging across jungle mountain faces in the early morning, and our Colorado hike didn’t knock the wind out of me like Choquequirao did; there was time on the trail to talk, and also to be silent, taking in the rusty peaks, birds and snowmelt streams. There were no castles waiting to be discovered in the Rockies, but there were remnants of indigenous peoples nearly extinguished by European settlers, and a great deal to learn about the history of the place and its wilder past.
Colorado, consider me entranced. And while you’re at it, forgive me for doubting that you too hold the magic of the Americas.
*My everyday lens busted an hour into the hike, and we all mourned. Don’t worry, I got over it.