Colorado’s alpine air may be thin, but its range of extreme-fun options is substantial. Rough-edged former mining towns have become sleek cycling hubs. The mountains are braided with world-class ski slopes and bubble with natural hot springs. And, given the smorgasbord of excellent food and lodging options, it’s no wonder this high-elevation outdoor playground has in recent years been soaring higher than ever. Now’s the moment to make the climb.
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Traversing Rocky Mountain National Park and strolling through Vail
We need fuel—not merely a quick caffeine fix—for our first full day in Colorado, so this morning starts with peanut butter toast for my wife, Dana, and a hefty egg-and-potato burrito with homemade salsa for me. We’re at Kind Coffee, one of the few places in Estes Park that opens before 7 a.m., amid a crowd that’s a mix of wisecracking old-timers and fit younger types in trail runners.
As much as I enjoy a laid-back kaffeeklatsch, we’ve got a lot more on our plates today. It helps that our bodies are still on East Coast time—“We’ve got a natural two-hour head start!” Dana, a natural early riser, points out—and I’m feeling pleasantly alert as we pull into a trailhead parking lot just outside of town and begin striding up Lumpy Ridge, a stunted appendage of the main range that awaits us within Rocky Mountain National Park.
Rather than beelining it for the higher terrain, we’ve decided to acclimate with a four-mile hike lower down—and at around 8,000 feet, the staircase trail to Gem Lake is still plenty challenging. Rewarding, too: Less than halfway up, we score panoramic views of Estes Park and the red-roofed Stanley, the hotel we stayed in last night. The 112-year-old resort (which inspired Stephen King to write The Shining) dates from an era when doctors prescribed mountain sojourns as a cure-all. Medically naive? Maybe. But with my heart pumping after just 10 minutes, and my lungs starting to feel scraped clean, it’s hard to disagree with their thinking.
The trail takes us past stands of slim aspen, their trembling leaves flashing like rhinestones in the breeze. Granite boulders resemble giant balls of cookie dough, with gnarled junipers squeezing out of the cracks between them. An hour of steady uphill hiking brings us to our destination: tiny, tea-colored Gem Lake. We celebrate our arrival with a round of snack bars.
Next, having secured the required advance reservation from the National Park Service, we’re off to drive the mother of American alpine motorways: Trail Ridge Road. The highest continuously paved through road in the country, it’s also among the most beautiful. Our ears pop as we roll up the silky switchbacks, and we start to feel the tiniest bit light-headed. Some of this, admittedly, is out of sheer wonder at the views. From Many Parks Curve we gawk at 14,259-foot Longs Peak, jutting into the sky like a bucktooth. Far below, creeks unspool like silver yarn through beaver meadows.
We’re still below tree line, the roadside crowded with spruce and fir, when a sign informs us that we’ve reached two miles above sea level. The climate is changing by the minute, and by the time we hop out at Rainbow Curve for another blockbuster view, I’ve had to layer on a winter hat and lightweight down jacket. At our highest stop, the Forest Canyon Overlook, we spot a marmot and a grazing bull elk—and from a distance take in the slow and powerful work of ancient glaciers, those rivers of ice that shaped the present landscape.
Back on lower ground, we arrive at the ranching hub of Granby. Lunch today will be a late one, so we tide ourselves over with a salty-sweet slice of blueberry from Showboat’s Drive By Pie. The owner, sitting at the window, sends us cheerily on our way: “Thanks for coming by my shop!”
The two-lane highway from Granby to Kremmling, one of the state’s 26 officially designated scenic byways, runs parallel to the mighty Colorado River, destined for the Grand Canyon and beyond. There’s a working railroad, too, and two figures on horseback atop a distant mesa complete the Old West tableau. Only the lack of cell service prevents me from completing the mood with an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
An hour later, we’re back in the bustling present, in a crush of traffic on Interstate 70. A fair amount of these drivers are headed for Vail—us included. We’ve barely reached the outskirts of the resort town before bronzed cyclists and joggers are populating the road shoulders. Oh, and would you look at that: a beach volleyball tournament.
It’s finally lunchtime, and at El Segundo we score a table on the terrace overlooking Gore Creek. The restaurant is a newer venture from the owners of Montauk Seafood Grill, a Vail institution, and with dance remixes thumping and a multi-generational family next to us clinking margarita glasses, we feel a bit unequal to the occasion. The plump beef-and-lamb tacos, served with a potent birria consommé, are plenty uplifting.
Afterward, we take a leisurely stroll through Vail Village. The world’s first purpose-built ski resort, Vail famously sprang out of nothing in the 1960s. Modeled after Bavarian mountain hamlets, the town is strung with tidy plazas and window boxes spilling over with pink flowers. We pop into the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame, which is fresh off a $2.5 million renovation and tells the story of Vail’s origins. The U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, America’s first soldiers on skis, trained in Colorado, and following World War II they returned, laying the groundwork for the state’s multibillion-dollar ski industry.
There’s history at our hotel, too: The Sonnenalp, a family-owned mainstay since 1979 that’s kitted out with Teutonic folk decor. We kick back in the outdoor pool, then spend 10 minutes breathing deeply at the oxygen bar. I’ve always been skeptical of this ski-town spa offering, but I figure it’s worth a shot—especially since two more stops await.
Retrieving our car from the valet, we drive 10 minutes west, to the Minturn Saloon, which proves to be the kind of bar I love most: old and roomy, with all kinds of bric-a-brac (vintage ski posters, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood portraits) lining the walls. An acquaintance of mine touted the margaritas but neglected to mention the wings, which are crackling on the outside, tender on the inside, and rendered perfectly spicy-sweet by housemade red-pepper jelly. When the chef breezes past our booth, I ask him to spill the secret of his sauce. He ignores me, then returns moments later, jar in hand. “We sell it at Whole Foods,” he says.
We’re not exactly starving, then, when we arrive at Mountain Standard for dinner. Still, when the ahi crudo (the flavor brightened with ginger and pineapple) comes out, followed by a buttery Colorado striped bass on Southern spoon bread, I clean both plates. We’ve come a long way, literally and figuratively, from the simple trail fuel of this morning.
Hiking with llamas, ziplining through the forest, and soaking in hot springs
Over Bircher muesli and bowl-size Tafelstern mugs of coffee at Swiss Chalet, Dana begs to know the secret I’ve been keeping from her: Who are the surprise guests for today’s hike? Twenty minutes later, she finds out, when we’re introduced to Roberto and Franklin, a pair of llamas provided by Paragon Guides.
We follow the animals and our wiry, amiable guide, Donny Shefchik, south of Vail to what used to be Camp Hale. During World War II, 15,000 members of the 10th Mountain Division were stationed in this temporarily built-up expanse of river valley; now it’s just more natural scenery blending into White River National Forest, which we drive through en route to the trailhead.
Shefchik teaches us the basics of llama-handling—hold the rope lead, no sudden moves, confine your petting to their necks—before leading us up a tiny portion of the 500-mile Colorado Trail. The mountains are carpeted in green, studded with sage and purple flax. The llamas feast on dandelions much of the way, sucking down the stems like strands of spaghetti. They’re delightful hiking companions. “Once they’re trained, they’re really easy to manage with guests,” Shefchik says, “and I like that their padded feet are gentler on the trail than hooves are.” The llamas don’t exactly love us, but they don’t hate us, either; they make us chuckle, and keep the pace unhurried. They also carry the chilled sodas and folding chairs that we never would have bothered to hump ourselves.
We stop in a clearing for a late-morning picnic lunch of crackers, Brie, ciabatta sandwiches, and fresh vegetables. As we eat, Shefchik tells us about Vail’s evolving tourism scene. “In the 40 years I’ve been here, I’d say summer has almost caught up to winter,” he says. “It’s really remarkable.” Fortunately, we’ve chosen one of the less crowded trails outside of town: We encounter only a half-dozen or so other people all morning.
Having said goodbye to our diffident pack animals, we hop in the car and start climbing again, to Leadville, which sits above 10,000 feet. This former mining town of about 3,000 residents has refashioned itself into a center for endurance sports, as the abundance of fit cyclists attests. Leadville even has a homegrown performance-apparel brand, Melanzana, that manufactures locally. Sadly, we only have time to drive by the flagship store and a few other local attractions— including the 142-year-old Tabor Opera House, a shabby-chic relic of the town’s bonanza years that still functions as a performance space—as we’ve got a 2:30 appointment at Top of the Rockies Zip Line.
Belching diesel fumes, a vintage troop-carrier trucks us and 10 other guests up through a 2,500-acre private preserve. The way down is all gravity-powered, though—one reason I enjoy this non-motorized form of travel, with its screeching pulleys and finger-quaking jolts of adrenaline. We shoot over a deep gorge and traverse a shaded creek that we can nearly dip our toes in. A double line allows Dana and me to hold hands—it’s far less cheesy than it sounds—and the guides’ patter of stale jokes and puns keeps everyone relaxed. One of them informs me that as I came down the course’s last segment, which requires an elaborate braking system, I was howling to the hills at around 55 mph.
We’ve worked up an appetite by the time we get to K’s Dairy Delite, in Buena Vista. Open since 1955, it’s got the same mid-century roots as McDonald’s—but with crispier fries, juicier patties, and quicker service than just about any burger chain I’ve been to. It’s the sort of high-calorie meal that tastes far better if you’ve spent the day outdoors, on the move, courting thrills; I can see why all those rafters coming off the nearby Arkansas River must love it.
The sun is sitting low in the sky when we arrive at Mount Princeton Hot Springs. Swimsuits in tow, we bypass the original creekside stone-and-timber bathhouse in favor of the resort’s newer wing, where mineral water tumbles into a trio of Japanese-style outdoor pools (and no kids are allowed). We’ve blown up the balloon of the day with activity and movement, and as we soak we feel the air being let out of it. Sheer bliss.
But our day’s not over yet. There’s still the drive—along a road that was fully paved only a couple of years ago—up and over Cottonwood Pass. I didn’t necessarily plan to arrive at the pass at sunset, but that’s the way it shakes out. It’s our second trip above tree line in two days, and this time a rose and pale yellow band of light colors the far-off peaks, lending them a holy glow. A handful of people, all of them young, are there at the pullout with us, gazing at the painted mountains.
The drive back down is slow and subdued, but enlivened by sightings of moose and coyotes near the Taylor Park Reservoir. The wildlife may be mobilizing, but we’re more than ready to put up our feet and relax in Crested Butte. At about 10 p.m., we pull up to Scarp Ridge Lodge, an old saloon that’s been beautifully renovated to resemble a rich friend’s mountain retreat. The decor has lots of bleached wood and big-game taxidermy, and just the right amount of plaid, but more appealing, for now at least, is our king-size bed, which we happily let ourselves sink into.
Fly-fishing, biking, and drinking sloshies in Crested Butte
Over a breakfast of savory-sweet zucchini waffles, prepared for us by a chef in the residential-style kitchen, Dana and I outline our morning. She’s kicking back, sensibly; I’m going fly-fishing.
The lodge’s parent company, locally based Eleven Experience, has exclusive rights to five miles of Tomichi Creek, which snakes through ranchland about an hour outside of town. It’s wonderfully uncrowded, but it’s also small water, requiring stealthy approaches and precision casting. “Not necessarily the first place I’d take a beginner,” warns my soft-spoken guide, Dylan Rome. Luckily, I fish a lot, and he knows where the trout are, so we net (and release) a half-dozen browns.
Back in Crested Butte, I rejoin Dana for veggie pizza at a local favorite, Secret Stash. With no driving to do today, I treat myself to a gin-and-lemonade “sloshie.” The aftereffects of a great morning of fishing gel with the booze and the pleasures of people-watching on Crested Butte’s main drag. Make that rig-watching: One muddy four-by-four after another rolls by, showcasing all manner of ingenious gear-transport solutions. Admittedly, I find the parade more captivating than Dana does.
This indie-spirited town is the one place on our itinerary that I’ve visited before, seven years ago, and I’ve been looking forward to coming back ever since. Crested Butte does not disappoint. We see a group of toddlers, led by a camp counselor, pedaling figure eights on tiny mountain bikes. At the table next to us, a uniformed patrolman has stopped to chitchat and pet dogs.
The appeal of this offbeat, outdoorsy town—and the reason it’s currently facing a housing shortage—is on full, sun-drenched display. We walk Elk Avenue, whose Victorian buildings are painted and trimmed all the colors of a 120-crayon box, no two of them alike. The closest thing to a big chain store is the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Instead of indulging a sweet tooth, though, we browse the wares at the eucalyptus-scented Rooted Apothecary (infused Colorado honey, jars of loose tea) and sift through the racks at Resilient Threads, a vintage shop with Austin vibes but also ’90s U.S.-made Patagonia fleeces that complement a nice selection of Pendleton plaids and funky rayon prints.
In the late afternoon, back at the hotel, I meet my second Eleven Experience guide of the day, Zach Husted. He has secured a mountain bike and helmet for me, and we ride a couple of miles over paved roads up to the Lupine Trail. Our first off-road uphill segment leaves me gasping for air and regretting that frozen cocktail, but the reward is fields of sunflowers and brushy lupines, as well as miles of rolling, snaking, super-fun single track.
Husted, a former pro rider, is encouraging. “You’re killing it!” he shouts as I lean through a banked turn. I’m feeling energized enough to extend our ride, which takes us through an aspen grove—as enchanting a place as I’ve visited on two wheels. I’m surrounded by dappled sunlight and smooth white trunks, and I can’t help but be amazed that right here above town exists this world-class trail (and not, say, a subdivision).
Ride finished, I shower, change into the nicest shirt I’ve brought, and walk with Dana to an old miner’s shack two blocks away. The current tenant is an intimate little French restaurant, Soupçon, that’s gone even more upscale since COVID-19. The menu is prix fixe only, with a single 7 p.m. seating. The five-course meal proceeds slowly, allowing more than enough time for each dish to fully sink in. The two I’ll remember most are the meaty Prince Edward Island mussels in chive-and-garlic wine sauce, arranged like points in a crown, and the oh-so-tender Colorado filet mignon, fanned out on the plate like the cards of a winning poker hand. Between courses we chat up our punctilious waiter, who just returned to work after a months-long recovery from a skiing injury. “I fell off a cliff,” as he puts it. Not something you’re likely to hear at a New York or Chicago fine-dining establishment.
As dinner winds down, we’re about ready to topple over ourselves. By this point, Dana and I have recounted our separate afternoons in detail. While I was out punishing myself on hills, she was horizontal in our room, getting the best massage of her life. The masseur employed hot stones and CBD balm, but more important, he knew all the right spots and hit them hard, squeezing the tension out of muscles she’d been working during our travels. “Every activity we did, he released,” Dana says with a sigh. Legs and feet were reclaimed from the rigors of the trail, and her death grip on the zip line handles was belatedly liberated.
This trip may have been a short one—three perfect months would have been nice for this setting—but Dana and I still managed to wring a lot out of it. Our memories zig and zag like the jagged peaks of the Rockies, from the hard work of winding roads and dusty trails to the well-earned pampering of hot springs and massage tables. What really stands out, though, is the way the people who have looked out for us over these last few days have appeared to be enjoying themselves almost as much as we were. As we wander back to the hotel, we can’t help but bask in that shared feeling of deep appreciation for this place. Rocky Mountain high, indeed.
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