But the Colorado rocky mountain high
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the skyThe shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye
-Rocky Mountain High, John Denver Rocky mountain high… Colorado.
In May of 1805, American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark encountered the Rocky Mountains for the first time. Despite being home to numerous Native American peoples for thousands of years, the mountain range remained largely unexplored by Europeans and Americans until President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition and directed them to map out the territory newly acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. It took the expedition over three months to cross this uncharted mountain range. Running for more than 3,000 miles, from Canada to New Mexico, the mountains are home to flora and fauna, countless animal species, and precious minerals. Beginning in the 1850s, deposits of gold were found in the foothills of the mountains, driving the establishment of towns such as Denver and Boulder. These settlements which would eventually lead to the founding of the state of Colorado.
My wife and I flew to Denver to attend the wedding of our friends, and no sooner had we departed from the airplane then we were stunned by the gorgeous landscape that appeared before us. We quickly made plans to maximize our three days in Denver by exploring the landscapes of Colorado in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Before I begin the latest travelogue, however, I wanted to take a moment to share a shorter adventure from closer to home:
Breakfast in Asbury.
On a beautiful Saturday in late June, my wife and I recently took an impromptu drive to Asbury Park for breakfast. Who drives an hour for pancakes and eggs? We do!
Our breakfast destination was Toast, one of our new favorite spots in Asbury. My wife ordered an omelette, but I went all-in with the Firebird (gluten free) pancakes. What a great way to start the day!
After breakfast, we took a walk along the boardwalk. One of the coolest things we saw was this art installation in the remains of the Asbury Park casino. Hanging from the ceiling were countless strings in the eight colors of the Pride flag, in honor of Pride month.
“Our true enemy has yet to reveal himself.” Yes, every single time I visit Asbury Park, I make sure to pass by the filming location of a scene from The Sopranos. What can I say? I’m a fan.
Although I have documented Asbury Park’s murals in a previous post, some of the art changes every year. I enjoy seeing which old favorites have changed and which have stayed the same.
As always, the artwork continues to impress me.
Some murals are even hidden! Looking through a hole in a wall, I spotted this mural hiding within the remains of the casino building.
And now, without further adieu… our newest adventure:
Over 1,700 miles from New Jersey, we arrived in Colorado after an early morning flight. It was my first time visiting the Centennial State.
Arriving at Denver International Airport the day after Independence Day, there were literally zero cars left in the National car rental lot except for this Nissan Rogue. Needless to say, we had our choice of vehicle made for us! I’ll offer some thoughts on my experience with the 2019 Rogue a little later in this post.
After waking at 4:00 am to catch our plane, and gobbling down a hurried breakfast at the airport, our first destination upon arriving in Denver was lunch! Snooze A.M., a breakfast and brunch eatery, was strongly recommended by friends, so we set our GPS and headed into Denver for a good meal!
Snooze was founded in Denver in 2006 by two brothers, and emphasizes meals made with local ingredients. My wife enjoyed egg whites and pulled pork with corn tortillas.
I opted for Juan’s Breakfast Tacos – corn tortillas with scrambled eggs, shredded hash browns, green chili hollandaise sauce, and pico de gallo. How good was it? We ate at Snooze twice during our visit.
Friday night, we attended an evening party for guests of the wedding at the Rayback Collective in the city of Boulder. Located on the site of a former plumbing company, Rayback Collective is named after Marion Rayback, a World War II veteran and plumber who was also deeply involved in community service projects around the city. The building, Marion’s former warehouse, now houses a bar and lounge space, while outside is a stage, an event space, and its coolest feature…
…a food truck garden! My wife tried the arepas from the Arepas Joint truck, while I had a pulled pork sandwich from Rollin’ Bones BBQ. This is such a cool venue! If you’re ever in the Boulder area, I’d highly recommend a visit (Rayback Collective even lists the food truck schedule each week on its website so you can plan ahead for deliciousness!). The Little Nissan.
When I was in Minneapolis last year, my wife and I had rented a 2017 Nissan Rogue, and it was a nice vehicle. This 2019 model, however, was one of the most disappointing cars I’ve driven in a while. The small 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, adequate at sea level, is absolutely powerless at Colorado’s higher altitude. It quickly earned a nickname: the Gutless Wonder (GW).
In terms of driving dynamics, the electric power steering didn’t feel particularly connected to the road. The automatic transmission was geared for fuel efficiency instead of performance, and the steering wheel controls were not intuitive. The climate control, at least, was relatively easy to figure out, and visibility was decent.
The biggest aggravation was the overly-intrusive driver aids. If a car is in your blindspot, a light in the rearview mirror flashes and the car beeps (pictured). If there is any object even remotely behind you, the car beeps (despite the object being several car lengths away). If the back door is open, the car beeps. If the trunk is open, the car beeps. If the parking brake is on, the car beeps. I’m all for technology assisting a driver, but how much beeping does one person need?
The car is informing me that the door is open. And it is showing a yellow hazard triangle because the door is open. And it is beeping at me. And still beeping. All for an open door.
On the plus side, there is a fair amount of interior space. For someone who values gas mileage, storage space, and all-wheel drive, I could see the Rogue being a consideration. But given all the trade-offs, I’d be hesitant to spend my own money on this vehicle. Considering how much I enjoyed the 2017 Rogue, I’m hoping that Nissan will address some of these issues in the next version of this car. A scenic drive.
On Saturday morning, with several hours free before the wedding, my wife and I decided to take a drive around Boulder and explore a little bit of our temporary surroundings. We found a suggested scenic route on the Boulder website.
With the mountains of Colorado beckoning, we set off to explore a little of this gorgeous state.
I don’t know about you, but this is a pretty nice view to have while you’re sipping your morning coffee…
A sign along Route 36 directed us to a “scenic view.” We took the exit… and yes, the sign was correct.
Sometimes, however, the best view is right in front of you.
One of the suggested stops was to stop at the Flatirons Vista Trailhead. Although we weren’t prepared for serious hiking, we did venture a bit down the trail and were rewarded with an amazing view of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
Before we had left for our trip, we had identified several options for how to spend our Sunday morning. By the end of our Saturday drive, however, we felt the Rocky Mountains calling. And so, on our drive back to our hotel we made plans to tour Rocky Mountain National Park.
And on a gorgeous Saturday night, we attended a wonderful wedding… at 8,500 feet above sea level! Built on 200 acres, Colorado Mountain Ranch in the town of Gold Hills, was a terrific wedding venue, and its historic lodge, which is over one hundred years old, was a memorable location. Rocky Mountain National Park
Waking up before 5:00 am on Sunday, we quickly got ready and set off for our destination: the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
One of the benefits of waking so early… pulling over to the side of the road to witness an amazing sunrise.
Rocky Mountain State Park is approximately an hour northwest of Boulder. As we got closer, the mountains began to loom in the distance, beckoning us onward.
We got to the park a little after 7:00 am with practically no one else in sight. When we arrived in Denver on Friday, a segment on the evening news had detailed the long lines and crowded conditions in the park. Fortunately, arriving so early in the day, we had the park virtually to ourselves for the first several hours.
Our first stop was Horseshoe Park. This valley was once covered by a 500-foot tall glacier. The lakes in the meadow were formed by enormous chunks of ice that melted away beginning 15,000 years ago.
Trail Ridge Road crosses the park from east to west. It is open seasonally, after all the snow has melted. As we ventured up the road further into the mountains, we were overwhelmed by the number of amazing views before us.
The park is divided into three zones: montane (below 9,000 feet), subalpine (9,000-11,000 feet), and alpine (11,400+ feet above sea level). Your climb to the clouds begins in the montane zone.
Snow fell late this year – over a foot fell in a storm in mid-June! Numerous waterfalls cascaded down the mountainside from melting snow high above.
As you venture up the mountain, you enter the Tundra Protection Zone. This is a zone where winds can gust to over a hundred miles per hour and temperatures stay below freezing for almost half of the year. The delicate grasses and plants that grow here cling to life, and can be easily destroyed by careless visitors. Numerous signs remind guests to stay on the trails.
Here we had our first up-close experience with the native wildlife – the yellow bellied marmot. These little guys make their homes above 6,500 feet, and spend much of their time foraging for food, as their hibernation season lasts for eight months, beginning in September.
After spending several minutes with them, it quickly became obvious that these little guys have personality! My wife captured this great shot.
Our gaze quickly shifted to these elk running down the side of a mountain.
Busy eating, this elk paid us no attention as we ventured near for a photo.
As we navigated the curvy mountain road, we came to a clearing with dozens of elk grazing and resting. While I drove, my wife snapped photo after photo of these stately animals.
Lava Cliffs Overlook, covered in snow, looked like a scene from another planet, something from a science-fiction movie.
A real concern with this much snow on steep mountainsides.
As we ventured further up Trail Ridge Road, we ascended a series of winding roads. No shoulders and no guardrails… Beyond the wooden poles on the left side of the road is nothing but air and the ground far, far below.
Our next stop was at the top of the mountains in the Alpine Visitor Center.
We stopped in the visitor center to do some souvenir shopping. The rear of the visitor center looks out onto Fall River Valley. One of the rangers we spoke with was leaving Rocky Mountain Park the following week to start a position with the US Fish and Wildlife Service… in Cape May, New Jersey! He asked for things to do and places to eat while he lives there, and we were happy to provide him with some ideas!
Across the parking lot from the visitor center is the Alpine Ridge Trail. This short, half-mile hike takes you to the top of the mountain – a 209-foot elevation gain. Given the thin air at this altitude, the trail has earned the nickname “Huffer’s Hill.”
Despite the altitude and harsh conditions, life, such as these wildflowers, finds a way to survive.
Huffing and puffing our way to the top, we made the summit- 12,005 feet above sea level. In comparison, the summit of Mt. Washington, which I visited in September of 2017, is 6,288 feet above sea level.
Needless to say, the view from the top was simply spectacular.
Miss a step, and it’s a long way back down! This shot was taken about halfway down the trail.
As we began our drive back down the mountain, we stopped for some photos at a pullout, one of the stone-walled parking lots on the side of the road. Trail Ridge Road has several of these pullouts which offer scenic views of the surrounding areas. Getting to the park so early in the morning was definitely the right call – by the time we were heading out, the roads and parking lots were filling with visitors.
It’s hard to express in words the sense of awe you feel standing amid the Rocky Mountains. I will let the next few photos speak for themselves.
Despite my harsh criticism earlier, by the end of the trip I had finally started to warm up toward our little Gutless Wonder. Surprisingly, its otherwise forgettable transmission allows for pretty responsive manual shifting, enabling me to use proper engine braking to descend the mountain. Numerous drivers ahead of us rode their brakes for most of the descent, but the Nissan did a nice job safely coasting downhill. No cooked brakes here! Well done, little Rogue.
After leaving the park, we stopped in the nearby town of Estes Park. Founded in 1859 as a ranching town, Estes Park is now a major tourist destination for those heading toward Rocky Mountain State Park.
From the small shops and restaurants to the mountains looming in the background, Estes Park reminded me of Lake Placid. This shop, specializing in lawn art, was rather unique.
“Some places are like people: some shine, and some don’t.” – Dick Hallorann. Our lunch destination was at the Stanley Hotel. Why here? Because after staying at this hotel one night in 1974, horror author Stephen King was inspired to write one of his most famous novels: The Shining.
The hotel was built by Freelan Oscar Stanley in 1909. Freelan created the Stanley Steamer steam-powered cars. He built the 142-room hotel as a resort for the wealthy after moving to Colorado to heal from a tuberculosis infection. An original Stanley Steamer is in the hotel lobby.
“What will you be drinking, sir?” -Lloyd, The Shining. Despite my interest in the hotel arising from a horror novel, we visited for a much happier reason: lunch!! Cascades Restaurant and Lounge at the Stanley Hotel is a restaurant and steakhouse that emphasizes local ingredients and sustainability.
“How’d you like some ice cream, Doc?” -Dick Hallorann, The Shining. Our meal began with an appetizer of chilled peel-and-eat shrimp with a lemon aioli.
My wife ordered the New York Strip Steak…
…while I went with the blackened Colorado trout with sea island red pea succotash, chive buerre blank, and a pea puree. How was the meal? Absolutely delicious!
Perhaps a little less grim than The Shining… another film is connected to the Stanley Hotel – Dumb and Dumber was filmed here! In one scene, Jim Carrey’s character walked past this framed newspaper article and exclaimed “We landed on the moon!” One Last Stop: Pearl Street in Boulder.
On Monday morning, with several hours before our flight back to New Jersey, we stopped by the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado. A pedestrian-only section of the city, the Pearl Street Mall is filled with numerous shops, cafes, restaurants, and coffee houses.
As we walked around, we discovered several murals and statues hidden throughout the four-block mall. This was my favorite.
We stopped at Ozo Coffee Company for a little shot of caffeine before getting back on the road. Ozo uses glyphs (such as the one pictured on the cup) inspired by the Mayan writing system to specifically label each type of coffee’s regional origin, specific country, type of processing, taste, and the elevation where the beans were grown. So cool!
And once again, we had returned home. No more mountains, no more scenic views… but still, it felt good to get back to New Jersey.
On the plane ride back to New Jersey, my wife and I began discussing where Rocky Mountain National Park ranked in the list of road trips we have taken. The answer, unsurprisingly, is right at the top as one of the best. Rocky Mountain National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (weather permitting). Admission is charged either per person (for hikers and cyclists) or per vehicle if you’re taking a car or truck through the park. A one-day vehicle price is $25, a one-day single person pass (hiker or cyclist) is $15, although longer duration passes are available.
At this point of the blog, I would usually say something like, “If you’re in Colorado, make sure you stop by Rocky Mountain National Park.” Except that’s incorrect. If you have not yet been to Rocky Mountain National Park, make plans to visit. Make it the reason to go to Colorado, instead of something to do once you’re already there. This magnificent national treasure should be
the purpose of a trip.
Thank you for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead.
‘Til next time.