Last summer, our family decided to take a weekend glamping trip up in the mountains of Vail Colorado, in the spirit of trying something different. Glamping is the combination of two words, glamorous and camping. When you glamp, you stay in tents with soft beds that have high thread count linens, wood floors, heaters for the cold nights, and electricity to charge your cell phone.
Glamping is camping for those who prefer the finer things of life but also enjoy getting close to nature. I’ve always felt like camping, whether in a tent, an RV or pop-up camper is great as it places you right smack in the middle of nature where you can just wake up and you’re already there. For those who enjoy the great outdoors, nothing beats waking up and stepping outside to an alpine vista, the smell of the salty ocean air, or the sounds of a rushing river. Glamping can give you those experiences, without having to own a camper or loads of gear. For some, the thought of sleeping on the ground isn’t appealing and others don’t want to invest in a camper/RV or all of the gear needed to have a proper camping trip. When you go glamping, everything you need is already there and all you have to do is show up and camp.
Just like normal tent camping, where you camp (or glamp) does matter. For our trip, even though we were in the Rocky Mountains near Vail Colorado, we were on a treeless plateau where there really wasn’t anything to do. If we wanted to go out for the day to go to town or do any sightseeing, we had to hike down (and eventually back up) a steep and long hill that switchbacked all the way down it was so steep. You aren’t allowed to drive your car to the top so the only option was to walk or wait for an ATV to pick us up to finally make it to a parking lot where our car was. For this particular experience, we were hoping to be able to stay at the camp without feeling like we needed to leave for anything. but being on a treeless plateau, with the sun beating down relentlessly on the camp with temperatures in the 90’s didn’t give us the feeling of it being ‘luxurious’ camping. It was nice at night as the temperatures dropped and the tents lit up and we all sat in our Adirondack chairs looking up at the clear night sky.
In doing the research for this glamping site, the pictures gave the appearance of being shady and more private than it was. It also didn’t mention the long trek to and from your car to get up to the top of the plateau. So choose wisely when selecting a glamping trip and make sure that the location and activities fit your lifestyle. Ask specific questions regarding amenities and what is or isn’t provided.
This particular glampground (sorry, I couldn’t resist) was tailored more towards a western theme with horseback riding, ranch style buildings, and cowboy meals. We are more of the outdoor adventure types who like to bike, hike, and kayak and I’m sure there is a glamping experience more catered to what we like to do.
My wife and I are split about doing this again or not. She would like to try it again but I can only say that I’d be willing to. To be honest, I’d rather either camp in our own camper or stay in a nice hotel.
Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is the closest national park to my home in Colorado and I consider it my base park. It takes me about an hour to get there and I’ve been there enough to know how different the seasons are in both RMNP as well as in its gateway city, Estes Park. The seasons here are wildly different – from the extreme temperature swings to the number of visitors. Here is my take on what each of the four seasons is like:
Estes Park – In the summer, Estes Park is completely overrun with tourists. Despite this, it shouldn’t stop you from visiting. The weather is nearly perfect and is typically at least a few degrees cooler than the cities below on the plains, like Denver or Boulder. If you’re really looking for a cool down, you can cool off even more if you head high up into Rocky Mountian National Park. The town itself is a typical tourist town but with a mountain/western twist. There are the obligatory t-shirt, salt water taffy, chocolate, and ice cream shops that you would see in almost any national park gateway town. What makes Estes unique is the surrounding scenery, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Swiss Alps, with its huge snow-capped mountains and valleys. What is lacking though, in a good way, are flashy resorts as in other Colorado mountain towns like Vail or Aspen. Here, there are mostly small motels and cabins along with the place that Stephen King made famous, the Stanley Hotel.
RMNP – The throngs of tourists are here too, unfortunately. However, all you need to do is to start a hike on almost any trail and you can lose 90% of them after only a mile or so from the trailhead. Hiking in summertime at these elevations means being prepared by starting early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. If you don’t consider yourself a hiker, consider a drive up Trail Ridge Road, a journey which can yield a somewhat unique activity, a summertime snowball fight or building a snowman. The highest point in the pass is 12,183 feet (over two miles high) and that leaves enough snow year round for winter games, even in mid summer. The wildlife also move up to higher elevations in summertime, seeking greener pastures. Up at these higher altitudes, you might see large herds of elk and bighorn sheep in the alpine tundra, way above the height where trees grow.
Estes Park – Surprisingly, Estes park can still be quite busy during the fall. Some might think it has to do with fall colors but the area around Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park really doesn’t have an abundance of aspen trees. For most people, the primary reason they come up here in the fall is to hear and see elk during the ‘rut’ which is the mating season. And why would you want to hear bugling elk during the mating season? The reason is that their mating calls sound like a sort of ancient call that can be heard from far off. It is a difficult sound to explain and do it justice, but is a truly a breathtaking and mesmerizing experience to see and hear, and something that simply must be heard in person. This is the main reason people flock to Estes Park in the fall, the elk literally bugle as they’re walking on the golf course, through parking lots right in town, as well as on the grounds of the Stanley Hotel.
RMNP – As with in Estes Park, the reason to head into the national park at this time of year is to see and hear the elk. Although being bumper to bumper with like minded people might not seem like something you want to do, you can still go into the park and hike into the woods where you might find yourself all alone on the trail in the middle of a large herd of bugling Rocky Mountain Elk. Last October, my wife and I went on a hike, away from the main areas of the park, and started to hear bugling in the distance and were soon surrounded by around 100 elk on both sides of the trail without another human anywhere near us. The park brochure cautions you against approaching wildlife, so by all means keep your distance. But if you happen upon a large herd while hiking the trails, excercise extreme caution and keep a safe distance. I usually like to have a big tree nearby just in case. The bulls are extremely aggressive during this time of year and they are big, averaging around 700 lbs, and strong enough to inflict great bodily harm if they decide you’re too close.
Estes Park – If you’re looking to experience a tourist town without the tourists, this is the time of year to come to Estes Park! You will not have to fight for a table at your favorite restaurant, there will be no bumper to bumper traffic, there’s plenty of parking, and you can have the place virtually all to yourself. Unlike other Colorado mountain towns that usually see a massive influx of people in the winter, Estes doesn’t have a ski resort (although it once did) to anchor its winter economy. Because of this, Estes sees a very dramatic drop in visitation in the winter. As an added bonus, a stay at the Stanley Hotel in winter can give just a sliver of what inspired Stephen King to write ‘The Shining’.
RMNP – The park is at its best, in terms of scenic beauty in the dead of winter. The mountains are usually covered with snow, sometimes approaching 10 feet. Winter activities include snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and wildlife viewing (although seeing animals inside the park during winter is less likely). Some areas, such as around Bear Lake, are still crowded but it can be much easier to find areas of the park where you’ll need your snowshoes to walk through the snow. It is simply one of the most beautiful winter scenes in all of Colorado.
Estes Park – This town still doesn’t really get going again until late spring. In most places, spring begins a steady warmup towards summertime but at this altitude and being in Colorado, Estes Park typically experiences its snowiest months of the year in the spring. Traditionally, February, March, and April are Colorado’s months for heavy snow and blizzards. Eventually however, the snows slowly give way to longer and warmer days and the area begins to thaw and creak to life.
RMNP – Spring in the park is the beginning of the big melt. The east and west sides of the park are connected by Trail Ridge Road, but due to heavy winter snow, the road is impassable until the weather warms and crews can begin plowing the road. When the road finally opens, it becomes symbolic of winter’s deep freeze losing it’s grip on the park. The animals get to moving again and the large numbers of people begin to make their way back to the park that had been tranquil for several months.
In any season, the area is unique and beautiful. During the cold winter months, it is quiet and peaceful. In the warmer months, it is energetic and bustling but no matter what season, it is worth a visit and will not disappoint.
LThe land that was once considered one the most polluted places on earth has now been cleaned up (we hope) and is now open to limited recreation, known now as Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. And guess what? You can hike there…for free!
Admittedly, this hike does have a bit of an odd feel to it knowing that nuclear triggers were made here. However, it did not have the ‘eerie’ feel that the area around Los Alamos has (the place recognized as the birthplace of the atomic bomb) which has a strong government town atmosphere and feels as though it holds many secrets. Rocky Flats is more out in the open, kind of in your face, whereas Los Alamos is hidden behind trees and rocks. At the Flats, the Department of Energy still has a presence at the refuge monitoring the site. I noticed there are still large mountains of dirt being moved around by heavy machinery creating dust that gets carried in whatever direction the wind blows. Let’s hope that this dust is nothing more than common everyday dust.
If nothing else, the refuge provides the area with some new trails to try out and is considerably different than any other hike that you can do near Boulder. There is a reason why the area is called Rocky Flats as it is the flattest hike I have done in Colorado.
The view of the Flatirons in Boulder is very good from here but I found myself looking at them wishing I had chosen to be in the scenery instead of viewing it from a distance.
A few notes about the hike:
The park service allows hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians on its 11 miles of trails.
The path is mostly gravel and dirt suitable for mountain bikes but probably not road bikes.
The main entrance is just off of Colorado state highway 128 and has free parking for about 10-12 vehicles. There are really no services at the trailhead but there is a portable toilet. There was also no fee to enter the refuge, that I could see.
The trail is very exposed, with only a few trees, and virtually no shade.
I saw little to no wildlife during my hike, a common sparrow being the only fauna I noticed. However, I was hiking in late morning, not the best time to view animals. The park brochure mentions deer, elk, prairie dogs, coyotes, jackrabbits and porcupines as animals that you might see.
In summary, this is a place of contrasts where you have abandoned ranches next to modern wind generators, protecting wildlife in a place that once made nuclear weapons, and maybe the least important was the hike itself which was a flat prairie hike in full view of the beautiful foothills around Boulder. The hike is one that I would most likely not do again but in fairness, I haven’t seen the whole 11 miles of trails within the refuge. If you like flat, treeless hikes with great views of the mountains, this is the place for you. It just wasn’t for me.
Some say that the Mount Sanitas Trail is Boulder’s quintessential hike. The hike is 3.1 miles round trip and has an elevation gain of around 1,350 feet but to me, there are better hikes in Boulder and although the Mount Sanitas Trail is a great (short) workout, it is not the most scenic hike in the area, in my opinion. To me, the hike that should be on everyone’s Boulder must do list is the Mesa Trail.
The Mesa Trail has almost the exact same elevation gain as the Mount Sanitas trail, but it spreads that elevation gain over a one way distance of about 6.8 miles. It may actually be one of the flatest hikes you can do in Colorado since it parallels the mountains rather than climbing up them.
As far as scenery goes, there are few hikes anywhere in the country that can rival this one. The Flatirons are the rock formation that you see in every tourist magazine that features an article on Boulder. These five primary blocks of sandstone make for a spectacular backdrop for a day hike. In additon to the Flatirons, this is one of just a few areas along the Front Range where the pine forest actually comes all the way down over the foothills and onto the prairie below.
Another great aspect of this trail is its accessabiity. The trail has three primary trailheads: The South Mesa Trailhead, the Trailhead at the National Center for Atmospheric Reasearch (NCAR), and the Chautauqua Trailhead. Of the three, only the South Mesa Trailhead has a fee to park ($5). All three can be very crowded in the summer tourist season and on any weekend day when the weather is good. Go to NCAR if you want free parking and moderate crowds. The view here of the Flatirons is really good too but go to Chautauqua for the best view (the downside is the bigger crowds.) For a less crowded section of the trail, start at the South Mesa Trailhead. It is the least scenic of the three trailheads but it still has some decent views of the Flatirons, Boulder and even Denver off to the southeast.
The best part of hiking the Mesa Trail is that you have many options, and the hikes are all pretty accessible for most people. If you start at Chautauqua and NCAR, you can walk right up to one of the Flatirons and touch them within about 20 minutes after leaving the parking lot. Also of note is the many side trail options off of the main trail. If you’re looking for a longer hike, the side trails heading into the hills are nearly endless and offer you the opportunity to get a workout as good or better than the one you can get on Mt. Sanitas.
In my opinion, the Mesa Trail pretty much has it all: great scenery, the option for longer hikes while all are within the close proximity of the city of Boulder. For a great après hike food/beer option, check out the Southern Sun for a laid back vibe and great beer just down the hill from the NCAR trailhead.
Many years ago, I made a pact with myself to climb one 14er (a 14,000 foot peak) a year for as long as I am physically able to. I managed to do this for a few years before life got busy and days in the mountains took a back seat. But now I have more spare time and have been hiking for most of the summer so the timing seemed right to start my goal over again. However, I wanted to do an “easy” one and with the help of a friend (hi Mike!) we chose Quandary Peak as the best possible option. Quandary is a mountain near Breckenridge Colorado, less than a couple of hours from where I live, near Boulder. The only problem with picking an “easy” 14er within driving distance of a major metropolitan city (Denver) is that you can expect a small army of hikers who are thinking exactly the same thing. So this would not be a hike in solitude but rather a hike more closely resembling a conga line to the summit. Foreshadowing?
No matter how fit you are, high elevation has a way of taking you down a notch or two. Even though I had been hiking a lot over the summer, I noticed the lack of oxygen almost immediately after leaving the car at the trailhead, at 10,900 feet above sea level. The mountain introduced itself to us straight away by letting us know that this would be no “easy” climb. I was carrying a simple day pack with a few essentials like Vanilla Coke, trail mix, camera, aspirin, etc. and felt good that I had not overpacked. I was as light as I could hope to be, gear wise anyway. We hiked along pretty well for quite awhile before we ‘really’ started to notice the effects of the higher altitudes. It slowed us down tremendously but we were outside on a crisp late summer day and we were just taking our time getting up the hill, just happy to be up high again.
When I hike or spend time in the outdoors, I prefer solitude over crowds. Today, I had to accept the fact that there would be large numbers of hikers and there most certainly were. Recently, I have been doing a cruiser bike ride on Thursday nights in Boulder with a couple of hundred, mostly college aged cyclists. On these rides, I have noticed that most of the younger crowd is just out to have fun, and that they generally behave in a respectful manner. I have found that I enjoy being around their youthful energy. Unintentionally, this prepared me for being around a bigger crowd of like-minded people just like the ones I would see on the trail today.
We continued to make our way up the mountain step by step and as we did, a rumor of something unheard of began to filter down to us from hikers that had already reached the summit, that some guys had carried a keg of beer to the top and that if we didn’t hurry, we would miss out on having a a cup at the top. At first, I scoffed at the idea that anyone or any group of people would, could, or should carry a keg up a mountain when I could barely carry my light pack with snacks. But the more we passed other hikers with the same news, the more exciting getting to the summit was becoming. The anticipation of confirming the validity of the rumors was actually helping to take my mind off of the trials of the hike.
As we neared the top, we could hear a group of people counting, but we had no idea why. We could also see a fairly big group of people on the summit gathered around in a circle. So what we heard was that some guy set a goal to climb all 53 of Colorado’s 14ers in one summer, and this was his last one to complete what is a very monumental feat. His buddies decided to bring a keg to the top of the last 14er to celebrate his accomplishment. Truth really is stranger than fiction – when we reached the summit, there was said keg on top of said 14er in all of its silver glory, glistening like a trophy. Everyone who made it to the top, strangers alike, were offered a beer. Although it was very foamy and not my beloved Fat Tire (it was PBR I believe), it was the best beer I’ve ever had on a 14er (okay, it’s the only beer I’ve had on a 14er).
Now to the counting we heard from below, as it turns out the millinials were counting off the seconds that a few brave (read crazy) souls were doing ‘keg stands’. So this was to be a special ’14er’ keg stand where the goal was to last 14 seconds. Man after man tried and failed until a woman in her late twenties managed a 16 second keg stand. When they flipped her back up, she had tears rolling down her cheeks. Tears of joy? Beer in her eyes? Lack of oxygen? Tears of sorrow for not making it further than 16 seconds? Realizing there was no hospital nearby?! I have no idea, but whatever the reason…very impressive, and fun to be a part of.
And how did they get the keg up to the top? They made an apparatus out of PVC pipe and plywood with the keg strapped to it so that two people (or even four) could carry it up to the top (they must’ve been Engineering majors). They took turns carrying it up, but comparing their load to the load I carried, it looked much more impressive for them, not so much for me. This may explain though why everyone got a free beer at the top…so they could carry an empty keg back down instead of one with the excess weight of beer they couldn’t finish. Again, impressive!
My first 14er in many years and there was a kegger on the summit! Crazy. Awesome. Fun.
To me, this place is the worlds greatest sandbox. This sandbox is a long drive from almost anywhere with the nearest big cities being several hours away by car. Getting here takes some effort. Many people who stop here are on their way to somewhere more popular like Mesa Verde or the Grand Canyon but Great Sand Dunes National Park can be a destination in and of itself. As you drive north on Colorado Highway 150, there are interesting sights in all directions. To the east is the 14,344′ Blanca Peak rising sharply from the San Luis Valley. To the west is the San Luis Valley completely surrounded by mountains. In the rear view mirror is Northern New Mexico. Your destination is to the north where you can begin to see the light tan colors of the sand dunes off in the distance. Maybe you’re thinking “they don’t look so big”?!?! As you get closer, you realize that they are very big!!! The tallest dune is around 750 feet tall.
I first came here as a teenager with my parents and have since been here with every single member of my immediate family and many friends too. So what keeps us coming back? This is a place to play in the sand, first and foremost. Hikes up the dunes are fun and very tough. The sand is hard to walk through, especially when walking up the dunes. The sand can also get very hot and will burn your feet. It doesn’t sound like much fun but it is. There is a Lawrence of Arabia feel to the place sans (pun intended) the fighting armies. It is also very rewarding to make it to the top of the biggest sand dune, being the Star Dune being that most people want to conquer. The views of the surrounding peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains are almost surreal while standing on top of a 750 foot tall sand dune.
If you have kids with you, it is the kind of place where you can let them go around at their own pace. There are no rocks, lions, barbed wire, or anything else that can hurt them. We just let our nephews run around and kept them within eyesight without having to worry about much other than the heat, and making sure they had enough water. They had fun just picking their own line up the sand and had an even greater sense of accomplishment when they made it to the top of a high dune with little or no help (or supervision) from anyone else.
Another popular park activity is sandboarding, essentially snowboarding on the sand (as if you wouldn’t have figured that out yourself). This is a pretty unique opportunity to check another box on the adventure bucket list. The biggest problem with sandboarding, in my opinion, is that there is no ski lift to take you to the top. Have fun with that! It does look like fun though.
Hiking up the sand dunes can be very hot and tiring, so cooling off in a mountain stream is just the thing to help you recover. There is a very wide yet shallow creek running just in front of the big dunes called Medano Creek and it is a great place to cool off when it’s hot out. Lots of people just hang out here and never make it onto the dunes proper. The water is just right if you’re there in early summer, but can be quite chilly before that with the creek barely trickling by late summer. If you like to walk but climbing the dunes isn’t your thing, try walking in the creek. It’s shallow, feels good on your feet, and is just about as flat as you can find in the park. One of our favorite pastimes is playing smashball in the ankle deep water, it just feels like a beach thing to do. Some people are content to just sit in the water to cool off. Kite flying is always fun and there’s usually plenty of wind to keep the kite up high (the wind is how the sand got here in the first place).
During some alone time while I was walking along the creek, I noticed some very steep looking sand “cliffs” and there were people trying to climb up them. I started thinking that they might be fun to jump off of, at night! It wasn’t hard to convince my family to join and after dark, we put our headlamps on and headed out from the campground back to the jumping off point that I had seen earlier in the day. The best part about jumping off of the sand ledges is that the landing couldn’t be softer. There are very few rocks, trash, or any other debris to land on…just soft grains of sand to pad your landing. After maybe an hour of jumps and sticking landings, we headed back to the campground and hardly needed the headlamps to see our way back. We even saw a few satellites passing overhead. The sky here is very clear and light pollution is almost nonexistent due to the long distance from any large cities.
If you go, there are a few things that could help make your time on the sand a little bit more enjoyable. The elevation at the park is 8,200 feet so be prepared for that to have an affect on you. Drink lots of water for both the elevation and for the heat. Do not try to hike the dunes without something on your feet as the sand gets very hot. I’ve tried all types of footwear and have yet to find the perfect defense against both the heat on your feet and keeping the sand out. The closest I’ve found to something that keeps you safe and keeps the sand out are called sand socks, something that some beach volleyball players wear for similar reasons. These worked well for awhile but then got really hot and filled with sand. The bottom line is just to keep something on your feet so you don’t burn them, sand getting in your shoes is really better than burning your toes. Mosquitoes can be very bad in the summer and are plentiful around the campground. Once you cross the creek on your way to the sand, the mosquitoes won’t follow you. And as always, don’t forget the sunscreen!
P.S. – Most of the “tourists” hang out within a hundred yards or so of the main parking area. Be a “traveler” and experience more than just the sand castles people build within the direct vicinity of the parking lot. Head upstream!
I work in Boulder Colorado and get to enjoy biking the Boulder Creek Path at lunchtime. Boulder has an interesting mix of people that use the path and it is quite popular. The path can get pretty crowded with lunchtime athletes, students, and tourists. As a courtesy, bicyclists commonly say “on your left” as they pass pedestrians or slower moving cyclists to avoid crashing into them. The pedestrian has the right of way and it is the cyclists responsibility to avoid them. Sometimes, you could expect to be scolded for not saying it loud enough or not at exactly the right time. So in the spirit of some of the great wars between outdoor groups like rafters versus fisherman, snowboarders versus skiers, and hikers versus mountain bikers, I offer my take on the cyclist versus the pedestrian. Here are my top five reasons for not giving the pedestrian the courtesy of the “on your left” shout out anymore:
The vast majority of walkers have their headphones on so loud with their favorite Justin Beiber song cranked up they can’t hear anything else. Or, more realistically, The Grateful Dead.
Your version of “Rocky Mountain High” is very different than what John Denver had in mind. Even though pot is legal here now, it still isn’t supposed to be smoked in public. Many people ignore this, especially in Boulder and they are wandering all over the path without a care in the world. Just the other day, a guy on a recumbent bike was smoking a joint and discretely put it to his side as he passed me by. Now that sounds like a great combination: biking and marijuana. I guess this guy must have a really bad back. So much so that he has to ride a recumbent instead of a regular bike and needs to smoke a joint instead of taking a Percocet.
You are a tourist and you’re oblivious to the fact that you are on a multi-use path where you could get plowed over while you look at the creek, the mountains, and the scenery. Admittedly, Boulder is a pretty cool place to look at but really people, pay attention.
You don’t know what it means when someone says it. This one I don’t fault people for. When I first hit the trails in Boulder, I had no idea why people were saying that to me. Now I know that I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed but I had honestly never heard that one before. Also, multi-use path rules and regulations can differ from one place to another so I know that it can be confusing. I know that on a trip to San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge a couple of years ago, I was walking on the right side like I would in Boulder and had a cyclist yell at me for being where I shouldn’t be. When I think about that one, I still can’t figure out what I did wrong.
You think that “on your left ” means move to your left. I can’t tell you how many times walkers move to the left when I’m passing them, making it a close call for both of us.
After all of these top five humorous yet sometimes annoying reasons to not say “on your left”, I still find myself giving everyone the courtesy of saying it regardless of how many people may not know their left from their right (after possibly eating too many ‘special brownies’). I just make sure that they don’t have headphones in, aren’t high, they aren’t tourists , that they look like they have common sense, and that they know that having a bike crashing over them like a speed bump would be bad for them and the cyclist. But it will most certainly be the cyclists fault!