We’ve talked about a trip to Colorado longer than we’ve been camping, We mapped out a plan with a stop in Kansas, Estes Park, and Colorado Springs. Did this adventure live up to our expectations?
We stopped overnight in Oakley, Kansas at High Plains Camping. The campground was just off the interstate and they had the restaurant Cap’n Jack’s on property, We loved grabbing a good meal - burgers and ribs - within walking distance of the Cricket. Right after dinner, we watched a storm roll across Kansas. The storm hit, with extremely frequent lightening, 50mph wind, driving rain and hail. This would be the first of three nights we slept with the top down in the Cricket during this trip. We survived the night and rolled on toward Colorado. We crossed into Colorado, expecting the Rockies to be a little rockier - that John Denver is full of it, man! And then, seeing the Rockies grow out of the horizon for the first time was truly a magical experience.
At the last minute, we decided that we wanted to add Rocky Mountain National Park to our itinerary and got onto Reserve America to see if we could find any spots near the park. We were excited to score at site at Mary’s Lake in Estes Park. The campground was spotless and had a small, but warm swimming pool, trails, playground, boulders (which we assumed were for us to climb), and clean bathhouses. The sites were small and close together, but fine for our purposes. Estes Park is at 7500 feet. Coming from Illinois at 400 feet, we noticed some of our gear became pressurized. A chip bag inflated like a balloon, a Clorox Wipes container popped when we opened it, and the toilet sprayed an unpleasant spray during the first use.
Estes Park Riverwalk is very touristy, but beautiful. One side is a river with its opposing bank climbing upward into the foothills. On the riverwalk side, there are tons of shops, fountains, playgrounds, and good people watching. We found a late lunch at Ed’s Cantina. The patio was great, very good food, but the highlight was ‘Drop the Beet’ cocktail, which was made of beet juice, lime, and tequila resposado cocktail. We also grabbed a coffee and a tea at Inkwell and Brew, their tea was very nice and cold brew was done right - very slowly.
We got up early to hit Rocky Mountain National Park before the crowds. We were in the park at 7:30 and still got one of the few remaining parking spots at the Bear Lake Trailhead, the shuttle is strongly recommended for good reason. We started our hike around Bear Lake at 9500 feet and continued on past Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and finally Emerald Lake at over 10,100 feet - probably the highest elevation we’d visited, and a record that would hold through lunch.
In the afternoon, we headed up Trail Ridge Road, which goes up to 12,000 feet, above the tree line and into the alpine tundra. When this scenic byway was built in 1931, it was crowned the highest paved road in the United States. The Trail Ridge Road was our first experience with mountain roads - limited shoulder, often no guardrail, and a long way down. We felt the altitude walking up a small hill and quickly getting winded. Our white-knuckle drive concluded in a valley, where we spotted a moose! He walk along a tree line in clear view for ten minutes. Seeing a moose was high on our Colorado wishlist.
Our next stop took us to our third campground just over 100 miles south to Cheyenne Mountain State Park, shadowed by Cheyenne Mountain which is shadowed by Pikes Peak, and overlooking Colorado Springs. The campground was completed in 2008 and has about 60 RV sites with maybe 20 tent sites. The RV sites are perfect and probably the best sites we’ve ever seen. They have massive concrete pads, painted brick red, with full hookups. Each site has a tent pad and picnic table. Further, each site has a mountain view and has either an earthen berm or scrub oak tree line to provide a wind block. There are three different loops that are terraced but each site is level. The bathhouses are spotless and the camper services building is centrally located with shower house ($1 for four minutes), activity room, and playground.
Our first night, we discovered how necessary the berm around the site can be. The wind was still too much, so we again had to pop down. Popping down to sleep is less than ideal. We have to take the kids out of the bunks, putting one in our bed and sticking the second on the floor. Although not ideal, we all got to sleep and the wind was no longer an issue.
A couple days later we again battled the elements during the night. Just about midnight, our phones started buzzing with alerts. Storms cells were forming as they came over Cheyenne Mountain, and they pounded us. The lightening was intense and close, wind speeds exceeded 50 mph, and rain seemed to blow though the walls of the Cricket. Then the hail started. NWS speculated hail stones between ping pong ball and baseball sized, we didn’t go out to measure. It pounded the Cricket, large ice balls against an aluminum camper is a deafening sound. We rode it out, fearful a window would be shattered at any moment. We already had hail damage to the roof of our camper, so we cannot measure the impact of the stones. Just a couple miles from us, cars had windshields shattered, and looked like they’d been beat with a bat. Homes had roof damage and shattered windows, we even heard a story of hail stones crashing through roofs! This was the worst storm to hit Colorado Springs in 20 years and we feel for those impacted.
We enjoyed Cheyenne Mountain so much and found ourselves planning to get back earlier each day to spend more time in the park. Bear country offered some logistical challenges for a camper that is not 100% hard-sided. We had to keep all of our food, toiletries, and cooking tools in the 4Runner. In lieu of using our refrigerator, we reverted back to a cooler, but did update to a Lifetime Cooler. We were pleased to find this great cooler and were even more pleased that it was less of a splurge than the name brand competitors. We also finally decided to buy a Weber Q1200 (in orange). We had a realization when we got home that we now own five different Weber grills, but each has a special purpose and they last forever! We also ordered bear spray, which in hindsight may have been overkill, but it did offer piece of mind.
Cheyenne Mountain State Park has great trails and over 20 miles can be hiked or biked and all interconnect. Our first ride we left from the campground and rode down the mountain, which was a blast! But then we had to ride the roads up the mountain back to the campground. Our second ride we rode down the mountain, then over and gradually back up on the trails. This was a lot more miles, but more fun. Although we enjoy riding trails, we are no experts and this is real mountain biking with a lot of rocks on the trails - we walked our bikes a fair amount.
Colorado Springs has great parks. Memorial park has a lake with a beach and allows motorized and non-motorized boats. They offer an indoor pool and indoor ice skating, a skate park, three playgrounds, and a number of trails. The kids got into a quick game of tag at one of the playgrounds. Another neat park is America the Beautiful Park. This park had a newer playground as well as access the the Pikes Peak Bike Trail. The highlight for us here was a large fountain that the kids played in, the fountain is such a popular swimming area that it had three lifeguards.
There are three downtown areas in the region that we explored: Downtown Colorado Springs, Old Colorado City, and Manitou Springs. Over the course of the week, we walked all three and have a few favorite stops we found. Downtown Colorado Springs highlight was T-Byrd’s Tacos, which had very good ala carte tacos. Old Colorado City we enjoyed coffee at Jives. Manitou Springs we had fun playing pinball at the Penny Arcade. Our favorite stop was Radiantly Raw in Manitou, which made chocolates out of raw ingredients that we approve of: raw honey cacao powder, coconut oil, cashews, and others wholesome ingredients. We may have gone overboard with our purchases here! We also found very good sushi rolls at Nara Sushi in Colorado Springs, close to Old Colorado City.
We’d heard really great things about Garden of the Gods. Ironically, near our home, we have an amazing site in the Shawnee National Forest that is also named Garden of the Gods. This southern Illinois gem was featured on a quarter in 2016, so the Colorado park of the same name had a lot to live up to. This location was special. It was 300 foot tall red rock sandstones bluffs erupting from the ground with Pikes Peak as a backdrop. Visiting the site was very approachable with flat sidewalks and trails leading us through the site. Garden of the Gods was beautiful and certainly worth the visit.
Of course a visit to the Pikes Peak region wouldn't be complete without a visit to the summit of its namesake. Pike National Forest offers a aw-inspiring 20 mile drive through the 1.1 million acre forest en route to the 14,115 peak. At the time of our visit, ground had just broken on the new visitors center, so our drive was only 17 miles. We took a van up the final three miles to the summit. Again, similar to the Trail Ridge Road at RMNP, mountain driving up a 14'er is a stressful experience for a family that is used to being a few hundred feet above sea level. The drive was beautiful with constant changing views as we climbed higher; we understand how Katharine Lee Bates would have been inspired here to pen "America the Beautiful."
We received a recommendation to visit the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. The Broadmoor is a luxury resort that has held the five-star rating for over fifty years, longer than any other resort in the United States, We learned the Penrose Heritage Museum, on the grounds of the Broadmoor, holds a permanent exhibit of the Pikes Pike Hill Climb Race. Seeing the cars and equipment designed to race up the mountain was unbelievable; seeing the videos of the races, and the mishaps, was terrifying. Also on display is a Mitsubishi Lancer that missed a turn going 80 mph and tumbled down the mountain. We also walked the grounds of the resort, checking out the shops, playground, and perfect landscaping. We were thrilled to spot one of our favorite TV chefs - Steven Raichlen; we probably just exposed ourselves as PBS greeks!
The kids were confident the entire week that we should ride go carts. We'd seen a couple go cart places along our journey and kept putting them off. Then we came across Overdrive Raceway. This was a new experience for us. Overdrive is indoor racing with individual performance tracked. The kids came out huge winners for waiting for the perfect go cart stop and absolutely had a blast racing. To balance out the kid fun, we also visited Holidaily Brewing Company in Golden. Holidaily makes excellent beer that is also gluten free. Their IPA, Fat Randy's IPA, is amoung the top ranked gluten free IPAs in the country. Another favorite stop that catered to our dietary needs was Coquette's Bistro and Bakery. We loved the fried beets along with traditional comfort foods prepared gluten free.
34 million years ago, this region of Colorado had a massive redwood forest before a volcano erupted and fossilized the stumps of the trees. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument showcases these massive prehistoric stumps of the former majestic 200 foot trees. We enjoyed a Ranger-led talk about the site, which really helped us appreciate the uniqueness even further.
Although it was a full day trip, we decided to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park. This park was unbelievable; nestled between mountain peaks, including a 14er, you find a pile of sand. A really big pile of sand that is thirty miles square and 750 feet tall! The dunes contain 4.8 billion cubic meters of sand, deposited by the river and trapped by the mountains for millions of years. The sand gets hot in the summer, frequently far exceeding 100 degrees. The park sits in high, thin air and the sun heats it up really fast, this is a location to visit in the morning. Before entering the park, stop and rent a sand sled at the Oasis Shop to enjoy the dunes. Climbing up the dunes is exhausting, but sledding down them is worth it.
We decided to take a road trip to Boulder. Boulder is an extremely popular location that has grown far beyond a quirky college town. That downtown district is filled with great shops and even better people watching. On our way back to Cheyenne Mountain, we stopped at the flagship REI store in Denver, which was a great REI. We wrapped up a long day with a quick meal at El Super Taco, just outside the campground. The location and name were suspect, but the tacos were good and perfect for a late, quick meal.
From Rocky Mountain National Park to Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado was beautiful and a great experience. We have so much more of Colorado that we want to see and we just can't wait get back - soon!
Shane and Jessica
Cricket Camping is an Amazon Affiliate. From time to time, we may refer to a product we have purchased and provide a link to purchase the same product directly from Amazon. If you chose to purchase the product using our link, and based on our recommendation, Cricket Camping will earn a commission, which helps us continue sharing our experience through this website.
Thank you for your support.