Ultimate Colorado road trip

Big mountains. Wild rivers. Unforgettable beauty. Three fast friends test themselves on a 10-day drive through the Rockies
Lisa Taggart

Thirty feet above the ground, my friend Samantha clings to a granite cliff, her face a mix of determination and desperation. A rope at her hips connects her to the rock and, ultimately, to climbing instructor Ashley Woods, standing on solid ground below.

"So," Sam asks plaintively, "am I up enough?"

This is hardly the brazen attitude we took in planning our 10-day Girls-Take-Colorado outdoor adventure. But here at the start of our journey in a canyon west of Boulder, Sam has a demon to slay. Last time she went rock climbing, in a beginner class, she was labeled "Noodle Arms."

"You can stop now if you want," Ashley advises. Diplomacy is as much a part of her work as teaching fingerholds. "But I bet you can make it to the top."

Our friend Kate has already bounded up the cliff face in about three moves. She watches with an experienced climber's confidence: "You can do it," she calls.

Sam reaches out and, in a burst of strength, pulls herself to the cliff's upper edge. Noodle arms begone; Ashley was right all along.

Boulder to Rocky Mountain National Park

Sam, Kate, and I have come from the West Coast to Colorado to, in effect, prove ourselves. Our 690-mile road trip tackles a sporty smorgasbord of this most rugged Western state, from horseback riding to mountaineering, biking to river rafting. We're cutting a long fishhook from the Plains to the Rockies, Boulder to Durango to Buena Vista. With no husbands, in territory unfamiliar to all, we are on a quest to find the great adventure of the West.

The first night, fresh from our triumph on the cliff face, we strut through Boulder's pedestrian mall. But my victory glow doesn't last. Sure, I had mastered that cliff ― or, if mastered is too strong a word, at least I'd made it to the top, shakily. But Boulder's cafe tables are full of fit, beautiful college students ― sports hounds who, I realize, would scoff at our beginner climb.

Perhaps we aren't exactly going to take this place by storm. I don't mention to the other two my concern that the Rocky Mountains are possibly far bigger and badder than we are.

Northwest of Boulder, at what would become 415-square-mile Rocky Mountain National Park, intrepid Englishwoman Isabella Bird wrote, "This is no region for tourists and women." At the time, 1873, the world traveler was, in fact, both things, and she went on to climb the park's crown, 14,255-foot Longs Peak ― in a skirt. She was also awed: "Never, nowhere, have I seen anything to equal the view ..."

 

 

We too are amazed at the beauty of this place. We drive past wildflower meadows and a herd of bighorn sheep to meet up with our afternoon rides at Hi Country Stables: Cactus Jack, Pepper, and Lotsa Dots.

Sam, Kate, and I have purchased cowboy hats for the event. "This is the kind of sport I like," I tell our guide, recent college grad Melissa Day, as I settle into the saddle atop Cactus Jack. "You get to wear cool clothes." I tap my new brim.

Surprisingly, Melissa fails to comment on my cute hat. She smiles weakly and nudges her horse up the trail.

We ride to Upper Beaver Meadows, stepping around quaking aspens and purple lupine. We ride through a dense lodgepole pine forest; with the rows of equidistant, narrow trunks, it's like entering an M.C. Escher painting.

A four-hour ride, however, makes for difficult walking afterward. I step achingly around our campground. Kate boasts that she will prepare "the perfect camping meal": couscous with lentils and spinach. It is delicious. Maybe Kate's a better cook than I knew, or maybe anything tastes fantastic around a campfire after a day of horseback riding.

Rocky Mountain National Park to Aspen

Driving is tiring in Colorado, not just because of the twisting mountain roads but because every place is so beautiful that it drains your concentration.

We already have our routine in the station wagon: Kate takes the wheel, Sam runs the music, and I check the map and rock out in back. At high points, we play Outkast's "Hey Ya!" Andre 3000 calls out, "Okay, now ladies ... we're going to break this down," as we descend from 12,095-foot Independence Pass through shimmering forests into Aspen.

In this famously rich town, we'll face the biggest challenge yet. At dawn the next day, we meet up with Gabe Metzger to, in local parlance, bag a fourteener.

Mountain climbers make lifetime sport of tackling peaks above 14,000 feet in the Rockies. No adventurer could really say she'd experienced Colorado without attempting to summit one. But climbing that high is not to be underestimated. We chose Castle Peak, one of the area's less challenging climbs, and hired an Aspen Expeditions guide to take us. In a move that would upset traditionalists, we also drive up to 12,000 feet to start.

 

 

The drive is frightening enough. Gabe's truck has a name―Munson―and appears not to be affected by the gravitational forces that limit other vehicles. We negotiate a rutted dirt path that rises nearly straight up. We pitch to the right, then tilt 40° to the left, providing a nose-to-glass view of the sheer drop inches away. I yelp. A couple has joined us, so Gabe has five passengers. All five of us yelp. Gabe is calm. He seems confused: Why the commotion? My heart pounds as we unload at the trailhead. And the hike hasn't begun.

We follow a path through the Montezuma Basin, then cut across slopes of scree. Along with the other man in the group, Kate and Sam bound off up the mountain. I am more of a plodder than a hiker. Gabe and I, with the man's wife, another Lisa, bring up the rear.

Lisa had mentioned the night before that she has a fear of heights. But she clearly didn't anticipate how this would affect her. Once we get over the first ridge, the view opens up. We see the puce Maroon Bells to the north, the ridges of the Elk Mountains to the south. Everything, except the trail rising before us and the white-bellied clouds overhead, is far, far below.

Lisa freezes. "I can't do this."

"Yes, you can," Gabe tells her. Her legs have stiffened, knees locked. She can't seem to walk. Gabe takes her arm, urging her along the 2-foot-wide path. "You're fine." When the path narrows, she drops to all fours.

"I'll just stay here," she begs. "Go on without me." She clings to a boulder.

Gabe shakes his head. He ties a rope around her waist and attaches it to his own. Lisa starts to laugh, but there are tears in her eyes. She is crawling on her hands and knees on the path, Gabe guiding her with the rope. She rises unsteadily to a crouch. "I have a leash," she points out. But the trick gives her enough security to keep going.

I was thinking that the whole 14,000-foot thing was just a numbers game. But I am beyond exhilaration by the time we reach the 14,265-foot summit of Castle Peak. Lisa makes it too; we are all breathless. On the rocky, bald mountaintop, with nearly all of the world below us, we take pictures and sign the register to mark our triumph.

 

 

Aspen to Durango

A few gray clouds are hovering on the horizon as we select our rental bikes at a shop in Crested Butte. The funky mountain town has a ski slope at its northern edge and miles of single-track bike trails running all around in the hills. Crested Butte is a cyclist's heaven; locals like to claim that this is where mountain biking began.

The clouds scud closer as we gear up. Fat drops hit my legs. By the time we reach the trailhead a mile out of town, it's raining steadily.

Sam hates biking. When I asked her to join me on this trip, the first thing she said was, "Okay, but do we have to go mountain biking?" So it's a testament to her spirit that she looks at me now, her blonde hair plastered to her face, and smiles an enormous fake smile: "This is fun!" she says.

We take the Lower Loop along the Slate River to Oh-be-joyful Creek. The trail cuts under cottonwoods at a gentle grade. It would be spectacular if, at about 5 miles out, it didn't start to hail.

Cold water streams from my helmet down the back of my neck. My thighs are peppered with red dots where the hail balls hit. Kate's legs are covered in mud.

Kate is a truth teller. "I am not proving anything by staying out in a storm," she says. "This isn't joyful. Let's get out of here."

We do.

We can hardly wait to warm up in Ouray, but it's a three-hour drive. Set at 7,760 feet in a box canyon, the town is ringed by sheer rock walls; beyond them peek out jagged, snowy edges of the San Juan Mountains. It's like being in a rocky double boiler.

We've come for the area's natural hot springs, like many travelers before us. At 126-year-old Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa, we follow a tunnel underneath the lodge to the vapor cave. The little room is dreamlike and steamy; the walls drip, echoing. The shallow pool is 108°. I dip a toe in.

In the corner, a man we hadn't noticed for the steam starts chanting. The deep sounds reverberate off the rock walls. He's a skinny, bearded guy in a half-lotus position, eyes closed. I want to giggle. He opens his eyes and starts licking the wet rocks. Well, at least we're warm.

We are ruddy, steamed dumplings by the time we hit the road south, known as the Million Dollar Highway; according to some locals, the name doesn't refer to its construction price tag of $1,000 per foot but to the gold found in the gravel used to pave it. We twist and turn up to Red Mountain Pass at 11,018 feet, with visions of snowcapped Twilight and Sunlight Peaks set off by a crystalline blue sky.

 

 

At a vista point, a group of Harley riders are taking pictures alongside us. In the last two days, we've seen at least 100 motorcyclists. That's no surprise, I say, since this is such a beautiful drive. The bikers stare at us: "Then you don't know about the rally?"

Apparently we are the only people on the road who don't know about the year's largest biker rally tomorrow in Durango ― just where we are headed.

When we roll in, downtown's Main Avenue is roaring. Bikers two abreast line the road as far as we can see, chrome gleaming. Our sensible four-wheel-drive wagon, packed with water bottles and sunscreen, seems suddenly very tame.

Kate and I find a quiet canyon outside of town on the Colorado Trail, the 500-mile super-hike that cuts across the state. But Sam won't let us avoid the rally entirely. That night she drags us down to Main. The sidewalks are full; every bar is packed. We stop outside the front door of Orio's Roadhouse, where a group of men in leather chaps are smoking.

"I don't think so," Kate says.

"Nonsense," says Sam.

Inside, people aren't so much dancing as stomping about the place. One guy is howling. "This is where I draw the line," Kate says.

Sam uses her non-noodle arms to push Kate and me up to the bar. She slaps down a 20: "Three shots of Jack!"

Kate may have led us up the cliffs and mountains of Colorado so far, but at Orio's, it's Sam who's the sure-footed one. With her, we close the bar.

 

 

Durango to Buena Vista

Recently named a national park and preserve, the Great Sand Dunes rise 750 feet above the San Luis Valley in the south-central part of the state. We pull into the visitor center, and I ask a ranger where we go to rent boards.

"Boards?" she asks.

"For dune boarding," I say confidently. "We've come from California to go dune boarding."

"From California, huh?" She laughs at me. "I think there was a guy out here renting boards a few years ago. But he's not here now."

"That's okay," I tell Sam and Kate. "I'm sure we can slide on these camping mats." The mother of invention, I think smugly, stuffing the mats into my pack.

Built up over centuries in a bend at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the dunes are golden and soft and sinuous. But they are tough to climb; the sand sucks at our feet. We trudge up toward a finely etched spine. One side is gold in the afternoon sun, the other is in shadow.

We plunk down our stuff. I blow up the mats. "This is going to be fun," I say. Sam nods.

I arrange myself on the mat and scoot over the dune's edge. The mat doesn't move.

"I think it needs a running start," I say. I jump down onto the mat from the top of the dune like it's a skateboard, lose my balance as the mat sticks, and land on my side, rolling loglike halfway down.

 

 

I shake sand out of my hair and climb back up. Sam and Kate are laughing. "It needs more weight," I suggest. I force them to get on the mat with me; we make a train. "Now scoot."

They scoot. The sand squeaks. The mat barely budges.

"It's not so bad," Kate tells me kindly. "The dunes are gorgeous. We don't need no stinking boards."

Still, to top it off, I get us lost that night. We have to backtrack over a mountain pass, arriving at the motel after midnight for a 7 a.m. wake-up. We barely have time for breakfast as we rush to meet our guide at 4 Corners Rafting in Nathrop. We slip on life vests, grab our paddles, and head out to the Arkansas River.

My arms feel sluggish on the paddle. I'm feeling guilty about yesterday's goof.

We float. We're headed for Brown's Canyon, one of the most popular river runs in the state for its string of rapids. But it's midweek, and no one else is on the water.

The boulders lining the bank are rusty orange; cliffs high above hold a smattering of pines. A hawk passes overhead. We swirl against a rock, and water splashes all of us.

Colorado works its magic. My funk burns off like fog in the sun. We picnic on a small beach and find a giant fish jawbone. We finish the day at a sandy spot with a view of the Collegiate Peaks to the west. We've come to the end of the trip's challenges as well. Ahead is only frosting: celebratory milkshakes in Buena Vista, one last overnight, then the flight back to husbands and home.

Sam, Kate, and I have measured ourselves against Colorado's peaks and valleys, and we'll go home with a fresh perspective. Maybe we didn't rock the state, but we surprised ourselves in the face of challenges.

On the beach, our guide worries that the raft is too heavy to carry to the truck. We all shake our heads: "Not for the three of us."