Saturday, June 25, 2016

On Top of the World: Trail Ridge Road

People and cars look as small as ants when on top of the world.

One of the most scenic drives in all of Colorado is definitely Trail Ridge Road, driving between Estes Park and Grand Lake.
I usually find myself singing along to the Dixie Chicks' song 'Top of the World' (toward the end where it starts to build and crescendo...more of an overcast day song) or any of James Taylor's tracks... as I traverse this high mountain road full of beauty and mountain views. Every which way you look as you approach the top, are myriads of mountain peaks, sky, and craggy open space.
This is probably my favorite drive in all of Colorado.

Just the facts, Ma'am:
  • Generally takes about 1.5 to 2 hours (depending on how often you stop for photo-ops) to drive from one end to the other.
  • 11 miles of road are above treeline in the alpine tundra.
  • 200 species of alpine plants. Very fragile ecosystem. Please stay on trails as these plants especially take much longer to grow back if trampled.
  • Trail Ridge Road crosses the Continental Divide at Milner Pass (elevation 10,120 feet).
  • The highest point on the road is 12,183 feet (east of the Alpine Visitor Center).
  • Look for wildlife such as marmots, pika, and ptarmigan who live in the arid, wintry alpine tundra environment.
  • You can often see other wildlife such as deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and moose along the way.
  • It is only open all the way through from late Spring to early Fall.
  • To check road status call: 970-586-1222.

Other Highlights Along the Way:
  • The Alpine Visitor Center is a nice destination once you get to the top. There is a café and snack counter if you want some refreshments, as well as, the main gift shop/souvenir center inside the park. There is a short trail just beside the parking lot if you want to stretch your legs. However, due to the altitude and wind you may prefer to chill and sip hot cocoa inside.
  • Old Fall River Road is a one-way (up only) road on the east side that will take you to the Alpine Visitor Center. It generally opens around July 4th. It is a narrow, gravel road with a 15 mph speed limit. Be advised. Check road conditions to be sure road is open.
  • Take a tour of Holzwarth Historic Site, near Grand Lake. Hike about half a mile to the old cabin.
  • On the east side, just after the treeline stops, walk in the footsteps of the Ute Amerindians along the Ute Trail.
  • The Bear Lake Road trailheads can fill up fast in the summertime. If you don't want the hassle of trying to find a parking spot there are free park shuttle buses. Highly recommended.

Be Aware:
Due to the high elevation be sure to stay hydrated and be aware of altitude sickness symptoms.
Even if the temperature is 80 degrees in Grand Lake or Estes it is always cool (if not cold) and generally windy up above treeline.
Trail Ridge Road and Old Fall River Road are narrow, high mountain roads. Use Caution.
Be prepared for the possibility of fast moving weather systems.
Enjoy the views.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Pagosa Springs: Hot Springs

Looking across the San Juan toward The Springs Resort and Hot Springs

Located along the San Juan river, in the center of Pagosa Springs, Colorado is The Springs Resort (and hot springs).

Home to the Guiness Book of records for the deepest geothermal spring, this commercial hot spring is the central attraction in this beautiful mountain town. I have driven through this town on several occasions on the way to other destinations, never stopping to enjoy the hot, mineral rich pools until recently.

I would place The Springs Resort in my top five Colorado hot springs resorts. I will have to update my previous list soon.


I loved relaxing in the various pools and listening to the rushing river directly adjacent to the resort. I also liked that there were a variety of pools to enjoy. During my recent visit I had several conversations with others who were also soaking up the springs. Everyone was friendly and laid back on this trip. Later, I was able to find a small pool and relished some moments of peaceful solitude beneath a shimmering moon.

Pros: Located in a charming mountain town, local vibe, variety of temperatures and pools, resort feel.

Con: No discount if you arrive in the latter part of the day. Price is fairly steep, doesn't include cost of locker.

Although the immediate area around the Resort offered several places to eat, I found a cute coffee shop on the other side of town called Boulder Coffee Café. The café was rustically charming, and like most of Pagosa Springs was an independent shop.

Driving along the scenic Wolf Creek Pass
There are other attractions on the way from Denver, such as, the opportunity to drive over Wolf Creek Pass. This mountain pass is one of the more lush and scenic passes. Treasure Falls is a nice brief stop-off, with several scenic look-out points along the pass.

Pagosa Springs is a convenient stop if you are returning from New Mexico or if you are headed to Durango, CO.

Also nearby is Chimney Rock National Monument. Another ancestral Puebloan site where you can tour ruins and learn about the prehistory of the region. Check their website for tour times as I recently learned they close earlier than I expected. The drive and area was scenic, mountainous, and wondrously secluded.

Looking up at Chimney Rock and adjacent formation.

So, whether  Pagosa Springs is your main destination or if you are just passing through....there is plenty to see and do. But especially make a point to check out The Springs Resort and soak in the refreshing hot springs.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

New Mexico: Indeed the Land of Enchantment

On the road to Santa Fe.
All photos property of J. Foster

Lately, I have been exploring places outside of Colorado but relatively close to Denver. Last year I gallivanted around the Four Corners area and also Santa Fe, NM. I fell in love with the dusty, artsy, wide-open feel of the southwest.

Just recently I went back to New Mexico to explore some more places on my list. The recent swelling of  Colorado traffic made me appreciate the empty back roads meandering near the Rio Grande. Nothing but land and sky for as far as the eyes could see. I think I understand more of the allure that artists such as Georgia O'keefe enjoyed about the high desert mesas and tumbleweed landscapes. New Mexico is a place full of history, art, and a sense of mystical intrigue. It is a place for romance, adventure, and reflection.

Below are some places I have enjoyed visiting over the past year. Perhaps you will enjoy them as well.

Fort Union
Old Spanish Trail

Ft. Union operated as a military outpost from 1851-1891 for those traveling along the Santa Fe Trail.
Still visible today are several deep and wide wagon ruts (pictured below) along former frontier trails. Remnants of the second of three forts are what visitors can see and explore. While onsite you can vaguely see where the original fort was situated closer to the mountains. This was a fun, off the beaten path excursion that allows you to feel, if only slightly, what it was like to live out west in the mid-1800s. Personally, I loved seeing the old wagon ruts.

Santa Fe, NM

I got a good deal on a hotel room near the downtown plaza. It was perfect being able to walk to the galleries, restaurants, and historic sites nearby. Plenty of art and history at my hotel doorstep.
I enjoyed visiting what many call the oldest house in the United States (Barrio de Analco), as well as, oldest church (San Miguel Chapel).

Just a few blocks from these sites is the Loretto Chapel, home of the beautiful yet mysterious staircase (pictured below).

Also located off the main plaza is the Georgia O'keefe Museum. I watched a video about her life and viewed several of her original works. While she seems to be mostly known for her flower paintings, I have always been fond of her landscapes. On my recent trip I stopped in Abiquiu, NM where Ghost Ranch is located (Okeefe's former residence). I was excited to view the pedernal that is pictured in several of her famous paintings. If you stop by the Abiquiu Inn you can get a tour of one of her residences and office. Tickets can also be purchased in Santa Fe at the museum.

Cerro Pedernal as viewed from Abiquiu Lake. One of Georgia O'keefe's favorite subjects.

Bandelier National Monument

The second ladder leading to the Alcove House at Bandelier
Bandelier National Monument is about an hour south of Santa Fe.
An incredible historic site showcasing various cliff dwellings that were once inhabited by ancestral Puebloans. Several ladders let you see or climb inside various rooms or shelters. The farthest site on the trail leads to the Alcove House which consists of two high ladders. This particular site is not for the faint of heart.

Many petroglyphs decorate the canyon walls if you pay attention closely. This was a really cool park to explore. The trail meandered along the rock wall and through open space. A lot of accessibility to the sites.

Taos, NM

I did not spend much time in Taos but I made it to my destination: Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the oldest, continuously inhabited pueblos in America. For $16 you can walk through the area. Guided tours are also available. There are specific rules for photography to be aware of while visiting since you are essentially touring people's residence.

A small section of Taos Pueblo

Ojo Caliente, NM

One of the best hot springs I have ever visited is the Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort and Spa. Practically in the middle of nowhere, this place was so relaxing and nice. The pools were organized by mineral and temperature. For instance, there was an arsenic pool (good for skin conditions and arthritis), iron pool, mud pool, etc. Definitely one of the more relaxing and health-focused commercial springs I've seen. Will definitely go back one day!

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Located in Aztec, NM near the Colorado/NM border is Aztec Ruins National Monument.

This place allows for easy access inside the  world of the ancestral Puebloans. On a much smaller scale than Chaco and in a residential neighborhood this park was quite different than other National Monuments/Parks that I have visited. This place seems like a good place for field trips since it provides such easy access to the ruins.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park

The main attraction for me on the most recent NM trip was to see Pueblo Bonito located at Chaco Culture National Historic Park. On the NPS website they refer to Chaco as the "center of an ancient world." That statement is bountifully accurate. Located in one of the most isolated sections of New Mexico, away from modern conveniences except for a tiny gas station about 30 minutes away in the town of Nageezi...

After you drive for about 20 miles on a rugged, dirt road you come upon the Gallo Campground and then the Visitor Center. Once you pass the Visitor Center you will see many remnants of a civilization that lived in this canyon over 1,000 years ago. The people who once lived in Chaco canyon are the same people who also built Mesa Verde. But Chaco, according to recent scholars, was built earlier than Mesa Verde. Pueblo Bonito (photo glimpse below) was the main hub for community life, ceremonies, and trade. Several other sites consisting of many ruins, petroglyphs, and high mesa stairways exist in this vast historical graveyard of sorts.

And the night sky.......the only other time I have witnessed such an intense, vastly populated blanket of stars was the summer I camped on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona (circa 1996). The sky at Chaco was incredible. In fact, I didn't even have a campfire the first night because I just wanted to see the stars in all of their glory. Chaco is in the top 12 worldwide night sky programs of the NPS.

There is so much more to see in the lovely State of New Mexico.
I still would like to explore Carlsbad Caverns, Gila National Forest, Las Cruces, Truth or Consequences, Acoma Pueblo, and Bisti Badlands to name a few.

Just a half-day drive from Denver; come visit the Land of Enchantment.