Colorado Rocky Mountain High
The Pikes Peak Region Offers Rugged Adventure, Wild West Towns, Red-Rock Formations, and Top-Flight Dining and Nightlife
If you’re dreaming of a Colorado Rocky Mountain High vacation, the Pikes Peak region, just 60 miles south of Denver, stands tall — very tall — in offering spectacular beauty and a wealth of varied attractions. There are also many well-situated RV parks from which to choose. This area encompasses the second-largest city in Colorado, Colorado Springs, along with the delightful historic community of Manitou Springs, the pretty mining town of Cripple Creek (now dotted with casinos but proudly showing off its Victorian-era past), Cañon City (home of the awe-inspiring Royal Gorge) and more than 50 area attractions.
Experience the serenity, history and recreational excitement of the Rocky Mountains’ majesty, along with visits to still-present Wild West towns. Take in thrilling white-water rafting, canoeing and kayaking, fishing for trout and bass, and hiking. You can take a cog railway ride to the top of America’s most famous mountain, 14,115-foot Pikes Peak, where Katharine Lee Bates aptly found her inspiration for writing “America the Beautiful.” Gaze in amazement at the towering red-rock formations at Garden of the Gods, stroll the grounds at the gorgeous European-estatelike Broadmoor Resort, visit a world-class zoo situated dramatically on a mountainside (where you can hand-feed giraffes) or even visit Santa at his “North Pole.” View stalagmites and stalactites at Cave of the Winds, or tour authentic Native American cliff dwellings, take a narrow gauge train ride through the oh-so-skinny Royal Gorge under the highest bridge in the United States, or take in a tour of one of the several castles in the region.
Simple, natural pleasures include hiking to waterfalls and visiting old mines (some still in operation), but you can also enjoy a dressed-up nightlife with top-flight dining, dinner theaters, casinos and live music.
Nestled between Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak lies the delightful town of Manitou Springs. “Manitou,” a Native American word for “spirit,” aptly describes this beautiful mountain community. Eleven naturally carbonated mineral-spring fountains, located throughout this historic town, run free for all who wish to enjoy the healing benefits. The Ute, Cheyenne and other Native Americans considered this area sacred for its healing springs and clean mountain air.
Manitou Springs is a vibrant artisan community, home to world-class art, music, theater and sidewalk sculpture displays. The Historic District is lined with unique art galleries, one-of-a-kind gift shops and trading posts with handcrafted Native American treasures. Home to dozens of artists and art galleries, Manitou also offers internationally famous historic restaurants.
The Pikes Peak Cog Railway, constructed more than 100 years ago, takes intrepid visitors to the top of Pikes Peak, elevation 14,115 feet. It is the highest railroad in North America. Pikes Peak is the backdrop for the historic city of Colorado Springs, and is the 31st-highest peak out of 54 Colorado “14ers” (peaks with a summit higher than 14,000 feet). From the summit, you’ll see panoramic views of the Continental Divide, Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek. There are three ways to get to the Pikes Peak summit: on foot, by car, or on the cog railway, which takes three hours and 10 minutes round trip. Remarkably, the mountain is accessible year-round on all but the heaviest snow days by both the cog railway and the Pikes Peak Highway.
The Pikes Peak Highway (no trailers are allowed on this road) is a 38-mile round-trip partially paved toll road that climbs 6,715 vertical feet from base to summit, with picnic grounds, educational programs, visitor facilities and interpretive trails. It travels through four distinct life zones, from the foothills to the tundra. At the top is a huge gift shop where you can try “the world’s highest altitude doughnuts.”
Back in Manitou Springs, at the historic Cave of the Winds, visitors can descend into 20 deep caverns filled with stalagmites and stalactites. This is the area’s oldest attraction in the region and was opened in 1880. Just five minutes down the road from Cave of the Winds, you’ll find the Manitou Cliff Dwellings and Museum, where you will see authentic Ancestral Puebloan Indian homes dating from A.D. 1100 to 1300, moved here from southern Colorado in the same general area as Mesa Verde. There are also many handicrafts and artifacts in the museum and, occasionally, Indian dancers perform.
Just a short drive away, the Garden of the Gods Park is a 1,323-acre registered National Natural Landmark with gorgeous scenery and recreational opportunities. Dramatic views of 300-foot towering sandstone rock formations against a backdrop of snowcapped Pikes Peak and brilliant blue skies will keep your cameras busy. This world-class visitor center is the most-visited attraction in the Pikes Peak region with an educational, 14-minute HD multimedia show explaining “How Did Those Red Rocks Get There?”
Moving onto Colorado Springs, there are myriad activities and sights — so much that you will be forced to be choosy. The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is acclaimed worldwide and was the first facility of its kind to offer arts education, a theater and an art museum under one roof. The Broadmoor Hotel, an exquisite gem, is akin to a European estate. I enjoyed gazing at the historic Prohibition-era exhibits of forbidden liquor bottles and photos, and a walk around the lake. Better yet, is indulging in a Sunday brunch, getting a drink at the cozy bar or splurging on a spa treatment. Right behind the hotel is the lovely, intimate Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, America’s only mountain zoo — so bring good walking shoes — with a collection of more than 750 exotic animals, including giraffes that you can feed.
Another delight in Colorado Springs is the U.S. Olympic Training Center that offers free public tours year-round Monday through Saturday. Its Visitor Center hosts approximately 140,000 people each year, and it’s the primary facility that provides the general public with information about the U.S. Olympic Committee, U.S. Olympic Training Centers and the Olympic Movement. The center includes the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame Rotunda, the U.S. Olympic Store, indoor/outdoor patio eating facilities, a 225-seat auditorium and meeting facilities. It also features numerous art exhibitions, Olympic memorabilia displays including interactive kiosks at which guests can obtain information on all American Olympic athletes. Just outside, the Carol Grotnes Belk Sculpture Garden features four bronze sculptures and a 12-foot-tall Olympic Ring Wall amidst a garden of flowers and foliage. Overhead, the rooftop terrace has an Olympic flame display and offers panoramic views of the entire complex.
A one-hour drive southwest of Colorado Springs, the spectacular Royal Gorge Bridge and Park (currently closed due to fire damage, with an expected reopen date of summer 2014) is a not-to-be-missed thrill. You can walk or drive (if you dare — I didn’t!) across this suspension bridge, which is among the 10 highest bridges in the world, and spans the gorge 955 feet above the roaring, rollicking Arkansas River. On the way down, stop at the May Natural History Museum, where you’ll see more than 8,000 of the world’s most beautiful and unusual invertebrates, including giant tropical insects from around the world.
About an hour from either Colorado or Manitou Springs is the old mining and Wild West town of Cripple Creek at an altitude of 9,494 feet. The city is full of local color and features plenty of attractions — beyond the casinos that have fueled its renaissance. The town’s herd of friendly donkeys wander freely and love to be petted. The last week of June is the town’s Donkey Derby Days, with races and other fun events. You can also visit the grave of Susan Anderson, M.D., who was the impetus for the television program “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”
The 11,600-square-foot beautifully designed Cripple Creek Heritage Center, on the right side of the highway just a bit before you enter town, is no typical visitor center. I recommend taking in the excellent half-hour movie depicting the town’s evolution in this extraordinary, high-technology and interactive museumlike site. The facility is staffed by friendly, knowledgeable historians who are delighted to help you learn about Cripple Creek’s founders, rabble-rousers, the rich mining legacy, progressive railroads, geography, Native Americans, plants and animals. Free of charge, the Cripple Creek Heritage Center is open year-round, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The Jail Museum is chilling and fascinating — visitors see the actual cramped cells in the original jail once called “one of cruelest jails in the United States” which was in use until 1992. On exhibit are shivs and other homemade weapons confiscated from inmates since the Gold Rush days.
The Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad, a 15-ton, flawlessly restored steam locomotive, takes passengers on a 4-mile round trip, and departs every 45 minutes each day from Memorial weekend to early October. The journey emulates the experience that mineworkers had riding the Midland Terminal Roadbed to and from the excavation sites each day. Conductors tell tales about the life and times of the miners, businessmen, fortune seekers and the ladies of the night who accompanied them during the Gold Rush heyday at the turn of the 20th century.
Get down and deep into the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine for an exciting tour of a vertical mine shaft and hard rock mine that was started, owned and operated by a woman, Mollie Kathleen Gortner. Even more striking is that it is still operational — and complies with federal safety standards — and offers a subterranean tour to a depth of 1,000 feet below the surface of the earth. The mine produced $5 million in gold from 1891 to 1961, which converted into today’s standards was a substantial amount. Tours are guided and narrated by miners. Guests ride an air-powered mining train, witness an 1890s steam hoist in full operation, and learn how drilling and blasting explosives were set.
One thing is certain in the Pikes Peak region — you can stay busy all day, every day, and not see everything. Or simply soak in the Rocky Mountain majesty and relax. Rock climbing, hang gliding, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, horseback riding, spelunking — it’s all here. No wonder Pikes Peak is the inspiration for America the Beautiful.
Where to Stay
Cripple Creek Hospitality House & RV Park
800-500-2513 | www.cchospitalityhouse.com
The Cripple Creek Hospitality House, built in 1901, is a hotel and event center, as well as an RV park, and is located right by the downtown area of Cripple Creek. Pull-through sites, full hookups, bathhouse, laundry and game area. The Hospitality House served as the Teller County Hospital during the district’s Gold Rush heyday.
Garden of the Gods RV Resort
866-994-0543 | www.coloradocampground.com
With expansive views of Pikes Peak amidst a forested setting, more than 175 sites and a spacious indoor/outdoor pavilion, this Colorado Springs campground is convenient to Manitou Springs and Old Colorado City. New 65-foot, executive pull-through sites, picnic tables and cable TV, swimming pools, showers, laundry facilities, TV lounge and game room. Pet-friendly Garden of the Gods RV Resort organizes social events such as ice cream socials and cookouts between Memorial and Labor Days.
Golden Eagle Campground of Colorado Springs
800-666-3841, 719-576-0450 | www.maymuseum-camp-rvpark.com
This rustic campground opened in 1961 by the May family also owns and operates the adjacent May Natural History Museum (with one of the world’s largest private collections of giant tropical insects) as well as the Museum of Space Exploration. Open May 1 to September 30.
Goldfield RV Campground
888-471-0495 | www.goldfieldrvcampground.com
This densely treed campground is very close to both Manitou Springs and Colorado City, although it is in Colorado Springs. It has been family owned and operated for 50 years. Fifty 30/50 amp large sites, many shaded, 12 pull-through sites, pet-friendly, Wi-Fi and cable TV available. A resident manager is on the premises, working in the Western-style log cabin office.
Lone Duck Campground
800-776-5925 | www.loneduckcamp.com
Located 25 minutes from downtown Colorado Springs, at the base of Pikes Peak with a 7,600-foot elevation, Lone Duck offers full hook-up sites with electric, water and sewer. Each site has some form of shade, trees and grass, and some are adjacent mountain streams. A $4 pancake breakfast is offered daily. The fishing pond is spring-fed and stocked with rainbow trout. There’s a heated pool and a splash pad. The Lone Duck has high-speed free Internet access.
The campground is open the first weekend in May to the last weekend of September.