Trading in a tent for a travel trailer, the author renews her sense of wonder for her home state and steers clear of bears
I’m not afraid of bears but I don’t want one crawling in bed with me. As a Colorado native who has spent many decades tent camping high in the Rocky Mountain wilderness, I was starting to lose sleep. Reports of late-night human and bruin encounters had cropped up. Not willing to give up our beloved pastime, my husband and I readjusted in May 2014 by exchanging a canvas tent for a travel trailer with solid sides.
All in the name of safer slumber, mind you. The refrigerator and indoor toilet had nothing to do with our buying a gently used 2012 Starcraft Autumn Ridge. I simply wished to mitigate the chances of being bitten by a brute with teeth as long and sharp as daggers. Thus began our transition from rustic camping to refined RVing.
The first order of business on my part was to outfit our new 24-foot home away from home. Giving up sturdy Rubbermaid totes we’d used over the years to cart dishes and hygienic necessities, I was pleasantly surprised at how everything now fit in the trailer’s sizable cupboards.
So, of course, the need arose — almost a requirement — to go purchase more stuff to fill the cavernous empty areas. I bought new kitchen implements along with a fun assortment of organizing gadgets, widgets and gizmos.
One stipulation in the attempt to keep with tradition was my insistence on keeping our trusty tin coffee pot. A campground cup of java simply wouldn’t taste as satisfying perked by Mr. Coffee.
Almost before the wheels had quit turning on the gravel pad of our Loveland home, my husband, the tinkerin’ sort, set to fabricating additions for our new toy. He started by building a sectioned box in which to store the towing equipment in the camper’s undercarriage when not in use. Before long, an 80-watt solar panel to recharge the dual batteries magically graced the roof.
We were ready to roll.
Pawnee National Grassland
The Interstate 25 corridor runs north and south of Loveland and Denver, 45 miles to the south. To the west rise the towering indigo and emerald peaks of the Colorado Front Range. Vast flat plains sweep wide open to the east, as if someone were playing an elaborate joke of visual geographical extremes. These were sights I’d seen for the better part of my life but was now preparing to view anew, from a fresh perspective.
For our late-spring destination, we opted to go east to Pawnee National Grassland. The choice was made because it involved an uncomplicated drive out into the prairie. The route took us across a remote stretch of the two-lane Highway 14, where we passed through the small town of Ault. Amenities are limited, so stocking up beforehand on plenty of fuel, water and food is important.
We stayed at the Crow Valley Recreation Area campground, an oasis of cottonwoods and a literal birder’s paradise. The first week in June, all trees were in full leaf with a riot of birdsong overhead. The small creek was high, flooding the site nearly to our doorstep, and prospects of both mosquitoes at dusk and a mud-coated dog were less than joyful. Our arrival on Sunday afternoon, however, ensured a drier spot. The ranger, amenable to us moving our RV, gave us the pick of an almost empty campground.
Peaceful activities abounded, such as wandering through an antique farm-implement display on the edge of the campground. A trek on the lowland Trail of the Mourning Dove was made notable by delicate white prickly poppies in bloom. Pawnee Buttes, a jutting mesa of sandstone along the Pawnee Pioneer Trails Scenic and Historic Byway, is bald eagle country; the majestic raptors were nesting at the time.
For a change of pace, target shooting at the newly built Baker Draw Designated Shooting Area, several miles away off the intersection of two dirt roads, served as a way to celebrate the spirit of the Old West.
Barring difficulties keeping the refrigerator lit, the first part of our maiden trip went off without a glitch.
Estes Park to Grand Lake
U.S. Route 34 heading west leads into the Big Thompson Canyon, so named for the Big Thompson River flowing through sheer rock walls. Twisting and turning, this road ascends at a steady pace, arriving in the tourist-mecca town of Estes Park, nestled below Rocky Mountain National Park. On the way, a discerning eye can pick out dun-colored bighorn sheep, whose pelts meld remarkably with craggy granite outcroppings. Elk, deer, mountain lions, black bears, coyotes and myriad small animals also live deep within the forests.
Estes Park is a bustling mountain town, filled with art, clothing and jewelry boutiques alongside a typical mixture of pubs, restaurants, ice cream parlors and souvenir shops. Visitors from all corners of the world are attracted to the combination of pristine vistas and highland culture. Traffic is tight and, in fact, somewhat crazy.
This was the setting we drove our RV through — as a means to an end — since we were meeting friends at Winding River Resort in Grand Lake on the other side of the Continental Divide. To get there, the route crosses Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved highway in the United States. The summit is at an elevation of 12,183 feet amid alpine tundra, and, due to copious amounts of unnavigable snow, the road closes from October through May. Dates vary depending on seasonal weather.
Although we’ve traveled this narrow pass many times before, awareness was now focused on the weight attached to the back of the truck. After arriving safely, the next several days were filled with relaxation and exploring the region. One day we investigated the idyllic Indian Peaks Wilderness. One sodden afternoon was spent in the town of Grand Lake. Wooly Booger beer, a local craft brew served at the Lariat Saloon, tasted like a bitter blessing as drenching rains poured down outside.
The highlight of the trip came when a young bull moose sauntered in a direct line between campsites. All in our party stood in awe as the leggy creature walked by as if he owned the place. Which, in a way, he did.
Four weeks later, we charged back over the same route on our way to the headwaters of the Colorado River near Kremmling. By this time, we were feeling like experienced pros at crossing steep, winding mountain passes with a trailer in tow.
The anticipation of meeting my brother and his family at the Pumphouse Recreation Site, along with about a hundred other river rats for a rafting excursion, allowed excitement to overtake any possible sadness. My sister-in-law’s father, who had been an avid outdoorsman, passed away earlier in the spring. This was to be his memorial, the commemoration of a life well lived by those who deeply admired him. Four days of running the rapids and socializing ensued, concluded by a pig roast and waterside service complete with live music.
Campsites at the Pumphouse Campground are relatively undeveloped, namely a pullout and a concrete picnic table, but fees are priced accordingly, meaning cheap.
Each evening the meadows would blossom with a kaleidoscopic variety of incoming tents. By midmorning the following day, most pulled up stakes, packed camp and rafting gear and floated downstream.
A particularly pleasant part of RV ownership came at day’s end. After spending hours getting splashed with frigid water, a hot shower awaited. Ah, yes, this part I could get used to.
One July evening black clouds broke open right after dinner, releasing a deluge. The trailer’s layout accommodated a whole slew of people in moisture-free comfort.
Onto another highway and another pass. In mid-August just the two of us, plus pooch, journeyed west on Interstate 70, the pinnacle of which passes through the Eisenhower-
Johnson Memorial Tunnel. We made camp at Turquoise Lake near Leadville, a bygone mining town.
Elk Meadow Lodge and RV Resort (Good Sam Park)
970-586-5342 | www.elkmeadowrv.com
Manor RV Park (Good Sam Park)
800-344-3256 | www.manorrvpark.com
Spruce Lake RV Resort (Good Sam Park)
970-586-2889 | www.sprucelakerv.com
Ami’s Acres Campground
970-945-5340 | www.amisacrescampground.ws
Glenwood Canyon Resort (Good Sam Park)
800-958-6737 | www.glenwoodcanyonresort.com
Winding River Resort (Good Sam Park)
970-627-3215 | www.windingriverresort.com
Pumphouse Campground, Kremmling Bureau of Land Management
970-724-3000 | www.co.blm.gov/kra/camping.htm
Molly Brown Campground, San Isabel National Forest
719-486-0749 | www.reserveamerica.com
Sugar Loafin’ RV Campground and Cabins
719-486-1031 | www.sugarloafin.com
PAWNEE NATIONAL GRASSLAND
Crow Valley Recreation Area Family Campground
970-346-5000 | www.fs.usda.gov/activity/arp/recreation/camping-cabins
The preference is to stay at Molly Brown Campground, with lovely views of the lake. In the past, we’d been able to find an available first-come, first-served site close to the shoreline, but now size did matter. The new rig wouldn’t fit in any of those spots, so we’d had the forethought to make a reservation for one around the bend.
Here, an important lesson arose. The RV certainly would fit, but what hadn’t been taken into account were issues such as the angle to back in, plus rocks, poles and mature pines blocking the way at various points. Frustrated but tenacious, we spent the better part of an hour backing into the campsite. No trees were harmed in the process. The same can’t necessarily be said for a ridiculously placed post marking the campsite on the opposite side of the road.
Verdant woods surrounded the region, and after the initial debacle, kayaking, fishing and hiking on the Colorado Trail defined our visit. Too busy with outdoor activities, we spent only a single evening in Leadville. We enjoyed a surf-’n’-turf dinner, then returned to build a roaring fire, my husband’s guitar playing drawing in a few fellow vacationers.
September found us in the heart of the splendid Glenwood Canyon, a map point enthusiastically remembered but not visited for more than 30 years.
Once again, we planned to meet another couple. Reservations were at Glenwood Canyon Resort, bordering the Colorado River, with a canopy of shade trees overhead. For those seeking thrills, a whitewater rafting company and zip-line are located on the premises, as is the No Name Bar and Grill.
After settling in, a jaunt on the Hanging Lake Trail was the first activity. Lush, green and filled with tiny waterfalls draining into an effervescent creek, the journey up the mountainside is only a little more than a mile’s distance but strenuous, presenting a sharp upward gradient most of the way. Superb scenery worthy of Tolkien’s fantasy world of hobbits and elves greeted those willing to forge ahead along the rocky, arduous path. At the end of the climb, Hanging Lake revealed itself to be a breathtaking marvel. This hidden treasure brought a refreshing appreciation of the natural world.
The following day was spent at the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool in Glenwood Springs, where rejuvenating mineral water soothed tired muscles from the previous day.
Afterward, late-afternoon sunshine escorted a stroll to the Hotel Colorado. Built in 1893, the National Historic Landmark is a reminder of a more romantic era, with a grand lobby open to curious sightseers. One can almost walk into the past and picture the halls filled with spectral ladies in glamorous gowns and gents in formal wear.
Our trailer behaved well, for the most part. The main issue occurred on the way through whistle-stop towns with compact roads and the realization that fueling could be a boondoggle. Trying to maneuver around cramped spaces fraught with other vehicles, low overhangs and limited room between pump islands proved challenging.
Fueling thereafter, whenever possible, occurred once the trailer was parked and the truck free of its load.
Red Feather Lakes
A final journey before winter in October to the Red Feather Lakes area compelled us to test the RV off-road.
There are two means of approach to the region from our origin point of Loveland. The first is up the Poudre Canyon aside the Cache la Poudre River, a designated Wild and Scenic River, then north from Glen Echo. The second, more northern and direct, is the parallel Red Feather Lakes Road.
Unfortunately, most of the campgrounds along both routes, managed from afar, had been closed for the season at the end of September. Which was regrettable, because if weather holds, fall camping at median elevations in Colorado can be a special experience.
Our arrival early Thursday morning garnered an undeveloped forest access campsite. The trailer rattled and shook but held firm as it was backed in over ruts to face a rock firepit.
Moose were in evidence, and on a brief hike we spied a cow and her offspring amid stark aspen trunks. Their tan and dark brown, almost black hides blended well with the surrounding autumn landscape. Infinite shades of dancing light and shadow slid through tawny grasses intertwined with dusky underbrush, offset by the last few fluttering golden leaves.
Once the wind quieted to a breeze, an afternoon trip to nearby Dowdy Lake, one of the prettiest in this part of Colorado, allowed for wonderful fishing for rainbow trout and a peaceful paddle in the kayak.
Nights brought out clear star-filled skies, counterbalanced by the inside blinking red light of a refrigerator gone bad. Yet, all in all, a good initial year full of fine times and tribulations tackled.
Although the main reason for buying the Autumn Ridge was sound, nary a hungry bear had been glimpsed during our first year’s RVing odysseys.