Red Rocks and Mountaintops

Summer Vacation 2020 – The “Are We There Yet Chronicles?”

Visiting Palo Duro for a night was not without its consequences. I always try to keep our daily mileage under 350 miles. For the sake of my loving husband, who works hard to tolerate my fear of driving while towing the camper, I often try to keep it well below that.

But a stop at Palo Duro meant a long haul to our next stop in Colorado Springs, over 370 miles away. The kicker? I inadvertently planned for our longest day of a sixteen-day journey to be on Father’s Day.

Oops.

But with the exception of the climb in altitude and sudden wind gusts with less than 20 miles to go to our destination, the trip went smoothly and we pulled into the KOA ready to stretch, play some giant chess, and wait for my sister-in-law’s arrival from Denver, where she’s lived for over 20 years. We got to enjoy an evening campfire, s’mores, and good conversation as we all finally relaxed some of the COVID-19 restrictions we had been living with for three months. Before heading for bed we discussed the goals for our two night stay, which for me included Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak and then another quiet evening.

The summer before Jeff and I got married, we drove from Michigan to Colorado to visit his sister and attend the wedding of two of my college friends. It was a wonderful week of pre-wedded bliss that included a drive through Colorado Springs and the Garden of the Gods. I fell in love with the hiking and red rock formations and the mountains rising up in the distance.

In the years since, I have looked at other’s photographs of the park with envy, longing to see the rock garden again someday.

Going back was always going to be a part of a Colorado family vacation.

We woke up, I made our traditional bacon, eggs, and sausage breakfast, we filled water bottles and coolers, and we headed down the road.

Garden of the Gods is a public park owned by the city of Colorado Springs. Paved walking/running paths connect visitors to all of the park’s rock formations, open sections of low rock formations welcome would-be climbers while tall rock faces entice actual climbers, and Pikes Peak looms in the distance.

We walked the trails, the kids climbed all over rocks that matched their size and ambitions, and we all took in the natural beauty.

We stopped at the trading post where 19 years earlier Jeff had purchased the leather camping hat he’s worn during nearly ever camping trip in the years since, and then kept moving up the road towards Pikes Peak.

I had only been to Pikes Peak once, when I was 16 and on a family vacation with my dad’s extended family. I remembered the beautiful views and that was pretty much it. All I knew was that I wanted to make sure that if our kids were in that part of Colorado, I wanted them to see the top of the world.

When we got to the gateway to the Pikes Peak Highway, the 19-mile road that leads straight to the top of the mountain, the ranger warned us that the top had been temporarily closed while a lightening storm lit up the upper regions of the mountain. There was a possibility that the road would open up eventually, but he had no way of knowing. We decided to pay the $50 fee for our truckload of five and continue on. Jeff drove up the mountain highway while the rest of us took in the sights of pine trees and distant valleys.

We made our first stop at Mile 7, taking in the views at Crystal Reservoir (9,160 feet) and eating a really late lunch. Then we continued up the winding road until we got to Glen Cove, hoping that we would find the road open so we could continue to the top, or even better, that there would be a shuttle waiting for us so that we could travel to the top in comfort.

The closer we got to the Mile-13 stop, the more vehicles we saw coming down the mountain covered in what appeared to be snow. Once we parked, we discovered hail, not snow, littering the ground. While my sister-in-law and I stood in line to find out what was happening with the top (which was blocked when we arrived), the kids and Jeff started having a makeshift snowball fight, using the hail as a substitute.

Since it didn’t look like an ascent was going to possible, we walked around, took pictures, and generally enjoyed the views. I was sad that we wouldn’t be able to complete the journey, but I figured that the Colorado Springs authorities didn’t want to be responsible for the deaths of a couple hundred tourists who continued to the top of a mountain despite a summer storm of hail combined with near freezing temperatures.

The road opened up just as we were getting ready to head back down the mountain. Instead, we started the climb.

The drive up was nothing like I remembered. Tight hairpin turns and switchbacks kept us at 10 to 15 miles per hour, the juxtaposition of Jeff’s white knuckles and my wide eyes telling the story of what it is like to travel on a road that takes you to 14,000 feet. The views were breathtaking while the narrow roads and drop-offs took our breath away.

And at the top? We were pelted with hail and snow and we all fought the dizziness that accompanied the thin air at the top, our daughter suffering the worst of it.

The trip down the mountain was more nerve wracking than the trip up. Another ranger checked our brakes at Glen Cove, told us to rest our brakes the next chance we had, we waited for a little while, and then we continued down the mountain to where French Dip was waiting for us at our campsite.

I am an admitted National Parks junkie, but the beautiful nature that blankets America’s landscape has multiple caretakers. The Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak are excellent examples of how nature can be preserved when local communities decide that it is a priority. Over a 24 hour period, our family got to be the beneficiaries of that prioritization, making this vacation stop an adventure that our kids will not soon forget.

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