Golden, Colorado – Experiencing something for the first time – It might have been the first time you flew on an airplane; Maybe it was the first time you saw the ocean. Your first kiss or your first love. Regardless of what that one or many “first times” were, it generally leaves a lasting impression AND may just change your life. That was exactly what my husband and I experienced on our most recent (and long overdue) vacation to the “Mile High City” for an adventure of a lifetime.
Let the adventure begin!
We took off from Indianapolis, IN. on a Tuesday afternoon for a short flight to the largest land-based airport in the U.S. – Denver International. This was not the first time for either of us to be in this airport but it was a first for me to spend time in the Denver area.
Once landed, it was pretty much a blur of riding the train to the proper baggage claim area, hopping on a shuttle bus to the rent-a-car pick up, then a short 45-minute drive to the hotel in Golden, Colorado. As far as traveling goes, it all went pretty smooth but we were happy to be at our final destination for the day.
Once checked in and settled, I spoke with my friends Nathan and Brenda that lived in the area who generously offered to pick us up in the morning and show us around. The catch was they wanted to get started early. Still running on eastern standard time and now running in mountain time, plus adjusting to the altitude of being a mile high, off to bed we went for a good night’s rest.
Rocky Mountain High
The morning came early and our hosts showed up right on time. This was our first time ever seeing the Rocky Mountains and we were excited. We were headed to Rocky Mountain National Park for the day and very appreciative to have Nathan driving us since he was familiar with the area and could navigate the mountain roads without a map.
We could never imagine what we were in for…
We first rolled through Boulder, CO. (named the happiest place in the U.S. by National Geographic in 2017), which sits in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and home to the University of Colorado. Boulder’s most famous landmarks are the Flatirons – a series of slanted sandstones along the eastern side of Green Mountain – and it was cool to witness the slackliners and hikers having fun in what appeared to be a rock climbers dream!
We continued up the mountains, finally reaching the entrance to the park. I was like a “kid in a candy store” looking at the beautiful scenery and just overwhelmed by what I was seeing. I have spent quite a bit of time in the Tennessee mountains and never imagined that the Rockies would be much different…boy was I wrong.
Founded in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson, the Rocky Mountain National Park Act established the parks protected areas and boundaries. The park spans from Estes Park, CO. to the East and Grand Lake, CO. to the West and includes the eastern and western slopes of The Continental Divide along with the headwaters of the Colorado River. One of the most visited National Parks (ranked #4) it is surrounded by National Forest lands including Roosevelt National Forest (North/East), Routt National Forest (North/West), and Arapaho National Forest (West/South). There are several 14,000-foot peaks within the Rockies but Long’s Peak takes the prize at 14,259 feet above sea level and is absolutely breathtaking to see.Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube
First stop was Horseshoe Park Overlook which had a nice view of Mummy Mountain (elevation: 13,430 ft.), Big Horn Mountain (elevation: 13,175 ft.), and McGregor Mountain (elevation: 10,407 ft.). At this particular lookout, the elevation is a little over 8,900 feet with a nice paved pull off and informational signage of what you’re looking at with information on the history of the lookout. We were able to hang out there for a little bit. Our friends kept checking on us to make sure we were adjusting well to the altitude. I hadn’t really noticed much of a difference yet other than the normal ear-popping as we were driving up. Our friends had brought along a case of water for the trip and kept handing us bottles, advising us to drink as it would help with the adjustment.
We continued up the eastern side of the park and our friend turned on his navigational app so we could watch our altitude going up. Once we reached elevation of 9,000 ft. I started to notice. My face was getting tingly, I was getting emotional (yep, that’s what we are going with) and I noticed a slight pressure in my forehead. My friend handed me a bottle of water.
Around elevation of 11,000+ feet the tree line starts to end and you start to get into the alpine tundra. As we continued our journey through the park on Trail Ridge Road, we passed the Alpine Visitor Center sitting at an elevator of 11,796 feet making it the highest visitor center in the whole National Park system. At an elevation of 12,000 feet, we came to a nice pull off and decided to stop and take the trail up 260 feet to a lookout in the rooftop of the Rockies. As we made our way up the trail, there were these nice yellow flowers across the tundra of which we learned can take up to 10 years to bloom! My husband and I made it about halfway up the trail before we had to stop. The altitude had finally hit us. We were both out of breath and light-headed. Our friends had us stop and head back down the trail, taking it slow, and sitting for a few minutes to drink a bottle of water before starting to head back down the mountain.
Next stop was The Stanley Hotel in the stunning Estes Valley. Opened in 1909 by American inventor Freelan Oscar Stanley and wife Flora, The Stanley Hotel is rich with history and a few mysterious stories as well.
The hotel offers beautiful scenic views, tours of the grounds and property, fine dining, a lovely whiskey bar, and even includes an option to stay in a “spirited room” if you so choose. One famous guest, author Stephen King, after staying just one night, used the hotel as his inspiration for his 3rd major novel, The Shining; cementing the hotel’s popularity and folklore curiosity for years to come.
Before leaving the area, we stopped for a quick lunch in the town of Estes Park and did some light souvenir shopping before making our way to the quaint little mountain town of Nederland, Colorado. I had mentioned this as a place I wanted to see when asked because I had been told by many people this was a town I should stop in and check out. That is all I was told. I admit I was curious to see what was so special about this place and our travel companions were totally down to take us there since it was also home to one of their favorite breweries! (Which brings me to a side note: if you are a fan of breweries and craft beer, Denver is the place for you!! I’d get into more details about this but that is a whole other article and trip!!).
Upon arriving in Nederland, it appeared to be just another beautiful town tucked in the mountains but I soon learned this town has a first for Denver – There’s a dead guy frozen in a shed in town and they have a festival around him once a year in the first week of March. Can’t make this stuff up folks! Frozen Dead Guy Days loosely celebrates the cryopreservation of Bredo Morstoel. To learn more about this unbelievably fascinating story be sure to check out the short, “Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed” (1998) and the full-length documentary “Grandpa’s Still in the Tuff Shed” (2003). Another fun little tidbit about Nederland is The Carousel of Happiness – a must stop for any carousel enthusiast that includes a restored 1910 Looff carousel with 56 whimsical hand-carved animals turning to the music of a 1913 Wurlitzer waltz. Amazing!
Nederland was the perfect place to end a perfect first full day in the Rocky Mountains and I’d like to thank everyone who recommended this wacky little ski town!
There’s Music in those Rocks!
Be sure to follow me to Part 2: The Journey Continues in the Rockies to learn about the rest of the journey including Red Rocks and Crush Walls 2019!