It was a bright, clear spring morning in Denver, the state capital of Colorado and gateway city to the Southern Rocky Mountains. We were coasting through traffic on US Interstate 70 when, unexpectedly, a long line of jagged snowy peaks popped into view.
And, just like that, with the city at our backs, we had a visual fix on our destination in the distance—Loveland Pass, Colorado’s highest mountain pass, located a staggering 3655 metres above sea level. This was big country USA.
Colorado is home to no fewer than four national parks (the Rocky Mountain National Park included), 42 state parks, 25 ski areas and resorts, 960 wildlife species, and nearly 10,000km of rivers.
Add to that 58 mountain peaks that rise to more than 4000 metres (or 14,000 feet) above sea level (Aoraki Mount Cook, by comparison, is 3600 metres tall) and 27 natural hot springs and you have a whole lot of ‘wow’. Or at least the perfect destination for a three-day road trip.
Denver to Salida to Fairplay
Our plan was to make the loop journey from Denver (which sits about 20km east of the Rocky Mountain foothills) through the high-altitude Continental Divide to the ski-resort and riverside town of Salida. From there, we would return to America’s 22nd most populous city via the ghost town of Fairplay. We’d stay at high altitude for the entire trip.
Denver, 1609 metres above sea level, is nicknamed the Mile High City because its elevation is exactly one mile above sea level. Ironically, it would be the lowest point of our journey. I had my hopes pinned on getting my feet in snow, hiking an alpine trail, and taking in some of the gold rush history of the Wild West.
My husband was keen on glimpsing Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, Colorado’s state animal, and enjoying some of the state’s famously good craft beer.
Crossing Loveland Pass
As we made our ascent to Loveland Pass, I felt confident I’d check the first item off my wish-list. There was plenty of the bright white stuff on either side of the highway. Signage and row-after-row of rustic lodge accommodation told us Loveland Ski Area was close by. A gas station worker said the pass itself was popular with backcountry skiers in winter.
We looked for somewhere to pull over to enjoy the snow and chose the picturesque Clinton Gulch Dam Reservoir, an easy stop along State Highway 91.
Located in the Arapaho National Forest, the reservoir feeds Summit County and is a popular spot to picnic, boat, hike, and fish for Colorado’s native greenback cutthroat trout.
We lingered long enough to crunch through knee-deep snow and throw a few brutally hard snowballs before beating a quick retreat to the warmth of our rental.
Leadville, historic silver mining town
Next stop: Leadville. It was a rickety township of sunken roofs, junkyard streets, and a reputation as one of America’s most lawless silver mining towns (back in the late 1880s, that is). Picture tumbleweed, sharp-shooting cowboys, and gambling dens to imagine the township as it was back in its heyday.
We walked the main street for a closer look at Leadville’s stunning Victorian buildings, the Tabor Grand Hotel (Oscar Wilde lectured there in 1882) and City Hall. Half-way down the street, we passed the office of the still-thriving local rag, The Herald Democrat. “Leadville’s hometown newspaper since 1879.”
We grabbed a really good takeaway espresso from the Tennesse Pass Café, then decided to press on to Salida, still an hour’s drive away.
Salida, mountain village
It was a 28-degree afternoon when we pulled into the carpark of The Amigo Motel. There was an Airstream caravan (or travel trailer as they’re called in the US) available for rent and several spaces allocated to RVs and campers.
Instead, we booked into a standard room before beelining it to Soulcraft Brewing for a refreshing ale. Salida is a year-round tourist town built on the banks of the Arkansas River. In spring and summer, there’s white-water rafting, kayaking, and paddleboarding.
You can take a multi-day hike at nearby Browns Canyon National Monument or (as we did) simply roll out of bed, throw on your sneakers, and walk the zig-zag track to the top of Tenderfoot Mountain (or ‘S’ mountain as it’s called, in reference to the white ‘S’ sign at the top).
The four-kilometre return trip, accessible from downtown Salida, gives you a bird’s-eye view of Salida and enough elevation to break a sweat. In winter, Salida’s visitors soak in natural hot springs, go dog sledding, take snowmobile tours and, of course, ski and snowboard nearby at Monarch Ski Area.
For the less outdoorsy among us, there’s great shopping, good coffee, delicious craft beer, and plenty of excellent places to eat.
We enjoyed cheap Mexican at the colourfully decked-out Las Camelinas. And for a special dinner chose The Fritz, a highly-recommended gastro-pub and bistro on Sackett Ave.
Fairplay, ghost town
To complete our three-day road trip, we left Salida on US Highway 285 as the dry heat and sunshine we’d enjoyed for two days gave way to moody black skies and plummeting temperatures.
Travelling the highway, the landscape opened up to desert lands and grass plains encircled by towering snow-capped mountains. Against this backdrop, vehicles looked like tiny ants scuttling along the well-worn tarseal.
When we got to the ghost town of Fairplay, torrential rain felt like a sure bet. But we chanced it and took an hour-long, self-guided walking tour of South Park City—a replica gold rush village opened in 1959, exactly 100 years after the first gold find.
We were two of just a handful of tourists in the deserted village. Truth is, it was a little spooky wandering in and out of the original buildings of the era. The doctor’s office, with its archaic metal instruments, looked more like a butchery.
While the drug store, the exhibits of Native American history, and the reconstruction of the hard rock mine, the Alma Queen, were more fascinating than alarming. As we drove back to Denver, we realised the only thing we didn’t tick off the must-do list was sighting bighorn sheep.
A minor loss we agreed as we pulled off the highway for five minutes to Instagram local woodcraft: great big figurines of smiling moose and wide-eyed yeti. My caption read: “I’m in Colorado! Check out the wildlife.”
Top 10 RV parks near Salida
Expect to pay between US $36 and US $53 per night for an RV site in Salida. Cheaper sites offer 30amp electric and water, while the pricey sites tend to offer views and 50amp full hook up.
- Bighorn RV Park bighornpark.com
- Sugarbush Campground sugarbushco.com
- Sweetwater River Ranch sweetwaterriverranch.com
- Heart of the Rockies Campground & RV Park heartoftherockiescamp-rv.com
- Tomichi Creek Trading Post tomichicreektradingpost.com
- Mountain View RV Resort mountainviewrvresort.net
- Cotopaxi/Arkansas River KOA koa.com/campgrounds/cotopaxi
- Chalk Creek Campground & RV Park chalkcreek-campground.com
- Mt Princeton RV Park mtprincetonrvpark.com
- Cripple Creek Hospitality House & Travel Park cchospitalityhouse.com
The air is thinner and drier in Colorado because of its high altitude. We were advised to follow these tips to enjoy the climate year-round.
- Drink plenty of water to beat the high altitude and low humidity.
- Go easy on the booze; its effects are felt stronger in the mountains.
- Take care with physical activity; it pays to halve what you usually do.
- Use plenty of sunscreen, even in winter (there’s 25 percent less protection from the sun in Colorado).
- Check the weather forecast at least two days in advance and dress in layers for protection from the sun and cold.