A Weekend in Colorado: Denver – Mount Evans – Rocky Mountain National Park

When you think about traveling to or across the USA, typical destinations like California, New York or Florida will probably come to your mind, whereas the Mountain State gets underrated ever so often. So for a change, how about a western state that has a little bit of everything? I’m talking about Colorado, which in my opinion doesn’t get the attention it deserves. And yet Colorado with an average elevation of 6,600 ft (2,000 m) isn’t only the highest-lying state of America including everything that comes with it (especially snow) but with its multifaceted environment there’s something for everyone: skiing, exploring small towns, hiking, visiting breweries and wineries, whitewater rafting, cycling, cultural activities and – one of my personal highlights (except for roof top bars) – scenic drives.
I don’t want to give away too much, but beforehand:

  • We had a different imagination of what spring (or rather May) would look like in Colorado.
  • We therefore didn’t bring appropriate clothing.
  • We only spent two days in Colorado.
  • It was incredibly beautiful!

Mount Evans (Road)

 Mount-Evans-Sign
In case you came here hoping for some pictures and information of Mount Evans, I’m sorry I have to disappoint you. But wait! Before you go – you might change your plans after reading this. Starting over: On our flight to Denver my colleague told me enthusiastically about his trip to Mount Evans last year (at the exact same time of the year – middle of May), raving about breathtaking views you’d have up there. For this reason we simply hit the road without thinking too much about the weather – after all it was sunny and dry in Denver.
Colorado-Mount-Evans-Snow
On our way we soon noticed that our plan – driving on North America’s highest auto road – may not work out. It got whiter and whiter, the higher we went. Nevertheless we were optimistic – until we ended up in front of a closed road. At the souvenir shop next door we got told that the road would open around Memorial Day each year, while this year it would probably be even later since there were 20 inches of snowfall two days before.
Mount-Evans-Road-closed-snow
Starting this post with a failure?! Yap, cause that’s how our trip began as well. It only could and therefore this post only can get better 😉 Also, I wouldn’t really call it a failure because as a confessed fan of scenic drives the road trip until Mt. Evans road was already worth it, especially since all the other roads were cleared (you can take the saying “the journey is the destination” literally here). I felt like I was in winter wonderland and suddenly I really felt like skiing followed by a cup of mulled wine at one of those cute little cottages on the way. It was like being on set of a typical American Hollywood Christmas movie. At this very moment, this destination (Colorado itself) was kept in my mind for a future winter trip.
PLUS: after this has happened to us already and now that I’m sharing this experience, you don’t have to make the same mistake or at least know what to expect when you go there this time of the year.
 Snowplow-Schneepflug-Colorado Colorado-Winter-Road-Trip
Parking-Snow-Colorado

Peak to Peak Scenic Byway

Have I mentioned that I love scenic drives?! Peak to Peak is one of those drives. It’s just so much fun! There are several lookouts on this route, just like the parking lot covered in snow as you can see on the picture above. However, you could pull over anywhere – if it’s not a sharp bend or on the brink – to take pictures or just enjoy the view. The upside is that there isn’t much traffic at all. So after we couldn’t get to the top of Mount Evans, we drove the Peak to Peak route from about “Nederland” crossing “Peaceful Valley” to “Estes Park” where we finally entered the Rocky Mountain National Park.

On our way we stopped between Meeker- and Estes Park at “Lily Lake” which, surrounded by snow, appeared gorgeous. According to all the people we met, you indeed can walk around the lake in the snow, equipped with snowshoes that is. (Check out my short video on Facebook to see what it looked like.) One lap around the lake would be about 0.8 miles (1.3 km). Unfortunately we both wore sneakers and ended up with wet feet after our short stop at the lake already. We didn’t even make it to the lake through all the slush – however we still managed to smile to some extent 😉

Lily-Lake-Peak-to-Peak-Colorado

On our way back we briefly stopped in Boulder, a cute little town about halfway to Denver. There you can stroll up and down Pearl Street Mall, have a cup of coffee or tea or eat really well, respectively buy food ahead and take it on a picnic. After all Boulder is also called “America’s foodiest town” (and yes they have vegan/ vegetarian options). Btw the University of Boulder is the most prominent of Colorado and about a third of the inhabitants are students.

Rocky Mountain National Park

The Rocky Mountain National Park provides plenty of hiking trails, campsites, lakes and always a stunning view of the Rocky Mountains. The National Park is also famous for its flora and fauna, of which we didn’t see too much though because it was just too white and cold. Also, the Rocky Mountains are rich in mineral resources – it’s where silver and copper was found after the gold rush in 1880.

Rocky-Mountain-National-Park-Snow

So we didn’t expect this much snow (if you couldn’t tell by now) but we were really happy about it afterwards. I mean, look at the beautiful appearance of the mountains and the park covered in snow! It really was a stunning view.
Rocky-Mountain-National-Park-Entrance

There are different ways to enter the Rocky Mountain National Park. We went through the entrance at “Estes Park”. Normally the entrance fee is 20 $/ car/ day, but we were lucky as there was no electricity at the moment we went to the attendant to pay. So he just waved us through.

For more information visit the official website of the National Park: https://www.nps.gov/romo/index.htm

Bear Lake

Since we didn’t have too much time or too many options due to the weather, we decided to got to Bear Lake. We soon noticed that we weren’t the only ones with this idea. It seemed like everyone who was at the park this day went to the lake at the same time. (Until then we actually wondered why the National Park was so empty..) And yet it wasn’t easy to get to the lake even though it’s only about 100 m away from the parking lot. However, not only the lake, but also the trail leading up to it was frozen, so that it took a while to maneuver on it without falling all too often. I “only” slipped and fell once on the way back and ended up with my whole right arm in the snow – that’s how deep it actually was.

Bear-Lake-frozen-Rocky-Mountains

There’s a trail of 0.5 mi (800 m) around the lake which usually is covered with snow well into June.

Bear-Lake-frozen-Rocky-Mountain-National-Park

Red Rocks

The Red Rocks Park is an extension of the Rocky Mountains and encloses an amphitheater with its red sandstone rocks. The open-air theater secures 8,700 seats and excellent acoustics. Since 1947, this stage is used for public events (you can find the information for upcoming events on this website). Legendary bands like U2, The Beatles, Depeche Mode and Bruce Springsteen performed on this stage already. Meanwhile there’s a visitor center underground including a restaurant and bar. On top of that, you can go on a hike or do some yoga at the Red Rocks.

However, we haven’t been here for a concert or to go on a hike but instead came very early to watch the sunrise. In the end what’s great about the time difference in a westerly direction is that you wake up fairly early in the morning. So we left downtown around 05:40 am and got there on time for the sunrise (around 6 am).

I’ve actually been at the amphitheater the last time I was in Denver, but it was summer at that time and thus looked pretty different. Then there were a lot of sporty Americans and those who’d like to be, working out around the amphitheater right after the sun rose. In contrast, this time there was some clearing work going on, probably because of an event the night before. It didn’t really interfere with the beautiful view, though. I think these pictures paint a thousand words:

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Denver

Denver is one of those places that offers a little of everything, but it’s probably best as a springboard for ski- or nature-tourists.It’s the most populous city of Colorado (Colorado Springs comes second). The city’s official elevation is exactly one mile (1.609 m) above sea level and that’s why Denver is nicknamed the Mile-High City. The region experienced a boom during – or rather because of – the gold rush (1848/49) and finally with the development of the railroad line. As the capital of Colorado, Denver has a lot of governmental buildings. We didn’t have too much time and strictly speaking spent 30 minutes actively sightseeing when we were waiting for the breakfast place to open (s. below). Anyway there’s a free guided tour of the State Capitol on weekdays where you can even climb all the way to the top and enjoy a beautiful view of Denver.

Denver – Eating Out

There are two restaurants in Denver that I can recommend. On Friday night we went to “Watercourse Foods“, where we first had a drink at the bar while waiting for an empty table. I must confess that the food they served for dinner wasn’t quite my cup of tea. Why? Just because I don’t really like authentically imitated meat dishes and all that. If that’s something you’re into, then you should definitely go there! The staff was very friendly and helpful, our drinks were good and the prices were appropriate. Also I think it’s quite difficult to rate a restaurant after just one visit. Next time I’d try breakfast at this place. The restaurant is conveniently situated in a street with plenty of pubs which looked pretty good. From the outside, that is. We were too tired!

The next day we had breakfast at City O’ City, where I ordered the “power waffle” with coconut yogurt and berry compote. Not only was that delicious but also very filling. Btw before eating here we did our small sightseeing tour through Denver (s. pictures above) because the café wasn’t open yet.

I’m not quite sure at the moment, but I think these were actually the only two times we went out to eat during the whole weekend. We did, however, stock up on food at Whole Foods Market and noshed on it on the road. We simply kept the fresh stuff (hummes, fruit etc.) in the minibar at our hotel room. Having said that, breakfast at City O’ City was pretty heavy so that I wasn’t hungry until evening anyway.

Road Trippin’ in and around Denver

Denver-Colorado-Road-Trip-Parken

Car rental

We decided to rent a car at the airport rather than downtown because we’d be able to take off right away the next morning without having to wait for the rental office to open (at 8 am). After all, due to the time difference you wake up very early in the morning. While renting a car at the airport usually is pretty fast, we had kind of bad experience in Denver. First you have to take a shuttle bus from the terminal to the rental office – the ride takes just a few minutes but the bus goes every 15 (?) minutes only. Fair enough, but when we arrived at “Budget” we had to wait about 45 minutes in a seemingly endless line. That’s just not fun at all after a ten-hour flight… But in their defense, apparently there was a car shortage after a lot of the rental cars were damaged in a hail storm a few days earlier and therefore weren’t available. We heard of that afterwards and suddenly figured out that the brand-new Porsche with all the dents that we saw didn’t get hit by someone with a golf club or the like but was damaged by the hail 😉
Returning the car went smoothly and quickly, though. You just drive onto their parking lot, get a receipt and take the shuttle bus to the terminal.

Parking

While on-street parking is free on Sundays and city holidays, many of them are occupied on all the other days and off-street parking spaces throughout downtown can be expensive. However, there are parking lots which are either free over night or cheaper. We left the car on a parking lot where a night costs 5 $ for both nights (s. picture above). You just have to pay at the machine by entering your parking spot number and then place the ticket in the windshield.

To-do the next time in Denver

If you know me, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t introduce you to Denver’s roof top bars yet. Well, that’s because I don’t know any – seriously – we were so tired on both nights that we just collapsed into bed. But it’s definitely something that’s on my “to-do list” for the next time I’m there. If you have any recommendations, I’d appreciate if you leave it (or any other tips) in the comment section below – this way everyone benefits from it 🙂

Time: You can find the current time on this site
Visa: Request Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) on this site. With ESTA tourists can stay in the USA for up to 90 days.(I’m afraid I can’t answer any question about the ESTA process or the like, cause it doesn’t concern me. But I think it gets explained pretty well on the application site.)
Money: US-Dollar ($) – you can find the current exchange rate here
What you should always take along (apart from appropriate clothing, s. Tab „best time to visit”): sunscreen (yes, also in winter!), sunglasses (and -hat/ cap) and plenty of water
Important Holidays
  • New Year’s Day (January 01)
  • Memorial Day (always the last Monday in May: May 29, 2017, May 28, 2018)
  • Independence Day, also called “The Fourth of July”  (July 04)
  • Labor Day (always the first Monday in September: September 04, 2017, September 03, 2018)
  • Thanksgiving (always the last Thursday in November: November 23, 2017, November 22, 2018)
  • Christmas Day (December 25)
Tipping: a taxi driver gets tipped around 15 percent, while 15-20 percent would be appropriate in restaurants and pubs (also such as 1 Dollar/ drink at the bar). Sometimes the tip is included in the check already though (often in touristy restaurants/ bars because waiters had negative experiences with European tourists). The check will be marked with something like “gratuity” or “tip is included”.
Paying at a restaurant/ café/ bar with service:
Saying „keep the change!“ as we are used to in most European countries, doesn’t work in the USA. After the waiter brings the check and – other than in Germany – doesn’t wait for an immediate payment, he instead moves along and expects you to pay in one of the following ways:
  • Paying cash, exact amounts (incl. tip!): leave on the table and leave.
  • Paying cash, expecting change: wait until waiter takes money on the table/ in the money folder and brings change. Leave an appropriate amount of tip on the table and leave.
  • Paying by credit card: place card in money folder/ with check and have it collected by the waiter who comes with another check you have to sign. Then you could either write down the amount of tip (and the total amount) or leave the tip on the table in cash.
Alcohol use/ going out: the best bet is to always bring any kind of ID with you as the legal drinking age is 21 and IDs do get checked more often – even if you obviously are far beyond 21.
Since 2014 buying and consuming marijuana is legal in Colorado (over age 21). You definitely smell it oftener, walking through the streets of Denver.

Founding: USA: 1776 / Colorado: 1876 / Denver: 1858
Population: USA: 324 Mio. / Colorado: 5.5 Mio. / Denver: 700,000
Population per km² (USA): 33 (compared to Germany: 230 people/ km²)
Area: Colorado: 270,000 km² / Denver: 400 km²
Official Language: English

Colorado is a great travel destination all-year, it just depends on what you want to do. Skiing season is usually from early October until end of April. If you’d rather go hiking in the Rocky Mountains, you should plan a visit in the months July – September/ October. While March and April are the snowiest months of the year, new snow isn’t uncommon in May or even early June.
What to wear/ pack: with this changeable weather it’s best to pack for all contingencies, and to wear clothes in several layers.

Colorado…
…offers some of the best skiing in America (some even say in the world)
…impresses with beautiful National Parks 
…presents gorgeous nature and makes hiker-hearts leap for joy
…offers a lot of cultural activities, too
…is ideal for road trippin’ 

Owing to some webcams on this website you can see what it currently looks like in the Rockies and plan your stay (or clothing) accordingly.

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