Colorado is home to some of the USA’s most stunning landscapes. Kuoni’s Brian Woodhouse sets off on a self-drive to take in the natural beauty of the state.
I love all things America. I have been travelling to the USA since the days of Freddie Laker in the 1970s and the Rocky Mountains have always been high on my list of places to go. I was finally getting the chance to embark on a Colorado self-drive and the plan was to follow the state's famous hot springs, from Colorado Springs to Denver.
Colorado Springs is south of Denver and an easy drive from the airport. This historic city sits at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and is a delight to wander around and explore. You can drive around the Garden of the Gods, a beautiful park and a National Natural Landmark, gazing up at the sandstone rock formations against a backdrop of bright blue skies and the snow-dusted Pikes Peak. The peak is over 14,000-feet and you can explore by car, bike or on foot. There is a great choice of 4x4 tours if you’d rather not drive the twisting roads yourself and the views from the top across the mountain range are brilliant. Visit Cripple Creek, one of the richest producing towns of the gold rush; and discover canyons, creeks, caves and museums, including Red Rock Canyon.
Another place I’d recommend is a visit to the US Air Force Academy, where you can book a Chapel tour. At 150-feet tall, the Chapel caters for all religions and is a beautiful building made of aluminium, steel and glass. It is closing in June 2019 for a few years for restoration but the USAFA Planetarium, which has been closed since 2004, is opening again to visitors in early 2019. Inside the 50-foot dome, you will be able to recline on the chairs and choose from a journey to the centre of the Milky Way to a Fighter Pilot experience. At the academy, you can also see a B-52 display and the athletics centre.
From Colorado Springs we drove toward Nathrop, making time to stop at the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. This is a suspension bridge that crosses the Arkansas River and is one of the tallest in the world.
Mount Princeton Hot Springs
Our first hot springs stop was just outside Nathrop in the mountain resort of Mount Princeton. The resort is great as you have a choice of hot spring pools and you can make use of the natural hot springs in the river running through the resort. The only time you can’t use the river pools is when the snow melts and the river runs too fast to make it safe. The views of the mountains are spectacular and you can sit and relax in the peace and quiet of the mountains.
Ouray is known as the Switzerland of America and, when you drive into the town, the valley sides get narrower and narrower and you soon understand why. This place is a gem and if you want small town America at its finest, then Ouray is simply it. It’s a town from an old American western and the reference to cowboys is everywhere. It is where John Wayne filmed True Grit and in one of the bars in town he nailed his hat above the door, which is still there today.
The hot pools are just outside the centre of town and are a fabulous place to unwind after a day’s exploring. Pictures cannot do this place justice and I recommend a trip to Box Canyon where you can see the dramatic waterfalls, as well as a drive over Red Mountain pass to the town of Silverton. This Wild West town has a steam railway, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, that runs through the stunning San Juan Mountains. This coal-fired steam engine is right out of Casey Jones (for those of you who remember the TV programme). As you drive back from Silverton to Ouray, make sure you stop at some of the ghost towns and disused mines along the way.
The drive from Ouray to Glenwood Springs is another magical day experiencing the mountains and valleys that make up part of the Rockies. At first Glenwood can seem a strange town as it sits astride the busy link road from Denver to the West and the Colorado River. Don’t let this put you off, it is a great town with so many things to see and do. If you like Westerns, you can learn more about Doc Holliday, who was famous for the gunfight at the OK Corral. The hotel where he died is now a shop and small museum; and his final resting place is in the cemetery nearby.
The area is probably most famous for its two hot springs and Glenwood Hot Springs Pool and Spa is home of the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool. It’s also one of the hottest in Colorado and feels like you’re taking a bath! If you like theme parks and caves, you can take the cable car from the town up to Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park and try the Giant Canyon Swing, which launches you 1300 feet out over the Glenwood Canyon and Colorado River. There are also rollercoasters and other rides, plus the chance to explore the caverns to see the thousands of stalactites and stalagmites.
One of the highlights during my time here was a night spent at Glenwood Vaudeville Revue for dinner and a comedy show. The skits are performed by professional actors, singers and musicians; and the show revives the heyday of Vaudeville with slapstick humour and novelty songs.
Glenwood is also a great base to explore Aspen, home to John Denver and the famous ski resort; and just outside of Aspen you can take a detour to visit the Maroon Bells, two peaks that stand over 14,000 feet. The drive to the Bells is spectacular and there are plenty of hiking trails to take you to some photo-worthy viewpoints of the beautiful mountains overlooking the lake.
Denver is a vibrant city and you can take in a game at Mile High Stadium, eat in one of thousands of restaurants, taste the local beer from the hundreds of micro-breweries that have sprung up in the city and visit Mollie Brown House Museum, a survivor of the Titanic. My favourite thing to do in Denver was to go to a concert at the amazing Red Rocks Amphitheatre – quite possibly the best concert venue on the planet. Life is very much lived outside in Denver, so the city is full of parks and gardens, and you have the playground of the Rocky Mountains right on your doorstep.
A fly-drive around Colorado is such a rewarding experience. My time here was full of wildlife, stories from the Wild West, brilliant people and, most of all, the magnificent Rocky Mountains.