On a trip through Denver and the Rocky Mountains, you'll soon discover that Colorado offers plenty of highlights, with the emphasis on the word high
As the 4x4 trawled up the mountain, sheer precipices fell on either side of the road, inducing gasps and awed laughter. The Rocky Mountains are aptly named, and their stark beauty is as enticing as it is daunting. It was the climax of a week filled with dramatic scenery, from the star-grazing towers of Denver, the Mile-High City, to a sunrise balloon ride above the dreamy town of Boulder.
Located alongside Kansas, North America’s most central state, Colorado is set almost as far from the ocean as it’s possible to be, with miles of flat prairie encircled by peaks that climb taller than 14,000 feet. My husband and I arrived at midday on a Sunday in September, just in time to accompany my cousin Ian and his son to the annual Boy Scout Rocket Launch. It was the perfect introduction to the state’s laidback, gunpowder-loving, outdoorsy attitude. Small children lit fuses and kit-built rockets spiralled up into the astonishingly blue sky – this far above sea level the air was clear and unsullied by fog or pollution, and I could understand why Ian had chosen to live here.
Colorado is a state you really need your own transport for. Though buses run in and around the cities and the light rail service links many suburbs with Denver, there are great swathes of countryside only accessible by car. On our second day in the State, Ian taxied us from his rural home to the light rail station and we took the train to Denver, marvelling as the towers appeared ahead of us, sparkling in the early morning sun. We arrived in time to be swept up in the breakfast crowd at Common Grounds, where office workers pause for a coffee, check their emails, and browse the heaving bookshelves.
Denver is compact enough to explore on foot, though free shuttle buses hum up and down the mile-long 16th Street Mall, saving weary feet. At the far end of the mall, we discovered the puddle of green that is Civic Center Park, complete with rose-beds, fountains and an incongruous Greek amphitheatre. The park is surrounded by many of the city’s tourist hotspots, including Colorado State Capitol Building and the Denver Art Museum. We managed to lose an entire day as we explored the many levels of the art museum, from traditional American Indian crafts and sculptures to the miscellany of creations housed in the new, spiky edifice of the Museum of Contemporary Art, accessed via a narrow, glass-walled sky bridge.
Up, up and away
Eager to get a sense of the sheer size of Colorado, we cajoled Ian into driving to a field near the sleepy college town of Boulder where hot air balloons rise into the sky just as the sun blooms on the horizon. Over a breakfast of pastries and coffee provided as part of a package by Fair Winds Hot Air Balloon Flights, we watched as a bundle of nylon fabric swelled into our vast rainbow-striped vessel. We were riding in one of three balloons ascending that day, and as we drifted over a main road, hordes of children leaned from the windows of a yellow school bus to wave. We could see the orderly pattern of housing estates and neglected rooftop gardens, then the mountains leaned towards us as our pilot, Ed Vande Hoef, guided us in their direction.
Ed has been flying balloons for more than 30 years, and sports the demeanour of a man who loves every moment of his life. “This is one of the best days we’ve had for ballooning this year,” he said. “Not too hot or cold and not too windy – just perfect conditions.” He pointed out sights such as the Sleeping Indian mountain as we led the way, rising higher and higher to catch currents of air.
Hitting the heights
But still we didn’t feel we had been close enough to the Rockies, and on our final day Ian, his wife, children, dog, my husband and I clambered into his truck. As we began to drive up the steep winding road from the town of Estes Park, I felt my hands clench involuntarily. The barriers seemed insubstantial compared to the sheer, dazzling drops beyond. The higher we climbed, the lower the temperatures dropped, and suddenly I understood why Ian had insisted on lending me a gigantic sweater to wear over my thin T-shirt and jeans.
Deep into the national park we paused for a picnic, eating sandwiches as pellets of frozen snow bounced around us – a startling contrast to the bright sunshine we’d left five thousand feet below. Picas, small balls of fur that resemble guinea pigs crossed with chinchillas, leapt about on the steep slopes, calling to each other with high-pitched barks. But it was the elks we were here to see.
As the snowy conditions worsened, we knew we would have to leave without seeing the noble giant deer, and began the journey back down. “Next time,” Ian said. I agreed, thinking that it gave us an excuse to come back. We left the wilderness of the mountains and entered Estes Park, wondering why so many people had parked around an area of scrubby grass at the edge of town. Then we saw them, a herd of elk, and in their midst, keeping a careful eye on the crowds of onlookers, the magnificent bull, crowned by a pair of imposing horns.
My husband and I grinned at each other, realising we’d just have to find another reason to return.
Where to stay
The Oxford: located conveniently close to Union Station, this boutique hotel offers old-style elegance in the heart of Denver. (1600 17th Street, Denver)
Hotel Boulderado: this 100-year-old edifice names itself as Boulder’s first luxury hotel, and also has a list of eco-friendly measures to its credit. (2115 13th Street, Boulder)