This post is the first in a four part series about our 5-day trip to the Colorado Front Range.
Starting on the Fourth of July this year (which fell on a Wednesday), we took a couple of extra days off to explore some of the cities and parks near Denver, Colorado. The area offers vibrant urban centers and unique natural experiences all within a two-hour drive, and also has a major airport and a number of excellent lodging and dining options, making it a great home base for a short or medium-length trip. We used Denver as our home base and took several day trips to other parts of the region (we’ll talk about Denver itself in part 4, so stay tuned!).
For our first day trip on Thursday, we headed south to Colorado Springs, the state’s second biggest city. We left around 8:15AM to arrive at Garden of the Gods Park at about 9:30AM. The Garden of the Gods comprises a set of beautiful sandstone rock formations that sits in shadow of Pike’s Peak, of Colorado’s 14ers (mountains with a summit above 14,000 ft). We first pulled into the visitor center to use the restroom and to get a view of the formations with Pike’s Peak in the distance (there are nice views both from the parking lot itself and from the terrace in the visitor center).
We quickly drove the loop around the park’s main road and found that the main parking lot and several others were already full, so we drove back to the entrance and parked in the overflow lot immediately off the Gateway Road (following signs for the Rock Ledge Ranch). This turned out to be a wise decision because the one-way road around the park can get extremely congested as the day goes on – we saw stopped traffic many times during our walk. By parking near the entrance, we were able to leave the park easily while only adding an extra few meters of walking. Overall, we did about 2.5 miles of hiking (following this path) and spent 1.5 hours exploring the park. The trails were very easy with only a few hundred feet of elevation change in total.
We started out by walking on the Gateway Trail into the Central Garden of the park, and then followed the numbered rock formations on the posted signs in a clockwise loop. This part of the park is by far the most crowded, but we got some nice up-close views of the red rocks and of some brave rock climbers ascending them. The rock fins and columns were reminiscent of the structures at Bryce Canyon and Arches in Utah, and they were formed by the same forces of freezing and thawing.
We lost most of the crowds on the far side of the Central Garden when we crossed the road and ascended to the Palmer Trail. We followed the trail clockwise, and from several points on the trail, we got some phenomenal views of the gardens below through the trees (make sure you take your time and look behind you!). These were especially grand at the northwestern end of the park.
At the northern end of the park, the Palmer Trail becomes the Bretag Trail and offers some nice open views of the different colors of the rocks on the way back to the overflow parking lot. You can already see the line of cars on the road beneath the rocks. Note that you could also do this trail in reverse and you may have some more “wow” moments directly in front of you instead of behind you.
For lunch, we drove into downtown Colorado Springs. The town has a historic feel, and many of the restaurants on the main drag on Tejon Street are across the street from one of the city’s parks. We stopped at Paris Crepe, and they had lots of original fillings on the menu! The S’mores Crepe we had with bits of graham cracker and marshmallow fluff totally hit the spot!
After lunch, we drove to the Air Force Academy, a large campus in the forest beneath the mountain range to the west. Everyone in the vehicle needed photo ID to get onto the campus (one car was turned away for this reason). After checking our IDs, the security guard checked around our car and in the trunk before we drove inside. We parked at the visitor center and took the trail at the end of the sidewalk to the Cadet Chapel, which is generally open to the public between 9:30AM and 4:30 PM (1-4:30PM on Sundays). The chapel is one of the most beautiful examples of modern religious buildings. The frame of the chapel is made of steel tetrahedrons covered with sheets of aluminum, reminiscent of airplanes and the surrounding mountains.
The aluminum sheets don’t perfectly interlock, and the spaces between the sheets are filled with colored glass, creating beautiful colored patterns across the ceilings and walls when illuminated with natural light from the outside.
Though the large protestant chapel is the main draw, the building also houses Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, and all-faiths worship areas on the lower level (some of these were closed to the public for private ceremonies while we were visiting). The two-level design of the modern chapel was inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle, the Gothic chapel built in France about 700 years earlier.
We walked around the back of the chapel to watch new cadets march past historic planes in their initial summer training. There were also a number of plaques and memorials in the area adjacent to Norris Hall.
We finally retraced our steps and checked out the visitor center. We learned a bit about the Academy’s history and academic programs at the exhibits inside.
We also tried to visit the Seven Falls on this trip, a short 0.8 mile trail past a series of cascading waterfalls owned and operated by the Broadmoor Hotel. However, we got a little lost looking for the parking lot. The Google map pin for the falls is in the wrong place, and the hotel website indicates that you can walk to the falls from the hotel although the walking path has not been built yet. We learned that if you want to see the falls, you have to park at 1045 Lower Gold Camp Road, the Norris-Penrose Event Center, and then take a shuttle to the falls. The line for the shuttle was about a half-hour long when we arrived, and we were worried we wouldn’t be able to make it to the Air Force Academy in time, so we cut this out of our plan. Had we stayed in the area longer, we may have tried to visit after stopping at the Academy, but instead, we drove back to Denver for dinner and delicious ice cream.
That concludes our one-day visit to Colorado Springs! Stay tuned for the recap of our next day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park!