Colorado Fall Weekend Getaways Where You Can Get It All For Yourself

The slow season for square-state tourism provides a chance to reconnect with overlooked gems in the rough

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REDISCOVERING COLORADO

BY DAVE PERRY

The slow season for square-state tourism provides a chance to reconnect with overlooked gems in the rough such as Sterling.

Stull Ranch at sunset in Sterling. Photo by Christie Cooper-Smith

Stull Ranch at sunset in Sterling. Photo by Christie Cooper-Smith

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An arrowhead collection inside the Overland Trail Museum in Sterling. Photo by Jeffrey Beall

The old Sterling Union Pacific Railroad Depot. Photo by Jeffrey Beall

The old Sterling Union Pacific Railroad Depot. Photo by Jeffrey Beall

Sterling-Giraffes

Columbine Park in Sterling is home to this sculpture of a circle of giraddes, crafted from what was a dying elm tree. Photo by Jimmy Thomas

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A miniature recreation of the Statue of Liberty stands outside the Logan County Courthouse in Sterling. Photo by Jeffrey Beall

The Overland Trail Museum in Sterling. Photo by Jeffrey Beall

The Overland Trail Museum in Sterling. Photo by Jeffrey Beall

Quick. Think, “Real Colorado. Real Historical Colorado.” What comes to mind first? Heat? Dust? Weeds? Flat?

Yeah. Didn’t think so. But while the state’s stellar mountains and foothilly Front Range tend to steal the square-state’s show, the real Colorado, the most historical part of the state lies far from the hills and on the plains. Before there was a gold rush here, most people were in a hurry to get around, through or across Colorado to get to the gold and land rush on the West Coast. Back then, the state was a mere inconvenience for those on their way to what they were sure was going to be vastly better.

And that’s where Colorado’s claim to fame really started. This was part of the world that boasted the world’s busiest intracontinental super highway. Sure, top speed was about 4 miles per hour, but the Overland Trail through Sterling in northeast Colorado was touted as the busiest road in the world from 1862 to 1868 — years before statehood.

Along that South Platte trail is Sterling. Settled as a ranching-farming-railroad town, the city grew up in a world that mostly just wanted to pass through. Through the years, more and more people have stayed, and now the town, the Logan County seat and home to a community college and prison, boasts about 18,000 residents.

The area is much like the nearby plains of Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas, and at the same time, nothing like them at all. Sterling is absent the heavier humidity and howling winds that make so many roll up their windows and just drive to get away. For a part of the country that can be extreme, there’s a pastoral, mild ambiance mixed in with the expected charm of smalltown Main Street. A stunning county seat building, sprawling parks and an odd mix of industrial-residential-agricultural patches give the town a casual appeal — a town filled with contrasts and quirks.

The drive to Sterling from Aurora is an easy two-hour jaunt on Interstate 76.

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There’s everything to eat ranging from great Mexican food, a wide range of standard fare, and a couple of places you won’t want to miss. Gallagher’s River City Grill is the stuff road-trippers write home about when trekking across the country. Giant plates of steak, roasts, ribs, chicken and burgers that everybody really wants after being in a car for hours. This is country fare, beloved by country people. What you wouldn’t expect is the Old Town Bistro. Inside a restored Victorian bank, the bistro offers a serious bakery on one side, and chic cuisine on the other. Recently, the special dinner was a five-grain crusted ruby red trout with a roasted red pepper infused butter and a rosemary Havarti risotto. Exactly. The restaurant, and the town, are full of surprises.

But probably the biggest surprise of all is the Overland Trail Museum. Museum doesn’t do this Colorado gem justice. Much, much more than a museum, it’s a village on a compound. Rather than dress up a few old shanties and call it a show, a long-engaged museum leadership group has imported entire buildings from the region. An ancient barber shop, church, school house, massive barn, print shop, gas station, general store and lots more create a town within a town.

In the main gallery, local and regional exhibits lovingly document life on the plains over the last couple hundred years. The area’s Native American, trapper, scrapper, traveler, farmer, rancher heritage is documented as the real deal, frozen in time. Curators have painstakingly re-created long-lost times on the plains, curating what is much more than just an ode to the past. The museum village is a key to a mix of times, places and eras where you can move around like a ghost.

Leisurely hours spent on, in and around this remarkable museum doesn’t do it justice. Plan to take your time.

You’ll cheat yourself if you don’t leave time for another quintessentially northeast Colorado pastime: hanging at the reservoir. The North Sterling Reservoir offers laid-back trails, endless varieties of birds, including heron and pelicans, a swim beach and plenty of water for playing with jet skis, boats, boards or a fishing pole.

If you’re only into town for a day, stop on your way out at Columbine Park. That’s where some of the best of Colorado artist Brad Rhea’s stunning tree sculptures live. These aren’t cheesy bears or eagles. You’ll marvel at an astounding ring of giant giraffes created from a once-dying elm tree and even a seraphin. The town became so enthralled with them, they’ve bronzed them to keep them around.


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SAWATCH ME WHIP, SAWATCH ME NAE NAE

BY QUINCY SNOWDON

Off-season fun at Monarch Mountain will have you hailing the king

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A cyclist heads down a switchback along the Monarch Crest trail near Crested Butte. Photo by Zach Dischner

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Pierce Martin pops a wheelie on top of Monarch Pass near Salida. Photo by Zach Dischner

It’s no secret that enduring the band of Interstate 70 stretching from Morrison to Wolcott makes traipsing through Dante Alighieri’s nine circles look like a round of hopscotch. What has recently become a year-round flash of blood-boiling déjà vu, crawling along Colorado’s lone central mountain artery has morphed into a weekend chore that sits firmly on the same plane of white-collar torture as colonoscopies, vacationing with in-laws and interacting with counter clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Interminable leg cramps. Mild carbon monoxide inebriation. An unnecessary amount of slow-motion gawks at neighboring motorists munching gas station burritos. All of those are standard affairs on the sourest fruit yielded from Ike’s Grand Idea.

Those toils have given Colorado’s many tree-line lovers and oxygen haters little choice but to venture off into the great unknown — a web of state highways, byways and U.S. Routes leading to places that don’t end in ridge, stone or basin. The road has spawned a new breed of powder-keen, leaf-peeping conquistadors hungry for a dearth of lift lines and expanses of nearly forgotten open road. Among these innumerable locales granted a birth (or rebirth) by this mushrooming brand of off-track adventurers is a belt of salvation hidden within the formidable Sawatch Range.

Monarch Mountain and its adjoining paved pass have long been well-known refuges for Salida mainstays, Gunnison burnouts and select shutterbugs, but the area speckled along U.S. 50 about 160 miles southwest of Aurora is a clandestine cabochon primed for exploration. And there’s nary a better time of year to head up both Monarch Pass and the neighboring, unpaved Old Monarch Pass than in early autumn. Whether the intent is to bust Spandex and pedal up the whole damn thing or simply snap shots on the kitschy Continental Divide sign, a backdrop of hundreds of thousands of umber Aspen leaves makes just about any September/October activity enjoyable. Monarch Pass experiences slightly earlier foliage than most drivable roadways in Colorado due to its impressive summit elevation of 11,312 feet — golden swaths can start to first flicker in early or mid-September.

A surprising amount of amenities greet visitors at the summit area of Monarch, all of which are housed in a petite visitors center that also boasts a gift shop, though the accompanying Cliffhangers restaurant has since closed, according to TripAdvisor reviews. Monarch day trippers can also brave even less oxygen on a nearby aerial tram that shoots riders up to about 12,000 feet every day through Sept. 15. Weather permitting, rides run $7 for adults and $4 for kids ages 4-12.

And although frozen water likely won’t fall in any significant amounts before the tram makes its final ride of 2015, it would be remiss not to mention the Monarch Mountain ski area located just a couple of miles from the summit. Known for its hometown, family-friendly vibe, skiing Monarch can be a welcome respite from the chaos created by the ski valets and Prada-covered patrons found elsewhere in the Rockies many shreddable slopes (cough, Vail, cough). Certainly no Park City-Canyons conglomerate ski monster, the mountain offers a modest 62 runs across 800 acres of terrain, with the majority of the runs falling on the higher end of the expertise spectrum. According to a handful of splashy YouTube videos, the real clam chowder is found in guided off-piste snowcat tours, which open the mountain up to some hidden cotton ball stashes pockmarked with plenty of trees and cliffs. The going day rate is $250, plus another $250 deposit, or $2,500 for a group of 12 — that typically yields upwards of 12-15 runs a day at about 900 feet of vertical a pop. Not terribly shabby.

Sadly, hooky-inducing days of making turns are still a handful of months out, but that doesn’t mean Monarch and its peripheries — adorable Salida to the east and Gunnison to the west — should be passed over until then. For some of the best Aspen-filled vistas in the state, scoot up U.S. Highway 50 and peep the Monarch scene. If for no other reason, the trip is worth giving your eyeballs a break from the endless line of burrito sniveling heathens dying slow, nasty deaths on Hell’s conveyor belt to the north. Farewell, Clear Creek County — you won’t be missed.


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JURASSIC WHIRLED

BY BRANDON JOHANSSON

Lengthy trek to Dinosaur National Monument a hit in Tourist Off-season

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An allosaurus skull is among the exhibits in the Dinosaur National Monument quarry building. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust, Flickr

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A guide looks up as the sun casts shadows onto the quarry exhibit at Dinosaur National Monument. Photo by Jimmy Thomas

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The confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers near Vernal, Utah, and Dinosaur National Monument. Photo by Ed Ogle

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A panoramic view of the Green River valley near Dinosaur National Monument. Photo by Jason Parker-Burlingham

For the ideal Colorado weekend getaway, sometimes you need to go right to the edge — and you can’t be afraid to spend a few hours behind the wheel to get there.

That’s the case with Dinosaur National Monument, an often-overlooked jewel that straddles the border with Utah in far northwest Colorado. The 210,000-acre park is one of the state’s wildest places, and the trek there is about as long as you can take and still remain in Colorado.

With that ride in mind, the off-season might just be the best time to make your way to Dinosaur. Fall weather means the drive won’t be quite as treacherous as it might be in the winter. And if you pick the right weekend, you can scope the changing leaves on your way up.

But no matter what, getting to the farthest edge of the state’s farthest-away county is gonna take you a while. From Aurora, count on a six-hour drive. It’s well worth it, but make sure you’re ready for a long haul.

Once U.S. Highway 40 spits you out just shy of the Utah border, the park’s vast expanses of scenic roads, canyons, rivers and trails await.

The best way to get acquainted with the park is with the Harpers Corner scenic drive, a 31-mile cruise from the visitor center — Colorado side that is, we’ll get to the Utah facilities in a bit — to Harpers Corner. The ride climbs all the way to 2,500 feet above the Green and Yampa rivers and gives you plenty of sprawling views over the high-desert landscape. Carve out plenty of time for the ride, because you’ll want to make plenty of stops to take in scenery like Steamboat Rock, Escalante Overlook and Echo Park overlook. On the way back, stop for lunch at the Plug Hat Butte trail and a picnic area. At the end, a short one-mile hike will lead you to a spot with views of Whirlpool, Lodore, and Yampa canyons.

But chances are you came all this way for one thing, dinosaurs. For that, you need to hop back onto Highway 40 and west, cross the border into Utah and check out the monument’s famous Quarry Exhibit Hall.

The hall sits over the  Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry and boasts a wall of 1,500 dinosaur bones. The prehistoric beasts on display include Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodicus, and Stegosaurus, among others.

Be sure to check out the 80-foot-long mural that details the animals. And while the fossils are close to 150 million years old, the friendly folks from the National Park Service will let you touch the fossils.

On your way back to the Centennial state, be sure to pay attention to the tiny, 300-person town of Dinosaur, near the entrance to the park on the Colorado side. Grab a bite at the B & B or cruise a little further on Brontosaurus Boulevard to the Highway Bar and Grill.


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OUTDOOR ESCAPE

BY CHRIS HARROP

Eleven Mile State Park and the surrounding area an ideal pick for an autumnal camping experience

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Even with this year’s exceptionally wet spring and summer, the canyon won’t be quite as lush as it is in springtime (seen here), but expect better than usual verdancy throughout the canyon in the months leading up to winter. Photo by Jasen Miller

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If fishing from the Elevenmile reservoir isn’t your speed, hikes up and down the canyon offer stunning views and the low roar of the creek. Photo by Jasen Miller

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Up to six campers are allowed at each spot at Elevenmile State Park’s reservoir-side spots, but other areas along the canyon make for ideal autumn tent-pitching. Photo by Jasen Miller

It was an amazing summer for anglers across Colorado, and one of the finest spots for bringing in trout, pike and more has been the Eleven Mile Canyon Reservoir and the nearby Dream Stream.

Just minutes west of Lake George, the early morning shadows of Stoll and Blue mountains have been ideal times for trophy hunters to make their way to the marina in search of kokanee.

But now that the seasons are changing, so is the fishing. With more and more outdoorsmen content to leave the rod, line and bobbers at home, a late-season weekend among the jackrabbits, mule deer and amply spaced campsites is a refreshing respite from the urbanscapes.

The best place to start? Double-check that you have your annual state park pass before crossing the Park County line; the park itself spans more than 7,600 acres including the five-mile-long reservoir, and its 300-plus campsites are nicely situated across nine campgrounds and more than two dozen backcountry sites.

For most Eleven Mile veterans, this time of year can be notorious for the already powerful afternoon winds to become chilly knockout punches in the open expanse of the area around the reservoir. That’s why it’s a haven for real backcountry tent campers who aren’t searching for RV hookups or running generators. The further you get from the rest of the pack, the views and tranquility only amplify. Besides, only Loops A, B and D in the Rocky Ridge Campground come with electrical outlets — you may as well opt for the traditional camping experience and party like it’s 1699, sans alternating current.

Once you and your campsite are settled, your best option for taking in the park and surrounding area is to lace your hiking boots up tight and traverse the Eleven Mile canyon itself, with the low roar of the Dream Stream as the soundtrack to your walk.

Another top trek involves making your way to the Spillway Campground on the far end of the canyon entrance to reach the Overlook Trailhead. Busy in the summer and a big draw for birders in the spring hoping to glimpse bald eagle nests, it becomes a serene and sparse spot in the autumn that’s easily covered in a matter of two to three hours. Along the way, you cross over the South Platte River, manage some steep elevation gains (about 500 feet) up the rocky path and enjoy solid views of the Buffalo Peaks in the distance.

Anyone insisting on getting out on the water will want to tow their vessel up to the north shore boat ramp, as the south ramp closes in early September, not long before the entire lake is closed off to boaters just after Halloween.

For the less-outdoorsy folks who simply want to take in the fall foliage, a quick drive north of the park past Stoll Mountain on County Road 90 to Highway 24 will bring you to Wilkerson Pass, where everyone in the ride can gawk at the changing of the many aspen groves from the comfort of the car.

Autumn also is an ideal time for those who may just want to rent a cabin — wood-burning stove and all — in Lake George, as the ice-fishing and snowmobiling crowds are still a few months away. With no snow in most areas, it’s still a great time of year for horseback riding through area trails. Both M Lazy C Ranch and Tarryall River Ranch — a jaunt off the highway north of Lake George on the way to Sugarloaf Mountain — provide idyllic, out-of-the-way spots to let Mr. Ed do all the hard work while you sit back and enjoy the scenery without burning through fuel.


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DIVIDE AND CONQUER

The views are breathtaking crossing Colorado’s Cottonwood Pass

By Rachel Sapin

Cottonwood-Divide

The east side of the Continental Divide in Chaffee County. Photo by David Herrera

Ptarmigan Lake near the Cottonwood Pass. Photo by Adam Meek

Ptarmigan Lake near the Cottonwood Pass. Photo by Adam Meek

When you’re done paddling the Arkansas River and soaking up the famous hot springs in the quintessential Colorado mountain town that is Buena Vista, don’t forget to hightail it up Route 306 for some of the state’s most stunning and sweeping mountain views.

That’s where you will find Cottonwood Pass, which gives travelers a rare glimpse into the massive Collegiate Peaks that rise on all sides.

The 60-mile-long paved and gravel road winds through the San Isabel National Forest, up Cottonwood Creek past beaver ponds and the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area, loops above timberline to the pass summit, and drops down through Taylor Park and the Taylor River Canyon to the tiny town of Almont and the Gunnison River.

And you can’t miss the peak of the pass once you get there — you know, it’s that iconic yellow and brown sign that reminds you that you’re more than 12,0000 feet above seal level and  crossing the magnificent Continental Divide. And it doesn’t get much more breathtaking than taking in the dividing line between the San Isabel and Gunnison National Forests.

With more than 4,000 feet of climbing, excellent pavement and little auto traffic, the pass is one of the best high-pass rides in Colorado, according to cyclists. Cycling seasons runs June through October, according to the Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce.

Cottonwood Pass is also a connector to the Colorado Trail at the Avalanche Trailhead. According to the Colorado Office of Tourism, the Cottonwood Pass segment of the Colorado trail — which goes for 500 miles between Denver and Durango — takes you high on the flanks of Mt. Yale, where you can summit the 14er as part of your journey.

Anyone who wants a high-mountain fishing experience can also head to Taylor Reservoir, which is about 14 miles from the pass on County Road 209. The reservoir includes numerous feeder creeks and beaver ponds, so there are plenty of spots if one seems too crowded.

The tailwaters below the reservoir are renown for some of the largest rainbow trout in Colorado. According to fishing lore, a rainbow as large as 22 pounds was caught by a lucky angler in 1997.

The enormous trout found in the river are a byproduct of mysis shrimp that were introduced in the Taylor Reservoir to increase the growth rate of reservoir trout.

Instead, nature had a different idea, and the shrimp proved better fodder for the river trout below.

“The deep-dwelling shrimp multiplied rapidly, and vast numbers of them were being swept out of the dam’s bottom-release tube into the river below,” writes Roger Wheaton of Game and Fish Magazines. “Passage through the tumultuous release tube left the high nutrient value shrimp dead or stunned, thus easy prey for trout. All of a sudden, fishermen were catching brilliantly colored, football-shaped rainbows that looked like they were using steroids.”

The Taylor Park marina, which sits on the southern edge of Taylor Park Reservoir, carries a full line of fishing lures and bait as well as beverages and snacks for the hungry angler. It even offers boat rentals by the hour if you’re willing to shell out at least $55.

Driving, hiking and biking the pass during the fall when the hillsides are shimmering orange and gold is recommended by many travel sites because Cottonwood Pass is one of Colorado’s most aspen-laden valleys. And because it is less accessible, a lot less crowded than the Peak to Peak highway.

The western approach to the pass isn’t paved, which is why it’s only open for a few months out of the year. The pass is closed seasonally due to heavy snowfall, typically from October through May.

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