Lately I’ve been on a kick of reading adventure novels. Stories from all over the world about people climbing mountains, trekking across continents, and leaving everything but the essentials behind in pursuit of the great outdoors. Currently I’m reading Desert Solitaire, and have been transported into the red rock canyons of Arches National Park in Moab. The simple expanse of the land has me daydreaming about my time in Colorado, so here I am, writing about my first home away from home.
Colorado seems to have this stereotype about being the Western Frontier, full of cowboys and ranches. But when I was looking at colleges my junior year of high school, I didn’t know anything about that. In fact, I had no preconceived ideas about Colorado at all before I applied there. No distant family member had told me what it was like, I hadn’t seen a film or read a book about it. I simply read stats on some of the best states to live, researched colleges, and signed myself up to move cross country for the first time as an 18 year old woman.
I landed in Fort Collins, a college town about two hours north of Denver, at Colorado State University. The campus was large (30,000 undergrads) and the town was lush, filled with both ample trees and spirited people. I appreciated the quirks of the Fort. All the unique boutiques, crafted coffee, and quality breweries. Although I ate most often at the dining halls, I was so pleasantly surprised by how healthy my options were. It was obvious that people my age weren’t just seeking out junk food constantly, and going to the Rec to work out was almost as common as going to the library. People constantly wanted to be outside, and understandably so, it was absolutely beautiful 9 times out of 10. The call of the mountains is a real thing, and even though I lacked the resources to really dive into mountain life, the few times I was able to get up there was truly magical.
My first weekend in Estes National Park was wild. I had previously driven through with my Mom as we were visiting colleges and I remember the wildlife being so prevalent. As I drove up in my packed car ready for a weekend retreat, an entire heard of elk casually grazed outside our lodge and greeted us. The stars glowed brighter than anything I had ever seen before, and even though the next day was an early morning, I almost wept as the mountains lit up in the sunrise. I got to wander around on a mountain face for the first time and see how rock, water, grass, trees, and wildlife all coexisted in a completely different way than I had ever been exposed to in Minnesota. It grabbed me.
Here was not a place for cowboys and shootouts, here was a place for the forester, the mountain men and women who were tough as nails and resourceful. Here you could run away into the landscape and not find another person for miles. My perception of Coloradans up to that point was they were not only active, but they were adventurous.
Later on we did some tenting with our large group, and this was the first time I had ever gone camping and it hadn’t rained. It was also the first time I ever ate anything found directly in the wild, and although it wasn’t very tasty, the experience was exhilarating. I made a very important promise to myself that night that I was going to do great things in the world one day. Feed the hungry, help the oppressed, preserve the earth, all of it. And that’s something I still hold onto to this day. The spirit of the mountains stoked a fire in my soul and helped clear my head.
South of Fort Collins is Boulder, which on paper kind of sounds the same, but is extremely different once you get there. Home to another large university, Boulder is the neighboring rival to CSU and has a reputation for having all the trust fund kids who’s parents own ski homes in Breck and Veil. Boulder is the home of Celestial Seasonings, a large tea company, and also has the most beautiful tea house downtown. What I loved most about Boulder was that the downtown was slightly larger than FC and it seemed a bit more lively. Street performers dotted the corners, there were artists everywhere, and the food was amazing. Here, the mountains are much closer and much grander, making their presence undeniable and their pull even stronger. I would personally live in Boulder if it was more affordable.
Red Rocks Amphitheater near Boulder is the best place you will ever see an outdoor concert, and I don’t care what you say! I saw Medicine for the People here and it was one of the most powerful things I’ve witnessed. You must book tickets to see a show here, it’s worth every penny.
Continuing to move south, Denver is the city that is growing quickly and therefore getting much more expensive. I never spent a ton of time down here, just about a day to see a small private school, eat some really good Pho, and window shop a bit with my mom. Otherwise I know the Denver airport like the back of my hand, and that’s about it. People don’t really go to Colorado to stay in the city, so my recommendation is you get out if you can.
Colorado Springs is next, and is essentially like a large stand-alone suburb with rows of new houses and big box stores. Without really having a down-town area, I didn’t think the Springs were all that special. Garden of the Gods however, is a different story. With Pike’s Peak observing it all above you, the Garden is unlike anything you’ll ever see. If you can, take a horseback ride through the park area, or (like I did), around the Airforce Base and you’ll be in awe and both the expanse of the land and the beauty of the fine details. Doing this in the spring of 2015 was the most “Western Frontier” I got throughout my time, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
If you continue going south, you’ll hit Alamosa which I have never been to, but is my mentor’s hometown and according to her it’s very bleak but is a main gateway to the amazing parks in Southern Colorado. Here is where you really start to feel properly Western, with the heat and dust. Seeing cowboy hats is much more common here than up north. If you’re adventurous and have the time, I recommend seeing the Dunes in The Great Sand Dunes National Park, or trekking over to Mesa Verde in the southwestern most corner of the state.
Realistically, all the fun and action happens just West of all these towns in the mountains, but orienting yourself around these will make traveling to each place so much easier. The wonderful thing about the “frontier” part of CO is that right up until the base of the mountains, it’s open grassland, meaning highway driving is possible, and easy. You don’t have to take the winding mountain roads the entire time if you don’t want to, but I will say, the more committed you are to going into some back country places, the more reward you’ll see.
I’m planning to write an entirely separate entry about hiking and camping in the Rockies (but don’t hold your breath for ski tips, I don’t have any) so keep your eyes peeled for that.
Overall, what I can say about Colorado is that the spirit that resonates through the land, also resonates in the people. It’s hard not to think of yourself in a smaller context when large mountains are constantly looming over you. Your perspective is different, and I feel that everyone who calls Colorado home has the deepest respect for nature. They want to play in all the National Parks and see what the Earth has to offer. Some of the best sights are found here and in my opinion, Colorado is one of the most beautiful states in the entire nation.