August 28, 2021
In the morning, we bid our hosts farewell and headed toward Colorado Springs, about two hours southeast of their home. We wound our way back down the mountain from Conifer following a scenic route Susan’s cousin suggested rather than taking the interstate.
We also followed Susan’s cousin’s recommendation and briefly detoured through the pretty town of Manitou Springs, near the base of Pike’s Peak. The town is known for its drinkable mineral springs and appeared to be an enclave for artists, hippies and spiritually-oriented types.
We had considered taking the well-known and newly-reopened cog railroad up Pikes Peak, but it was a Saturday and there were no available tickets. Instead, our first stop of the day was Garden of the Gods, a park owned by the city of Colorado Springs. Admission to the park is free and we anticipated crowds at this popular attraction on a Saturday. But we were pleasantly surprised to easily find parking right by the visitor’s center.
It seemed that many of the visitors were simply taking a driving tour (and congesting) the loop drive around the park. We quickly decided we didn’t want any part of that traffic. Instead, we picked up a trail map at the visitor’s center and headed out on the not-quite-as-congested trails that made an irregular loop through the giant sandstone formations.
We spent the next few hours exploring some of the more than 20 miles of trails that weave through giant slabs of sandstone jutting from the ground at odd angles.
The magnificent rock formations dwarfed the trees below. Though similar in some ways to other red rocks we’ve seen, especially in Utah and western Colorado, here the formations were oddly shaped and stood in stark contrast to the bright greenery .
We may seem fearless when we hike along steep narrow ridges and scramble over large boulders, but these daring rock climbers took bravery (and skill) to a much “higher” level.
Eventually, we headed back through a pleasant, but shadeless, meadow. It was 95 degrees and after our long walk we sat in the visitor center cooling off and downing huge amounts of water before heading out.
Leaving Garden of the Gods, we headed south towards Cañon City where we planned to check out the Royal Gorge Bridge—one of the tallest suspension bridges in the world, soaring over the Arkansas River. On the way, the truck had an ominous hiccup. While passing a slower vehicle on the highway, just as I was even with it, the truck made an odd sound, lost power for a fraction of a second, lit up all the warning lights on the dash and reset all the gauges. As soon as I could, I pulled over thinking that maybe we’d lost a drive belt, but I could see no obvious problems so we continued while I tried to think what it could have been.
While I pondered the truck’s hiccup, Susan read about things to see and do in Cañon City. She learned that there’s a well-regarded passenger train ride along the Royal Gorge on the rushing Arkansas River. Since we couldn’t take the cog railroad up Pikes Peak, this piqued our interest as a possible alternative. The website said the tickets were all sold out for the day but might be available for the next day—the website wasn’t 100% clear. We considered staying overnight in the area if we could get tickets.
Soon, we made it to Cañon City and headed to the train station to try to get the tickets for the next day. The young man at the ticket booth told us that there was space available on a train departing in 15 minutes if we were interested. We made a spur of the moment decision to shift plans, postponed heading to the suspension bridge, splurged on tickets and within a half hour we were rolling through the gorge.
The train slowly runs about 20 miles up the narrow rocky canyon, with steep walls at times 1,000 feet above the tracks as it follows the Arkansas River.
The dome car we were in had huge windows and the views were amazing. But the best place was two cars back in an open flatbed with four-foot high side rails where we could stand and get the whole experience.
Chugging along at about 20 mph, the train wound through the gorge, passing white water rafters heading in the opposite direction.
Eventually the train stopped under the Royal Gorge Bridge, suspended almost 1,000 feet above us, that we planned to walk across the next day. A few rafters had set up a small campsite along the shoreline nearby.
After a pause to take in the bridge, the train continued along the river where we could see a large, disintegrating old wooden pipeline that ran for miles along the other side, along with the remains of a house and outbuilding. We were astonished by the manual labor that had to have gone into building the pipeline on the narrow rocky slope, only to have it decay over the years.
Eventually, the train reversed course and went back down the gorge. As we stood on the flatbed with the wind in our hair, a light rain began to fall. Back inside the “bubble car,” we relaxed in our cushy chairs as the light rain fell, adding to the lonely feel of the gorge.
Back at the station, it was nearly 6:00 pm and we needed to look for a place to sleep for the night. Susan had found a road that led into Bureau of Land Management land that was said to have some pull-offs for camping. Pull-offs are not our favorite because they’re usually right off the road and can be dusty and noisy if there is any traffic. But the area was amazingly only 15 minutes from downtown Cañon City so we headed that way.
We found the paved road that soon turned into a rough dirt road and saw a couple of suitable tucked-away places for a sleepover but we had a feeling there would be better options if we stuck to our motto: just a little farther. So, we kept going, following the red dirt road as it climbed and fell among huge rocky outcroppings with low shrubs and a few cacti. Mountains on both sides rose 1,000 feet above the road until suddenly the road opened up and other even taller mountains nearby came into view. It was beautiful with a feeling of perfect isolation.
Finally, we saw what we were looking for—a narrow, rough and rocky road that led up away from the road we were on. We found a decent opening to set up camp but even then we suspected the road went a little farther and it looked like it might end in a view.
We were right. Another half mile of very rough road eventually ended at a campsite located on a ridge jutting out over the smaller mountains. It was spectacular. The ridge was only about 30 feet wide and had steep drop-offs on three sides. In front of us were two mountains with a deep valley in between that perfectly framed Cañon City, two or three miles away as the crow flies. The sky was still stormy in the distance, adding to the drama.
To the right was a continuation of one of the mountains with a deep canyon between us and it, with a 300-foot drop off. To the left was an even deeper canyon with a large rushing creek cutting through on its way toward the city. Even at 400 feet above it, we could hear its white water.
When we turned around the look behind us, in the distance were huge 12-14,000-foot-high mountains. We were in awe of the 360-degree views and couldn’t believe our luck at finding another Top Five campsite. Colorado was causing some previous amazing campsites to fall off of the list.
Just beyond the city a distant lightning storm lit the sky as the sun went down, while a brisk wind over the hills cooled us from the hot day. Sitting on the high narrow tongue of land thrust into the wild, the place felt like paradise.
As the sun set, the far-off city lights winked on and stars came out. We didn’t want to get into bed and stayed out marveling at where we were, enjoying the city lights, the lightning, the peace and the brilliant Milky Way when suddenly a bright shooting star streaked across the sky.
I could not think of how the place could have been any better as Susan and I reluctantly called it a night while the wind blew through the screened windows and the moon slowly began to rise over the mountains. It was a Top 1 campsite.