Post #111: On the right track

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.

The scenic route brought us down the mountain along a river and through bucolic valleys and horse pastures
Main Street in Manitou Springs

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. 

We had to share some sections of the trails
But had other sections completely to ourselves

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.

The park was incredibly colorful with its red rocks, greenery, blue skies, scattered clouds and wildflowers
"Come up here, the views are great"
Pikes Peak peeked out between the 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. 

Garden of the Gods was aptly named. The enormous red rock formations jutted up toward the heavens

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 stopped for a little while to watch rock climbers scaling the sandstone walls

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. 

Black-eyed Susans bloomed throughout the meadow

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.

A blue jay joined us along the way

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.

All aboard!

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. 

Our seats were in the dome car
But we spent most of the trip at the open flatbed where we had unobstructed views of the gorge and could hear the rushing 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.

Rafters going over the rapids
Some waved at the train. One even mooned us!

Chugging along at about 20 mph, the train wound through the gorge, passing white water rafters heading in the opposite direction. 

The famous suspension bridge, nearly 1,000 feet above us, looked like a thin pole from below

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.

We learned that the old pipeline was built to bring pressurized water to Cañon City
The house belonged to the pipeline's caretaker

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. 

The wind picked up and soon it began to rain
So we finished the trip inside the dome car

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. 

Checking out the stunning scenery
Looking east toward Cañon City

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.

Best. Campsite. Ever.
Looking back at dusk at the road we came in on, with a storm rolling over the mountains

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.

Soon a rainbow formed in the distant eastern sky
While the sun descended to the west

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. 

The awesome view behind us was even more incredible in the vibrant sunset

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. 

The lights of Cañon City shimmered below us

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.

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