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Motoring Through Scenic Colorado: A Suggested Trip to Historic Sites

[The Tombstone Epitaph, November, 1990]


The historic west lives on only in history books, memory and journals of western history such as The National Tombstone Epitaph. But many of the sites and a lot of the scenery associated with the "Opening of the West" are still there. Over the past 35 years I have episodically wandered the region bounded by the Missouri and the Rockies, the Arkansas River and the Canadian border. Assuming that readers of the Epitaph are as "sold" on the west as I am, the purpose of this short article is simply to describe briefly for you some of the places I've particularly enjoyed -- and how to get there if some day you, too, would like to go "westering".

Three points should be clearly made right now. I don't pretend to have seen all or even most of what there is to see in the west; and what I have seen reflects, as much as anything else, my personal preferences. As a result, this short "travelogue" concentrates on the Rocky Mountain West and immediate environs. Finally, none of what follows is likely to be anything but confusing unless you have at your immediate disposal a good map of the region. I have found no way to give directions other than by reference to highways and their numerical designations. If, like the Mountain Men, you can carry a map in your mind, don't both with the more prosaic type. But if you're like I am, start unfolding as you read! In fact, I've found it useful to familiarize myself with the appropriate map before beginning to travel through the region which it depicts. If, after all of this, you're still interested, let's head for southeastern Colorado by way of I-70 taken west from Kansas City, Missouri/ Kansas to a point approximately 35 miles west of Salina where you will take State Route 156 to Great Bend.

At Great Bend you will join U.S. 56 which will take you in a southwesterly direction to Dodge City. Prior to reaching the famous "cow town", stop at Fort Larned National Historic Site, a bit more than twenty miles from Great Bend. Maintained by the National Park Service, Fort Larned is a standing reminder of the time when the trail to Santa Fe was one of the great pathways of commerce in the nation. After spending whatever time you wish investigating Dodge City, which provided the backdrop for the long-running television series "Gunsmoke", head west on U.S. 50 to Garden City. Several years ago my wife and I, during a stopover in Garden City, saw an unusual sight across from our motel-a full-sized dog on the roof of a house. Upon inquiry, we learned that the dog, a mix of German Shepherd and ?, lived on the roof of the house and would only come down (via a window) under the most extreme exigency! While we watched, someone came to the front door of the house, knocked and was "greeted" by a full volume of barking immediately over his head! The adaptability of animals continues to amaze.

From Garden City, continue on US 50 heading west toward Lamar, Las Animas and La Junta, Colorado. Between Las Animas and La Junta stands a premier example of National Park Service reconstruction -- Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site. If you saw James Michener's Centennial on television a few year's ago, Bent's Fort was used in the filming of the scenes involving "Fort John". Adobe walls, buffalo robe press in the enclosure, cactus growing on the corral walls connected to the back of the fort -- Bent's Fort looks like a fort should look! Costumed Park Service personnel provide information and interpretative programs. One word of warning -- you can't drive directly up to the fort. The parking area is located about half a mile away, along with a small museum; golf carts, however, provide transportation to the fort and back for the infirm and incapacitated. For the rest of you, a dusty walk in the hot sun may give you a taste of what the Santa Fe Trail was like when William Bent and his Cheyenne wife, Owl Woman, presided over the establishment.

When you leave Bent's Fort, stay on US 50 to Pueblo. At this point you are approximately two hours south of Denver on I-25, and about an hour south of Colorado Springs. Should you want to take the time, the Air Force Academy is, of course, located just north of Colorado Springs, and the magnificent redstone formations called the Garden of the Gods just to the west on US 24.

On this trip, however, we stay right on US 50, continuing west from Pueblo to Canyon City. Just a few miles to the west of Canyon City is the highly publicized Royal Gorge of the Arkansas. It is, indeed, a spectacular sight -- and the suspension bridge across it is an engineering marvel. It may be a commentary on contemporary civilization, though, that the road across that bridge really doesn't go anywhere. Once across, the road simply doubles back to the main highway. The toll charged is for using the bridge, not for making progress toward some destination!

Leaving the Royal Gorge, proceed west on US 50 through Salida, across the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass (elevation 11,312 feet above sea level) to Gunnison, a very pretty mountain town that can all too easily be shut off from the outside world by snow during the high country winters.

West of Gunnison you will be driving along the Black Mesa Reservoir, then the Morrow Point Reservoir; to your right will be Black Mesa. About 8 miles east of Montrose, turn right onto State Route 347, which will take you to the south rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument. If heights cause you discomfort, this stop may not be for you. It is my distinct impression that anyone who does not experience at least mild vertigo when peering down into the Black Canyon is completely immune to the phenomenon! Return to U.S. 50 and continue west to Grand Junction.

At Grand Junction, you head back east on I-70, following the Colorado River to Rifle. I-70 across central Colorado is a very scenic drive by any standard, and much more so than most interstate highways; the reward will be great if you will but take the time to enjoy the drive. Between Silverthorne and Georgetown you will encounter another engineering marvel. Unlike the suspension bridge at the Royal Gorge, however, the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel serves a distinctly useful purpose -- it take you several miles through a mountain!

Georgetown, about 45 miles west of Denver, is well worth a visit. A 19th century mining town, many of its historic buildings have been preserved through the efforts of the Colorado State Historical Society. In addition to the many residences still in use, the oldest Episcopal church in Colorado and the Hotel de Paris stand out. In addition to the historic buildings, the speciality shops of Georgetown are also most appealing.

Upon leaving Georgetown, you may, of course, return directly to Denver on I-70. Another very scenic drive awaits you, however, if, several miles east of Georgetown, you leave I-70 and head north on US 40. This route will take you over Berthoud Pass (elevation 11,314 feet), through Winter Park and Fraser (frequently one of the coldest spots in the nation during the winter), to Granby.

At Granby you will take US 34 to Grand Lake and on into Rocky Mountain National Park. This route is, of course, the well-known Trail Ridge Road, the eastern terminus of which is the town of Estes Park. At its high point, the Trail Ridge Road is 12,183 feet above sea level; in fact, during this drive you will be above 12,000 feet for three or four miles. If you stop to look at the scenery, expect to be a bit short of breath if you walk any distance at all.

If you wish to spend a day or so in Estes Park, more gorgeous scenery is available via a "circle drive" south from Estes Park. Here's how you do it. Take State Route #7 south to Raymond, a distance of approximately 22 miles. From Raymond, continue on SR 7 to Lyons (14 miles); from Lyons take U.S. 36 back to Ester Park.

Leaving Estes Park on US 34, you will drive down the Big Thompson Canyon, this time at the bottom instead of along the rim. As you do so, you might contemplate what it was like for those in the canyon a dozen or so years ago when a 20 to 30 foot wall of water roared down the canyon, sweeping literally everything before it! US 34 connects with I-25 east of Loveland. From this point, you are perhaps 60 to 75 minutes from Denver to the south and Cheyenne to the north.

The scenery of northern Colorado is not nearly so well publicized as that in other portions of the state, but it deserves the attention of anyone attracted to "the great outdoors". One drive which puts that "outdoors" on display follows U.S. 287 out of Fort Collins (fifteen or so miles north of Loveland) to a little town called Ted's Place, at which point you take State Route #14. This route takes you along the Cache La Poudre River, around the southern rim of the Medicine Bow Mountains, then northwest to Walden. At Walden, SR 14 turns in a southwesterly direction, finally joining U.S. 40 at Muddy Pass. From here it is only about 20-25 miles on to Steamboat Springs, the well-known ski resort. From Steamboat Springs, you may, of course, simply retrace your steps along U.S. 40 until you re-join I-70, then continue on your way. Another alternative is to proceed west from Steamboat Springs to Craig, then turn north on State Route #789 which will take you to I-80, perhaps 25 miles west of Rawlins, Wyoming.

Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved