Five Ways to Get High in Colorado

The trail up Mount Evans, in Clear Creek County Colorado.
The trail up Mount Evans, in Clear Creek County Colorado.

So many ways to gain altitude!

By Rich Grant

The Great Sand Dunes National Park has 26 square miles of sandy dunes.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park has 26 square miles of sand dunes.

Colorado is fixated with altitude.  The state song is “Rocky Mountain High.”  Locals are obsessed with climbing one of Colorado’s 54 peaks that soar to 14,000 feet.

You can stand exactly a mile above sea level on the steps of the State Capitol in Denver or cross the Continental Divide, the ragged mountain line that divides the state in two.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Southern Colorado.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Southern Colorado.

If you’re in Colorado, you’ll just want to get high. Here are five easy ways to do it by foot, car, train, gondola, and bus.

Climb the continent’s highest sand dunes

Why bother with a 14er when you can play in the sand?  There are 26 square miles of sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park, and no trails.

You just take off your shoes, wade across shallow Medano Creek, and have at it anywhere you want in this gigantic pile of sand.

The highest dune is 750 feet above the valley floor.  The challenge is that for every step you take up, you slide three-quarters of the way back.  The pure physics of the sand says that it can’t be piled at an angle steeper than 34 degrees.

Seventy percent of the grains of sand are the width of a human hair; stacked any steeper than 34 degrees, and they simply give way to gravity and cascade down.  And so will you.

Driving up to Mount Evans in Colorado.
Driving up to Mount Evans in Colorado.

But it’s fantastic to get over the first ridge and be in a valley like Lawrence of Arabia, completely surrounded by sand mountains.  You can get specially designed sandboards and sand sleds at the Oasis store just outside the park.

The sleds work (unlike cardboard which has too much friction) and they let you slide down the dunes.  But don’t forget you have to walk back up.

Drive up Mount Evans.

The 60-mile road trip from Denver to the 14,260-foot summit of Mount Evans passes through five climate zones as you snake and zig-zag your way to the highest spot reached by any paved road in North America.  It’s insane.
You’ll almost certainly see a herd of Rocky Mountain goats that live here.  You’ll pass through a forest of Bristlecone pines – 2,000-year-old trees bent and gnarled by the wind that are among the oldest living things on earth.

The road has no guardrails, and there are more than a dozen spots where a miscalculation on a turn would be unforgiving.  But the views make up for that.

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad runs 64 miles from Antonito CO to Chama, NM.
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad runs 64 miles from Antonito CO to Chama, NM.

It can snow at any time (the road is only open Memorial Day to Labor Day because of snowfall), and even on a nice day, the temperature drops 3 degrees for every 1,000 feet elevation gain, so it will be 24 degrees colder here than in Denver.

The road up Mount Evans is cheaper and higher than Pikes Peak, so make this the drive of your choice.

Bring a jacket and some nerve, but leave the carbonated beverages at home. They don’t do well in your stomach with the elevation gains.

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Mt. Evans Recreation Area

Ride the Highest Steam Train in North America

Indiana Jones grew up next to the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad and used to hop on passing circus trains.  At least he did in the movies, which was filmed on this train – the highest, longest and most authentic steam railroad in the nation.

It runs for 64 miles from Antonito, CO to Chama, NM, crossing the state borders 11 times as it snakes along narrow ledges, burrows through tunnels and crosses trestles steaming through the Rocky Mountains.

At one point it chugs over Cumbres Pass at 10,015-feet, the highest point reached by any railroad on the continent.  The train is a National Historic Landmark on wheels, and almost completely off the grid, passing through a landscape only accessible by rail.

On the gondola at Telluride, Colorado. Rich Grant photos.
On the gondola at Telluride, Colorado. Rich Grant photos.

You can ride outdoors on a gondola car, but don’t wear polyester.  Well, you shouldn’t wear polyester at any time, but here it will melt when hit by airborne cinders coming back from the coal-burning locomotives.

The train is especially spectacular in fall when it chugs at a stately 12 mph through a landscape of bright gold aspens. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and every outlaw of the west rode this train at some time.

There are restrooms and a bar car (you don’t think Doc Holliday went 64 miles without a drink?) and all full day trips include a hot lunch at scenic Osier Station midway.  If you want, you can even stay in Indiana Jones’ boyhood home.  The house in Antonito used in the movie is now a B&B.

Indiana Jones Bed and Breakfast

Ride a Free Gondola in Telluride

The Telluride Gondola just celebrated its 21st year as the most unique transportation system in North America, and it is especially good in summer and fall.

Downtown Telluride, Colorado, where you can get on the gondola for a free ride!
Downtown Telluride, Colorado, where you can get on the gondola for a free ride!

There are three gondolas that take you from the center of historic downtown Telluride (Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank here) to the modern Mountain Village Center at 10,500 feet, and then on to Town Hall Plaza.  And they’re all free.

You can hop on at sunrise (they start at 6:30 a.m.) or take a sunset ride.  They lead to mid-mountain hiking and biking trails, or to bars and restaurants in the modern developments on the ski mountain. The gondolas are even pet-friendly.

But the ride is the thing.  Especially at night, when the steep gondola slides silently down into the twinkling lights of Telluride village below, one of the most scenic of all Colorado mountain towns.

It’s possibly the best free 13-minute, 8-mile ride in the world.

Climb Aboard the Summit County Stage

This incredible network of free buses makes it possible to stay anywhere in Summit County, CO, without a car and easily get from Breckenridge to Boreas Pass, Keystone, Frisco, Copper Mountain or Silverthorne.

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Frisco is another cool town on the Summit County Stage free bus route!
Frisco is another cool town on the Summit County Stage free bus route!

Rent a bike, travel around on paved off-street bike trails linking the resort towns, and throw the bike on the bus when you’re tired of pedaling.

The Stage carries 1.9 million passengers a year.

Here’s some of the destinations served by the free Summit County Stage buses:

Breckenridge:  This historic old gold mining town is now a living Christmas calendar with horse-drawn carriages, bars, restaurants, breweries, distilleries, outdoor cafes and shops, all painted a kaleidoscope of colors.   A stream flows through the village and you can take a free gondola from town to the lifts or over aspens in fall.

Summit County Stage offers free bus service to many towns in the county.
Summit County Stage offers free bus service to many towns in the county.

Frisco:  Another mining town lined with colorful buildings and flower baskets, Frisco is a pretty little village on the edge of Lake Dillon.

There’s no skiing here, but there is a tubing hill, a marina with kayaking and sailing and a wonderful paved 9-mile bike trail to Breckenridge.

Beautiful Breckenridge, Colorado.
Beautiful Breckenridge, Colorado.

Copper Mountain:  The bike trail from Frisco to Copper Mountain runs beside a stream in summer, or ride the Stage in winter to this modern ski resort which has all the amenities, including what many say is the most perfect ski mountain in Colorado, divided equally into the expert, intermediate and easy terrain.

Silverthorne:  There are more than 50 brand outlet stores here, in a wonderful riverside setting connected by bridges.

Dillon:  The original Dillon is now buried at the bottom of the reservoir, but the new town has a marina, restaurants and sweeping views of the lake with the Ten Mile Range in the distance.   Bike trails circle the reservoir, but beware of those hills!

And of course, there might be another reason that Colorado’s state song is “Rocky Mountain High.”  It was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana and today there are more than 500 dispensaries in Colorado selling joints, marijuana-laced cookies, candies – even ice cream.  But don’t smoke and drive.  It’s a heavily enforced law with penalties as stiff as drunk driving.

Take the gondola, train, and bus instead.

Rich Grant is a freelance travel writer in Denver, Colorado and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the North American Travel Journalists Association. He has a blog, www.WalkingAndDrinkingBeer.com, and is, along with Irene Rawlings, co-author of "100 Things to Do in Denver Before You Die," published by Reedy Press, second edition coming out in August 2018.

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