We finally head out on the road, bounce down Colorado’s bumpy backcountry discovery route, and search for the right pace for long-term travel.
Photos from this episode: visit our blog, Driving Inertia
This is Road Tripping in America. I’m Lisa and this is Paul and we’re in search of the continuous road trip. This is series two, episode one: on the road…again! Recorded live in Colorado’s lovely national forest land.
Today, join us on Colorado’s bumpy backcountry discovery route and the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway as we work on finding the right pace for long term travel.
Leaving Fort Collins was a whirlwind. Even though we had a lot of time to prepare, there were still things that had to wait until the last minute to be done. Still one more trip to the storage unit than we had planned to take. Loading up the Bobs. Friends and family to see for goodbyes and to pass along hand-me-downs. So much cleaning.
When we pulled away from our old house in Fort Collins, it didn’t feel dramatic. It still hadn’t sunk in that we were really doing this – that we wouldn’t be coming back. Paul speculated that maybe it felt anticlimactic because this is actually a continuation, not a new start. I think we were just a little numb.
We fought our way in and out of the Sunday afternoon Denver traffic, pointed towards our first campsite at Kenosha Pass. A steady stream of cars, campers, trucks with tent toppers, and trailers passed us headed back to the city after a weekend of warrioring in the mountains. If your schedule is flexible and you can stay out in the mountains until Monday morning – beating that traffic is worth the early wake-up, I promise. Then again, it was rainy and cold and everyone probably just wanted to get back to their warm beds, no matter how long it took.
The Kenosha Pass campground is at 10k feet in elevation, so maybe that’s why we felt so breathless when we arrived. We popped the camper top, popped some champagne, and toasted the start of a new adventure. We listened to the rain gently tap on the Bobs as we drifted off to sleep.
It’s our first morning coffee stroll – we huff our way from 10k to 10.4k feet, up a no-name hill behind the campground. Morning dew and raindrops from the night before hang on the wildflowers and blades of grass. Birds chirp.
(bird chirp sounds)
Morning light angles through the aspen groves. There’s fresh snow on the tops of the mountain peaks to the east. I feel at peace, for the first time in a long time. Peace is a more sustainable feeling than manic excitement, I think. The path leads to a dramatic view over South Park, the large, high elevation valley behind the Front Range, southwest of Denver. And yes, South Park is the inspiration for the TV show South Park. The largest city in the valley, Fairplay, is the official/unofficial center of South Park TV show tourism and the town’s other big claim to fame is a burro race that happens at the end of July.
After resupplying (or supplying, since it’s our first stock up) our groceries, gas, and wine in Fairplay, we turn off the paved road and onto the adventure road a few miles before the Johnson Village intersection that leads to Salida or Buena Vista. The plan is to spend a few days on the back roads around Browns Canyon National Monument, in an area called the Fourmile Travel Management Area, getting our dirt road legs.
A few episodes ago I talked about our running away options for escaping bad weather, but there’s also another option that we’ll call the Colorado option. That’s when you just sit with it. There’s just no predicting or escaping Colorado weather. Throughout a day it can rain, snow, be sunny enough to give you sunburn, and then go back again. You go through all your layers. Or it can be perfect. After living in Colorado for three years, we have learned to never not do something because of the forecast, but instead to always be prepared for anything. So even though it is rainy and cold, we turn off US Highway 285 and onto Forest Road 187 to see what kind of backcountry camping we can find.
We expect it to be busy, but instead, we have our pick of campsites. Which can also be a problem! We wind around smooth dirt roads for a couple hours, assessing and dismissing countless dispersed campsites. An official dispersed campsite has a fire ring – but we have a few additional criteria – we look for spots that are not too close to other sites, with a nearby secluded area for bathroom usage, far enough away from water to escape hordes of mosquitoes and to comply with leave no trace principles for waste. We always double check the National Forest Service vehicle use maps on the Avenza Map app (which doesn’t require internet service) before setting up camp, just to make sure that we’re still inside the dispersed camping boundaries and we didn’t accidentally cross onto private land.
Eventually we find a campsite that cannot be passed up. It is an Instagram dream spot, situated on the high edge of a wide, sloping valley full of wildflowers, with a long view across the hills above the Arkansas River to the Collegiate Peaks – my favorite Colorado mountain range. I love the way the Collegiate peaks surge out of the Upper Arkansas River valley, the way they neatly shoulder against each other like cars in diagonal parking slots, how perfectly “mountain” they look, like a kid’s drawing of a mountain range. The Collegiate Peaks are the largest concentration of fourteeners in North America. But we pass the dream spot up, because the site is completely exposed, it is supposed to storm, and we don’t want the Bobs to become a lighting rod. After driving for a few more miles, the dream spot keeps calling and we decide to heed our Colorado mantra of “do it despite the forecast, but be prepared for anything,” and go back. We ping our Garmin Inreach for an updated weather forecast and see a 20% chance of rain. Eventually the wind dies down and there is no storm and it is the perfect campsite.
(wind and cicada noise)
The next morning we sip coffee overlooking Bassam Park, the name of the wildflower valley, and decide to drive over to Browns Canyon National Monument for a hike. It’s only a few miles away on the Fourmile map, and it’s along the easy backcountry discovery route, so we figure it won’t take too long to get there. It took three hours. Why, after the break.
Welcome back. Many western states have designated backcountry routes, promoted by tourism boards and outdoor groups and notched off via stickers on the back of Jeeps by those of us who like to do this kind of thing. There are three options for the Colorado backcountry discovery route – one easy and one difficult and one that’s just the normal route in between. We figure the easy one will be, well, easy. It turned out to be one of the most challenging roads we’ve ever driven on.
So first of all, we’ve come to call trails or dirt routes rated as easy in Colorado – “Colorado easy.” They’re easy, for Colorado. Second thing, these routes are assessed and rated every few years. The easy version of the backcountry discovery route was last rated in 2019. Since then, the roads have rutted from heavy rainfall and the dirt that may have smoothed out some of the more vicious rocks has washed away, leaving them exposed.
I flip into 4wd on the first steep hill ascent. The 4wd components heat up, getting their first real workout, burning chemical coatings off parts that haven’t been used yet. Then we go into 4 low. Then we shift from standard drive into low gear. We play around with the hill descent control settings, but I don’t like how they make me feel like I have less control, so I quickly turn them off. Paul jumps in and out of the truck, spotting us over rocks and as we pass a couple other vehicles on the one lane road (“it’s like a ying-yang kinda move” he says about passing a truck full of teenagers who looked as glazed over with fear as I imagine I did), he’s out there moving loose rocks, moving fallen trees. The road is steeper, narrower, rockier, potholier than we expected. It’s our first real day on the road, fully loaded, and I’m nervous that we’ll destroy something – or everything – right at the start of our trip.
Then, after a mountain biker flies by me on a downhill without an audible signal just as I was turning into his path, after my heart stops pounding, I remember something my brother in law Alex said about riding: “Trust your bike.” Whenever I get freaked out on tough for me mountain bike trails, I say this to myself over and over. Trust your bike. It’s made for this, it’ll carry you through. Trust the Bobs, I think now – they’re made for this.
Backcountry discovery routes are a lot of fun if you have the right gear and the right partner. You need a high clearance, 4wd vehicle, a partner with whom you can communicate well (or well enough to know when to set aside a squabble to pull through a tough stretch of road together), basic recovery gear, time – as in, it’s the only thing you’re doing that day, and enough food, water, and warm clothes in case you get stuck for a night (or two). Maybe even a couple bikes for an escape valve if things go really badly. We have all that, but after three hours of panic attack inducing, white knuckle driving, when we pop out onto the “maintained” road in one piece, we are done with backcountry driving for the day. We don’t feel up for the six additional dirt road miles to the Browns Canyon trailhead (and back).
Instead, we post up in a campground north of Buena Vista that we’ve visited before and watch the sun set while perched above the Arkansas River. We have a view of people floating the river below and swallows swooping around us on the side of Turtle Rock and the relaxing sound of the Arkansas rushing through the valley below to bring us back into equilibrium.
(Arkansas River sounds)
We decide to take it easy the next day, to take a break from backcountry driving and get better organized, to bike into town for a restaurant lunch after a few days of starchy and sodium filled camp food.
We’re right in the middle of the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway – the stretch of road from Salida and Poncha Springs north through Buena Vista to Granite, CO.
Buena Vista, or BV for short, is a cute little town just north of Salida. There’s some disagreement over whether it’s pronounced Buena Vista or Buena Vista, but either way, the name of the town is perfect since it has a breathtaking view of the Collegiate Peaks. There’s a historic main street with the typical assortment of restaurants, cute shops, outdoors stores, bakeries, and a distillery. The Arkansas River runs along the edge of town and there’s a park and mountain bike trail system by the river. The town is more bustling than on any of our past visits, and we watch tourists stroll and adventure vehicles roll through town as we shove pizza into our faces at a restaurant that just opened that day called Crave. The waiter admits it’s their first day serving food. Paul admits that it is our first time in too. The waiter laughs a little too breathily for our post-covid comfort, but we couldn’t tell they were new at this. They only have pizza boxes for our leftovers, no foil, so Paul heroically bikes the 3.6 miles uphill back to our campsite balancing a pizza box with our dinner on his handlebars. A free campsite so close to town is a rare find – close to perfection.
We really need this slowdown. We had hastily thrown everything into the Bobs before leaving Fort Collins, and after a few days, we are finding the flaws in our initial lack of organization system. Paul’s right on when he says that we have the most stuff and are the least organized we’ll ever be right now. This is likely reorganization one of many as we fine tune our stuff, but it feels good to have done.
The next morning, we head down to Salida for breakfast at the Little Red Hen Bakery. We had stumbled onto this bakery a few years ago and I have been thinking about their veggie savory spirals ever since. Sadly for me, the spirals are already sold out by 9:30am on a Thursday morning, but everything else they have is also delicious so it’s OK. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to get a spiral when you visit. It’s worth the side trip.
Salida is a cute little town that’s pretty high on my list of Colorado towns where I can see myself living. There’s a good sized historic downtown with a few streets of restaurants and shops, a great mountain bike trail system in the hills behind the city, there’s even a hot spring fed aquatic center downtown. And if I lived there, I could get my veggie savory spiral anytime…
But we are due in Palisade tonight, so we can’t hang around waiting for pastries. We continue north along Highway 24 to Interstate 70, stopping in Leadville along the way. At 10,152 feet in elevation, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the US. We stop in at Melanzana, an outdoor wear company based in Leadville. Everything they sell is physically made in their storefront in Leadville, and from the front, you can see into the back half of the room, which is full of people sewing furiously. Many have headphones on and they’re rocking out, piecing together hoodies and hats and pants as quickly as humanly possible. The stock in the store is very low – every hour they put out what they’ve made in the past hour, and it sells quickly. It’s pretty cool to see things being produced right before your eyes like this. There’s a rabid following for this stuff and we thought we’d find a bunch of treasures by stopping by in person, but there’s a crowd of people already there snapping things up as quickly as they can be made. While I briefly consider if I can fit into the kids trousers (the answer is no), Paul gets a hat. After our visit, we learn that they have decided to shift to in-person reservation-only shopping through September due to the insanely high demand. So it’s no longer possible to stop in and buy something, but still fun to see if you’re in the area.
As many times as we’ve driven through Leadville, we’ve never gotten out and into the shops, and the people are friendly and warm. There are a few people waiting for the Silver Dollar Saloon, the oldest saloon in Leadville, to open, and I wish we could join them for a beer and their stories, but we need to keep moving.
We’re consciously working on finding the right pace for long term travel. We don’t want to fly through things too quickly. We don’t want to leave things undone because it’s not feasible to always go back. But there’s so much to see and do that even with unlimited time, it’s still impossible to do everything. Because you’re always limited by something – if not time, then weather, dirt road fatigue, the need for fresh vegetables, life maintenance duties. So we’ll be working on finding the right balance for us as we continue this journey.
After a few nights in the Bobs, I already can’t believe that we lived in a minivan for 11 months. The soft-sided camper isn’t as warm or quiet as a hard-sided camper or van, but the bed is so huge and comfy, there’s a place to comfortably hang out when it’s cold and raining, which it has been, and we can get up in the morning and make coffee inside without any major effort – it’s just so much easier to live this way.
When I get out of the lofted bed in the morning, there’s always a moment when I’m launching myself off the bed, slightly too short to reach the step below, when I’m midair, just trusting that I’ll land on the step below. Our first night I dream that I’m going indoor skydiving. In my dream, I always crash into the ground, but then I’m always regenerated, like in a video game. I just keep jumping, again and again, even though I know I’m going to be destroyed, because I know that I’ll get another chance. It reminds me of the recurring dream I had ten years ago, when our first extended road trip was ending and I wasn’t sure what we’d do next. Back then, that dream was more like a nightmare. I was falling off the edge of a cliff, but I wasn’t regenerating at the bottom. Just falling and hitting the bottom and not getting another chance. I like this new dream incarnation a lot better. I’m so glad we got another chance.
Next time, we spend a few days exploring Colorado’s fruit and wine country – and when it gets too hot, we flee to Grand Mesa and find a paradise of wildflowers.
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