Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Morning of Buena Vistas, afternoons of flight.

Above: The Topaz Lodge. Scenic accommodations in Buena Vista, CO.

OK, so I could hear the people talking until 2:00am in the next room and the highway was just a few feet from my room. Nonetheless, I still had a refreshing night's sleep at the Topaz Lodge and was rarin' to go...EAT that is.

While checking in the night before I had asked the hotel owner his recommendation for a hearty, American breakfast. He indicated that Jan's, just down the street, was the call. So, after the heaving of luggage into the land yacht, I jumped on the highway for a couple of blocks and headed straight to the afore mentioned home of the Buena Vista's best breakfast.

Buena Vista lies in a scenic high mountain valley that runs north-south below the Collegiate Peaks of the Sawatch Range. These peaks, along with the beautiful Arkansas River which flows through the broad, scrub pine valley, makes this region a prime destination for year round outdoors activity.

The Collegiate Range Peaks of Mt. Harvard, Mt. Yale, Mt. Columbia and Mount Princeton tower majestically over the valley to the west. Combined with nearby Mt. Elbert, La Plata Peak, Mt. Antero, Mt. Massive and others, over 15 of Colorado's 52 14'ers are easily accessible from this pristine base, making it a backpacking and climber's paradise.

If that weren't enough, the roiling Arkansas river offers world-class rafting, kayaking and fly fishing, the large elk that populate the area make it a hunter's paradise, and the nearby passes are world-renowned snowmobiling destinations during the long winter months. Combine this with a climate that's noticeably warmer than the surrounding mountains in winter (less freezing would be more appropriate) and you have a year round playground that's within easy reach of the Denver-Colorado Springs metroplex. That said, Buena Vista is still remarkably quaint, extremely western, and relatively free of the runaway development that afflicts other popular mountain destinations. It also has a unique high desert small resort feel that I really like.

Above Left: Jan's Family Restaurant and Lounge. Above Right: Collegiate Peaks, Buena Vista, CO.

Stepping into Jan's was like stepping back 30 years in time. The popular dining room looked like it was plucked straight from the 1960's (or perhaps unchanged since). Trophy heads of various hoofed, horned and antlered quadrupeds looked down from walls, filled in between with vintage photos and posters of local hunters, sports enthusiasts and pastimes.

When I saw two county sheriffs enjoying a bawdy laugh with a somewhat dentally-challenged waitress, I knew I was in the right place for a great breakfast. I wasn't disappointed. After a huge meal of scrambled eggs, short stack of pancakes, grits, patty sausage, wheat toast, coffee, and an orange juice, I was relatively sure that I could forgo further sustenance until I reached the airport in Denver late this afternoon.

Leaving Jan's I took a quick drive through the charmingly antique "downtown" to the town park that runs along the Arkansas River. I stood above the river in the crystal clear morning sun and watched as several kayaks and a couple of 7-person rafts whizzed by below the scenic wood and steel pedestrian bridge.

As I watched, a fly fisherman just below the bridge landed what looked to be a nine-inch rainbow trout that glistened in the morning sun, and turning to return to the car I was stunned by the panoramic beauty of the majestic Collegiate Peaks thrusting boldly into the sky across the western horizon. Time was my enemy and my plane for Portland left at 6PM with or without me, but I still found it hard to leave this unique mountain paradise.

I left Buena Vista a little behind schedule. Turning east on highway 24, I headed toward Colorado Springs. Plans had originally called for a trip through the scenic alpine tourist town of Manitou Springs at the base of Pikes Peak, a ride up said mountain on the famed cog train, followed by a drive through the wondrous red rock promontories of Garden of the Gods. All this before hitting some great bookstores in Colorado Springs and making it back to the Denver airport 70 miles to the north by 4PM to return my rental car. Something had to give.

I traveled up an over 9,300 foot Trout Pass and headed east across the scenic high grassy plains of South Park, yes, the very same South Park that lends it's name to the animated series (although I'm not quite sure why). From there it was up and over the beautiful Wilkerson Pass with its unparalleled views of the 14'ers stretched across the western sky, then down through Woodland Park to the town of Manitou Springs.

This beautiful and historic little town is the gateway to Pikes Peak. From there you can take the cog railway to the top or ascend via the nearby Pikes Peak Scenic highway (toll). The town was founded in the early 1900's as a health destination for people suffering from tuberculosis. It was thought the clean mountain air, combined with waters from the 24 or so natural mountain springs would provide therapeutic treatment. Ah, the good old days. Well at least you could die in comfort enjoying the beauty of the surrounding valley and Pikes Peak.

Above left: Manitou Springs, CO. Above right: Pikes Peak from Garden of the Gods

I had been to Manitou Springs in my youth and it hadn't changes much. It's still a great, mildly-but-not-too crowded tourist destination with lots to see and do (Cave of the Winds, Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak, "Indian" Cliff Dwellings, etc., etc., etc.). The historic buildings have been well preserved and the building codes are such that it truly has retained a unique and inviting charm. Well done planning commission!

I took a quick spin through town then headed up for a meander through the twisting, turning roads of Garden of the Gods on the northeast side of town. This scenic little park is like Arches National Park in miniature, with lots of unique and beautiful formations jutting out from the scrubby pines.

Above: 2 views of Garden of the Gods, Manitou Springs, CO

It's a great place to view Pikes Peak as well as the multimillion dollar homes that lie on private property in and around the park. Unlike Manitou Springs, however, the visitor center and gift store was absolutely packed with screaming, ice cream eating, souvenir buying throngs of sweaty visitors, rubbing just a little veneer off this otherwise pleasurable experience. October would probably be a better time to visit. Moving right along, I jumped back to 24 and headed into the beautiful and semi-gentrified heart of downtown Colorado Springs.

Colorado Springs started out as a resort town centered on the springs at nearby Manitou Springs. Pikes Peak, the ubiquitous, towering presence over the city, is the closest 14,ooo foot peak to the front range and plains and the most accessible, making it a prime destination in its own right.

The city of Colorado Springs is on many "best of" lists. It hosts the Air Force Academy, and most interestingly, under the hollowed out-Cheyenne Mountain looming just southwest over town: NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defence Command, the cold war era defender against nuclear attack popularized in countless movies and spy novels. Needless to say, in the unfortunate event of nuclear war, it would be a great place to make sure you get vaporized in the first wave.

Although larger in area than Denver, Colorado Springs has a very manageable population of just over 300,000. This, combined with the mountain resort location gives it a truly intimate feel. The downtown area while small, is scenic and semi-gentrified, creating an interesting juxtaposition of old and new, conservative and contemporary, indigent and prosperous. The "action" is centered along active Tejon St., where I stopped in to take a turn around some of the local purveyors of new and used books.

Above: Poor Richard's Discount Bookstore inside and out, Colorado Springs, CO.

Poor Richard's Discount Bookstore at 320 N. Tejon St. is "four unique businesses under one roof": the bookstore, the restaurant, the toy store and the coffee, chocolate and wine bar. A unique staple of the community for over 32 years, this tasty melange of retail started out as Poor Richard's Discount Bookstore, then grew to include the palate pleasing Poor Richard's Restaurant, the invigorating Rico's Coffee, Chocolate and Wine Bar and the playful Little Richard's Toy Store.

Above left: Poor Richard's Bookstore interior. Right: Rico's Coffee, Chocolate and Wine Bar next door.

More than the sum of its parts, this lush quartet of stores serves as social center of sorts, a place to meet, eat, read and hang out with entertainment for the kids as a bonus. The bookstore buys, sells and trades used books to compliment a great choice of new and discount titles and they have an interesting selection of great alternative gifts to boot. It's a great little place to spend an afternoon or evening. If I lived in Colorado Springs...many an afternoon and evening.

Continuing up Tejon St., past a veritable cornucopia of interesting looking shops, bars, restaurants and boutiques, I stopped at Adventures in Books "An Old North End Bookshop" near the Colorado College campus at the north end of town. This latest addition to the Colorado Springs book scene was opened just over a year ago by proprietors and co-owners Bill Porter and Karen Anthony.

Above: Adventures in Books, inside and out. Colorado Springs, CO.

Adventures in Books offers a broad selection of high quality, gently used titles and as their sign indicates, they are "always buying books" and they even make house calls, just like my esteemed sponsor Cathy's Half Price Books. It's a great little store full of interesting surprises. Between the book stores, coffee houses, and all the diverse places to eat and shop, I could have easily spent another day or three meandering on Tejon Street alone, but sadly, it was not to be. I had a plane to catch!

It was past 3pm in the afternoon when I headed north through the scenic campus of Colorado College, then west on Unitah St. back onto I-25 to finish up this portion of the journey. Driving north on I-25 offered beautiful views of the front range and the unbelievable campus of the Air Force Academy. Boy, the government always gets the best spots: West Point, NY; Annapolis, MD; Colorado Springs, CO.; Oceanside, CA; Coronado Island, CA; I guess it helps to be...The Government.

The interstate continues north through a series beautiful buttes and rocky outcroppings near the appropriately named towns of Monument and Castle Rock, Colorado. There's a break of about 30 miles between the northern suburbs of Colorado Springs and the southern reaches of Denver, which is good. When I attended high school way back when in the Denver suburb of Arvada, there was always talk of the front range becoming one big conjoined city. Although the metropolitan areas have grown over the last 30 years, I'm happy to say that as of this writing, there's still a long way to grow.

I made it back to the Airport a little after 4pm. After filling the rental car with gas and giving my last couple of beers to a gentleman at the gas station who reacted, I thought, with just a bit too much enthusiasm at his newly acquired largess, I changed clothes for the flight and returned the car, happy they didn't spot the rather large dent in the passenger door acquired somewhere along the ride. Denver is one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive location in the US to rent a car. Rates are double what they are in the major cities of the east and west, so I figured they could afford it.

As the plane rose over the darkening plains, I looked down on many of the areas I'd visited in during the opening days of this initial grand loop of the trip. It already seemed like ages ago. Passing over the front range as we headed west, I got one final look at Mt. Evans and the 14'ers of the Sawatch Range. Their lofty peaks, lit by the late afternoon sun, reached high into the clouds like golden citadels above the darkened valleys. It was a beautiful and fitting end to an incredible journey through the Rocky Mountain West.

Next Post: Portland, Oregon: land of natural beauty, beer, food, political correctness and books, books, books! Join me won't you! Until then-



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