Published Mar/Apr 2007

A tour of southern Colorado unveils parks, byways and attractions worthy of an anthem.
By Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer

On our first family visit to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in southwestern Colorado, I was a young mother traveling with an energetic three-year-old, envisioning him breaking free of my grasp and darting around the railing at the edge of a canyon. On subsequent visits, our children were older and I was less nervous, able to appreciate the splendor below.

There is plenty to appreciate at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and at other spectacular attractions south and west of Colorado Springs. Ancient fossil beds, colorful former mining towns, the Cumbres & Toltec narrow-gage railway, spectacular backcountry drives and monumental sand dunes make this circle tour a memorable summer vacation.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

From the junction of Interstate 25 and U.S. Highway 24 at Colorado Springs, drive west on Highway 24 about 35 miles to the town of Florissant. Petrified redwoods, fossil exhibits and mountain valleys surrounded by peaks await visitors at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, two miles south of town on Teller County Road 1.

Thirty-four million years ago, lush ferns and forests surrounded Lake Florissant. Mammals, plants and insects thrived in the warm climate. Volcanic ash fell into the lake, trapping the remains in sediment. The fine ash and mudflows preserved the delicate bodies of up to 1,500 insect species and 140 plant species, including petrified redwood stumps 14 feet in diameter. There also are fossilized remains of a brontothere that resembles a rhinoceros.

The visitor center contains exhibits and fossil displays. Rangers give tours and run a junior ranger program. Two nature trails wind through fossilized shales and petrified stumps. Fourteen miles of longer hiking and horse trails have the best scenery and wildlife viewing. The 1878 Hornbek Homestead also is within the park’s boundaries.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

From Florissant, drive west and south on Highway 24 and south on U.S. 285 and County Road 17, approximately 140 miles in total, to get to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Mosca. This park is exciting–especially for children–because visitors can climb the dunes and slip, slide or roll down the other side. A dunes-accessible wheelchair is available free from the visitor center.

Shallow Medano Creek, which is fun to play in during hot weather, flows at the base of the dunes after a wet winter. Stay off the dunes, however, in high winds or if storm clouds loom as the dunes are subject to lightning strikes.

The park encompasses the dunes–some of which are as high as 750 feet–and 13,000-foot mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, grasslands and wetlands. The visitor center offers a movie, exhibits, interpretive programs, nature walks and a junior ranger program. The park has a campground and several picnic spots.

Trails range from a half-mile nature trail to longer excursions into the mountains. With a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle, you can explore Medano Pass Primitive Road.

If you can allow for extra time, the colorful mining towns of Cripple Creek and Victor, as well as impressive Royal Gorge in Cañon City, are north of the dunes, accessible via U.S. Highway 50 and County Road 67.

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

Forty-two miles south of Mosca on County Road 17 and Highway 285 is the town of Antonito, where you can board the narrow-gage Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad to Chama, New Mexico. The trip offers wonderful views as it navigates a narrow shelf 600 feet above the Toltec Gorge, rounds tight curves, crosses high trestles and chugs through rock tunnels.

Built in 1880 to service mining camps in southern Colorado, the line still uses impressive coal-fired vintage steam locomotives. Because so many historic structures are preserved along the route–engine houses, water tanks, section houses and a tall coal tipple for loading coal–the ride is particularly attractive to railroad buffs.

You may spot herds of elk and cowboys working cattle as you ride. Trips are offered from Memorial Day to mid-October, and fall color is spectacular. A variety of trips are available, including the round-trip from Antonito or Chama that takes most of a day, or a shorter Cinder Bear Express that’s offered during the summer, designed for younger passengers. Lunch–for all passengers except those on the express route–is served in Osier near 10,022-foot Cumbres Pass.

Creede and Lake City

About 75 miles northwest of Antonito on Highway 285 and U.S. Highway 160 is South Fork, the starting point for the 75-mile Silver Thread Scenic Byway to Lake City via state Route 149. The byway travels into the San Juan Mountains past beautiful North Clear Creek Falls and the fascinating old mining towns of Creede and Lake City.

Creede, near the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, is a bustling town with lots of activity, while Lake City, though lively, is quaint and more laid back. Both towns nestle up to canyons and mountains, have repertory theaters, museums, art galleries and gift shops.

The 17-mile Bachelor Historic Tour, usually accessible by car, leads up a canyon from Creede and loops past historic mining structures and ghost towns. The 65-mile Alpine Loop Scenic Byway, accessible from Lake City, takes you high into the San Juan Mountains. This four-wheel drive road winds past numerous old mining structures, climbs 12,800-foot Engineer Pass and stops in the ghost town of Animas Forks. You can rent four-wheel drive vehicles in Lake City.

Black Canyon

Drive north from Lake City on state Route 149 to U.S. Highway 50, approximately 100 miles in total, to Montrose and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Along the way, you will pass beautiful Blue Mesa Reservoir.
he canyon makes an awesome split in the earth, with sides that drop as much as 2,722 feet to the Gunnison River below. Viewpoints often are right on the edge. Visitors can lean over to see the rapids in the river and the zigzag stripes of pink pegmatite that decorate the dark metamorphic rock of the Painted Wall; at 2,250 feet, it’s the tallest cliff in Colorado.

The South Rim Visitor Center, open all year, presents exhibits on the canyon, interpretive programs and a junior ranger program. The north rim has a visitor center, open intermittently, and a horse trail.

Four hiking trails at the south rim lead through pinon and ponderosa pine. Hikers may see marmots, spotted rock squirrels, ringtail cats and peregrine falcons. Only expert hikers can attempt excursions into the inner canyon.

The park has two campgrounds, plus additional campgrounds in nearby Curecanti National Recreation Area at the Blue Mesa Reservoir and Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, which also offers rafting excursions.

Travelers can complete this tour by heading back to Colorado Springs east on Highway 50 through Gunnison, Salida and Pueblo, or take off in a new direction. There are many more attractions just waiting to be discovered and appreciated.

Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

Above: Boaters take in the beauty of Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison River near Montrose.

In Title: Fishing in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park0 provides not only a great catch but memorable natural beauty. Tom Stillo/CTO photos

Before You Go
For more information, contact Colorado Office of Tourism, 1-800-COLORADO (800-265-6723), www.colorado.com; or the South-west Colorado Travel Region, (800) 933-4340, www.swcolotravel.org

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

The scoop on Colorado Springs

Where to stay

There’s a big selection of hotels, condominiums, motels and bed-and-breakfast inns to choose from in Colorado Springs. Those travelers seeking some pampering in the Rockies might consider AAA’s five Diamond hotel, The Broadmoor, 1 Lake Ave., in Colorado Springs. The large (700 rooms) hotel has plenty of leisure activities, including two pools, health club and spa. Access to nearby fishing and golf round out the vacation package at this smoke-free facility. AAA members receive a discount on rates. For more information or to make reservations, contact AAA Travel or click on www.AAA.com. The hotel can be reached at (719) 634-7711.

For travelers seeking a bed-and-breakfast experience, the Old Town Guesthouse, 115 S. 26th St., in Colorado Springs is another option. This AAA four Diamond inn has eight rooms, some with whirlpools. The smoke-free inn also has refrigerators, coffee makers, VCR and DVD players and a video library. For information, call (719) 632-9194.

Where to eat

New American cuisine is exquisitely prepared and artfully presented at the Summit restaurant, a AAA four Diamond restaurant, across from The Broadmoor. A large wine list complements the menu by executive chef Bertrand Bouquin. Casual dress is acceptable. Prices for dinner start at about $15. Reservations are suggested and can be made by calling (719) 577-5733.

What to do

See Pikes Peak. Travel the toll highway ($10 per adult, $5 per child or $35 maximum) and stop at Crystal Reservoir, Glen Cove (the halfway point) before reaching Summit House with the view that inspired the writing of “America the Beautiful.” Call (719) 684-9383 for details.

Other family attractions include the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo with gorgeous mountain scenery and 750 animals from around the world. Or golf, fish, hike, bike–even try hot air ballooning. Several companies in the area offer rides during the summer. The 31st annual Colorado Balloon Classic will be Labor Day weekend, Sept. 1–3. The Colorado Renaissance Festival kicks off June 9 in Castle Rock and continues through July 29.

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