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Old 20th October 2019, 03:09   #1
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Default National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA

Background

Summer was coming to an end in the US and while fall is still a season that calls for a road trip, Labor Day was fast approaching. We had been to some places on the west coast, so another trip to the west was ruled out. After looking up the maps, I realized that Colorado was one state we had never traveled through. There are many others, but Colorado happens to have 4 national parks in addition to other attractions. I have been to 21 parks so far, so adding another 4 was definitely a good thing. Being a family road trip and learning from a previous trip, we decided to do only limited things while making it easy for the kid with road travel. So after calculating the distances and time needed to visit the attractions a plan for 7 nights was created.

Denver is the major city in Colorado with lot of flights and transportation options. Its also called the mile high city as its elevation is 5280 ft (or 1 mile). Colorado Springs is close to Denver and has an airport as well, but costs were high and we didn’t want to end up paying a lot for a 4 hr flight. I was initially trying to book with points, however what I didn’t realize was that some airlines add a 75$ fee, if using points within 3 weeks of travel. I had enough points but the point of paying 75$ per person seemed foolish (for a ticket that needed around 6k-12.5k points ~ 60-100$ approx). Rates were going up and down on a daily basis, but on the day of booking I found a basic economy for around 59$. I immediately tried to book it only to realize that they changed the prices during the booking and I ended up paying almost 90$. Basic Economy has seating restrictions, but I do get a free bag on the flights, so that didn’t seem like a problem. I still kept an eye on the rates and saw that the rate went down again and this time it was 59$ and main cabin was around 94$. I called the airline and asked if I could cancel the ticket to get the main cabin one as it was only 5$ more and instead of cancelling they agreed to update the same ticket and issued it with 2-3 hrs. The main benefit was that I could select seats together instead of ending up sitting in separate rows, so this was still a good deal. The plan was to see the 4 national parks, and few other attractions while keeping the daily driving limited to 4-5 hrs. This is what we had planned for the week long trip
Great Sand Dunes national park – known for having sand dunes in the middle of green surroundings and mountains

Mesa Verde national park – ancient dwellings dating back to 1500-2000 yrs
Black Canyon of the Gunnison – painted canyon walls (not as big as grand canyon but quite impressive)
Maroon Bells – scenic mountains that look like bells with couple of hikes that take closer to the peaks
Rocky Mountain national park – one of the highest motorable roads, stunning vistas all around and has the continental divide (more on that later on)
Garden of Gods - natural attraction in Colorado Springs
Pikes Peak drive - driving to the summit at 14000+ ft
Wild Animal Sanctuary near Denver

I had a bigger list of attractions that i saved on the maps, but a week was definitely not enough.

Once the flights were booked, it was time for booking the hotels/lodges
We wanted to get hotels with kitchen or atleast the ones that had microwaves. After lot of R&D we booked a combination of Marriott/Hilton/Airbnb options. Airbnb had limited options as we were booking quite close to the trip.

Fast forward to the day of travel. In the past trips we always were in a hurry as our travel used to be on a Friday. So this time our travel was on a Saturday evening giving us time to pack (and re-pack). The airport is close by so did not take a long time to reach, though there was some traffic closer to the airport. Security took a long time, but we managed to board the flight on time. After boarding the flight, there was some delay and we had to sit on the tarmac for some time before taking off. The pilots did manage to recover the lost time, but then we ended up waiting for the bags at Denver. Car was booked through Hertz and the shuttle bus took us to the rental center in around 10 mins. I saw an email notification that the car had been pre-selected and it was a Chevrolet Tahoe. Tahoe’s are nice and big cars, however when I saw the car it had lot of scratches and worst of all captain seats in the 2nd row. Getting captain seats with kids is the most difficult think in my view and when I tried to ask for a change, the rental staff said they didn’t have any more cars to be exchanged, so we’ll have to drive whatever we have. There was no damage report already put in the car, so I had to write down every single scratch (all over the body). After writing up all dents and scratches we finally took off to our destination which was just outside of Denver city and on the way south. Our first destination was Great sand dunes national park. We had packed dinner while leaving from home, so on reaching had our dinner and that was the end of the travel day.

This is what i had planned initially, i did skip some points but tried to cover atleast 80% of the plan.

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Last edited by aditya_rao : 20th October 2019 at 07:07. Reason: added photos
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Old 20th October 2019, 09:01   #2
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Default re: National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA

Day 1

Today the plan was to go to Great sand dunes national park and stay in Alamosa. The drive from Denver to Alamosa was around 4 hrs, but we started around 12:00 so by the time we reached the national park, it was around 5: 30 PM. The drive from the main road is a straight road around 20 mins into the park. We were planning to attend a ranger talk that was followed by a night sky viewing program. The visitor center had closed by the time we reached, so we could only head to the amphitheater parking for the ranger talk. On the way we saw a dual rainbow and some rain. In the distance we could see dark clouds coming our way.

After some time one of the rangers came and mentioned that they were seeing lightening in the park and they might end up cancelling the program (and I had messed up the first plan just to attend the ranger talk, which I later realized was a foolish thing to do). Anyway, they still started the ranger talk with a caveat that it might stop anytime they saw more lightning strikes around the areas. However, after some time I headed back to the car and started for Alamosa where we were staying for the night. I decided to return after dinner to the park to see if the milky way was visible. After having dinner, I headed out to the park again. The drive from main road to the visitor center was a long one, so did not want to go all the way inside. I headed few miles inside and then stopped at a parking place. Where two other cars were there but no one was inside them. I put my camera on the tripod, set it up, however when I tried to attach the rokinon lens the camera did not detect it. Even after few tries, I could not get it work. Disappointed I attached the standard lens. After about 15-20 mins I started back as it was getting quite late (not that it was any darker than earlier).I reached the hotel around midnight and that is how the day ended. I found out later on that mirrorless cameras don't detect manual lenses automatically.

on the way to Sand dunes
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Rainbow enroute to the visitor center
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Storm clouds approaching
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Sunset in the park
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Sunset with the dunes
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Milky way
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Old 20th October 2019, 09:41   #3
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Default re: National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA

Day 2

The plan for today was to go to Mesa Verde, but we hardly saw anything at the sand dunes the previous day, so we were going to spend half a day there and then head back. After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and headed back to the park visitor center. The drive was around an hour and after spending some time at the visitor center and enquiring about the dunes access, we headed to the dunes parking. The drive was about 15 mins and while there were many cars, we found one slot. From there one has to walk to the dunes. The walk/hike is atleast 15-20 mins depending on the heat and how far you want to go. Many people rent boards to slide from the higher points on the dunes and some people were carrying tube like structures to play around. After spending an hour on the dunes it was time to head back. It was quite hot and there was no energy left to spend any more time. As a general rule always carry water while going on the dunes. There is only one restaurant near the part visitor center (on the way back to the main road) and since we had to head straight to Mesa verde, we decided to stop and have a quick lunch before heading off. The drive from sand dunes to mesa verde was a long one and it would take around 5-6 hrs (including stops). The route took us via a road inside the park (route 160) instead of coming out all the way to Alamosa.

For few miles the road was exactly straight with no turns or curves. It’s a single lane road with lower speeds, so felt like a never-ending road. After a while we reached the main highway and we kept passing through small towns and forest areas. We crossed pagosa springs and finally stopped at Durango for coffee. The plan was to go to the visitor center at Durango and ask about the mesa verde tours, but the center was closed by the time we reached. Our night stay was at the Far view lodge inside the park. From the entrance it was around half an hour of driving through turns and narrow roads. We finally made it when it was completely dark on the park roads. We had taken a Kiva deluxe room that guaranteed a good view, but after seeing the layout we realized that only a few units have got a good view, the others just face other units and you probably see only a part of the so called view. I was hoping to see the night sky but the clouds were coming intermittently, so the chances of a clear sky was not much. There was a restaurant at the lodge from where we ordered dinner. The room had a small balcony from where I could see some part of the sky. I setup the tripod and managed to take some photos of the milky way however the room structure was not giving a clear view. Rather than spend anymore time on taking photos I decided to call it off and that was how the day ended.

View from visitor center
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the sand dunes
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on the way to the dunes
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close up of the dunes
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people walking up the dunes
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another view of the dunes
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while coming down, mountains in the distance
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road view
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Milky Way/Night sky from the far view lodge
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Old 21st October 2019, 02:09   #4
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Default re: National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA

Day 3

As usual whenever we plan something for the evening, we never reach on time and the plan goes to the next day. So this time too, our exploration of parks usually started in the morning and we used the second half of the day for travel. Mesa Verde attractions are slightly different to other national parks. The dwellings here are around 1500-2000 yrs old and have been built on rocks and vertical faces of the hills. So nothing is easily accessible and most of the attractions are visited by tours organized by the park service. There are longer tours but since we had only few hours we decided to do the cliff palace tour.The tour tickets were available in the museum within the park. After having breakfast we headed towards the museum which wasn’t very far from the lodge. The tour cost is 5$ per adult and if you are bringing kids then they need to be in the carriers or should be able to walk without any issues. The walking tour took us through narrow steps with the valley on one side and rock on the other. The ranger took us through the dwellings explaining how they were formed and answering questions. After an hour the tour was over and we headed back to the car.

There are longer tours and ones that offer sunset options also but we decided to move on and see the remaining places by following the park loop and stopping at points of interest. Most other points offer good views of the park and some even give good external view of the dwellings. After almost 1.5 hrs of driving around, we decided to move on and started the journey back. It took around an hour to reach the visitor center just outside the national park. On the way back we stopped at few overlooks including the Park point and Four Corners overlook. The views from these points were really amazing.
From there our next destination was Montrose, which was our stay for Black Canyon of the Gunnison. There were two routes to reach Montrose – one via San Juan skyway, which is also called the million dollar highway and the second that crosses the San Juan mountains but goes slightly westwards instead of this highway.

The million dollar highway is quite known for the scenic beauty. It was developed in the 80s i think and is 200+ miles long. We didn’t have enough time to see any viewpoints on this highway however but still decided to go through it as it was only 15 mins more than the other route. We had to reach Durango to get on this highway. So after a quick stop for coffee and gas top-up, we headed for the mountains. The highway took us through valleys and straight roads with higher speed limits eventually coming down as we cross towns of Ouray and Silverton. While entering Ouray we saw a sign that said Switzerland of the US and as we passed through the town we knew how beautiful it would be in the day time, surrounded by mountains and in the winter. The sections near the towns were full of hair pin turns, so it was a good driving experience, though the family was not impressed with number of curves and turns. We managed to reach our Airbnb by 8:30 PM. The owner was quite helpful and had also prepared some dinner for us, though we were carrying food with us. After settling down, we had a chat with the owner and then slept off for the night. The night sky views were quite good on a clear day, but this night was full of clouds, so could hardly see any stars. The owner’s property was on a higher elevation, so it was an ideal spot for a clear night.

cliff palace
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canyon views from overlook
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another view
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one of the excavations
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Cliff palace from the other side of the canyon
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Sun Temple
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View from park point overlook
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Four Corners overlook view
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another view point
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structure near the visitor center outside the park
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Old 21st October 2019, 02:38   #5
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Default re: National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA

Day 4

The stay in the Airbnb room was comfortable and we got ready by 9:30 AM. The black canyon is not a busy park, however for night sky viewing it is a certified park. After packing up we checkout of the room and headed to the visitor center which was not very far off (around 20-25 mins). After reaching the visitor center we got details of what to see and got to know that we can just drive around the south rim drive and keep stopping at different viewpoints. The viewpoints were clearly marked so it would not be difficult to go around.

We spent the next 3-4 hrs in the park before deciding to get out. The north rim was ruled out as it was another 2-3 hrs drive. Our next stop from Black Canyon was a place called Basalt, near Aspen. The next destination was going to be Maroon Bells. The journey to Basalt took almost 2.5 hrs including a stop in between. We had booked a hotel in Basalt as Aspen hotels were quite expensive (being a tourist destination). We reached the hotel before the end of daylight and it was very close to the highway. The area was a small self contained one and had a gas station, restaurants, shops and groceries and market within walkable distance. There was a whole foods shop just minutes away from the hotel. We had a booked a kitchen suite, so it was convenient to get groceries for dinner. My booking was for a mountain view room with kitchen however the intial room that I got hardly had any kitchen appliances and rather a road side view. After checking 2-3 rooms we were given an upgrade (to the room that we booked). Not sure how it was classified as an upgrade, but the kitchen appliances seemed quite new, so it was still good. After having dinner we slept off as the day was quite hectic with lot of walking.

morning view
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canyon view
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another canyon view
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river flowing in the gorge
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patterns on the wall gorge
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valley views in the distance
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painted wall
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National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA-0m7a2020.jpg
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Old 21st October 2019, 03:13   #6
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Day 5

Today we had planned to go to Maroon Bells. Maroon Bells are two peaks in the aspen region and part of the Maroon Bells Snowmass wilderness area. Its not a state or a national park but regulated by the national park service (you need to pay a fees to enter or come on the bus). There are two lakes – maroon lake and crater lake that offer good views of the peaks. Maroon lake is very close to the summit parking however the road is restricted. You can either take the bus as per the schedule or drive up before 8 AM/after 5 PM. If you have kids that need a full-sized car seats, then you can drive up by paying a fee (free with national park pass). We drove up to the entrance station and showed the pass and were able to drive all the way to the summit. The parking had hardly 10 cars and there was enough space left.
After parking the car, we headed to the maroon lake which was a 2-3 mins walk. There is a paved trail for some distance around the lake (does not cover the entire circumference). At the other end of the boardwalk, there are paths to two other trails – one that goes further up to the lake and other that goes to the crater lake. The hike to crater lake is around 1.5 miles, after taking pictures I decided to go ahead as it looked quite simple. However, what I did not realize is that the hike was higher in elevation and was going through the hills and rocks. After going up for almost 25 mins I found that I had hardly covered 1/3rd of the distance, so looking at how much time was left, I decided to return. I was also short on water, so it was better to turn back instead of struggling ahead. The crater lake view would have been definitely a good one, but with little time, the decision to turn back was a better one.

From Aspen the next destination was Estes Park in Rock mountain national park. We had a quick late afternoon meal at one of the Mexican restaurants and then headed off. The drive time was around 5 hrs plus breaks. The initial plan was to drive from Grand Lake, which had the western entrance of the park and drive all the way on the trail ridge road towards Estes park. However it was already getting late and there was no way we would cross the park during daylight, so we took the easiest path shown by google maps and through Breckenridge via Interstate 70 and then Route 72. Route 70 had higher speed limits, so the initial drive went through quickly but as we moved to Route 72, the speeds reduced. The road took us through small towns and narrow roads. After briefly stopping for refueling, we finally reached our lodge that was booked for the night. We settled down for the night and after a quick dinner, it was time to call it a day.

peaks near the parking
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maroon lake
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other peaks on the trail
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aspen trees on the trail
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another view of the maroon bells
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a different view from the lake
National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA-0m7a2101.jpg
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Old 21st October 2019, 03:25   #7
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Day 6

The next two days we had planned to be in Rocky mountain national park. There are multiple visitor centers in the national park. We started at the Beaver meadows visitor center. The rangers suggested driving all the way on the trail ridge road stopping at different viewpoints and at the Alpine visitor center, which is at an elevation of 12000+ ft in the park. We reached the alpine visitor center around lunch time, so eat from whatever options were available. There is a short hike behind the visitor center which takes us to a higher point in that area (like a summit). From there you can get a 360-degree view of the mountains and valleys.

Moving on, we decided to all the way to Grand lake, which was this just outside the Kawuneche visitor center on the western side. Before getting out of the park, we also stopped at the continental divide marker at Milner pass. The continental divide actually tells us the directions of the flow of rivers rather than dividing the continent and is a hydrological divide (it has nothing to do with the tectonic plates). On the eastern side of the divide, the rivers flow towards the Atlantic Ocean and on the western side they join the Colorado river all the way into Pacific Ocean.

We went towards grand lake, stopped there for some time and then started our journey back. Since we had visited most of the viewpoints, we thought of just stopping at Bear lake, however it would be sunset by the time we reached there, so the plan was to skip it for today and try to visit it the next day. We reached the lodge before the end of daylight. The second day’s lodge was in the same area as the previous night, but it took couple of back and forth trips to location the property. After settling down we prepared dinner, we watch some television and then called it a day.

just ahead of visitor center
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road view from the same stop
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mountain views
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close up from the overlooks
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barren mountain slopes except for few trees
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trail ridge road view, this i think was just after the highest point on the park road

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some more mountain views
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back side of the alpine visitor center
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some elk
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valley views
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coming down from the hike at the alpine visitor center
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view from the hike summit
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view from grand lake
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Bull Elk spotten near the road
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The horns were massive
National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA-0m7a2509.jpg
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Old 21st October 2019, 03:55   #8
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Day 7

Today was our kind of the last day in the mountains and the only item left was to visit Bear lake. The park is usually crowded in the morning hours during peak season and on the previous day we were told that Bear lake parking fills up early and the only suggested time is afternoon. We were not sure if we would get the parking or not, but as we neared the lake, the road was blocked. We were told to come back in the afternoon. Disappointed we left the park and headed to Estes park. There is a Ariel tramway in the Estes park that takes us to the prospect mountain summit. Since we didn’t do anything major today, we thought of going up to the summit. The tickets cost 14$ per adult. There was a long wait and we got into a trolley after almost 40-50 mins (Its a waste of time and money if you have better things to do in the park). The ride to the summit is around 3 mins and there is a small café at the summit. We spent sometime at the summit taking photos and having some overpriced snacks.

After returning we were thinking of what we could see next, but we then thought of going one more time to bear lake as it was past noon. It would add another hour to the time already wasted on the tram, but there was no other plan, so we decided to go and check it out. There were not blockades this time and we could find one parking spot at bear lake. The area was packed with people but frankly after seeing bear lake we thought we could have done something better instead of spending so much time in attempting to see it. Anyway, we decided to leave the park after a quick refuel and coffee stop. Our next and final stop in this trip was Colorado Springs. Our plan had changed from making Colorado springs at the first stop to becoming the last stop. We later realized that a circle trip is always better and avoids last minute rushing around.

From Estes Park our destination was around 2.5 hrs. We had planned to see the Garden of Gods today itself so that we could do the Pikes peak drive the next day. However on the way we saw storm clouds near Colorado springs. Due to this it turned dark earlier than usual and so we had to skip it for today and headed straight to the hotel. We stopped at a restaurant to pick up some food outside of Denver. On the way we also saw an exit for the Air force academy, which is where the US air force pilots are trained. There is a visitor center and i think there are some trails which the common public can go on. Their website offers more information on tourist interaction. After reaching the hotel, we ate our dinner and then

Waiting for the trolley
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View from the summit of the tramway, outside of the cafe
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another view
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Bear Lake
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Another view of bear lake
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National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA-0m7a2596.jpg
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Old 21st October 2019, 04:27   #9
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Default re: National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA

Day 8

Today was our final day in Colorado. We were supposed to do the drive to the Pikes peak summit in the morning before heading towards Denver. However the drive is 1 hr each way and since we missed seeing garden of gods, we had to decide between garden of gods and pikes peak. We had done the trail ridge drive in rocky mountains, so we decided to go with garden of gods hoping that it would not disappoint us. After breakfast and checking we headed to towards the entrance, which was around 15-20 mins from our hotel. On reaching we found that it was more of a self drive tour and we could stop at different parking points. Except at the first attraction, we hardly could find any parking spot. We had to make couple of return trips inside the trail to look for parking. There is a museum also towards one end of the drive through trail. We were already disappointing with what we saw and hence decided to leave and head for the Wild Animal sanctuary north of Denver. On the way we stopped at one of the Target stores for some purchases. The drive took us to remote areas north of Denver and we were wondering if there would be something worthwhile so far off. Soon we found a sign board indicating the animal sanctuary. We arrived at what looked like a large aircraft hanger like structure. The tickets are 30$ per person and there is a mandatory donation that one has to be make (which can be 1$ also). There is a short film that is shown, which we had to watch before heading to the ramp to the open sanctuary. There is a boardwalk like of structure which is almost a mile long and there are different animals on both sides of the boardwalk. They gave us a magazine that had maps of the sanctuary along with names of animals and some history on them. For the time we were there we could hardly saw 10 of the said 500+ animals. The staff also mentioned that during day time the animals hardly come out, to which i thought why should people even visit it during day time. Rather people could donate the 30$ and avoid coming to the place itself. The other problem i saw was that while the area was marked in the booklet, the actual enclosures didn't have any markings. one has to keep guessing looking at the enclosure walls and find out which section there were at. All in all a complete waste of time (except that they are probably doing a good thing by rescuing the animals). From there we went for a quick top up of fuel and headed back to the airport. After returning the car, we took the shuttle bus and went to the airport. The shuttle dropped us into the international terminal (they were not dropping at the domestic one). You have to walk a long way and take the train in order to reach your gate. After reaching the gate we found out that the flight was delayed by 20 mins, which then turned into 40 and kept on increasing till it was delayed by 3+ hrs. We were supposed to land just after midnight and eventually we landed just before sunrise. This was the worst Southwest flight i had taken. There was no clear information provided at the gates on the delays and i heard few of the flights changing their gates in those 3+ hrs at the gate. I generally don't fly southwest and the only reason this time was the low prices. Barring the flight, the overall trip was quite good. I have listed down the statistics from the trip in case anyone is planning to do a similar one.

Total distance traveled - ~1700 miles
Gas prices - ~2.5$/gallon to 3$/gallon
Accommodation - ~ 100$/night to 200$/night. This can vary through the seasons
Car Rental - All major car rentals are in the rental car center and cost is generally high during the peak season
Weather - was mostly sunny except that clouds and rain can come in anytime. Keep some buffer if you are doing anything that requires clear weather.

Things to do - Apart from the national parks, there are many other city based activities near Denver. Denver zoo is also supposed to be good (and probably cheaper). Garden of Gods is free to visit. Pikes peak has a charge to travel on the road to the summit. Keep atleast 3 hrs including any stops on the way up and back. Circle trips are better if you want to cover all points on the way. Do not drive for more than 4-5 hrs a day, this will give you time to see things and avoid the stress. Denver hotels can be expensive, so look for hotels away from the city. The hotels near the airport seemed quite expensive. Did not encounter any tolls except 470 which is a shorter route in Denver to the airport. There is no need to take this toll highway as the non toll one also take similar time or at most saves only a few mins. Plus you'll be charged by the rental agency for using the tollway. All other roads are free to use. Road speed limits vary from and go upto 75 mph (don't remember seeing anything more than 75). The route to Colorado Springs has lot of lanes initially but there is some constructions going in sections which reduces the speed to 60 or even lower. Denver city has got many other attractions that you can visit in case you have few days in the city. Indian food is available only in and around Denver.

the first balanced rock near the entrance
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view from the parking spot
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a natural formation
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view on the way
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another view
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sleeping bobcat
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bear getting some tan

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got bored and walked off
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sleeping lioness
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young bobcat keeping an eye
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feeling bored
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sleeping as usual
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another view of the bear
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Last edited by aditya_rao : 21st October 2019 at 07:11.
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Old 21st October 2019, 07:35   #10
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Default re: National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA

Thread moved from the Assembly Line. Thanks for sharing.
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Old 22nd October 2019, 06:25   #11
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Default Re: National Parks Road Trip in Colorado, USA

From the pictures and enjoyment I don't feel the pain of driving 1700 miles. One thing that bewilders ne is that USA builds Muscle Cars and enforces Strictly Low Speeds. Driving a good Car in an empty stretch over a smooth road at low speed - nothing more painful.
Thanks for sharing places which I miss by flying over between East and West Coast.
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