I’d moved to USA just as my youngest brother was putting plans in motion to make his departure. It was becoming a trend, with him leaving Barcelona a little after we moved to London.
I’ve always been in love with the idea of Colorado. During university I desperately wanted to do an exchange. However at the time, my university, QUT, didn’t have an arrangement with the universities there, so I would have to go as a full fee paying student – it would have been cheaper to just come over and mountain bike/snowboard, since that was really what I wanted to do anyway.
I was a little worried how the reality would hold up against the idea I had in my head. I endured a cheap and crowded flight, further transfers and waiting at the car rental office before making my way up to Fort Collins along the surprisingly flat and straight highway from Denver.
After a bit of a slow start to the morning, we were back on the motorway towards Denver again. It was now daylight, and I could see mountains to my right, and endless plains to my left. I wasn’t expecting Colorado to be so flat, kind of made me think of that scene from Dumb and Dumber. It was early May, and while there was still snow capping the taller mountain peaks, it was rather warm. Unlike San Francisco, and the near-constant cold winds, it was still warm here out of the sunshine.
Just outside of Boulder is this great natural amphitheatre, nestled in between spines of softly shaped red rocks. It was glorious in the sunshine, with the distant skyscrapers of Denver far out of view, and the man-made structures of the amphitheatre nearly blending in with the surrounding landscape.
Staff were busy preparing for an event taking place over the weekend, while locals used it as a training ground, running, jumping, and burpee-ing their way up the steep steps. I don’t know if it was the altitude, or just my general lack of physical condition, but just walking up and down was enough to make me a breathless sweaty mess.
We followed some of the trails for a short walk around the rocks. The flowers were in bloom, and we could hear the shrill sounds of the hummingbirds – which was a first for me. The rocks slowly tapered off in the distance, and it reminded me somewhat of the scaly spines of a dinosaur.
I was pretty excited to finally visit this city, after such strong aspirations of living here as a student. To be honest, I didn’t know much about the city, other than it being in a prime location for outdoor locations, and having a large university (and now a growing tech community). After initially finding San Francisco to be small and open after living in London for two years, Boulder was now feeling like a minor country town. The streets were wide, the buildings were small, and the people seemed laid back and relaxed. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot to the town, but it had the feel of a ski resort, with the added energy of a young student population. I still think I’d like to live here one day, but I’m in no rush to leave San Francisco just yet.
View this post on Instagram
The Bison Burger from Mountain Sun in Boulder, CO. First time eating bison, and to be honest, I couldn't tell any difference to beef. That aside, this was a juicy burger, with a great brioche bun, fresh salad, crispy bacon, and a great kick of flavour from some blue cheese crumbs. Huge selection of beers, too. Though, a little weird to have a burger come with corn chips by default, and having to upgrade for fries. 4/5 – Juicy, though bites without the blue cheese were a little lacking flavour. #burgerreview #burger #boulder #co #mountainsun
We grabbed some local beer and a bison burger from Mountain Sun. We had just enough time to relax before having to rush back to Fort Collins for more drinking at a brewery tour.
New Belgium Brewery
This wasn’t the original plan that we rushed back for. We’d originally been booked in to do a tour of the Odell Brewery, but even with our best efforts at rushing back, we were too late.
My brother had tried to book us on the New Belgium brewery tour, but it had sold out some time ago. Still, we headed there on the off chance that they’d have some no-shows (like us at Odell). While we waited, we sampled a few of their delicious beers – which had the usual de-motivating effect that daytime beer drinking has on me.
We got lucky, and managed to snag a few spots in the final tour of the day. It started with a little history of the brewery, and soon we were pouring our own samples in one of their tasting rooms.
We continued with the drinking when we visited the cannery, which unfortunately had already shutdown for the day. Still, we got to drink some of that freshly canned beer – and then see the bottling plant in operation with the thousands of bottles shuffling along in orderly lines waiting to be filled, capped, labelled and packaged. It was mesmerising to say the least.
And, if the free drinks, and informative talks weren’t enough, we got to end the tour by sliding down a spiral slide!
Seeing the enormous volumes of beer that they produce makes it hard for me to think of them as a craft brewery, but what do I know. Their beer is almost universally delicious, and worth sampling if the chance arises.
And to celebrate the day, we grabbed some take-away pizza and watched the sun set over the Horsetooth Reservoir – and be baffled at the kids dressed for a prom, eating McDonalds.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Once again, we made our way back down highway 25 towards Denver. Thankfully it was a little shorter of a drive than last time before we pulled off the highway and made our way into the mountains. We paid the toll to enter the national park, and drove as far up the mountains on Trail Ridge Road as was possible, which was just above the snow line at Rainbow Curve.
This begins the story of foresight/planning. We parked the car, used the restroom, and went for a quick wander around the corner, not thinking we’d be able to walk very far. And, once we realised that it was actually possible to continue on foot, rather than turning around to grab our food/water/sunscreen/warm clothing, we just carried on with the walk towards the Alpine Visitor Centre – which checking later was nearly 30km return!
The sun was shining, and even though there was LOTS of snow still on the ground, I wasn’t too cold in just my t-shirt and shorts – it probably helped that we were on a constant ascent. My body was unaccustomed to the thinner than usual altitude – we were after all at 3500m above sea level – and once again I felt more out of shape than I might have really been.
The views from the walk made me forget about my chilly fingers, and slightly parched throat. We made it as far as the Forest Canyon Overlook, which was only 5km from where we parked the car – and 1/3 of the way to the Alpine Visitor Centre.
I was pretty excited to see a few marmots out and about enjoying the sunshine. We turned and returned back to the car park, and as we did, the weather started changing. No longer fighting gravity, my body was starting to cool. The winds were picking up, and the clouds were blocking the sun. We were less than 500m from the car when the sideways snow started hammering into us with ferocious intensity. Weather can change quickly in the mountains, which is something I should remember by now.
The cold also did a great job of helping me forget about sunburn, and it wasn’t until later in the afternoon that I’d realised the terrible mistake I’d made, and spent the next few days blistering and peeling. This is also something that I should really remember by now. At least my cycling cap protected my forehead, and in the process created a terrifying tan/burn line.
After feeding, drinking and generally warming up in the car, we drove back down for a much shorter hike to Emerald Lake via Bear and Dream Lakes. The hike was a lot shorter, only a little under 3km in total, however the trails were still covered in snow and ice making progress slow. We shuffled, slid and did our very best to continue moving forwards. Thankfully the snow was mostly soft making it possible to get a foothold – unlike the brutally slippery trail I’d tried to walk on in Iceland.
The clear skies from the morning had mostly left us, but at least the strong winds and snow had ceased. And while the flat skies did dampen the natural splendour, it was still beautiful to be hiking under the dramatic peaks that were surrounding us.
I also got to see my first chipmunk, amazed at how small they are, far closer to the size of a mouse than a squirrel. This little guy was a little too comfortable/curious though, climbing up inside my lens hood as I was photographing him.
So while our hike was taking us to three lakes, they were still for the most part frozen over. With no real trails it was a little concerning knowing exactly where the land ended – and the lakes began. While we did fall through a few pockets in the snow, thankfully we didn’t fall into any water.
I imagine that in summertime this is spectacular (and spectacularly busy). It would be incredible to dip into these waters on a hot day, accompanied with vistas of towering peaks.
Returning to the car was far more challenging as it was now all down hill. To our credits, we only unintentionally slid a few times, and no bones were broken.
Completing the nature spotting, as we were leaving the park, there was a small herd of deer grazing. I (responsibly) pulled over and joined the dozens of other tourists that were causing traffic chaos to photograph the deer.
Bonus – Poudre River
We’d celebrated late into the night for my brother’s housemate’s birthday party, so we were pretty slow getting started on my final day in Colorado. A trip to Music City Hot Chicken for breakfast restored some life back into us. Plus, hunting down some aloe to reduced the damage on my red-hot skin.
We had a quick walk around downtown Fort Collins, which seemed to have plenty of life – even if it is just a small city.
The last sight of the trip was up the Poudre Canyon Road. My brother floats down this river in the summer time, but this wasn’t the plan today. Instead we just enjoyed the scenery on the drive up as far as the landmark pub Mishawaka.
Motorbikes lined the footpath outside, and I can’t blame them, as the endless twists and turns was even fun in the rental car. We were still in the mountains, but the giants of the Rocky Mountain National Park were nowhere to be seen.
It was a short trip, but glad that I was able to visit while my brother was still a local.
While it might be a little bit country, and more than a little redneck in parts, it’s undeniably beautiful and I left thinking that I need to spend more time in the mountains of Colorado.