Westward Bound: A Year Living in Colorful Colorado
It astonishes me how time goes by faster the older you get. One such realization is that it’s been a year since Mark and I moved from our native state of North Carolina to out west to northern Colorado (NoCo).
We didn’t know what to expect with such a big life change away from friends, family, familiarity, and the ocean (well at least for me…Mark doesn’t care for it much haha); however, what subdues the fears of the unknown is that I’m not alone or without a plan!
We’ve grown so much over this past year: starting new jobs, meeting new people, experiencing a new cultural and political mindset, buying a home and learning the hard way of financial burdens that unconditionally come with home ownership, and growing wiser while exploring new places.
We experienced some really cool, awesome places, and here are 12 that stick out in my mind:
- Rocky Mountain National Park
Never before did I have the chance to experience the beauty, intimidation, and awestruck feeling that one gets from exploring the Rockies. It was mind-boggling to see different ecosystems from almost-barren landscapes to lush woods, prairie grasses and more. I was familiar with thick pines, oaks, swamps, and the coast, so I was in a 180-degree, non-humid world.
Nature comes in various, amazing forms, and I grew to love an area that was drier and more expansive than what I was familiar with…and it’s been wonderful. We saw new wildlife and plant life and experienced fluctuating temperatures from hot, dry and intense to frigid, dry and … also intense haha.
If you’re driving towards the RMNP from the east, then you’ll drive through Roosevelt National Forest that has spectacular rock formations and wildlife (bighorn sheep!)
- Horsetooth Mountain
Point blank: You haven’t experienced Fort Collins if you haven’t explored and climbed around Horsetooth Mountain. Within two weeks of moving to Fort Collins, we hiked up (the very steep side of) Horsetooth Mountain and experienced the glory of low oxygen and short breaths, but we made it to the top! We saw our first Prairie Rattler on the way up, and since then, we made numerous hikes around the park and consider it one of the best places to take visitors who love to hike (and who don’t mind being somewhat out-of-breath during it.)
- Coyote Ridge
Talk about seeing the majestic side of prairies and the wildlife, just head over to Coyote Ridge! We saw prairie dogs, mule deer, and coyote traces while hiking across the open space to the nearby rocky hills that open up to some spectacular views!
- Devil’s Backbone
If you really want to see the ‘youth’ and roughness of the Rockies without ascending to higher elevation, check out Devil’s Backbone in Loveland. The open space and rock formations live up to their name as they literally look like a backbone emerging from the ground.
The rock formations are amazing with the mystifying holes and balancing of structures. The keyhole rock is a huge attraction, and I was surprised to find a wild honeybee hive in a gap there!
- Bridal Veil Falls
You don’t have to pay the (somewhat high) fee to enter the Rocky Mountain State Park to enjoy hikes. Right outside the gate in Estes Park lies a few trails including Bridal Veil Falls. This easy hike takes you through a prairie area and then up lots of inclines where you even have to climb some rocks to get to the end of this trail—the Falls, which really do look like a bridal veil. This a very fun hike with lots of gorgeous scenery, such as dense elm trees and other species as well as lots of streams traveling downhill from the Falls themselves.
- Gem Lake
This intriguing trail is filled with amazing views of the Rockies (see the main photo at the very top of this post), and when my cousin Samantha visited, we hiked this trail—no altitude sickness for the most part! The intriguing part of this trail is when you arrive at Gem Lake, which isn’t the not the prettiest lake around, the rock formations and sights around it are utterly breathtaking. I researched the lake beforehand and read that there were leeches in the lake itself…because of this, we didn’t trod through the waters and avoided those pesky (creepy as hell) organisms…others around us weren’t so well-prepared!
- Soapstone Prairie
A herd of buffalo was released in the wild last Fall about 25 minutes from where we live. The prairie is filled with rabbits, antelope, mule deer and other types of wildlife. When we traveled there to hike it one (extremely windy) day, we unfortunately didn’t see any buffalo roaming about, but we completed a fairly long hike around the prairie itself and got to know the meaning behind the word ‘open space.’
Changing direction from the hikes and open spaces we explored, let’s chat about the amazing and well-known city of Denver. This is one of the most chill cities we’ve yet to visit and includes lots of art, lots of culture, and lots of beer and weed (in the truest sense). If you’re into unique music or shows, then you’ll be very happy to visit this city. Alongside that, the Broncos stadium and other big-time sports teams can be found here. It is very fun to explore this city, and I hope we get to explore it more as we continue to get more and more settled in this amazing state.
- Garden of the Gods
One place you have to hit up in Colorado is the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. You will be awestruck at the majestic view of the rock formations as well as the vibrant red-orange colors. From watching thousands of sparrows, other birds, and bats fly in and out of the gaps within the rocks as well as contemplating how certain rocks formed the way they did and inspired interesting names (kissing camels for one), this was definitely a fun place to explore.
- Pike’s Peak Highway
We have yet to physically hike a 14er (mountains that peak at or above 14,000 feet above sea level) as it takes lots of training as well as waking up in the wee hours of the morning to climb one so as to avoid afternoon lightning storms.
The one 14er you can drive up is Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs. It took a VERY long time to reach the summit due to the high number of vehicles, but the highway itself was filled with eye-popping cliffs right next to your car, hardcore turns, and a lack of oxygen that can create a tingling sensation in your fingers and toes as well as lack of breath. We made it to the top, and it started to snow (IN JULY). The lack of life up there was very noticeable as well as lots of loose pebbles and rocks due to the intense weather that occurs. We are planning to hike up an easy 14er next spring/summer!
- Estes Park & The Stanley Hotel
If you visit northern Colorado (NoCo), one of the places you’ll visit is Estes Park and its famous Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King’s The Shining—it wasn’t filmed here though but is still equally haunted! Along with an amazing whisky bar and restaurant, you can go (sneak) upstairs and walk around the historic hotel and try to capture a ghost! The town is very quaint especially if you manage to visit here outside of tourist season. Expect to find a TON of candy and ice cream shops as well as your typical tourist shops. This is a must-see.
- Great Sand Dunes
Our last Colorado adventures right before our one-year anniversary living here included the Great Sand Dunes in southern Colorado. Oh. My. God. This place was mystical and beyond anything we expected it to be. Our first night involved car camping in the nearby campground, Pinyon Flats, where we saw mule deer, mountain lion prints, and experienced the intriguing ecosystem of shrubs right next to the Dunes and the huge mountains with alpine tundras at their peaks.
The second day we journeyed into the Dunes themselves for our first backcountry camping experience, and, of course, we ‘chose’ a hard route over some of the taller dunes, which was the hardest physical activity either of us have done. With 40-50 pounds on our backs as well as carrying a vital 2.5-gallon jug of water, we were very winded and strained. We found our camping spot about 2 miles in the dunes next to wild flowers that are home to numerous circus beetles, wasps, crickets, kangaroo mice, etc.
Our tent looks like a dot after we climbed to the top of the dune next to it. It was easily one of the quietest and darkest places we’ve camped, and we saw every speck of light in the Milky Way as well as satellites (no UFOs though!) The wind was violent when night approached, and temperatures dropped from the 70s to low 40s. Exploring the Dunes was definitely a fun way to celebrate our one-year of calling this amazing state home!
Looking over this list of sites and places we’ve seen and hiked, it amazes me what we’ve accomplished thus far in the year we’ve lived here alongside buying a home and starting new careers. We plan to see many other places in this great state as we continue our lives here…so many more destinations planned that it would take me a great long while to list them all!
The old saying, “home is where the heart is” emerges in my mind at times, but I remember that my heart is wherever Mark and I are happy at, and most importantly, my heart is with Mark. Wherever he is, then I am happy and at peace. It is just an added perk that we’re living in one of the best states in terms of politics, economy, schools, and things-to-do!
Here’s to many more years in this awesome and adventurous state! Cheers.