Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 22, 2017
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Colorado by car

From sand dunes and ancient pueblos to Rocky Mountain vistas, this state is road-trip heaven

When Canadians think Colorado, they think of hockey (the Avalanche) and some of the best skiing in the world in Aspen and Vail. But the state has a lot more to offer. Much of Colorado is taken up by the Rocky Mountains, split into ranges that offer some of the most enthralling scenery in North America. While west of the Rockies, alpine terrain gives way to high desert and spectacular tabletop mountains — geography the likes of which we don't get a chance to see in our country.

And since it's less than a two-day drive from Western and Central Canada, more and more Canadians are now exploring Colorado by car. To that end, we've devised a route, beginning and ending in Denver, that takes in the best of its astonishing beauty.

Mile-High Club

Denver rests on high plains just east of the Rockies. Its deep blue skies and hot sun are due to its steep elevation. At 1600 metres, the altitude of this “mile-high” city makes golf balls go 10 percent further.

With 300 days of sunshine a year, Denver is a recreational oasis. There are 90-plus golf courses, the US’s biggest city park system and 1370 kilometres of off-road trails. Confluence Park, downtown on the Platte River, even has a manmade kayak chute that lets urbanites run rapids on their lunch hours.

The city offers up plenty of culture as well. The 26 blocks of Lower Downtown (“LoDo”) are home to Victorian buildings refurbished as galleries, restaurants and rooftop cafés. Nearby is the Golden Triangle Museum District, where eateries mingle with the Performing Arts Complex’s (tel: 800-641-1222; denvercenter.org) 10 different music and theatre venues. Down the block is the dramatic Denver Art Museum (tel: 720-865-5000; denverartmuseum.org), built by starchitect Daniel Libeskind.

Denver has three pro sports teams and lots for kids to do, whether it’s Elitch Gardens (tel: 303-595-4386; elitchgardens.com), an amusement park downtown, or the Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave (tel: 303-526-0744; buffalobill.org) at Lookout Mountain.

A grand old time

Colorado Springs is an hour south of Denver on Interstate-25, and the state's second-largest city, where plains and mountains first meet. The locale is dominated by Pikes Peak, a 4000-metre spur of the Rockies visible for over 100 kilometres. A cog railway and road reach its snowy summit. At its foot lies one of the US’s most stately five-star resorts, the 90-year old Broadmoor Hotel *(tel: 719-634-7711; broadmoor.com; from US$150).

Built around a lake, the 1215-hectare resort boasts 740 rooms, along with 41 restaurants and shops. There’s also a movie theatre, spa and tennis club and the US Women’s Open is due here in 2011 on one of three 18-hole golf courses.

The surrounding area, filled with waterfalls, alpine forests and canyons, is ideal for hiking, biking and riding. More than 50 tourist attractions compete for attention, including the easily accessible caverns of the Cave of the Winds (tel: 719-685-5444; caveofthewinds.com), the Native American Manitou Cliff Dwellings (tel: 800-354-9971; cliffdwellingsmuseum.com) and Royal Gorge (tel: 888-333-5597; royalgorgebridge.com), which has the highest suspension bridge in the world and rafting in the river beneath it.

At the base of Pikes Peak lies the hamlet of Manitou Springs, known for its artisans, galleries and mineral springs. Close to the city is the must-see Garden of the Gods Park (tel: 719-634-6666; gardenofgods.com), a remarkable landscape of red rock formations twisted in every shape imaginable. Not surprisingly, Spanish explorers named the region "colorado", meaning red.

The conquistador trail

Heading south, Interstate-25 rumbles through prairie until it reaches Highway 160, the Spanish Trail: a route tracing the journey of the conquistadors who followed the Rio Grande River north from Mexico to its headwaters here. Less than an hour away is the Sangre de Christo (“Christ’s Blood”) mountain range, named for its colour at dawn.

Driving into the sprawling valley, a lemon-coloured mist shimmers at the mountains’ base. Get closer and it reveals itself to be Great Sand Dunes National Park (tel: 719-378-6399; nps.gov/grsa), site of the highest sand dunes in North America. Formed by wind-blown silt from the Rio Grande, the dunes rise 230 metres from the valley floor. Hiking, but not camping, is permitted. There are bison and beds, 15 minutes away at the Zapata Ranch (tel: 888-592-7282; zranch.org), an eco-conscious dude-ranch run by the Nature Conservancy.

Back on the Spanish Trail heading west, the country becomes rugged and alpine until you cross the Continental Divide at Wolf Creeks Pass, 3300 metres above sea level. The views here are as stupendous as the road is steep (an eight-percent grade). After descending into the San Juan River Valley, you reach the town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado’s premiere spot for hot springs. Stay at the Springs Resort & Spa *(tel: 970-264-4168; pagosahotsprings.com; from US$189) and hop straight from your room into 23 mineral baths. Or you can drop in as a day guest for US$20.

The Old West

An hour west on Highway 160, you reach the mountain town of Durango. This is Colorado’s southwest corner, filled with steep valleys, dry pine forests and craggy outcroppings. The local waterway, El Rio de las Animas Perdidas (River of Lost Souls) offers redemption to visitors in the form of superlative kayaking, rafting and fly fishing. East of town is Vallecito Lake, crystal clear and 2400 metres above sea level.

Due north are the San Juan Mountains, reached by the scenic San Juan Skyway, a highway that takes you to 3350 metres. Or you can go back in time on the Durango Narrow Gauge Railroad (tel: 877-872-4607; durangotrain.com), a heritage mountain railway serviced by a 125-year old steam locomotive that leaves from the centre of town.

Durango’s downtown originated as a 19th-century mining camp. Surrounded by galleries and designer stores on Main Avenue are two hotels famous for their western style and Victorian decor, the General Palmer Hotel (tel: 970-247-4747; generalpalmer.com; from US$108) and Durango’s landmark, the Strater Hotel *(tel: 970-247-4431; strater.com; from US$165).

Pueblo country

Driving west, the scenery changes dramatically as you enter the arid landscapes of the American Southwest. The famous mesas, those tabletop mountains cracked by canyons, appear along twisted pinyon pines and juniper trees. This area is the archaeological epicentre of the US, the abandoned home of a vanished Native American people who built the most remarkable architecture north of Mexico. You’ve probably seen photos of pueblos, or cliff dwellings: the apartment-like, multistoried adobe buildings wedged under overhangs in canyon walls — well, this is that place.

Mesa Verde National Park (nps.gov/meve) contains over 2000 13th-century ruins, the remnants of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization. Although minor sites are off-limits, those open to visitors at the park’s Chapin and Wetherill Mesa areas are marvels of human ingenuity. In Chapin Mesa’s Cliff Palace, a 150-room turreted fortress built on a high, narrow rock shelf, the inhabitants would free-climb the cliff face to reach gardens on the mesa top: you can still see handholds etched in the rock (tourists descend in tours down a steep but safer path).

Both areas offer self-guided trails to the ruins; Weatherill Mesa has a tram serving its three sites. The Spruce Tree House site at Chapin Mesa is the best preserved, and a short descent from a museum and restaurant. Accommodation is available at the park’s Far View Lodge (tel: 602-331-5210; visitmesaverde.com; from US$150). Its award-winning Metate Room serves cuisine with Puebloan ingredients and prickly pear margaritas.

Into the canyonlands

Leaving Mesa Verde, you climb on Highway 145 into a high alpine zone, home of the Telluride ski resort, before descending to red rock desert that extends along Highway 141 to Grand Junction. An hour south is Gateway Canyons Resorts (tel: 970-931-2647; gatewaycanyons.com; from US$129), a retreat owned by the proprietor of TV’s Discovery Channel. The elegant resort compliments its stunning canyon location, offering all the amenities of a first-class hotel except golf — a no-no for environmental reasons.

The onsite Auto Museum contains the owner’s world-class collection of mint-condition American vehicles from 1900 onwards. A dude ranch, the Summit School Ranch Equestrian Center, is 25 kilometres away.

Grand Junction is Colorado’s largest centre west of the Rockies. A pleasant place with excellent restaurants (try The Winery on Main Street), it is the nexus of a region similar to BC’s Okanagan. The area is a low-lying fruit-basket and home to wineries open for tasting tours.

Nearby is Colorado National Monument (tel: 970-858-3617; nps.gov/colm), a high-altitude park with endlessly breathtaking views. Its main attractions are the bright red Monument Canyon and Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world. Once you depart eastwards to Denver, the terrain increasingly resembles alpine areas of Western Canada — a good omen for the trip home.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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