Spinning our wheels.
With a two month gap between the start of our life on the road and taking delivery of our new GXV truck, we were forced to spin our wheels…literally. Riding hundreds of miles of premier biking trails and driving through some of America’s most iconic landscapes, we decided to head to the nearest place that would cure our altitude fix for a summer of adventure: Colorado. Fortunately for us, VANdal’s buyer allowed us to continue utilizing the sprinter van for the summer so we’d still have a mobile base camp. The waiting game has had its perks, allowing us the opportunity to get to know various cross sections of Colorado in all its summer glory. From grueling 14,000 foot peak hikes to killer mountain bike tours, oodles of craft beer and farmers markets, plus connections with a stream of friends, new & old, it has been quite the summer, indeed. What follows is a little recap of some of our favorite finds from our tour de Colorado.
It was fitting that our first Colorado destination be one of our favorites. Boulder’s a great town, full of like-minded and extremely athletic people, where a plethora of organic ideals all converge. Though it’s getting a tad overpopulated and overpriced, Boulder manages to retain its own unique charm. Plus, it’s the perfect gateway to the Rockies — the ideal place to acclimate to the altitude, provision, and stage the rest of your Colorado adventures. VANlife parking abounds, whether outside the city in Nederland or street-side. (The parking attendants were actually quite kind in helping us navigate to legitimate overnight camping spots throughout the city.)
FOOD & DRINK
- Boulder Farmers Market – Every Wednesday & Saturday. Do not miss the nation’s biggest all local farmer-produced market where, every week, a new abundance of beautiful farm fresh joy is delivered. We fancy ourselves as foodies, and every week we scored something we’d never had before, such as my new favorite: Garlic scapes. The beef chorizo from Natural Homestead Beef is insanely delicious and, after having a chance to speak with the farmer at length about his animals, still reflects our “ethovoric” attitudes about food. Treats, sauces, artisan breads, organic produce, and food trucks abound.
- Look out, Oregon, Boulder has breweries galore, too. Upslope, Avery, and Left Hand just to name a few. On-the-beaten path of Pearl Street is also Walnut Brewery. All have their high points. Be on the lookout for Colorado Beer Pickles at area breweries. We met these crafty owners at an MTB trailhead and can’t help but spread the good word about their brand. Pickles + beer? So yummy. So brilliant.
- Laughing Goat Coffee – great wifi and good music selection, with ample space to spread out and work if you live in a van and need that sort of thing.
- Pizzeria Locale – read our Neapolitan primer here. This place was fantastic.
- Bitter Bar on Walnut – fun cocktails on tap. If you’re into bitters and new craft twists on classic cocktails, this is your place.
- Riff’s Urban Eatery – Yum. Tapas big enough to share, fresh local flavors, and high quality sans pretentiousness. A convenient location right on Pearl Street’s pedestrian mall.
- Decadent Saint Winery – If you dig sangria, you owe it to yourself to try a bottle of this local delight. One bottle goes a long way… it’s concentrated so you can mix it to the strength you desire.
There’s a veritable ton of trails and ways to get outside in Boulder, but in our short stint, we hit up some of the most common ones.
- Boulder Creek Path – Running through the University of Colorado campus, through downtown and even accessing the mountain bike trails in Boulder Canyon, this packed gravel path follows Boulder Creek and is a stunning example of highly usable nature in the middle of an urban setting. We found great spots along the creek for naps, enjoying festivals, trail running, or tubing.
- Royal Arch Hike / Chautauqua Park. We did this 3.7 mile hike (out & back) on the first day we arrived in Boulder and on the last. Needless to say, our newly acclimatized lungs found it much easier on the latter. Scenic, steep, and just a mile and a half outside of downtown Boulder, this is a great short hike or climbing destination on the Flatirons.
- Betasso Preserve – Accessed either via the Boulder Creek bike path up the canyon or driving up toward Nederland, the section we did on the Canyon Loop & Benjamin Loop is short but stellar intermediate mountain bike riding.
- Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall – Shopping isn’t usually a way we ‘get outside,’ but Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, a beloved section between 21st and 9th (and radiating to the surrounding side streets) is full of character. A red brick, pedestrian-only urban stroll, most of the businesses are locally owned and the vibe is one of perpetual festival. Musicians and performers can be found at any hour and the people watching is bar-none.
- Closest high altitude town to Boulder. In 18 short miles, you can get a nice 35 degree temperature change and escape the summer heat. The drive past Boulder up to Nederland follows Boulder Canyon Rd. along Boulder Creek where you’ll find lots of tubers, hikers & cyclists. There’s a multitude of parking areas with no signs to prevent overnight parking (though some are clearly marked that it’s a no-no).
- We did 4th of July fireworks over the reservoir in Nederland and weren’t disappointed. They have a quaint historic downtown with breweries and a pretty legit wood-fired pizza place (Crosscut Pizzeria & Taphouse), plus lots of dispersed camping options. (Though the crowd was seedy after a local wildfire and the campsites are often packed).
ESTES PARK / ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
- Round Mountain Hike – hiked there with friends and their kiddos. Nice trail, beautiful views of the Rockies, on the way toward Estes Park.
- Cub Lake to Fern Lake – Classic waterfall hike in Rocky Mountain (ROMO) National Park without too much elevation change. Took the Cub Lake Trail to “the Pool” to Fern Lake and back around to close the loop at around 11 miles.
- Flat Top Mountain Hike (10 miles out & back) – Started at Bear Lake Trailhead in ROMO where it’s an easy start. The trailhead here gets crowded because the immediate walks are easy and flat. But once you start going up, it’s ALL up. Got past the first turnoff and then the number of hikers really dwindled. After escalating through the alpine, we entered the krummholz zone and then the snow fields, walking through the snow to get to the top of Flat Top at 12,750 feet, seeing tons of marmot up close, birds, and moose.
TOWNS, DRIVES & EATS
- Estes Park… Touristy. Enough said.
- Went to Lumpy Ridge Brewery on a recommendation and it didn’t disappoint. Breweries are often a great place to spark a conversation and get a tip on some hassle-free overnight parking (which can be really tricky in the National Park).
- The drive through Rocky Mountain National Park is one of America’s most scenic drives. Your face will hurt from smiling through the jaw-dropping peaks and valleys, snow fields and hairpin curves.
- Arapaho National Forest. Found dispersed camping at Stillwater Pass. Too many ATV’s and motor bikes for us to get a real sense of the national forest, but decent free parking on the westerly side of ROMO National Park.
- Noted that the Winter Park area provided a surprisingly good number of roadside pulloffs, national forest picnic areas, etc that would be great for winter boondocking in the new truck.
- Historic Idaho Springs is an old gold mining town with a cute little downtown historic district and lots of whitewater rafting outfitters. It’s also home to two nearby 14’ers, 14,000+ foot peaks on the Continental Divide, with trailheads conveniently located off of I-70. If you don’t have 4-wheel drive, don’t attempt to make it up the 3 mile rocky uphill road to the main trailhead. Hitch a ride or start your hike at the bottom.
- Did Gray’s Peak first, then walked down and over the “saddle” between the two mountains to climb Torrey’s Peak at 14,267 feet. It’s amazing what the weather can do at that altitude, so pack accordingly for everything from sun and clear skies to sleet, hail, snow, rain and powerful wind.
BUENA VISTA / SALIDA
- Fun towns with easy van parking, walkable downtown areas, and very accessible whitewater parks, such as the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in Salida. Didn’t spend a lot of time here as we wanted to get back to higher elevations and beat the heat, but it was fun to launch our boards right from the van where there were some good waves for us to practice on.
- It was a beautiful drive to Crested Butte where were told there’s great wildflowers and mountain biking this time of year. First, we explored by foot, getting a lay of the land via CB’s main Elk Street. It’s pretty touristy and full of fun shops & restaurants. Real estate, like most places in Colorado, is pretty steep, but nevertheless the town is quite charming. Most alluringly, the recreational opportunities and accessibility to trails right from downtown make it a place we will keep on our radar. Plus, van parking was never a problem whether in-town, along the Slate River near the mountain bike trails, or up Washington Gulch where dispersed camping abounds in the Gunnison National Forest.
- Altitude made this one of the chilliest places we visited this summer, with overnight lows sometimes in the 30’s but climbing to t-shirt weather by the time we were ready to ride mid-morning.
FOOD & DRINK
- Crested Butte Farmers Market – Every Sunday on Elk. WORTH IT. Stocked up on meat, eggs, and bacon from Laz Ewe 2 Bar farm whose ethical practices met our strict standard. We found yummy greens like Lamb’s Quarters (looks like a maple leaf, tastes like a saltier, sturdier version of spinach), and loads of varieties of garlic & other treats.
- Pizza at Brick Oven – The deep dish and calzone were delightful. Great patio overlooking busy Elk St. made for a good staging area to plan the next day’s adventures. A major plus is an exceptional and ever-changing craft beer selection.
- The Guild Coffee Shop / Mountain Oven Bakery – an old house turned coffeehouse/bakery with some of the best sourdough peasant bread EVER. With the breeze blowing through their upstairs retreat, it was a great place to work and get online for the afternoons.
- The Dogwood – a “craft cocktail cabin” off Elk. A bit swanky, but a decent happy hour if you’re into creative craft cocktails and shrubs.
- Upper & Lower Loops. Easy access right from town at the corner of 1st and Butte. Whether you’re riding, running, hiking or fly fishing, it doesn’t get much better than that for accessibility. Trails start off as easy gravel road riding from the trailhead. Then you can choose between wide walking paths or single track; the scenery is astounding no matter what you choose, and you can easily link the trails together to build your ride. The mountains and Slate River create a backdrop worthy of a painting with the wildflowers peaking around mid-July. Parts of the trail were steep, but not technical, and most was fast and flowy hard-packed dirt.
- Lupine Trail. Done in multiple sections, our favorite was to start at the Gunsight Connector parking area off of Slate River Rd. and ride the road all the way out to the Saddle Ridge community. Lupine is engineered well with a few nice switchbacks, taking you through a couple of aspen forests on smooth single track. You can ride either direction and both are a fair mix of cross-country with a few nice climbs. Either way, be sure to stop and enjoy the wildflowers.
- 401. We didn’t end up doing 401, though it’s one of the area’s iconic rides. Will have to go back for that!
Telluride is the quintessential ski town, a US equivalent to any of the famed mountain villages of the Alps. It’s a nice balance of chic “mountain town” sophistication blended with a healthy dose of charm, ruggedness and serious adventure. The main Colorado Street is set at the base of a dramatic box canyon, surrounded by the San Juan mountains, with 365-foot Bridal Veil Falls majestically visible in the background. And Telluride’s gondola-based public transportation system, always free, quickly and beautifully links the city to the ski resort Mountain Village via a string of gondola rides. Sadly, Telluride is one of those places where the uber wealthy come to buy condos they’ll never live in and, thus, the affordability factor there is beyond most of our means. Enter: Nomads like us who can take advantage of $3 million real estate from the comfort of our self-contained base camps. (Though we should point out for the record that overnight camping in town is technically not permitted).
- There’s a 72-hour parking lot about a half-mile before the main Gondola Station. Convenient and stealthy.
- Just outside the city, national forest camping abounds. One good place to look is off of Last Dollar Road, out by Trout Lake, or anywhere else off the main highway where you see a sign directing to “National Forest Access.”
FOOD & DRINK
- Telluride Farmers Market happens every Friday where the Gondola station meets Oak St. Telluride is too high an elevation to grow well, so farmers & artisans come in from all over the surrounding valleys.
- Contrary to what readers may think, we are actually on a pretty tight budget. We rarely dine out and when we do, it’s not in an overpriced city like Telluride. Nevertheless, we found a few budget-friendly gems:
- San Miguel River Trail – easy, flat, and scenic, this convenient little gravel running path runs the whole length of Telluride and links some of the other hiking trails together. Once again, a perfect way to get a trail run in without the need to drive to a trailhead.
- Valley Floor Trail – Picturesque trail run or mountain bike connector trail so you can get from the mountain back to town without using the road. Lots of elk at sunset in this area.
- Fly Fishing with San Miguel Anglers – Went with Andrew out of the Telluride Sports store on Colorado where they operate a small guide service called San Miguel Anglers. Andrew took us to a favorite spot along the Dolores River where we learned to cast with good “presentation” to the trout, then walked up the river experimenting with our technique in changing water. We’d highly recommend this outfitter – they provided great gear and Andrew was a fun, knowledgeable and perceptive guide.
- Mountain Biking in Telluride Mountain Village:
- Gentleman’s Loop: a combo of Prospect, Jurassic, and Valley Floor trails. Look it up on MTB Project for the complete overview and map. It’s worth it. Conveniently drops you right at Telluride Brewing Company in case you get thirsty. 🙂 We did the loop with new friends, Dave & Adrienne, whom we were grateful to meet as fellow van dwellers in the 72-hour lot in town.
- Sunset Concerts – Telluride is known for its festivals, and though we weren’t there for one of the iconic ones like Food & Wine or the International Film Festival, we still took advantage of the weekly free concert at Sunset Plaza in Mountain Village. A free trip on the Gondola provided scenic transportation for a fun evening.
ASPEN / SNOWMASS
- Taking the Independence Pass route, which is stunning as ever, we drove right through Aspen without pause, looking instead to Snowmass Village for their highly recommended mountain bike trails. Camping options were limited but, luckily, we made friends with the good folks at Blazing Adventures in the village, and they directed us to a fine night’s spot we could ride bikes from in the morning.
- Rim Trail: A 700’ climb up nice smooth switchbacks that were steep, but doable, started our journey. At the top of the first climb, a Yin-Yang granite slab greets you with 360-degree views of the surrounding peaks, reminding you that the trail is the perfect balance of uphill and downhill, yin and yang. Most of the rest of the trail is beautiful rolling downhill where your thighs touch the tall wildflowers, enveloping you in a cocoon of MTB heaven. A second long, tough climb before a nice pump-track-like downhill section brought us back into Snowmass Village.
- Heading out of Snowmass, we drove through the White River National Forest through Glenwood Springs along the Colorado River in a most amazing canyon. It’s one of those great drives that makes you appreciate the all-American road trip. Next time we come, we’d really like to check out some rafting or whitewater SUP in that area.
BRECKENRIDGE / VAIL / FRISCO
- Had gone to Breckenridge to hike Quandary, one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, just outside of Breck, but the weather wasn’t cooperating and it wasn’t worth the risk.
- Made a few drivebys of cities/towns en route to & from our various destinations to see what they were like, and they were all too touristy for our liking.
- Vail: Yikes…. Old women with over-plumped lips toting fuzzy white poodles. Need we say more? Unlike other Coloradan ski towns, Vail did little to invite the summer outdoor crowd (i.e. mountain bikers and hikers) and clearly catered to, dare we say, a less adventuresome audience.
- Frisco: Way more touristy than we’d have thought. Dillon Reservoir was beautiful for paddling, though.
- Breckenridge: Reminded us of a western version of Siesta Key Village or the strip at Myrtle Beach. Way too touristy but a beautiful ski area, lots of running/biking trails, and scenic with the Blue River flowing through the city.
Next time you find yourself in one of these Colorado cities, we hope our compendium of activities will keep all of your senses satisfied. We are now on to GXV in Nixa, Missouri, where we will bid farewell to VANdal and round out the last few details on the new truck (which we cannot wait to unveil in our next post!)