GETTING HIGH: Wow in the Wilderness

by Lisa TE Sonne

Colorado, the U.S. state with the highest mean altitude and 58 peaks over 14,000 feet, offers multiple ways to get high. Legalized pot, renowned craft breweries and local liquor distilleries, top tier skiing, rides like the Terror Dactyl that swing you out over a canyon next to the Cave of the Winds, the Cog railway that takes you to the top of Pike’s Peak where America the Beautiful was written, and more. Colorado boasts the highest paved road in North America and the tallest Sand Dunes in North America.

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And then there are the old fashioned highs of being moved by the beauty of the Rock Formations in the “Garden of the Gods” where indigenous tribes would treat the area as a sacred peace zone with no warfare, or the tranquil highs of sitting in a rocker on a cabin porch, watching golden aspen leaves fall like a splendiferous rain.

And there are the highs of the high-life of the wealthy in Colorado. You can sleep in elevated comfort at the Broadmoor Resort. At over 6,000 feet above sea level, once the creation of wealthy eccentric Spencer Penrose as the “Grand Dame of the Rockies,”  and now part of the golden portfolio of Billionaire Phillip Anschutz.  In a lounge with ceilings painted like a palace’s, you can look up from a leather Monopoly board and see swans gliding on a lake or glance at the Cheyenne mountains, full of gold rush tales of yore and healthy lore now. All this, a spa and Colorado’s only five-star restaurant, too.

For some peak experiences (that don’t require summiting over 14,000 feet), I flew into Denver, the state’s capital, to hook up with Austin Adventures, a family-run travel company that has great attitude at any altitude and packages trips weaving specialized activities, gustatory feasts and gorgeous views.

They invited a handful of adventure travel writers to meet for dinner at the Mercantile at Denver’s Union Station, a railway hub that has remodeled itself to include a hotel, retail diversity, and community gatherings. For the next few days, we lucky ones were guests to preview Austin Adventure’s  upcoming trip offerings for the new  “Colorado: Five Star Wilderness Experiences” http://www.austinadventures.com/packages/colorado-wilderness-adventure The three accommodations for the week could be called Colorado’s Triple Crown: The Broadmoor Resort, Cloud Camp, and Emerald Valley Lodge—representative of the high-life of luxury, beauty  and elevation. 

Cloud Camp

To get to “Cloud Camp” (elevation 9,200 feet), plan on a private four-wheel drive through a menagerie that claims to be the only Mountain Zoo in America, past a castle-like tower (a shrine to humorist Will Rogers,) a station for a burro ride and  “did I just gasp? ” drop-offs and vistas as you head higher and higher.   Seventeen switchbacks look like they are competing with San Francisco’s Lombard Street for hairpin awards.

Once there, you can see why owner Anschutz comes here for his well being when his wealth could take him anywhere. The staff loves to tell about the 74-year-old’s hikes from the shrine to the lodge. We are also told he has the largest collection of Western art of anybody in the world and shares it generously with lodge visitors. The deliciously long common dining table is flanked by high log walls adorned with both museum works and convincing replicas. Over the main room’s fireplace hangs a leather dress with dozens of elk eyeteeth sewn decoratively on the front. That hearth is one of many good places to sit.

“Doing nothing” could be its own art at Cloud Camp. For night-life, you can find a hot tub in the woods, or sit on the lodge’s porch to watch stars above and the twinklings of Colorado Springs far below. That comes after the stomach has been sated by an entertaining cooking lesson with the delightful resident chef and a “pass the platters of abundance” dinner ranging from local wild game to vegan delights—all shared at the long table beneath art.

Emerald Valley Resort

The other haven for rustic riches is the Emerald Valley Resort (or EVR as locals refer to it) with its multiple activities – horseback riding or horse shoes, fly fishing lessons on the pond or simple kayaking – as well as evenings around a camp fire for roasting marshmallows and waking up with the option of real cowboy coffee. 

The adaptable place offers multi-generation family fun as well as romance as a wedding destination.  The luxe cabins have thermostats for heated floors and switches for an instant fire in a living room with designer woodsy furniture. A rain-head shower and great linens add to the comforts that complement luscious air and views.

It’s difficult to leave such nurturing nature bases as Cloud Camp, EVR, and the Broadmoor, but Austin Adventures made it worthwhile with highlights including:

  • Walking through chambers with stalagmites and stalactites in the Cave of the Winds. The group is instructed to stop and turn off their lights to experience the darkest dark. You really can’t see your hand in front of your face. And when the lights shine back on, there’s more underground passages to explore.
  • Hiking from Cloud Camp to Emerald Valley Resort, about 7 miles of views, from forest paths to part of an old Stage Coach Road.  About half-way through the hike, there’s a surprise around the bend, with Kasey and Dan Austin handing out fantastic food treats. Snacking at wow vistas is an Austin signature.
  • Sitting in the 360-degree theater at the high-tech and hands-on Garden of the Gods Visitor Center and Nature Museum. Immersed in geological time travel, you can also take selfies with a full size Bison replica and take a look at the model of a new kind of dinosaur discovered nearby. Balconies extoll panoramic views of the Garden of the Gods’ features across the way.
  • Hiking and gaping in the actual Garden of the Gods, an outside geologic sculpture garden on a large scale, great for photography, and imagination.
  • Soaring for those that want a little adrenalin fix with zip-lining. The van driver for this portion of the trip was a retiree who had been a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. He saw people putting on the harnesses and exclaimed, “You won’t catch me doing that. Too scary!”  All participants came back alive with hearty appetites for some good eating at the 1858 restaurant, perched at the base of the beautiful waterfall, Seven Falls, opened after two years of closure.

Whether it is the highs of experiences, elevation, or luxury, Colorado beckons.  

AUSTIN ADVENTURES Colorado Trip: http://www.austinadventures.com/packages/colorado-wilderness-adventure/
BROADMOOR RESORT
CLOUD CAMP
EMERALD VALLEY LODGE

All these companies are part of the Zanterra Parks and Resorts.

WatchBoom travel writer Lisa Sonne has two books out now: MY ADVENTURES: A Traveler’s Journal and HAPPINESS HANDBOOK: Simple Ways to Change Your Life for the Better   See LisaSonne.com 

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