RUGGED BEAUTY: COMANCHE GRASSLANDS--After miles of flat grasslands, the Comanche National Grasslands suddenly give way to the deep interior of a grand canyon--unexpected and breathtaking. Comanche is a piñon-juniper forest with broad canyons carved by the numerous drainages feeding the Purgatoire River. You'll often see a forest of cholla cacti sprinkled among the junipers and piñon pines. Spring wildflowers carpet the grasslands. And in the fall, sunflowers and feathery grass spikes bend and sway. The grasslands are a bird-watchers' paradise. Lark buntings clothed in black and white feathers, like a tiny tuxedo, look unsuitably formal for grasslands. At Comanche they perch atop the cholla cactus and dart within for protection. The spiny limbs never appear to bother them.
MESA VERDE (COLORADO)- Each year, thousands of visitors arrive at Mesa Verde National Park to peer into ancient cliff dwellings and puzzle over why and how people once built cities in caves. An initial glimpse will elicit gasps from those who catch their first view of Spruce House. But Mesa Verde, with 52,074 acres, is a wilderness garden, too. Fires have scorched acre after acre, imparting a ghostly appearance that matches the emptiness of echoes in the dwellings. In moments of quiet, only the wind blows and the mesa appears mysterious and haunted.
WRITINGS ON THE WALLS: (NORTHWEST NEW MEXICO)--Most national monuments offer solitary desert escapes or majestic mountain vistas. But a little-known national monument is dedicated to graffiti--from the ancient Anasazi (1200) to exploring Spaniards (1700) and American soldiers (1840). It's called El Morro, where travelers left their names or visages behind, etched into soft stone.
COLORADO WINE COUNTRY TOUR--When it comes to great wines from river valleys, France has the Loire. Germany owns the Rhine. California claims Napa. In Colorado, it's Grand Valley, nestled between rock walls east of Grand Junction on the Western Slope. The Colorado River trickles alongside a carved canyon. Ben Parsons, wine master for Canyon Wind Winery says that "wineries are located in the most beautiful parts of the world." The scenery is arid, dramatic and unmistakably Western.
Hovenweep, Garden of Ghosts -- Hovenweep, as a falcon flies, lies west of Mesa Verde, straddling the Utah and Colorado boundary lines. Nearly invisible, difficult to reach and blended into the landscape--that’s just how the original residents, circa 1230, planned the site. And that’s how it has remained.
COOLEY LAKE AT SOUTH PLATTE PARK: Each spring, college students head to Florida or other southern climes to soak in the sun and water. Birds do, too, and the luckiest will head to South Platte Park, where a kingdom of waterfowl cruises placidly on a wide lake in the middle of suburbia. Owned by the city of Littleton, South Platte Park's Cooley Lake is 230 acres of water. Once a gravel pit in the 1950s, the 1965 flood not only changed the terrain, but forced citizens to consider how best to stem flooding and preserve some natural beauty.
PAWNEE BUTTES: East of Greeley, drought shapes the Pawnee Grasslands and winds shave layers of sandstone from chalky bluffs. Tuffs of grasses support throngs of small birds and the Pawnee Buttes rise 300 feet like ships in a sea of grass. The buttes, striped white and pink, red and orange, brown or gray, reflect the waning sunlight. Within thirty minutes the sky changes from wispy to thunderous clouds, although rain is scarce. Grasses survive on a gush of water in the spring, which carries them through a parched summer. Theses eastern plains are serene and spiritual. Empty spaces and an eerie quiet contribute to a solitary experience.
MUSHROOMS AND LICHENS: The French adore chanterelles. The Italians savor porcinis. The Japanese crave matsutakes. Truffles, which are underground mushrooms, cost plenty. Mushrooms are ancient food but still mysterious. Were you to question chefs or hikers, their mushroom knowledge might be thin and scanty. Mushrooms are unlike any other food. They’re not even a plant. Mushrooms are fungi.
FOSSILS AND LILIES--Stroll on the wide paths of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument and step back in time—far back. Florissant includes not only the brief history of humans, but also the history of all creatures that galloped, slithered, lumbered or flew on this earth before us. You’re on the graves of millions of ancient mammals, fish, insects and reptiles. On any summer day, fields of wildflowers and the gentle hiking trails lure nature lovers. Except for the stump of an ancient sequoia, and a few fossils in the visitor center, many unearthed specimens now lodge in universities or museums. But most reside underfoot.
VAIL'S SHRINE RIDGE TRAIL: In a forest of Colorado green, two of the brightest wildflower reds to be found are paintbrushes and penstemons. Lipstick red. Fire engine red. Screaming reds that can be seen from miles away—and that’s the point. Although paintbrushes may be pink or yellow and penstemons blue or purple, the reds exist to be pollinated by one specific creature—the hummingbird. These tiny-winged birds, in their long migratory flights, seek out bright red blossoms for a nectar snack and pollinate an oddly configured bloom.
CASTLEWOOD STATE PARK: Sunflowers arch over high summer grasses exposing a wide-open sky as storms roll in from the west. Wild roses have exchanged summer blossoms for autumn red hips. Chokecherries ripen into purple clusters. Yellow prairie coneflowers mix with Indian blanket flowers, scarlet gilia, orange globe mallow, spotted gayfeather and clusters of prairie winecups. A breeze ripples waves in a sea of golden grasses. But it’s the sunflowers that stand tall, as high as the grasses, facing east.
SNOWSHOEING THE COLORADO TRAIL WITH FRIENDS: To some, snowshoeing conjures up images of peacefully making one's way through serene forests and blissfully getting in touch with one's inner self. Not me. Having never been on snowshoes, I pictured myself struggling along, feet clamped in oversized tennis racket-like contraptions. But when my editor suggested a "Snowshoeing along the Colorado Trail" story, I thought, why not? I'm athletic, I know people who love it, and I'd be able to get my dog out for some exercise while trying something new. So here's how a reluctant snowshoer-to-be actually learned to enjoy her first trek. By Heidi Anderson
CELESTIAL WANDERLUST: A GUIDE TO STARGAZING: The night sky glitters, lights skip and dance, and those down below gaze and wonder. They watch closely and follow the show, connecting the dots, plotting their course…Stargazing has an inextricable link to romance. It’s got all the essential components: mystery, chase and ultimate discovery. By Heather Grimshaw
HAVEN FOR HUMMERS: While the color purple is considered regal, hummingbirds bow to another hue--red blossoms with a tubular shape, says garden coordinator Liz Nichol, referring to bell-shaped blooms of penstemons that are filled with nectar. Such flowers make ideal dinner plates for the tiny, long-billed hummers that return every summer to the Hummingbird Garden at Starsmore Discovery Center in Colorado Springs. By Dianne Zuckerman
SWEET SLUMBER: HISTORIC COLORADO CEMETERIES-- There’s enough sadness and tragedy in Colorado’s historic cemeteries for innumerable novels, movies, or grand operas. But there’s also a beauty and stillness that inspire meditations upon life and death. By Kathy Kaiser
GLENWOOD SPRINGS: A WALKING TOUR THROUGH HISTORY--There’s a point in Glenwood Springs on the bridge that crosses over Interstate 70, the railroad tracks, and the Colorado River, where you can feel the pulse not only of this crossroads city, but of the country itself. And you can hear the train whistle from just about anywhere in town as coal, cars and humans are transported from one end of the continent to the other. By Kathy Kaiser
STROLLING THROUGH A SIMPLER TIME: CHATFIELD NATURE PRESERVE--Just a stone’s throw from bustling Wadsworth Boulevard--lined with Walmart and Petsmart and every other chain retailer and restaurant you can name--lies a bit of untrammeled territory. To be precise, 750 acres of prairie and wetlands, native flora, fauna and Colorado history, to boot, await your world-weary psyche. By Colleen Smith
SOLITUDE IN THE CITY--It's a place where bald eagles soar, mule and white-tailed deer cavort, and coyotes compete with foxes for food. Black-tailed prairie dogs squeak at one another while cottontail rabbits rest in their burrows. Grosbeaks, sparrows, orioles, grebes, doves, pelicans, herons, gulls and dozens of others inhabit the trees and ponds. You could spend an entire day here and rarely see another human being. And this serene, natural retreat is right in the middle of--Commerce City? By Heidi V. Anderson
Dinosaur National Monument: When Giants Walked the Earth -- Most visitors to Dinosaur National Monument arrive with kids in tow. After a grade-school science project devoted to dinosaurs, there’s no better vacation than a journey to see the real thing. And there’s no greater collection of bones unearthed than is found here. But spend a day on site and you’ll bump into human history, too.
PHANTOM CANYON: As the crow flies, Phantom Canyon sits northwest of Fort Collins, a canyon in Colorado without a road. This single distinction makes arriving at the canyon unlike any other. People arrive on foot as they have for hundreds of years. Parking is near the highway and visitors hike a short distance from Highway 287 crossing privately owned ranch land. There's only silence followed by the sounds of caws from birds. Suddenly the earth opens to reveal a huge cleft with the silvery glint of a river below. It's not until hiking the trail into the canyon that the swooshing of water swirling around boulders can be heard.
COLUMBINES, BUTTERCUPS AND CLEMATIS: It’s easy to understand why the columbine is Colorado’s state flower. With its sky-blue color, elegant bobbing stems and finely scalloped leaves, the wild columbine is stunning to anyone who has hiked a mountain trail and chanced upon a cluster. And while columbines can be found in China and Europe, the Colorado columbine is as spectacular as any.
A LABORATORY OF TREES: Mueller State Park--Our ancestors have walked on this earth for such a short time that it may be impossible for us to truly appreciate conifers--until we see them in a grand display. Mueller State Park, west of Colorado Springs, is an astonishing laboratory of Colorado trees on 5,000 acres. With over 50 miles of trails, you can hike into zones of ponderosa, Douglas-fir, aspen, bristlecone pine, limber pine and Engelmann spruce.
HIGH POINTS--In the eyes of global rock gardeners, Colorado’s alpine and subalpine wilderness areas define our most extravagant and spectacular gardens. It’s no surprise that rock gardeners in Colorado have inspired gardeners elsewhere. And many enthusiasts of rock gardens travel to our state simply to see our alpine gardens. Most make an effort to visit at least four sites: Trailridge in Rocky Mountain National Park and Summit Lake on Mount Evans are prime destinations for alpine plants. Guanella Pass and Boreas Pass must be included for subalpine natural rock gardens, too.
THE DINOSAUR HIGHWAY: DINOSAUR RIDGE--One of Colorado’s most unusual museums consists of a road sliced through a mountain where dinosaur footprints, bones and fossils of prehistoric insects or plants are etched by nature into the scraped rock walls. Children hug the giant footprints, as if to clutch the spirit of a prehistoric beast while their parents scan the shale for a glimpse of a fern or insect outline. Dinosaur Ridge draws families, and even foreign visitors, to this unusual site. Once a month, a ribbon of highway serves as a ramp up and over a modest mountain.
UNTRAMMELED ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK: LESSER-TRAVELED TRAILS -- When I first came to Colorado, I avoided Rocky Mountain National Park. It was too crowded and I thought the scenery was ho-hum, especially compared to other parts of the state, such as the San Juans or the mountains around Aspen. I admit it; I was a snob. But over the years, its closeness (and the joy of avoiding the I-70 and 285 corridors) started drawing me up, and I found another good reason to hike the national park: its wildness. By Kathy Kaiser
SURFING THE COLORADO WAVES: For those who grew up near water--oceans, lakes, or ponds--the call of the water is understandable. It soothes, invigorates, and offers hours of active or peaceful enjoyment. In a land-locked state those who seek water adventures find them more easily than you might imagine. Across the Front Range manmade watercourses have been mapped out for young and old kayakers and those who wade into the water to watch. And then there are the natural courses, the rivers and streams that are peopled with kayakers all year round. By Heather Grimshaw
CRANE-SPOTTING: My first sighting of the elegant birds comes unexpectedly, as the final leg of the auto tour edges alongside wide meadows backed by bare-branched cottonwoods. Shivering from a chilly gust and wiping watery eyes, I suddenly comprehend that the smoke-colored blurs fading into the darkening fields are cranes. Thousands of them. Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1953. But the sandhill cranes--whose huge, three-toed feet first trod the world's wetlands at least 40 million years ago--have probably been migrating through Colorado for centuries. By Dianne Zuckerman
ROCKY MOUNTAIN ARSENAL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE --A short distance from downtown Denver, in the heart of Commerce City, you’ll find the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. At first glance, it’s an unlikely site for wildlife. But this refuge reveals a story unlike any other.