As clueless flatlanders, we really didn’t pay too much attention to altitude when planning our summer sojourn in Colorado. We generally knew that higher elevation would mean cooler temperatures, but didn’t examine the idea much more closely. We were surprised to find that Pagosa Springs was at over 7,000 fees of elevation, but since we’ve been at or above 5,000 feet since early April we were already pretty well acclimated when we started our Habitat build. When selecting our latest camping site, we were blissfully unaware that we would be hitting our highest altitude yet.
Mueller State Park
We picked Mueller State Park as a destination based on the great reviews on Campendium, the opportunity to hike right in the park, and the relative proximity to Colorado Springs. We completely ignored the fact that the park sits at over 9,300 feet. In this case at least, our lack of awareness didn’t hurt us — while Colorado Springs was sweltering we enjoyed temperate weather, and we ended up absolutely loving our campsite and the entire park.
Situated on the west side of Pike’s Peak, Mueller State Park has over 50 miles of hiking trails, many with great views of the peak. The forested areas are dominated by Ponderosa pines and quaking aspens, while the meadows were full of wildflowers during our visit. Wildlife seems to be bountiful, judging by the deer that wandered into our campsite one morning and the near-constant visits we had from birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches.
The campground is situated in the middle of the park, and the sites are very nicely spaced out, giving campers an unusually large amount of personal space. The campground roads were in great shape. The campsites all had nice level spots in the middle even if entries were sloped. The bathhouse was modern and spotless. There were multiple ranger-led programs every day, and trails were well marked with easy-to-read signs that looked new. Overall, we felt the park delivered on value, despite being relatively expensive for a public park ($36/night camping fee + $8/day vehicle fee, for a total of $44/night). As much as we love national park campgrounds, several that we have visited are in serious need of TLC and are not the best presentation of our national treasures. It was a pleasure to visit a public park that has both natural beauty and excellent camping amenities; these days we seem to find more state parks fitting this description than the national parks.
At Mueller the trails were interconnected in a dense web, so it was easy to select an appropriate adventure. Depending on how much time we wanted to spend, we took hikes ranging from 1 to 7 miles, and for the most part we walked to the trailheads directly from our campsite. Most of the terrain covered rolling hills, with no major changes in elevation. That’s fine with me, because when I am starting a hike at over 9,000 feet, I am really not looking for thousands of feet in elevation gain. Our only quibble with the hikes is that they all end on an uphill section, since the campground and the trailheads are located along the top of a ridge. But I suppose that’s a small price to pay for great views from the campsites!
Florissant Fossil Beds
A short 10 mile drive from the campground brought us to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, which provided an opportunity to, as the NPS says, “experience the fossil history of Colorado.” The fossil beds are a rich resource of materials from the late Eocene Epoch, approximately 34 million years ago, so the dinosaurs were long gone, the age of mammals had begun, and many of the flora and fauna were distant relatives of species we still have today. At the time Florissant had a temperate, subtropical climate and a dense forest was filled with many different types of trees ranging from giant redwoods to oaks, maples, beech, elm, and mahogany. The forest environment supported a wide variety of insects and mammals. Through sheer luck, a series of volcanic eruptions generated ash flows that buried portions of the forest, including encasing the bottoms of redwoods in mineralized ash that turned them into petrified stumps. Also preserved by ash settling in the bottom of a lake were numerous fossils of fish, insects, and plant material. The result is an unusually good window into the ecosystem that existed here in the late Eocene, with world-leading collections of certain items like fossilized butterflies.
As usual, the NPS visitor center was great. The relatively new building featured many energy efficient features along with an impressive solar panel array. Inside, there were several rooms of very well done exhibits, with our favorite being profiles of various researchers who made important contributions through their work at Florissant. Introducing the scientists as people first, then providing a window into their work was cool, and each person’s work highlighted different aspects of how 100 years of research built an understanding of the whole ecosystem at Florissant. I am not sure I would have the patience to devote a lifetime of work to studying pollen grains in the fossil record here, but I am sure glad that Dr. Estella Leopold did! The visitor center also had a nice collection of insect and plant fossils on display, with information about how the species here dealt with the change of the climate to a cooler mountain environment (hint: either by going extinct or becoming established in more suitable places). There were not quite as many fossils on display as we saw at the visitor center for John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon, but we also didn’t have to visit a creepy and desolate place to see these artifacts.
Walking around the site was decidedly less interesting than studying the items in the visitor center. Many of the largest petrified trees were dismembered by tourists visiting the site in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the relic called “Big Stump” actually has several broken saw blades embedded in the rock. The remaining redwood stumps are circled by puny little fences that hardly seem worth the effort given the minimal remains visible above the surface. The views of the surrounding mountains and a historic homestead within the park boundaries were some of the more compelling sights along the “Petrified Forest Loop.”
Garden of the Gods
We took one day to visit the world-famous Garden of the Gods, a free city park that is arguably the crown jewel of Colorado Springs. Even though we visited on a weekday, it was still a total zoo. The visitor center was absolutely packed, and there was bumper-to-bumper traffic on the scenic drive through the park. The paved sidewalks were jammed with people of all ages from babies in strollers to the elderly. Of course, just like at many other popular parks we have visited, the moment we turned onto the more rigorous trails around the park the number of other hikers dropped dramatically. Our 4.7-mile hike around the park perimeter and back through the center of the action (on the Bretag, Palmer, and Scotsmen Trails) gave us great views of the iconic red sandstone formations from a distance as well as up-close encounters. Our hike also featured blazing sun and temperatures reaching into the 90s, so much water was consumed.
While we enjoyed our hike through Garden of the Gods, after spending 6 weeks in southern Utah seeing much larger, much more spectacular geological features, the red rocks here were a little underwhelming. In retrospect, considering the relatively long drive and the crowds we encountered, we probably would have been just as happy to take another hike from our campsite. But at least we can say we’ve experienced one of the more interesting urban parks in America.
Our campsite was about an hour away from the commercial areas of Colorado Springs, but despite the long drive we made it a priority to spend a day there to do some shopping.
Charles Kuralt delighted in visiting quirky small towns as he traveled across America by RV, including unique retail establishments. We, on the other hand, really like going to chain stores. Full time RVing is a life of constant change, and it is such a relief to be able to walk into a store and know exactly what to expect. And as much as we have enjoyed the natural beauty of the rural Four Corners, we missed having access to the national chains we know and love, and we went sort of crazy with an entire day of shopping in Colorado Springs at places we mostly haven’t visited since we were in Tucson in February.
The results of our retail hedonism included:
- new hiking pants for me
- tool belts for both of us, along with several tools we discovered we loved while volunteering with Habitat
- filling our freezer with meats and our pantry with staples, from both Costco and Whole Foods
- replenishing our sunscreen, toothpaste, and other household supplies in brands we prefer
Our drive back to camp from Colorado Springs included a detour through the resort town of Manitou Springs, thanks to some road work on the main road. This tourist destination has apparently taken well to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado, as several hotels in town advertised themselves as “420 and pet friendly” and having “Rocky Mountain High Smoking Rooms Available.”
One of the most interesting phenomena that we encountered from our day of shopping was the very visible evidence of change in air pressure when we brought our purchases up from Colorado Springs (elevation 6,000 feet) to our campground at Mueller (elevation 9,000 feet). Everything packed in a sealed bag turned into a super-puffy pillow, with seemingly major pressure from within! Needless to say, we did not expect this, and spent several days gingerly moving these items around hoping they would not explode, because we are clueless flatlanders.
Next: We head to Rocky Mountain National Park for more mountain experiences, except that we will camp at “only” 8,000 feet.
9 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain High West of Colorado Springs”
We lived in Colorado Springs for several years and during the summer months we would take day trips up to Woodland Park for those cooler temps. And certainly learned about that elevation change. We’re spending the summer in northern WI on family property and I’m already missing the shopping. We’ve only been here 2 weeks and I’ve already made the two hour drive to Duluth to stock up … well, kind of … no Costco 😄
It’s good to know that with the experience of life (or travel) one learns how to manage things. We are still in the learning phase when it comes to altitude for sure. Who knew that sorbet could explode when it changes elevation? Well now we do.
I would totally drive two hours just to visit Costco – that’s where we get virtually all our organic meat, blocks of delicious cheese, and well-priced staples like nuts and whole peppercorns. Even with relatively little room for storage in the trailer, we find a way to make it work.
That is an interesting observation about the quality of campgrounds at national parks vs state parks. We haven’t stayed in any of the big national parks because we’re just too big (or we couldn’t land a spot), but we’ve been almost universally impressed by the state parks we’ve stayed in. It it truly unfortunate that these campgrounds are not maintained to the standards they should be. At least the national parks themselves never disappoint.
I’m glad you guys headed out to the perimeter trails at Garden of the Gods. We, too, were turned off by the crowds in the interior section, but we loved the exterior trails. Thank god most people are lazy. It makes things so much better for the rest of us!
As for shopping, I absolutely understand. While shopping locally and supporting small businesses is great, sometimes it’s just nice to know you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for in a particular store. We never miss an opportunity to restock at Costco or our favorite grocery stores. We all have enough uncertainty in our lives. There’s no shame in knowing what brand of tomato sauce you like and aggressively tracking it down and hoarding it.
National parks would also not work for you because they very seldom have an electric hookup. The experience could be much better for all if the national parks would upgrade their infrastructure (campground loop roads should not be crumbled into gravel!) and add electric service (at a minimum). I should talk to my Congressman, I suppose.
The perimeter trails at Garden of the Gods are indeed the only way to go. Not only are they less crowded, but they offer better views than being right against the base of the main rocks. But the laziness of people never ceases to amaze me. At Garden of the Gods, we saw people taking Jeep tours — of WHAT? The drive along the scenic road that’s open to the public? I mean, are people really too lazy to drive themselves?
The only downside of all our chain store shopping is that we’re left feeling that most cities in America are pretty similar, since they all have the same stores. But we don’t care. When there’s a Costco in the vicinity we are definitely going to visit it, and we always look up the distance from our campground to the nearest Costco/Whole Foods/etc. when booking a site near a city.
We totally concur about the superiority of many state campgrounds over most national park campgrounds. While we always enjoy staying in the park for ease of hiking, many national park campgrounds are woefully in need of upgrading.
Mueller Campground looks idyllic! Especially with the abundance of wildflowers and the proximity to hiking trails. And I was interested to read about your experience at Garden of the Gods. We’ve never been there, and I’ve always wanted to go. Good to know that we can get away from the herd by taking the exterior trails. As Laura said, isn’t it wonderful that most people are lazy? LOL!
We can also SO relate to the excitement of finding our favorite stores. We always search out farmers’ markets and local food coops in our travels, but we also plan our routes for major stock-ups at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. In fact, we just spent $300 at Trader Joe’s in Syracuse today. Lots of dark chocolate, smoked salmon, goat brie, our favorite salsa, and much, much more. I hope they’re not going to take anything away when we cross the border into Canada next week. 😳
I think you guys would particularly enjoy Mueller because of the prolific bird life, though I am sure you have seen all these species before. We were treated to watching a nuthatch making a nest in an old woodpecker hollow in an aspen right in our campsite, which was a form of daily entertainment. And the park is just first class, so we really loved it despite being on the expensive side. Garden of the Gods was OK, but it’s not a place we would visit again because of the crowds. Glad to say we went once, though! And thank you for me feel much less foolish about buying THREE jars of 365 organic capers at Whole Foods. I have no idea why they are so hard to find and/or expensive at other stores.
We also thought the Colorado State Park we visited in March was beautiful, well-maintained, and pricey. The NPS could learn a thing or two from them.
We also-also thought GotG was a bit over-rated and definitely over-crowded. And that was in crummy March weather!
I got a good chuckle out of your phrase “in brands we prefer.” Oh, how we full-timers know the disappointment of trying a usual thing of an unusual brand!
Full time RV living is an amazing lifestyle, but the constant changes (new locations, different stores, unfamiliar roads) can definitely wear on us. Somehow, needing to use a different toothpaste than we are accustomed to is the straw that breaks the camel’s back and drives us completely batty.
Our experiences in Colorado definitely mirror what other people have reported, but until you spend a summer trying (and failing) to get reservations it’s hard to appreciate how truly busy all the campgrounds and outdoor destinations are during the high summer season.