Colorado: Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, Frisco – Cross Country USA Road Trip (Part 2)
Welcome back to Part 2 of our six week road trip across the United States! In this article, we explore Denver and the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, go hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, and stroll around downtown Frisco, Colorado.
A brief recap: we set out from our home in Raleigh in early June and made it back home toward the end of July. In total we spent over six weeks (46 nights!!) on the road and drove 8,200 miles.
Along the way, we visited 14 national parks and a ton of other interesting places. It was quite a busy trip, since we stayed in 25 different airbnbs or hotels and spent more than 100 hours traveling in the van.
To cover the whole trip, I am breaking up the trip summary into thirteen separate blog posts plus a bonus article covering the trip logistics for a six week road trip for a family of five.
Here is a table of contents for our whole trip if you want to check out other parts of our journey (once those other blog posts go live!):
- North Carolina to Kansas via West Virginia and St. Louis
- Colorado: Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Frisco
- Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks plus Ouray
- Utah: Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park
- Utah: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park
- Arizona: Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Hoover Dam
- Las Vegas, Nevada
- California: Los Angeles and Long Beach
- California: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks
- Crossing the Desert in Nevada and Utah: Hawthorne and Bonneville Salt Flats
- Salt Lake City, Utah and Idaho Falls, Idaho
- Yellowstone National Park
- Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and National Museum of the US Air Force
- Road Trip Logistics
Join me for part 2 of our trip across the country as we explore Denver, the Rocky Mountain National Park, and Frisco, Colorado!
We ended the last travel blog post in Topeka, Kansas where we spent the night in a hotel.
The next day, we woke up and drove eight long hours from Topeka, Kansas to Denver, Colorado. Colorado is where our “real” summer vacation was supposed to start.
But we really enjoyed the several short stops along the way. We saw a lot of places that we wouldn’t normally plan a trip to. It’s easy to pull off the interstate for an hour or two to see something that might be cool.
We spent the fourth and fifth nights of our road trip in Denver. After three straight days of drive, hotel, drive, hotel, drive, hotel, Denver was our first stop where we stayed in the same place for more than one night at a time.
One of the goals of the trip was to cover a lot of ground and see all that we could in the western US. Another goal was to enjoy the trip and not get burned out. The extra day to (mostly) relax in Denver was part of this latter goal!
Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Although we were intent on relaxing, we did make it out of the hotel for a visit to the Red Rocks Amphitheatre located on the western edge of Denver.
It was really packed! After more than a year of avoiding all crowds (remember 2020?), it was the first time we were surrounded by hundreds of people. We spent most of our time outdoors so it felt pretty safe. Some friends met up with us since they were in Denver at the same time as us.
I was hoping the light hiking through Red Rocks at 7,000 feet elevation would quickly acclimate us to the thin air. Spoiler alert: it did not.
After poking around the hiking trails at Red Rocks, we headed back toward the main amphitheater. There is a neat visitor’s center that felt like it was recessed below ground or built into the hillside. We spent a little bit of time exploring the music-related exhibits within.
We made it back to our car, headed down the mountain toward Denver, then ordered a couple of pizzas for dinner al fresco in the hotel’s outdoor patio area. A little outdoors time, a little relaxation time. A nice way to spend a couple of days in Denver!
After we left Denver, we traveled northwest then west into the more mountainous terrain of the Rocky Mountain National Park.
For those unaware, you have to purchase timed entry tickets in advance to enter the park. This advance purchase requirement is in place even if you have an annual pass or plan on paying at the gate. No advance entry ticket, no admission! It’s only $2, so not really a big impact on any traveler’s budget.
We liked the capacity constraints. Parking wasn’t a problem and crowds were reasonable (unlike at some other big national parks we visited).
Hiking at Bear Lake
First up, we drove to the Bear Lake parking lot for a day of high altitude hiking at almost 10,000 feet. We had only been at high elevation for two days in Denver at this point. I didn’t realize how much the thin air would impact me. I can bike 2 hours at home and it’s pretty easy (at 200 feet elevation!).
But walking for more than a few minutes up sometimes steep trails? Not so simple. We weren’t in a hurry so we stopped frequently to rest and enjoy the scenery.
The altitude sickness was strange. I wasn’t breathing hard at all once I caught my breath. It’s like my body didn’t know I needed more oxygen and I slowly dropped oxygen levels in my blood. Eventually the fatigue and mild headache set in. Altitude sickness. We kept on climbing though.
We set out on a 5 mile round trip hike to get to Nymph Lake, then Dream Lake, and finally Emerald Lake. In spite of us visiting in the middle of June, there was a huge snowpack on a steep slope that we would have to climb up to continue on the trail. But at some point after the second lake and maybe not too far from our final destination, we decided we had enough.
I had no energy left at this point. Fortunately the return trip of a little over two miles to the car was all downhill. We began the descent and didn’t need to rest nearly as much on the trek back to the parking lot.
Along the way we stopped to rest. I had a peanut butter granola bar. So delicious after a hard hike!
Then we encountered some rambunctious and adventurous chipmunks that walked right up to us without any fear. I have a suspicion that other hikers had fed them before. One of the chipmunks decided my finger tasted delicious (probably the peanut butter) so he latched on very gently to my finger. After a little gentle shaking then some more vigorous wriggling I managed to extract my finger, fully intact and non-punctured, from the mouth of this little guy.
We continued the descent along this incredibly beautiful trail and hoped we would automatically re-oxygenate ourselves. The altitude sickness hit me the hardest for some reason.
Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park
After returning to the parking lot, it was already late in the afternoon. We still had another two hours of driving to get to our destination for the evening on the opposite side of the park. So we continued our drive through the park along the top of the mountains.
Trail Ridge Road climbs up and over the Rocky Mountains to approximately 13,000 feet elevation at some points. Along the way there are about a dozen scenic overlooks and plenty of miles of road with no guardrails in spite of the near-vertical drops mere feet away from the edge of the road.
We made it through the drive somehow. My altitude sickness didn’t get any better once we climbed to the even more rarified air in the 13,000 foot elevation section of road. At one point I could barely stand up after walking 500 feet from the car along a flat paved section of trail. The scenery was beautiful but it was no fun with the altitude sickness. I popped a couple of generic Tylenols to help with the headache and soon after I felt a lot better.
The drive down the western side of the mountain range was just as beautiful as the drive up the hill earlier in the day.
We passed by the continental divide and herds of wild elk and moose on the descent.
In the valley next to the road we saw the source of the 1,450 mile long Colorado River. We crossed over and drove along the Colorado River many times over the next few weeks of our trip as we continued through Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.
Right before nightfall, we arrived at our cabin in Grand Lake, Colorado for a quick one night stay. The town is located just outside the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and proved a good, conveniently located pit stop after a busy day in the Park.
The drive from Grand Lake to Frisco is only two hours. So we were able to get plenty of sleep, wake up late, then enjoy a leisurely coffee in our old-fashioned cabin. What a luxury to be able to pack up without rushing!
We headed out, driving the long way through the town of Grand Lake and then back to the main highway toward Frisco.
At this point in the trip, the scenery got more “wild wild west” in appearance. The verdant lush green of the alpine Rockies gave way to drier scrubbier almost desert-like terrain. The kind you see in cowboy movies.
Then we drove back into the alpine forests as we arrived in Frisco. The drier climate along the drive to Frisco was a taste of how things would look for much of the next month as we drove through the comparatively drier climates in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada.
We booked a three night stay in an Airbnb in high elevation Frisco so we could relax after a busy week on the road. There is plenty to do in and around Frisco but by this point in the trip we were pretty worn out. I was starting to get acclimated to the altitude. But I still got winded walking across the parking lot to carry the laundry to the washroom on the other side of our Airbnb condo complex.
The weather was abnormally hot during the days we spent in Frisco, so it was a little easier to take it easy and “do nothing” for a day. Between laundry and a couple hours of early retirement consulting sessions, it was still a pretty full schedule!
Exploring Downtown Frisco
On the second full day in Frisco we decided to enjoy a leisure walk through the small downtown area. Our Airbnb was only a few minutes from the edge of downtown, so it made for a wonderful stroll down neighborhood streets. The Tenmile Creek bisected the neighborhood and provided a nice touch of nature in the middle of our walk.
We made our way down Main Street to the far end of town. Our walk ended at the Frisco Bay Marina where we enjoyed the breeze and scenic views over the Dillon Reservoir. After walking a mile and a half through town to the Marina, we rested by the water for a minute then headed back for “home”.
On the way back, we were delayed by several gift shop stops and a visit to the gas station for slushies for the kids. We were on vacation, after all!
Frisco Historic Park and Museum
In downtown, we toured the excellent (and free!) Frisco Historic Park and Museum. The Museum building is well composed but on the small side. More interesting was the dozen or so vintage buildings that formed the rest of the museum complex.
Most of the wooden buildings on the museum site were brought in from the nearby area to save them from decaying over time. I visited the old jail, the rustic residential cabins, a general store, a church, and many other buildings from the 1800’s and very early 1900’s.
Denver marked the start of our “real” summer vacation. We visited the Red Rocks Amphitheatre just outside Denver.
After leaving Denver, we headed up the mountains into the Rocky Mountain National Park. Inside the park, we hiked to Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, and Dream Lake. We couldn’t quite make it all the way up the mountainside to Emerald Lake due to altitude sickness and fatigue. In the late afternoon, we drove through the Rocky Mountain National Park along the Trail Ridge Road.
We spent the night after Rocky Mountain National Park in Grand Lake, Colorado. Then we drove two hours to our next lodging in Frisco, Colorado where we spent three days mostly relaxing. The highlight of our stay in Frisco was a stroll through the scenic downtown and a visit to the Frisco Historic Park and Museum.
Colorado was a real surprise for us. There is so much to see and do within the state. I feel like we barely scratched the surface between the six days I covered in this blog post plus another four days in Montrose and Cortez, Colorado that I’ll cover in the next post.
We’ll definitely be back to explore Colorado in the future!
Have you ever been to Colorado? What was your most memorable experience?
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