Road Trip: The Scenic Soaks and Wildlife Of Colorado

All photos courtesy of Josephine Matyas

In 2016, the National Park Service celebrated its centenary, and we hit the road to explore some of America’s best national parks, thermal hot springs, and regional food and music. Here, a journey through the Hot Springs Loop and the famous Rocky Mountain National Park.

On our final push through the western states we found ourselves in hot water. Luxurious, soothing, relaxing hot water. Our last week included long soaks at Ouray and Glenwood Springs along the Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop and a last national park stop at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

If you’re white knuckling the scenic Million Dollar Highway from Ouray to Silverton, you’ll pass through Ouray as your starting point. If not, the tiny, historic town—population 1,000—may look out of the way on the map, but it’s definitely worth the detour. Check off the reasons: an atmospheric downtown National Historic District; a network of maintained hiking trails encircling the town; a world famous ice park for winter sports; the rich legacy of a gold and silver mining era; and a panorama of snow-capped peaks.

It is the authenticity of Ouray that really shines. This is a western mountain town where the locals will help you find the trailhead, the squeaky-clean main street is filled with locally-owned shops stocked with artisan-made crafts and everyone congregates on the rooftop patio of the Ouray Brewery to toast the sun as it dips below the mountains.

At the end of the main street, the historic Ouray Hot Springs is a popular day-end social setting for boomers who meet up with friends, catch up on the local news and bob around in the 107F outdoor hot pool. Note: Ouray Hot Springs is closed over the winter/spring for a top-to-bottom renovation (scheduled to reopen end of May 2017).

We found our prune-inducing soaking time just south of town at the hippy-dippy Orvis Hot Springs. A bulletin board is filled with postings for dog care cooperatives, soul-centred astrology readings, chakra balancing and intuitive business consulting. The landscaped grounds include a series of seven small pools—each at a different temperature—tucked in between winding stone pathways, small waterfalls and clusters of large boulders. The stunning mountain views are free (which may come in handy should you find yourself in one of the clothing optional pools). We are partisans of the “hotter-is-better” mindset and found our steaming bliss at the Lobster Pot, a 112F pool with a chilly outdoor shower beside to cool off between dips.

Next: Glenwood Springs…

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Further north, right along the I-70, the city of Glenwood Springs is known for its natural mineral hot spring pools (sourced from one of the world’s hottest hot springs), including the world’s largest hot springs pool at Glenwood Hot Springs Resort (with two large pools stretching two blocks in length).

Our final stop on the hot springs circuit was at Glenwood Springs’ Iron Mountain Hot Springs, a spa-like property right on the banks of the Colorado River. It’s a very social setting, with groups of people soaking and chatting in the 16 small pools. A New Age spa soundtrack is piped through outdoor speakers. Each geothermal pool is unique—shape, bottom material and view—with temperatures varying from 100F to the toasty Motherlode at 108F.

This road trip started out connecting the dots between U.S. National Parks to celebrate the centenary of the parks system. After visiting 10 National Park properties, we were heading for our final stop, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park was established just over a century ago to protect the fragile Southern Rockies ecosystem. It’s the third most-visited park in the NPS; people come for the scenery, for the prolific wildlife and for the diversity of recreational opportunities (including 600-km of hiking trails from short trails to high altitude camps to endurance “sky running”). Visitors who are not camping opt to make Estes Park their home base. The small recreation town is completely surrounded by protected land, so the chance of seeing elk, moose, bobcat, brown bear, mule deer, coyote, fox and big horn sheep is good.

In the two-month fall rutting season, the males bugle to mark their territory and protect their harem of breeding females. People want to see the drama up close. “It’s best to view at dawn and dusk,” says Kevin Cook, a wildlife biologist and guide with the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, the park’s non-profit education partner. We’d signed up for the 2-1/2-hour interpretive tour called the Elk Expedition and were getting tips and information from Kevin as we travelled to sighting spots along Old Fall River Road.

“A harem is a social unit that is managed by a single dominant alpha bull, a harem master,” he explains. “The bull is trying to keep his cows together, not let them be spread out.”

Kevin hands out binoculars and asks the group maintain a safe distance and to stay quiet. “We should be able to get close enough to hear them breathe, to hear them chew.” It’s dramatic to see the elk up close and to learn so much about their habits and patterns.

“Colorado has more live wild elk than any other state in the union.” At one time, elk were found across the country, but by the early 1900s the intense hunting by European settlers had caused population numbers to fall dramatically. Wildlife management practices and public education have helped reverse the trend.

Six weeks and 11 spectacular western National Parks. East of the Colorado Rockies it was flat driving all the way home to Ontario. Look down the road for our final article, a roundup of four wonderful music museums along the whole route: from Detroit to Vermillion to Kansas City to Cleveland. It’ll be a whole other kind of rock and roll.

For general state information visit www.colorado.com and visit www.visittheusa.ca for planning information. 

Campsites we can recommend: In Ouray, the spectacular Amphitheater Campground (part of the National Forest) sits perched above the town. It is small (37 sites), secluded and ringed by peaks. At the Glenwood Canyon Resort we fell asleep listening to the rushing water of the Colorado River.

An annual National Park Pass that gives unlimited entry to all National Park System sites is $80 USD.