One of our favorite trips was road tripping through Colorado from Kansas City. This 12-day trip took us through Colorado Springs, then up to Canyonlands National Park, Utah, then back through Arizona and New Mexico. We visited Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon, AZ then Chaco Canyon, NM on our way home. Because of this long trip, I’ll break it down into four blogs; First, Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods & Gold Belt Scenic Byway; Second, Canyonlands National Park & Monument Valley; Third, Antelope Canyon; and Fourth, Chaco Canyon, NM. I’ll publish these in the order I finish them.
For the first blog, our trip from Kansas City was only about an 8-hour drive. We set out on this, our last trip, with our roof top tent mounted on top of the car. Shortly after this trip, I ordered my Yakima Easy Rider trailer to move the tent from the roof to a trailer. To haul some of our gear, I bought a Curt aluminum hitch rack and Pelican 30 quart cooler that I left mounted on it for the whole trip.
Our first destination was the Garden of the Gods, just outside Colorado Springs. Traveling west across Kansas on I-70, there are plenty of flat stretches and not much to see other than farms. Hours from civilization, we wondered about people who live that life, and the sacrifices they make to do it. To break up the monotony, we stopped to see the 80-foot tall Van Gogh painting in Goodland, Kansas. It was as easy stop right off I-70, and I think I needed gas anyway.
As we continued our way west, the countryside was pretty uneventful until we got near Denver and into the Rocky Mountains. The beauty of the area is breathtaking, as well as how quickly we went from flat to mountains.
Our first overnight stop was Colorado Springs. As we often do, we mix our stays between camping and motels. If in a city, we usually get a room. We had reservations at the Days Inn by Wyndham Manitou Springs. When we got there in the early afternoon, I was happy to see a good, well lit parking lot, and a fine average room. It was clean and the hotel receptionist was nice. The best feature in picking this stop was that it is right next to Garden of the Gods. after getting checked in, we headed over the see the sights.
It was only a few minutes drive, and the entrance was unassuming, taking us through a residential area. Among the houses, we started seeing large red boulders along the drive. As we got a few minutes closer, these turned into steep red hills and jagged mountains.
There was no entrance fee, with the park open 5 AM to 9 PM. This would have been a good spot for sunrise or sunset photos, but we didn’t plan far enough ahead to do that. We first drove to the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center, (9AM to 5PM), but we got there right as it was closing and didn’t get inside or to the gift shop. So, we headed out to see the rock formations. These were fantastic, but we were a little surprised that the area wasn’t larger. There is a loop road maybe 5 miles long that took us around the formations. Various stopping points had good parking and easy to walk paved pathways and trails. There are also hiking trails ranging from 1/2 mile to 3 mile routes through the park. Most are relatively flat without much change in elevation.
The paved road snakes around several rock outcroppings and there are plenty of photo opportunities. As with many nature views, the hardest pictures to take are the ones without other people in them. My wife is patient and waits for clear shots.
We spent about two hours here, hitting all the major views with parking stops and pull-over spaces. Depending on how much you want to hike, I recommend you factor about half a day for this. It is near enough to main interstates that it could be a stopover on a driving day. We had planned to go up Pike’s Peak, which is also nearby, but the cog railroad was undergoing renovation and I didn’t want to drive it. We got takeout dinner at a nice little Chinese restaurant next to the hotel, and settled in for the night. Other things you may want to do in the area include Pike’s Peak Highway and the Crystal Reservoir.
In the morning, we headed west to pick up our route to the Gold Belt Tour Scenic Byway. This started just outside Colorado Springs, as we drove west on Route 24 toward Florissant, Colorado then south on Colorado Route 67. As our route took us south, we drove past hills then small mountains. On a pleasant winding two lane road, we saw several abandoned gold mines.
After passing the town of Cripple Creek, we came to the town of Victor, and the entrance to Phantom Canyon Road. This dirt road is barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, and is about 30 miles long, ending at the town of Florence. It is fairly well maintained, but there was some washboarding, and we stayed below 30 MPH. This road was originally a narrow gauge railroad line to haul gold ore in small train cars.
We only saw a handful of other vehicles, but this fellow gave us an escort down a stretch of Phantom Canyon Road.
Along the road, we saw several dispersed camping sites along side the road, some occupied. These are open for free, first come-first served. Some have minimal amenities like a fire pit. We did pass one public restroom about halfway down the road. Just read and follow the posted rules. Here is a good article from Adventure Pro Magazine that talks about the increased popularity and congestion of dispersed camping in Colorado, as well as the rules.
Our leisurely drive down Phantom Canyon Road took us about two hours, but it was a nice scenic drive. We passed through the tunnel shown above (originally cut out for the train), and shortly made it back to paved roads and the town of Florence. From Florence, we traveled west on Colorado Route 115, and at Canon City, then took Interstate 50 West past Royal Gorge. We spent the night at Echo Canyon Campground on Hwy 50 in Canon City. It was easily accessible, a convenient place to spend the night on our way to Canyonlands National Park.
We enjoyed this trip off the beaten path. It is very close to Denver and Colorado Springs, and would make a good day trip. There are tours of some of the mines, mining shops where you can sluice your own buckets looking for gems and minerals, ghost towns, and old timey shops and restaurants. We briefly stopped at Royal Gorge, which is well worth the scenery as well. I’ll pick up the journey on next blog toward Canyonlands NP.