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Exploring off the Beaten Path – Central & Southern Colorado, Part 1

Discovering hidden gems and untold stories in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

I’ve never been one to be shy about proclaiming my allegiance to my home state, and my California-centric lens is often in play when comparing the beauty of foreign states to my beloved Golden State. It’s hard to argue with my logic with treasures like the Coastal Redwoods, Giant Sequoias, Yosemite National Park, The Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe, Mt. Shasta, and hundreds of miles of stunning coastlines within California’s borders. But a handful of unique Western states have expanded my view on recent journeys, and at the top of that short list is the Centennial state of Colorado.

Despite being landlocked, Colorado possesses a deceptively diverse geography and boasts an impressive range of terrains, biomes, and environments. While the dazzling array of jagged peaks and alpine landscapes of the Rockies is a big part of what makes Colorado unique, it is far from one- dimensional. In addition to having over 50 peaks topping 14,000 ft, a tour across the state will take you through high plains, expansive mesas, dunes and deserts, alpine lakes, river valleys, lush conifer and deciduous forests, and exquisite, pastel-colored canyon lands and rock formations.

I received an education in some of Colorado’s more remote and wild locales this past summer, courtesy of my good old Dad. Pops has always had a fondness for Colorado, and living in neighboring Kansas, he continues to visit friends and explore there often. He and my Mom first met in Boulder, CO, and spent some memorable years there in the 70s before I was born, a couple of 20-somethings living it up in the eclectic music and arts scene. Since I was about to leave my job to figure out a new career path,

Dad convinced me to drive out from California and created a fantastic itinerary to share some more remote corners of Central and Southern Colorado with me. After parting ways with my employer and ready to celebrate some newfound freedom, I set out from my home in San Francisco on my drive east to the Front Range region of Colorado. After rendezvousing in Longmont, CO, our first leg involved heading southwest over some of the Front Range peaks and descending into the vibrant mountain town of Buena Vista, CO. Buena Vista sits within the Arkansas River Valley, bound on one side by the Collegiate Peaks and the Arkansas River on the other.

Exploring off the Beaten Path – Central & Southern Colorado, Part 2

As we approached the town, we had an excellent view of a trio of impressive 14ers, Mt Harvard, Mt Princeton, and Mt Antero, looming from the highway.

by Alex Sheldon

Buena Vista has a friendly, artsy vibe and a thriving downtown with great dining and shopping options, but our real destination was Cottonwood Hot Springs. Dad is a self-described hot springs addict and has a knack for finding great spots, ranking Cottonwood as one of his favorites of all time. We spent 3-4 hours soaking and luxuriating in the sun, moving from hot pools of natural spring water ranging from 94° F. to 110° F. One of the best parts about Cottonwood is the mountain stream running through the property, which serves as a great ice plunge for some excellent hot/cold therapy. The property also includes an inn, a general store, and a dry sauna and is an ideal place to stay for a day or two of pampering.

After an early dinner, we left the serene vibe of Buena Vista and continued south toward the expansive San Luis Valley. We headed to this region to stay with an old musician acquaintance of my Dad who lives in a remote area of the foothills rimming the San Luis Valley. Rob’s home is part of a commune of eco-friendly solar homes called Solargons. Solargons are “passive solar smart cabins” that utilize the sun efficiently and sustainably. Their design borrows inspiration from Asian Yurts, Navajo Hogons, and Native American Hidatsa Lodges. Rob was kind enough to put us up in a guest house on his property, which would serve as our base camp for several days.

…An interesting side note is that my Dad is the former bass player of Peter Frampton’s band, touring and recording on the classic 1976 album, “Frampton Comes Alive”.

During his career, he’s performed and recorded with the likes of Warren Zevon, Tommy Bolin, Delbert McClinton, Lou Gramm (Foreigner), and Grand Funk Railroad and still actively performs and gigs out at the age of 73. Our host Rob was an old bass player acquaintance of my Dad’s from the Boulder, CO scene of the early-mid 70s and they were reconnecting after many decades. I also picked up the family musical tradition and have
played bass for nearly 30 years, and the three of us had a fun time talking shop and noodling around on one of Rob’s custom basses.

Another draw to this unique region was its proximity to another hot spring happy spot, Joyful Journey.

by Alex Sheldon

We headed there on our first morning for some relaxation and soaked for several hours, enjoying the vistas of the valley from the back deck of the property. Joyful Journey doubles as a spa and inn, with very reasonable and affordable room prices. Another added perk of staying at Joyful Journey is that breakfast and dinner come with the cost of a room, and the kitchen prepares all food in-house, serving healthy, nourishing meals with vegan and gluten-less options.

On day two, we enjoyed several more hours soaking at Joyful Journey again and then drove to the remote town of Crestone, nestled against the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Crestone is known for having a thriving Buddhist and spiritual community and is an ideal jumping-off point for travelers heading to Great Sand Dunes National Park. We grabbed ice, drinks, and food supplies and gassed up the car, and since it was approaching dinner time, we tried our luck with a bar and grill that advertised yak burgers.

Having never had a yak burger, I must say I was pleasantly surprised. The burger was super tasty, and the texture and leanness of the meat were similar to bison. Overall, thumbs up to Yak and Crestone.

On day three, we said our goodbyes to Rob and the Solargon commune and hit the road to check out Great Sand Dunes National Park. As you approach the park, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the horizon, it’s hard to believe the tallest dunes in North America are lurking just around the corner. The habitat surrounding the dunes is diverse and includes grasslands, wetlands, forests, alpine lakes, and tundra. One of the biggest draws for outdoors enthusiasts is the dunes’ official “Dark Sky Park” status, making it an optimal place for some epic stargazing.

Dive deeper into the wonders of the Great Sand Dunes in the upcoming Part 2 of our exploration through Central & Southern Colorado’s hidden gems.

Exploring off the Beaten Path – Central & Southern Colorado, Part 2

Author: Alex Sheldon  Facebook    Instagram

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