In the heat of summer, there’s really no better place than Colorado to escape the Houston heat. Previously, in this series, we talked about how we planned our road trip and how we started and ended it with Cadillac Ranch and Palo Duro Canyon. Next up, we finally get to Colorado and get a taste of the cooler weather and the mountains!
From Canyon, TX, after Cadillac Ranch, we headed northwest through Raton, New Mexico and up through Trinidad, the first major city in Colorado off I-25, the major artery in eastern Colorado. Trinidad is a historic little town worth driving around, and it’s the start of a really amazing scenic drive called the Highway of Legends. Because it’s just over 7 hours to Colorado Springs, we wanted to add a hike and a nice drive into the middle of the day to break it up. The nice thing about the Highway of Legends is that while it takes longer to do than going straight up I-25, the start and finish are both on I-25 so you can keep on trucking when you’re done. It was WAY worth the detour!
Stops on the Highway of Legends
- Trinidad Lake State Park: We actually did this one on the way back home, and it was HOT. There are a couple good trails for kids in this park, including Long Canyon on the south side of the lake and Levsa Canyon on the north side. Long Canyon is more wetlands and opportunity to see wildlife, and Levsa Canyon, takes you up for a nice view of the lake and a rocky but totally doable climb. It sort of reminded us of the TV show “Hey, Dude!” We liked it, but it would have been better in the morning or evening.
- Spanish Peaks: You get to drive right through and around this whole, beautiful mountain range, which even though it’s not the biggest, has a really amazing history and some very unique rock formations like the Dakota Wall that were new and interesting to us. It was cool and a little misty when we went through on our way up to Colorado Springs, and the drive was just gorgeous. And it gets chilly, even in the worst of summer!
- Lathrop State Park: This was probably the second best hike of the whole trip. Make sure to check if you need a reservation in advance – we did at the time we went, but it was easy to get online on the way there. One of the special features of the park is a “hogback,” which is a large, rocky outcropping that is a lot like a ridge. The aptly named Hogback Nature Loop Trail was a little challenging but totally doable with our 3 and 6 year old – we just had to hold hands and be careful on a few key parts! The views were spectacular and it was a great way to get in the hiking spirit.
A Word About AllTrails
An invaluable resource if you plan on doing a lot of hiking, especially with kids, in Colorado is AllTrails. There’s a great website, and you’ll want the app on your phone for sure. There are just a couple important things to remember:
- If a trail says it’s “easy,” take it with a grain of salt. Easy is relative, and us Houstonians don’t get much elevation change beyond some stairs here and there. Easy can mean a paved trail, but it can also mean a rocky trail with scary drop offs and 650 ft elevation gain. Read the reviews and pay attention to the details! If you think you’re ready to dive into moderate-rated trails first thing, try a couple easy ones and just make sure first. I would consider our family relatively fit, up for adventure, and willing to try a challenge, but the easy trails were plenty for us!
- The names on AllTrails don’t always match the names in real life. You can record your own hike on AllTrails, and you can also name it what you want. Many of these hikes are in state and local parks that have their own names/trail maps, and we spent quite a bit of time matching up the AllTrails name to the official name to make sure we understood where we were and how to navigate.
- If a description mentions “highly trafficked,” it really is. Highly trafficked = super popular. If you’re trying to stay away from crowds, do these trails early, on rainy days, or find a different trail.
AllTrails is a hugely helpful resource to locate and narrow down the perfect hike for your family, but make an effort to read the reviews and double check the info with other resources.
Colorado Springs & Surrounding Area
After the long drive to CO Springs, we were ready to crash. We had booked an Airbnb in a residential neighborhood close to the US Olympic and Paralympic Training Center, and that worked great. We thought about booking closer to the Old Colorado City area, and we’re glad we did not do that, because it was more expensive and it really wouldn’t have mattered. Everything is so close, and we weren’t needing to be in a walkable area with restaurants, because it’s COVID and everything is takeout anyways. Manitou Springs was way too busy and touristy for us – it was too packed for comfort and as we drove through the traffic in the city center, we were glad we didn’t book there!
There are plenty of great breweries to visit in this town, along with some good food. Here were a few gems:
- Beer to-go from Bristol Brewing Company: Located in a very cool place called the Ivywild School, the beer is delicious! There is food in the Ivywild School, but at the time we were there, it was closed.
- Tacos from Dos Santos Tacos: This was the best to-go meal of the trip. Super easy to order online, and the family meal options were perfect for a family of 4. These are legit street tacos, y’all – and we are all picky because we’re Houstonians, right?
- Food and cocktails to-go from Shuga’s: The cocktails were killer, but the kids’ bento was sort of weird. We should have ordered from the grownup menu because it was great!
There is absolutely no shortage of socially distanced things to do around Colorado Springs. We did visit Garden of the Gods and got really lucky because it was about to rain, so the place cleared out. We didn’t mind getting wet and we got the Siamese Twins Trail all to ourselves! Definitely do this early or when it’s overcast because it’s busy. Get a map at the gift shop. It was a good, easy, short hike.
Like everyone who visits CO Springs, we drove up to Pike’s Peak – going as soon as the park opened was a good call, as it wasn’t crowded. It was really cool driving up there, and you can send a family representative into the gift shop at the top to grab hot chocolate and donuts for everyone. The visitor’s center is a hot mess right now because basically the whole summit is under construction, so it’s not exactly a peaceful experience. The view’s great though, and who doesn’t want a donut from 14,000+ feet? During the time we were there you could drive all the way up, but as of the time of writing it appears that you must take a shuttle part of the way. I’m not sure we would have done the shuttle experience. Make sure to get your tickets in advance if you’re headed there regardless!
The most memorable trail was the absolutely breathtaking and a little challenging Mt. Cutler trail located in North Cheyenne Canon Park, where you can hike up to the top of the mountain. The trail is steady upwards but not overwhelming – our 3 year old was fine on most of it by himself. The trick is to HOLD HANDS with the ones you’re worried about falling off the edge, because there are many steep drop offs! Ours are risk takers, so each parent took a kid. It was well worth it at the top – you feel like you really accomplished something, and the view is amazing! Bring a special snack at the top to celebrate for sure.
Things we didn’t do but would next time:
- Cheyenne Mountain Zoo: You need a reservation WAY in advance, so make sure you get tickets. You also get to see the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun, so it’s a twofer!
- Seven Falls: We actually saw the falls and bridges from Mt. Cutler, and it would have been cool to hike to them. It probably was packed, so that’s why it wasn’t at the top of our list.
- MORE North Cheyenne Canon Park! It was not crowded and the views and hikes were perfect for our skill level!
Royal Gorge Bridge and Railroad
One day trip that was wonderful was the Royal Gorge. It’s over an hour from CO Springs, and it’s well worth it! A few tips:
- You CANNOT walk over the bridge without paying to enter the park. It’s expensive! We sucked it up and paid the $70 bucks to walk over and back, which was cool but probably the free overlook in the parking lot would have been fine. It was fun to walk across, but we didn’t do any of the included attractions because we had a 12:30pm reservation for the railroad and it was not right next door.
- There is a gondola that is included if you purchase a ticket to go across the bridge, and you can take that over and back, but the line gets LONG. Take it on the way there and walk back if you get there when it opens – otherwise the line is very unwieldy and you won’t want to walk all the way uphill and wait in like to take it back. It is super fun looking through the cracks between the wooden planks and finding your state flag on the bridge! We didn’t mind walking both ways!
- The Royal Gorge Route Railroad was a great experience – plan a solid 20 mins by car to get there from the bridge + 5 mins of parking lot walking on both sides – and we were very glad we did it! There are many classes of service – just pick the cheapest one, because the way to travel is the open air car! You can order beer and wine and food in your seats and then walk to the beautiful open air car (standing room only) to enjoy the amazing views up to the bridge and through the canyon. The food isn’t great, but the beer flight included some good, local beers! We ate a packed lunch in the car on the way there so we only had a small snack.
Stay in Pueblo on the Way Back!
If you’re going more north than CO Springs and you are planning your long drive back at the end of your trip, the absolute best place to spend your last night in Colorado is Pueblo. South of Colorado Springs, you will have plenty of time to get a morning hike in prior to heading back to the TX Panhandle. It only took us a little over 5 hours from Pueblo to Canyon, TX, which was way better than the 9 it would have taken from Boulder (our first idea).
Looking for hikes close to Pueblo? Try the aforementioned Trinidad Lake State Park on your way out of town – it’s right on the way back. Or, if you want something even more memorable, venture into the Wet Mountains, about a 45 min drive west of Pueblo.
For our final leg of the journey and the blog series we’ll venture north from Colorado Springs to Boulder and the Rocky Mountain State Park area – coming soon!