By RICH GRANT
No other U.S. state is as fixated with altitude as Colorado. The state song is “Rocky Mountain High.” Locals are obsessed with climbing one of Colorado’s 54 peaks that soar to 14,000 feet, or standing exactly a mile above sea level on the steps of the State Capitol in Denver, or crossing the Continental Divide, the ragged mountain line that divides the state in two. If you’re in Colorado, you’ll just want to get high. Here are five easy ways to do it.
Enjoy the Rooftop with a View
People in the Mile High City love to live outdoors, so there are 46 outdoor cafes on just the 16th Street Mall, and more than a dozen rooftop bars in downtown Denver alone.
But the only one big enough to actually call itself “The Rooftop” is the massive 38,000-square-foot pleasure dome on the top of Coors Field.
Although it’s only open when the Colorado Rockies are playing, you don’t need a ticket to the baseball game to go to the bar. You can purchase a $14 access ticket that lets you go anywhere in the stadium, except to a seat. You can circle the playing field, wandering past food booths selling ice cream dots, corn dogs and buffalo burgers, or head to the Rooftop, where there are cabanas, outdoor fire pits, deluxe food stations and two levels of balconies offering spectacular (but standing!) views of the ballgame and the sunset over the Rocky Mountains.
Best of all? Your access ticket is a credit for $6 at any food station. And just to make sure you know you’re in Denver, look for a giant purple “5280” floating on a girder above the cabanas. The girder is exactly 5,280 feet above sea level. One mile high. And for the record, the bar down below is 52 feet 80 inches long.
Drive up Mountain Evans
The 60-mile road trip from Denver to the 14,260-foot summit of Mount Evans passes through five climate zones as you snake and zigzag your way to the highest spot reached by any paved road in North America.
It’s insane. The road has no guardrails, and there are more than a dozen spots where a miscalculation on a turn would be unforgiving. But the views make up for that. You’ll almost certainly see a herd of Rocky Mountain goats that live here. You’ll pass through a forest of Bristlecone pines – 2,000-year-old trees, bent and gnarled by the wind — that are among the oldest living things on Earth.
It can snow at any time (the road is only open Memorial Day to Labor Day because of snowfall), and even on a nice day, the temperature drops 3 degrees for every 1,000 feet elevation gain, so it will be 24 degrees colder here than in Denver.
Bring a jacket and some nerve, but leave the carbonated beverages at home. They don’t do well in your stomach with the elevation gains.
Climb the Continent’s Highest Sand Dunes
Alright, this one’s not so easy.
There are 26 square miles of sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park, and no trails.
You just take off your shoes, wade across shallow Medano Creek, and have at it anywhere you want in this gigantic pile of sand. The highest dune is 750 feet above the valley floor. The challenge is that for every step you take up, you slide three-quarters of the way back. The pure physics of the sand says that it can’t be piled at an angle steeper than 34 degrees. Seventy percent of the grains of sand are the width of a human hair; stacked any steeper than 34 degrees, and they simply give way to gravity and cascade down. And so will you.
Ride a Free Gondola in Telluride
The Telluride Gondola just celebrated its 21st year as the most unique transportation system in North America, and it is especially good in summer and fall.
There are three gondolas that take you from the center of Telluride to Mountain Village Center at 10,500 feet, and then on to Town Hall Plaza. And they’re all free.
You can hop on at sunrise (they start at 6:30 a.m.) or take a sunset ride. They lead to mid-mountain hiking and biking trails, or to bars and restaurants in the modern developments. The gondolas are even pet friendly. But the ride is the thing. Especially at night, when the steep gondola slides silently down into the twinkling lights of Telluride village below, one of the most scenic of all Colorado mountain towns. It’s possibly the best free 13-minute, 8-mile ride in the world.
Climb Aboard the Summit County Stage
This incredible network of free buses makes it possible to stay anywhere in Summit County, Colorado, without a car and easily get from Breckenridge to Boreas Pass, Keystone, Frisco, Copper Mountain or Silverthorne.
Rent a bike, travel around on paved off-street bike trails linking the resort towns, and throw the bike on the bus when you’re tired of pedaling. The Stage carries 1.9 million passengers a year. Here’s some of the destinations:
Breckenridge: This historic old gold mining town is now a living Christmas calendar with horse-drawn carriages, bars, restaurants, breweries, distilleries, outdoor cafes and shops, all painted a kaleidoscope of colors. A stream flows through the village and you can take a free gondola from town to the lifts.
Frisco: Another mining town lined with colorful buildings and flower baskets, Frisco is a pretty little village on the edge of Lake Dillon. There’s no skiing here, but there is a tubing hill, a marina with kayaking and sailing and a wonderful paved 9-mile bike trail to Breckenridge.
Copper Mountain: Bike here from Frisco beside a stream in summer, or ride the Stage in winter to this modern ski resort which has all the amenities, including what many say is the most perfect ski mountain in Colorado, divided equally into expert, intermediate and easy terrain.
Silverthorne: There are more than 50 brand outlet stores here, in a wonderful riverside setting connected by bridges.
Dillon: The original Dillon is now buried at the bottom of the reservoir, but the new town has a marina, restaurants and thrilling views of the lake with the Ten Mile Range in the distance. Bike trails circle the reservoir, but beware of those hills!
And of course, there be another reason that Colorado’s state song is “Rocky Mountain High.” It was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana and today there more than 500 dispensaries in Colorado selling joints, marijuana laced cookies, candies – even ice cream. But don’t smoke and drive. It’s a heavily enforced law with penalties as stiff as drunk driving.