Just outside Boulder, Colorado is a series of rock formations called the Flatirons. These three jagged teeth are as impressive up close as they are towering over the city of Boulder below.
Happy New Year!
To get an idea of just how spontaneous our family is, I often keep seasonally appropriate attire in the back of my Jeep. At times we have included a bug out bag just in case we decide to overnight in one of our day trip destinations. I have “planned” impromptu trips from Orlando to Miami over a bowl of cereal, flown to Maui from Oahu with just as much preparation. My Google Maps app is covered in so many starred places, it could be considered it’s own cluster or some sort of constellation. Conversations in our house are frequently on upcoming trips and interesting destinations. Our friends think we are nuts and usually preface any notion of social plans with, “…are you going to be in town?”
Our most recent trip is no exception to that rule. Nebraska is one of those states that offers lots for me to do, but little in interest to the rest of the family. My daughter, Hope, 8, loves to hike and camp with me. My wife, Echo, prefers to rough it in a Hilton property. She will tolerate the great outdoors as long as there is a shower and possibly a hot tub involved. After Christmas I pondered the week beyond and noted that I was only working one day during the week of New Years. That seemed like an absolute waste of a day spend working, as luck would have it, Echo and Hope also had the week off. Vacay!
Within moments of the revelation that we have enough time to do something fun I was on my Weather Channel app looking at the forecast in some of my happy places. I love the mountains and the ocean. Since the ocean is too far and I still have reservations about crossing too many state lines in a car during the unpredictable wintry months, Colorado seems like a logical place. Most importantly, a destination I had my sights set on last year in Dillon, CO close to Breck in the Arapaho Basin area about an hour West of Denver. It is a bustling skiing resort community.
The main event was the Ice Castles in Dillon, CO. I had also never been to the Boulder area. Although my daughter skis and I am a very novice snowboarder, we were not going to the slopes this year. We did hope to snowshoe and enjoy some refreshing mountain air hiking and whatever else we could get into. The key to flying by the seat of our pants and abandoning an itinerary is to have various contingencies available. The weather and tickets from the Dillon Ice Castles were a go for the the main event.
Day 1, Boulder
Day one was all about getting bearings and a read on the situation. It was New Year’s Day and as expected many shops and restaurants were closed when we arrived at Pearl Street in Boulder. We walked down the freshly snow dusted street, which was blocked off for pedestrian traffic. Having been on the road for nearly eight hours we were looking forward to some quality nourishment. The prospects for satisfying a picky eight year old and hangry parents were slim. We managed to find out way into the West Flander’s Brewing Company for burgers and brews.
After a satisfying lunch we decided to head to REI’s Boulder store. We intended on renting some snowshoeing equipment for use. We honestly spent less time planning our travel than Echo did trying out her choice of swag. I walked the entire store. Browsed all the clothing from Kulh, tried on some new Osprey packs, mulled over freeze dried meals, and sampled some camp furniture. Echo emerged with one viable selection. This was the longest part of the entire trip. So long, in fact, I wanted to leave as quickly as possible. I forgot the snowshoe rentals.
It was 4 p.m. and I was in awe of the jagged teeth of the Flatirons and the front range of the Rocky Mountains on display on the road down to our hotel in Golden. A dusting of fresh powder made the mountains looks especially wintry and added a certain appeal to them the screamed I want to be walked on…oh yeah, the snowshoes. We pulled in off for a photo op and a little time to cool off while appreciating while I was actually there.
We arrived at the Hampton Inn in Golden and checked in. Golden is a perfect midpoint for all our planned adventures. Including a new destination to REI’s flagship store in Denver. Definitely worth a trip if you are an outdoors enthusiast and fan of REI. This location is much more robust than others we have visited. We rented snowshoes for everyone and even decided to get a rooftop carrier from Thule to offset the fact that we were used to three people traveling in an eight passenger minivan who downsized to a Jeep Cherokee. Thankfully, the staff at REI was helpful and even allowed us a space to install our newest addition and the roof racks.
Denver REI Store
Back at the hotel, we decided on a simple dinner of PB&J followed by a dip in the heated indoor pool and the strong jets of the hot tub. The tub was a favorite of weary travelers who seemed to have enjoy ski trips further West up I-76. Of course, no night would be complete without a dip in the pool. Time to turn in.
Day 2, Caribou Ranch, Ice Castles, Snowshoeing
Complementary breakfast in the lobby as we talk about our plans for the day and copious amounts of coffee. I always appreciate the money and time saving efforts of a quick bite to eat in the hotel. We mounted out wagon and headed up the pass toward Boulder with the front range to our left. We turned East toward Nederland catching glimpses of Apache Peak in the distance as we wind up and down the mountain pass. I was worried that around 8,000 feet I still did not see a lot of snow on our way to snowshoe.
We arrived at the Caribou Ranch Open Space trailhead after a little over an hour and there were a few other cars of people who seemed prepared for cross country skiing. The Boulder County Parks department does a really good job with their green spaces more importantly, so do the patrons. The snow was fairly well packed and not deep enough for snowshoes though spikes would have been a good option but it was not at all icy so my hiking shoes did the trick. The gentle path down to the DeLonde Homestead was about 1.2 miles and pretty easy for Hope and Mom. The snow covered valley was surrounded by evergreens and a some breathtaking views. We continued to the homestead site and the girls opted not to go the additional 1.8 mile loop around the valley.
Once again we hit the windy roadways going through Black Hawk, an old boom town turned casino destination on our way to Dillon. The unique looking mountain town with a lot of personality seemed like it could be sometime to explore later. We turned up I-76 West and headed towards Dillon. We spied a few mountain goats on the side of the road at Georgetown lake and explored the wildlife viewing area at the north end of the lake. We did not see any other goats there but they offer free binos for viewing at the viewing pavilion. The lake looks to be a great ice fishing destination too.
Once in Dillon there are all sorts of shops and places to stay and restaurants as well as a large adventure park and various other activities on hand. The town surrounds the Dillon Reservoir and Swan Mountain, part of the Arapaho National Forest. We managed to find a place for our first ever snowshoe with wonderful views of the reservoir and the surrounding area. We spent about an hour taking in the scenery and getting our snow legs. It was now about 4:30 p.m. and time to eat. So we went to Pug Ryans Brewery for some food and a little brew before our reservation the Ice Castles which was the next block over.
I had seen the Ice Castles listed in the blog Out There Colorado and featured in a video from the talented violinist Lindsey Stirling. During the day you can certainly enjoy the spectacle of the tons of ice that went into the making of the structures. At night they are backlit with spectacular lighting effects. Hope was extremely excited when she saw the photos. The cost of admission was very low and they take, even recommend, reservations. Unanimously, we went with a nighttime experience. It should be painfully obvious about the mountains at wintertime, but it was cold. We had been outside all day and the sun was finally down. I even broke down and got into the hand warmers. We did have our snow pants in the car and all regretted our decision to just brave the cold in pants. Much more importantly, there is a small ice slide and a much longer one, with a much longer wait. Hot chocolate at Cameez Ice Cream seemed like a better idea before packing it for the hour drive back to Golden.
Day 3, Hiking in Boulder
Logging nearly five miles hiking and all the excitement from the day before we decided to have a more leisurely morning, ok the girls were tired. We returned our rentals to the Denver REI store and returned to Boulder. We parked at the Chautauqua Park area, which requires you to pay for parking during the summer months. At the baseline the the Ranger Cottage has restrooms and information useful for the many hiking the trails of the sprawling range including the three spires of “Flatirons” and everything in between.
Our goal was the Royal Arch which is a very challenging hike for those who are not in the best of shape. Echo is not the epitome of fitness and Hope is only eight. So I had my reservations and thought we could at least walk past the first Flatiron on the way to if we do not make it. The trial was covered in snow and later, as the temperature dropped, ice. Spikes of some sort come in handy after a fresh snow but we managed without, slipping some here and there. Although the trail is only 3.8 miles round-trip you manage to gain over 1,500 feet in that short period of time. It is pretty steep. We made it within 1/4 mile but realized that sunset would beat our pace and we did not want to be coming down in the dark without equipment or jackets. We turned back at Sentinel Pass dismayed but it is better than being on a mountainside unprepared at night. The last leg looked pretty tough as well because of a near vertical drop into the draw where the Royal Arch was situated.
Once down we had reservations at Avery Brewing Company for brews and dinner. While it seems out of the way, the brewery is a fairly decent size and has a really good selection of beer across many styles making it worth the trip. The food and service was good as well. You can take a self-guided tour along the catwalk over the brewery floor or a guided tour during the day. It was the perfect end to a great day and our trip.