Wednesday, September 19, 2018 -
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A summer travelogue through Southwest Colorado

The coal-powered railroad that runs between Durango and Silverton.

The coal-powered railroad that runs between Durango and Silverton.

With soaring mountains, rushing rivers and stunningly beautiful landscapes, Colorado is a summer traveler’s dream.

If you’ve got little kids, however, those same elements could make for a nightmare. Young kids don’t appreciate great views, they whine on hikes and Class III rapids aren’t quite suitable for three-year-olds.

The key to success is to create an itinerary that balances the needs of children and adults. Armed with juice boxes and ice cream money, my wife and I managed to have a great summertime trip with our young kids that took us to some of Colorado’s best spots.

Crested Butte, Buena Vista

We made southwest Colorado our focus and set out first for Crested Butte, elevation 8,900. Mindful of the five-hour car ride, we stopped midway at River Runners rafting in Buena Vista, a rare rafting company that accommodates children as young as three.

The hourlong “family float” trip on the Arkansas River at Browns Canyon was perfect for our posse. While our guide Mikey did all the work, we bounced and floated through miles of sagebrush and willow trees against a backdrop of 12,000-foot mountains. There was just enough splashing in the Class II rapids to thrill the kids, but not enough to get our adult hearts pounding.

In Crested Butte, the funky, mostly under-the-radar ski town that can be crisscrossed in a 20-minute Shabbat stroll is a summer idyll. It’s the kind of place where the 15 MPH speed limit is strictly enforced and everyone gets around on bikes that nobody locks. The town is filled with beautiful Victorian homes, creeks for the kids to splash around and playgrounds flanked by jaw-dropping views.

Known as the wildflower capital of Colorado, Crested Butte also has more than half a dozen hiking trails accessible by foot.

We treated the kids one afternoon by visiting the adventure park at Mt. Crested Butte, the ski resort just up the road, where summertime activities range from mini golf and bungee trampolines to mountain biking and hiking.

My kids’ favorite was the rock climbing wall and the bag jump. Mine was the chairlift ride that took us up 2,000 vertical feet to near the mountain summit, where our mini-hike at 11,500 feet took our breath away — literally.

Telluride

Telluride is a long way from the Front Range, but this picture-perfect town in a deep box canyon is well worth the trip, and not just for festivals and skiing. It’s a place of astounding beauty with a wealth of activities that don’t require a car.

Dozens of hiking trails are accessible from the walkable town, including a gorgeous river walk great for toddlers or families with strollers.

Telluride is also home to North America’s only free, gondola-based public transportation system: a three-stop, three-mile-long gondola line that runs between the town and the ski resort village located about 1,000 feet above it. The views from every angle are breathtaking, and locals use it to take their mountain bikes up to ride down the ski resort’s bike trails — all free.

Our base was a spacious two-bedroom condo in the ski village, at the Mountain Lodge Telluride. Just getting to town — via gondola — was thrilling for the kids, the resort pool offered stunning views of the jagged, 13,000-foot peaks that surround Telluride, and the hotel was close to several nice hikes and fishing spots.

Ouray, Durango, Silverton 

The scenic route from Telluride to Durango is a day all its own: Ouray has fantastic hot springs that include waterslides, cold lap pools and hot pools.

The Million Dollar Highway — so named because it reputedly cost $1 million per mile when it was built in 1926 — is one of the country’s most beautiful (and perilous) roads, including the otherworldly, 11,000-foot Red Mountain pass.

A few more switchbacks will bring you to Silverton, an old mining town and National Historic Landmark District that looks like it hasn’t changed much since the Gold Rush.

Silverton’s greatest tourist attraction is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which runs coal-powered steam trains to and from Durango. It’s a thrilling ride, with the tracks running alongside the Animas River as the chugging train descends 3,000 feet in elevation, sometimes alongside hair-raising cliff drop-offs.

At nine hours round-trip, including a three-hour layover in Silverton, it’s a full-day experience. We shortened it somewhat by taking an hourlong shuttle bus to Silverton before boarding the train.

Durango itself doesn’t have much to offer, but it’s the best place to access Mesa Verde National Park, whose iconic cliff dwellings I rued having to miss (the three-hour roundtrip was too far for us).

We stayed in the Homewood Suites, a comfortable hotel with kitchenettes where I was greeted with a cold beer at check-in and breakfast every morning.

Even though we founded ourselves stranded in the hotel’s industrial neighborhood for Shabbat, we were just a 10-minute walk from Durango’s beautiful river walk, where watching kayakers, fly fishermen and cyclists provided ample entertainment.

National Parks Great Sand Dunes, Rocky Mountain

Where else but Great Sand Dunes National Park can you visit a beach and go sledding simultaneously? With the cool Medano creek running alongside the dunes’ base, this remarkable site offers little children all the fun of a beach (minus swimming and waves). Bring a sled along with your beach toys: The fine-grained sand here is ideal for sledding. An outfit just outside the park rents special sand sleds, but the plastic flying saucers we brought worked just as well.

The magnificently beautiful natural wonder is surrounded by hiking and camping opportunities, and if you stay past nightfall you’ll get a fantastic star-show. The nearest town is 40 miles away.

We ended our trip with a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. Though it’s not in Southwest Colorado, we couldn’t pass up the unparalleled beauty, hiking and sights just 90 minutes from Denver.

Visiting in late August after school started, we avoided the crowds and found a great rate at the Ridgeline Hotel in Estes Park, a newly remodeled hotel with a large indoor swimming pool and game room that our kids visited every day after hiking, and cozy, comfortable beds to tuck them in when the day was done.

We needed those good nights’ rest. We strolled around Sprague and Bear Lakes, clambered over the boulders on the Alluvial Fan trail, hiked up to the waterfall on the Glacier Gorge trail and drove 10 miles of dirt up Old Fall River Road (open July to September) to reach the 12,000 foot summit above the famed Alpine Visitor Center. Along the way we saw elk, a moose and some lingering snowfields.

By the time we were done, we had logged 1,200 miles, five hotels and countless memories over two-weeks. The kids have been talking about it ever since, and so have we. I guess we did something right.

Uriel Heilman is a New York-based journalist working for JTA.




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