Road trip: Spend three days in Colorado’s southern foothills
Round-trip route from VAIL*
Vail to Frisco: Take I70 to Frisco.
Frisco to Green Mountain Falls: Take state Highway 9 south to U.S. Highway 24 east (2 hours).
Green Mountain Falls to Manitou Springs: Take U.S. Highway 24 east (15 minutes).
Manitou Springs to Royal Gorge: Take U.S. Highway 24 east to state Highway 115 south (1 hour, 20 minutes).
Royal Gorge to Summit: Take U.S. Highway 50 west to state Highway 9 north (2 hours, 15 minutes).
*Map out your route for more detailed directions.
The only springtime traffic you’ll run into in the valley of Green Mountain Falls, 15 minutes west of Colorado Springs and a two-and-a-half hour drive from Eagle County, will be at a stop for the rows of goslings crossing the road. May is a quiet time for this small town, and as the goslings grow to be geese this summer, the crowds will start to come.
“It’s the lake and the gazebo that make this town special,” said Rachael Warwick, a server at The Pantry breakfast and lunch eatery, near what’s known as Gazebo Lake. “It’s just been around for so long; people get married there, and everybody falls in love with it.”
‘WHERE EVERYBODY MEETS’
Warwick lives in Chipita Park, just minutes away, and has worked at The Pantry for going on five years. The restaurant is a local staple, where “everybody comes and everybody meets,” she said. Expect to wait for a table on weekends and throughout the summer, although time seems to stop as soon as you step into the nostalgia-inspired space.
Once you do settle in with a mug of drip coffee, be sure to try at least one slice of homemade bread with butter or a sugar-glazed cinnamon bun.
The town’s “restaurant row” includes The Pantry and, for afternoon and evening enjoyment, an indoor-outdoor pub, as well as a steak and seafood restaurant. There’s a post office and a liquor store in town and a church and historic, fully operating police marshal building. Other than that, the town has residential realms spread out in nooks across the hillside and a few places for visitors to hang their hats.
Built in 1889, The Outlook Lodge has been a mainstay in Green Mountain Falls for years, but in April, the intimate resort welcomed a fully renovated, retro addition to its property. The Little Beaver Inn was originally built in 1950 as a motor lodge, and it has been redone with modern amenities that collaborate well with the full kitchen and open-air fire circle available to use at its parent lodge.
Pick up your key for the little inn at The Outlook’s antique and fully functioning lockbox, as there is no front desk for a formal check-in. This quiet arrival makes for a retreat-style experience, and guests can enjoy their time making s’mores by The Outlook’s fire pit or sitting in Little Beaver’s outdoor hot tub. Miles of hiking trails surround the property for morning or afternoon nature excursions, and a particularly beautiful waterfall hike — Catamount Falls — begins 10 minutes (walking) from the lodging location.
In July, the area hosts the Green Box Arts Festival, which highlights the creative process of art in this idyllic, natural venue.
Up and around the Springs
Still west of Colorado Springs and a 15-minute drive east of Green Mountain Falls is the adventurous and artsy destination of Manitou Springs.
Right at the foot of Pikes Peak, the town is known for its rich history of Native American and early explorer roots, its now modern (but still nostalgic) shops and restaurants, healing mineral springs, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway and many outdoor adventure options, including hiking the Manitou Incline.
The Incline trail is the remains of a narrow, inclined railway, with a steep grade as vertical as 68 percent in places. The incline gains more than 2,000 feet of elevation in less than 1 mile. The duration of the activity will generally range between 30 minutes and an hour or more, depending on fitness level and pace. There is paid parking in the lot at the bottom, but this fills up quickly and overflow cars must find nonresidential street parking.
If at all possible, hike it on a weekday to avoid rubbing elbows with droves of ambitious stair-steppers. Aaron Foresythe, 37, of Littleton, completed the Incline for his second time on May 14.
“I love it,” he said at the top. “It’s a great workout. When you start at the bottom, you feel like it’s a really big task; when you get halfway up, you just kinda feel like you hit your stride and then you just put one foot in front of the other to make it to the top.”
There is an option for hikers to “bail out” with about a quarter of the hike to go — where the trail connects to the Barr Trail. Once (or if) you do make it to the top, you can come back down the Incline (not recommended on crowded days) or hike 4 miles down the Barr Trail.
“You’re fatigued, definitely, when you get to the top, but it’s well worth it,” Foresythe said. “You get these great views of the valley down below.”
Once you’ve accomplished your butt-burning workout for the day, visit the Manitou Brewing Co. for one or more of their flagship brews, such as the Manitou Common, or any of the many guest taps they populate. The cozy spot opened in March 2014 and offers both indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a food menu with burgers, sandwiches and white queso nachos.
Before you jump back into the car, grab a cappuccino or chai, and maybe even a carrot cake layered in a mason jar, across and down the street at Good Karma Coffee Lounge and Cafe.
Next, take a drive over to Garden of the Gods, a free nature park with beautiful red-rock formations and views to drive through or hike around. You can take a quick loop, or spend an entire day and pack a picnic.
Go to the Gorge
The Royal Gorge Bridge and Park in Canon City is a little more than an hour away from Garden of the Gods, and it’s a Colorado sightseeing must. After damage and destruction from a 2013 fire, the bridge and park has now reopened to the public.
The fire destroyed 90 percent of the park, on both sides of the Royal Gorge, taking out 48 of 52 structures and attractions. This will be the first summer that it has been fully operational since June 2013, and Peggy Gair, human resource and public relations manager for the bridge and park, said the motto for the essentially brand new park is “Back, Better than Ever.”
There are some new and exciting additions to the experience, including an aerial tramway that crosses the Royal Gorge parallel to the bridge — known as “America’s Bridge,” which was built in 1929. If you’re up for it, check out North America’s highest zipline, which travels 2,400 feet, about 1,200 feet above the Arkansas River. Gair said the high zipline, known as the Royal Rush Skycoaster, is one of the most popular things to do there for thrill seekers.
Opening in June will be the new Children’s Playland, which has a carousel, a 19-foot climbing and play structure, a maze and a wax-hand feature. Silver Rock Railway, a mini-train, will also be in service in June. A film presentation on the historical and modern-day stories of the park shows in the Plaza Theater, and magic shows and aerobatic acts are often featured there.
“Our brand new Visitor Center features Cafe 1230 — which stands for the height over the gorge — and a large deck with a place to eat and enjoy the scenery,” Gair said. “It opened last September, and guests tell us they really love the view, and they like to sit, eat, drink or lounge by the outside fireplace.”
Lodging options in the area include a number of hotels, inns and motels, as well as very accessible campgrounds and RV resorts. If you don’t mind driving, more high-end accommodations can be found in Colorado Springs.