A tankful of fun | VailDaily.com

A tankful of fun

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado, USA
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

DNA stands for Driving is Natural for Americans, and it’s time to hit the road.

True Americans trace their ancestry to people who wandered down to the ocean’s edge and wondered what was over “there,” wherever “there” is.

It is, therefore, an American’s inalienable right to climb in a Great American Freedom Machine and burn some dinosaur wine. This is what America’s Founding Fathers meant when they said, “Pursuit of Happiness.”

We’re going to try to get you to places you can reach on one tank of gas. We bend that rule, but it’s for a great cause. And sometimes you just drive there because the drive is so freakin’ awesome.

“Where, oh where should we go?” you ask.

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Since Colorado has as many road trips as we do roads, we’re glad you asked.

In no particular order, we suggest:

Colorado Gators Reptile Park

One of the things we like best about it is that it’s near the bottom of the San Luis Valley, which we’re pretty sure is Latin for “Road on Which to Answer the Great American Question: How Fast Does it Go?”

And once you’re there you can learn to wrestle alligators, which is another reason to love America. For a C-Note ($100), you can wrestle alligators. OK, you also have to sign all kinds of forms that refer early and often to death and dismemberment, but after you do, you get to hang with the gators. Actually, they teach you to handle alligators, not wrestle them, because you’d finish a distant second in that wrestling match and end your life as a candidate for a Darwin Award.

On your way to the gator park you’ll pass beautiful downtown Hooper, Colo., where you’ll find the world’s only UFO viewing tower. It’s worth the stop.

It’s also close to the Colorado Sand Dunes National Park. If you’re in the mood for a little beach time, then this is how you do it in Colorado.

There’s even water. The Medano River runs from April through August. Don’t act surprised when it’s cold. About 20 minutes before you plunged your vitals into it, the creek was in the form of snow high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which is Spanish for “Blood of Christ,” which is interesting because the moment you sat in the water, you pointed out to the Baby Jesus that the creek is one of nature’s beer coolers.

Colorado Gators Reptile Park started as a tilapia farm in 1977 when Erwin and Lynne Young bought 80 acres with a geothermal hot springs in the middle of it. In 1987, they purchased 100 1-year-old alligators to help clean up the mess the fish made. Like children, alligators grow if you feed them, and get cranky when you don’t.

They opened to the public in 1990 because Americans wanted to learn about deadly, cold-blooded reptiles that are not their ex-wife’s divorce lawyer. It now includes a bird sanctuary with up to 125 species, reptile rescue, education, and display, and a biodome.

The world’s only alligator handling classes started about a month ago and run all summer. You need to make reservations about a week in advance. Call 719-378-2612.

After you’ve wrestled alligators, dunked your derriere in the refreshing waters of Medano River, snowboarded down a sand dune and stood atop the UFO viewing tower with your thumb in the air trying to hitch a ride off the planet, you might want a little down time. Try the Hooper Pool. That’s what locals call it. It’s officially the Sand Dunes Pool.

It’s a large, outdoor pool filled with warm water from 4,400-feet down. It was a wildcat oil well that didn’t bring up any oil. It brought up hot water.

If you don’t see any aliens from the UFO viewing tower in Hooper, then stop in Crestone on your way back from the Sand Dunes, where people appear to be from another planet. The last time we were there, we met a guy who looked straight in the eye and told us his name was Strider. Crestone is surrounded by four or five 14ers, which sort of makes it a drive-thru window for alien spacecraft.

Crestone is also famous for this: In the mid 1970s, the U.S. military was not at all happy with its bombing skills. Military Intelligence (insert your own joke here) decided that they’d practice on Crestone, since no one lived there.

Well, CBS sent a news crew out there to interview all the gentle souls who called Crestone home. The military decided to practice bombing somewhere else.

Gateway Auto Museum, Gateway, Colorado

Along one of Colorado’s best driver’s roads, Scenic Byway 141, Discovery Channel owner John Hendricks built a car museum.

Hendricks also gave the world the Myth Busters.

This is why Hendricks is a Great American.

The Gateway Colorado Automobile Museum demonstrates once and forever why the sound of a well-tuned V-8 engine is the Great American Symphony. The museum tells the story of how the automobile impacted society and how without the automobile the Beach Boys would have had nothing to sing about.

The automobiles and displays cover a century of American automotive history, from the 1906 Cadillac Model H Coupe to the first special 2006 Chip Foose Mustang Stallion, and a historic NASCAR Chevrolet raced by driver Jimmie Johnson.

Walter Cronkite narrates your self-guided tour, and if you can’t trust Uncle Walt, “The Most Trusted Man in America,” then who can you trust?

You’ll see the $3.24 million 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 Concept Car. Turn around and there’s another one-of-kind car, the 1954 DeSoto Adventurer II by Ghia. Other rare vehicles include Cunningham, Duesenberg, Auburn and Cord.

If you’re a wonderful non-guy female-type person, and the guy you’re with starts to tear up a little looking at some of these cars, that’s just awesomeness leaking out.

“People experienced cars as magic machines that provoked dreams of adventure on the open road,” Hendricks said.

The Gateway Auto Museum is open everyday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Colorado National Monument

The Colorado National Monument is one of the grand landscapes of the American West. It’s one of those places that people who aren’t from the West think the West should look like.

Towering monoliths rise from the canyon panorama. You’ll roll through the sheer walls of red rock canyons as you twist along Rim Rock Drive. Take your time. In fact, take a hike.

The Colorado National Monument’s trails range from a quarter mile to more than 14 miles.

If you have the time, take Highway 82 south out of Glenwood Springs, around to Highway 133 out of Carbondale, over to 92 and head north out of Delta on Highway 50 to Grand Junction.

Make a quick stop at Toys For The Fun Of It in Grand Junction’s Main Street pedestrian plaza and buy some rubber-band guns. You’re gonna need them to shoot lizards on your hike. It won’t hurt the lizards.

The Colorado National Monument is in Fruita and it’s open year-round.


If you’re so self-absorbed that you don’t know where Moab is and what people do there, we refuse to help you. If you don’t feel like riding a bicycle, then lounge on a desert rock in the sun until you shed your skin like a reptile.

If you feel like a stroll, stroll out to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. It’s easy and worth every step. You’ve seen Delicate Arch. It’s on the Utah license plates.

The arch used to be known as “the Chaps” and “the Schoolmarm’s Bloomers” by local cowboys, or so we’re told.

Million Dollar Highway

Here’s where we start taking literary and automotive license with our one-tank rule.

The Million Dollar Highway is south out of Ouray, where you’ll want to stop for a soak in one of the area’s funky hot springs. Get yourself a Beef Wellington at the Bon Ton restaurant in Ouray.

Most of U.S. 550 in Colorado is two-lane mountainous highway. It is one of only two north–south U.S. highways in Colorado that runs west of the Continental Divide. The other route is U.S. 491.

North of Durango, the highway passes by Trimble Springs, hot springs that have been open for visitors since the late 19th century.

Last Dollar Road

The normal way to get from Telluride to Ridgway is a semi-circular route on highways 62 and 145.

Don’t be normal.

Take the Last Dollar Road.

The hidden dirt road running through historic ranching country offers breathtaking views. You’ll have a clear look at Wilson Peak, familiar to anyone who’s ever examined the label on a Coors bottle.

You’ll also see the historic ranch from the original “True Grit” western starring John Wayne. As an American, you are required to wave an imaginary six-shooter at an imaginary Lucky Ned Pepper and shout the immortal John Wayne words, “Fill your hand, you son of a (persons of questionable lineage)!”

Then go down to Ridgway and have a beer. That’s what The Duke did.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison, South and North Rim drives

These roads take you along the edge of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, one of the most spectacular sights in our great state.

It’s possible to do them both in one day, but it’d be a waste of a day. It’s too far and there’s too much to see.

Both roads offer plenty of places to pull over and lots of short trails that lead to fantastic views of the canyon. Stop as often as possible, but be sure to catch the Painted Wall on the South Rim drive.

Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age

If you insist on going to the Front Range, check out “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age” at the Denver Museum of Natural Science.

You’ll walk among saber-toothed cats and giant bears and see some of the oldest human artifacts in existence.

Life-size models, fossil tusks and skulls, touchable teeth, spear points, cave paintings, interactive displays and videos bring the Ice Age back to life.

You’ll see the story of the Snowmastadon Project, the exceptional Ice Age fossil site unearthed near Snowmass Village in 2010.

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