As shelter in place orders began to lift in May, our sights shifted to the US mainland. While we’ve seen much of the East and West coast, the Southwest was still uncharted territory for our family. We first weighed the option of an epic roadtrip hitting 4 states over 2 weeks. But being stuck in the van for what would have been collectively 4-5 days was not my wife’s cup of tea. Then, we flying with Denver International as our roundtrip hub point. This would have cut down 2 days of windshield time, but my better half still wasn’t having it.
It is at these moments when one needs to pause and weigh all the factors. Seeing the iconic national parks with its varied, beautiful landscapes is a wonderful thing. But if nearly 1/3 of your trip is spent viewing the world from a minivan, you miss out on many of the unique offerings that one awesome location can offer. So we paired back our plans to one week deciding to focus on a Colorado vacation that would be just as memorable. And we didn’t regret it one bit!
4 1/4 Days in the Beautiful Centennial State
Since we live in the Midwest, Colorado isn’t close but it’s doable. We stopped to rest in Omaha as driving through the night isn’t our thing. Our overnight pit stops are usually at standard chain hotels with rooms to accommodate the six of us. It was eerie to see how the physical distancing restrictions changed the feel of the hotel. In the middle of summer, a place like this is usually teeming with visitors throughout the day, but it looked like a ghost town since most people stayed in their rooms.
The stop placed us about 9 hours from our destination of Fraser, CO (about 45 minutes west of Denver). The first quarter of the state doesn’t match up to the rocky mountain persona you usually see in the brochures. While not entriely flat, it takes a good 2 plus hours before you start really seeing a change in the topography.
As we passed by the bustling city of Denver, the journey got interesting as the highway took us deep into the mountains. Now, we’ve experienced the twist and turns of mountain driving during our trips through Kentucky. Travelers need to mind the steep grades as well as give room to the semi trucks that regularly traverse this route. With that said, we were used to about 5-10 minutes of steep grade, downhill driving. Multiply that experience times 3 with almost equally as steep inclines and you start to imagine the difference driving in Colorado!
As hair raising as this journey can be for Midwesterners like us, the experience of seeing small waterfalls, picturesque valleys and an occasional mountain goat walking along the road is well worth the white knuckle drive.
Day 1/4 – Fraser, CO
We arrived to our AirBnB in Fraser around dinner time thankful to have a place to lay our heads for a few days and serve as home base for our Colorado vacation. In previous posts, I’ve mentioned the saving grace of AirBnB which offers more room options at a reasonable price for a large family. This spot was no exception.
We had four bedrooms with enough mattresses so that no one had to share. The living room and kitchen were modern as well as spacious giving us plenty of room to chill during downtown. Add the fact there was a shuffle board, dual basketball hoop game in the garage and hot tub in the backyard its surprising that we ever left the place! To top it all off, we were even greeted by a hummingbird within a minute of entering the house!
Day 1 – Rocky Mountain National Park
After gaining some needed rest, we drove 45 minutes northeast to take in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Due to current visitor restrictions, we had to purchase our ticket online at Recreation.gov to ensure we could gain entry in the afternoon. That meant a quick chat with the park rangers and perusing through the gift shop while we waited.
As we passed through the park entrance, it quickly becomes evident why so many millions visit every year. You pass meadows and lightly covered forests with multiple stops to take in the sights. As you head further inside, the scenery change is extraordinary showing how the flora and fauna changes the further up your go. There are plenty of lookout points along the way to stop and catch one breathtaking view after another.
Since it was a later entry into the park for us, we didn’t do the full 3 hour drive, but ventured far enough to get near the top. The striking thing about this is going from green fields at the bottom of the journey to rocky landscape with large patches of dense snow near the summit. We stopped at a visitor’s station where you could walk a few hundred steps to the point.
However, a nice ranger came over to give us a word of caution because a if freak storm comes through (which it has a tendency to do during this season) we could have become lightening rods! We heeded his advice deciding not to risk our lives this time around.
Day 2 – Breckenridge
For Day 2 of the Colorado vacation, we decided to visit the town of Breckenridge which was about 2 hours from our AirBnB. The town is world-famous for its ski resorts and other winter time activities. But the area also has plenty for families to do in the summer. We decided to experience the Alpine slide and roller coaster. These were the primary activities available as the resorts are slowly reopening to ensure visitor health and safety. This made for an hour long wait at the Alpine slide, but the thrilling ride down was worth the wait for all of us.
We ended our time in Breckenridge with a late lunch at a great Pho restaurant. Since it attracts people from all over, you will find all sorts of foods to enjoy. We also lucked out as our lunch spot was connected to an awesome churro dessert shop. I’ve never tasted churros this good before and has probably ruin me for trying them anywhere else in the future!
Day 3 & 4 – Ziplining & Hiking
The mark of a true Colorado vacation is taking advantage of the many ways to take calculated risks to your physical safety. We chose zip lining as our danger of choice. To be clear, I am not a fan of heights. But we’ve done this activity at a smaller scale in our local area so knew that its a relatively safe activity.
With that said, you quickly realize that a 30 minute zip-lining experience in a Midwestern forest is not the same as doing this for 2 1/2 hours up in the Rocky Mountains! We had great guides who not only made sure we didn’t fall out of our harnesses, but also provided educational insights as well as some bad dad jokes (which I’m well-known for so I picked up some new material).
On the last full day, we decided to do some hiking close to Fraser. Again, the great thing about a Colorado vacation is the seemingly limitless amount of trails to explore. We chose a moderate one that had us traversing across a small river, viewing snowcapped mountains in the distance and weaving through beautiful forests.
Making Memorable Moments on the Way Back Home
The beauty of a roadtrip versus air travel is that you have more freedom to adapt your schedule and take in more sights on the return journey. We decided to do just that by visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park which is 4 hours south of Fraser. Incorporating an additional 4 hour diversion into your trip back home isn’t usually advisable, but we weren’t in a rush and were planning to stop in Nebraska on our way back anyway.
The draw of the Great Sand Dunes is that the area seems so out of place. About 10 miles away, you can see these large hills of sand juxtaposed against a mountain background. The closer you get the more you come to realize just how unique this area truly is. Created due to sand deposited by mountain streams over thousands of years, the Great Sand Dunes feels like it takes to a whole new country. It was scorching hot while there so plan to bring plenty of water.
Budgeting for A Week-Long Colorado Vacation
Now, you didn’t think I would end this post without giving you the deets on the budget breakdown…did you?!?!
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As you can see, we went over our targeted daily expenses for this trip. The key culprits were lodging and excursions. For lodging, we went over plan due to accommodation selection. There were plenty of good options at or below the $250 per night rate, but the draw of having ample sleeping space for the kids, fun indoor activities and a hot tub caused us to splurge.
In regard to excursions, ziplining for a family of six isn’t cheap averaging near $100 per person with taxes and tip included. The alpine coaster and slide options will run you at least $30 per person making this an investment in fun as well. I’d also advise eating lunch or dinner outside the resort area. The options are currently limited due to Covid restrictions and costs for snacks are through the roof.
In total, while a Colorado vacation doesn’t have the same landscape, attractions or even language as Italy, it was a nice getaway during an unprecedented time. Make this a must visit in your future family travels plan during or post-pandemic!