Road Trips and Destinations

Camping Road Trip through the Colorado Heartland


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View from Devil's Playground on Pikes Peak looking at the winding Pikes Peak Highway with scenic view of Colorado behind

Our camping road trip through the Colorado Heartland is a single, 300-mile loop that begins and ends in Colorado Springs, There are few places in the world where you will see vistas as dramatic as you will find here. From the wide, open freedom of the Great Plains to the shadows of the majestic Rockies, and with the mighty Arkansas River raging in the background, you will find no end to the natural beauty spread here before you.

On this road trip, you will definitely do more than just see the sights. The Colorado Heartland is considered to be one of the playgrounds of the Rockies. The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, for instance, is one of the most popular whitewater rafting destinations in the world. The Heartland, additionally, is a prime location for outdoor activities such as brown trout fishing, hiking, OHV riding, biking and, of course, mountain climbing. The area is also rich in history as one of the centers of the gold rush beginning in the mid-1800s, a development largely shaped by the laying of railroads across the Arkansas River Valley.

The area covered by this camping road trip may not take you that far, but it's still a journey that will give you a lifetime of memories. So pack your RV or car, head on to Colorado Springs and begin your extraordinary adventure through the Colorado Heartland.

When to Go

You can visit Colorado Springs and its surrounding areas any time of the year. Every season has its own advantages. For the activities on this itinerary, though, we suggest any time from Spring to Fall. The best months are May, June, September and October. The temperatures during these months are nice and mild, ranging from the low 50s to the mid 70s F. There's also less tourist crowds during these months. The crowds arrive in droves in the Summer, and more come in the Winter for the skiing.

How to Get There

Our itinerary begins and ends at Colorado Springs, CO. To drive there, you can either take Interstate 25 or US Route 24. I-25 runs through Colorado Springs north to south, while US 24 passes east to northeast. If you intend to fly there, there are flights that stop directly at the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport.

How Long Should the Trip Be?

This itinerary will take you to the must-see places in the Colorado Heartland in five or six days. But if you have time to travel at a more leisurely pace, one or two weeks would be ideal.

What to See and Do

Colorado Heartland is the playground of the Rockies. If you're a hiking or biking enthusiast, there's no end to the trails you can pick and backcountry areas to explore here. You can also go horseback riding or drive OHVs, go swimming and relax on picnics. There are museums and historic sites to visit, such as Cripple Creek and Victor Railroad. Military buff? The US Air Force Academy is a stop on the route. If you want to travel back to prehistoric times, there's the Manitou Cliff Dwellings and the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. If you're an angler, the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area is a great place to fish for brown trout. And the Arkansas River is one of the best whitewater rafting destinations in the world.

Itinerary: Five or Six Day Visit - Colorado Springs to Cañon City: About 300 miles

Day One - Colorado Springs: About 50 Miles

Spend the first day of your road trip entirely in the Colorado Springs area.

  1. Head north out on I-25 to visit the US Air Force Academy, the training ground for future officers of the US Air Force. The Air Force Academy is one of Colorado Springs' more popular tourist attractions, drawing some one million tourists every year. Aside from the many overlooks in the Academy, the places to see here are:
    1. The Barry Goldwater Air Force Academy Visitor Center - Named in honor of former Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, the Visitor Center contains various exhibits on Air Force history, a gift shop and a snack bar. It is also home to a 250-seat theater where you can watch a 14-minute video on the Air Force Academy experience and the four pillars of the Academy.
    2. The Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel - The Cadet Chapel is an architectural marvel - a structure of steel, glass and aluminum with 17 spires rising to the heavens. The Chapel serves all faiths, with five separate sections for Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim faiths. You can reach the Chapel via a short nature trail from the Visitor Center.
    3. The Honor Court - From the Chapel, you can walk to the Honor Court. The Court is home to aircraft memorials and bronze statues related to Air Force history. At noon on Mondays and Fridays when the weather is good, you can observe the cadets on their noon meal formation from the Court.
    Spend at least two hours exploring the Academy.
  2. Return to the I-25, head south to Exit 148 and stop by the ProRodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy. The Hall inducts and honors people who have made a significant contribution to rodeo. It also features indoor and outdoor exhibits meant to educate the public on rodeo, its colorful history and its place in American culture. Take at least an hour and a half to view these exhibits.
  3. Head back to Colorado Springs on the I-25 and drive towards South Cheyenne Canyon, where you will find the Seven Falls. The Seven Falls is a series of seven cascading waterfalls flowing 181 feet from atop a granite cliff. You can view the falls in two ways. One is by climbing 224-step stairway built beside the falls and watching them from the top. The other is by taking the elevator up to the Eagle's Nest platform. The approach to the falls is fondly called "The Grandest Mile of Scenery" in Colorado because of the spectacular views along the canyon.

    Other points of interest in this area are:
    1. The Pillars of Hercules - a pair of pink granite towers rising 900 feet above the canyon floor and are only 41 feet apart. These rock formations are located on the Grandest Mile approach.
    2. Inspiration Point - an overlook near the top of Seven Falls where you can enjoy spectacular views of Colorado Springs and the Great Plains beyond. Inspiration Point is accessible through a winding one-mile trail from the top of the 224-step stairway beside Seven Falls. The overlook is also the location of the gravesite of Helen Hunt Jackson, a 19th-century poet and activist who wrote about the mistreatment of Native Americans in the hands of the federal government at the time.
    3. Midnight Falls Trail - a short trail also accessible from the top of the stairway beside Seven Falls. This trail will take you to Midnight Falls, a small and secluded waterfall located near the headwaters of South Cheyenne Creek. Midnight Falls may not be as dramatic as the Seven Falls, but it's still an enchanting sight to behold.
    You should take at least an hour and a half at Seven Falls; longer if you're going to hike the Inspiration Point and the Midnight Falls trails. The Seven Falls is a private park and charges admission fees.
  4. From Seven Falls on South Cheyenne Canyon, make your way 8 miles north to the Garden of the Gods located off US 24. The Garden of the Gods is a designated National Natural Landmark. It is also the most popular public park in Colorado Springs, attracting around two million visitors annually. The Garden of the Gods is known for its breathtaking red rock formations that make a striking contrast against the snowy caps of Pikes Peak. The park has a collection of exhibits at the Visitor Center, a number of nature programs, 15 miles of trails, and pictographs from the ancient Ute people. It is also a favorite destination among rock climbers and photographers. Spend at least an hour here.
  5. Spend the night at a Colorado Springs campground or RV Park.

Day Two - Colorado Springs to Mueller State Park: About 70 Miles

  1. From Colorado Springs, drive northwest on the US 24 to Manitou Springs. At Manitou Springs, check out the Manitou Cliff Dwellings Museum. The main features of this museum are the relocated dwellings of the Anasazi, made from stones taken from an ancient Anasazi site in the Four Corners area, shipped by railroad to the museum and assembled on-site. The museum also houses artifacts and exhibits depicting Anasazi and Native American culture. Take an hour for a self-guided tour of the museum.
  2. Also at Manitou Springs, a short drive west from Manitou Cliff Dwellings on the US 24, is the Cave of the Winds. Located in the western wall of Williams Canyon, Cave of the Winds is a limestone network of underground rooms and passages, some of which contain rare crystalline cave formations. The surveyed length of the caves to date is 2.04 miles, while the surveyed depth is 289 feet. There are two cave tours available here:
    1. The Discovery Tour - The Discovery Tour is an easy, mile-long, 45-minute walk that will take you through the most popular sections of the Cave, including the Bridal Chamber, the Majestic Hall, and the Temple of Silence. It is designed for families and newbie cavers.
    2. The Lantern Tour - The Lantern Tour will take you to the deeper and more rugged areas of the Cave known as the Manitou Grand Caverns. It is a difficult hour-and-a-half hike, and your only light source will be the lantern you're provided with. This tour is not recommended for children and for people with heart and respiratory conditions.
  3. From Cave of the Winds, drive westward on the US 24 and then on to the summit of Pikes Peak via the Pikes Peak Highway (toll road). Pikes Peak is one of the most visited of Colorado's Fourteeners, at first because of the late-19th century gold rush and the establishment of Manitou Springs as a spa town, and later on because of the marvelous views afforded from its summit. From the Summit House atop Pikes Peak, 14,115 feet above sea level, you can see Colorado Springs and the Garden of the Gods as well as the numerous reservoirs you'll pass by on the way to the top. There is an observation deck at Summit House, where you'll find the America the Beautiful monument, as well as interesting drop offs like The Crater and Abyss of Desolation.

    While reaching the summit of Pikes Peak is the prize of this 24-mile journey from Manitou Springs, the drive along Pikes Peak Highway is a treat in itself. The Highway winds through Pike National Forest and is lined with golden aspen trees that look glorious in the autumn months. There are pullouts here where you can park your vehicle, take pictures and drink in the scenery. Take at least an hour to drive to the summit and stop at these points:
    1. Crow Gulch Picnic Grounds - A popular place for picnics, Crowe Gulch has a couple of trails where you can find glimpses of the Pikes Peak summit as well as portions of the Highway. This is the first stop on the Highway with restrooms and non-potable water.
    2. Crystal Creek Reservoir - At Mile Marker 6, you'll find yourself on the east shore of Crystal Creek Reservoir, a serene spot that offers opportunities for great fishing and picture-taking. A short drive to the north will take you to the Crystal Creek Visitor Center where you can stop for a short walk on the nature trail.
    3. Mile Marker 7 - This is the starting point of the famous Race to the Clouds, the highest and one of the oldest auto races in the US. Race participants speed to the summit of Pikes Peak, navigating 156 turns and gaining an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet. The fastest time to date is just over ten minutes.
    4. Glen Cove Inn - Historic Glen Cove Inn was originally a cabin that was later converted as a way station for carriages making their way to the summit. You can stop here to use the restrooms or grab a bite. On the way down from the summit, you're required to stop here again so the Rangers can check on your brakes' temperature.
    5. The Devil's Playground - Located at Mile Marker 16, the Devil's Playground is so named because of the way lightning jumps from rock to rock during a storm. This is also where you will begin to see views of the south face of Pikes Peak.
    6. The Bottomless Abyss - This steep drop is found just past Mile Marker 17. At this stop, you will see not just the seemingly endless drop down but also some truly spectacular views straight out.
    7. Camera Point - Camera Point is best approached on the way down from the summit at Mile Marker 2. From here, you can see all the way east through Ute Pass.
  4. Drive 16 miles west on the US 24 and then head south on CO 67 for 4 miles to Mueller State Park. Sitting on the foothills of the Rockies, Mueller State Park is a hiker's dream. There are 55 miles of trails covering 5,000 acres that you can explore on foot, on horseback or on a mountain bike. The State Park is also a designated Watchable Wildlife Area, where you can easily spot elks, deer, songbirds, raptors, and even black bears and mountain lions. You can choose from some of the easier, family-friendly trails in Mueller SP or challenge yourself with some of the more difficult hikes.
  5. Spend the night at Mueller State Park or at a campground nearby.

Day Three - Mueller State Park to Buena Vista: About 90 Miles

  1. From Mueller State Park, get on the CO-67 and drive 15 miles south to Cripple Creek. The City of Cripple Creek is a Historic District and was once a booming gold mining town. Today, Cripple Creek is a center for arts and culture, and it has many attractions celebrating its gilded heritage. The must-see stops here are:
    1. Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad - From the Bennett Avenue depot, which dates back to 1894, you can ride a century-old locomotive and take a 45-minute tour of the historic mines of Cripple Creek. Not only will you learn a lot about the history and the mining heritage of Cripple Creek, but you will also enjoy some lovely scenery along the route.
    2. Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine Tour. A tour of the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine will take you 1,000 feet underground. Here, you will explore mine shafts, see gold veins in their natural state, and learn more about the evolution of mining in Cripple Creek. The tour takes an hour, and you get to bring home a gold ore sample at the end of it.
  2. Take Teller County Road 1 and drive northwest for 16 miles to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. This National Monument takes its name, Florissant, from the French word for "flowering". Florissant Fossil Beds is famous for having the richest and most diverse fossil samples in the world, deposited in shales and mudstones. The details on the fossils are astounding. The National Monument also features large petrified redwood stumps, with some stumps 14 feet in diameter. There are 14 miles of scenic hiking trails here. The most popular are:
    1. The Petrified Forest Walk - A gravel trail stretching one mile and passing by the petrified redwood stumps. The trail begins behind the Visitor Center, and it also features a geologic timeline exhibit and a historic excavation center.
    2. The Ponderosa Loop Trail - A half-mile trail through a modern ponderosa forest and the shortest hiking trail in the National Monument.
    You can also tour the Hornbek Homestead. The Homestead was once the home of Adeline Hornbek, who came to claim land in Colorado under the Homestead Act in 1870 and transformed the land she was granted into a successful ranch. Her story is significant today because she achieved success on her own, without a man to help her, despite traditional gender roles and having four children dependent on her. Her house is now a museum with exhibits on the homesteading and ranching history of the area.
  3. Drive 65 miles west on the US 24 over Trout Creek Pass to the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Overlook. It's quite a long drive from the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, but it's definitely worth it, as it will take you through some truly enchanting mountain views. Your destination, the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Overlook, is even more breathtaking, as there you will have an expansive view of the Fourteeners, the mountains making up the Collegiate Peaks. The Overlook is also a popular picnic area.
  4. Spend the night at a campground or RV park in Buena Vista.

Day Four or Day Four and Five - Buena Vista/Nathrop

The Buena Vista / Nathrop area is adventure central. There are just so many things you can do here. We suggest that you allot two days to make the most of your stop in this area. If you can only spare a day, just pick any activity you'd like to do from this list:

  1. Whitewater rafting and kayaking. The Buena Vista / Nathrop area lies on the bank of the Arkansas River, one of the most popular whitewater rafting and kayaking destinations in the world. Whether you're a whitewater novice or a rafting adrenaline junkie, you will enjoy floating on the Arkansas River; the river has calm and easy Class II sections, as well as swift and raging Class V sections. Among the whitewater outfitters and tour providers you can contact here are: You can spend half a day or an entire day on a whitewater rafting or kayaking adventure on Arkansas River.
  2. Hiking, biking and fishing - The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) is just a short drive on the US-285 from Buena Vista. You can take your whitewater adventure here, or you can explore the trails through the wilderness on foot, on a mountain bike or on an OHV. AHRA is also a great place to go fishing for rainbow or brown trout.
  3. Hot spring and spa treatments - Drive on County Road 162 to Nathrop and you'll find Mount Princeton Hot Springs. You can spend the day soaking in the hot springs or indulging in the spa treatments offered here.
  4. Climb up the trail to Agnes Vaille Falls - From Nathrop, drive west on County Road 162 to the trailhead across Chalk Lake Campground. Agnes Vaille is a short waterfall flowing from the shoulder of Mt. Princeton. The views of the waterfall are dramatic, and there are interpretive signs along the way.
  5. Visit St. Elmo - St. Elmo is the best preserved ghost town in Colorado. It was a bustling mining town with around 150 mining claims in the 1890s. It went into decline by the turn of the century and was abandoned when services to the town were discontinued, starting with the railroad in 1922. Today, St. Elmo is a fishing and ATV destination.

Whether you spend one day or two here, book your stay at a Buena Vista or Nathrop campground or RV Park.

Day Five or Day Six - Buena Vista/Nathrop to Cañon City: About 92 or 85 Miles

  1. Visit Salida. BudgetTravel.com once named Salida as one of the coolest small towns in the US. While the foothills of the Rockies are dotted with mining communities, many of them now ghost towns, Salida is more of a farming and ranching community. The Arkansas River runs right through the town, and you'll get fantastic views of the Fourteeners from here. Salida's streets are lined with authentic Victorian-style buildings worth capturing in photographs. Today, Salida is a historic district and an active center for arts and culture, with more than 20 studios and galleries and an annual Art Walk festival. Salida is 24 miles south of Buena Vista and 17 miles from Nathrop.
  2. Drive east on the US-50 to Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. The Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, a park run by the Cañon City government, is one of the most popular destinations of Central Colorado. Its main attraction is the Royal Gorge Bridge, one of the highest suspension bridges in the world. In fact, the bridge once reigned supreme as the highest suspension bridge from 1929 to 2003. At 955 feet from the Canyon floor, the bridge spans Royal Gorge, also known as the "Grand Canyon of Arkansas River" and one of the deepest canyons in Colorado.

    Aside from the bridge, the park also has a number of amusement rides, such as an aerial tramway that glides above the Arkansas River, a steep incline railway - one of the steepest in the world - that will take you to the canyon floor, and a free-fall tower called the Royal Rush Skycoaster. There are additionally horseback rides along scenic trails with optional dinner rides on a chuckwagon. This section of the Arkansas River is also a Class IV whitewater destination.

    Other must-see sights at the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park are:
    1. The Water Clock - A time-keeping device run by cascading water flowing from bucket to bucket. It is only one of three such clocks in the world.
    2. Point Sublime - One of the highest points in the park, where you will see awesome views of Royal Gorge, the Arkansas River, and the bridge.
    3. Wapiti Western Wildlife Park - Located at the south rim of the larger park. It features wildlife native to Colorado in their natural habitat, such as mountain elk, bighorn sheep, and white bison.
    At the time of writing the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park is closed due to a wildfire. The bridge is scheduled to be reopened later this year and the park in the Summer of 2014.
  3. Drive East on the US-50 to Cañon City. Cañon City is another mining town at the foot of the Rockies that survived decline and successfully transformed itself into a tourist city. However, the city is unique in that it houses nine state and federal prison facilities, as well as a winery. The main highlights of Cañon City:
    1. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad. Here you can ride a locomotive and take a 12-mile tour of what is considered to be the most fabulous section of the historic Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. On the train, you will travel down the Royal Gorge canyon floor. You can also enjoy gourmet lunches and dinners, and even a Murder Mystery show.
    2. Museum of Colorado Prisons. Formerly Colorado's Women's Correctional Facility, the museum now houses exhibits on the history of Colorado Corrections, as well as artifacts and photographs illustrating prison life in Colorado.
  4. Spend the night at a Cañon City campground or RV park, or alternatively, you can drive on back to Colorado Springs.

A camping road trip through the Colorado Heartland will not really take you far. But it is a journey that is certainly packed with sights to see and adventures to experience. It is truly a trip that will give you a lifetime of memories you won't easily forget.

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Photos

The US Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, an architectural marvel
The Cadet Chapel, an all-faith house of worship in the US Air Force Academy
Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy exhibits
American Cowboy played an important part in the history of America
Seven Falls and the 224-step stairway to the top
Seven Falls with the 224-step stairway *
Astounding rock formations in the Garden of the Gods, CO
Astounding rock formations in Garden of the Gods
Manitou Cliff Dwellings, buildings from stones recovered from ancient Anasazi sites
See how the Anasazi lived by exploring the Manitou Cliff Dwellings **
Cave of Winds, CO
Network of underground rooms and passages at Cave of the Winds
Tent camping Mueller State Park, CO
Tent camping in scenic Mueller State Park
Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad Steam train
Explore Cripple Creek mining country by steam train ***
Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine Tour in the mineshaft
Learn about gold mining on a Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine Tour ****
Petrified stump and the view beyond at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, CO
The Big Stump, a petrified redwood stump in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument *****
Hornbek Homestead at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Hornbek Homestead at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument *****
Mount Princeton, Colorado Rockies
Mount Princeton, one of the Colorado Fourteeners ******
Whitewater rafting, Arkansas River, CO
Experience the exhilaration of whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River
Arkansas river running through the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, CO
Do some fishing or kayaking in the
Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area *******
Agnes Vaille Falls, CO
Agnes Vaille Falls ******
Royal Gorge Bridge, CO
Royal Gorge Bridge, one of the highest suspension bridges in the world
* Photo courtesy of Tim Pearce, Flickr.com
** Photo courtesy of Kari, Flickr.com
*** Photo courtesy of VisitCrippleCreek.com
**** Photo courtesy of GoldMineTours.com
***** Photo courtesy of NPS.gov
****** Photo courtesy of ColoradoGuy.com
******* Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks & Wildlife
 

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