Brian Canty gets a Rocky Mountain ride on the ultimate road trip with his father in Colorado — where the mountains are high along with the people.
Our Subaru Tribeca picks its way up the side of Independence Pass en route to Aspen. In places, the road is wide enough for a Subaru Tribeca and a bicycle.
To lighten the mood I estimate we’d have 1-2 minutes to argue whose idea this was before plunging to our certain deaths.
A bead of sweat runs from Dad’s brow to his chin. The tension is high. The wind picks up. The radio is turned down. Then off. He flexes his fingers which allows the cold air dry the sweat on the wheel.
“I’m not sure I can do this,” he concedes.
“Dad, you’re only doing 6k an hour. We have to make Aspen before it’s dark.”
We pull in to allow him breathe. It’s only then we realise the beauty of where we are.
“You gotta be careful on that descent into Aspen,” comes a southern voice as sweet as toffee.
“A man went over two years ago, hasn’t been seen since….prolly bears.”
Now two of us are bricking it. We’re over 12,000 feet on one of the highest paved roads in America. It’s only then do we inhale that scarcely believable and utterly breath-taking vista.
There are pictures everywhere, but this one trumps all.
Colorado and the outdoors. Boulder and bears. Burgers and beer. Mountains and rivers. Healthy, beautiful, tanned, happy people. All drinking coffee. Or exercising.
And why wouldn’t they be? There’s 300 days of sunshine every year and more national parks than any other state.
The place is a mecca for outdoorsy types and the allure of the region’s mountain-sports lifestyle is as much about attitude as altitude because given its location at 5,000 feet above sea level you could say fitness is very much in the air.
In fact, just by sucking in the oxygen-deprived air, residents are getting a training benefit, whatever level they’re at. Yes, we’re getting fitter just by breathing, so it’s not a stretch to say this part of the world is often viewed as a kind of enormous open-air, free gym.
Colorado boasts the highest percentage of adults (62%) who participate regularly in moderate to vigorous physical activity, the lowest percentage of obese residents of any US state (20%).
National averages range from 28% to 25%), the highest percentage of citizens with a healthy body weight (51%) and according to the National Weight Control Registry, it’s also been found Coloradans take close to 2,000 more steps more per year on average than “those comparable in other locales”.
Our 10-day trip was all too squeezed but that was always likely to be the case in a state sized at over a quarter of a million kilometres squared (Ireland is 84,000).
Still, Denver, Boulder, Aspen and Rocky Mountain National Park is possible to do and to be honest, they’re all absolute must-see places for a first-time visitor. None is better than the next, all are very different.
Denver is probably where you’ll land and definitely where you should base yourself for a few days. It’s a city of 635,000 people and is a laid-back, low-cost-of-living, well-spaced, green city.
Yes, green. There are 6,000 acres of parkland and over 100 miles or walking or running trails which lends itself to the active lifestyle that defines this city and state.
Cycling in Denver is almost a religion and true to its reputation as a fitness hotbed, it was the first US city to launch an extensive bike-sharing programme in 2010, called B-Cycle.
And there are 700 of these funky looking red machines docked at 84 stations so there’s really no escaping them ($8 a day).
My advice is to pedal the Cherry Creek or South Platte River cycle paths or if you’re around on a Wednesday, why not join the hundreds of costumed riders on pimped-up rides and take over the streets for the weekly Denver Cruiser Ride, a roving two-wheeled procession of their passion.
To fuel you for the ride, the best place in town is the eatery, Snooze. Quite simply, it is out of this world and the selection of foods is truly mouth-watering. But if you want some good advice, try the sweet potato pancakes with homemade caramel, pecans, and ginger butter.
The place will be busy but you’ll need all that time in the queue to make up your mind about what to have.
The Snooze breakfast burrito (Burrito filled with scrambled eggs, hash browns, house black beans, cheddar & jack cheese, topped with pico de gallo and choice of green chili or ranchero) is another favourite.
(One guy, no names, asked for a full Irish and staff were so intrigued they offered to fetch the ingredients and cook it up if he wanted it that badly. He didn’t).
To work off those thousand or so calories walk the city and check out the museum of contemporary art and the Tattered Cover book store. The latter claims to be the best in the US…but there’s quite a few statements like that made here.
Denverites love their music and their craft beer and there’s no shortage of either. Here we go again: Denver brews more beer than any other American city, and tickets to the annual Great American Beer Festival held at the Convention Centre in October sell out within minutes of going on sale.
When you sober up, head north to Boulder. This is a much smaller (100,000 people), more compact town 40 minutes by car, or you could also cycle up.
Again, they’re bike obsessives, so much so, we even spotted a letting agent, Pedal to Properties that lets you cycle to see homes for sale. Here, one out of 10 workers commute on two wheels – 17 times the national average.
This university town is absolute bliss – but a fair ol’ contradiction. You’ll see the next Olympic triathlete pounding the pavements and a bunch of students enjoying a spliff on the perfectly manicured lawns of the college.
Weed is legal but every item of food here seems to be either natural, organic, gluten-free, free-range, additive free or in some cases, all of the above.
Bizarrely, or not, you’ll find ads for cannabis yoga, pot reading groups, arts clubs and other social activities meant to help take some of the stigma out of smoking and make it more communal.
Edible products are becoming popular too, with treats from chocolates to cocktails. We didn’t indulge, but we did gorge on nibbles from its world-famous farmer’s market.
Think raw foods, power-packed protein lunches and cold juices…hell, at 30 degrees, these are a Godsend.
Don’t come home without a) summiting Flagstaff Mountain in Chautauqua Park but beware, it rises to over 2,000 metres and will take you a good part of the day. So load up on espressos and bring plenty water; b) be amazed by the zip code guy on Pearl Street Mall who seems to know more about you than you do yourself and c) treating yourself to a good nosh in the aforementioned market and wash it down with a bourbon from the West End tavern.
All the eating and drinking might, just might, make you a little guilty so if that’s the case, head up a little further north (one hour by car) to Rocky Mountain National Park.
The best way to ‘do it’ is to drive through, stopping as you please, though there are plenty of tour operators in and around the gateway town of Estes Park to show you around.
For those of a nervous disposition when it comes to heights, I’d advise this because you’re going to be going up over Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in the country. Beware; there are sheer drops for hundreds of metres in parts.
If you’re keen for more altitude, bring the hiking boots and head for Long’s Peak, one of the aforementioned 14ers, and arguably the best in terms of views afforded at the top. You might want to bring some pepper spray – or at least keep a close eye on anything resembling bears in this area.
The whistle-stop trip concluded in Aspen and this, folks, is like no other place on earth to my mind.
An example: Get the cable car from the centre of town to the top of Snowmass Mountain. Look west. See the airstrip?
With the private jets lined up on one side and the fancy cars on the others? Now you get an idea of the kind of people who frequent this gorgeous little hideout.
The rich and the famous party here. The Ivy Leaguers holiday here. Many of the monstrous pads here fetch €20,000,000.
In fact, you’ll find it hard to find a 3-bed semi-d’. A landscape gardener can make his living cutting lawns for a handful of people. We know because we met one from Ballina.
It’s a town the size of Ballincollig but you won’t find a Hyundai Accent or a Punto in a million years.
It used to be a sleepy mining town, now it’s a centre of excess, extravagance and indulgence. It’s Porsches and Mazerattis here now y’all.
But it’s got a warm, inviting feel to it — the man who rented us motorbikes for a day gave us a discount because we were Irish and he got married in Blarney a month previously.
Here, there are many fine eateries but the only place for us was Finbarr’s ( www.finbarrspub.com ) on Hyman Avenue. Ask for Denis.
He’s a West Cork man and if you happened to know his late uncle you might get a free beer, or six.
It’s a small world after all.
Dublin to Denver with Aer Lingus and JetBlue Airways, return in the summer, for €1,000 (PP).
Flight time each way is 15 hours.
Where to stay:
The Ramada Inn Downtown Denver (East Colfax Avenue) is $75 a night per person sharing, but there are some superb deals on Airbnb, also.
What to do:
The choices of physical activity are myriad, but a good place to start would be any one of the state’s 14ers (53 peaks over 14,000 feet).
In winter, check out any of the 25 ski areas that attract 10m visitors every year. Drive the Independence Pass to Aspen (but be careful, because it’s closed from November to May), or watch a show or a conference at Red Rocks outdoor amphitheatre, 10 minutes from Denver.
Where to eat and drink:
In Denver, eat breakfast at Snooze, on North Colorado Boulevard, and dinner at Pinche Tacos, which loosely translates to “Fucking Tacos.”
Prepare to have your lips tingled and tongue reddened. Also, try Sunnyside Burger Bar, on Lipan Street. Drink at Blake Street Tavern (18,000 square foot sports bar!) or the Cheers Bar.
Both are top-drawer. In Boulder, eat at Foolish Craig’s café and drink at the West End Tavern. Both are located on the pedestrians-only Pearl Street.
Since we gave the boys the sports-mad Blake Street Tavern, we’ve gotta recommend Cherry Creek Mall and 16th Street Mall, in Denver, for the ladies, while in Boulder, just walk down Pearl Street, where there’s 200 or so amazing shops on one strip.
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