Pike National Forest
First thing in the morning, Faith and I drove to the north side of Pike’s Peak to the town of Woodland Park. Since this was our final full day, we wanted to do one more fairly challenging hike. We’d done some research the night before, and settled on the Lovell Gulch Trail in Pike National Forest, a ~5.5mi “lollipop” loop trail that climbs around 1,000′. Pike-San Isabel National Forest is a sprawling 2.2M acres, but is mostly wilderness area, and has very few hiking trails for its size.
According to multiple posted signs, a slightly disgruntled moose cow and calf had been frequenting the area. However, we saw no sign of them, and a local man we met told us the moose duo had moved on to greener pastures. While I have no desire to be charged by a temperamental ungulate, we were both secretly disappointed that we wouldn’t have a chance to see it.
Faith and I were both pleasantly surprised by the hike. It starts extremely close to a school and fire department, and initially passes several houses and farm, so we were wondering if it would turn out to be a walk through a neighborhood. However, the trail quickly winds into the backcountry and basically loses sight of all signs of civilization, save a few power lines and an stretch that parallels a very rough dirt road. For a couple miles, you follow a creek upstream, and then begin a moderately steep climb up the ridgeline. About three-quarters of the way around the loop, at the top of the ridge, we were greeted with excellent views to the south of Pike’s Peak, Ute Pass, and the surrounding mountains. Passing through forests, meadows, and boulder fields, the trail provides interesting views at every turn. We also saw a humongous ant hill.
The trail starts around 8,400′ elevation, and climbs to nearly 9,400′. Even though we’d been in the area for almost a full week, I started feeling the effects of altitude sickness (probably because I hadn’t eaten much breakfast), so we rested for a while near the top of the hill, and then began our descent back to the car.
Now very hungry, we drove back to the town of Woodland Park, and stopped at The Donut Mill (Ian’s recommendation) for a very late breakfast. This was another pleasant surprise; the donuts didn’t look exceptional, but were most excellent – very fresh and light traditional donuts. We got a maple iced, a cinnamon sugar, and four glazed donut holes.
It didn’t take long to realize that we were still hungry from the hike. Our cell coverage was also acting up, so we needed to find some WiFi to get ourselves reoriented. We decided to find a coffee shop (Faith knew the town had two) and solve both problems in one stop.
Our first stop was Cafe Leo, a modern establishment right down the street from The Donut Mill that serves homemade pop-tarts and various sandwiches. They were very crowded, and didn’t seem to have public WiFi, so we grabbed a patriotically-decorated mixed berry pop-tart, and walked around in an attempt to scout the other coffee shop’s location, splitting the delicious pop-tart along the way.
After determining it would be better to drive to the other coffee shop, we walked back to the car, and drove about half a mile up the road to The Coffee Cottage. It’s more of a traditional coffee shop, instead of a cafe. I got an iced dark chocolate mocha, Faith got an iced dirty chai latte, and we split a small raspberry crumble shortbread cookie. All the drinks and food were excellent, especially my mocha (which was far closer to coffee than chocolate). We sat at a table by their open back door, enjoyed the breeze, got caffeinated, and figured out our plans for the rest of the morning and early afternoon.
On our way back into town, we drove through Manitou Springs again, intending to find a parking spot and walk around for a while. However, downtown was a zoo, and there was no parking to be found. Instead, Faith took a video while we drove through downtown (see video near the end of this post), and we headed off to find somewhere less crowded.
Garden of the Gods
Well, so much for finding something with less people…we drove to Garden of the Gods, not realizing how popular it is in the early afternoon. We drove the one-way loop through the park, stopped to take a few pictures, and headed back to the house for some lunch, slightly delinquent because of the crazy traffic.
Originally called Red Rock Corral, the name changed to Garden of the Gods sometime in the 1800s. The story goes like this: when a surveyor suggested it would be a prime spot for a beer garden, his companion supposedly said, “Beer garden! Why, it is a fit place for the gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods.”
Scientists consider the parks to be one of the best contrasts of the plains and the mountains, both in geology and biodiversity. Paleontologists have unearthed several dinosaur fossils in the area, including a new species discovered in 1878. Mule deer, foxes, and bighorn sheep frequent the area, as well as over 130 species of birds.
There’s archaeological evidence of people visiting the garden as early as 1330 BC. The Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, Lakota, Pawnee, Shoshone, and Ute peoples all have connections to the area.
Lunch // Afternoon
For lunch, Ian smoked a pork loin with a spicy BBQ sauce, which was extremely tender and juicy. It was one of the best things we ate all week, and was a fantastic sendoff meal. After lunch, we packed up, visited for a while, said our goodbyes to Abby and the boys, and then prepared to hit the road to catch our eastbound flight home.
Denver International Airport
Ian, Faith, and I left for the airport around 15:30, so Ian would have plenty of time to get back before the twins’ bedtime. On the drive up the interstate, we could see the Air Force Academy, Castle Rock, and the sprawling metropolis of Denver from the car. I didn’t realize how massive the city of Denver is until driving through it.
We arrived at the airport, and had plenty of time to kill before our flight, which didn’t depart until 00:19MST. Checking in was a breeze (some of the easiest security I’ve experienced), so we took the train to our gate, and then started to search out some food. We wanted to try Denver Biscuit Company, but it was two terminals over, so we deemed it best to find something closer by.
About this time, we realized Faith had never tried Panda Express, so I of course felt obligated to introduce her to it. We got orange chicken, broccoli beef, some kind of limited edition shrimp dish, chow mein, friend rice, and a chicken egg roll. It was all outstanding, and a bittersweet reminder of how much I miss having a franchise nearby.
Conveniently, there’s also a Ben & Jerry’s right across from the Panda Express, so we got a couple cups of ice cream for dessert, hoping the sugar would keep us alert and awake for a while. I got strawberry cheesecake and Half Baked, and Faith got Half Baked and cookies and cream. We sat at a table with a nice view of the tarmac and watched the planes (primarily Icelandic Air) operate.
Once the sugar high wore off, we were ready to find a spot to settle down and take a nap before our red-eye. Thankfully, I read one of the ticker boards and noticed that our gate had changed (of course without an announcement or app alert), so we found a good spot with a power receptacle, and Faith snoozed while I stood guard over the luggage.
Our flight started boarding around 23:50MST, and took about 3 hours to get back to CLT, about 25 minutes before our scheduled 05:52EST arrival. Fortunately, we were able to sleep some on the flight home, but we still took another lengthy nap immediately after we got home.
Here’s a video of some of today’s adventures: