Ah the great American road trip, so much to see yet sooooo much time in the car. At this point in our Geowoodstock to TBEX expedition, we’d worked our way through fourteen states over the course of seventeen days. When you’re covering that kind of ground, there are days that are simply driving…and driving…and driving. Our exit from Custer State Park had us facing another one of those kind of days as we eased our way southward towards Colorado.
There are certainly a great many things to see and do between Rapid City and Denver-ish but you have to make choices right? You can’t do it all. We didn’t need to be in Keystone for TBEX for a few more days but, because we also like to be able to settle into camp for a few days at a time, that meant only one more stop to explore before the TBEX festivities got underway.
As Queen Bee of Camp Granola, I made the executive decision to have that stop be Estes Park, CO. I hadn’t been there since 1996 during the Get-The-Hell-Out-of-Atlanta-for-the-Olympics trip with my buddy Jay. I remembered liking it and thought, hey why not take the boys and see what kind of fun we could get into.
I knew we would be able to get there and get camp pitched at a decent time if we pushed a little bit hard on the drive, so off we went. Of course, we couldn’t take a direct route since we still needed a Nebraska cache under the No-State-Left-Behind policy. So we picked up a quickie in Nebraska and bonus Wyoming just for good measure. ‘Cause that’s how we roll here at Camp Granola…
Colorado on fire…
With caches behind us we made a beeline for Estes Park. Keep in mind it was June. And if you’ll recall, much of Colorado was on fire in June.
We happened to cross into the Centennial State just as the first fires were starting west of Fort Collins. As we approached Colorado from Wyoming, we could see a bizarre looking cloud in the distance. The fires had just started that day and we’d not heard the news at that point. At first you think how odd it is. But as you get closer, it start to come out of your driving stupor and it begins to sink in… that isn’t a cloud. You heart sinks knowing what it means, especially given the enormity of the smoke.
Sure enough, the closer we got, the more dishearteningly huge the fire and smoke became. We began scanning the news to figure out the situation and if we needed to change our plans. Turns out for the time being Estes Park was fine and we wouldn’t have trouble skirting the inferno to get there.
In search of camp…
Since we only made plans to head to Estes Park that morning, we obviously hadn’t made camping arrangements. I was in wing-it mode and decided to give the Camp Finder app a try in guiding us to our next site. Hoping for laundry facilities, a common theme on this trip, we headed through Estes Park to a campground just outside the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
It was getting towards evening and we needed to get serious about camp setup so imagine my dismay at not being able to find the campground. I kept thinking I was just missing a turn but sure enough, there was now a luxury resort where the campground used to be. At that point it came down to the bare-bones camping just inside the entrance to the park or back into the heart of Estes Park for some KOA action.
I didn’t have much time to make the judgement call and sadly, for whatever reason and state-of-mind I was in at the time, I opted for the KOA. I think you can probably tell I regret that decision.
Trust your instincts…
One of the things I struggle with in general in life is trusting my instincts. My tendency is to think a decision into oblivion with reason, weighing of factors, etc. Yeah, sometimes you really should trust your gut and show your Myers-Briggs label who’s boss.
Here’s the thing… my inclination for Plan B was National Park camping, especially since it was only going to be a few days without electricity and showers. But I went against my better judgement and dislike of previous KOA experiences and thought I’d just give it a shot. So many people seem to be happy with KOA, I thought I just needed to get over my camping-snob self.
What I really should have realized was that, while KOA works quite well for a lot of folks, it simply doesn’t work for me. In general KOAs embody a different kind of camping culture than suits my personality. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, just not my style.
In the case of this particular campground, the proprietors were perfectly nice and helpful; actually quite wonderful. And the shower and laundry were just fine but no more or less so than state-run park facilities. I do take issue with the high nightly rate to have no access to electricity at the site which you typically can get at state parks. There was access at the main building but it was far too cold and windy to sit on the patio with the pooch and get work done.
Plus the sites were simply uncomfortable and dirty. Yes, camping is inherently dirty but I’m talking D-I-R-T-Y. The ground was a hard-packed pit that was tough to pound stakes in. Even your basic state park sites will have gravel tent pads and enough vegetation to keep the dust and grime from infiltrating every nook and cranny of your gear. In my book, we got to pay twice the price for a whole lot of nothing.
Throw in that it was downwind of a riding stable and you have a recipe for an early exit. Just not fun…and this is coming from someone who grew up riding horses and cleaning stalls. Definitely not the fresh air one typically expects when they head out camping to say the least.
Here’s a quarter, buy a clue…
I was also astounded that with a raging wildfire just over the ridge, campfires weren’t discouraged or banned by KOA. We certainly did not take part in a campfire considering the situation. And aside from the quite-evident tinderbox conditions, you would think out of solidarity for their neighbors losing their homes and businesses a ridge-top away, that they would want to avoid adding to the problem. And indeed, it wasn’t long after our visit that Estes Park found itself fighting their own wildfires.
Exploring Estes Park…
Anyway, aside from the camping arrangements, exploring Estes Park was easy and relaxing. I remembered Estes Park as a groovy town that embraces it’s Colorado roots in that it’s filled with trees and parks and the waterways are incorporated as attractions instead of engineering hassles. Indeed that was still the case.
Like many places, Estes Park has a large tourism skew which means lots of shops and restaurants to peruse. Even with large summer crowds we found it very navigable. Along with some other exploring, like a quick look at the famous Stanley Hotel, we meandered about town just soaking up how inviting a place can be when nature is not considered a four-letter word. The local outdoor clothing shop even allowed the pup inside so you know that’s earns all sorts of Camp Granola approval. Of course we couldn’t pass up testing out at least one of the many candy stores in town… 🙂
And poor Dobby, having been on-leash constantly for three weeks at this point needed some freedom. Fortunately Estes Park had a great little dog park to help us relieve his tethered woes. Of course, being the hound he is, he sniffed for the first thirty minutes before he took to running, playing, and fetching.
Over the divide…
Having decided to cut our Estes Park time short out of pure discomfort, we took the scenic route through Rocky Mountain National Park in order to work our way towards Keystone, our next scheduled stop.
On to TBEX…
An early exit from Estes Park just meant we got a couple of extra days to explore Keystone before TBEX got underway… but that’s a story for next time.