It seems to be a consistent trend for Floridian rock climbers to feel a tug on their heart towards Colorado after a considerable amount of time spent sweating under the Southeastern sun with no real rocks in sight. As I finished up my final semesters at FSU, I often attended farewell parties or got together with close friends one last time at a coffee shop as they prepared to make the move out west, and I watched as the rock climbing community endured periods of silence before the start of a new semester brought in new faces.
I too have felt a burning desire to travel west ever since my first road trip to Utah in 2016, but Colorado has never been high on my list of places to check out. That all changed after John and I spent a week in the state as a pitstop during our move out to Wyoming for work. I had only visited Colorado one other time up until then, so having the opportunity to explore The Centennial State for an extended amount of time was long overdue.
Today I want to share some of the places we visited in Colorado during May and June. After immersing myself in the state – especially the city of Boulder – I understand why so many of my friends from the Tallahassee climbing community have relocated their lives out there. Since Saratoga, Wyoming is only a short drive away, John and I have already made a few trips to visit friends during June, and I can see several more outings to Colorado looming over the horizon.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Our decision to stop at the Great Sand Dunes National Park was incredibly last minute; we were able to get on the road earlier than we anticipated and realized we would have plenty of time to camp at the park before we needed to be in Boulder for John’s Single Pitch Instructor course.
Driving into the Great Sand Dunes National Park is such a surreal experience, mainly because the environment was unlike anything I had ever seen before. A magnificent snow-capped mountain range rose in the distance, and as we got closer and closer the towering sand dunes started to appear. The dunes shimmered and sparkled in the sunlight, and had the appearance of silk from so far away.
We entered the park in the afternoon and stumbled into the Visitor Center, our legs wobbly from so many hours spent sitting in the van. My friend Julianne had backpacked in the park several days earlier and had raved about her adventure to me over the phone, so I was ecstatic to spend the night sleeping out on the sand dunes. The park ranger handed over a map and an informational booklet detailing the unique experience of camping on sand dunes, and after receiving our free backpacking permit we packed up our camping supplies and parked the van.
Great Sand Dunes is slightly different from most National Parks because there are no designated campsites on the dunefield provided that you’re at least out of the day use area, which means at least a 1.5 mile hike over the dunes. There are also no established trails on the dunes because the wind would erase any marker over time, so John and I were truly able to explore the 30 square mile dunefield however we pleased. The hike up and over the dunes within the day use area was no small task; every step we took in the deep sand resulted in us sinking into the earth, and on the especially steep portions it took a tremendous amount of effort to put one foot in front of the other. After what felt like a lifetime we were able to summit the tall dune that marked the end of the day use area.
It’s hard to comprehend exactly how large 30 square miles is, but as soon as we crested that dune we were hit with a tremendous view of the park that put the immense scale of everything into perspective. Sand dunes rose and fell as far as the eye could see, and the snowy mountains that had looked so close from the road were suddenly unreachable. Aside from a tent pitched below us and one small speck of a hiker to our left, we were completely alone. The most striking part about the Great Sand Dunes National Park was the silence. As John and I sat atop the dune at the edge of the day use area to rest and soak up the view, the only sound was the occasional whistle of the wind.
As we started our descent deeper into the dunefield we were watchful for a prospective campsite. One relatively flat spot in particular caught our eyes, and we started sliding down the sand towards it. Peeling off our sweaty backpacks and putting them down for the night was such a relief, and after we set up camp we set off the explore our surroundings. Pitching my tent took a little longer than usual since the park rangers recommended not using stakes due to the soft ground and instead filling stuff sacks with sand to weigh down each corner.
When we were satisfied with the state of our campsite we wandered around in the sand. I was expecting such a desolate environment to be devoid of life, but to my surprise tiny buds and plants sprouted up from the sand on a particularly deep spot a short walk from our tent. Before long hunger drove us back to camp, and we ate dinner while the sun set over the horizon.
The intense silence of the sand dunes was disrupted during the night, and I often woke up to the sound of distant howling and the wind rustling the fabric of the tent. In the morning I peeked out from the nylon and saw teeny tiny paw prints surrounding our campsite, left by some creatures that came out at night and bravely investigated the bright orange intrusion to their home.
The hike back to the van was effortless compared to the uphill battle that went on the previous day, and before long we were back at the tree lined parking lot and surrounded by the noise of civilization. We had to say goodbye to the sand dunes a little too quickly in order to make it to Boulder in time for John to prepare for his course, but the sand that remained lodged in my boots and nestled deep in my sleeping bag serve as a reminder that deep in Colorado lies a quiet spot with slowly blooming plants and creatures that scurry around late at night.
Before John and I spent any time in Boulder we had already made up our minds about the city.
“It’s way too crowded and congested.”
“There isn’t a strong sense of community due to the overwhelming number of outdoorsy people.”
“The traffic isn’t worth it.”
The stories we had heard from friends and the preconceived notions we had regarding “big cities” combined to create very low expectations for Boulder. After only a few hours in the city, however, I quickly realized how misled I was, and by the end of our trip I was enamored with Boulder. John and I were lucky enough to have several close friends who graciously welcomed us into their home during our time in the city – which was for the best too, because the nights spent sleeping in the van at a Walmart parking lot were starting to lose their appeal.
As soon as we arrived in Boulder after our night at the sand dunes we met up with our friends at Flagstaff, a popular bouldering spot only 20 minutes away from their house. We climbed with our hosts, Thao, Brandon, and Alberto, as well as some other friends from Tallahassee who were visiting at the same time as us. The fact that we were able to park our van only 20 minutes from the city and stand in front of a boulder after a short hike was unreal, but for people who live in Boulder it’s just a fact of life.
With so many world class outdoor climbing spots nearby it seems unlikely that anyone in the city would even use an indoor rock climbing facility, yet the gyms in Boulder were state of the art and crowded almost every night of the week. John and I happened to go to The Spot Bouldering Gym during their promotional free climbing night, which meant there was free pizza and beer, a raffle, and so many people that it was hard to move at times. The grungy bouldering gym was extremely reminiscent of the Tallahassee Rock Gym with it’s hand-built walls and mismatched holds, and despite the overwhelming number of people I could tell that there was a strong sense of community at the gym.
Easy access to outdoor climbing and the plethora of indoor rock gyms make Boulder a great place to be if you’re an avid climber, but what really caught my attention and made me psyched about the city were the pristine bike trails that utilized the natural spaces in Boulder. While we were staying with our friends we rarely used the van because it was so convenient to bike wherever we needed to go. The cycling trails are usually extremely separated from the road and provide a safe place for people who want to bike or walk, and they often follow rivers and creeks or weave through fields of flowers and trees. After I was reunited with my dog in Colorado, we went on a walk along a bike path that was surrounded by dandelions and watched the sunset, and that was easily one of my favorite moments in the city.
Only an hour outside of Boulder lies Nederland, a small town with less than 1,500 people that is home to the annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival (I highly suggest looking that one up). John and I went out to Nederland with our friend Jon, an old member of TRG, for some snowshoeing. I had never spent much time in the snow aside from a few ski trips with my family when I was younger, so it was a blast to romp around with snowshoes and explore the frozen forest.
When we returned to Boulder after our snowy adventures we were absolutely exhausted, but instead of giving into sleep John and I went out to watch a show at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. I was a huge concert junkie growing up, so seeing a performance at Red Rocks has been a dream of mine for as long as I could remember. I would have been content seeing any band play at such an iconic venue, but we were lucky enough to see Vulfpeck, one of my favorite bands. As the opening acts went on it started to snow, but by the end of the night I was sweating from dancing and singing so much.
In June John and I returned to Boulder during our time off from the ranch, and since summer was around the corner and the snowy days were long gone we decided to climb at Eldorado Canyon State Park. Our plan was to go up a multi-pitch climb on the Wind Tower, and if the weather permitted we would climb more with our friend Thao after we came down. As John started up the second pitch I saw a female climber approach the belay ledge from the corner of my eye, and was pleasantly surprised to discover my friend Mary, another old member of TRG, climbing my way. We chatted at the belay and I quickly learned that John was going up Recon instead of Reggae like I had originally thought. When I made my way up to John at the top of the second pitch we thought we were lost on the tower, but when we eventually summited and saw Mary and her partner follow behind us we realized we were going the right way after all.
Climbing in Eldorado Canyon State Park was so much fun because it truly felt like adventure climbing; we thought we were lost, we were reunited with an old friend, and we had to do some ridge-line scrambling in order to find the rappel station and get down. The roar of the river hundreds of feet below us and the rush of the wind as a storm blew in drowned out any of the doubt or fear that crept into my mind during the climb, and instead all I could focus on was the incredibly fun movement and the thrill of working my way up a mountain. We weren’t able to climb anything else after we summited the Wind Tower, partly because of the approaching weather and partly because we were exhausted from all of the wandering around we did at the top as we searched for a way down, but I am beyond excited to return to Eldo and climb more in the future.
Our last adventure in Boulder before we returned to the ranch was a hike though Chautauqua Park, or the Flatirons as they are more commonly known. I had heard stories from my friends about free soloing the second Flatiron, but after some soul searching I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t enjoy the hike, so I opted not to do it. That being said, I had a ton of fun walking around the park with Thao and John while taking pictures with my camera. Tall purple flowers were blooming all around us and we even stumbled upon a garden off to the side of the trail.
Being outside in such a beautiful park with the people that I love made me feel an intense kinship with the city of Boulder. I had slowly fallen in love with the way the hustle and bustle of the city contrasted with the serenity of the natural spaces; it seemed so easy to balance urbanity with a love for the outdoors in a city that is so environmentally conscious. Looking back, the fact that we were able to stay with our close friends and explore Colorado with locals made it all the more special. Experiencing Boulder this way allowed us to truly get a glimpse of what life would be like if we lived there, and suddenly a city that we could never imagine living in became an option for life after Wyoming.
I’m not sure what life has in store for me four months from now, but I now know that if I even need a place to stay that feels like home I can count on Boulder being there for me.
Where to Eat
The best part about visiting Colorado (especially Boulder) is without a doubt the food. Saratoga, Wyoming isn’t known for it’s diverse variety of flavors – the local grocery store in town doesn’t even carry strawberries – so whenever John and I travel to a city with more than 1,600 people we are always super excited to eat good food
While we were staying in Boulder we often cooked family style meals with our friends, but when we weren’t sharing food around the dinner table we were eating out at some of the many restaurants the city has to offer. Here are some of my favorite places to eat and drink in Boulder, Colorado:
- Brewing Market Coffee. My dear friend Thao works as a barista at Brewing Market, so John and I would usually start our days by biking over and sipping some coffee while I worked on my computer and he studied for his course. My go-to drink is their cold brew coffee with chocolate and oat milk, but their kombucha is a close second.
- Flower Child. Flower Child is easily the most expensive place I have ever paid to eat at, but hot damn was it worth every penny. This hip cafe with vegan and vegetarian options has the most decadent bowls and sandwiches. I got the “Mother Earth” bowl, which had ancient grains, sweet potato, avocado, greens, and portobello mushrooms, topped with sustainable salmon. The restaurant is conveniently located near Brewing Market Coffee, and they don’t bat an eye when you walk in with your friend who is on roller skates.
- Dark Horse. My friend Brandon works as a bartender at Dark Horse, so everyone in the house went out one night and met up with him after his shift. The bar is absolutely huge and has amazing food and drinks, as well as quirky wall decorations and a plethora of games.
- Protein Bar & Kitchen. After a fruit-deprived week of traveling across the country while living in a van, I was hardcore craving a smoothie. Not just any smoothie, but a smoothie packed with protein and fresh foods. I found Protein Bar online and immediately dragged my friends there with me so I could try their Vital Proteins Collagen infused coffee smoothie with a whopping 30g of protein in it. The smoothie hit the spot and satisfied my craving, and I’m already dreaming about what I’ll order when I return.
- Golden Sun. Golden Sun is a Chinese restaurant that has $6 dinner specials and huge serving sizes. If you’re looking for cheap and fast Chinese then this is definitely the place to go.
- Motomaki. John and I were craving sushi during our second visit to Boulder, but we were struggling to find a place that fit our small budget. Then we found Motomaki. This fast-food style Japanese cafe serves giant sushi burrito rolls and delicious bowls. I’m usually hungry a few hours after eating at a normal sushi place, but Motomaki really filled me up.
- The Parkway Cafe. Thao, John, and I rode our bikes to The Parkway Cafe one day for a late breakfast and were completely blown away by the quality of the food. All three of us ordered the veggie Benedict with different sides, and I would happily eat that every day for the rest of my life if I could.
- Boulder Baked. After shopping around on Pearl Street one afternoon we popped into Boulder Baked for a quick snack. All of the cookies at this tiny shop are made to order, which means you always get that fresh-out-of-the-oven taste. Thao got two cupcakes that were beyond amazing and John got a cupcake shake, which is essentially a milkshake with a cupcake blended into it. As you can probably guess we had trouble moving by the time we were done sharing everything, but I don’t regret it in the slightest.
What are your favorite spots in Colorado? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption.