It was snowing when we left Great Sand Dunes NP and the weather over the Colorado mountains was supposed to deteriorate as the day wore on, so we filled the propane tank & the fridge and high-tailed it toward our destination: Cheyenne Mountain State Park just outside Colorado Springs. We drove through several snow sprinkles, but the heavy stuff started just as were setting up camp at Cheyenne Mountain – whew!
Cheyenne Mountain has campsites with beautiful views of Colorado Springs, and it has more than 20 miles of trails so I was looking forward to some nice walks. What I didn’t realize was that April happens to be the 3rd snowiest month in Colorado and, on the side of Cheyenne Mountain, this snowfall happens approximately every 15 minutes, day in and day out, whether the sun is out or not! Unlike our previous experiences with dry blowing snow, Cheyenne Mountain also seems to have wet heavy snow. In fact, we learned about a whole new type of precipitation here: graupel! Graupel apparently happens when falling snow passes through a layer of cold unfrozen water vapor. The water vapor crystallizes onto the snowflake, producing something that looks like a messy hail stone and feels like the slushy icy pellet it is when it smacks you in the face. Needless to say, we never did get much hiking in.
If you’re reading this and wondering where you know that name from, you are most likely thinking of the military/NORAD Cheyenne Mountain complex which was excavated inside the mountain and which became operational in 1966. In its Cold War heyday it was a secret facility, meant to provide early warning and tracking of aircraft and/or missiles aimed at North American targets, and capable of withstanding a near-direct nuclear strike. Today, many of its functions have been shifted to other facilities and it is a much less desirable nuclear target – whew again! I say this because the Park and the Cheyenne Mountain complex share a common boundary, and the southern entrance to the site was plainly visible from our campsite. [The northern entrance will be familiar to all of you Stargate fans and is visible on the drive up to the campgrounds.]
Our primary objective in coming to Colorado Springs was so that Eric could drive to the top of Pike’s Peak. It is one of only 2 Colorado “fourteeners” (mountains with elevations of 14,000′ plus) that you can drive to the summit of in a regular vehicle (the other being Mount Evans), and Eric’s been watching the annual Pike’s Peak rally race for years so here we were! The Peak has a hotline you can call to check on the conditions and to see whether the road is open all the way to the summit or not. Eric called immediately after the snowstorm and found out that the road was only open to 9,000′. He kept calling all week, but the road never opened past the 12,000′ mark. Our Alaska trip means that we have to keep pushing north, so on our last full day we decided to make the drive, even if we couldn’t make the summit. Upon our arrival at the 12,000′ mark, there’s a helpful Park Ranger posted to answer questions and to make sure that crazy people don’t try to move the traffic cones and try to summit the Peak. He laughed when we asked about the opening of the road to the summit, telling us it wouldn’t happen for another month or so. Even if they could completely clear it, snow just blows back onto the road overnight and block it, and they’d have to start all over again. Oh well, we’ll just have to come back one summer! It was still worth the drive though: the views were stunning, the air was crisp, and the chipmunks were cute!
While waiting for our Pike’s Peak day, we did a bunch of driving on Forest Service roads, toured a gold mine, played some mini golf, and just generally enjoyed the stunning Rocky Mountain scenery. A very enjoyable week overall. We made a quick stop in Denver so we could meet our friends and fellow nomads the Whitacres of Live, Breathe, Move and had a great time catching up with them, even playing indoor bocce! Good friends & good beer = good times!