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Seeing the real Colorado


Political and religious differences aside, one other commonly overlooked problem comes with living somewhere as nice as Colorado Springs.

Many of us forget that we don't just live in the Springs. We live in Colorado, and aside from here and Denver, we ignore the fact there's a very large state around us. And if we don't explore it to the fullest, that's our fault and our loss.

Last Thursday night, my wife and I packed up and left for the weekend. Only three hours later, we were 160 miles away in Gunnison, where we spent three days and nights making our way around much of that area in west-central and southwest Colorado.

It was far more than simply an escape, more than educational or refreshing. It was eye-opening in many ways, and some details are worth sharing here for various reasons. This is merely a guess, but my feeling is that many of you have never been to that part of Colorado. Or, if so, you were just driving through on U.S. 50, heading elsewhere.

The inspiration for using this space here is actually related more to the timing. Unless you're into skiing and/or snowmobiling, your chances are running out to discover that part of Colorado this year. And if you have any appreciation for aspen in the fall, it's only a matter of days now.

We could have spent the entire time just in Gunnison, a bustling yet peaceful town of about 5,500 people with many bigger-city conveniences. Not the least of those is Western State College and its 2,400 students, providing that area with typical college-town vibrance and culture.

The place is amazingly unspoiled, with no evidence of crime or even graffiti, and the prices are reasonable everywhere. We spent $69 a night for a very nice room with free hot breakfast at the Water Wheel Inn, and that was typical of almost every motel around. We also found a place called High Mountain Liquor, with a modest-priced wine selection that would almost stand up to the likes of Coaltrain and Cheers here.

At night, we discovered at least two restaurants that would compare to the top echelon in Colorado Springs the Trough, where a slab of fresh halibut with a King Crab sauce was Seattle-quality, and Garlic Mike's, a popular, long-established Italian place offering such appetizers as escargot and mussels followed by a full array of entres including supremo pasta dishes.

But this trip was about more than Gunnison. One day, we drove a half-hour north to Crested Butte, which is far more than a ski resort (but you might be too late now for the old downtown's legendary flowers, which were still thriving last weekend).

From there, we headed west on county roads to check out the aspen and the views were incredible. We were told to drive to Kebler Pass, then south to nearby Ohio Pass. There, we looked down on large, pristine valleys, splashed with color. Then we drove through and under the aspen canopies, not just the usual yellow and gold but also swaths of brilliant reds and oranges, far less common for aspen. Time after time, we stopped to snap photos and/or stand in awe.

It was an unforgettable afternoon. As was all of the next day, driving southwest to Lake City and Creede, two small old mining towns with different personalities and character. The roads were much better than you'd expect and the views (such as Windy Point overlook) were breathtaking on Slumgullion Pass and all of Colorado Highway 149. We stopped in Creede, ate smoked barbecue with curry cole slaw at the Tommyknocker Tavern, and wished we had a few more days to see it all.

We didn't even have time for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, one of that region's jewels. But it's there year-round. The leaves aren't.

All too soon, it was Sunday afternoon and we were heading back over Monarch Pass on our way home. But if you have even one day, and especially if this weekend is open, you're crazy not to check it out yourself. Of all the stunning aspen we saw, perhaps 80 percent of the leaves weren't quite to their peak. This weekend, they will be.

You'll come back, as we did, with a much clearer head and a much better understanding that Colorado is so much more than the Front Range and Interstate 25.

In truth, Colorado Springs doesn't have a monopoly on scenery and nice places to visit. And you don't have to go far to find that out for yourself.

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