The Colorado Rocky Mountains draw visitors from across the nation to experience the many outdoor adventures that the state has to offer. Denver’s professional sports lure regional fans to see their adopted teams play at home.
It’s possible to get the best of both worlds.
This summer, my son, who lives in Laramie, Wyo., organized a trip that combined Rocky Mountain camping with his allegiance to Denver’s Major League Soccer team, the Colorado Rapids. He invited my wife and me to join him.
Instead of staying at a hotel in the city, we opted to camp in the mountains near Denver and travel from there to see the game. We stayed just outside of Central City at Columbine Campground in the Arapaho National Forest.
Since it was the Fourth of July weekend, the campground required a three-night stay to make a reservation (www.recreation.gov).
We picked a “walk-in” site. Five of these spots share a common parking area off the main campground loop. The campsites are 20 to 60 yards from the parking.
At first, it seemed this would be quite an inconvenience, especially because we needed to secure our food in our car every night to make sure that it was not accessible to the bears that rarely visit the area.
It turned out that this gave us a more secluded spot, away from the comings and goings on the campground loop. An online review of the campground mentioned that Columbine was popular with ATV users. As one who camps to enjoy the sounds of nature, that worried me a bit. But the walk-in site gave us a buffer zone that made the minimal ATV traffic barely noticeable.
A couple drawbacks of the campground: There were no hiking trails nearby and no lake or stream. We remedied the first by taking a day trip (about 10 miles one way) to Golden Gate Canyon State Park (www.parks.state.co.us). Twelve trails add up to 35 miles of moderate to very difficult hiking. We bought a $7 day pass at Reverend’s Ridge Visitor Center and took off on the moderate 2.5-mile Raccoon Trail.
Plentiful wildflowers, including lupine and wild strawberry, grew along the trail. Columbine, bigger and more colorful than any I’ve ever raised in my backyard, thrived in its native habitat.
The highlight of the trail was Panorama Point, where visitors can view 100 miles of the snow-capped Continental Divide from a sprawling wooden observation deck. Non-hikers can access these spectacular views by driving east on Gap Road to the overlook parking area. We ate our lunch at one of the picnic tables available at the point.
We also spent part of another afternoon walking around Central City’s National Historic District (www.centralcitycolorado.us/tourism). It’s hard to not compare Colorado’s Central City and adjacent Black Hawk to South Dakota’s twin cities of Lead and Deadwood.
A gold rush following the 1859 discovery of gold brought these Colorado towns into existence. In 1990, the deteriorating towns followed Deadwood’s example of legalized gambling as a road to revival. The two took different routes. Black Hawk welcomed big Vegas-style casinos with frontier-influenced architecture. Central City focused on historic preservation and smaller gaming establishments.
The final night of our camping trip, we headed into the big city to see the Colorado Rapids play Houston Dynamo. Before the game, we went to Wahoo’s Fish Tacos (www.wahoos.com), one of my son and his wife’s favorite pre-game dining spots. This fast-food casual diner chain with a surf, snow and skateboard motif opened in Orange County, Calif., in 1988. The menu is a mix of Mexican, Asian and Brazilian cuisines.
My son warned me that the combination plates (with rice and beans) were a lot of food. I followed his lead and ordered a la carte — a soft-shell taco and an enchilada both filled with Cajun-style fish. Other filling options include chicken, pork, steak, mushroom or banzai veggies.
The service was fast. My son set his order number on a table by the beverage station and when he finished filling his drink, he turned around to pick up his number to find that his order was sitting on the table.
Another pre-game fave is Jim ’n Nick’s BBQ (www.jimnnicks.com). Both are located in The Shops at Northfield Stapleton (www.northfieldstapleton.com), an open-air collection of stores, restaurants and cinemas just minutes from the soccer stadium.
The Colorado Rapids play at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. The Rapids won the Major League Soccer championship last year. The 18,000-seat stadium was packed for the nationally televised July 3 game.
The Rapids have hosted the 4th Fest Celebration for the past 14 years, and the game is followed by what is billed as Colorado’s biggest fireworks display. The Rapids frequently offer package deals such as the recent $49 Family Pack promo, which included four tickets, four meals and four soft drinks (www.coloradorapids.com).
To optimize our viewing experience of the fireworks, my son chose to park in the unpaved southwest lot. While most fans remained in the stadium, we returned to the unlit parking lot and sat in lawn chairs near our car.
We were so close that I got a stiff neck from watching the impressive show. And I much preferred the sporadic chorus of car alarms (set off by the fireworks) to the stadium’s canned soundtrack I occasionally heard during short lulls between explosions.
The 50-mile drive back to our campsite after the fireworks was my least favorite part of the weekend. The last 18 miles is up Colorado Highway 119, which winds through a steep-walled canyon beside Clear Creek. Rain and record snowmelt fueled the raging torrent, which was anything but clear.
Traffic, including many buses traveling the two-lane highway to and from the casinos, was just as heavy at midnight as it was during the day. By the time I got back to the campsite, staying in a hotel after the game seemed like a pretty good idea.
But then again, with it getting increasingly difficult to find a hotel room for less than $100 a night, the $15-a-day camping makes a Denver sports trip a bit more affordable.