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Best of the West in Colorado

By Gregory D'Avis, CNN
  • While parts of the Rockies are full of tourists, the town of Leadville is a hidden gem
  • The scale of the state's mountains contribute to its awesome beauty
  • Even in a busy town like Boulder, Colorado's scenic vistas demand attention

(CNN) -- "The West I liked best," Oscar Wilde said of his visit to the United States. It's not clear exactly what prompted that line, but the playwright did stop in Colorado during his 1882 tour.

The West I like best, too. I'm originally from Colorado and though it has been more than a decade since I lived there, I spent most of my formative years growing up along the Front Range of the Rockies. It's my first choice for a vacation spot. Every time I go back, I'm still introduced to some new collection of beautiful scenes.

Flying in from the East now, it's false mountains that first break up the flatness of the plains -- white peaks on the roof of Denver International Airport, a preview of the Rockies not far beyond. Once off the plane, I'm welcomed by all the signposts of altitude -- the thin dry air, the fiercer sunlight -- that tell me I'm home.

At the time of Wilde's visit, Leadville -- his Colorado destination -- was the stereotype of the Western mining town, rambunctious and booming. Now it's a fraction of its old size, a quiet and placid little place. But it's also a place surrounded by immense and breathtaking beauty.

View from the top of the Rockies

Some parts of the Rocky Mountains are overwhelmed by tourists, but not Leadville. It's three hours away from Colorado's major population centers, and it isn't one of the big ski destinations, so people have to make some effort to get there. And once there, the sheer scale of things makes me feel small. Get to 10,000 feet and there's 14,000-foot-tall Mount Elbert still looming above, still streaked with snow even at the height of summer, jagged and rolling at the same time, brown and violet and green against a backdrop of azure sky.

Independence Pass a road worth traveling

Colorado's mountains earn their reputation in the winter, when skiers and snowboarders flock to them from all over the world. But summer also reminds me of nature's awesome power. Terrain that's covered with a blanket of white in the winter now shimmers with the colors of the rainbow. Lakes reflect the peaks. If you know where to look and have a bit of luck, some of the same wildlife that those first miners must have seen -- buffalo, elk, bald eagles -- make brief appearances. Sparkling streams trickle from far above, down over rocks worn smooth. It takes my breath away and relaxes me at the same time.

Leaving Leadville and heading east, Clear Creek roars alongside Interstate 70 -- it was at full force during my recent visit, boasting an ominous power. There aren't many highways that can truly be called scenic, but with canyon walls rising on either side and the water rushing by, Interstate 70 has a setting like few other roads.

Colorado's "fiercer sunlight" makes for a striking sunset.
Colorado's "fiercer sunlight" makes for a striking sunset.

Emerging from the mountains then jogging north a bit brought me back to one of the more traditional destinations in Colorado, if anything about Boulder can really be called "traditional." The city is unofficially billed as "25 square miles surrounded by reality." That's debatable -- all of Colorado is something of a fantasy land, with the ever-present postcard views -- but Boulder's location, nestled in a valley protected by the Flatirons, and its longtime status as a playground for both the counterculture and the very rich make it a bit dreamy.

Snapshots: More than skiing in Colorado

Boulder lies along the Front Range of the Rockies, the stretch from Fort Collins down to Pueblo that contains the vast majority of the state's population. Even in the centers of the state's biggest cities, surrounded by modern civilization, the scenic vistas still demand attention. The Pearl Street Mall is the heart of Boulder, a downtown shopping area that's always congested with street musicians playing Neil Young, families with strollers and college kids out for a good time. Even there, the mountains to the west still dominate the landscape. From this vantage point, I'm looking at the mountains from beneath. And from here, the border of the plains, there's a second wonder to rival the Rockies: the sky.

The phrase "Big Sky" -- attached to Montana, applicable to the entire American West -- sounds obvious. Of course the sky is big. But get out there under it and see the panoramas and the meaning becomes clear. It's just larger there. Flatter terrain, lower buildings, fewer trees.

Snow blankets the ground under a wide open sky.
Snow blankets the ground under a wide open sky.

It produces some astonishing sights. The sun setting behind the mountains, reflected light staining the clouds with reds and oranges and purples. You can see storms advancing over the plains miles away, lightning splitting the sky, visible from the apex to the ground.

It only takes 10 minutes to escape the "reality" of Boulder and get knee-deep in nature. One morning I went hiking in the mountains near Brainard Lake. It's 10,500 feet high, and I was clambering over snowdrifts. Before noon, I was 25 miles east and 5,000 feet lower, relaxing on a patio in 90-degree heat, looking west at those same mountains. Colorado's extremes seen within a four-hour period.

There's a reason Colorado has been attracting and producing free thinkers of all stripes for decades. The thin air sharpens the mind and at the same time encourages daydreams, flights of fancy. The constant exposure to nature is a constant reminder of forces greater than us. The state draws in the very physical and the very spiritual -- hardcore athletes and mystic gurus live side by side.

Wilde thought the West's proximity to nature had given its inhabitants a "love of the beautiful." And if you're going to develop a love of the beautiful, there's no better place to start than Colorado.