National parks have been very popular vacation destinations during these pandemic times. Many people have heard of Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado, a mere 1.5 hours away from Denver International Airport. Unfortunately, its closeness to a major metropolitan area makes it very crowded. That’s why Black Canyon of the Gunnison in SW Colorado is an enticing alternative. It’s a long drive – nearly 6 hours from Denver – however, with a little planning you can visit some other national parks, such as Mesa Verde, Four Corners National Monument, and Moab (Canyonlands and Arches NP).
Our first visit to Black Canyon was just a stop on our way back to Denver in 2011 after a tour of Utah and Arizona. We were so impressed with it that we made a trip back in 2015 and did a few nights of camping. It’s so peaceful and calm. The scenery is outstanding and its sunsets are out of this world.
Back over a decade ago when we first moved to Colorado, we took an epic road trip up to the Wyoming national parks (Grand Teton and Yellowstone) and then finished out our trip by driving over to South Dakota and visiting Mt. Rushmore and the Badlands (which, contrary to their name, are pretty awesome). On our way home we passed through the Black Hills National Forest. At the time we were road weary and ready to get home, but we made a mental note to return as it was so green and beautiful. It took us a while but my husband and I finally made it back this summer. And we weren’t disappointed by our stay at Bismarck Lake Campground.
From Denver it’s a good 5-6 hour drive, especially on a busy holiday weekend. However, that’s nothing for many folks. We talked to a couple who drove from Michigan and it was a 20-hour journey for them. If you prefer to fly, the nearest major city is Rapid City, just about an hour away. Since the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, as well as some other major attractions such Crazy Horse Monument and Wind Cave National Park, are nearby, it’s very easy to spend a week here visiting all the sites.
Info for campers
There are cabins and hotels in and around the town of Custer, but we decided to tent camp. We don’t have an RV and every year I regret it a bit more as I get older as it just is not comfortable. Another reason is that in Colorado and throughout the Mountain West (and I stretch to include South Dakota within that region) summer thunderstorms are a frequent occurrence. All three days we were there we had them. Now, fortunately none were as torrential as we experienced in Colorado, but I think we just got lucky. Only one happened during the night and that passed by us just to the north. However, it woke up me (I was thinking it was another fireworks celebration as it was on the 4th of July) and I was unable to get back to sleep for over an hour as I was concerned it would come our direction as it appeared to be doing on the radar.
Now when it comes to picking a campground I always feel a bit torn. Usually I prefer a state park when staying 3 nights or longer, as they have shower facilities, but I didn’t really like the look of the campgrounds within Custer State Park. The most central ones had a generic feel to them and were better suited it seems to RVs. So we decided to just stay right outside the boundary of the state park at a Black Hills National Forest Camp, Bismarck Lake Campground, a small 21-site campground next to a scenic lake. Like forest camps everywhere, it only had vault toilets but it did have water. But it was high enough up that we felt it wouldn’t be too mosquito infested.
The campground itself was great. The location of our site (#3) was also very nice with lots of trees and plenty of space between us and our neighbors. However, it was indicated as a tent site and I just don’t agree with that. We ended up pitched our large-ish tent at the end of the long gravel driveway. At least it was flat but the ground was very hard, difficult to drive the spikes into.
However, #3 was on the quieter end of the campground with better spacing than the small loop and we felt the mosquitoes were minimal. Close to the toilet but not too close and a short walk to the lake. The lake is smaller than the very popular Sylvan Lake and nearby Stockade Lake but very pretty, with a boat launch (for canoes, kayaks, small fishing boats, paddle boards as this is a no-wake lake).
Because of its proximity to Custer, we actually drove into town for breakfast 2 mornings and donuts on our final day. (I especially recommend Baker’s Bakery and Cafe – great breakfast and killer Apple fritters) We ate our dinner once, as well. For me, it was a nice balance as I’m not a hardcore camper
Overall, I’d give this a 4 out of 5 for its beautiful location and quiet surroundings.
I really think I am too old for camping. I enjoy it but I never sleep well. The first night there was a lot of noise from dispersed campers (another post on that later), the second night we slept well, but last night a camper came in late at night (her dad and brother were already there but she came in separate car with canoe). We went to bed at 9:30 but they yacked by the campfire until 12 at least. If I hadn’t been in bed already I might have gone over and asked them to keep in down. Most campgrounds request quiet by 10 pm.
Anyhow, we had a good time catching up with my brother who is hiking the Colorado Trail. I am so happy to be sleeping in a regular bed tonight. The scenery was spectacular, but the weather was really unpredictable in the afternoon. That is typical for Colorado, however.
The picture is the view from our campsite, Lakeview Campground near Twin Lakes, Colorado.
Today my youngest son (22 years old) is moving back home. But don’t think badly of him. He graduated Cum Laude in Computer Science from University of Colorado in May and has been continuing to work on a research project with a prof there. Most leases in Boulder run from August to the end of July, so he was enjoying a few months of down time before moving back home. I’m looking forward to it. Not sure if he is. But he is a very goal oriented person and plans to apply to grad school so he can move out next summer. In the meantime, we have a pet sitter!
That’s a good thing, as we’re taking off tomorrow for a 3-day camping trip. All very coincidentally, we will happen to meet up with my brother who is hiking the Colorado Trail. He’s 2 weeks in. I’ll be bring him more JetBoil Fuel which is in short supply this summer as the CT has increased traffic this year.
He requested his favorite hot dogs with sauerkraut, potato salad, and baked beans. While I won’t be making my mom’s recipe, I’m sure he’ll be happy. with Bush’s Baked Beans. I also found pre-mixed Bloody Mary’s for the next morning. He’s taking a zero day (no hiking) but perhaps we’ll go to Leadville which has quite a few geocaches. It’s the highest town in North America and just half an hour away.
In the meantime, I pray for everyone to make to make good choices. Wear a mask, don’t go to crowded events, and don’t be a whiny baby. Yes, many of us would rather be on a plane traveling to our vacation destination, but one summer of sacrifice is not asking a lot. My friend’s daughter is starting college next month. As much as I ‘d love to meet up with my friend for lunch, I’ve decided that’s not going to happen. It’s not worth the risk. We all need to make sacrifices to contain Covid-19.
Last Thursday, July 16, my oldest brother started hiking the 485 mile Colorado Trail. It’s part of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), but not many people hike the entire CDT in one shot. It’s considered the most difficult of the 3 thru hikes in the US, which also include the Pacific Crest (PCT) and the Appalachian Trail (AT).
My brother did the PCT when he was 19 and 40 years later he did the AT. He had planned to hike the PCT again this year but then Covid-19 hit. (Hikers need to resupply and clean up at small towns along the route, and with the virus, many were closed down to hikers) So he decided on the CT instead. Colorado towns are open now so he’s keeping his fingers crossed than our numbers stay down and we don’t have any more closures. It should take him about 6 weeks. Younger hikers can easily hike it 4 weeks, but my brother is now north of 60.
He flew into Denver on Wednesday and we took him to the Waterton Canyon trailhead southwest of Denver on Thursday morning. He’s starting slow – 10ish miles a day – until he gets used to the altitude. We’ll see him in 2 weeks when we go camping at Twin Lakes. I had planned that camping trip back in January before I knew he was hiking. When he told me he was doing the CT, I remembered that the trail passed right by our campground. So we’ll bring him a resupply box and treat him to a beer and burger in Twin Lakes Village.
I’m following his progress on Garmin GPS upload. In Colorado cell service is pretty poor in the mountains so this is an essential tool for hikers. So far he appears to be on schedule.
I was very fortunate to travel to Italy last September. In a nutshell: my husband and I flew into Milan, took a quick side trip to Lake Como, then continued down to Florence for a few days, hopped on another train to Naples, transferred to the Circumvesuviana train to Pompei and Sorrento, and ended our trip in a wonderful 400 year-old apartment (updated of course, but still with original wooden ceiling beams) in Rome. So many wonderful experiences. We couldn’t wait to get back to Europe, with the planned destination being Spain (with a sidetrip to Morocco).
Outside our apartment in Rome
Then Covid-19 happened.
Even my spring birthday getaway to Arizona got cancelled. Fortunately, however, I had made campground reservations for this summer. Campgrounds book up quickly for the weekends and typically you need to do it 6 months in advance. Fortunately, we’re allowed to go camping here in Colorado and judging by the line at REI the other week, a lot of people are opting for this.
We’ll be camping near Twin Lakes just south of Leadville. The campground is at 9,500 feet – I think that’s the highest elevation I’ve ever camped at. Leadville itself is the highest incorporated city in North America (10,152 feet).
Lakeview Campground, near Twin Lakes and Leadville
As it so happens, my oldest brother will be passing through on the Colorado Trail (part of the Continental Divide Trail) that same weekend. It’ll be nice to meet up with him.
His hike also presented us with another opportunity to do another Colorado staycation. The CT terminates in Durango, about 6 hours from Denver. Since I volunteered to pick him up, naturally I decided to turn it into a mini getaway. We’ll sightsee on some of the scenic mountain highways and visit the former mining town of Silverton. We’ll also stay a night in Pagosa Springs. Their hot springs resort has been on my bucket list for years.
The Springs Resort at Pagosa Springs – check this one off the bucket list!Silverton, Colorado
Once September comes (when we had planned to go to Spain) it would take nothing short of a miracle to make it to Europe. We still have our tickets as Norwegian Airlines has not officially cancelled our flight to London Gatwick. But we’re expecting that to happen. So in the meantime we’re talking about some things we can do here in the US. One is to rent an RV and do a road trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a 2-day drive. I’m not sure if I could stand my husband’s driving. But it might be fun as we could bring our pug. He’s almost 12, getting up there in years, and he’s never been on a road trip. We’ll see.
In the meantime I hope you all manage to do something fun and still STAY SAFE!