After a few visits on the eastern side of the American continent I was really craving the wilderness of the west. So when last year I spotted reasonable priced tickets for direct flights to Denver I didn’t hesitate a minute and booked my holiday.
I arrived in Denver one afternoon in late May. After going through the usual arrival shenanigans I got my rental car (a nice V8 powered Camaro) and headed straight to Colorado Springs where I decided to start my adventure the following day.
And I started it early. Due to the time difference after arrival in the US I’m always up early, at least for the first few days. It was bitterly cold morning as it happened to be unusually cold spell for that time of the year, but I still got on may way promptly as I had a busy day ahead.
First I headed to Pikes Peak, a massive mountain which towers over Colorado Springs and seems to dominate the town. It is one of the most prominent of the peaks in the Rockies, rising to 4302 meters above sea level (over 14,000 feet) and around 2500 meters above Colorado Springs. It is also one if the highest points in the US where one can actually drive to the top. I went there first because the weather was changeable and I wanted to use the good weather window while it lasted.
Pikes Peak Highway is one of the most famous roads in America and one that I had wanted to drive for a long time. It is a 19 mile (31km) long toll road with well over 150 turns. Unfortunately during my visit it was impossible to reach the summit as the cold spell I mentioned made the conditions on top dangerous and the road was closed above around 4100 meters. But it was still damn fun to drive, even if “only” to that point. And the views from the top section were absolutely amazing. To the north, west and south hundreds of peaks of the Rockies still covered in snow and to the east endless prairies as far as the eye can see.
Here I would strongly recommend admiring the views while stationary as the road doesn’t have guardrails and the drops are very long in some places. At the top (I mean as far as possible to drive that day) I got out of the car for a short walk and to take a few photos but it was incredible cold and windy. After 2 or 3 minutes my fingers where basically numb. It was time to drive back stopping in a few more places for some more photos. At the end of the steepest section every car has the brakes’ temperature measured before being allowed to proceed back down towards Colorado Springs. The Pikes Peak Highway definitely didn’t disappoint me.
Next on my itinerary was the United States Air Force Academy located around 10 miles north of Colorado Springs. As much as I like aviation technology and military history (couple of years ago I even visited the Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota) the reason for my visit here was actually the architecture.
Entry to the academy grounds is free but one has to pass through a quick security check at the gate, including providing an ID and answering a few questions from the guards. The main academy campus, located a few miles from the gate, was designed and build in the early 1960s in the modernist style and makes extensive use of aluminium on building exteriors, suggesting the outer skin of the aeroplanes. The architecture is so distinguished that in 2004 the Cadet Area of the Academy was actually designated a National Historic Landmark.
The buildings in the Cadet Area are set around a large, square pavilion known as the Terrazzo. They are low, with clean modernist lines and large windows. They don’t try to pretend to be “rustic” or “rural”, like many mountain developments, but yet they really fit the expansive surroundings of the academy which is set in the tranquil foothills of the Rockies and covers some 75 square kilometres. In fact it all resembles more of a headquarters of some hi-tech company in California, say in Silicon Valley, than a military establishment.
But the real masterpiece (and at the time of construction a very controversial building) is the Cadet Chapel. This was in fact the main reason for my visit in the academy as I wanted to see it since I first saw the photos online. The chapel is truly stunning but difficult to describe. Still let me try.
From the distance it might look like a very large and sophisticated tent, but come closer and its details begin to show. Suddenly “the tent” becomes a space ship. The main corpus of the building consists of 17 dramatic spires which are clad in aluminium and which tower over the nave. Apparently there should be 21 of them but the number was reduced due to budgetary constraints. The frame of the entire chapel is constructed out of 100 identical tetrahedrons, weighing five tons a piece. Each of the tetrahedrons in the chapel is coloured according to a pattern, some with clear aluminium and others with vibrant coloured glass. Oh, in case if you don’t know, tetrahedron, also known as a triangular pyramid, is a polyhedron composed of four triangular faces, six straight edges, and four vertex corners. Yes, I had to google it myself when I read the information panels during the visit. Basically it is a shape of the PG Tips tea bag (for the British reader).
Inside there are two levels. The spectacular upper level is the protestant chapel while on the lower level there is a catholic chapel, a synagogue, a Buddhist sangha and an all-faiths room. The protestant chapel is absolutely fantastic, one of the best interiors I have ever seen. So different from the Gothic cathedrals of Europe and yet somehow having the same soaring effect. The geometry of the space alone could blow your mind away but then you have to add the magical light due to stained glass windows. They are narrow but running through the whole height of the interior and give the place of worship a spectacular palette of deep blues and pastels when light shines against the roof. It really looked more like a Star Trek interior than a church. And I absolutely loved every minute inside. But after checking the academy gift shop it was eventually time to move on.
Before leaving Colorado Springs area I wanted to have a stroll around Garden of the Gods. This over-the-top name applies to the red rock formations located a few minutes drive from downtown Colorado Springs. It is in fact a municipal park after it was donated to the city at the beginning of 20th century by the previous owners. The main features of the park are the rock pinnacles formed of red, pink and white sandstones. Originally the sediments were deposited horizontally but subsequently the layers where flipped on the side, tilted, and then they eroded heavily giving us the current narrow but elongated rocky “fins”. There are multiple trails snaking around the area, some circle around the rocks, some lead through the narrow passages, it all creates kind of monumental labyrinth. It is all fun and photogenic. The only problem were the crowds. I was there on Sunday afternoon and the place was full of people. It took me a while to actually find a parking space at one of the multiple car parks along the one way road system. So after a brief stroll a decided to move on.
Now it was time to start the proper adventure. As much as I enjoyed Colorado Springs (which I definitely recommend as destination for a short visit) I came to Colorado to explore the wilderness of the west. For that I had to leave the populated foothills of the Front Range and head further west.
As soon as I left Colorado Springs and took Colorado Hwy 115 things got calmer again as traffic dwindled to a trickle. This is the American west the way I like it. Open road, big sky, breathtaking landscapes and low hum of the V8 engine. Especially the stretch of US Hwy 50 alongside Arkansas River that offered some amazing vistas and fun driving. I could go on like that for hours but as the evening was approaching I decided to stop for the night in the town of Salida. The following day western Colorado was awaiting me. More about it soon.