Sunday, May 08, 2011

Denver activities

Most of what we did in Denver can be divided up into two categories: window-shopping, and visiting parks and wilderness. The former leaves me very little to talk about, because Denver's shopping areas were dreadfully dull. You know how the local mall is like 90% clothing stores? Denver's malls are like 98% clothing stores. The first mall we visited, if you took out the clothing stores, jewelry stores, and restaurants, you'd have about three things left. One tiny Lego shop, a chocolatier, and a Microsoft store. The other big mall, and outdoor shopping area, weren't much different. There were a couple of kitchen shops, a huge store that sells nothing but containers for other things, and multiple Starbucks in the same mall... and those were the highlights. The 16th Street pedestrian mall was even worse: pretty much nothing but chain stores.

About the only store that was much fun to visit was a Guitar Center. Though not as much as it might have been if it had been possible to buy stuff there! There was also a tiny shop called The Pilot Shop we kept seeing signs for on the way to our hotel (at the small regional airport), so we stopped in one day just to sate our curiosity. (About half the store is kitschy things like model planes, T-shirts, and bumper-stickers, of interest to people who fly; the other half is specialized things like headsets, ILS charts, and FAA regulation books and checklists.)

So we spent most of our time visiting the various nature areas, parks, and wildernesses that happened to be convenient to our location and the weather. Weather wasn't always with us: it was chilly, threatening to rain, and cloudy a lot, and in fact, after a late winter in Vermont where it was wet and cold the whole year, it finally got warm for the first time right after we left, at which point it was cold in Denver. Even so we got a fair amount of sunlight.

Our first stop was the quaint village of Manitou Falls, in the Colorado Springs (or, as the signs all say, Colo Spgs) area. It's not just a charming touristy town. It's a CHARMING TOURISTY TOWN at the top of its lungs. It makes Stowe look reserved. It makes Ogunquit seem organic. It makes Port Jefferson seem sincere. We didn't linger very long, though; the deli we were getting lunch at didn't open until pretty much when we had to run to make our reservation, so we got our food to go.

The main thing Manitou Falls has going for it, apart from small, cutesy shops selling things no one needs, is being the base of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. This is a pretty expensive ride, but it's really quite incredible. Unfortunately due to high winds we couldn't ride to the top (and graciously, they reduce the exorbitant ticket prices accordingly... to still exorbitant, but less so, prices). We only got to Windy Point at 12,000 feet. The views were still spectacular, and the ride well worth it.  The conductor does a great job of keeping the trip entertaining.  Still would have been nice to be able to say we got to the very top (14,100 feet or so).

After this, we went to the Garden of the Gods.  This is a pretty big park that is mostly notable for having some amazing, huge rocky formations, mostly of that strikingly red rock native to the area.  Some are huge, some are balanced, some are oddly shaped, and all are pretty breathtaking.  In between is an awful lot of arid wilderness, along with some nicely designed trails and roads.  A light walk of a couple of miles got us amongst and alongside the biggest of the rock formations, and gave us great views from all directions, both of the rocks and of the crazy people climbing them (despite the many, many signs saying not to do so unless you were a professional with a license), plus an exposure to the wilderness itself (though we didn't really see any wildlife apart from the occasional bird).  After the walk, a set of roads lets you drive through the rest and see most of the remainder of the great views, rocks, and wilderness, which provides a nice balance: you get to see everything in a huge park even if you're not up to doing huge long hikes.  Anyone who visits the area should give Garden of the Gods a few hours; best of all, it's free.

Back in the Denver area we visited Cherry Creek Park, which is referred to as Denver's backyard.  This is the kind of park that's mostly focused on activities: picnic areas, fishing, boating, swimming, and the like.  Which is not to say there wasn't wilderness and trails, but given that it's mostly a big open area with very little vegetation taller than your knee, it's really more suited to activities than feeling like you're out in the middle of nowhere (you can still see Denver from pretty much all points, even though it's many, many miles away).  Some of the activities are a bit unusual, such as a shooting range.  The most interesting was a model RC airplane field: space set aside by the park, and then maintained and equipped by a pair of local RC plane fan clubs.  No one was flying the day we went due to high winds, but that let us get a better look (since technically we weren't supposed to be allowed into the area).  It's incredible how much stuff they have, including runways wide enough to drive a minivan down.  These people are serious.  (So much that RC cars are entirely banned, because, after all, those people are just playing with silly toys.)

Roxborough State Park was a bit more wilderness-park-like.  No camping, but lots of hiking, and it was hilly enough that you couldn't see the whole park from any single point.  We took one of the easiest trails, and it was just about as much as we could do -- though in warmer weather we might have felt a bit more comfortable on it, but even so, we probably wouldn't've been up to the challenge of any of the other trails.  The park had a few "learning about nature" signs that were really strikingly self-congratulatory and effusive, but once you got away from the visitor center, it was just a lovely park with interesting plants and rock formations and a nice sense of isolation and quiet.  Also a lot more vegetation than we'd seen elsewhere, though even here the trees were short, stunted, twisted oaks.  No tall pine forests like we might have imagined (that, it turns out, is more common on the other side of the Rockies).  The picture here is a ground-clinging cactus growing at the foot of a twisty oak, a juxtaposition that seemed unusual.

We didn't end up driving up into the mountains and over them (or through them, as there's a tunnel on one of them), largely because the weather never quite seemed right for a drive like that.  Some other time we need to see the Colorado Plateau, the land on the other side of the Rockies (that includes a lot of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico), where there are both the tall pine forests, and the kind of dry arid land that you can call "desert" without disclaimer.  All in good time.

We didn't do a lot of museum-like stuff. We intended to visit the Denver Mint, because, how often do you get to tour a U.S. Mint? But it turns out they only offer a small number of tours each day and you have to book far in advance, and we let the window of opportunity slip away. We had also considered the Molly Brown House, but it wasn't open the one day we were looking to go to it.  So in the end the only place we visited was the Denver Firefighter's Museum. Which was pretty cool, really. It's not too large, only took an hour and a half or so to visit, but it was also reasonably priced (more so since we got a Groupon coupon for it), so it was a fairly good deal.

I think it was more fascinating for Siobhan because she has less exposure to firefighting and its history than I have. My parents were in the volunteer fire department in various capacities, and so I went to any number of open houses, picnics, firefighter's competitions, and the like, as well as some time hanging out at the fire department (I remember playing Atari 2600 on the (for that time) huge TV they had in the rec room). I even took some first aid, CPR, and babysitting courses there. Looking at plaques with pictures of firefighter training towers isn't as wowing if you've actually climbed up in one, and hearing about how the response system works isn't as amazing if your mom was a dispatcher and you had a CB in the house for years picking up the calls.

Even so, there was a lot for me to learn and be impressed by. Particularly interesting was the early part of the museum which covered the history of the fire alarm process -- from the time when it was someone shouting "Fire!" and everyone running for their buckets, through the installation of dedicated telegraph wires and cog-wheels with coded locations making ticker-tapes in various departments, to the modern computerized systems, and everything in between. There were also some fascinating historical tidbits about Denver's history with firefighting. And no matter how exposed you are to firefighters, you can't help but get a bit moved by some of the accounts of their bravery, sacrifice, and dedication.

Be forewarned, though. While there are a lot of activities for the kids, including a chance to try to get into gear quickly, a model house to practice fire drills in, and a truck you can climb into, there is not a pole you can slide down. There are several poles, of course, but there is no sliding.

The museum's definitely worth the time and money. Even if you don't find the subject matter interesting, I suspect the museum would serve to make it become interesting for you.

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