Late-afternoon sunlight envelopes the hillside. Its rays penetrate and warm the grasses, the gravely soil, a fallen tree, and the hikers who lie there, gazing up at the denim-blue sky. In the valley far below, a solitary angler - the only other human being for miles - stands on the banks of a glass-smooth pond, his wet fishing line twinkling in the waning light.
This is the vantage point from a favorite spot in the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Area. Just off the trail that loops through the protected land that encompasses twin round-topped Buffalo Peaks, it offers the kind of peace that, once experienced, stays with you and beckons you back.
Buffalo Peaks is just one of many memorable spots in Colorado. But it tops our list of 15 favorite places and experiences in our great region. We know that for every 15, there are hundreds more. That's what keeps us exploring.
Lying in the sun, high on a hillside, off the Rich Creek Trail just before it loops with the Rough and Tumbling Creek Trail in Buffalo Peaks Wilderness.
The sun is the key here, for this place offers high-elevation (read: nippy at night) backcountry camping.
Specifics: The wilderness area is between Fairplay and Buena Vista. To get to the trailhead for Rich Creek Loop, take U.S. Highway 24 west to Hartsel; turn right on Colorado Highway 9; turn left on U.S. Highway 285. Turn right on Weston Pass Road and follow to trailhead. To hike the 11-mile loop, cross the creek and begin counter-clockwise. At a meadow, you'll have to use a beaver dam to cross the creek and connect with the second half of the loop.
Camping at Site 64, Mueller State Park.
One night, late-September, site 64 on Pisgah Point in Mueller. It rains all day, bringing down most of the aspen leaves left on the trees. It's cold, and the wind blows powerfully along the ridge, buffeting our tent. The next morning, all is quiet, and we emerge into a sparkling sunrise. Why site 64? It looks out on a meadow and hillside, and even offers views of distant snow-capped peaks.
Specifics: Mueller has 132 campsites (including 21 walk-in sites), that are usually open through the end of October. The park keeps 11-15 sites open year-round as well. For information, call the park, 687-2366, or for reservations, www.parks.state.co.us.
Visiting Mesa Verde National Park in the winter.
Mesa Verde in the winter offers something summer visitors never see - a chance to visit the cliff dwellings alone. There are few winter visitors, and there is something mysterious, eerie almost, about standing in the ruins and listening to nothing but the wind sing through the rock walls.
Specifics: Mesa Verde, nine miles east of Cortez, is open year-round. About a seven-hour drive from Colorado Springs. A $10 entrance fee is charged (good for seven days). For more information, call (800) 449-2288 or check www.nps.gov.
Exploring a giant's playground, the tumble of humongous boulders in Lost Creek Wilderness Area.
This nearby wilderness area encompasses hidden meadows, raging creeks and fantastic rock sculptures and formations, caused by wind and water. Along the Goose Creek Trail, about four miles from the trailhead, is an area of huge granite boulders stacked and balanced, with caves, overhangs and flat faces perfect for a picnic.
Specifics: Take U.S. Highway 24 west to Woodland Park; turn right on Colorado Highway 67. At Deckers, take County Road 126; watch for Goose Creek sign. Turn left onto gravel road and follow signs to trailhead. Park on the road, and take Goose Creek Trail to the Shafthouse turnoff; continue on the main trail to the rock area.
Soaking in the Strawberry Park Hot Springs outside Steamboat Springs.
Before I ever saw natural hot springs, this is what I thought they should look like. Hidden away so well you'd never find it on your own, Strawberry Park features a steaming pool that's bath temperature, and a source spring that steams at 137 degrees. This is rustic at its best, with rock ledges forming the boundaries.
Specifics: The hot springs are about seven miles from Steamboat Springs. Open year-round. For more information, call (970) 879-0342. For guided tours in the winter, call (970) 879-8065.
Watching the sunset play on Pikes Peak, from a vantage point on the shoreline at Rampart Reservoir.
Rampart is a popular boating, fishing and hiking area, but most people go home before the sun sets. They're missing one of the most glorious sights in the region. From the parking lot or from one of the little hidden coves, Pikes Peak looms overhead. And if there's a full moon, those who stay are rewarded with a moonscape of gray sky, dark mountains and glistening water.
Specifics: To get there, take U.S. Highway 24 west to Woodland Park. Turn right on Baldwin Street (by McDonald's) and drive to Loy Gulch Road. Turn right and follow road to intersection where the pavement ends. Turn right and follow to the reservoir. Park in the lot. $4 gate fee per car.
Lying in the thick grass, on the shady banks of the duck pond in Monument Valley Park.
This should be a stop on any bicyclist's trip down the Pikes Peak Greenway. The pond is shaded by giant sloping cottonwoods. Bright orange koi swim lazily in the still water, and Canada geese call its banks home.
Specifics: The pond is along the Pikes Peak Greenway Trail. Park in a lot at Cache La Poudre Street.
Climbing the boulders that surround Lake Haiyaha in Rocky Mountain National Park.
This park is a hiker's paradise. The trek to Lake Haiyaha is technically easy but aerobically challenging. And the payoff is the trail's end, where visitors must follow cairns to find their way to a chilled mountain-locked lake.
Specifics: From Estes Park, take U.S. Highway 36 into the park. Take the Bear Lake Road to its end and park in the lot. Lake Haiyaha Trail begins at Bear Lake; it's 2.1 miles to the lake from the trailhead. There's a $15 park entrance fee (good for seven days). For more information, call (970) 586-1206.
Heading above tree line on the Devil's Playground trail from the Crags.
This trail shares its start with the popular Crags Trail, but it veers off and offers a different view of the back side of Pikes Peak. Recently rebuilt by Friends of the Peak, the trail takes hikers through deep forests and emerges at treeline to wind through alpine tundra studded with boulders. Those who make it to the top are rewarded with a walk through Devil's Playground, an aptly named high-altitude meadow dotted with rock knobs and towers.
Specifics: To get there, take U.S. Highway 24 west to Divide; turn left on Colorado Highway 67; drive five miles and turn left onto gravel road (watch for sign for Crags Campground). Follow road to campground and park at trailhead. To find Devil's Playground trail, start on the Crags Trail and watch for a trio of water pipes in the ground. Just after the pipes, look for a log bridge to your right; cross the creek and follow the trail uphill.
Walking along the Rabbit Valley Research Natural Area and Trail Through Time west of Grand Junction.
Countless people have walked this short (11/2 mile) trail, but it doesn't matter. It still feels like you're the first to discover dinosaur bones poking from the rocks.
Specifics: From Grand Junction, head west on I-70. Two miles before the Utah Border, take the Rabbit Valley Exit; watch for Trail Through Time sign. For more information, call the Bureau of Land Management at (970) 244-3000..
Strolling the timeline on the Petrified Forest Loop at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.
Who among us hasn't tried to understand the march of time? This stretch puts it into perspective in a way everyone can understand. Every two inches of trail represents a million years. Walk the whole timeline, look back, and you can see 4.57 billion years.
Specifics: To get there, take U.S. Highway 24 west to Florissant; turn left on Teller County Road 1. Watch for Fossil Beds on your right. $2 per adult entrance fee. Pick up a map at the visitor center. For more information, call 748-3253.
Riding a bicycle through the aspen "arches" of Boreas Pass Road.
Glowing green in the summer and gold in the fall, the aspen trees on either side of this narrow gravel road meet in the center and form an archway. This is a popular mountain bike ride or car trip - the road is usually passable for passenger cars and isn't a problem for SUVs.
Specifics: To get there, take U.S. Highway 24 west to Hartsel; turn right on Colorado Highway 9 to Breckenridge. At the stoplight for Boreas Pass Road, turn right and follow road up. Bikers can park in a lot; cars may continue up the road.
Exploring the desert plateau of Sand Canyon near Cortez.
This place feels old. Around each bend, over each stretch of slick rock trail, are pieces of the inexplicably round structures built from stones and bricks by Ancestral Puebloans hundreds of years ago. They are similar to those protected at nearby Hovenweep National Monument, but here no fences separate hikers from the ruins. And this area, now a part of Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, is alive with desert creatures - lizards and rattlers - and the tracks of mountain lions remind visitors whose land this is.
Specifics: From Cortez, take U.S. Highway 666 south to County Road G. Turn right and drive about 12 miles; watch for trailhead parking and sign on your right.
Driving Shelf Road from Cripple Creek to Cañon City.
Start in Cripple Creek and head downhill, on a narrow gravel road that twists and turns as it winds through stands of giant cottonwood trees. Watch for the rock structures (including a memorable keyhole) and get ready for a canyon view. As it nears Cañon City, the road passes by the Shelf Road climbing area, popular among climbers for its big limestone walls. And look down into the deep canyon, painted in reds and browns as you drive along its edge.
Specifics: To get there, take U.S. Highway 24 west to Divide; turn left on Colorado Highway 67. In Cripple Creek, turn left at the bottom of the hill, and watch for Shelf Road fork on your right. Follow Shelf Road to Cañon City, then return via U.S. Highway 50 and I-25.
Hiking along Barr Trail in the moonlight.
There's something about hiking at night. When the light dims and your sense of sight is lessened, other senses are heightened. Every rustle in the scrub oak bushes, every whoosh as a bat flies by, every breath of the hikers with you, seem amplified. The scent of wild animals mingles with the aroma of pine trees. And when the moon lights up the forest, it looks like a different world.
Specifics: To get there, take Colorado Avenue west to Manitou Springs; turn left on Ruxton Avenue and drive to Barr Trail parking area (past the cog railway parking area). Park and begin your hike there. If you don't want to go alone, check out this local group that sponsors moonlit hikes on Barr Trail each month at pcisys.com/~rld/ hike/ or e-mail the hike founder, brianberliner@ yahoo.com. Hikes are typically at 5 p.m. on the Friday closest to each full moon (preferably preceding the moon).