Go West, young man

I just returned from a short trip to Colorado, visiting my two cousins and a friend who moved out to Denver within the past couple of years.

It was my very first tour of the Rockies and its picturesque snowscape. During the four-day visit, I was able to attend sporting events, go on outdoor adventures, meet some new family members, and get a feel for life in the Mile High City.

Denver Proper

My cousins Peter and Jane live together in a single-family house just west of downtown, wedged between the Highland, Berkley, and Sunnyside neighborhoods. Shortly after my arrival, Jane took me on a brief tour of the nearby neighborhoods and downtown.

The city is booming and new construction is on the rise. Many older craftsman-style houses are being demolished in favor of trendy lofts and multistory complexes, all in an effort to satiate the rapid growth spurt the city has experienced over the past several years.

From what I could gather in those first few hours, the city incorporates a network of orderly streets and interwoven neighborhoods surrounding a central downtown. Many residential areas, Jane’s included, felt more like suburbs and a far cry from neighborhoods in Boston. In fact, the city reminds me of a smaller-scale version of Los Angeles. Culturally, I felt that the city’s pace and style very much reflect Portland or Seattle, with coffee shops, book stores, and hip restaurants on every corner. A few first impressions:

  • Denver has this wonderful grid system with numbered streets. Compared to Boston, navigating through city streets was a breeze and their roads are paved with pork, no potholes!
  • While traffic was sometimes heavy, I found it more bearable than the disorganized gridlock back home. Maybe it was also because I was on vacation…
  • The city offers a beautiful skyline, but despite the tall buildings, their downtown has a much quieter and more laid-back feel than Boston or New York.
  • If you have a chance, take a walk through the Tattered Cover bookstore downtown, a really cool and well-known independent bookstore chain started in Denver.
  • As Jane’s cousin Demian pointed out, the train station is one of Denver’s “crown jewels,” and we got to take a peek that day. Built in 1881, the beautifully-restored train station now boasts a hotel, restaurants, and indoor marketplace:

 

Beer

While I didn’t have time to hit the Coors Brewing Company in nearby Golden, I did sample some of the local and regional craft brews. Some of my favorites were the 90 Shilling Ale by Odell Brewing and the Avery IPA. We also made a short visit to the Prost Brewing Company to try out their German-style beers.

Breweries are scattered across the city and surrounding areas, with plenty of different styles and varieties. I saw very few craft beers from New England that I’m accustomed to seeing, maybe with exception to Sam Adams. Needless to say, there were plenty of Colorado beers on tap.

The Mountains

Peter took me on an excursion to the Rocky Mountain National Park, just outside the town of Estes Park, Colorado. It’s about a two-hour drive through beautiful, snow-covered landscape and winding mountain roads.

Altitude is the real deal: coming from a sea level coastal city, I was definitely winded by the end of our short hike. The fact that I am by no means a hiker could also be a contributing factor. We weren’t exactly scaling 14ers, but we reached an altitude of just under 10,000 feet (impressive by East Coast standards). Despite my huffing and puffing, Peter dragged me up to a stunning vantage point atop an undisturbed rocky outcropping, which proved to be well worth the effort:

 

Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Garden of the Gods

Early the next morning, we took a drive through the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a WWII-era chemical weapons test site repurposed as a wildlife refuge. Built on the eastern side of the city, the terrain more closely resembles the flat grasslands of the Great Plains, a sharp contrast from the previous day’s surroundings. We spotted prairie dogs, birds of prey, and groups of deer along the way. I even got my first up-close encounter with a bison!

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Later in the day, Jane and I drove out to Colorado Springs to visit the Garden of the Gods, a scenic park full of huge rock formations. Once again, the topography shifted, and I felt more like I was in Arizona or Utah. In the distance, we caught a glimpse of snow-capped Pike’s Peak. A popular climbing spot, Garden of the Gods attracts tourists and locals alike:

 

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The ‘Burbs

Jane was excited for me to meet some of her other cousins, whom I’ve never met or even knew existed. She took me out to the nearby suburb of Brighton to attend a birthday potluck dinner for her cousin Demian’s half-sister Sathya (I know, this affiliation sounds like something out of Game of Thrones). Long story short, Demian is Jane and Peter’s cousin on their mother’s side of the family, and he and Sathya have lived in the Denver area for several years. When Peter and Jane moved to Denver, they were all happy to reconnect.

Sathya and her husband Mike live in a cavernous new home constructed on over an acre of land in a modern housing development. They are an active bunch with two young children and love to ride dirt bikes as a family. Although I was essentially a stranger, they welcomed me with open arms into their home and I met all of their relatives from the Denver area.

The potluck produced a southern style fried chicken and mac n’ cheese dinner and we shared plenty of laughs and stories around a warm fire pit. After dinner, homemade birthday cake and presents were had, and we proceeded to watch the Notre Dame football team get crushed by Miami, much to the dismay of the family and their die-hard allegiance to Notre Dame.

From what I gather, Denver’s real estate market is competitive (Demian happens to be a realtor), but I feel that, when compared to the Boston area, housing prices and overall value seem more realistic and attainable for average individuals and families. This is encouraging, especially coming from a place that is becoming more unaffordable with each passing year. It was heartwarming to see that Mike and Sathya have set down roots and are raising a happy family in a beautiful home, and I’m thankful to have been included in their celebration.

Food

Denver has a very strong restaurant game and you can find nearly any type of cuisine. Disregarding any salubrious meal choices, we indulged ourselves with artisan pizza and grass-fed burgers, snacked on pierogies, and drenched our tacos and breakfast burritos in world-famous Colorado Green Chili. I was well-fed throughout the trip.

On one evening, I had dinner with my old colleague and friend Dennis, who promptly moved to Denver after hiking the Appalachian Trail two years ago. He is now happily married with a five-month-old baby and we caught up on life over a couple of beers, steak, and pork chops.

We met up at Bremen’s Wine and Tap, not far from Peter and Jane’s house on 33rd street. The atmosphere was modern and trendy but not stuffy or overly sophisticated. While the place was certainly busy, Dennis and I could have a conversation without screaming over the music or crowd. The steak was perfectly cooked and reasonably priced.

While I would argue that Denver is slightly less cosmopolitan than Boston, it seems that they cut no corners with creative menus and high-quality cuisine. I’m not a professional Yelper, but I would give this spot at least four or five stars.

Red Rocks

On my last day, we visited the renowned Red Rocks Amphitheater. Built right into the rocky hills just outside of Denver, there are spectacular views of the both the natural and man-made wonders. We didn’t get to catch a show, but the theater and museum were absolutely worth the visit. Did you know that Red Rocks started in 1906 and officially opened to the public in 1941?

 

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Games

We were fortunate enough to catch both a Nuggets and Broncos game during the trip, and coincidentally, the Patriots were in town that weekend. Peter’s coworker had some extra tickets for the Nuggets game, where we managed to get a corporate suite to ourselves with great views. Surprisingly, they beat the Thunder that night!

 

On the very last night of my visit, we suited up and headed out to Sports Authority Field at Mile High. As many had expected, the Pats routed the Broncos, much to the crowd’s disapproval. Still, we saw plenty of fans in familiar red and blue, and by the fourth quarter, much of the Denver crowd had packed up and left the stadium.

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The Mile High Experience

All in all, Denver left a very positive impression on me, and I’m sure I’ll be back some day. It was great to spend time with family and friends and to see some of the major attractions that the area has to offer. In my view, many people in Colorado seem active and healthy with a bit of that West Coast friendliness and upbeat optimism. While I didn’t get a chance to ski or snowboard on this trip, I will have to return to experience that fresh powder.

If you like the great outdoors, the region offers plenty of opportunities to explore the natural surroundings, and you can find yourself in remote, untouched terrain within a short drive from the city. While I’m not sure how I would feel about being landlocked year-round, Denver seems like a great alternative to the hustle-and-bustle of the East Coast!

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