After spending a week rambling around the cool, aspen- and pine-shaded mountains of Colorado in a customized Dodge Ram ProMaster 1500, I’m convinced I need a campervan in my life.
I love sleeping in a tent, but snoozing in a cozy nook in the back of a van, then flipping open the rear hatch to watch the sun rise, makes me swoon. You just drive up, park, and voila – your campsite is set.
And because nearly 36 percent of the land in Colorado – roughly 23.8 million acres – is publicly owned, that means ample places to spend the night, even if official campgrounds are full. By contrast, only about 1.8 percent – or roughly 3 million acres – of land in Texas is publicly owned.
We rented Ivan the Terrible from Native Campervans (www.nativecampervans.com) in Denver, which also operates locations in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Several models are available, but we went with the “Biggie,” which comes with a mini fridge, two-burner stovetop, interior lights powered by a solar panel, and a bed that sleeps two. (If you’re taller than 5’10”, you’ll have to curl up.) It didn’t have a toilet or shower, but we didn’t really need them.
Rates vary depending on the model, length of the trip, and season, but Ivan the Terrible (all vans get names) goes for $239 a day in the summer, $199 a day in the fall, and $169 a day in the winter for a week-long rental. By comparison, a “Smalls” style campervan from the same company rents for $149 a day in the summer.
I learned a lot during our week on the road.
We made a big loop, starting in Denver and heading to Buena Vista, where we found a campground in the nearby national forest the first night. From where we parked, in a pine-dotted canyon accessed by a bumpy gravel road, we couldn’t see any other signs of human life. We hiked up on a ridge and soaked in the wilderness, happy for the need to zip up our puffy jackets.
We spent the next day in a rubber raft, running a hit parade of rapids through Browns Canyon with a private guide from River Runners, then parked Ivan for the night at a roadside campground in Almont. From there, we boogied our way to the fruit and wine region of Paonia, where we stayed two nights between the peach and apple trees at Big B’s Orchard. We visited the north (less visited) rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, peering 2,200 feet nearly straight down into the steepest, sheerest gorge I’ve ever seen.
Mid-week we indulged in a hot shower and a longer bed at the Bross Hotel in Paonia, then we hit the road again, stopping to camp in Redstone and, finally, Twin Lakes.
I learned lots along the way.
First, it may seem like a good idea, but don’t fry chicken and brew coffee on the stove while rolling down the highway in a campervan. (Don’t worry. I didn’t actually try this, although I was tempted.)
Second, watch for freak summer hailstorms. We cracked a windshield when one blew up out of nowhere at the top of newly-paved Cottonwood Pass.
I love mountain passes, by the way. Kebler Pass is home to one of the world’s largest aspen groves, and we spent two days in the area, hiking the spectacular Lost Lakes and Cliff Creek trails.
Also, I hate mountain passes. I had to blindfold myself as my husband Chris drove around hairpin turns with sheer drop-offs on Independence Pass between Aspen and Twin Lakes. I opened my eyes long enough to see a pop-up camper dangling about 20 feet off the road, its vehicle nowhere in sight.
My favorite new Colorado town? Redstone, known as the “Ruby of the Rockies,” with a population of 92 and the ruins of nearly 100 old beehive-shaped coke ovens, where coal mined in the surrounding ovens was once refined. (At its peak at the end of the 19th century, 200 ovens operated here. They fell into disrepair after World War II, and hippies moved into some of them during the 1960s and ‘70s.) It’s close to fantastic hiking at Avalanche Creek, too.
It’s worth the trip to tiny Marble, a cell service-free zone favored by buzzing four-wheelers, if only for the ribs at Slow Grooving BBQ. (They brag about the brisket, which is pretty good, but we’re from Texas and we know better, y’all.)
We finished our adventure in a lovely campground at Twin Lakes, where we popped a celebratory bottle of wine from the Storm Cellar in Paonia and toasted Ivan for carrying us safely around the state.