Roughing it on the Perilously Beautiful Rampart Range Road
Every weekend, heat or no heat, we try to make it a point to discover another part of this beautiful and multifaceted state. With such a warm summer, beating the heat is an incentive for heading for the high ground.
We had read about Rampart Range Road in the Pike National Forest, and how it boasts some of the best views of Pike’s Peak. This was of particular interest to me, as seeing Pike’s Peak has resembled a snipe hunt since we moved to Colorado a year ago. For the highest and most popular peak in the country, it has been impossible for us to “see”. We have gone to the base of it (Garden of the Gods and Manitou Springs), glimpsed it on the way to Colorado Springs, and even saw the tip of the peak from the end of our street. But, nothing in any of this has enabled us to actually see the entire mountain, nor come anywhere near being able to identify it. So, the promise of a great view was inviting.
We were aware that Rampart Range Road was a “gravel road” maintained by Colorado Springs. We knew it was about 60 miles long, and that it went by Devil’s Head fire tower, all of which sounded interesting, and not unlike our other experiences. We aren’t really into off-roading, but this sounded civilized and doable. We chose to depart from the Sedalia end, as we wanted to try out the legendary Bud’s Bar for lunch, where, we discovered, your “menu” choices are hamburger or cheeseburger. Oddly, they were delicious, even though the server described the buns as the “cheap ones you get in the supermarket”, and the lack of condiments as “the only lettuce we have is in the register”.
So, after finishing our unusual and “cash-only” lunch, we headed for Rampart Range Road and the adventure that awaited. We were anxious to get to higher ground, as air conditioning was another luxury Bud’s appeared to forego. We followed the waypoints that had to be manually input into the iPad GPS, as neither it nor the car GPS wanted to recognize the trail. We climbed and eventually got to Rampart Range Road. We were prepared for the described solid gravel road, but were not prepared for the washboard on solid sandstone that was to rattle our brains, car and kidneys for what inadvertently turned out to be many, many hours.
It turns out, that the 30 mph speed limit signs posted throughout the road were a bit of a joke. Were we to go any faster than 15 in most places (even in our reasonably new model, well made SUV), we would not have been able to keep Bud’s burgers down. It quickly became apparent that this area, lovely as it was, was a haven for 4-wheelers and motorized dirt bikes. Every conceivable area to pitch a tent or park an RV was filled with those types of vehicles, and they were buzzing (loudly) all over the mountainside trails, and the “road”, despite signs saying they were not allowed to use the road.
We expected to get to better road conditions any time, but hour after hour of 15 mph appeared to emphasize that this was not possible. When we did spy a drive-off area with hiking trails (albeit perilous) and views of something, we stopped, and were rewarded by beautiful scenery. We weren’t quite sure what the scenery or mountains were, however, but it was lovely—and much cooler than home. So, we remained hopeful and pressed on. The huge boulders to the sides of the road were fascinating, and invoked impressions of Easter Island. The forests were beautiful, thick and lush; but the trails were steep and gravelly if you ventured too far. And the drop-offs were—very deep. In spite of warnings to the contrary, there were some available, if questionable restroom facilities.
After hours of stuttering over the washboard road, we did pass what appeared to be Devil’s Head fire tower; but there were no signs, and motor vehicles were not allowed on the access road (although there was a pickup truck visible up there). This uncomfortable sense of aimless and endless wandering was heightened by the fact that there was no cell service for most of the trip. There was also a conspicuous paucity of people, let alone rangers or law enforcement, should a problem arise (which didn’t seem that far-fetched). We were, however, distracted and entranced by the beautiful rocks, woods, and the occasional vista for about 4 hours, as well as the distinctly welcome cooler temperatures. We were getting a bit fidgety when it was about 6 pm, and the skittish deer were beginning their dusk forays across the road. We had forgotten that, in spite of the fact that the sun would not officially set for at least another two hours, it may as well have set, as it was dark on the totally unlit mountain roads carved into the tall forest with the added but unwanted thrill of dizzying switchbacks.
Then we spotted a short side road which appeared to lead to a clearing, which, YES! gave a spectacular view of the evasive Pike’s Peak. We scuttled (more like bumped) down the short road, and found one clearing of massive rocks without a totally clear view, then went a short distance to the left where someone had set up a large campsite on the very most perfect spot in the entire national park. No one seemed to be around, so we scaled some of the more achievable rocks and began taking some pictures of the lovely view. We finally knew what the odd-shaped and elongated Pike’s Peak looked like! The last few photos were interrupted by two smallish dogs literally nipping at my heals. It turns out that dogs can scale the same size rocks that I could. The camping family had returned, and finally corralled their animals. We apologized for intruding on them, returned to the car and tried to continue, and hopefully conclude, this lovely, but trying journey. Since the GPS was of no help, and the iPad maps wouldn’t load, we agreed on the direction we were both sure we were headed, and pressed on. The end just HAD to be in sight. During the last few hours of the trip, there were no facilities, and we were both anxious to get back to civilization. My husband was growling about the potential damage riding on a washboard for hours and hours would do to his car—not to mention our heads.
We went on and on, scaring more deer, with darkness encroaching, but never seemed to see any progress with the barely moving dot on the GPS. I first figured it was because we were going more slowly than a person could walk; but we soon concentrated on it long enough to realize that we were, very slowly but surely, headed back the way we came—more hours of disastrous washboarding—but this time without daylight or fascination with the surroundings.
Long story short, we made it back to Sedalia at about 9pm! Bud’s Bar was no longer an attractive option for our current dark temperaments and unsettled stomachs, so we found another place to soothe our gnawing stomach pains in Castle Pines.
In summary, I would highly but guardedly recommend Rampart Range Road and the spectacular forest, rocks and vistas—but I would urge a great deal of forethought and caution—not to mention preloading GPS maps. Unless you have disposable shock absorbers and a high tolerance for being shaken so much your teeth chatter; or unless you ride a 4-wheeler illegally on the road, plan and realize that you will have to crawl along this fabulous mountain way at a turtle’s pace (a slow turtle), and that it is a long, long “road”. Had we not taken the wrong direction near the end, it still would have been a very trying and too long distance at that speed and roughness. Rain would have made it impossible, and washed away the slight dirt covering the very rough corduroy sandstone road. Darkness would have been scary, and even dangerous.
But, in our effort to see everything we can in this state of endless terrain and beauty, we are not sorry for the effort. We are unlikely to ever repeat it, as I don’t think our shock absorbers or teeth could handle it; but we do know more about the mountains that we had only seen in the distance. And, it was a great escape from the heat!