Why Colorado Springs:
I found a $78 roundtrip flight from Burbank to Colorado Springs on Avelo, my new favorite airline. Despite having spent many summers in Colorado, I have never been to The Springs. Upon further research, it appeared that there is a lot to see. Even with three full days, I would probably not see it all.
October 12, 2023: The Best TSA
My flight from Burbank took just under 2 hours to reach Colorado Springs airport. Upon arrival I was greeted with a sign proclaiming this to be “more-than-a-mile-high club” as the airport is located about 1,000 feet higher than Denver. At the rental car desk, the attendant mentioned that the airport has the best TSA in the entire country and that the city is very proud of this fact.
I then drove 15 minutes into town and checked into my hostel. Again, the check in guy mentioned the friendly TSA when I told him I flew in.
Colorado Springs is an early town with very few restaurants open past 21:00. Near the hostel, my best options appeared to be a drive-thru burger spot called Drifters that styled itself as a “California-style burger”. After downing my burger, fries, and boysenberry milkshake, I headed back to the hostel. Even though it was barely 21:00, my one roommate was sound asleep. With nothing else to do, I too went to bed.
October 13, 2023: America´s Mountain
My early-to-bed roommate turned out to be a huge snorer, so I did not sleep very well. In the morning he apologized and handed me earplugs but said there was nothing he could do to fix it.
At 8:00, I set out to start my day. My goals for the day were to explore the areas west of Colorado Springs. My first stop was the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, an hour away. This is the only National Park Service site in the area and I was very excited to get the stamp.
34 million years ago, the region was a lush forest full of redwood trees along a lake. A volcano 25 kilometers to the southwest then erupted burying the forest in ash. Just like in Pompeii, the tree stumps were miraculously preserved. The stumps are thought to be the largest pieces of petrified wood anywhere on earth. Having seen live redwood trees earlier in the year at Redwoods National Park, I was very impressed by these petrified versions.
While stopping for lunch in Woodland Park, I decided on a whim to drive up to the top of Pike´s Peak, something I had planned to do on my final day after I had adjusted to the elevation.
Pike´s Peak is one of the most iconic mountains in the United States. Standing at 14,115 ft high, it is the tallest mountain in the southern Front Range and towers over Colorado Springs and the Great Plains below. In 1893, Katharine Lee Bates wrote the song “America the Beautiful” (originally a poem called “Pike´s Peak”) about the majestic view she witnessed atop the mountain. For this reason, Pike´s Peak is often called America´s Mountain.
The summit of Pike´s Peak can be accessed in several ways. A 13-mile one-way trail ascends 7,000 feet from near Colorado Springs to the summit. For those that don´t want to walk, the world´s highest cog railway can take visitors to the mythical elevation and back in 3.5 hours. Finally, there is the second-highest paved road in the US.
The Pike´s Peak Highway is owned and operated by the City of Colorado Springs, which charges $17/person for the privilege to drive the 19 miles to the summit. The road is amazingly open year-round, although reservations must be made in the summer. Along the climb to the summit, are some viewpoints and a couple gift shops.
At the summit, there was a huge parking lot and an enormous two-story gift shop/cafeteria. Despite the commercialism that somewhat desanctifies the mythical 14,000 ft elevation, the views were outstanding.
Once down the mountain, I headed over to the Cave of the Winds and was able to snag a ticket to one of their final cave tours of the day. I knew I was in for a treat when my guide boomingly welcomed me to “the Kira experience”. With theater girl energy, Kira led us through room after room of the cave. When compared to other caves, the scenery was…middle of the pack (there were nice formations, and the passageways were neat, but it won´t blow you away). That said, the endless well-rehearsed jokes made the 60 minutes fly by.
Back in town, I got dinner with my college friend Kate. Kate lives in Denver drove the 1 hour down to see me! We went to a German restaurant called Edelweiss featuring an accordion-player traveling from table to table. I suppose this is CO Springs´ response to Casa Bonita. Unlike Casa Bonita, the food was good!
Kate is currently very pregnant, so we called it around 21:00 and I again went to bed early.
October 14, 2023: State-Sponsored Sports
When you ask the average person about Colorado Springs, the Air Force Academy and the US Olympic Training Center are two things that often are top of mind. Today, I would visit both.
After breakfast, my day started at the US Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. This is where American athletes live and train for international competitions such as the Olympics, Pan-American Games, and respective world championships. The center is run by the US Olympic Committee, a government agency that does not receive any taxpayer funding. Corporate and individual sponsors foot the bill. My tour was led by a resident female sharpshooter. She said she got into shooting in high school in Texas because it was the only sport that did not involve conditioning. Lo and behold she is now a professional athlete.
The 35-acre site is a former Air Force base and was selected due to the competitive advantages of training at elevation. It consists of training facilities and dormitories for resident athletes. While there are over 30 Olympic sports, only athletes from a handful of them train here year-round. These sports include wrestling, swimming, and shooting. Other sports such as basketball or volleyball will train here on occasion. Most of the winter sports train in Lake Placid, New York.
Each sport has its own dedicated training area.
Additionally, there is the nicest gym you will ever see and a sports medicine complex with the wildest machines you´ve ever seen including a room that can adjust to the heat, humidity, and altitude of the location of their next competition.
The dormitories can hold about 200 athletes. The residential athletes live here on contracts from their respective sport governing bodies eg USA Wrestling or USA Swimming (interestingly 25 of the sport governing bodies are here in CO Springs). Athletes are selected not necessarily based on talent but also potential that can be unlocked by living in CO Springs (being able to access high quality training facilities, coaches and sparring partners that might not be available back home). The contracts typically last one year and include rent and food and can be renewed. However, the contracts generally do not include discretionary spending money so many athletes do part-time work so they can have some fun and to help stay busy as it is impossible to train every waking hour.
Some athletes forgo the free rent in the dormitories in order to live on their own in town. Recently, there was an audit that discovered that athletes who live in the dorms do better than those that live on their own. The reason was diet. Most of the athletes have lived either with their parents on college campuses their entire lives and do not know how to cook healthy food. For this reason, the training center has a cooking classroom.
Another unexpectedly important part of training is mental health, especially for shooters. Our tour guide explained that the shooters need to be so accurate that they time their shots around their heartbeat.
All in all, I was very impressed by the facility and am proud that this exists.
My next stop was the brand-new US Olympic and Paralympic Museum.
Located near downtown in a beautiful building, this museum discussed the history of the Olympic Games, Team USA´s participation in the Olympic games, and many interactive games. The museum also leans heavy on technology. When entering you are given a plastic card with an RFID chip that can scan exhibits. After leaving, the museum will email you with all the information you scanned. This was easily one of the most impressive museums I have ever visited.
For lunch, I went to a Chamorro (indigenous people of Guam) restaurant. This is one of just 4 Chamorro restaurants in the US outside of Guam. While seemingly a random location, both Guam and Colorado Springs have heavily military presences. The family running the restaurant was friendly but not impressed that I had been to Guam. Anyways, the pork rib plate was delicious.
At this point, it was time for the day´s main event, a visit to the Air Force Academy for the football game against Wyoming. The academy is located 15 miles north of downtown. With the traffic, the drive took over 30 minutes.
While the game started at 17:00, I arrived 3 hours early to check out the campus, which is somewhat open to the public. While the main academic and residential area is closed to civilians, the ring road which contains viewpoints of that main area is open and full of informational plaques. Additionally, the Barry Goldwater Visitor Center has a museum on the academy which describes in detail the 4-year journey that cadets take to become officers in the US Air Force and Space Force.
From the visitor center, a short trail connects to the Cadet Chapel, a landmark modernist building. Unfortunately, the chapel is under construction until 2027. You can´t even see the outside because it is covered by what must be the world´s largest box. While near the chapel, numerous cadets walked by me. I noticed that they were wearing warm clothing. Despite the decent weather outside, I decided to trust their preparation and changed into the warmest clothing I brought on the trip.
I then drove to Falcon Stadium located on the eastern side of the campus. The tailgating occurred in a large grass parking lot spilling into the nearby forests. Since I didn´t know anybody and was not in a super friendly mood, I did not crash any tailgates.
With an hour to go, I headed into the stadium. Standing above the main player entrance tunnel, I witnessed a marching band performance. They played the fight song Off We Go, and a few stadium hits like “Rock And Roll Part 2” by Gary Glitter and “Hey! Baby” by Bruce Channel. Nothing gets me fired up like a college marching band!
After the performance, the entire student body of cadets lined the tunnel for their own entrance. The cadets were fired up and were dancing and chanting. Occasionally, spectators would throw dollar bills or squares of cheese (must be a tradition) down to them and like koi fish in a Japanese garden, the cadets would jump over each other to attempt to catch the gifts.
Above the entrance to the tunnel is a sign saying “WARNING: LACK OF OXYGEN ELEVATION 6621 FT ABOVE SEA LEVEL”. Ironically, their opponent, Wyoming is the only FBS team that plays at an even higher elevation as Laramie´s War Memorial Stadium is 7220 ft above sea level.
After finding my seat, I witnessed the most over-the-top pregame which consisted of the entire corps of cadets marching in, parachutists carrying the flags of each of the six branches of the military (yes, the Space Force counts) and finally a flyover from a bomber.
With that, the game began in front of the modest crowd of 27,000. I enjoyed the two archetypal fan bases who both dressed the part: the military brass of Air Force and the cowboys of Wyoming.
The game ended up being a real thriller. Wyoming pulled ahead by two scores, but Air Force came back to take the lead in the early third quarter. Wyoming tied the game with six minutes left on a touchdown but missed the extra point to take the lead. Air Force then fumbled on their own 27, but Wyoming couldn´t score. With three minutes left in the game, Air Force drove the field and got the touchdown to seal the game. The man next to me, a long-time Falcons season ticket holder said it was the best game he´s seen in years.
Since the food options were expensive and not appetizing, I instead got dinner at Atmosphere Gastropub on my way back. The street is probably the ugliest example of American suburban development, but the restaurant was nice and lively. The pork belly bahn mi sandwich was insanely good, and their beer selection was strong. This is the first time I have seen Hill Farmstead beers outside of New England.
October 15, 2023: Broad Reach of the Broadmoor
Colorado Springs is home to the Broadmoor, an iconic 105-year-old lifestyle resort located south of town at the base of Cheyenne Mountain, which is best known for the military complex but does contain other areas too.
The Broadmoor was developed by Spencer Penrose, a major local businessman. Many visitors come to Colorado Springs just to stay here. When the resort was built, Colorado Springs was a dry town, but the Broadmoor, being just outside the city limits at the time, served liquor.
I started my day by touring the Broadmoor property. The incredible sway of this hotel and its ownership is shown by the parking situation. The Broadmoor has its own garages that charge $5/30 minutes, a reasonable fare for the downtown of a big city but obscene for a residential area of Colorado Springs. However, you cannot park on any of the surrounding streets without a residential permit. I ended up parking in what seemed to be a church lot.
The Broadmoor´s main campus consists of multiple Mediterranean Revival style buildings around a large artificial lake. Here there are 784 rooms, 18 restaurants, 3 18-hole golf courses, and dozens of Remington sculptures. Until 2004, there was a 3,000-seat ice hockey/skating arena on the property too. The back building has portraits of notable guests which includes basically every celebrity ever. Among the mix were an unusual high number of Defense Secretaries, generals and Olympic athletes which makes sense given the location.
Back at my car, the church lot turned out to be the employees’ lot which apparently also required a permit. I was able to escape mere minutes before getting caught by the ever-watchful security checking license plates.
A few minutes from the Broadmoor is the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, also founded by Spencer Penrose. Originally the zoo was housed at the Broadmoor until a monkey bit a hotel guest, which prompted the move to its own campus. Living up to its name, the zoo is built along the steep slopes of the mountain.
For a city the size of Colorado Springs, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is shockingly good. They have every animal you could possibly want to see. My favorite was the 17-animal giraffe herd. The walkway is situated near the level of their head and for $3 you can feed them lettuce. Fun fact: giraffe tongues are black and 50 cm (1.5 feet) long.
Somehow, I spent 3 hours at the zoo!
Included in the zoo ticket is the ability to drive to the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun. To reach the shrine, one must drive through the zoo along a private road. Before entering, I was told by the security guard to go at 5 mph with hazard lights on because the pedestrians are woefully unaware of their surroundings. Past the zoo, it was another 10 minutes up the mountain to reach the shrine.
The 5-story Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun looks like a castle. It was commissioned by (you guessed it) Spencer Penrose after Roger´s untimely death in a plane crash in 1935. Each floor of the tower contains photos from various parts of Will Roger´s life including his final home in Pacific Palisades, CA just 3 minutes from where my parents live. The top of the shrine has stunning views of Colorado Springs.
The basement is a chapel containing…. the tomb of Spencer Penrose and his wife Julie. Interesting that he is buried in a monument he built to honor somebody else.
Back down the hill, I got lunch in town before droving over to a parking lot. Here, I caught the shuttle to the Seven Falls. The falls are in a privately owned box canyon. In 2014, the Broadmoor purchased the canyon from the Hill family who had owned it for 68 years.
After getting dropped off and paying the $18 entrance fee, I walked up the stunning box canyon passed red rock formations to reach the falls. Along the way were a couple food stands and a fancy restaurant.
The 55 meters (171 ft) tall Seven Falls lie at the end of the canyon. True to their name, there are in fact seven distinct waterfalls. To get to the top, there is a very impressive metal staircase. Once at the top, there are more hiking trails to explore.
Additionally, a sweeping view of the falls can be seen from the Eagle´s Nest, an observation point accessed by yet another metal staircase or an elevator rising through the mountain.
Back at the car, it was finally time to visit Colorado Springs´ most popular tourist destination Garden of the Gods. The massive red rock formations were once described by an early surveyor as the perfect spot for a German beer garden. His colleague, Rufus Cable responded “Beer Garden! Why, it is a fit place for the gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods.”
The land was acquired by railroad owner Charles Perkins who originally planned to build his home on the site but ended up keeping it natural. Upon his death, he donated the land to the City of Colorado Springs to become a public park forever free to the public. This has been the only free attraction I have visited so far on this trip. Literally everything else I have visited over the past 3 days has cost between the very annoying $15-30.
There are many trails to explore Garden of the Gods, but the most popular one skirts the two largest formations.
The trail and surrounding roads were jam packed and rightfully so. It is free, spectacular, close to town and it was a beautiful day.
Before heading to the airport, I stopped for dinner at a burger shop called Skirted Heifer. The burgers are enveloped in cheese that extends like a skirt well beyond the borders of the burger. This was easily one of the most delicious burgers I have ever had.
With that, I headed back to the airport to go home. Living up to the hype, the TSA were indeed the friendliest I had ever met.
Colorado Springs is a fantastic tourist destination for people of all ages and interests.
There is a perfect blend of impressive outdoor and indoor sights with incredible variety. Most sites can be accessed and enjoyed by people of all ages. My only gripe is cost; everything except Garden of the Gods costs between $15-30/person which really adds up.
While no Denver, there are more than enough good restaurants of various cuisines and breweries in Colorado Springs for any visitor.
Despite being a relatively fast traveler, I was not bored after three days and could have easily stayed another two.
For a premium traveler, the Broadmoor is the place to be because they seem to also own half the tourist attractions in town and probably can give some premium access and services.
Getting to CO Springs is also easy. While its own small airport, Denver International Airport is also just an hour away. If you factor the time it takes to drive into Denver, the difference is only 30-40 minutes.
While Colorado Springs can be visited year-round, I would avoid the winter because the hiking opportunities are limited and because the winter is the best time to visit other parts of the state.
In short, go to Colorado Springs. You will not regret it.