Travel 3 minutes 11 September 2023

Close Encounters in the Colorado Desert

A towering rock formation inspires a trip through the alpine wilderness of Colorado to the red desert oasis of Gateway Canyons Resort.

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I went to Colorado with one goal in mind: to sleep in the shadow of a 300-million-year-old butte. Its photos had captivated me. A scaly burnt fin jutting out of the top of a mountain, towering over the Gateway Canyons Resort. I didn’t go so far as to sculpt it in my mashed potatoes, but I was drawn to it all the same.

First, I had to get there. My rock was way out on Colorado’s western border. My plane landed in Denver — on the other side of the Rockies, on the other side of the state. Denver is one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., and I looked forward to finding out why on the back end of the trip. For now, though, I slapped the trunk of my jeep and hit the gas to make the 400-mile drive before sunset.

The ride across Colorado is a visceral experience, your ears popping as you climb mountains and dive into their valleys, hugging the edge of awful canyons and ducking into low, dark tunnels, millions of years of rock weighing above. The landscape changes costumes like actors behind a curtain, from lush, cascading pines to flat-top mesas rising ominously from the desert. Eventually, the path becomes too thin for lanes of opposing traffic. The roads stack — one above, the other below, down by the water. Across the river, a coal train chugs along endlessly. This is the American West.

During the journey, you pass the trendy ski resorts at Breckenridge and Vail. You could stop at the latter for a few nights of refined camping at the Collective retreat, as I did on my return. Or drop in on one of Colorado’s many quaint alpine mining towns, like Idaho Springs and Georgetown. Prefer a quick detour to a national park? The imposingly named Black Canyon of the Gunnison begs to be seen. Or press on toward the Utah border, places called Rifle and Parachute streaming past your window, rising red cliffs funneling you to your ultimate destination.

Gateway: population 104. I stepped out of my dusty rental to make it 105. The first thing I did was look up. The rock, known as the Palisade, was the spitting image of its photo, a colossal mohawk hulking over a desert oasis. John Ford would’ve been impressed. Beneath, the Gateway Canyons Resort sprawled out in the valley of a primeval red rock canyon. I had two days here. The novelty never wore off.

The resort is the eccentric match of its founder: John Hendrix, creator of the Discovery Channel. Befitting a man who built his reputation on exploration, the hotel is nothing less than a little bit of Eden in a place that looks a lot like Mars. The pools, restaurants, and spa are spread throughout a green suburban campus. In the center: a museum for Hendrix’s personal collection of classic cars.

The other guests I encountered were mostly from the surrounding region, mostly there for a relaxing spa resort vacation. Not me. I’d come purely to revel in the otherworldly landscape those locals had long since grown accustomed to. Their nonchalance was a testament to the ever-present natural riches in this part of the country, on stunning display at Gateway, and easily examined via numerous excursions.

A UTV tour took me careening up to a plateau where our guide told us the secrets behind the property’s almost unbelievable views. We gazed at the only canyon in the world where water runs off in two opposite directions — a geological phenomenon scientists still can’t fully explain. Drill into the sandstone across the way and you’d find fish fossils from an ancient sea. A hike in that direction, he pointed, and you’d come across the tracks of dinosaurs that once roamed here. Later, I rode horseback under the mountains and to me, it looked like they still did.

Eventually, I’d retire to my casita suite, and lay beneath the constellations (and my rock) on the lounger in my little backyard. But first, I hiked alone through the rugged trails behind the resort. Here was the purest red desert I had ever seen, and it was all mine to enjoy. Earlier, a guide mentioned the bear spray she carried as precaution when out with her horses. Are there bears on Mars? I was still humming that Bowie-esque question when something came sprinting from the brush. I felt a disorienting surge of fight or flight. Two white-tailed deer vanished as quickly as they appeared. I caught my breath, and laughed — how often do you get primal fear at a luxury resort?

Back in Denver, at the end of my Colorado adventure, I saw a city in its moment. The hotels I stayed in provided all the evidence you need that this is a modern-day boomtown. In the arts district, The Source Hotel thrives above an indoor market. The Crawford Hotel, in an iconic train terminal downtown, is the beautiful opposite of New York’s Grand Central. Waves of young people and families streamed through the doors of both; the coffee shops, barbecue restaurants, cocktail bars, and bookstores below were positively buzzing.

Still, my mind stayed out west. During the drive back to Denver, I’d pulled over to stretch my legs. On a whim, I found a trailhead and followed it up into the mountains. Within minutes the highway noise was replaced by a babbling brook they might’ve used for a sound effect in Westerns. At the summit was a lake so blue I almost had trouble enjoying it, such was the compulsion to document my precious discovery. Muskrats chased each other up and down the banks. There wasn’t another hiker in sight. Within 100 miles of my home in New York City, a spot like this would be packed at all hours, and closed for maintenance on Mondays. In Colorado, it’s what I found when I spun the map and dropped my finger.

And I’d only just scratched the surface.

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