In the idyllic Colorado mountain village of Crested Butte, locals and visitors strolled past the shops and restaurants of Elk Avenue in September wearing their face masks outdoors.
Some 80 miles away, hikers and park rangers in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park consistently masked up before passing us on the trails.
Six months into the pandemic of 2020, even I thought this was overkill. I have zero interest in catching the coronavirus — my policy is, I’m not getting it if I can help it — but I’ve become pretty comfortable forgoing a mask in uncrowded outdoor spaces. Yet the ski resort of Crested Butte takes Colorado’s mandate a step further, requiring masks to be worn outside on the main drag, period.
Maybe they’re onto something. After all, rural Colorado — and indeed, the entire state — posted some of the lowest COVID-19 numbers in the country this summer, by far. Several counties I visited on a one-week September road trip were reporting close to zero active cases — almost, but not quite, a COVID-free utopia. (Those numbers are climbing this fall as in most states, but Colorado still has the ninth fewest total cases per capita in the U.S.)
The upshot? In a state where people were arguably more conscientious than they had to be, a return to tourism-as-usual actually felt achievable this summer. I’ll take that trade-off, and I suspect many road trippers would, as well.
While debating late-summer destinations with my quarantine partner, I turned to the data. Specifically, I looked at online maps showing state- and county-level counts of new COVID cases in the previous seven or 14 days.
My beloved Black Hills of South Dakota were out of the question, with soaring cases of late. So were the rest of the Dakotas, Iowa and much of Wisconsin. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan looked pretty good until recently. So did the Northeast and several states in the West, especially Colorado.
An Airbnb search of the area around Gunnison, Colo., sealed the deal. I spotted a listing for a luxe “glamping” yurt with a king-size bed, electricity and a wood stove, overlooking a remote lake, at $100 a night. It was perfect for a social-distancing trip. I eagerly booked three nights.
Snowing in September
To get there, we first had to “jump the purple wall,” our lingo for driving through areas colored purple on our map, indicating uncontrolled spread of the virus. So I plotted a 1,060-mile direct route that shunned the interstates in favor of the sprawling, scenic Sandhills of northern Nebraska — some of the least populous territory in America.
We wouldn’t stop for the night until we hit the Colorado border. Under the circumstances, a Best Western Plus in rural Fort Morgan fit the bill, solely on the basis of its advertised 16-point list of extra health and safety measures — and a 9.6 reviewer score for cleanliness.
Our first full day in Colorado featured a new challenge we hadn’t even considered: wild weather. In the span of 48 hours, the Denver area had careened from 100-degree record highs to 30-degree record lows and snow. In early September. The heavy flakes hit just as we started climbing into the mountains on Hwy. 285 out of Denver. A snow-covered Smokey Bear sign surreally warned of HIGH fire danger today.
In the Old West town of Fairplay (elevation: 9,953 feet), I pulled over. With hours of slick mountain passes ahead, we decided to stop here and miss our first night in the yurt. Above us, the giant letters H-O-T-E-L emerged cinematically from the gloom. We took it as serendipity and checked into the historic, allegedly haunted Hand Hotel, where the staff wore masks and our tiny Western-style room was named for a 19th-century madam.
Soon we realized that we were snowed in at “South Park,” the indecent animated series that uses Fairplay, in Park County, as its visual reference. Naturally, one of the only open businesses in town was a legal cannabis dispensary.
Base for exploring
The next morning, the road was clear and we crossed the soaring Continental Divide at Monarch Pass (11,312 feet) on the way to our glamping yurt. Located in a semi-off-grid development in tiny Sapinero (7,620 feet), the deluxe canvas structure overlooked snowy mountains and the 20-mile-long Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest lake in a state with few big ones.
By night, we cooked on a grill and then zipped the canvas shut to focus our energies on feeding the wood stove for heat. The fire died down as we slept, but the king-size memory foam mattress helped keep us warm until dawn. One evening, our Airbnb host welcomed us into his nearby hot tub, where the Milky Way arched vividly overhead.
Mostly, the yurt was a perfect base for day trips to explore the diversity of Colorado’s Western Slope. At Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we marveled at how the Gunnison River carved a deep, narrow trench in black rock, flecked with bright stripes of pink quartz known as pegmatite dikes. In Crested Butte, we stopped for a Himalayan lunch at Sherpa Cafe, then hiked at the base of nearby Snodgrass Mountain, where a second snowfall pelted us in a forest of pine and aspen.
We reluctantly checked out on Friday and decided to take a long, meandering way out of Colorado, starting with the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway — a personal Top 3 all-time scenic drive. The dominant imagery changed by the hour, from vertiginous views of Black Canyon, to an 800-foot igneous spire known as Needle Rock (a sort of mini-Devils Tower), to the bright hippie enclave of Paonia, where we stopped for ice cream, to the abruptly red-ochre mountains outside Glenwood Springs. Summer weather had returned, and the long drive made for my favorite day of the trip.
We wrapped up the day with a debatably risky indulgence: a sunset soak at Iron Mountain Hot Springs in Glenwood Springs. Wading in the natural hot spring pools felt almost inexcusable during a pandemic, even in an area with few COVID cases. Still, bathers wore masks while moving among the reduced-capacity outdoor pools, and physical distance was honored.
This was Colorado summer tourism in a nutshell: Be a little more careful than most places, and we’ll be happy to come.