A Late Summer Getaway

As we hoist our heavy packs onto our backs, the last vestiges of clouds dissipate. The sky gradually returns to its proverbial azure hue, after being obscured by smoke and haze. The presence or threat of wildfires in the American West, and the bans on open fires and flames that characterized much of our Colorado summer, have been lifted, and we jump at the chance to escape for a short stint. Rain at our planned destination delayed our departure by two days, but now we thank those showers for having cleared the air, and for having created the piney, fresh fragrance that envelops us in the forest.

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Our goal is to reach the Lakes of the Clouds in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. After driving 100 miles southwest from Colorado Springs, we reach our trail, where wind whooshes through conifer boughs, and aspen leaves dance in the breeze. Most are still green, but a few are turning, harbingers of approaching autumn. The rocky path takes us higher and higher, to three alpine lakes nestled in a wide mountain basin, at an elevation of approximately 11,600 feet. After five miles and roughly 2,500 elevation gain, we set up our tent.

     We have longed for Colorado’s tundra, famous for its wildflowers. Our years-long drought has lessened their bounty, and we are here late in the season, but some colorful blossoms still enliven the scenery. The lichens and shrubs that cling to the rocky slopes are already assuming their autumnal, rust-colored sheen, and drape the mountainsides in velveteen blankets.

Even though this is wilderness, animals are habituated to human visitors, as the lakes are popular not only among hikers, but also anglers. A female deer appears out of nowhere and munches grasses close to our tent, seemingly unafraid; a well-fed ground squirrel watches us filter water from a lake; chipmunks forage through our camp, in search of dropped morsels of food. We listen to the chatter of squirrels in the trees, and to the high-pitched calls of marmots and pikas in the surrounding rocky crags.

Few people have made the trek this week in late August, and the campsites are scattered enough to enjoy a sense of solitude. The languid hum of insects and the chirping of birds accompany us through the daytime and complement the constant background music provided by a waterfall cascading down a cliff face within earshot of our site. At night, we see the pinpricks of myriad stars, fewer when the moon vies for attention, more once it goes to sleep. Other than short excursions into our environs, we laze – read, write, follow the arc of the sun across the firmament. Stretched out on our backs we observe the celestial dance of the clouds: tendrils of vapor approaching, linking hands, letting go, drifting apart. Like high-altitude lizards we luxuriate in the warmth, and revel in the colors of late summer, grateful for glimpses of nature’s benevolent face.

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A Castle in Colorado

Castles in Germany are not infrequent. For many sightseers they epitomize Europe’s charm and myth, and any American who has taken a cruise on the Rhine will have dozens of photos to share with relatives back home. Even during my last trip to Germany I happened across several castle ruins during everyday activities. But castles in Colorado? Even if the Rocky Mountains form their own towers, turrets, and battlements, drawbridges are not among the natural features. Nonetheless, Colorado boasts a fully-formed castle, complete with drawbridge (even if there is no moat – yet) and it is a well-known area landmark, as the ever-present column of cars lining the roadside attests.


I speak of Bishop Castle, located along State Highway 165, in Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest, about 73 miles southwest of Colorado Springs. The embodiment of one man’s vision, Mr. Jim Bishop has worked on his magnum opus for nearly 60 years, according to the official website, and since his marriage in 1967, has had the support of his wife Phoebe. It is still a work in progress, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that moat were to show up after all, water shortage in the West be damned. This seems to encapsulate the attitude of the builder who has no qualms about voicing his controversial social and political opinions and who has fought tooth and nail with local and national entities about the legality of his project. Nevertheless, he has withstood any and all attempts at derailing him from the fulfillment of his design.


Even though my husband and I have heard about the castle, have even seen photos of it, when we finally stand before it, we are not prepared for the gargantuan edifice fashioned of local rock, glass and what must amount to miles and miles of ironworks.


The tallest tower tops out at 160 feet, and the tallest chimney terminates in a dragon. On the sunny autumn day of our attendance, we are deprived of the smoke-spewing spectacle which greets guests on rare occasions. Entry through the lowered drawbridge is free, but donations are welcome, as most construction costs have been financed by Mr. Bishop himself, besides those willing to fund his quest.


Many of the rooms spread out over three stories remain unfinished, some are drafty for lack of glass in the windows, but each is endowed with its own character.


We marvel at a succession of elegant arches, before entering a generous hall on the third floor. Its pointed ceiling, bisected by ornate welding, and lofty windows invoke the nave of a Gothic cathedral and its solemn atmosphere invites reflection and pause.


Narrow staircases lead us higher and higher, until stone gives way to metal porches and walkways hugging the exterior walls.


The castle, at an elevation of 9,000 feet, is surrounded by mountains and trees and affords glimpses of Colorado’s Great Plains in the East.


The 360 degree view from the birdcage-like globe and bridges which grace the building like a filigreed crown makes up for the slight queasiness resulting from the structure’s gentle swaying in Colorado’s fall breeze, but to those afraid of heights, my advice is not to climb beyond the third story.


Opinions about Bishop Castle and the person behind it range from approval to severe condemnation. Yet none of the visitors on site seems able to resist a sense of awe and admiration. I can’t help but reflect on the quest of another misunderstood knight, having recently re-read and re-considered the meaning of Don Quixote. I know I am a hopeless romantic, but I am impressed with and inspired by Jim Bishop who dared to follow his dream and left us a dreamlike legacy.

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Did They Dance the Charleston?

Unexpected discoveries often occur in unusual locations. During a camping trip in Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest a few weeks back, my husband and I enjoyed two calm nights under a full moon at Davenport Campground adjacent to Squirrel Creek, where large historic markers recount a fascinating chapter in the local history, and what follows is my own simplified version.

In the wake of southcentral Colorado’s devastating Ludlow Massacre which affected coal miners and their families in 1914, unions gained increasing influence, working conditions for various laborers finally improved, and vacation time was at their disposal for the first time. The working classes became interested in recreation, and discovered the plentiful woods west of Pueblo as a camping destination. It soon became evident that the unstructured foray of masses of humans into the forest created attendant problems.


Arthur Carhart (1892-1978)

In 1919, landscape architect and World War I sanitation officer, Arthur Carhart, was recruited by the National Forest supervisor to come up with solutions to overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and destruction of land and timber. Arthur was a visionary who anticipated the growing utilization of natural places, and the resultant need for infrastructure. When Congress refused to allot funds for recreation for the Forest Service, he did not capitulate, but founded a private non-profit corporation, with Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron one of its major contributors, the same responsible for the infamy committed at Ludlow.

Mr. Carhart is credited with designing the first modern campground along Squirrel Creek, with each site including space for tents, picnic tables and benches, fire rings, and access to so-called “sanitaries”, ensuring the separation of human waste from drinking water. Having camped at numerous private, state, and federal campgrounds, we were intrigued to learn who masterminded this nearly ubiquitous layout. In 1922, he also adapted a wagon trail along the stream for automobile use, which became known as Squirrel Creek Road and improved accessibility to a mounting number of recreation sites.


Camping before the advent of structured campsites

For travelers not inclined to sleep under canvas, Carhart planned the Squirrel Creek Lodge in 1922, a two-story structure whose rooms were complemented by a center hall, two large fireplaces, a roomy kitchen and — a dance floor. What else could one ask for after escaping the sweltering heat of Pueblo, but to seek shade under the cool forest canopy, and to cut a rug, dancing the wildly popular Charleston during the Roaring 1920s?

Alas, all good things must come to an end. The Great Depression followed the upbeat twenties, and additional tourist attractions by the early 1940s led to a decline in the popularity of the Squirrel Creek developments. The death knell was sounded in 1947 after a flood washed out portions of the road and campgrounds, plus several bridges.


Hiking trail along the former Squirrel Creek Road

For modern day visitors, this story comes alive along the former Squirrel Creek Road, now a hiking trail, which starts at Davenport Campground and connects to the Pueblo Mountain Park approximately 5 miles east, as the crow flies. Along its course are scattered remnants of picnic tables, fire rings, concrete anchors for wooden guardrail posts, and a reconstructed Adirondack-style picnic shelter. After years of disuse, a conflagration claimed the lodge in 1979, and all that survives today is its foundation.


Foundation of former Squirrel Creek Lodge

However, when I listened closely, mixed in with the murmuring of Squirrel Creek, the breeze stirring the boughs of ponderosa pines, and the haunting tune of a hermit thrush, I’d swear I heard soft notes of dance music drifting through the air.

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