Tramel's Colorado travelblog: Big Meadows is one of America's most scenic & serene places

·10 min read

I’ve been blessed to travel and see a lot of things. Most of the places I’ve raved about it, you already knew well.

But a few esoteric spots come to mind. The village of Canterbury, New Hampshire. The view of Tuscany from the ancient mountain city of Cortona, Italy. Bodega Bay, on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific in Sonoma County, California.

Put Big Meadows on the list.

Big Meadows is a must-stop on any of our Colorado trips, and Friday was our day for Big Meadows.

Big Meadows Reservoir is a small lake, 600 acres, sitting a couple of miles off U.S. Highway 160, between South Fork and Wolf Creek Pass.

Big Meadows is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places on Earth. The reservoir is open to kayaking and even some small motorboats, though I’ve never seen the latter on the water. Its serenity sits among the pine trees high in the San Juan Mountains.

Big Meadows has a narrow spillway that creates a ferocious waterfall of maybe 150 feet, which empties into a creek that feeds the the south fork of the Rio Grande River.

An iron footbridge, maybe 40 feet across, spans the spillway, which means you’ve got you’ve got the tranquility on one side and the relentlessness on the other.

The surrounding scenery is breathtaking. A small campground sits a little up the hill from Big Meadows, and a mountain rode takes you even higher, to two other lakes. Hunter’s Lake is accessible only by foot, and in the past, we’ve hiked the half mile or so to Hunter’s Lake. Not this year, though.

Clouds moved in while we were at Big Meadows, the temperature dropped about 10 degrees in two minutes, and rain started to sprinkle. We thought a storm might be coming in, so we cut short our time.

But no matter. It’s a beautiful place to be for 10 minutes or 10 hours.

We started off the day with a big breakfast – my son-in-law, J.J., is an excellent cook – and went into South Fork, which has become a tourism basecamp. South Fork has less than 1,000 year-round residents but might have close to that many residences, which are rented out for the summer season and for the long ski season at Wolf Creek, about 15 miles away.

South Fork historically was a timber milling and mining-support town, but those vocations long ago gave way to tourism.

We booked a river float trip, toured a farmer’s market (that was more of a craft fair) and the girls toured a few shops. Then we headed out for Big Meadows.

We cooked a big dinner in our cabin. There are restaurants in South Fork, and we’ve tried a few, but we mostly stock up on groceries in Alamosa as we arrive in the area, then cook.

You’ve got to be careful cooking at altitude. I opened a can of biscuits Friday morning – Grands; I love Grands – and one of the biscuits shot out like it came from a cannon. When we use the oven, we hike the heat 25 degrees from the suggested temperature, because of the altitude. We’ve had to learn by experimentation.

Small price to pay to experience the likes of Big Meadows.

Thursday: The majestic Rockies at Wolf Creek

Have you ever tried to describe something awesome? I mean, something awe-inspiring.

Niagara Falls. The Golden Gate. Puget Sound.

We had that experience Thursday, driving from the Texas Panhandle to Wolf Creek, Colorado. In our two-car caravan, granddaughters Sadie, 12, and Tinley, 11, rode with me and Trish the Dish. Sades and Shine were 5 and 4 the last time we came to Colorado, so they don’t remember.

So as we gradually moved from the High Plains to the Rockies’ Front Range, we tried to explain to the girls what they’re about to see. The buttes between Amarillo and Dalhart; the grasslands running to the mesas between the New Mexico towns of Clayton and Raton; the Front Range, where the prairie meets the mountains roughly along the Interstate 25 corridor; they all are stunning in their own way.

But any description of the majestic Rockies falls short of the reality. Here’s how we tried to explain it.

Massive mountains, with pine trees dotting the face all the way to the sky, separated by a narrow valley, where the south fork of the Rio Grande River runs and a highway was constructed, with just enough land for a little settlement to house 13 homes of various sizes.

That describes Wolf Creek Ranch, which also contains a small roadside motel, the last commercial enterprise this side of Wolf Creek Pass. Some of the homes are rented out for tourists; others are full-time residences. Just a few miles down the road is Wolf Creek Ski Area, which gets the most snow per year (an average of 430 inches) among Colorado’s ski resorts. The Continental Divide is just a couple of miles down U.S. 160 from the ski area.

We don’t ski. We come in the summer and enjoy the cool air. It was 69 degrees in Alamosa, an hour east of Wolf Creek, when we pulled in for provisions. Some days at Wolf Creek, the temperatures get into the 70s, but they don’t stay long.

We’ve stayed in four houses at Wolf Creek Ranch and have come to Wolf Creek most years between 1996 and 2016; twice we went to Crested Butte instead. But Wolf Creek Ranch is the ultimate getaway to relax and get away.

We’re staying in a five-bedroom cabin that is part rustic and part modern. It comes with WiFi, so I’m able to return to Oklahoma without being cuckoo, and a smart TV, so I was able to watch the NBA Draft on Thursday night.

We’ll take a few day trips and do some exploring and generally get away from it all.

Wolf Creek is the place to do just that.

Wednesday: Palo Duro Canyon

Tucker Yelldell says the Texas Panhandle is a place “where you can look farther and see less than anywhere else on Earth.”

But Yelldell is a fictional character in the “Texas” musical, and he’s standing on a stage at the bottom of Palo Duro Canyon, which indeed is in the Texas Panhandle, and he knows as well as the rest of us that there is lots to see.

Oh, you don’t see Palo Duro Canyon from interstates 40 and 27. It sits maybe 15 miles south of I-40 and maybe 15 miles east of I-27. So you might have missed it in all your travels from Oklahoma City to Albuquerque or Amarillo to Lubbock.

What a shame. Palo Duro Canyon is an American treasure.

Not as grand as the Canyon you know about, the one north of Flagstaff, Arizona, that draws worldwide visitors. But the Chicago skyline is not as grand as New York’s and Alabama’s seashore not as majestic as California’s, yet you wouldn’t think of not going.

And you shouldn’t dare miss a chance to take in Palo Duro Canyon.

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Our Colorado vacation started Wednesday with an overnight stop in Amarillo and trip to Palo Duro Canyon to take in one of America’s most unique settings for a musical.

“Texas” is performed in the Pioneer Amphitheater, at the bottom of Palo Duro Canyon, and it’s a lively, enjoyable show. So is the drive to get there.

Palo Duro Canyon is the nation’s second-largest canyon, about 120 miles long with an average width of six miles, though it widens to 20 miles in places. The depth is around 820 feet.

The Grand Canyon is much bigger, of course, but Palo Duro’s geographical features are quite similar. Standing near the rim at overlook locations is a stunning experience.

You’re maybe 25 minutes from downtown Amarillo. The Texas Panhandle, like Western Oklahoma, is part of the great American prairie, and yet here is this magnificent topography.

I call it inverted mountains. We’re headed to the Rockies, the great San Juan Mountains near South Fork, Colorado, but that lovely country is no more breathtaking than Palo Duro Canyon, which cuts into the Earth the way the Rockies rise above it.

The canyon is part of the Texas State Parks system and a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, from horseback riding and hiking to mountain biking.

I’m enthusiastic about being outdoors – if someone spends more time on their front porch than do I, a salute is in order – but not what you’d call an outdoor enthusiast. I’m not likely to hike to the bottom of Palo Duro Canyon, much less make the trek back up.

But a night in the canyon, watching musical theater? I’m in.

“Texas” has been presented five nights a week each summer since 1966, with performers mostly from the Panhandle.

The musical is presented in the 1,600-seat amphitheater, with an elaborate stage and special effects, all set against the backdrop of the glorious canyon.

The dancing is fantastic, the singing quite good and the story, well, not gripping or maybe not even historically on point, but entertaining. The plot centers around the struggles and triumphs of Panhandle settlers in the late 1880s.

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In some ways, it’s an “Oklahoma!” knockoff, showing the conflicts between farmers and ranchers. There’s even a song explaining the conflict. It’s not the caliber of “The Farmer and the Cowman” from Rodgers and Hammerstein, but that ditty is an all-time Broadway great. Let’s have a little grace.

I’ve got no problem with the parallels. We’ve borrowed enough from Texas culture, it’s only fair they borrow from us.

Anyway, the show was quite enjoyable. Riley, my almost-16-year-old granddaughter, is a musical theater kid, and she gave it thumbs up, so that’s all the critiquing I need.

I had seen the show sometime in the 1990s and don’t remember enjoying it as much as I did Wednesday night. They say it’s changed some over the years.

Ticket prices range from $20 to $40, and a barbecue dinner option is available a couple of hours before the show, which begins at 8:15 p.m.

Between dinner and the show, Benny Tahmahkera, the great-great-grandson of legendary Comanche chief Quanah Parker, tells Panhandle stories. Tahmahkera appears in the show, portraying Quanah Parker, whose people were removed from the Panhandle to southwestern Oklahoma and who became quite the noted figure in the Lawton area.

The show was an excellent start to our vacation, which admittedly comes at an inopportune time. I took a missions trip to Tijuana when the OU women were hitting the homestretch of the Women’s College World Series, and we headed out for Colorado the day the Sooner men played for a spot in the championship series of the Men’s College World Series.

Or maybe it’s opportune time. The Sooners beat Texas A&M 5-1, and I listened to Toby Rowland’s call of the game from about Hydro to Amarillo. The last out was recorded as I pulled into the Fairfield Inn parking lot.

We grabbed some dinner at Rosa’s Café, a Texas institution my daughter loves, and headed for the canyon.

A ballgame getting to Amarillo, a show in Palo Duro Canyon after arriving. Not a bad way to start a vacation that’s headed for the mountains that reach the sky but began with mountains going the other way.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Tramel Colorado travelblog: Big Meadows is scenic & serene