This trip report is a continuation of 2 previous parts that are posted in the South Dakota and Estes Park forums. I hope it's helpful in trip planning!
We left Estes Park early to get to my Uncle’s house in Black Hawk. We stopped to take photos of a beautiful church on Rt. 7 and arrived at his home shortly after 9. We loved seeing my uncle and his friend and their gorgeous home at 9,000 foot elevation. Their dogs, Bingo and Matilda, greeted us warmly. After a tour of their home, my uncle took us on a driving tour of the area. There are many casinos in Central City and Black Hawk, but some are already out of business. This was a mining area that was dying, and gaming was put there to revitalize it. We came back and had a delicious lunch. It was nice having something homecooked when you are eating out a lot.
We left for Colorado Springs around 4 p.m. We encountered lots of traffic, largely due to our timing of rush hour. We hated to cut our visit short, however, so we put up with the traffic. We arrived at the Academy Hotel in Colorado Springs around 6. I have no idea how this property has received so many positive reviews on this site. To me, it’s the worst hotel I’ve stayed in on any trip, and the 1st time TA had led me wrong. We booked a room in the Executive Tower, as they are supposed to be more modern. Well, the room was very small, dirty, and extremely dated. The bathroom was alive with mold and mildew and didn’t look or smell clean. The beds and pillows were horribly uncomfortable. There were many cracks in the ceramic tile in the bathroom, and the office chair was terribly scratched. The furniture looked very beat up. I am still flabbergasted on the high rating on TA. I personally think people are impressed with the breakfast they provide, along with the impressive lobby. To me, room comfort and cleanliness are much more important. After seeing our room, I went to the front desk to see if any other larger room types were available. The only room they had was a suite that was not served by elevator. It had only a king bed and sofa sleeper. I have a problem with putting our daughter in a sofa bed. The room looked a bit cleaner, but it was still out of date, and we didn’t feel like hauling luggage up steps. We had several heavy bags. We decided to stay the night in the grungy room and check out in the morning, as we were told we would have to pay for the 1st night but could check out early without penalty. We had originally planned to stay 5 nights. There was no way I’d stay there that long.
We went to the business center and immediately began searching for a new hotel. We found a LaQuinta Inn near Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and went out to see it. It was located about 15 minutes away. We liked what we saw and booked on the spot. It was cheaper than the Academy Hotel, and the rooms were much newer. We returned to sleep at the Academy Hotel, but none of us showered that night, as the bath just wasn’t up to standards. We all slept poorly, as the air conditioner didn’t seem to work well, and the beds were extremely uncomfortable.
In the morning, I figured out the problem with air conditioner. It was set to energy saver and ran for about 30 seconds at a time. I found the regular setting, and that made it even louder.
We ate breakfast that everyone raves about. Although it did have lots of choice, I didn’t find it all that impressive. Once again, the facility looked dirty. The lobby is dark; I wonder what they are hiding here? The table we used had dried rice on it from the night before. Very gross. The floor was sticky. I was never so happy to check out of there. The desk clerk asked why we were checking out, and I told him. He asked if I didn’t want another room. I told him I was shown one that didn’t suit our needs. He tried to joke around and say he’d have to charge extra for cancelling early. I had asked specifically the night before and was told there was no extra fee. I think he knew I was not amused, so he backed off when I told him I knew there was no fee, as I’d already asked. We were only charged for the night we stayed and were only our way. A review of this horrible hotel will follow!
We had reservations for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway at 9:20 a.m. We arrived at the rail station about 20 minutes prior to our train. We had front row seating next to the engineer and conductor. Great seats! Thanks to the members of TA for the tips on reserving early! On the way up, we saw marmots, big horned sheep and deer. The views were incredible. It was quite chilly at the top and we were there around 30 minutes. It was crowded, especially the snack bar and gift shop. We saw a few people out of breath. Then, we journeyed back down. I was very glad we didn’t drive up.
After the cog, we visited nearby Miramont Castle. The castle and tea room was 16,000 square feet with authentic Victorian furnishings. I enjoyed seeing the period items, but I would have liked a guided tour more.
We checked into our new hotel, had dinner, and then returned, as there were very heavy rain showers, to the point we had to pull over as it was not safe to drive.
We had reservations this morning at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide. What a fun experience! We saw not only wolves, but foxes and coyotes also. I loved the guided tour and how we learned a little about each wolf and his/her personality. One was born with a serious bone disease but has made a complete recovery thanks to a visitor who had experienced this same disease with another animal. Thanks to a special diet, the wolf was cured. The hour tour ended with all of us “howling” to make the wolves howl. It worked, and even the coyotes began barking.
We then headed to the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine in Cripple Creek. We had a very interesting 1 hour tour. Jim, our guide, was excellent and showed us how many mining tools worked when mining for gold. Everyone got a piece of “gold” to take home. The vertical elevator was a little tight and not for anyone claustrophobic. It was a little close, even for me.
We tried to take a tour of Cave of the Winds, but they were sold out for 2 hours when we went. I’m not sure if we will do this later or not, as it’s rather pricey, and it’s not like we haven’t seen caves. Some of the reviews on TA weren’t all that good for the price they charge. $18 per person seems high to me, for a 45 minute tour.
We decided to skip the Cave of the Winds due to some rather poor reviews on this site. It was reminiscent of Ruby Falls in Tennessee…poor tour guides and overall disappointing.
We headed straight to Garden of the Gods and spent the morning. We have seen red rocks, but the greenery surrounding them is a nice contrast. It was really an incredible experience. From there, you can also see Pikes Peak and the old Manitou Incline. We hiked some trails, and some did include rock scrambling, but they were worth it. We saw a woman fall on one of the trails near balanced rock, and fortunately, she was fine. She was hiking in sandals, and where she fell, there was a lot of loose gravel. Even in Merrell hiking shoes, I had to be careful.
We had lunch and stopped at the Garden of the Gods Trading Post, which was a bit touristy.
We then went to the Olympic Training Center for a tour. The complex is neat, and we were shown the pool, wrestling room, housing, gymnasium, and shooting center. Athletes were training, but no one familiar. We saw some other exhibits which were mostly pictures, but it was fun remembering the many athletes.
We headed to Colorado City and Michael Garman’s Magic Town. This was a spur of the moment attraction, and it was truly fascinating. It consisted of 3,000 feet of miniature scenes, which included Garman’s sculptures. The detail of the scenes was incredibly. For only $5, you get to see an amazing feat in creativity. You are also given a scavenger hunt to complete, which is fun for families. If you answer all 5 questions, you are rewarded with popcorn and other small “freebies.” My hubby and daughter enjoyed the scavenger hunt and even filled mine out while I took pictures.
After dinner, we decided to head back to Garden of the Gods. It was actually one of the few nights it wasn’t raining. We walked another short trail and were amazed at how the lighting affects the beauty of the red rock. We were rewarded with a view of a double rainbow by night’s end.
The rainbow was the perfect end to the day. We were feeling very lucky. Besides witnessing the woman fall, we narrowly missed a car accident on the way to Garden of the Gods in the morning. We were feeling very blessed; our guardian angels were looking out for us today.
We went to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo today. This was quite different from most zoos we have visited, as it’s built on a mountainside. We went inside to be greeted by many giraffes that can be fed for $2 a person. Of course, we did this and took plenty of pics. The zoo was extremely clean and divided into several sections. We saw elephants, hippos, meerkats, zebras, grizzlies, otters, monkeys (many types, including gorillas and orangutans), and much more. It was neat having beautiful mountain views as you went through the complex. We spent about 3 hours there, and I could see people spending more time.
We then drove up to the Will Rogers Shrine to the Sun, which is included in the zoo admission price. This castle like building was amazing and included a chapel. You can climb the tower for amazing views of Garden of the Gods, the Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado Springs, and even the distant plains.
Next, we visited the World Figure Skating Museum, which I probably enjoyed more than the rest of my family. I love skating and enjoyed seeing the costumes, photos, and memorabilia from when I followed skating during my teen years.
Our next stop was Helen Hunt Falls. You can drive right up to this waterfall, and you don’t have to hike if you don’t choose to. We opted for no hiking. It was a pretty waterfall, but I admit I found those in Spearfish Canyon and Rocky Mountain National Park were much more impressive.
This morning we went to the Air Force Academy. We found the Visitor’s Center very informative. Its exhibits gave a lot of insight into the lives of typical cadets. After looking at all the exhibits, we took a short walk to the chapel. This stately building has two levels. The 2nd floor houses the protestant chapel, which is huge and filled with stained glass, especially in the ceiling. The lower level consists of the catholic church, which was very pretty, but smaller than the protestant level. The entire facility was extremely impressive.
After spending about an hour here, we headed to the Denver airport for our flight home. We will have fond memories of our time in South Dakota and Colorado for years to come.
Thanks to everyone who posts on these forums and offers helpful advice. I asked some questions, but did a lot of lurking and learned a great deal. These reports are a great way to give back!