Keep the camera, lose the passport 

If you're jonesing for natural beauty, behold the seven wonders of Colorado

They are the best, the tallest, the largest, the most ecologically unique features on the planet. They appeal to the world traveler in all of us thundering waterfalls, towering mountains, vast stretches of ocean. They are reverently called the seven wonders of the natural world.

But there's a problem. Victoria Falls? It's so massive, the best way to see it is from the air. And it's 9,000 miles away, in Africa.

Mount Everest? A proper expedition to the summit can cost more than $50,000. And again, there's the distance thing about 8,000 miles away (and a life-threatening 5 miles above sea level).

So what's an explorer with limited time and money to do?

Well, rethink the whole natural-wonder thing. Put away the passport and set out to marvel at seven natural wonders within a day's drive of Colorado Springs. (For you list-makers, we've linked each to one of the world's seven natural wonders.)

1. Pikes Peak (our Mount Everest). It's no Everest it's not even the tallest peak in Colorado. But Pikes Peak has its own lore and impressive scope. Those who climb its flank pass through five ecosystems, ending in the Alpine tundra.

Henry David Thoreau wrote of the importance of nature that "we must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features." Pikes Peak would please him. Part of a batholith that stretches from Castle Rock to the southern end of Cheyenne Mountain, it's a battleship of a mountain that rises from the plains, further east than any other 14,000-footer in Colorado.

Early explorers were awed by its challenges. In 1876, a scientist named John Finley, assigned by the government to inspect the meteorological station on Pikes Peak, was nervous about what he would find. He was warned, he later wrote, "of the scarcity of oxygen above the 12,000-foot level that make[s] walking next to impossible, the blinding storms at the Summit that would impede progress and hasten exhaustion, and might so hide the trail as to carry the weary wayfarer over a precipice to instant death."

Today, more than 15,000 people annually hike the Barr Trail up from Manitou Springs, but many turn around before they reach the summit, which is 12.7 miles and more than 7,000 vertical feet from the trailhead.

2. Timberline Falls and three other waterfalls reached from Glacier Gorge in Rocky Mountain National Park (Victoria Falls). This group of four waterfalls makes an indelible impression on hikers who take on the nine-mile round trip to Sky Pond, a glassy alpine lake below the Taylor Glacier. Pass by the 100-foot Alberta Falls, watch for the mini-drama of Glacier Falls, and save your oohs and aahs for Timberline.

This waterfall is relatively small, cascading lacily 30 feet down the mountain, but hikers climb up its side to reach Sky Pond and the fourth waterfall near there.

Timberline is icy cold and hangs at nearly 11,000 feet. The water doesn't churn like it does at Victoria Falls in Africa; described as "the essence of a waterfall," it's a delicious cascade of icicles.

3. Castlewood Canyon State Park (Grand Canyon). There's that moment at the Grand Canyon when you first glimpse the orange and pink depths, and your brain can't really comprehend what your eyes see. In her book, Downcanyon, Colorado Springs naturalist Ann Zwinger writes, "In summer, passing close to these sepulchral walls is like skirting the flank of a dragon."

You won't find dragons at Castlewood Canyon, but the trails here entertain with walks along the canyon rim and plunges into the wet, green interior. Cherry Creek has carved these canyons southeast of Castle Rock off Highway 83.

4. John Martin Reservoir (Great Barrier Reef). This manmade lake of more than 4,000 surface acres glimmers on the eastern plains. With no deviation in the horizon, the lake seems to stretch forever, ocean-like. And when the wind blows, as it does often west of Lamar, you'll swear you can taste the salt spray from the white-capped waves.

Like the Great Barrier Reef, the reservoir teems with life, enticing anglers with bass, wiper, channel catfish, walleye and saugeye. Nearly 400 species of birds have been recorded here, including thousands of migrating snow geese in the spring.

5. The skies of the San Luis Valley (Northern Lights). The largest alpine valley in the world is a place of contradictions. Ringed by high mountains, it holds the tallest sand dunes in the country (at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve) and an alligator farm. And it has become one of the most active spots in the country for UFO sightings. Hundreds of unexplained sightings of lights, flashes and objects in the sky have made it famous among UFO fans, and the UFO Watch Tower something of a mecca.

But aliens aren't even the best reason to visit the valley. Go there for the velvety sky that seems to touch the ground, a sky unbothered by light pollution.

6. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (Paricutin Volcano). Admittedly, the story about how the Paricutin Volcano grew out of a Mexican cornfield one day in 1943 is fascinating. But so is the story of the Fossil Beds, an arid high-mountain valley full of fossil deposits and dotted with ponderosa pines. It once held a tranquil sea ringed by giant redwoods, elms and maples.

And how about this for a connection: That sea was caused by damming that occurred after the eruption of nearby volcanoes in an area of South Park. Thirty-five million years ago, an eruption that scientists say was similar to that of Mount St. Helens changed the landscape here forever.

7. South Colony Lakes (Harbor of Rio de Janeiro). On a cold, windy day in Colorado, the view of the Rio de Janeiro harbor does look enticing. But warm ocean breezes aside, the view from South Colony Lakes in the Sangre de Cristo Range is just as dramatic. The lakes are cradled by Mount Humboldt, Kit Carson, Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak, all fourteeners, and Broken Hand Peak. The view from this mountain paradise is made sweeter by the effort it requires to reach it.

For years, Rocky Mountain Field Institute volunteers have worked on restoration projects in the area, and this year, hikers will have to walk up a portion of the four-wheel-drive road that was rough but made the hike in easier. The best way to bask in the beauty? Join an RMFI volunteer crew.

Seven wonders close to home

1. Pikes Peak (pikespeakcolorado.com/barrcamp.com)

2. Timberline Falls and three others in Rocky Mountain National Park (nps.gov/romo)

3. Castlewood Canyon State Park (parks.state.co.us/parks/castlewoodcanyon)

4. John Martin Reservoir near Las Animas (parks.state.co.us/parks/johnmartinreservoir)

5. Skies above San Luis Valley (csastro.org, ufowatchtower.com)

6. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (nps.gov/flfo)

7. South Colony Lakes in the Sangre de Cristos (fs.fed.us/r2/psicc/sanc, rmfi.org)


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