Three is definitely not a crowd on this Rocky Mountain high adventure

You might not need a stagecoach to head out west, but you must have a true pioneer spirit. When Melissa (an adventurous girlfriend) challenged me to plan a cool vacation for the two of us and Jack (her 12-year-old son), I accepted. Already a seasoned traveler, Jack has visited 20 states and checked a couple of countries off his global list. I decided to round our posse up for a Rocky Mountain road trip.

Kathy Nolan and Jack Bearden stop to admire a huge boulder while traveling on Trail Ridge Road near the Continental Divide.

Kathy Nolan and Jack Bearden stop to admire a huge boulder while traveling on Trail Ridge Road near the Continental Divide. Photo courtesy of Kathy Nolan

The wild west adventure began with a redeye flight from Atlanta (ATL) to Denver (DEN), followed by a short Uber ride to pick up and load up our pioneer protype, a retro Volkswagen camper van. The hippie-inspired habitat had been customized with a popup rooftop bed, comfy bedding, a convertible couch, an equipped galley kitchen, RV-style electrical plugins, a gas-powered generator, water hookups and a small refrigerator. Lesson #1: Limit your luggage to one carry-on bag per passenger. Storage is limited, and you must move out gear to setup sleeping areas.

We saved a few dollars and saw more wild bucks by booking a few tent-only campsites. The 18-foot camper van fits easily into a standard parking space, and Colorado offers free dispersed camping that’s perfect for spontaneous sleepovers. Huge windows offered awe-inspiring panoramic views along the mountain paths we followed from the foothills of picturesque Estes Park to officially camp in Rocky Mountain National Park. We pulled over for impromptu riverside picnics, soaked in healing waters of natural hot springs, walked through wooded trails to a music festival and grilled steaks over an open flame beneath an open sky.

Our fearless trio arrived late in the afternoon to make camp in Moraine Park for a real wilderness experience. We unfolded chairs, built a campfire and pulled out cozy throws for smores, stargazing and storytelling. Lesson #2: Break out the wine and soft drinks for the campfire, but store all food and garbage in the bear box to keep your site safe. The wilderness was real. I think I heard a coyote howl but can’t confirm it. We woke up early for a sunrise safari, caught sight of a herd of mule deer grazing by the river and spotted a few marmots scurrying across the rocks. The elk were elusive.

Vintage Volkswagen camper van provided retro transportation and kitschy accommodations.

Vintage Volkswagen camper van provided retro transportation and kitschy accommodations. Photo courtesy of Kathy Nolan

A daytrip to Wyoming on the wide-open prairie included a tour of the 1872 Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie where notorious bank robber Butch Cassidy was incarcerated. With no chuckwagon in sight, we found an eclectic oasis called the Rand Yacht Club, a landlocked local cowboy bar and restaurant where a long since dried-up river ran centuries ago. It was not a real saloon, but we were happy to get off the trail to take in the quirky taxidermy and fuel up on fried food served by friendly folks.

The posse headed out for Granby via Trail Ridge Road to snap souvenir photos at the Continental Divide and finally found a few elegant elk posing for their closeups. The classic Volkswagen climbed above the cloud line offering passengers a fabulous view of Longs Peak, a famous snow-capped fourteener, situated at an elevation of 14,259 feet.

Then something amazing happened. The weather changed quickly as we began our descent below the clouds. A slight haze quickly turned into gray rain. Melissa bravely clenched the wheel and navigated the mountain trail. The mood shifted and an eerie silence replaced our jovial chatter. At that precise moment, a luminous rainbow miraculously appeared and our vintage vessel cut straight through the colorful arc of light. Imagine stepping into a surreal painting without boundaries or limitation. The eerie silence again transformed into speechless awe as we passed through the transparent prism five times until it slowly disappeared after guiding us safely down. Lesson #3: We might not be in Kansas anymore, but somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds still fly. A miracle can happen when you least expect it, and right now it is perfectly ok to keep your head up in the clouds.

Kathy Nolan

Kathy Nolan

Kathy Nolan is the founder of and a creative consultant. Her favorite side hustle is freelancing as a travel journalist for local and national publications. As Creative Director, Kathy led a full-service, award-winning, boutique advertising agency for three decades in Macon, Georgia that garnered over 300 awards for creative excellence.