I love to take a big road trip with my dogs at least once a year and in 2015 we set our sights on Mount Elbert – a dog friendly 14er and the tallest mountain in Colorado.
Fourteeners (14ers) are mountains with a peak elevation of over 14,000 feet.
My Hubby was into high pointing before we met and he still had the Colorado highest point to check off his list.
We drove around 3,500 miles in 10 days from Seattle to Colorado and back, making stops in Billings, MT and Denver, Aspen, Salida, and Leadville, CO.
What follows is a journal of our trip.
Seattle to Denver
We set off toad Denver with a general plan but tried to keep the road trip spontaneous.
The unknown adventure is one of the best parts about a road trip.
We headed east from Seattle toward Billings, MT.
Going through Billings was not the shortest route to Colorado but I hoped to visit an old friend there.
We camped in the car at a rest stop the first night.
Sadly, the plans to have breakfast with my friend didn’t work out so we headed south through Wyoming.
It was the first time I had seen the eastern part of Wyoming in daylight. The other two times I passed through, it was at night.
We arrived in Fort Collins early in the evening and checked into the dog-friendly La Quinta Inn.
Somewhere I had gotten the impression that Fort Collins was a really dog friendly town.
While we saw many dogs on the streets, I was a bit surprised by the lack of dog friendly restaurants.
Besides drive-thrus that are, by nature, always dog friendly but generic and easily found in almost any town, my favorite websites for planning a dog friendly vacation failed us.
They only listed one or two dog friendly restaurants for Fort Collins and none of them sounded like a fun place we wanted to eat at.
I scoured the internet and discovered CooperSmith’s Pub in historic downtown.
Like most dog friendly restaurants, dogs were only allowed on the patio outside of the fence.
I knew we would have a bit of an issue because our dogs always want to be right next to us and are small enough to sneak through or under the fence.
The host that sat us said they were not super strict about the “other side of the fence rule” but, when Chester and Gretel snuck in, the waitress came over and asked us to please keep them on the outside of the fence.
I made an attempt to keep them on the other side but, well, Doxies have a mind of their own. She didn’t say anything to us again though.
We liked the vibe of the place and the food was good.
After eating, we wandered downtown a bit.
There were a few streets that had fun little boutiques.
Of course, no town-stop is complete without a trip to the local, independent pet store.
Before leaving Fort Collins, we took a short hike up to Horsetooth Falls in the morning.
It was more like Horsetooth trickle that time of year (late summer) but it was still pretty.
By late afternoon, the sun was already beating down on us. That made for a hot hike.
There was a nice cool, shady spot at the falls though for all of us to enjoy.
After our hike, we headed to Denver to meet up with my friend Lara from the blog Rubicon Days.
We all grabbed a pizza at a downtown food truck and headed to the park to eat… where we discovered some strange “art”.
Lara didn’t know what it was actually supposed to represent but hubby and I speculated a pile of intestines? Ha, ha.
I guess that is part of what makes art, art. It always keeps you guessing and different people see different things.
Denver to Salida
We headed south to Buena Vista (pronounced by locals as Be-YOU-na-vista, to our bewilderment).
We got as far as Kenosha pass and pulled over to camp in the car for the night.
Sadly, there were no Kenny sightings 🙂
We continued on and stopped for a lunch break at the Collegiate Peak overlook. Not a bad view huh?
Colorado is famous for ghost towns so we wanted to see at least one while we were there.
One of the best preserved, and easiest to get to (no 4X4 needed), is the St. Elmo ghost town.
There were a few pretty amazing views on the drive up there.
St. Elmo was founded in 1880 and nearly 2,000 people lived there during the gold and silver mining boom.
By 1922, mining activity had declined in the area and railroad service was discontinued. The town pretty much dried up after that.
Even though St. Elmo is considered a ghost town, a few people still live there.
The general store is operational and open during the summer.
I think I heard the guy behind the counter say that his family was one of the original settlers of the town and he had been running the store for over 25 years.
St. Elmo is a very popular gathering place for 4-wheeler enthusiasts as there are several roads and trails in the area.
The store is a good place to stop for snacks and some water to wash down all of that dust they’ve been inhaling.
I heard you can rent, side-by-sides there too.
One of the coolest things about the town is all of the hummingbirds. The general store puts out a lot of feeders so they are everywhere.
I was able to snap a picture of this little guy when we stopped for some eats.
One of the best things about traveling to a new place is the people you meet and conversations you have with random strangers.
We were getting ready to leave but ended up chatting with this really friendly guy instead.
He said he has visited St. Elmo several times and told us a bit about the area.
He said there was a cool trail up one of the side roads – Hancock Pass Road – called the Alpine Tunnel Trail.
We love spontaneous side trips so we decided to check it out.
We didn’t have time to hike all of the way to the historic Alpine Tunnel but the views were great.
We hadn’t pre-planned where we would stay that night but I found an awesome dog friendly place to stay the day before while passing the drive time surfing the internets – the Mountain Goat Lodge.
The woman who runs the place was nice. It turns out that she lived in Western Washington where we live but left for less rain, more sunshine, and to start her own little ranch.
The property consists of a big lodge where you can rent a room, a little group of the cutest retro campers, a hot tub, and a barn and greenhouse that guests are welcome to poke around in.
The owner makes her own cheese and you can schedule a 2-hour class during your stay where she will teach you how.
Even cooler than all of that stuff was the fenced, off-leash area for dogs to play in!
We opted to stay in a tiny retro camper because we love to pretend we live in a tiny home (you can see what it looks like on the inside here).
Each camper has it’s own little patio where you can watch the sun set.
If you rent a room in the lodge, it comes with breakfast in the morning… which I hear is to die for but we were not able to take advantage of it because we planned to leave early the next morning.
Aspen and Leadville
The next morning, we left for Leadville to hike Mt. Sherman.
According to 14ers.com, Mt Sherman is one of the “easier” dog friendly 14ers.
Somewhere I got the idea that this mountain was easier than Mt. Elbert – the second highest peak in the contiguous US, the highest that allows dogs, and the one we planned to hike a few days later – so it would be good practice.
My hubby is the only one of our little bunch that has hiked to the top of a 14er and that was when he was about 15 years younger.
I had done some research so we weren’t totally unprepared.
I knew that in high-elevation mountains,
The weather can change drastically in a split-second and catch you off guard
Colorado mountains are known for afternoon lightning storms and, in fact, a group of hikers has been hit by lightning with no warning a couple of weeks before our visit
Altitude sickness can start to set in for dogs (read about altitude sickness in dogs here) and people at elevations above 8,000 feet and it was definitely something that should go on our “do not want” list.
The trailhead started at an elevation around 11,000 feet and the trail started out gentle enough.
We felt good as we crossed the meadow and headed for the climb.
Then it got steep. The beauty was still distracting at this point but it was really steep. And rocky.
But we still felt good.
Gretel, being the mountain goat that she is, was pulling us up the mountain as usual. The rocks and elevation didn’t seem to bother her one bit.
Chester has spent 13 years hiking anything I threw at him but he’s a little more picky in his old age. He still does pretty good hiking, even on steep trails.
However, he hates rocks. He slows to a turtle’s pace if there are tiny, sharp rocks, large rocks, or a lot of rocks. This trail definitely had a lot of rocks.
Because of the rocks, and the fact that we didn’t want to push the old man too much at high elevation, we decided to put him in our pack.
This was the second time ever we had to carry Chester in a backpack.
I haven’t found the ideal backpack for carrying him when we hike but my Osprey Talon 44 did the job pretty well.
Did I say the trail was steep? Boy, was it. It was actually one of the steepest trails I have hiked.
The hardest part is that it was straight up in loose rock so it was hard to get a food hold and I slipped back almost a half step for every one that I took.
As we climbed higher, my heart rate increased and I began to feel sick.
My hubby took Chester in the pack to see if that would help me but I was still sick to my stomach 20 minutes later.
I wanted to quit while I was ahead so we gave up for the day and headed into Leadville.
I thought, if this was easy, what was Mt. Elbert going to be like? Luckily, I was going to have a few days to adjust to the high elevation before we would have to try.
Really what sparked this whole trip was my discovery that the Leadville Hostel had private rooms that were dog friendly.
I like staying in hostels for the adventure of it and the chance to meet other travelers but I’d never heard of one that allowed you to stay with dogs.
The hostel was absolutely awesome.
It was probably the cleanest I have stayed in and they seemed to have thought of everything – bug spray for guests on the porch, vending machine for midnight snacks, both private and shared, dormitory-style rooms, plus way more I can’t remember (but I remember being pleasantly surprised).
The hostel was big enough that you could keep to yourself if you wanted but people were friendly enough that you could easily chat with someone in the common areas.
There were several people staying there all summer and they were great resources for a “local’s secrets”.
Honestly though, Leadville was already on our radar because it’s the home of the Leadville Trail 100 Series – a trail run and separate mountain bike race renowned for their difficulty.
The Leadville 100 mountain mike race is one of the most well-known on earth and it draws elite competitors from all over the world.
It put the little town of Leadville, CO back on the map.
The race website says, “This is it, the race of all races. One hundred miles across the high-altitude, extreme terrain of the Colorado Rockies. This event was created for only the most determined athletes.“
Hubby and I have been into mountain biking for years and this race is like the elusive sparkly unicorn. Going to the town famous for the race has always fascinated us.
It’s pretty cool too that, at over 10,000 feet above sea level, Leadville is the highest incorporated municipality in the United States with permanent residents.
Anyway, I still wasn’t feeling well but I was starving. I thought food might help.
There are only two known dog-friendly restaurants in Leadville and the Tennessee Pass Cafe is one of them.
The food was good, they had water dishes for pups on the “patio”, and they had a huge selection of different foods. We pretty much ate there the whole time we were in Leadville.
The following day I was still feeling sick to my stomach so we decided to take it easy and go for a drive to Aspen, CO.
We took the direct and scenic route over Independence Pass – elevation 12,095 feet on the Continental Divide – along the Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway.
All of western Colorado is pretty amazing and this drive certainly did not disappoint.
I had researched dog friendly restaurants in Aspen but we stumbled across the Ajax Tavern accidentally.
I saw a couple of dogs on the patio and asked if we could sit there too. They were more than happy to have us.
It was one of the best dining experiences we’ve had.
The food was pretty good, and the fact that it’s at the base of Aspen mountain was cool, but that isn’t why we were so impressed.
First, the manager came out to meet and talk with our Dachshunds when we first sat down.
I’m sure it helped that she was a Dachshund owner too but all of the staff were very friendly with the dogs.
The second thing happened after we ordered our food.
I ordered an appetizer of tuna tartare and we both ordered cheeseburgers.
They brought out the tuna tartare and it was delicious.
Soon after – actually before we were finished with the appetizer – they brought out our burgers.
It took some creativity to fit all of our food on the little table but we were impressed with how fast they were. The restaurant was packed so we expected to wait a while for our food.
Then this happened…
So we were shoving burgers and truffle fries (which were AH-MAZING) into our face when the manager came back to our table.
She said the waitress felt bad for rushing us on the food – bringing us our burgers before we were done with the appetizer. She apologized profusely but we insisted it was no big deal.
A few minutes later, our waitress came out. She apologized again and said they were taking the cost of the tuna tartare off of the bill… all because they brought our food too fast!
We’ve never had an experience like that.
Aspen is generally a town rich people visit but you can’t tell who is rich and who is not by looking at people because millionaires can look like dirtbag ski bums and people with less than average incomes can dress in Chanel.
We definitely looked more the ski bum part.
I think businesses in Aspen have learned that people expect a high level of service so that is what we got. They never know if they are talking to the next Steve Jobs.
When we said we were going to Aspen, a lady at the Leadville hostel asked if we were going to see the Maroon Bells.
She looked at me like I had two heads when I innocently asked, “What’s that?”
Apparently the Maroon Bells are some of the most famously photographed mountains in Colorado and, when we visited, we could see why.
The hike up to the first view is only a short stroll from the parking lot.
We saw people in the parking lot clearly leaving or coming back from an overnight backpacking trip and hubby decided we must come back someday to do that too.
Note: Maroon Bells now requires a reservation and potentially a shuttle ride depending on the time of year.
Hiking Mt. Elbert
After taking it easy for a few days in Aspen and Leadville, I was recovering from my altitude sickness but still feeling a little ill.
I had been doing all of the right things – resting and drinking water like a fish – and even tried getting some oxygen in a can like a friend suggested.
I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to attempt hiking Mt. Elbert with the way I was feeling because we were scheduled to leave in the next couple days.
I really, really wanted to though, so, as one last-ditch efforts, I took to Google to see if I could find a remedy that hadn’t been suggested to me yet.
It turns out that regular ol’ ibuprofen can sometimes help altitude sickness so I tried that.
I woke up on our last day in Leadville and actually felt pretty good. We decided that we would give Mt. Elbert a try.
The worst case was that we were going to have to turn back like we did on Mt. Sherman.
We decided on the Northeast Ridge trail (there are at least two trails that lead to the summit) which was 4.5 miles one way with an elevation gain of 4,700 feet.
The first part of the trail was through forest and it wasn’t that steep. That was a pleasant surprise.
However, that meant that most of the 4,700 feet of climbing was left for the latter part of the trail – the part that was at the highest elevation.
I think I was in denial about what that meant as we wandered through the trees and came out above the tree line.
The trail started to climb more steeply but the trail surface was still pretty smooth. Then it got really rocky. And then it got really, really steep!
At this point, we decided to put Chester in the backpack again.
I am pretty sure he could have made it on his own but his old bones would have been super sore for the next couple of days and we didn’t want to do that to him (or rather, let him do that to himself).
So up we went. And then up some more.
We had started a little later than we’d hoped, and the trail took a bit longer than we thought, so we were in danger of encountering one of the afternoon thunderstorms.
We kept a really keen eye on the weather but the clouds were moving in and looking more ominous than we would have liked.
Many people were still heading to the top but one group that had been hiking behind us decided to turn back.
A pair of seasoned hikers passed us on the way down and warned that we might want to reconsider pushing for the top.
The weather wasn’t at a point that I felt uncomfortable with so we kept a vigilant eye on the sky and pushed on. It started to get darker and windier though.
Then I started feeling exhausted, a bit delirious, and started to get a headache again.
My Hubby and Gretel were feeling ok but I definitely wasn’t. I literally stopped, took a couple of deep breaths, and swore I couldn’t go on.
I did this every two or three steps. And the steps I did take were slow.
About a 1/2 mile from the top, I finally convinced my Hubby to take Gretel and go to the top without me.
He didn’t want to but I kept insisting because I wanted him to check this high point off of his list and I wanted Gretel to make it to the top.
I wanted to quit so bad, but I didn’t give up.
With every step I swore that I was done… and then I would take one more. I trudged my way, delirious and spent, to the top.
The feeling of accomplishment, and the view, was amazing.
My Hubby was so proud that I didn’t quit.
I was super proud of myself too because, with my back issues, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to do something this steep and hard again.
I was a beyond proud dog Mom too. OMG, Gretel, at 10 lbs, made it to the top of the highest 14er in Colorado all by herself!
And, even though we had to carry him for the steepest part, our 13 year old little dog hiked the majority of it.
I swear these two are amazing.
We stayed long enough at the top to get a few good pictures but started hustling back down when the wind picked up and the clouds got darker.
We still paused here and there to smell the flowers but our goal was to make it back below tree line before the weather got too much worse.
It did start to sprinkle on us before we ducked into the trees but the clouds and wind were calmer at the lower elevation.
All in all, our dog friendly road trip to Colorado was amazing!
The 15+ year wait to go back was totally worth it. We’re already plotting a trip back.
About the Author
Hi, I’m Jessica. I’ve been studying the Dachshund breed since 2007, owned 3 of my own, and shared in the lives of thousands of others through their owner’s stories. When I’m not sharing what I know on this blog, you can find me hiking, camping, and traveling with my adventurous wiener dogs.