Change-Your-Life Travel

Psychological research tells us travel—the juicy, outside-the-comfort-zone, adventurous kind—makes us brave and grateful, flexible and outgoing, open to the new. But you don’t have to cross time zones and continents to find a mind-blowing destination: these life-changing Colorado getaways are just a road-trip away.

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Keenesburg Wild Animal Sanctuary

Nurture Nature

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” —Saint Francis of Assisi

Safaris rank high on travel bucket lists, but you don’t need to venture to another continent to view lions preening in the sun and tigers stalking in the tall grass. The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg is the world’s largest carnivore sanctuary, a 720-acre haven for more than 430 lions, tigers, bears and wolves. The animals, rescued from failed zoos, circuses and ill-advised exotic-pet ownership, receive world-class care and rehabilitation, roaming freely in large-acreage habitats. For years the sanctuary was closed to the public to prevent undue stress on the animals, but with the construction of an elaborate system of elevated platforms and walkways visitors can now observe the resident cats, bears and wolves peacefully from above.

Teaching kindness and respect for animals is the first step in teaching children (or anyone) empathy. Studies have shown that people who go on to be violent adults almost always have a history of animal abuse, including the shooters in our own Columbine and Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood tragedies. Here, visitors can see the impact of human carelessness and cruelty, and how love and rehabilitation changes everything: the animals thrive when given care, dignity and a chance to be wild.

If you plan a summer trip, you’ll want to take advantage of the sanctuary’s “Wild Nights,” when the facility stays open until sunset and the animals come alive in the cooling temps. Keenesburg is an easy day trip, but the mom-and-pop Keene Motel is retro roadtrippy, and The Good Chai offers raved-about coffee, pastries and lunch to fuel your adventure.

Mission Wolf in Westcliffe. This off-the-grid sanctuary rescues unwanted wolf and wolf hybrids and provides educational programming. Day visits and tours are free and overnight campers are welcome in the primitive campsites on site. <strong>—C.M.</strong>

Shambhala Mountain Center

Finding Mindfulness

“Meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk

Even the most enlightened and dedicated soul-searchers among us get stuck in daily anxieties and habitual thinking, and the only way to reboot is to retreat. This Zen meditation retreat in the midst of Roosevelt National Forest, just northwest of Fort Collins, is the ideal sanctuary for meditation and contemplation. Nearly 600 acres of serenity greet those eager to recharge. Visitors roam trails lined with herb, flower, fruit, and vegetable gardens, and abundant meditation areas dot the woods and grounds for those seeking stillness.

The Center vibrates with eager souls there to learn about indigenous wisdom traditions, contemplative arts, or mindful living practices. The self-guided day visits, weeklong retreats, meditation instruction, yoga, music, art or leadership programs all occur in the shadow of The Great Stupa.

Shambhala’s Great Stupa honors the center’s founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the 108-foot-tall monument is one of the most spectacular examples of sacred Buddhist architecture in the United States. The Stupa’s shape represents the Buddha, crowned and seated in a meditation pose on a throne. Stupas are believed to instill peace and compassion throughout the world, and to promote prosperity, harmony, good health and blessings to those who seek them.

Immersion programs, like the ones at the Shambhala Mountain Center, allow for disconnection from the everyday in a most spectacular setting. And a visit to The Great Stupa fills the heart with fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness.

Dorm lodging at Shambala Mountain Center starts at $109 a night and includes three meals a day.

Crestone Mountain Zen Center. Nestled against the snowy peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, the Center is an ideal place for those seeking an isolated area to pursue training in Zen meditation. —Jules Marie

Mesa Verde National Park

Making Contact

“We are a community. Our individual fates are linked; our futures intertwined; and if we act in that knowledge and in that spirit together, as the Bible says: ‘We can move mountains.’” —Jimmy Carter

A sense of wonder and connection fills the soul while wandering among the ruins of the communities of the Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde. Visitors marvel at the intricate craftsmanship of entire villages carved from sandstone and clay into steep cliff walls. It ignites the imagination to envision living in a secluded alcove on a mountainside, suspended hundreds of feet above a remote canyon—after the awe, there is space to question your own connection to these ancient ruins and temples, the people, and how they knit their lives together to survive.

Field and lab archaeologists at nearby Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez have answers. Through park programs, visitors can work in the field and examine ancient artifacts and tools used for cooking, farming, and hunting—to do so is to experience the sense of community that it took for the Ancestral Puebloans to create and sustain their lives in safety and shelter, amid harsh winters and scorching summers.

The lore of Ancestral Puebloans lures has intrigued visitors to these historic ruins in the Four Corners of Southwestern Colorado for centuries. For 700 years, the Puebloans carved their lives into sheltered rocks perched in the clouds which allowed them to farm corn, beans and squash peacefully on the mesa while traveling to and from their homes via dangerous hand-and-toe holds cut into steep canyon walls. The Puebloans remained until about 1300 A.D. before migrating to nearby towns.

The builders of the some 600 cliff dwellings are long gone, but visitors can quietly roam interlocking paths atop the mesa and pit houses, masonry towers, farming structures and kivas.

Immersion programs, like the ones at the Shambhala Mountain Center, allow for disconnection from the everyday in a most spectacular setting. And a visit to The Great Stupa fills the heart with fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness.

Dorm lodging at Shambala Mountain Center starts at $109 a night and includes three meals a day.

Crestone Mountain Zen Center. Nestled against the snowy peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, the Center is an ideal place for those seeking an isolated area to pursue training in Zen meditation. —Jules Marie

Chimney Rock National Monument

Rediscover Ritual

“It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.”
—Native American proverb

There’s a power here older than history—the commanding tower of Chimney Rock and its neighboring Companion Rock are half a billion years old. When the Chacoans, ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, came to inhabit the area, they gazed skyward between the towers and made a plan.

During a major lunar standstill, which happens every 18.6 years, the moon would hover framed between the two towers from a certain vantage point. Evidence suggests the people hauled stones by hand up the steep slopes to the rock towers to build the Great House Pueblo during a lunar standstill around 1076 A.D., and expanded it again during another in 1093 A.D. It remains a perfect vantage point from which to view the moon. The alignment of buildings and construction of ceremonials spaces, such as kivas found at Chimney Rock, suggested an understanding and celebration of solstices and other celestial events, and a use of calendars to mark days of importance, like the welcoming of spring.

Chimney Rock remains an important gathering place with spiritual significance to many different tribes. The ancient ruins are no longer excavated out of respect for this as a sacred site. The park hosts public moon-viewings accompanied by native flute performers at the Great House Pueblo site. And each year the annual Native American Cultural Gathering at Chimney Rock is a chance for tribes to gather and celebrate their spirituality and traditions under the rock that reaches to the sky.

Tapping into the power of ritual provides us with a sense of connection to each other and the past, and recent psychological research tells us rituals do change the way we think, feel and behave, whether we use them for luck, or to overcome grief or fear. The towers and their rich Native history allow visitors to connect with and appreciate a culture that emphasized storytelling, honored times of work and rejuvenation, celebrated the seasons and sought harmony with the natural environment. Today, the area’s Southern Ute Tribe is active in keeping traditions alive, hosting many events for public and tribe members—dances, tribal fairs and contest powows where drummers and dancers compete.

The Springs Resort and Spa in Pagosa Springs is a popular spot with onsite pools for soaking in the therapeutic waters, or rent a cabin at peaceful Sunset Ranch.

Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. For centuries the land among the rocky spires was a Native American crossroads for plains and mountain tribes, and a longtime fall and winter hunting ground for the Ute people. —C.M.

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Go Deep

“Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity to the human spirit.”
—Edward Abbey, quoted on sign at Black Canyon Visitors Center

The Black Canyon of the Gunnison bears the National Park label, but it’s not on the radar of the teeming masses in their campers and minivans—annual visitors hover around only 100,000 (for reference, Rocky Mountain National Park packs a whopping three million). The North Rim visitor center is a lone cabin with a screen door that closes with a screech and a satisfying bang, the loudest sound you’ll hear during your visit. If you venture beyond the fenced viewing areas, it’s unlikely you’ll run into another soul.

The narrow canyon sits just east of Montrose and gains its name from the impressive dark shadow that shrouds the river most of the day, making the walls appear black. The walls in the canyon are some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, dating back two billion years, carved by the Gunnison River that winds through it until it empties into the Gunnison Gorge Natural area. Rough trails along the canyon’s rim lead visitors in and out of scrub pines and juniper and loop them close to the canyon’s edge. There, a pebble kicked free by your foot skitters its way down the rocks and then arcs into oblivion, falling more than 2,000 feet to the Gunnison River below—a distance deep enough to swallow the Empire State Building with plenty of room to spare.

The Black Canyon is an awe-inspiring place of extremes, the kind that invite you to either think small—contemplating how tiny and insignificant we are—or to think big. Really big. This is no Disney-fied park experience. Falling rock, wild temperature swings, ticks, poison ivy, steep and narrow trails with drop-offs into thin air: Check. But rock climbers are drawn to the more than 140 advanced multi-pitch climbing routes (not for the beer-slinging novice), singing praises of the Black’s narrowness, depth and sheerness. Rafters gleefully tackle class III and IV rapids down a Wild-and-Scenic designated stretch of the Gunnison, while anglers pull legendary trout from gold-medal waters. Outfitters will guide you in all the above, but you still have to want it. Some put-ins are accessible only by foot or horseback. Call it a weed-out factor—and your ticket to true wilderness.

Camping is available on site at the Black Canyon, or the Living Farm Cafe and Inn offers farm-to-table home-cooked meals and cozy rooms right in the middle of quaint downtown Paonia, about 25 minutes away.

Rattlesnake Canyon near Fruita. This gem of the Blackridge Canyons wilderness is home to the second-highest concentration of natural arches in the country. —C.M.

Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area

Find Your Inner Wild

“Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us.”
—Virginia Woolf

They say the history of the West was written from the back of a horse; that’s how embedded they are in our cultural and physical landscape. That’s true for us throughout human history, too: for 10,000 years the horse was our greatest asset, our most advantageous technology and our companion. And yet in the space of only a century, that millennia-long relationship has faded to a mere shadow of its historic glory.

But just outside Grand Junction, amid the silvery sage and red rock canyons, sits the Little Book Cliffs Wild Horse Area, a 36,000 acre haven where wild mustangs still roam free. Although wild horses number about 47,000 nation-wide, most of these are in holding facilities or rescues, not living wild on their historic ranges. The Book Cliffs area allows its 80 to 120 horses to live as they have for centuries, in small bands of bachelor horses or stallions and mares. There are several ways to access the area, including hiking and 4×4 roads, but the best is on horseback—Rimrock Adventures in Fruita offers “wild horse rides” into the Bookcliff area.

Horses are our bridge to the wild. Being in their presence is awe-inspiring and even therapeutic—as a testament, the growth of equine assisted therapy programs has skyrocketed in recent years, and many across the country use wild mustangs in particular to work with those struggling with issues such as post-traumatic stress.

Nearby Fruita is home to a handful of chain hotels and motels, but to keep the wild spirit alive, pitch a tent at the Saddlehorn Campground near the west entrance of the Colorado Monument.

The Great Escape Mustang Sanctuary in the Black Forest (east of Denver) offers hiking and driving tours of their herd as well as mustang and burro adoption and educational programs. —C.M.

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