MY HANDS GREW calmmy at the wheel as I cautiously steered our car around the next twist of a road that seemed always to be clinging perilously to the edge of a cliff. Sandy, who as passenger sat nearest the precipice, scooted over to me.
We were, for 40 miles, traveling one of the highest roadways in America -- the spectacularly scenic Trail Ride Road, once the route of Ute and Arapaho Indians, that crosses Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park at (literally) breathtaking altitudes reaching above 12,000 feet.
You feel, as the park service proclaims, that you are on the "roof of the world," with a heady view of many of the more than 100 peaks that top the 11,000-foot mark in the park. You also feel a little scared when you peer out the car window into chasms plunging hundreds of feet below.
From forests of fir, spruce and pine at lower elevations, Trail Ridge Road climbs above treeline to the winter world of Alpine tundra, where -- even in July -- snowbanks line the way and cold winds whistle under a sunny sky.
Despite our nervousness, the three-hour drive across Trail Ridge was a splendid (and, to be honest, safe) beginning to a two-week, 1,400-mile ramble through the Colorado Rockies.
By rented car from Denver's airport, we headed west on a circle tour of the state's many scenic and historic wonders, taking time off enroute for fine food and drink in Aspen, certainly one of the nation's most alluring adult playgrounds both summer and winter.
We toured ghost towns, rode an old steam-engine train high into the silver-mining country, climbed through 13th-century Indian cliff dwellings and -- in one wild and wet afternoon -- we dared river rapids in a whitewater raft.
But most of all we gloried in the scenery. "Awesome" is the word that kept jumping into my mind as we topped mountain passes, wound through-narrow river gorges, spotted countless waterfalls, or relaxed by a lake after a hike through fields of wildflowers.
Sandy and I never really lost our nervousness on these high-reaching roads, but that didn't matter. They added a daily thrill -- as well as stunning vistas -- to our route. With one adventuresome exception, they were two-lane, paved and well-maintained.
You could spot these roads miles ahead, zigzagging up the side of a mountain rising like a wall in your path -- the cars and campers ahead easily visible on several levels.
Even in a two-week trip, it's hard to visit all the state's attractions, so we had to pick only a few highlights. Here, then, is our Colorado sampler:
From a maximum altitude of 12,183 feet, Trail Ridge Road drops rapidly to the town of Grand Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park's western entrance. Situated on one of three huge adjoining lakes, it's as ruggedly western as you could hope for with its wooden sidewalks and main street hitching posts.
Here we had planned two days of hiking along some of the many miles of trails that lead from Grand Lake into the park's interior. We filled our canteens, stuck fruit and a snack into our daypacks and started up the well-marked trail to Adams Falls and the high country beyond.
At the time of our arrival, Colorado was experiencing a bad drought. It hadn't rained substantially in more than a month, and the state was battling several serious forest fires. We could see the smoke of one near Grand Lake. Signs at the trailheads warned against building fires in the backcountry or even smoking along the way.
But we hadn't been on the trail more than an hour when the skies began to rumble and the clouds turned dark over the mountain peaks. Our hike, as it turned out, coincided with at least a temporary end of the drought. Driven as much by active mosquitos as the obvious threat of rain, we scurried back down to the dry comfort of our motel overlooking the lake.
We may have been disappointed, but the townfolk were exuberant as the downpour continued heavily into the night, enabling firefighters to bring the blazes under control.
That night at a college production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" in the rustic Pine Cone Theater, the roof leaked, but the staff took it in stride.Buckets collecting dripping rain water occupied several seats, and the director stood ready to mop up puddles forming rapidly on the stage.
In Grand Lake, we discovered that -- at least compared to Washington prices -- Colorado could be easy on the wallet. I ordered two scotch and waters at Dougal's Mountain Inn and thought I had misheard when the barkeep charged me $1.35 each.
A hearty dinner of "bar-b-que beef ribs" that included soup, salad, two vegetables, potatoes, bisquits and dessert came to only $6.75 each. A couple of busloads of firefighters filled up in an adjoining dining room.
Despite the drought, melting snow kept the state's mountain streams and waterfalls gushing, and our route seldom took us far from whitewater. For a few miles as we headed south out of Grand Lake toward Aspen, we snaked along the headwaters of the Colorado River.
We entered the famous ski resort by crossing Independence Pass, another heart-stopping highway above 12,000 feet open only after the snow melts. At the summit, a few crumbling log shacks are all that remain of the once booming 1880s gold-mining town of Independence. The Aspen Historical Society, however, has begun taking steps to preserve a millsite and the cabins.
Aspen has a reputation for a drug-filled, jet-set lifestyle, but, it true, it's hardly apparent to the tourist who is more rapidly overwhelmed by its charm and the variety of its recreational offerings.
We spent an old-fashioned Fourth of July there, and the 19th-century mining town -- also celebrating its centennial -- erupted in a friendly boisterousness. During a ramshackle noon parade, float riders flung snowballs at the crowd and dodged water balloons heaved back from Victorian window sills.
To get into the spirit, I joined 450 runners in a five-mile race along Roaring Fork River. At Aspen's nearly 8,000-foot elevation, the air is thin, and I thought that would do me in about mid-race as I slowly panted up steep Cemetery Road hill.
But at the top, the Eclectic Brass Quintet, formed by students participating in the summer Aspen Music Festival, blasted into a rendition of "Camptown Races." That -- and a dousing from a hose -- spurred me to the finish.
Aspen bans cars from its main business streets and has turned the area into a parklike mall of small streams, fountains, flower gardens and benches under the aspen trees. Afternoon crowds gathered for beer at the mall's outdoor cafes and listened to impromptu concerts -- country to classical -- by festival students.
Fireworks from the grass-covered ski slopes above town ended the day's official festivities though the crowds thronged the bars and cafes for hours after.
The day we arrived in Aspen, a busy chamber of commerce clerk mapped out day-long mountain hikes in the area for us. A popular trek begins at Maroon Lake at the wildflower-covered foot of Maroon Bells, Aspen's famous peaks in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area. To protect the lake from overuse, a shuttle bus ($1.50 roundtrip) takes you to the trailhead.
From Maroon Lake, we climbed another two miles away from the bus crowd to Crater Lake for a picnic.I'd hoped for a swim, but the snow-fed lake was too cold for more than a toe wiggle. Backpackers passed by on a trail that led deeper into the wilderness.
We stayed at the Continental Inn, a newer hotel, at a reasonable $44 a night for two. We had a fine view of Ajax Mountain and took full advantage of the very hot hot tub and indoor-outdoor heated pool. That was a particular pleasure. On a cool evening, we could dive from indoors and then duck under a bridge for a starlight swim.
Aspen offers plenty of opportunities for lessons in horseback riding, mountain climbing, river rafting, kyacking and -- for the even more adventurous -- hang-gliding from a mountain top. Most of the Rocky Mountain towns we visited had many if not all of these activities available.
From Aspen, we drove southwest to Montrose and the nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument. Here, for 12 miles, the Gunnison River cascades through a sheer, narrow gorge at a depth of more than half a mile. From the rim, we peered straight down the half-mile to the river's milky green waters.
South again, our 100-mile route to Durango crossed three of the most awesome summits of our vacation. That test of nerves, however, was only a morning warm-up for the afternoon's three-hour, 14-mile raft ride down the rapids of the Animas River.
A small bus from Colorado Rivers-Tours of Durango picked us up promptly at our motel and drove us just outside town to the launching beach. About 30 people ha signed up at $20 per person, and we were divided among six small rafts. Jay, our guide, handed each of us a life jacket as the six of us climbed aboard.
Jay, in the center, used oars to guide us through the rapids. Seated in front or in the rear, our only responsibility was to hold on.
Almost immediately, we plunged into a drenching wave. We never did dry out -- even during a mid-run beer break on shore.
Probably Durango's most popular attraction is the narrow-gauge Silverton, a steam engine-pulled train operated by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad Company that daily makes a 90-mile, nine-hour round-trip excursion up the Animas River Valley to the mining town of Silverton.
The cars are the kind you see in old western movies, the passengers happily chatting until an arrow zooms through the window. That didn't happen on our trip. The excitement came while the 10-car train creaked cautiously along canyon walls hundreds of feet above the Animas.
In the summer, two trains -- each carrying more than 400 passengers -- make the trip, but you need reservations (you can make them by phone) sometimes weeks in advance. The fare is $16 for adults, $10 for children.
An hour's drive west of Durango is Mesa Verde National Park site of the famous Indian cliff dwellings and for us a vacation delight.
Mesa Verde means Green Table in Spanish, and that's what the park resembles -- a huge green-clad table rising hundreds of feet above a desert plateau. Within several canyons cutting the mesa, archeologists have found 5,000 Indian ruins.
After living on the mesa top for hundreds of years, the Indians in about 1200 A.D. began building their communities in large caves in the canyon walls, probably for protection from more fearsome tribes, a park ranger explained. They remained there for only about 100 years until they moved south, driven perhaps by a long drought or exhaustion of farming soil or wood for fuel.
Short but strenuous hikes at 7,000 to 8,000-foot elevations lead to several of the large dwellings -- including the largest, Cliff Palace Ruin, home for 200 - 250 people in more than 200 rooms. If you're not up to the walk, you can get a full view of the palace from the canyon rim.
We took a free, four-hour park service tour to Wetherill Mesa, site of two large dwellings, Long House and Step House. For the mesa's protection, cars have been banned. It's now reached by a half-hour shuttle bus trip along the mesa top with vistas into neighboring New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Mike Robbeloth, our guide, asked us to imagine ourselves as cliff-dwellers trying to scratch out a farming and hunting existence from the desert-like mesa. The Indians may have over-used their natural resources, he suggested, the way we now seem to be doing.
Park guides warn that only the hardy should take the hour-long tour of Balcony House, another ruin reached only by climbing a scary 36-foot ladder. It's not so bad, we found, if you keep you're eyes forward and scramble up fast. Since the base of the ladder is perched at cliff's edge, the view behind is a long way down.
To exit the ruin, you do it the way the Indians did, and this is no easier then getting in.First, we crawled through a 12-foot long, 14-inch wide (most hips fit) passageway designed to keep out invaders. Then, with the canyon wall towering over us, we climbed up footholds in the rock (holding on to a modern-day railing). Near the top, one more ladder led back to safety on the mesa.
We stayed at Far View Inn, the park's clusters of modern cabins on the beautiful mesa top. The name is appropriate. cFrom our balcony we could see 50 miles or more into the New Mexican desert. At $29 for a double, it was a bargain.
Heading north to Colorado Springs and Denver, we ventured off the highway onto a one-lane, red-dirt road. The name intrigued us -- Phantom Canyon Road.
It's a 30-mile-long shortcut -- in miles, not time -- from busy U.S. Rte. 50 near Canon City to the former mining ghost town of Cripple Creek, now a bustling arts and crafts center.
The posted speed limit is 20 miles per hour, and we could go no faster because of ruts and bumps. Our small Buick at times seemed almost too big to fit between the rock wall on one side and the dropoff to a mountain stream on the other.
Along this lonely, twisting, aspen-shaded mountain trail, better suited for horses than cars, we felt we finally had found the Old West. At the next bend, we knew, the stagecoach would pull into sight.