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Snow-capped mountains, fresh air, and adventures, what more could you ask for? Mysterious ghost towns, perhaps. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of abandoned towns dotting the western fringes of Colorado, Rifle Gap State Park included, although this park’s ghost town is a little more recent than most. Austin, a small town of around 300 people, once stood in the valley, deep in the shadows of Mount Monument and Blaine. In 1958, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation decided there was a need for a water reservoir, forced the residents to move, and flooded the valley. On an especially calm day, sharp-eyed visitors can still see traces of roads and foundations where buildings once stood within the lake’s inky depths.
Officially made a state park in 1969, the reservoir provides a lifeline to the local farmers and ranchers. The closest town is Rifle, about 10 miles south.
In the far-flung corner of Colorado, miles from the more popular attractions like Vail, Aspen, and Breckenridge, it’s easy to think there isn’t much to do. And there isn’t unless you’re an outdoorsman and adventurer with a love for camping with an RV. The Rifle Gap Lake, which is a pristine blue shade of water deepened by the reflection of the bold Colorado sky, invites adventurers to go boating, jet-skiing, fishing, and windsurfing. There is a boat ramp available to the public, and a small rocky beach for swimming. Stocked with rainbow and German brown trout, smallmouth and largemouth bass, pike, and a few other fish, Rifle Gap is reputed to be one of Colorado’s best ice fishing lakes. In wintertime, snowmobiling and snowshoeing are also a popular recreational activity.
A huge swath of land due around Rifle Gap, and west of Rifle, in between Grand Junction, and Rangely, is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Most of it is open to hiking, camping, and other outdoor recreational fun. Be aware, however, that BLM tends to be hands-off, and amenities, if any, will be few and far in between. Be well prepared before camping in an RV in that area. Ranchers often lease the land for their cattle, and they’ve been known to get curious.
The star of the show at Rifle Falls State Park, a few miles to the north, is its triple waterfall, which any nature-lover and photographer will appreciate. The three falls stream out of separate caverns and join in a shallow pool feeding a creek. The falls have a poorly kept secret: a hidden limestone and sandstone cavern system for adventurers to explore. Fear not! The cave is relatively shallow, and it’s unlikely to get lost.
Book an RV in Garfield County, and figure out where to park overnight. Many roads in rural Colorado are narrow and lack a safe place to pull over. Camping at Rifle Gap State Park might be a good option. It has five campgrounds and 89 sites altogether. Different campgrounds have different amenities and pros and cons. For example, Cottonwood Campground is waterfront, which is nice for a spontaneous fishing session, and it has electric and water hookups. Lakeview Campground, on top of a small rise, has a stellar view of the lake and includes full hookups. All campgrounds are dog-friendly.
If space runs out at Rifle Gap, check into Rifle Falls State Park campground or Harvey Gap State Park campground for availability. Space tends to go quickly in summers, however. There are also a few established campgrounds with pit toilets in BLM territory, particularly in the area closer to the highways.
Although attractions in western Colorado are far apart, a rental motorhome makes exploring them comfortable and convenient. Even in rural Colorado, people enjoy golfing as much as anywhere else. The Rifle Creek Golf Course features two nine-hole courses, practice greens to hone putting and chipping skills, and fantastic, world-class views of the mesas around the town.
Glenwood Springs, a few miles to the east, has a number of attractions, including Glenwood Caverns Amusement Park, which is a hybrid amusement park and cavern tour. It claims to be the site of the first alpine coaster (a sled that rides down a twisting steel or concrete slide). The park also features several roller coasters, swing rides, and perhaps the most unique ride in the country: an underground drop-in which riders plunges in freefall for over 110 feet into the heart of Iron Mountain. Go spelunking! The tours lead adventurers through narrow, claustrophobic tunnels, lit only by their headlamps, into millions-of-year-old chambers.
At the end of a long day, relax in one of the many hot springs dotting the slopes. Aside from the ones found in towns or near resorts, most springs are well-kept secrets, often passed down in families for generations. Dip your toes in the Glenwood Springs’ warm water and unwind.