Trials and joys of taking three kids camping in Colorado

Two sisters' first-ever sunrise hike, at Saddlehorn Campground in Colorado National Monument. (Joshua Berman, Special to The Denver Post)

This summer, we get to do it all over again, but for the first time.

DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT — The sun appeared as quickly as it had vanished just 20 minutes before when a squall rolled out of nowhere and blew our camp apart.

We were at a site next to the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument, Day 4 of a 30-day family camping summer adventure. The air warmed again, and the sudden dump of rain immediately began evaporating from the ground, creating a surreal mist around our feet.

Our daughters, ages 2, 5 and 7, sat on a damp picnic blanket, telling a story with their dolls, almost as if nothing even happened. Around them, however, was chaos. The tent was half-collapsed, clothes and cookware were scattered, and my wife and I were speaking in hushed tones about the whole trip being a mistake.

I read somewhere once — I think it was Mark Jenkins in Outside magazine — that the definition of adventure is a trip during which at some point you ask yourself, “What the (heck) am I doing here?”

I couldn’t believe we’d hit that point already.

“We’ll get better at this,” I reasoned. “We’ll get better every night.”

We had never camped before as a family of five, and we had underestimated how much work it was going to be. It wasn’t just the storm that had blown through — it was the endless vigilance required to keep our kids safe while setting up a camp next to a river, with hot stoves, campfires, wild animals and axes.

And there was some user error as well. I had been lazy about tying every one of the guy lines on the tent’s rain fly — and we paid for it with a collapsed tent and wet sleeping bags for the night. I wouldn’t do that again.

How many other lessons would we learn the hard way? Would I really be able to keep everyone happy — and safe? Was I beginning my kids’ adventure-filled lives with some real experience, or was I going to turn them off to camping forever?

The stakes were high.

“Let’s push through a few more days, at least till Saddlehorn,” I said, referring to the campground in Colorado National Monument, perched high above the Fruita Valley. I’d been looking forward to camping at Saddlehorn and waking my girls for the sunrise. I didn’t want them to miss that moment.

I set about reconstructing our camp while my wife laid the sleeping bags out to dry in the poststorm sunshine. The gale had ripped every stake of our shade structure out of the ground and scattered camp chairs. I told our 7-year-old that she was in charge of watching out for rainbows. She looked up and squinted at the sky.

Sunrise moments

Maybe this trip was just too much. We’d been so grateful that we had a month to travel (we are both teachers) that we kind of just took off, with adequate equipment, but minimal planning.

“I’m not a Colorado native, but my wife and kids are,” should read my bumper sticker, followed by the small print, “So I feel obligated to show them their state — and as many of Colorado’s hot springs, campgrounds, trails, historic hotels, roadside attractions, rodeos and dude ranches as I can.”

So last summer, we packed up our minivan, bolted on a roof rack for the camping gear and took an enormous road trip loop around the state. We weren’t rushing, but neither did we linger in any one place for more than a night or two. The idea was more to get a little sample of everything, then decide which places we’d come back to the following summer to spend more time. Sure, this meant setting up and striking camp nearly every day, but as I predicted, we got better at it.

At Saddlehorn, the ranger told us there was “zero percent” chance of rain, so we didn’t set up the rain fly. Were we taking a chance after just learning a lesson about preparedness? Maybe. But it was nice to watch the stars through our mesh ceiling all night and sure enough, it stayed clear and dry.

Just before dawn, I snuck out with the older girls and hiked down to the overlook. It was a sublime moment, the first sunrise we had ever really watched together. I stood behind the two of them as they leaned up against the wooden rail, and I wondered how they would remember this.

There was this sunrise moment, and all the others that would follow.

There was that morning at Burro Bridge Campground in the San Juan National Forest when we heard a strange bleating noise while eating breakfast. We ran to the road, then stood and gaped as a thousand head of sheep were herded by a dog and a cowboy with a ski pole, which he occasionally used to keep the animals moving.

There was Pearl Lake State Park, north of Steamboat Springs, where we cuddled around the fire and my girls asked innocent questions about the size of the mountains and the origin of the stars.

There was that early-morning mist, rising from the waters at Pagosa Springs when my 2-year-old and I got up early to soak and giggle in the pools as the sun came up. After a few weeks of camping, we had splurged for a room at the Springs Resort. I couldn’t believe I had never been to this part of the state before — to this 100-degree pool above the San Juan River. We were discovering these places together, my wife and my girls and me, stringing these moments together like gems, along a necklace of rivers, roads and highways.

This summer, we get to do it all over again, but for the first time.

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