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A PEAK AT COLORADO

Colorado Springs is a well-positioned base camp for exploring natural treasures.

We stuffed ourselves inside the rickety elevator like human dominoes, preparing to plunge 1,000 feet below the Earth's surface to see the inner workings of the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine.

The skinny miner to my left, a character right out of Hollywood central casting, said we were traveling 5 mph down the only vertical shaft gold mine in the United States.

Metal clanged as everything went dark. Then, from the elevator in the blackness below us, a woman screamed.

This was no Disney ride.

Our muted fear turned to delight minutes later - after the human cage settled to a stop. We tumbled out in our yellow hard hats. Dim lights shone through the snaking, damp cave as miner John took center stage.

Our family of six had come to the Colorado Springs area for five days of summer fun, to experience Colorado beyond the wintertime highlights of downhill skiing and snow boarding.

The trouble was narrowing the attractions to just a handful, since there is so much to do and see. We bypassed the plentiful and popular outdoor activities such as bicycling, horseback riding and whitewater rafting in favor of gorgeous scenery, historical sites and the ever-present tourist traps.

On our first full day, our family of two adults and four children, ages 3 to 13, happily agreed on a trip to the gold mine in Cripple Creek, about 45 miles west of Colorado Springs.

Gold was discovered there in 1891 by Mollie Kathleen Gortner, who had to overcome a great deal of gender discrimination just to start the mine and keep it operating. But operate it did. From 1891 until 1961, the mine produced more than $5-million in gold.

Inside, we briefly pondered changing careers when miner John told us that 80 percent of the mine's gold reserves remain untapped.

John Fowler, 63, now a tour guide, pulled out various antique tools to explain how early miners spent 12 hours a day hammering away at the rock surface in search of precious gold veins, all by candlelight.

The back-breaking labor combined with the dangers of breathing rock dust to leave many miners dead by their early 30s.

We looked at each other. Thoughts of a career change vanished.

The mine was easy to walk through, if a bit muddy in spots. I got a fright when I heard a deep rumble as we lagged behind the other group. We grabbed hands and jogged to catch up, only to learn the sound was a recording of dynamite.

Miner John pulled pieces of sparkly rocks from a bin and placed one into each of our hands as we headed back to the elevator for the return trip.

"Will this make us rich?'' we asked.

He replied: "I wish.''

Pursuing a different gold

One morning with time on our side, we visited the U.S. Olympic Training Center near downtown Colorado Springs. It is home to the Olympic Committee administration and one of three such training facilities in the United States.

It's a low-effort attraction that takes less than two hours. Plus, it's free.

We held the Olympic torches used in the Atlanta and Los Angeles games. The kids posed for photos inside a bobsled in the lobby. We also took in a short introductory film filled with patriotic Olympic images and an advertising buildup to the Beijing summer games next year.

Much of the facility is closed to tourists, but our guide did give us a peek inside a gymnastics room, the 45,000-square-foot aquatics center and a weightlifting facility. The athletes went about their business oblivious to the strangers peeking in the windows.

Our tour guide told us we had just missed gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps' club team. You never know who you might see there, and chances of a star-sighting increase as the Games get closer.

The air up there

Coming from flat Florida, where the view is obstructed only by high-rise condos and palm trees, we were continually struck by the scenery of snow-covered mountains, red canyons and towering trees.

One afternoon we got swept up in the hype of an advertising hyperbole from Seven Falls: "The Grandest Mile of Scenery in Colorado."

The winding two-lane road into the canyon where the 181-foot cascading waterfall is located may not be the grandest. But it proved to be pretty cool nonetheless, with pines shooting from cliffs 700 feet into the sky.

We went inside a 14-story elevator cut through the granite, which gave a nice, but faraway view of the falls from a landing next to a gift shop (how convenient) at 6,500 feet. You could get a closer look through large viewfinders for a quarter.

Down from our elevator trip, and at the insistent urging of my 5-year-old son, three of us decided to get even closer to the falls and climb a 224-step stairway to the top. I would not recommend this for some young children or people with breathing or health problems. Or, for people like me, who prefer life at very low elevations.

On the heart-pumping way up, with calf muscles ablaze, I told my son: I am only doing this for you.

We all felt a bit like the climbers who reach the summit of Mount Everest when we made it to the top. We snapped pictures and even captured a ram perched on a cliff on the way down, which was much less frightening.

Garden of red rocks

The breathtaking scenery kept returning for encore after encore. A stop at the Garden of the Gods Park proved one of the best.

The 1,400-acre city park displays dozens of towering red rock formations, believed to be millions of years in the making.

It's a must-see, especially at sunrise or sunset when nature's best lighting shows off the sandstone creations, some with funny names like the kissing camels and Siamese twins.

The paved roadways through the park have bike lanes and there are miles of trails for hiking, guided nature walks and horseback riding.

We chose one of the shorter trails to explore on our own. The kids loved climbing some of the smaller formations. Wear proper footwear. Sandals won't do here.

We made it through with only one skinned knee, a few tears and dozens of remarkable photos.

A view from the top

We saved Pikes Peak, the city's most famous attraction, for our last day.

The 14,110-foot mountain claims to be the most visited in North America, with more than half a million people reaching its summit each year.

We drove the 38-mile round-trip journey in our rented minivan, but you can also hike up or take the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.

Make sure your car is in good working order with capable brakes and a half-tank of gas. (I also wouldn't suggest the trip on your first day in Colorado, when your body may not have adjusted to the higher elevation and thinner air. Aspirin, water and lip balm ease the transition.)

Don't forget a sweater or sweatshirt even in the summer, when it has been known to snow at the summit.

The temperature was 74 degrees when we began, and the road was just like others we'd driven at first, creeping up and up, surrounded by aspen and pine trees. But by 9,000 feet, our ears started popping and the temperature had dropped to 66 degrees.

At the halfway point when the pavement turned to dirt, my husband gripped the wheel. "Now it's going to get interesting.''

Soon thereafter, we saw what we had been talking about since leaving Florida. Big snowy mountains, in the summer no less.

I was awestruck by the view of purple mountains, blue skies and snow masses that made me understand how Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to write America the Beautiful from this mountain.

At the summit, where the temperature was 43 degrees, we threw snowballs and savored the famously greasy doughnuts at the cafe.

It was time to go down, brakes willing, and say goodbye to Colorado Springs. But we all felt a little better knowing we were going home with some gold in our pockets.

Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

If you go

Colorado Springs

The Colorado Springs area boasts numerous places to see and visit in the summer. You can take in nature's box office draws, from majestic mountains and dazzling waterfalls, to humankind's headliners at the U.S. Olympic Training Facility and the U.S. Air Force Academy. To narrow your search, go to the city's official tourism site, www.experiencecolorado springs.com, or the state's tourism site, www.colorado.com.

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