Rocky Mountains for the Acrophobic
May 19, 2017 7:07 AM   Subscribe

My family will be traveling to Fort Collins, Colorado in about a month for a wedding. We will be flying into Denver and then driving up. The kids (ages 6 and 11) have never been in the Rockies before and we'd like to enjoy nature and the mountains. The difficulty is that Mrs. WtP has a history of severe acrophobia leading to panic attacks when driving on mountain roads. The acrophobia may be rooted in damage to her vestibular system. (She had severe ear infections as a child, required surgery, and has partial hearing loss in one ear.)

In the past her reaction has been triggered by expansive views driving out of Denver, and by driving along cliffside roads in New Mexico. In both cases she was riding in the front passenger seat. On one occasion her reaction severe enough that I feared for our safety. I worried that in her panic she would grab the steering wheel from my hands or do something else dangerous.

This section from the Wikipedia article on acrophobia describes what it feels like is occurring:
A possible contributing factor is a dysfunction in maintaining balance. In this case the anxiety is both well founded and secondary. The human balance system integrates proprioceptive, vestibular and nearby visual cues to reckon position and motion. As height increases, visual cues recede and balance becomes poorer even in normal people. However, most people respond by shifting to more reliance on the proprioceptive and vestibular branches of the equilibrium system.

An acrophobic, however, continues to over-rely on visual signals whether because of inadequate vestibular function or incorrect strategy. Locomotion at a high elevation requires more than normal visual processing. The visual cortex becomes overloaded resulting in confusion... Acrophobia is not a fear to be trifled with, as the exposure to heights pose a genuine danger for both the sufferer and the bystander. The sufferer may have a panic-attack and start behaving erratically and put themselves, and any bystander, in real danger.
We've only experienced this problem when driving. She's been able to enjoy vistas (albeit smaller ones) when we've been on foot. So one option may be to find ways into the mountain where the drive is sheltered and the heights aren't visible until arrival. Mrs. WtP thinks that riding on a bus might be easier than driving in a car, but we haven't tried that and also don't know what bus options would be available to us for day trips from Denver.

A secondary consideration to all of the above is that we're not in great shape, so we're not looking for strenuous mountain hikes.

With that background, are there any good options for a day trip into the mountains or some other natural Rocky Mountain beauty near Denver, Fort Collins, or between the two of them?

(We also have friends in Boulder, so a trip that takes us through their neighborhood would be welcome, perhaps on the way to Fort Collins.)
posted by Winnie the Proust to Travel & Transportation around Denver, CO (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well Fort Collins isn't in the mountains, nor is Boulder. Are you worried about getting there, or asking for suggestions where to visit that might be less triggery?
posted by humboldt32 at 7:20 AM on May 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

There's generally only one or two ways up/over a mountain, you're not going to have a lot of options for finding a covered one.

My recommendation would be for her to avoid visual cues: sit in the back passenger-side seat, pop up the headrest of the front seat and drape a towel over it if necessary to block her view, and then cover her door window. She should keep her eyes forward and level, so basically she's staring at that towel over the headrest.

If she has vestibular issues she should not move her head or eyes around, and a Sudafed an hour before the trip should prevent a lot of the low-grade pressure fluctuations in the Eustachian system that can trigger nausea or panic.

But if she's having an actual panic reaction uncontrollable to the point you think she might kill you all, I think you need to consider seeing a doctor for benzos or just not taking her up mountains. I have certainly become greatly anxious from this issue, but I had a hold of myself. The worst that was going to happen is I was going to puke from anxiety and motion sickness.

I believe there are all kinds of foothills/prairie-type natural beauty to take in around the area, that seems safer to take on.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:22 AM on May 19, 2017 [9 favorites]

This YouTube video shows what it's like to drive I-70, which is the highest highway in the US system.
posted by xyzzy at 7:28 AM on May 19, 2017

I hate heights and I hate travelling. I second Lyn Never's suggestion for a Benzo - I very literally could not travel without it. Ativan and Gravol/Dramamine will most certainly help. Hopefully she can also sleep through the drive and avoid the visual triggers. I have so much sympathy for her because I'd be the same way and it's terribly un-fun to be considered the anxious, miserable individual on the trip everyone else enjoys.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 7:43 AM on May 19, 2017

As humboldt32 noted, you need not go into the mountains. To reassure yourself, Google images of Ft Collins, like this. Denver is similarly on a plain at the foot of the mountains.

Using Google maps to find Denver and Ft. Collins, you can see the the mountains (green area) are to the west. A quick look at Google Maps and/or Google Earth will reassure you that most of the land between Denver and Ft. Collins is cultivated farm land, i.e. not mountains.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:45 AM on May 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

If it's that bad maybe she shouldn't go up into the mountains. There are plenty of trails just outside Fort Collins that might be better suited. Devil's Backbone in Loveland can maybe be a good compromise, giving you a feel of the mountains with some nice scenery without be too far from town. It does get steep in places, but if she's only ever experienced the panic in the car and not on foot she might be ok. It's not a difficult hike, and is always pretty well populated.
posted by lilac girl at 7:45 AM on May 19, 2017

Response by poster: Responding to humboldt32's question:

I am looking for suggestions for getting out into nature in ways that won't trigger Mrs. WtP's acrophobia. That could include non-mountainous nature or mountainous nature with a non-mountainous approach.

We are not from the area, so suggestions of specific hikes, walks, and transportation methods would be very helpful.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:50 AM on May 19, 2017

From Boulder, the drive up Boulder Canyon to Nederland is nice, and shelters you from the large mountain vistas until you get up to the top. Nederland is a small town you can walk around. I recommend the German restaurant.

From Nederland there's the Peak to Peak Highway, with lots of grand vistas, but there are barriers between the road and the "edge". Maybe with the various drugs already mentioned it might be doable.

Fort Collins is not in the mountains, either. The foot hills are lovely, and there are a couple of state parks in the area, Lori State Park is one, and the Horsetooth Reservoir is nice.

Good luck
posted by qurlyjoe at 7:50 AM on May 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

here's a link to various trails around Fort Collins.
posted by qurlyjoe at 7:59 AM on May 19, 2017

Seconding the drive up Boulder Canyon. It's a nice way to get into the mountains while staying mostly between the peaks, not driving over and around them.
posted by Mothlight at 8:14 AM on May 19, 2017

Thirding Boulder Canyon. That was going to be my suggestion now that you have clarified.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:25 AM on May 19, 2017

The Mesa Trail starts at NCAR right in Boulder so there is no mountain driving. It also has the advantage of being at a lower elevation than the other drives and hikes which would make it a good choice for the beginning of the trip when you might not be acclimated. It can be hot and sunny.
posted by Botanizer at 8:39 AM on May 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

My son found that taking Bonine ( a motion sickness over the counter pill) helped him deal with heights when hiking. I too hate and get sick and panicked on winding mountain roads, I can sympathize with your wife. I found Bonine helpful for both air and car travel, but I have avoided mountain roads.
posted by mermayd at 8:44 AM on May 19, 2017

If winding mountain roads are a trigger for your wife, I would definitely *not* drive the road up to Boulder Canyon. I grew up in Colorado and don't get particularly bothered by driving in the mountains, but exposure (being next to a sharp drop) does make me a bit nervous, and all of the roads from Boulder up to the mountain towns tend to be a bit difficult for me to do as a passenger when someone else is driving. They are very windy and there are many places where the road is right next to a big drop, so I think it may end up mimicking her experience of cliffside driving in NM.

I think sticking in Boulder or Fort Collins and doing hikes that start in town sound like a much better bet. Mesa Trail starting at NCAR is a good idea. There's also a number of hikes starting at Chautauqua Park within Boulder that would be nice and give you the feeling of being in the mountains without actually needing to drive on a road that would make your wife nervous.

I would usually say that taking I-70 to get into the mountains would be the best way to do it if someone is nervous about mountain driving, because the freeway is so wide and there's almost no sharp exposure anywhere, so you don't get that sense of "oh my god we're about to fall off the side of the mountain" that makes people so nervous - but if your wife has been triggered by views of the mountains while driving in the flatlands of Denver, I'd be really cautious.
posted by iminurmefi at 8:55 AM on May 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am in the area, and I don't handle heights well, which I also attribute to ear damage, and a few bouts of vertigo. Boulder and Fort Collins, and the roads between them, will be fine. They're in the Foothills, not the mountains.

If she's OK with mountains looming over her rather than under, the Flatirons in Boulder might be a good choice. You can do an image search to get an idea of what that looks like. Just don't go too far in, take it easy, drink lots of water, and keep an eye out for symptoms of altitude sickness. Your Boulder friends will probably have more specific recommendations.

Also check out the Swetsville Zoo in Fort Collins while you're there. It's not at all mountain related, and it's not mind-blowing or anything, but it's a kind of charming, rusty little sculpture park.

I like qurlyjoe's recommendations, and there are parts of the Peak to Peak highway that are fine, but there are other parts that are the very first intrusive images that popped into my head when you described your wife's issues. It was an early unforecasted freeze/rain, and they were a little late closing the highway and...and...well, here is an image search for peak to peak highway scary, and now imagine the road is icy. You should be OK if you stay out of or at the very entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park, but don't take my word on that entirely, because that damned road traumatized me so hard I make every effort I can to avoid it now.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:08 AM on May 19, 2017

I've spent most of my life in Colorado living on the Front Range along the foothills. There's no shortage of beauty to be found without going too far into the mountains. And since you're lowlanders wanting to do some gentle hikes, it's better that you stay at the lower elevations anyway where it'll be more comfortable.

Definitely visit Boulder. You can look up at the beautiful flatirons and feel very much like you're in Colorado without driving into the mountains.

In Fort Collins, the drive up Poudre Canyon Road is pretty and gentle and gives you a good feeling of mountains without being overwhelming. It follows the Cache La Poudre River and there's plenty of turnouts for you to get close to the water or turn the car around. And there's some pretty trails, too.

If you make it down to Colorado Springs, about an hour south of Denver, there's lots to do. That's the area I know best:
- There's Garden of the Gods, which really has to be seen to be believed -- soaring red sandstone towers in unusual shapes, and pretty, looping, non-scary drives surrounding them. Lots of places to park and wander on paved and dirt trails. And a very nice Visitor's Center.
- And then further south, there's Helen Hunt Falls, which has a drive that's mountainous but no steep dropoffs, and when you get there, there's waterfalls and trails to enjoy. Although be sure to drive home the way you came to avoid the steep roads coming back.
- Manitou Springs feels very much like being in a quirky mountain town without actually driving into the mountains. The foothills rise up around you and you can get funnel cakes and drink different varieties of effervescent mountain spring water from the springs nearby, and wander around the old arcade. It's pretty charming.
posted by mochapickle at 9:24 AM on May 19, 2017

Oh, I forgot to mention that, if your wife is prone to ear problems, the altitude will probably make them worse. I live in the area, so I'm acclimated to altitudes a mile+ above sea level, but I get ear issues pretty quickly going higher up than that. And the ear issues, in my experience, exacerbate the fear of heights, because that really messes with your sense of balance.

So I suggest taking it very very easy at first, sticking to scenic overlooks and trailheads, unless and until she's 100% A-OK with everything. It's a beautiful area, the view of the mountains is pretty fantastic from flat areas, and there's plenty to see from and in the nice, secure flat parts.

And remember the water. Lots and lots of water.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:25 AM on May 19, 2017

From your description of the ways your wife is triggered, which include views of mountains while driving in flat areas, I would recommend driving up I-25 from Denver to get to Fort Collins. It's a very straight drive, with no winding. You'll be traveling north almost the entire way there, and with her in the passenger seat, she could focus on taking in the views out her window to the east, which are all flat plains, no mountains. You could bring a blindfold or eye mask as well in case she starts to feel panicky. The drive should only take you about an hour.

Literally any other route between Denver and Fort Collins will involve a greater amount of looking-at-mountains and more winding roads.
posted by hootenatty at 9:29 AM on May 19, 2017

Response by poster: Clarification: My memory is that looking up at mountains isn't a problem. It's sharp drops, or wide open vistas opening out and down that creates the problem.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:55 AM on May 19, 2017

Response by poster: (and thanks for all the answers so far. This is great stuff. Super helpful.)
posted by Winnie the Proust at 9:56 AM on May 19, 2017

Roxborough State Park, all low level, all looking up, really, really excellent.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:12 AM on May 19, 2017

I suffered from this from I was a teen till some years ago, when I was on a roadtrip with students. For reasons, I became the sole driver on our trip, and had to drive up and down the Black Mountains and the Pyrenees. Had expected this to be one long panic attack, but being the driver, I felt much more in control, and had no problems at all. I kept my eyes on the road, and was thus far less exposed to the frightening views than when I had previously sat on the passenger's seat. After this, my acrophobia is much diminished, even when others are driving, because now I know how it feels.
In other words, could your wife do some of the driving? This is complicated, because I know I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been forced by circumstance, but it was really life changing.
posted by mumimor at 11:15 PM on May 20, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks all, these are great suggestions. We now have everything we need to plan our trips. Mrs. WtP particularly appreciated the comments from people who have similar issues. It's nice for her to know she's not alone in this.

I've marked this question resolved.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:33 AM on May 22, 2017

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