COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Wildfires moved in on some of Colorado's most popular summer tourist destinations over the weekend, demolishing nearly two dozen homes near Rocky Mountain National Park and emptying hotels and campgrounds at the base of Pikes Peak.
A wildfire near Colorado Springs erupted and grew out of control to more than 3 square miles early Sunday, prompting the evacuation of more than 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists. On Saturday, a blaze destroyed 21 structures near the mountain community of Estes Park, where many visitors stay while visiting the park.
All of this came just a week before the Fourth of July, a key time for family vacations to national parks and other destinations. A statewide ban on open campfires and private fireworks has been in place for more than a week.
With Colorado midway through its worst wildfire season in a decade, travelers have seen some of their favorite sites closed to the public, obscured by smoke and haze.
"We're used to flooding and tornadoes, nothing like this," said Amanda Rice of Rock Falls, Ill., who evacuated a Manitou Springs hotel late Saturday with her husband, four children and dog. Some travelers were awoken with evacuation orders. Rice, scared when she saw flames, took her family to the evacuation center before she was told to go.
"It was just this god-awful orange glow. It was surreal. It honestly looked like hell was opening up," Rice
Plumes of gray and white smoke poured from the mountains Sunday, obscuring at times Pikes Peak, the most-summited high-elevation mountain in the nation and inspiration for the song "America The Beautiful." Winds were pushing smoke away from Colorado Springs, but residents and tourists watched nervously as haze wrapped around the peak.
Families planning whitewater rafting trips or visits to the stunning red-rock formations in Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs were instead spending their vacations passing out bottled water and setting up cots in evacuee centers.
They included Mark Stein of Morristown, N.J., whose family arrived after midnight Sunday at their Manitou Springs hotel for a week of whitewater rafting and sightseeing.
"We were sleeping for 15 minutes when they started knocking on the door -- a day from hell," Stein said of the day of travel. With his wife and two sons, Stein spent the first night of his vacation setting up cots for more than 200 evacuees who slept at the school.
"I think it's the best vacation ever. This is what the real world is about. There's a lot of people that need help," Stein said.
Also Sunday, a brushfire that began near Elbert, about 50 miles southwest of Denver, quickly spread to about 60 acres, forcing the evacuation of about 100 residents.