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Colorado wildfires change vacation plans

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 national park northwest of Denver.

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 Rockfalls, Ill., who evacuated a Manitou Springs hotel late Saturday with her husband, four children and dog. "It was just this god-awful orange glow. It was surreal. It honestly looked like hell was opening up."

Plumes of gray-and-white smoke poured from the mountains Sunday, at times obscuring Pikes Peak, the 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 white-water rafting trips or visits to the 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 white-water rafting and sightseeing.

"We were sleeping for 15 minutes when they started knocking on the door" Stein said. He and his family spent the first night of vacation setting up cots for more than 200 evacuees.

"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," he said.

The wildfire near Rocky Mountain National Park destroyed vacation cabins and closed an entrance to the park. Clouds of smoke blew toward the 102-year-old Stanley Hotel that inspired Stephen King to write "The Shining."

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