Scenic Drives, National Parks, Best Hikes
By Terri Cook
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- Strategic itineraries including a two-week road trip and quick getaways, with suggestions for outdoor adventurers, winter sports enthusiasts, history buffs, road-trippers, foodies, and more
- The top activities and unique experiences: Explore ancient pueblos or Wild West ghost towns, soak in a steaming hot spring, and spot wild elk, horses, and foxes. Savor fresh flavors at a farm-to-table restaurant and kick back with some of Colorado’s delicious local microbrews
- Outdoor adventures: Go white-water rafting or kayaking on a frothing river, and hike slickrock trails to awe-inspiring views of snow-capped mountain peaks. Ski the deep powder of some of the country’s top resorts and relax with a delicious après-ski drink
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- Honest advice from Boulder local and lifelong adventurer Terri Cook on when to go, what to pack, and where to stay, from campsites and motels to B&Bs and resort lodges
- Reliable background on the culture, weather, wildlife, and history, plus tips on getting there and getting around by car, train, and public transportation
- Recommendations for families, LGBTQ+ travelers, seniors, international visitors, and travelers with disabilities
- Full coverage of Denver, Boulder and the Northern Front Range, Rocky Mountain National Park, Steamboat Springs and Northwest Colorado, Vail and the Central Rockies, Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, Mesa Verde and the Southwest, Colorado Springs and the Southeast
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
The Best of Colorado
HIGH PEAKS AND HAUTE CUISINE
A Taste of the Wild West
Summer in the Rockies
WARM WEATHER RECREATION
In 1806, after weeks of trudging west across the Great Plains, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike spotted what he thought was a small cloud on the horizon. As he drew closer, a mighty snow-covered peak materialized, followed by the jagged outline of the Rocky Mountain range. Pike had never seen mountains this high. His descriptions of the peak’s majesty fueled the country’s imagination, imprinting the mountain—later named for him—on the public consciousness and ultimately inspiring the song “America the Beautiful.”
These lofty thoughts were on my mind when I drove westward across I-70 for the first time. As the miles ticked by, I eagerly scanned the horizon. When I finally saw the majestic mountains, I too was astonished—both by how high they tower over the plains and the gleaming cities at their base. Living in Colorado, I’ve come to understand that the Rockies are much more than a backdrop; they are the pulse that sets the rhythm of life, dictating our relaxed pace and weekend escapes, creating our famously variable weather, and underpinning much of the economy.
Colorado is an environment for exploration and adventure. Relax in unspoiled nature and its primeval rhythms. Gaze at forever views of craggy, snowcapped peaks. Get goose bumps listening to the bugling of a bull elk drift through the crisp morning air. You’ll want to actively experience Colorado’s knee-deep powder, plunge down its frothing white-water rapids, and soak away in steaming hot springs. Delve into its unparalleled history—from the ancients who constructed Mesa Verde’s pueblos to the hardy souls who pioneered its creaking ghost towns.
At the end of each adventure-filled day, savor the fresh flavors at a farm-to-table restaurant, sample some of the state’s sudsy microbrews, and then slumber in a luxurious lodge or camp beneath a dark sky teeming with brilliant stars.
Each and every day, Colorado has something wonderful on tap.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Ski and Snowboard: Carve fresh powder in Colorado’s world-class skiing destinations.
2 Get on the Road: Take in the views along scenic drives, Mount Evans Scenic and Historic Byway, Trail Ridge Road, and Independence Pass.
3 Reach New Heights: Climb to the top of the state’s coolest summits.
4 Explore Prehistoric Cliff Dwellings: Get a glimpse into the lives of Ancestral Puebloans at Mesa Verde National Park.
5 Hit the Trail: Marvel at Colorado’s varied landscapes—including stunning Rocky Mountain National Park, Aspen, and the Southwest.
6 Sample Craft Brews: With 125+ breweries and taprooms, the Front Range is called the Napa Valley of Beer.
7 Spot Wildlife: Bighorn sheep, bugling elk, and massive moose are just some of the delightful wildlife you can.
8 Rock on at Red Rocks Amphitheatre: Catch a show and enjoy the open-air acoustics or simply enjoy the phenomenal views.
9 Revisit the Old West: History buffs can explore old forts, gaze at gleaming gold, sashay into old saloons, and even wash down Old West grub with historic cocktails.
10 Go Rafting: Tame some of Colorado’s most exciting white-water rapids.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
The Mile High City is Colorado’s cosmopolitan core. Put your finger on its pulse in the lively Lower Downtown. In Larimer Square, the city’s oldest block, colorful art galleries and bustling bars alternate with neighborhood eateries. Perched high on Capitol Hill, the state capitol’s gleaming golden dome is a beacon for historic sites like the mile-high marker and a mansion that once belonged to the Unsinkable Molly Brown. With seven professional sports teams and the nation’s second-largest theater complex, there’s always a show or game to catch. Above it all, to the west, is what truly sets Denver apart: the stunning backdrop of jagged, snow-covered peaks.
Boulder and the Northern Front Range
North of Denver, the foothills rise dramatically above a series of laid-back towns. Here colleges, theaters, and brewpubs are steps from high-tech start-ups, ethnic restaurants, and eclectic shopping, with mountain wilderness just slightly farther away. Each foothills town has its own distinct personality. Bohemian Boulder, home of the University of Colorado, thrives on its reputation as the brainiest, fittest, and foodiest city in the state. Nearby, historic mountain towns brimming with lore offer secluded inns, lesser-known trails, and quaint antiques stores. Artsy Fort Collins, another active college town, is a beer and biking hub with a charming old town.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 415 square miles (1,074.9 sq km) of natural wonders. With more than 100 sparkling alpine lakes, lush meadows teeming with grazing elk, and a glaciated landscape of deep valleys nestled beneath soaring summits, the park is awe-inspiring in its splendor—and its size. Driving Trail Ridge Road, the park’s signature scenic drive, is the ultimate Rocky Mountain high; its winding, hairpin curves traverse the high tundra before crossing the lofty Continental Divide.
Steamboat Springs and Northwest Colorado
The northwest is filled with wide-open spaces and varied terrain. Here, some of the largest herds of wild horses in the United States gallop across vast plateaus, and untamed rivers offer fantastic fly-fishing and white-water rafting. Dinosaur National Monument preserves some of the state’s enthralling prehistoric past, while smaller sites protect petroglyphs and snippets of Native American and pioneer-era history. The region’s unpretentious anchor is Steamboat Springs, where cowboy boots and pickup trucks are standard gear, along with downhill skis.
Vail and the Central Rockies
The center—and soul—of Colorado lies in the knot of high mountains and deep, narrow valleys along I-70 just west of the Continental Divide. In winter this region is famous for its bluebird skies, fluffy snow, and glittering ski resorts, especially Vail. Other ski areas, like Breckenridge, Keystone, and Copper Mountain, serve as more down-to-earth hubs for winter and summer recreation, from snowshoeing into mountain huts to sailing, biking, and hiking.
Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley
Aspen is a ski town with deep historical roots. The quest for wealth in this region dates back to the mid-1800s, when prospectors began wandering up the beautiful Roaring Fork River in search of silver and gold. Aspen—and the rest of this magical valley—still retains the enduring allure of riches. From the rugged, red mountaintops, steaming hot springs, and sumptuous accommodations to a lovingly preserved mining-era opera house, this valley seamlessly blends the present with the past and small-town charm with sophisticated luxury.
Mesa Verde and the Southwest
Snow-covered peaks, aspen-studded mesas, and earthy sandstone plateaus all characterize southwestern Colorado. Ancestral Puebloan ruins and modern tribal parks echo the area’s long human occupation, while remote mining cabins resonate with the remnants of shattered dreams. In the north of this region, the gurgling Gunnison River has carved a canyon so deep and sheer that parts of it receive just minutes of sunlight each day. Upstream, friendly Crested Butte has a historic district so well preserved that it’s called Colorado’s “last great ski town.”
Colorado Springs and the Southeast
In southeast Colorado, purple mountains majesty meet the high-desert plains where Pikes Peak rises straight from the prairie, dominating the landscape and the region’s history. At its base, Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city, has a wealth of attractions, including the rocky fins of the Garden of the Gods, the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and the mineral waters in artsy Manitou Springs. To the west, adventurers come from near and far to run the river’s frothing rapids and scale Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak. Farther south, a flat valley the size of Connecticut stretches as far as the eye can see. On its eastern edge, a field of giant sand dunes abuts the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Range, creating one of the state’s most dramatic views.
When to Go
Colorado is a year-round destination with seasonal activities that typically influence when is the best time to visit. The majority of guests arrive either during ski season, which runs from Thanksgiving through early April, or during the summer.
Ski towns such as Aspen, Vail, and Steamboat Springs are the most crowded and expensive in winter, particularly during the Thanksgiving, Christmas, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Presidents’ Day holidays. The snow is often better, and the slopes less crowded, in March and early April. Except for Aspen, the ski towns are nearly deserted during the post-skiing “mud season” (late winter to early spring) before picking up again in July.
Spring is a wonderful time to visit, with frequent flocks of migrating sandhill cranes and warm, sunny days perfect for seeing the first vibrant wildflowers. However, the weather is notoriously fickle, and spring often brings raging blizzards that can disrupt travel plans.
By early summer, the highest roads and mountain passes are open, offering unparalleled opportunities to drive Trail Ridge Road, view wildlife, attend music and food festivals, and bike, raft, and fish to your heart’s content. Although the days can be hot, the humidity is low, and the temperatures are comfortable at night.
Autumn, when the mountains are carpeted with golden aspen trees, is my favorite season in the Centennial State. This is an ideal time to explore Mesa Verde’s delicate ruins, hit the trail, and bask in the sun’s last warm rays at an outdoor café before Mother Nature starts her cycle anew.
The Best of Colorado
This two-week tour visits many of the state’s highlights while still leaving enough time to enjoy a few lesser-known spots. The scenery along this drive is gorgeous and diverse, and you’ll still have plenty of time for hiking, wine-tasting, and visiting ancient ruins. The route divides into two overlapping loops so that if you only have one week, you can complete the northern itinerary as written or reverse the southern loop’s order and, either way, return to Denver from Grand Junction.
High Peaks and Haute Cuisine
This weeklong tour showcases many of Colorado’s high points—both literally, like Trail Ridge Road, the continent’s highest continuously paved road, and Rabbit Ears Pass, a recreation hub near Steamboat Spring, and figuratively with its generous selection of top-tier restaurants in Denver, Boulder, and Steamboat Springs.
Day 1: Denver
Arrive at Denver International Airport and transfer to one of the Mile High City’s cozy bed-and-breakfasts. Stroll through the Denver Botanic Gardens or shop in bustling Larimer Square, the city’s oldest block, before enjoying a cold craft beer at Wynkoop Brewing Company, Colorado’s first brewpub, and a farm-to-table dinner at The Kitchen Denver or juicy steaks at Elway’s.
Day 2: Boulder
Head north to Boulder and hike in Chautauqua Park then drive up Flagstaff Mountain for gorgeous panoramic views. Sip a cup of tea seated at a topchan at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse before shopping and people-watching along the Pearl Street Mall. Settle into a downtown hotel and dine at Frasca Food & Wine or The Med.
Day 3: Rocky Mountain National Park
Drive through artsy Lyons en route to Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Look for bighorn sheep at Sheep Lakes and elk in Moraine Park, then tuck into a picnic lunch near sparkling Bear Lake. Take an afternoon hike followed by a casual dinner in downtown Estes Park.
Day 4: Trail Ridge Road to Grand Lake
Fuel up at Notchtop Bakery & Cafe before reentering the park to drive the winding hairpins along Trail Ridge Road, one of Colorado’s most spectacular drives. Stop at the vista points, trailheads, and Alpine Visitor Center along the way, then spend the night at the rustic Grand Lake Lodge, perched high above Grand Lake, a year-round recreation hub on the west side.
Day 5: Steamboat Springs
Head northwest to Colorado’s cowboy corner, anchored by the ranching-turned-recreation town of Steamboat Springs. Spend the afternoon hiking or horseback riding through the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area or zip-lining near Rabbit Ears Pass. Shop for Western wear at F. M. Light & Sons before savoring a classic Italian dinner at Mambo Italiano or Mazzola’s Italian Restaurant.
Day 6: Dinosaur National Monument
Get up early to visit Dinosaur National Monument, a three-hour drive west. Veer briefly into Utah to visit the Dinosaur Quarry’s famous bones then drive to the Echo Park Overlook to see the gorgeous valley where the Yampa and Green Rivers meet. Camp in the monument or bunk down in Craig.
Day 7: Grand Junction
Search for ancient pictographs in the Canyon Pintado National Historic District en route to Grand Junction. Pedal, hike, or raft through the beautiful high-desert scenery or explore the dizzying heights of the world’s largest flat-topped mountain along the Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway. Save time for a wine-tasting in nearby Palisade before enjoying fresh farm-to-table fare at Bin 707 Foodbar.
The southern loop highlights four gorgeous national parks and monuments with awe-inspiring sights, including Mesa Verde’s ancient cliff dwellings and the dark depths of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, as well as the rugged San Juan Mountains, whose rocky summits tower above ski slopes, historic mines, and fields of wildflowers.
Day 8: Colorado National Monument
After breakfast in Grand Junction at Main Street Bagels, visit the sandstone towers and hidden crannies of Colorado National Monument. View the fossil treasures at the Dinosaur Journey Museum before another wine-tasting and an overnight in or near Grand Junction.
Day 9: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Head southeast to view the sheer, dark walls of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park before driving south to Ouray. Enjoy dinner in the historic downtown followed by a decadent dessert at Mouse’s Chocolates and a relaxing soak in the Ouray Hot Springs.
Day 10: Telluride and the San Juan Mountains
In the morning, take a jeep tour to wildflower-filled Yankee Boy Basin, then drive to Telluride and enjoy a leisurely lunch in the historic downtown. Soak up the scenery by riding the free, year-round gondola up to the mountain village or hiking to beautiful Bridal Veil Falls. Check in at the historic Madeline Hotel, then walk to La Marmotte for dinner.
Day 11: Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
Leave early for the stunning drive through the San Juan Mountains and down to the sweeping sandstone landscape around Cortez. Visit the Anasazi Heritage Center before exploring the twisting chasms and ancient pueblos in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Top off your day with an icy margarita and delicious Mexican food at La Casita de Cortez.
Day 12: Mesa Verde National Park
Spend the day exploring Mesa Verde National Park. Arrive early at the visitor center to snag tickets to Balcony House or Cliff Palace, then head to Chapin Mesa to tour the archaeological museum and drive the scenic Mesa Top Loop Road. End your day in lively Durango with dinner at the Steamworks Brewing Company.
Day 13: Durango
Board the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad for an all-day outing in the heart of the rugged San Juan Mountains. While in Silverton, explore quaint shops and colorful mining-era buildings before returning to Durango for a second night.
Day 14: Denver
It’s a six-hour drive to Denver via U.S. 160 and U.S. 285. Stop for lunch at Little Red Hen Bakery in Salida and stretch your legs at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Settle into your downtown hotel, then enjoy dinner and live music in LoDo.
A Taste of the Wild West
Once a sleepy outpost on the Western frontier, Colorado became a hive of activity in the late 1800s after gold was discovered in its clear, cold streams. Fortune seekers flocked here, as did gunslinging outlaws and other colorful characters who profoundly influenced the state’s history. The new arrivals laid the foundation for the state’s largest cities as well as its quaint Victorian mountain towns. History buffs can explore old forts, gaze at gleaming gold, sashay into old saloons, and even wash down Old West grub with historic cocktails. Every corner of the state hosts a nugget of history, but due to the long driving distances, you’re better off limiting your explorations to one or two regions at a time.
Tour the restored mansion at the Molly Brown House Museum, then learn about the West’s African American cowboys at the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center. After lunch, visit the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to view sparkling samples of gold.
The Denver Foothills
The West lives on in the town of Golden, home of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave (where he may—or may not—be buried), the Colorado Railroad Museum, and the haunted saloon Buffalo Rose. Nearby Morrison offers a taste of the really Wild West—
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- Apr 7, 2020
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- Moon Travel