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Spot moose, bears, and tons of birds on a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park.
With everything from jagged peaks and rushing rivers to hot springs, geological wonders, and a dark sky park, Colorado promises endless adventure.
Some experiences simply cannot be repeated anywhere but Colorado. The state’s iconic activities range from listening to live music in a red-rock amphitheater and whitewater rafting through a historic mining valley, to soaking in high-mountain hot springs, skiing hut to hut in the backcountry, and discovering ancient architecture in a national park.
The easy spirit invoked by John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” is alive and well here, whether you’re visiting the musician's memorial park in Aspen, or actually summiting one of Colorado’s 53 peaks above 14,000 feet. Below, even more ideas for making the most of your time in the Centennial State.
Whether you opt to hike, bike, or drive at your leisure through Rocky Mountain National Park, take Trail Ridge Road for the best photo ops and scenic views. Start your exploration in the Montane Ecosystem, where lush trees, shrubs, and flowers provide a habitat for moose, bear, marmots, badgers, and a wide range of birds. From there, you’ll ascend to the sub-alpine section of the park—an area full of firs, pines, elk, mountain lions, and coyotes. Next comes the alpine layer, known as the “land above the trees.” Here, you’ll spot a different set of greenery, along with birds, elk, and smaller mammals. Finally, you’ll reach the glacier layer, where you can get up close and personal with elk in the fresh snow (even in the summertime). The entire journey is an amazing opportunity to experience how the layers of forest have grown and adapted to their surroundings over time, providing life for the many animals that call Rocky Mountain National Park home.
The Peak to Peak Highway is only 55 miles, but it’ll take you between three and four hours to drive its length with all the appealing stops along the way. Colorado’s oldest scenic byway, the route runs from Estes Park to Interstate 70, in a path roughly parallel to the Continental Divide—the ridge line that divides the Pacific watershed from that of the Atlantic. Lining the road are hiking trails, mountain lakes, campgrounds, ghost towns, old gold mines, and the landmark Chapel on the Rock, all of which are worthy of exploration. During the fall months, drivers can also expect to find stunning yellow foliage, especially just north of Nederland.
With more than 70,000 works of art, the Denver Art Museum requires several visits to fully appreciate. Founded in 1949, the museum is primarily known for its extensive collection of American Indian art, but also features Asian, pre-Columbian, and Western American works, among many other styles. The facility has continued to expand over the years and now encompasses more than 350,000 square feet of gallery space. The Hamilton Building gets the bulk of the traffic and deservedly so, but visitors should also check out the North Building, which was considered one of the country’s most impressive works of architecture when it opened back in 1971—it’s covered in a million glass tiles that glitter in Denver’s endless sunshine. For those interested in going deeper, the museum offers an extensive calendar of special events and programming for families, students, and adults.
Just outside of downtown Denver, Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre is the only naturally occurring acoustically perfect arena in the world. Since it first opened in 1941, it’s hosted a wide range of iconic musical performances, from opera to rock, as well as the “Film on the Rocks” movie series in the summer. The stage is flanked by two 300-foot orange sandstone monoliths that rise like sails against the sky. During the day, fitness junkies run up and down the 69 rows of seats. If this is a feat you’d like to tackle, just make sure to pace yourself—you’ll be working out at 6,450 feet above sea level. There are also hiking and biking trails nearby where you can discover some of the flora and fauna in this uniquely situated park at the meeting point of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.
Colorado has more than its fair share of great whitewater rafting, but the stretch of Clear Creek at Idaho Springs, just 35 miles from downtown Denver, has more thrills per mile than just about any other river in the state. Running through a historic mining valley, Clear Creek is the steepest commercially rafted river in Colorado, meaning you won’t find many flat stretches in between rapids. A number of rafting companies operate here, with trip offerings that range from morning beginner runs to full-day advanced adventures. No matter which you choose, if you can take your eyes off the churning water for a second, you just might spot a bighorn sheep, or even a bear or mountain lion on the banks of the river.
Visitors to Iron Mountain Hot Springs in Glenwood Springs will be delighted to find 16 small thermal pools on the banks of the Colorado River, plus a large freshwater pool heated to 95 degrees, a sundeck, and a casual cafe. The smaller pools contain a variety of minerals and are kept at a range of temperatures, inviting guests to spend the day hopping between them in pursuit of relaxation. In fact, the pools inspire such a sense of calm that you’ll barely notice the entire property borders the shoulder of I-70. The location is actually a boon, as it means Iron Mountain is the perfect stopover on cross-state road trips.
Pay your respects to the man who penned “Rocky Mountain High” and spent much of his time in Colorado at the John Denver Sanctuary, a cluster of carved boulders and monuments located just off the Rio Grande Trail in Aspen. Here, you’ll find some of the singer’s most famous lyrics carved into the stones lining the Roaring Fork River. For an extra special experience, join the fans who gather at the site every October 12, the anniversary of Denver’s death, to collect their thoughts and pay homage to the great American songwriter.
Just 10 miles west of Aspen, the peaks known as the Maroon Bells are the most photographed place in Colorado. Visitors flock to the natural landmark to snap a picture of the two giant, snow-capped mountains (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak), reflected in a turquoise lake and, depending on the season, surrounded by either wildflowers or bright yellow foliage. To explore the site for yourself, rent a bike in town at Hub of Aspen, and be sure to bring a water bottle and some snacks for energy. The mostly uphill 11-mile ride from downtown will have your quads and lungs burning—you’ll gain about 1,630 feet of elevation along the way—but the views at the top will be well worth the effort. Relief comes on the ride home, which is an easy downhill coast. There’s also a bus from the Aspen Highlands parking lot for those seeking an easier adventure.
If you just can’t get enough and want to spend the night in the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness, consider camping at lesser-known Willow Lake. Most backpackers usually hike over West Maroon Pass to Crested Butte or over Buckskin Pass to Snowmass Lake, but Willow Lake offers the same stunning views of Maroon Bells without the crowds. To get there, hike as if you were going to take Buckskin Pass and, when the path forks with the signage for Buckskin to your left, bear right instead and continue toward the lake. The route can also be done as a day hike for the ambitious.
A winter trip to Colorado usually means skiing, but it can be hard to choose a destination with so many great mountains on offer. For some of the most diverse terrain, head to Snowmass just outside of Aspen. The largest of Aspen Skiing Company’s four mountains, it offers something for everyone, plus a great ski school for everyone from two-year-olds to adults. Intermediate skiers should start their day in the Elk Camp area of the mountain, while expert downhillers should head straight for the Big Burn and take Sneaky’s down through the trees.
For something closer to Denver, try Eldora Mountain; it’s so close, in fact, that it even has a run named City Lights because you can see the skyline from the top of trail in the evenings. If you’re staying in Boulder instead, know that an RTD bus connection (the “N” route for Nederland) runs five times a day, shuttling skiers between the Boulder Transit Center and the base of Eldora in 50 minutes, stopping 40 feet from the main lift. Otherwise, it’s an easy 20-mile drive up Boulder Canyon.
If you just want to get away from the crowds, opt for Telluride Ski Resort, where you’ll find blissfully short lift lines, some of the freshest powder in the state, and terrain for every ability, from bunny hills for beginners to double-black-diamond glades for the pros. Don’t be surprised if you have a run all to your lonesome or you get a record stretch of bluebird days—Telluride gets 300 days of sunshine a year.
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During World War II, hundreds of U.S. soldiers trained in the mountains of Colorado to prepare for wintry battles in the Alps. Many developed such a love for the area that they returned after the war to help develop a system of mountain huts that now offers some of the best ski touring in North America. Today, the more than 30 huts in the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association provide unrivaled access to Colorado’s backcountry. They book up almost a year in advance, but if you’re lucky enough to get a reservation, you’ll be in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience of pristine terrain, stunning sunsets, and breathtaking proximity to grand, 14,000-foot peaks. Each hut has room for between four and 18 people and comes with propane burners for cooking and a wood-burning stove for heat. Motorized vehicles are not allowed and most huts are at least a seven-mile hike from the trail, but guests are rewarded by the satisfaction of hiking in, living simply, and getting to know the Colorado mountains.
Located on the west side of Colorado Springs, at the foot of Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods is a geological wonderland prime for hiking, biking, or even rock climbing. The towering formations of red sandstone are the stubborn remnants of massive sand dunes that eroded after an inland sea retreated millions of years ago. The area is easily accessed from I-25 and, if you choose to, you can drive through the park via a quick loop (but avoid this on the weekends during peak tourist season when lines can be long). Don’t forget your camera; you’ll want to get a shot at the world-famous Balancing Rock, a chunk of red sandstone that looks as if it could tumble from its perch any second. Before heading home, stop into the visitor’s center for a great view of the Kissing Camels rock formation.
Described by the National Park Service as “a vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky,” Black Canyon of the Gunnison is home to some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rocks, and most jagged spires in North America. It’s also a designated International Dark Sky Park, meaning the stargazing is exceptional. Many visitors from nearby Montrose come here for the day to hike, kayak, fish for trout, and more, but the truly adventurous choose to stay overnight at one of three campgrounds. The most accessible, family-friendly choice, South Rim Campground is near the Night Sky Viewing and Telescope site as well as the amphitheater where ranger programs take place. For something more remote, try North Rim, where campsites are spacious and spread out among piñon and juniper trees, or East Portal, which is located at the bottom of the canyon along the Gunnison River.
Just five miles from downtown Telluride and accessible by high-clearance 4x4 vehicles, Alta Lakes is a sonnet-worthy area of crystal-clear alpine lakes, studded on all sides by snow-capped peaks. Camping is primitive—don’t expect running water, much less a hot shower—but it’s precisely these rustic conditions that keep the surroundings so pure. Area residents love Alta for its hiking and mountain biking trails, and the fact that it looks like an Instagram post come to life. When you’re done exploring in nature, be sure to stop by the hamlet of Alta itself, a former mining boomtown straight out of a spaghetti western.
Misty waterfalls are like unicorns in the landlocked, high-and-dry state of Colorado. Bridal Veil is a dead-ringer for its namesake—a mist, as delicate as nuptial lace, kicked up by water cascading over and down sheer vertical cliffs. At 365 feet high, it also happens to be the largest waterfall in Colorado. For a prime view, say “I do!” to the 1.8-mile hike to the top, where a historic power plant overlooks the evergreen-studded landscape, or rent a bike to explore the car-free trails in Bridal Veil basin.
For anyone who believes that ancient architecture doesn’t exist in the states, Mesa Verde National Park will make you think again. Still standing in the park are cliff dwellings built in 600 C.E. by the ancestral Pueblo people who once lived in the area. A transformative day trip, Mesa Verde is nearly two hours from Telluride but well worth the drive to see its 5,000 archeological sites, from Cliff Palace (a ranger will guide you on the hike up, which involves climbing ten-foot ladders) to Balcony House (which you’ll enter via a 12-foot tunnel).
This 45.2-mile narrow-gauge railroad track was built in 1882 to haul silver and gold ore through the San Juan Mountains, but quickly became popular with passengers for its stunning views. To this day, the line offers mountain vistas that are inaccessible by highway, making a ride from Durango to Silverton more than worth your time. Guests board a vintage steam locomotive in the morning at the depot in Durango, just as they did back in the 19th century, and find themselves in Silverton 3.5 hours later. Then, they can ride the same train back, or opt for a one-hour bus ride down Highway 550. There are a number of cars and classes to choose from when booking, from standard coach to Knight Sky, an all-glass carriage in first class that allows for views up into the canyons.
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>>Next: Plan your trip with AFAR’s Travel Guide to Colorado
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