Colorado Outdoors

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Colorado Outdoors
From high mountains to swollen rivers, Colorado’s backcountry is one of the greatest outdoor playgrounds in the United States—and one of the biggest. Where you should go depends on what you’re looking for.
Photo by Stephen M. Smith
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    Hiking Near Boulder
    It’s impossible to talk about Boulder without mentioning the Flatirons, the enormous sandstone slabs that sprout from the foothills near town. Chautauqua Park is the best place to see them up close. From the Chautauqua trailhead, it’s a quick, one-and-a-half-mile trek across a meadow and up a talus field to the backside of the First Flatiron, where hikers can grab views of the city below. Show up early enough and you can catch the sunrise reflecting off the flatirons and hills to the west, though since the park is a popular destination for dog walkers and dawn-patrolling runners, you’ll have to share it.
    Photo by Stephen M. Smith
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    Hiking Rocky Mountain National Park
    Covering over 260,000 acres of alpine ranges, forests, and lakes near the town of Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park is best known as the home of Colorado’s most iconic mountain, Longs Peak. While many routes up Longs Peak require ropes and climbing experience, hikers can attempt the peak in the summer months via the Keyhole route, a strenuous, 15-mile round trip that involves narrow ledges, loose rock, and steep cliffs, and where a fall could still be fatal. For visitors looking for a less intense jaunt, the park contains 355 miles of trails, ranging from day hikes to multi-day backpacking trips—try the 3.5-mile hike to Cascade Falls for a more laid-back walk.
    Photo by Lisa Marie
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    Rock Climbing Colorado
    Colorado has plenty of rock just waiting to be climbed; two popular spots are the Flatirons, near Boulder, and Shelf Road, located above Canon City. The Flatirons were the site of some of the first technical climbs in Colorado in the early 1900s, and remain popular today. Beginner-friendly routes include Standard East Face on the Third Flatiron (5.4) and Fandango on the First Flatiron (5.5). The miles of pocket- and crack-marked limestone cliffs that fringe Shelf Road have over 800 routes, with more added each year. During the area’s long season, campgrounds fill up with both local and out-of-state visitors. Start your explorations at Cactus Cliff, home to both moderate classics like LaCholla Jackson and strenuous lines like Hot Beach.
    Photo courtesy of Matt Inden/The Colorado Tourism Office
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    Great Sand Dunes National Park
    Towering more than 700 feet above the floor of the high-altitude San Luis Valley, the dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park are the tallest in North America, a geological oddity created by sand deposited by the Rio Grande. While it’s possible to just climb the dunes, there’s no quicker way to become intimately familiar (sometimes too much so) with the giant sand mounds than by sliding down them on a specially-designed board or sled. Visitors hoping to carve a turn should show up after a rain or snow, when the surface of the sand is wet enough to allow sliding. You can rent sleds and stand-up boards at the Great Sand Dunes Oasis a few miles outside the entrance to the park.
    Photo courtesy of Matt Inden/The Colorado Tourism Office
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    Rafting the Arkansas River
    While Colorado is blessed with more than a few rugged stretches of whitewater, the headwaters of the Arkansas River, the sixth-longest river in the United States, is notable as one of the most popular destinations for whitewater rafting on the continent. From jumping-off points in and around Leadville, Buena Vista, and Salida, river runners can access over 100 miles of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, encompassing rapids from grades II to V. The Arkansas is also a popular fishing destination for anglers looking to hook trout, and it is home to Browns Canyon, declared a National Monument in 2015
    Photo courtesy of Matt Inden/The Colorado Tourism Office
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    Traveling the United States' Highest Roads
    The 28-mile Mt. Evans Scenic Byway is the highest paved road in the United States, topping out just below the summit of Evans at 14,130 feet. The route gains more than 7,000 feet in elevation, passing through ponderosa and juniper forests before plunging above the treeline. A few hours’ drive to the southwest, you'll find another of Colorado’s highest roads: State Highway 82, a popular destination for photographers and cyclists which crosses Independence Pass between Aspen and Twin Lakes at an altitude of over 12,000 feet. Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park has been called a "scenic wonder of the world." Be sure to tackle these drives in warm weather, as many of Colorado's high mountain passes are closed in the winter.
    Photo courtesy of Matt Inden/The Colorado Tourism Office
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    Colorado on Two Wheels
    Just across the border from Moab, the U.S. mountain biking capital, the western Colorado town of Fruita has the same slickrock scenery and challenges, but without the crowds. Mary’s Loop, an 8.5-mile rim-side ride along the edge of nearby canyons, features wide-open views of the Colorado River below. The 142-mile Kokopelli Trail winds through deserts, connecting Fruita to Moab; plan on five days to make the trip. With an elevation gain of more than 4,200 feet, the climb over Independence Pass is not for casual cyclists. For the full experience, ride the section of State Highway 82 that crosses the pass east to west, hitting a peak of just over 12,000 feet before rolling down 3,000 feet to Twin Lakes.
    Photo courtesy of Matt Inden/The Colorado Tourism Office
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    Fishing the Gunnison
    With its streaked, 2,000-foot-high walls and tumbling, technical rapids, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, near Montrose, is one of the deepest gorges in Colorado and a well of adventure for expert rock climbers and kayakers. The park also has prime fishing grounds. The stretch of river that passes through the park is among just 168 miles of trout stream in Colorado designated by the state as Gold Medal Waters. Both rainbow trout and the native Colorado cutthroat ply the river, and fly-fishing enthusiasts with valid licenses can bag up to four brownies a day, perfect for grilling up at one of the park’s two rim-side campgrounds.
    Photo courtesy of Matt Inden/The Colorado Tourism Office
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    Climbing a Fourteener
    Climbing 14,000-foot mountains is a kind of unofficial state pastime for active Coloradans, some of whom take years to bag all 53 fourteeners in the state. A good place for newcomers to start their quest is Quandary Peak, a relatively gentle mountain located just outside the ski town of Breckenridge. The five-mile round trip up Quandary’s East Ridge is a straightforward trail hike with views of the Tenmile Range and the White River National Forest below. If you catch the fourteener bug, there are more novice-friendly objectives, including Mt. Bierstadt and Mt. Evans, nearby. If you want a serious challenge combined with equally stunning views, try the Maroon Bells in the Elk Mountains.
    Photo courtesy of Matt Inden/The Colorado Tourism Office
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    Eldorado Canyon State Park
    Tucked into a canyon near the city of Boulder, the towering walls of Eldorado Canyon State Park are the site of some of the boldest ascents in Colorado’s climbing history, including pioneer Layton Kor’s climb of The Naked Edge. But even visitors with no intention of scaling Eldorado’s sandstone buttresses can find plenty to appreciate in this secluded park. Guests can enjoy a picnic on the banks of South Boulder Creek, or, for a more active day, hike the Eldorado Canyon Trail into the upper reaches of the park, where the narrow passages of the canyon open up into grassy meadows.
    Photo by Patrick Orton/age fotostock