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Colorado is synonymous with its primary attraction: the Rocky Mountains, a jaw-dropping geographic wonder of the world whose peaks, crags, and canyons will dominate your view—and your itinerary. Visitors come to Colorado for its world-class ski resorts and assorted outdoor adventures. They come for …national parks, dude ranches, road trips, hot springs, and rodeos. They come to Denver for its museums, sports stadiums, pubs, parks, and bookshops. They come to pop a tent, unplug, and walk into the backcountry. And while many of Colorado’s attractions aren’t exactly undiscovered, there’s plenty of room for everybody–and no visitor will leave underwhelmed.
What to know before you go to Colorado
Colorado is a year-round destination, so “when to go” depends entirely on what you want to do. Ski season generally begins in late November, with prices and hotel capacity peaking in late December, mid-February, and spring break in March. Come April and May, aka shoulder or “mud” season, most ski resorts close but canyon country enjoys ideal temps (and an explosion of cactus wildflowers). You may be able to find some good deals during this time, but afterward, the gorgeous mountain summer and fall months take over and people flock to the state for sunny days, cool nights, epic camping trips, and dude ranch getaways.
Most visitors to Colorado fly into Denver International Airport, referred to locally as DIA and by its airport code, DEN. The airport, a modern, circus tent–like affair on the plains northeast of Denver, is famous with conspiracy theorists for its alleged secret tunnels, curses, cryptic artwork, and haunted devil horse statue.
From the airport, check the Regional Transportation District (RTD) bus schedule for the most economical way to get to Denver, Boulder, and the many ski mountains. If you’re going to Boulder, you can also use the Green Ride shuttle service; for all other destinations, look for the individual shuttle counters in the main arrival terminal. In general, although there are Greyhound and other bus connections running across Interstate 70 (I-70), you’ll most likely want to rent a car to get around the state.
— Go on a high-alpine backcountry camping trip in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area, a 120-square-mile chunk of mountains straddling the Continental Divide that includes seven peaks over 13,000 feet.
— Visit any time between late July and early September and head for the hills. Anywhere you go, you’ll be in wildflower heaven.
— Colorado’s food scene, once defined by steak and more steak, has come a long way in recent years. Locals still love their red meat (this is cowboy country after all) but nowadays they eat their carne asada with quinoa, craft beer, or kombucha.
— Top chefs from around the world are drawn to Colorado for its scenery, bringing their talent and creativity with them. The farm-to-table and locavore movements are as popular here as anywhere in the nation. And in Denver, cannabis-infused cuisine is on the rise: Following the legalization of recreational marijuana, visitors can expect everything from pot-infused beef jerky to mile-high haute cuisine.
— Colorado is nirvana for beer lovers. Visitors can taste their way along the state’s craft beer trail, which runs through Denver and the mountains, or head straight to Denver for the annual Great American Beer Festival each September. Even the governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, brews his own beer (taste some at Wynkoop Brewing Company).
— More than 100 wineries make up Colorado’s thriving wine industry, concentrated in the western half of the state. There are also a number of craft spirit distilleries to explore.
Colorado’s diversity is evident in its annual events. The National Western Stock Show is a huge rodeo and stock extravaganza for wranglers held every January; Native American powwows, including a big gathering in late March, take place yearly in Denver; and several mountain towns, each with its own microculture, host regular celebrations, including the International Snow Sculpture Championships and Ullr Fest in Breckenridge and the Telluride Mushroom Festival in August.
Colorado is also the king of scenic outdoor venues and enthusiastic fans, so it attracts phenomenal musical acts from around the world, especially in the summer. Just a couple miles west of Denver, Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre—one of the world’s few naturally occurring acoustic arenas—is among the best places to see a show anywhere, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, held high in the San Juan Mountains, is legendary. Scores more smaller music and food festivals take place around the state throughout the spring, summer, and fall.
— To thrive in Colorado’s high-elevation, desert-like climate, drink plenty of water and bring a sweater on every outing: Temperatures typically plummet after sundown or when clouds move in.
— Beat the crowds during peak ski season by going to smaller, lesser-known mountains. Loveland Ski Area (the closest to Denver) is an undiscovered gem, and Monarch Mountain requires no driving on I-70, where stop-and-go traffic is common on winter weekends.
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Joshua Berman is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado. He writes a column for The Denver Post called “Around Colorado” and is the author of five travel books. Joshua’s work has also appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, Men’s Journal, Yoga Journal, and National Geographic Traveler. Find him online at joshuaberman.net and on Twitter at @tranquilotravel.