Photo by John Galante
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 numerous outdoor adventures. They come for …the 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. In Colorado, the eighth-largest state in the nation, there is plenty of room for everybody.
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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 and you can expect high prices and full hotels during peak seasons (late December, mid-February, and spring break in March). April and May comprise the shoulder season, aka the “mud season,” when ski resorts close down and dude ranches start sprucin’ up. You may be able to find some good deals during this time. After that, the gorgeous mountain summer and fall months take over, when many people book camping trips and it’s generally sunny during the day and cool at night.
Most people 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 RTD bus schedule (Regional Transportation District for the most economical way to get to Denver, Boulder, and the many ski mountains; also for Boulder, you can use Green Ride. 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 up and down Interstate 70 (I-70), to get around the state, you’ll most likely want to rent a car.
- 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.
- Come anytime between late July to 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. It still has its red meat and Rocky Mountain Oysters, but nowadays Coloradans like both their carne asada and their quinoa, their craft beer and their kombucha. The state’s scenery attracts top chefs from around the world, so there's no shortage of creativity or talent; farm-to-table and locavorism are as popular here as elsewhere in the country. Plus, with the advent of legal recreational marijuana, Colorado chefs are creating one of the world’s first cannabis-infused cuisines, from pot-infused beef jerky to mile-high haute cuisine. Denver is host to the annual Great American Beer Festival, and Colorado’s craft beer trail offers a delicious string of brewpubs through Denver and the mountains. Even the state's governor, John Hickenlooper, brews beer (taste some at the Wynkoop Brewing Company). More than 100 wineries make up the state’s thriving wine industry. And you'll find a number of craft spirit distilleries.
Every January, the National Western Stock Show is a huge rodeo and stock extravaganza for wranglers. Native American powwows, including a big gathering in late March, take place annually in Denver. Then there are all the funky mountain towns, each with its unique microculture.
Colorado is the king of scenic outdoor venues and enthusiastic, high-altitude fans, so it attracts phenomenal musical acts from around the world, especially in the summer. Red Rocks Amphitheater, just a couple of miles west of Denver, is one of the best places to see a show, anywhere; it's one of the world’s few naturally-occurring acoustic amphitheaters. Telluride Bluegrass Festival, high in the San Juan Mountains, is legendary. And scores of smaller music and food fests are scheduled throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Many towns and cities have developed annual customs like the International Snow Sculpture Championships and Ullr Fest in Breckenridge, and mid-April sees the Cannabis Cup in Denver.
Here's how to survive at high elevations and in a desertlike climate: drink enough water and dress in non-cotton layers so you'll be ready for an extreme weather change at any moment.
Beat the crowds during peak holidays by going to smaller, lesser-known ski areas (Loveland Ski Area and Eldora Mountain Resorts are the two closest ski areas to Denver and Boulder).
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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 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.