The Garden of the Gods is a must-see for visitors to Colorado ? Dan Buettner/Getty Images
Travelers are enchanted by Colorado’s diversity, beauty and grandeur, not forgetting the lure of its endless powder runs and surprisingly cosmopolitan arts and dining scenes.
The best-known Rocky Mountain state has granite behemoths that rise abruptly, crinkled and snowcapped out of the Great Plains. It’s adventure central, with world-class skiing, biking, rafting, hiking, wildlife watching and more to be enjoyed. It also offers up its fair share of both high and low culture, and is home to Red Rocks, one of the best amphitheaters in the US, as well as a host of microbreweries.
Here are some of the great things to do and places to go to make the most from your trip to Colorado.
The Garden of the Gods public park is an absolute must-see for visitors to Colorado. Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1971, the gorgeous vein of red sandstone at the park is about 290 million years old, and its mountain backdrop is particularly striking. Things to do there include exploring the network of paved and unpaved trails, enjoying a picnic and watching climbers test their nerve on the sometimes flaky rock.
Bear in mind that scrambling up the rocks is prohibited, and a permit is required for climbing and bouldering. Rock Ledge Ranch, a living history museum near the park entrance, is worth a visit for those interested in the lives of Native Americans and 19th-century homesteaders in the region.
With elk grazing under granite walls, alpine meadows set afire with wildflowers in the summer, and a glorious mountain road winding its way over the Continental Divide, the natural splendor of Rocky Mountain National Park packs a wallop. To really see the park, leave the main road behind, lace up your boots and head into the backcountry.
Trails cater to every ability and ambition, from epic outings up Longs Peak to family-friendly romps in the Bear Lake area. And with a little effort, you can have the place to yourself.
Read more: The 5 best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
No trip to Colorado would be complete without exploring its capital, Denver. It’s one of the fastest growing cities in the US, and was also chosen as a top city in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2020. Expect great weather, good restaurants, even better bars, and a pretty lively arts and music scene.
The entire city is connected through a fabulous series of bike paths and parks. Explore unique neighborhoods, get lost in museums or just connect with the eclectic mix of people that are building a new take on Rocky Mountain living.
Denver is one of the fastest growing cities in the US ? Mike Kvackay/500px
Ancient culture, natural beauty and the imagination collide in this one-of-a-kind archaeological site, which was accredited as the 100th International Dark Sky Park in 2021. You don’t just walk into the past at Mesa Verde National Park, the site of 600 ancient cliff dwellings. You scramble up ladders, scale rock faces and crawl through tunnels.?
The superb Cliff Palace can be seen on an hour-long ranger-led tour that should be reserved in advance and requires visitors to climb down a stone stairway and four 10ft ladders. The tour retraces the steps taken by the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the cliff dwellings and vacated the site in AD 1300.
With wide-open ranges, wildflower meadows and snow-kissed peaks, seeing Colorado from the saddle is an atavistic experience perfect for the whole family. Dude ranch experiences range from the real and rustic charm of herding cattle on a bona fide ranch in South Park to venturing out to a remote bison ranch with green credentials, or riding horses in the luxuriant Rocky Mountain retreat of Devil’s Thumb.
If you decide to saddle up for overnight adventures in Colorado’s dude ranches, accommodation ranges from five-star refurbished log cabins with mod cons to starlit camps with an eye on the Milky Way.
Read more: How America’s premier dude ranch spurred a century of wild west vacations
For sheer drama, you can’t beat the arresting sights of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. A massive cleft in the landscape, the deep, narrow abyss unexpectedly opens from the subdued undulations of the surrounding tablelands.
The sheer walls of the Black Canyon – so called because daylight only briefly illuminates the narrow canyon floor – are dizzying in height, scored with eerie crevices and pinnacles, and veined with multicolored mineral deposits. It’s the place to go to see important and pretty cool geologic features.
Adventurers should check out the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park ? GingerSnapsSherry/Getty Images
Colorado consistently ranks among the top three states for microbreweries per capita, and craft brewing has been elevated to a high art throughout. Hop-heavy brews, pH-changing sours and light lagers are all produced with passion in long-established and start-up operations. Among the state’s many masters, Great Divide Brewing Company consistently stands out and offers free family-friendly tours of its downtown Denver brewhouse.
Each September, Denver hosts the Great American Beer Festival, luring in 780-odd brewers and over 60,000 enthusiastic drinkers. Whatever town you’re visiting, from tiny Del Norte to beer-centric Fort Collins, you won’t go thirsty at any time of the year.
Aspen takes on new shades and personalities with the seasons, and it is singular in its beauty, style and riches. Put quite simply, it’s one of the world’s best mountain resorts. In the summer, you can enjoy outdoor concerts and amazing hikes, while the four unique ski hills bring speed and exhilaration when the snows come and cover the resorts with champagne powder.
Entertainment comes in the form of fancy restaurants, rip-roaring clubs and more. This is where the beautiful people go to be seen. And yet, there’s a touch of those frontiersman roots that bore this city. And that’s where the magic is found.
Aspen is one of the world’s best mountain resorts ? Jakob Helbig/Getty Images
The Colorado National Monument is the crown jewel of the Western Slope, where the setting sun alights otherworldly red-rock formations. Hike its starkly beautiful landscape or watch from camp as lightning storms roll across the distant plains.
These canyons rise from the Uncompahgre Uplift of the Colorado Plateau, 2000ft above the Grand Valley of the Colorado River, to reveal a stunning view. Once dinosaur country, this 32-sq-mile scenic wonder is one of the most rewarding side trips possible from an interstate highway, well worth a detour by car but even better for backcountry exploration. Open all year, the Monument is an exceptional area for hiking, camping and road biking.
Whatever you do, don’t miss a day in Boulder. Tucked up against the signature Flatirons and the sudden swell of the Front Range, the beauty of this little village on the edge of Eden will take your breath away.
The lively epicenter is the pedestrian-only Pearl St Mall – ideal for street theater, shopping and dining out – but it’s the surrounding outdoors that really captivates. Best of all, Boulder has experimental theater, fine arts centers, symphonies, street art and interesting foodie scenes that are evolving beyond Colorado’s traditional frontiers attitude to the culinary arts.
Deep in the San Juan Mountains, the Million Dollar Highway is one of Colorado’s most mind-blowing scenic drives. Driving this asphalt sliver between the towns of Ouray and Silverton positions drivers on the outside edge, a heartbeat from free fall.
Much of it is cut into the mountains and gains elevation by switching back in tight hairpins and S-bends. The brooding mountains loom large and close, snow clinging to their lofty, mist-shrouded peaks even in high summer. In good weather the road is formidable; in drizzle, rain, fog or snow, it can be downright scary. Be sure to take advantage of pullouts; the Red Mountain Pass (11,018ft) is a favorite for its 360-degree views.
The Million Dollar Highway is one of Colorado’s most mind-blowing scenic drives ? Craig Zerbe/Getty Images
Fort Collins is worth a trip because it is unassuming, direct, free-loving and gorgeous. The core downtown areas feature a world-class university campus, raucous nightlife, playful Victorian houses and tree-bordered avenues. A growing food scene, some fun galleries and arts exhibits, and Colorado’s best collection of microbreweries add icing to the cake.
Simply walking through campus or the old town is fascinating, and from there, you could go out for a ride on one of the area’s many bike trails, a tube on the Poudre River or climbing adventures at Horsetooth Reservoir.
The Colorado Rockies play baseball at the highly-rated Coors Field from April to September. If you want to be close enough to smell the freshly-cut grass, buy tickets at the club level. If you’re on a budget, you can’t beat the Rockpile, located right behind centerfield, where admission costs less than $10 and the fans are their most exuberant.?Tours of the stadium are available year round and include access to the field and Press Club.
Colorado was the birthplace of legal weed in the US and Coloradans have taken the ‘High Arts’ to new levels. There are cannabis tour buses, hotels and clubs and even a church – the International Church of Cannabis. While flower can’t be consumed on the premises unless you’re a member and it’s a special event, the rainbow-hued nave is a sight to behold.
Bus and limo tours by Colorado Cannabis Tours include stops at a grow operation, up to three different dispensaries, a glass-blowing demo and, of course, a grub-run at Cheba Hut, a cannabis-themed sandwich shop. Tours leave from a designated spot near Denver’s Union Station.
Read more: A guide to the best cannabis dispensaries, lodging and experiences in Denver
The International Church of Cannabis is housed in a former Lutheran church ? Jason Connolly / Getty Images
The cultural capital of southwest Colorado, Durango is a lovely town, rich in history yet elegantly modernized. The central precinct dates back to the 1880s, when the historic mining town was founded. Still tastefully authentic, it’s a great base for exploring the San Juan mountain range and Mesa Verde National Park.
The town offers the perfect combination of easy access to adventures by river, bike and ski, super-cool locals and a fun nightlife scene powered by the local college kids. There’s also plenty of great eateries, drinking holes and boutiques to check out.
Colorado takes great pride in sustainable dining, and it’s not uncommon to sit down to grass-fed burgers at a local pub that brews its own ale. The abundance is apparent at city farmers markets and gourmet food halls, where aspiring chefs test their recipes and new concepts.
From handcrafted ice cream sold from carts to the auteur restaurant with an amuse-bouche like a first kiss, Colorado dares to feature top-quality local ingredients as the new gold. Treat your taste buds at the Kitchen, with locations in Boulder and Denver.
Ringed by mountain peaks and glassy wetlands, Great Sand Dunes National Park is both eerie and amazing. Sculpted by wind and seemingly straight out of Arabia, these 55 sq miles of sand dunes appear out of nowhere. Watch as angles of sunlight form shifting shadows and the wind wipes clean your footprints.
The most dramatic time is day’s end, when sunset puts the dunes in high contrast.?Most visitors limit their activities to the area where Medano Creek divides the main dune mass from the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The remaining 85% of the park’s area is designated wilderness: not for the unfit or fainthearted.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is both eerie and amazing ? Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
Those daring enough to try white water rafting should head to the most popular river in Colorado – the Arkansas River. Running from Leadville down the eastern flank of Buena Vista, through Browns Canyon National Monument, and then rocketing through the spectacular Royal Gorge at class V speeds, it’s the most diverse, the longest and arguably the wildest river in the state.
The National Monument includes one of the most beloved stretches of whitewater – class III-IV rapids that are perfect for all skill levels. Views of granite rock formations and abundant wildlife are sure to make for an unforgettable adventure.
Darling of the rich and sometimes famous, Vail resembles an elaborate amusement park for grown-ups, where every activity has been designed to send a tingle down your spine. Indeed, this is one of Colorado’s best resorts, with 5000-plus acres of powdery back bowls, front-side mogul runs and wickedly fun terrain.
Whether it’s your first time on a snowboard or you’re flashing perfect turns, this might very well be the ski trip of your dreams. Sun seekers will be surprised at the excellent biking and hiking in the summer.
One of the few places on earth where you can literally get your hands on a dinosaur skeleton, Dinosaur National Monument is tucked into the far northwest corner of Colorado, stretching across state lines to Utah. Among the largest dinosaur fossil beds in North America, it was discovered in 1909.
Explore desert trails, examine ancient rock art or raft the Yampa River through the serene landscape of its twisting red-rock canyons. The visitor center overlooks thousands of bones in the Dinosaur Quarry.
Check out dinosaur fossils preserved in rock at Dinosaur National Monument ? DeAgostini/Getty Images
Every mountain town in Colorado has its own distinct personality, but when it comes to the overall youngest, coolest and most in-your-face fun? That might be historic Breckenridge, where you’ll find quirky museums alongside youth hostels, funky restaurants rubbing shoulders with kick-back breweries, and so many peaks outside of town they were numbered instead of named.
A short spin from Denver, Breck offers the perfect introduction to the Colorado high country: gold-panning history, hiking, cycling, clear mountain streams and, of course, lots and lots of snow.
Pikes Peak is the most famous of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners – peaks that rise more than 14,000 feet above sea level – and more than half a million visitors climb it every year. There are various ways to ascend the peak the Ute tribe originally called the ‘Mountain of the Sun.’ It’s a demanding hike as it’s 13.5 miles straight up, but well worth it for the amazing views.
Whether you decide to hike a short trail – just 3 miles to Quandary Peak near Breckenridge – tackle a multiday route to Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park or make a run at Mt Elbert – the tallest of them all – one adage holds true: no pain, no gain.
Read more: The great Colorado ‘fourteener’ road trip
Although singletrack enthusiasm is ubiquitous in Colorado, the trails zigzagging the red-rock landscape around Fruita are truly world class. Sure, it’s in the middle of nowhere, but the fanatical riders here wouldn’t have it any other way.
Other hot spots for mountain biking are the sagebrush hills and aspens around Crested Butte, the epic Monarch Crest Trail outside Salida and the lesser-known desert trails near Cortez. Nearly every ski resort now has a mountain-bike park. A spectrum of technical difficulty presents opportunities. Check at local bike shops for trail info.
Delve into one of the richest art collections in the state at the Denver Art Museum. Home to one of the largest Native American art collections in the US, it puts on special multimedia exhibits that vary from treasures of British art to Star Wars costumes.
You don’t have to be a train-spotter to appreciate a good belch of vintage coal-powered steam, the whine of steel on steel and a narrow-gauge train rolling slowly through dynamite-cut tunnels and along ridges blessed with some of the most stunning mountain vistas and canyon drop-offs imaginable. The best of the bunch is the impossibly scenic 45-mile Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and there are railroad museums at both ends of the line.
The Georgetown Loop and Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad are other worthwhile rides, and modern-day riders will love the Amtrak runs to Winter Park and Glenwood Springs. A much-loved treat comes in the shape of the Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the world’s highest cog railroad. It reopened in 2021 and brings visitors on a scenic train journey up Pikes Peak.
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