I had the privilege of living in a Denver suburb for nine years (pieces of my heart still live there, in fact), and during that time my husband and I – later with our boys – made it our mission to get out and explore the beauty of Colorado every chance we got. Words, and even pictures, don’t really do it justice. If you have the chance, GO. You need to experience it in person.
Denver itself is a fun city and has all the cool things most other cities have, in addition to the gorgeous backdrop of the Rocky Mountains to the west. There is a great light rail system to get you downtown, and you can spend a whole day perusing the LoDo area with its fun restaurants and shops. There are wonderful museums (including a nice children’s museum), botanical gardens, the Denver Mint, Elitch Gardens amusement park, the Denver Zoo, an aquarium where you can watch the fish while you eat dinner (fun or disturbing? You decide), and you can tour the Molly Brown House Museum (home of the Titanic survivor, the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”). And whatever you do, don’t forget to eat at Casa Bonita! It is every bit as bizarre as you’ve heard. If you haven’t heard, I don’t want to spoil the surprise but you can google it or watch the South Park episode that was written all about it. Loads of stuff to keep the whole family busy – after all our time there we still didn’t see it all.
As much as Denver has to offer, what I really want to talk about are the parks and day trips outside of the city. These are the experiences you cannot find anywhere else, and these are the places I left little pieces of my heart.
Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater and Dinosaur Ridge – Morrison, CO
As amazing as this picture is, believe me when I say this place is even more eye-popping in person. The Red Rocks Amphitheater is only a few minutes outside Denver and has got to be one of the coolest places to see a concert on the planet. We like to drive into the park slowly and pull over somewhere along Red Rocks Trail Rd. to take pictures and walk along the trails. After spending an hour or so gawking at the giant red rocks towering above us, we drive up to the Trading Post, which is a pretty neat gift shop with a snack bar and deck overlooking an amazing view out back. And finally, we drive up the hill to the amphitheater itself, where you can look out over the stage and see the Denver skyline in the distance. There is also an indoor space that houses a “Colorado Music Hall of Fame” with photos and displays about the amphitheater’s history and the musicians who have played there, in addition to a restaurant called the “Ship Rock Grille”. Check hours in advance if you want to eat there; they close sometimes for special events. It goes without saying, if you can get tickets to a show while you’re in town, DO IT. We saw quite a few throughout our Denver years, and it’s always an other-worldly experience.
If you don’t eat at the Amphitheater, try hitting the little town of Morrison on your way home. Just outside the park, Morrison’s main street has some neat little shops and restaurants that are worth a gander. Alternately, you could drive 10 minutes or so to Dinosaur Ridge where you can view real dinosaur markings right in the hillside. There is a visitor center but again check hours ahead of time.
Evergreen, CO – Quintessential Mountain Town
One of our favorite ways to spend a day while living in Denver was driving up to the town of Evergreen. First of all, the drive up 285 is beautiful with lots of turn-offs to get out and take photos. Many parts of the drive are parallel to a robust mountain stream flowing alongside the road. And once you arrive in Evergreen, there is a picturesque lake that you can walk around, or in winter, ice skate on. Then give yourself a couple hours to fully explore the main street with all its creative shops and art galleries. Our favorite spot for lunch was Beau Jo’s Colorado Style Pizza (there will probably be a wait, so put your name in before you start shopping) – they have several locations around Denver, but the one in Evergreen is especially great because you can eat on their balcony overlooking the pretty mountain stream. Photo ops galore!
If you want a different view on your drive back down to the city, try taking Bear Creek Rd./74 when you leave. It is also a pretty drive, and will take you right past Red Rocks Park and through Morrison.
Coors Brewery and Lookout Mountain – Golden, CO
Golden is another fun mountain town you can spend a 1/2-full day exploring, just outside of Denver. It has a real “old western” feel with some unique restaurants and bars, and a pretty hefty stream flowing right through town where you can sometimes join a kayaking group if that’s your thing. The Coors Brewery is right in town and has a great tour that includes sampling at the end! And a gift shop, of course. I will say that we did the tour many times while living in Denver but the very last time we went it was not guided, but self-led. I don’t know if that was a permanent change, but it definitely was a little less exciting without a guide. Wah-wah.
We liked to do the Brewery Tour in the morning (those free samples really get your day off to a good start!), stop in Golden for lunch and a walk, and then drive up Lookout Mountain in the afternoon. You could certainly flip that around however, and do Lookout Mountain first. Lariat Loop Historic Byway heads up Lookout Mountain right out of Golden – you can’t miss it. Try to do this on a day with decent weather because the views are stunning when the skies are clear. Lots of tight turns and switchbacks make it slow-going (don’t forget the dramamine if you easily get carsick), but it is an awesome drive. At the top, you will find the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave. Here you can explore the small museum (for a fee), or just meander around the large gift shop, which does have some fun stuff. There is a basic cafe serving things like buffalo burgers and chili, and the gravesite itself offers fantastic views looking out over Denver and beyond.
If you still have daylight hours after all this, you can stop at the Lookout Mountain Nature Center and Preserve. This is a lovely little nature center with easy, woodsy walking trails to help stretch your legs. Honestly, you could really spend a full day on just Lookout Mountain and save Golden for another day. But if you have limited time, you can hit the highlights and pack it into one day like we often did.
Colorado Springs, CO
Colorado Springs is about an hourish drive south of Denver. There are more than enough experiences here to fill one day. We usually picked two at a time to fully enjoy, but if you do Pikes Peak that will eat up most of your day. If you really want to see it all, you might want to stay a couple nights at one of the many cute B’nBs. Here are my favorite CO Springs attractions:
1. Garden of the Gods – like Red Rocks Park but even grander. Visitor center has a small museum with snack bar and (what else?) a gift shop. They have a short film on the history of the park that’s worth seeing. There is a larger, more interesting gift shop INSIDE the park called the Trading Post. You can spend hours walking park trails or just do a drive-through. Instagram-worthy photo ops abound.
2. Manitou Cliff Dwellings and Manitou Springs – walk through real, preserved Anasazi dwellings and participate in cultural demos at the cliff dwellings – great place for kids. Afterwards, meander around historic Manitou Springs – another quaint mountain town! You just can’t have too many of these scenic mountain communities, am I right?
3. Pikes Peak – you can spend a day driving to the top of “America’s Mountain” along a twisty road that will make your heart race, or for a more relaxing experience, take the cog railway that leaves from Manitou Springs. Either way, the views are jaw-dropping. On a clear day, you can see 5 states from the top of the mountain! NOTE: The cog railway is currently under construction until 2021.
4. Royal Gorge Bridge and Park – if walking across one of the highest suspension bridges in the world isn’t enough to get your adrenaline going, there are also ziplines, a “skycoaster”, and gondolas that go across or alongside the Royal Gorge. You can also climb the gorge via ferrata or go white water rafting through the gorge on the Arkansas River (although the rafting trips don’t start AT the park). There used to be an incline that took visitors to the bottom of the Royal Gorge but sadly, it was destroyed in a fire.
Other Day (or Multi-day) Trips
Well you can’t talk about Colorado without mentioning Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s almost a 2-hour drive from Denver, though. When we went, we rented a cabin in Estes Park, the beautiful mountain town (come on! These adorable mountain towns never get old!) that sits just outside the park entrance. This way we had a few days to fully explore RMNP and Estes Park – and I would encourage you to do the same.
Mount Evans, like Pikes Peak, is a 14er (over 14,00 ft) that has a heart-pumping drive to the top. The Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the highest paved road in North America, and my husband and I did it on a MOTORCYCLE believe it or not. I clearly remember hanging on for dear life as we turned very tight corners where the wind whipped so hard I thought for sure it would blow us right off the mountain. The drop-offs are terrifying, but the views magnificent. It almost feels like you are on another planet at the summit.
Lastly, I will mention the ski resorts. Most people think of skiing when Colorado comes up, and for good reason. A lot of the famous resorts lie along I-70, which goes straight through the Rockies into Utah, and is also a gorgeous drive. We weren’t huge skiers, but we did enjoy visiting the resorts – sometimes even more in summer. Some of my favorites were Vail (more of an upscale-resort feel), Breckenridge (which really feels like its own TOWN, like it would exist even without the ski resort), and Keystone (a local favorite since it is so close to Denver. They have an awesome gondola experience that takes you to the top of a mountain for a unique raclette dinner!)
I could go on and on but I gotta stop somewhere! Colorado is truly a nature lover’s paradise. An adventurer’s paradise. A sun-lover’s paradise! Gah, do I sound biased? Just go. And see if you can pick up the pieces of my heart while you’re there.