Jake Cain is an entrepreneur and writer from Cincinnati, Ohio. He spends his free time driving around the country in his late 90’s conversion van, affectionately known as the “Monster Van” with his wife and 3 boys.
Although perhaps best known for skiing, visitors quickly discover Colorado is much more than slopes. From a bustling Denver metropolis to beautiful natural wonders and more, you’ll find no shortage of fun and adventure in the Centennial State.
Whether you’re looking for outdoor activities or just want to relax with an award-winning microbrew, Colorado is an idyllic vacation location. However, it’s also a much larger state than what you’ll find on the East Coast, so you want to take the time to plan your trip before you arrive.
Whether you’re looking for a night on the town or a day in the wild, the fun in Colorado is stacked a mile high. Here are the best Colorado vacation spots you’ll want to check out during your visit:
The Mile High City is a great home base if you’re planning an extended stay, as you’re within easy driving distance of a huge range of places and activities.
Shedding its former reputation as a “cow town,” Denver has emerged as a magnetic and thriving cultural center. Check out an exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, take the family to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and hang out with pals in one of Lodo’s bars or restaurants (short for “lower downtown).
Denver’s also a big-time sports town. Catch the Broncos play at a game at Mile High Stadium – it has an official name, but you’ll never hear locals use it. Denver is also home to the Avalanche, Nuggets, and Rockies, making it a city with franchises for all major sports.
Dinosaurs once ruled these lands, and today you can view the footprints they left behind at Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument. It’s located in the Southwest part of the state near the Uinta Mountains near the Utah border.
View over 1,500 exposed dino fossils inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall including:
Along with the fossils, the recently-refurbished visitor center features a variety of exhibits, including an 80-foot long mural plus 149-million-year-old fossils that you can touch.
Aside from the fossils, the area is also a beautiful natural park with mountains, deserts, canyons, and rivers. Indigenous people, homesteaders, and even outlaws called this area home over the years. You can still find petroglyphs and other evidence of their existence today.
Unless you’re camping, Dinosaur National Monument is usually considered more of a day trip. It’s about two miles east of the city of Dinosaur, Colorado, and about five hours from Denver.
Known locally as the Cliff Dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park features a series of 600 homes built into the sheer rock walls of the canyon by the Ancestral Pueblo people. It’s one of the best-preserved archeological sites in the US, with buildings and objects dating back to between 600 and 1300 CE.
Aside from the cliff dwellings, the park boasts over 5,000 known archeological sites. Accessing the sites is only allowed by ranger-led tours, and does require some walking, so bring your hiking boots. However, the hike is worth the effort, as the ancient sites are so well-preserved you’ll feel as if you’re stepping back in time.
The park is about a 10-minute drive from the small town of Cortez or a 45-minute drive from the larger city of Durango. It’s a fun spot to stop for the day when you’re in the Southwestern part of the state.
About two hours out of Denver, you’ll find Glenwood Springs, home to the world-famous Glenwood Hot Springs. It’s the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool and the perfect way to relax your body and mind. These famous hot springs have attracted visitors since 1888.
The Yampah Spring underneath the pools produces over 3.5 million gallons of water daily. Although the water starts at 122°, it’s cooled to 104° for the Therapy Pool and 93° for the main pool.
Beyond the hot springs, the resort caters to family fun with a river ride, splash zone, Segway tours, fishing, and many seasonal activities. It’s a great spot to spend a night or two if you’re traveling around the state, especially if you need a break from physical activities like skiing and hiking.
More than just an awesome place to see a concert, Red Rocks is also a one-of-a-kind natural wonder. It’s the world’s only natural, acoustically-perfect amphitheater.
The biggest artists from around the world flock to Red Rocks. For example, fans of U2 will recognize the park from the group’s famous Under a Blood Red Sky album and film. Other notable annual events include Reggae on the Rocks, Film on the Rocks, and the annual Easter Sunrise Service.
If your schedule doesn’t allow you to catch a show, Red Rocks Park is still worth a day trip. It’s a unique transitional zone combining geography from both the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. You’ll find deer, prairie animals, fossils, birds, and much more across the park’s 738 acres.
Red Rocks is only about 20 minutes from Denver, and it’s free to explore during non-event times.
Popping out from the landscape like a mirage in the desert, the Great Sand Dunes is one of Colorado’s most surprising and unique attractions.
They’re the tallest sand dunes in North America. Located near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, they’re in the far south of the state, about four hours from Denver.
You’ll find no shortage of activities. Sledding or boarding down the dunes – called sandboarding – is a popular thrill. You can also hike, camp, ride horses, and explore. Aside from the dunes, the surrounding area is a diverse ecosystem of wetlands, forests, and tundra.
Keep in mind the weather can get rough. Temps drop down low in the winter and grow uncomfortably hot during the summer. You’ll want to prepare your clothing accordingly.
No visit to Colorado is complete without at least a day spent exploring the city of Boulder. Unlike any other place in the state, the people of Boulder embrace an active but decidedly hippie-influenced lifestyle.
Home to the University of Colorado, you’ll find no shortage of bars, restaurants, and nightlife. Check out Pearl Street for tasty eats and microbrews any night of the week. If you want cheap brews, college students know to go to The Hill, featuring the legendary bar The Sink.
Aside from the social scene, Boulder boasts beautiful outdoor spots to hike and explore. Hike along the Flatirons, the slanted sandstone structures along the city’s foothills, or check out the Boulder Creek Canyon.
Although Boulder’s a relatively small city, it’s heavily populated, especially when school is in session. When planning a trip, be sure to account for traffic.
Colorado has seemingly unlimited options for skiing. While the big resorts certainly have a lot to offer, many locals prefer smaller spots like Steamboat Springs.
With over 3,000 skiable areas, and lower prices than the big guys, it’s no wonder Steamboat has earned the nickname “Ski Town, USA.” Aside from skiing and boarding, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and other winter fun.
After a day on the slopes, relax and rejuvenate in the hot springs that the town is named after. The naturally warm mineral water is just the thing to soothe aching joints and muscles.
Steamboat has plenty of summer fun, too. You can fish, camp, and hike along with beautiful spots such as Fish Creek Falls and the Yampa River Core Trail. Plus, check out over 100 bars, restaurants, and galleries in Steamboat’s downtown.
You can find plenty of nice places to stay throughout Colorado, but nowhere is quite like The Stanley Hotel. Widely considered haunted, in the mid-seventies, it inspired guest Stephen King to write The Shining.
Today, you can book a variety of ghostly tours or even request a stay in one of the supposedly haunted rooms.
Supernatural entities aside, the hotel offers a full range of amenities, including rooms with beautiful views and even lodging for pets. Plus, The Stanley is home to The Table, a pop-up restaurant with a new culinary theme every week.
Located in Estes Park, the hotel is in the northwest section of the state, about an hour and a half from Denver.
You don’t need millions of dollars or movie star status to enjoy the town of Aspen. It’s a charming ski town with plenty of outdoor activities, including hiking and rafting. Popular outdoor spots around town include:
- Sky Mountain Park
- Rio Grande Trail
- Roaring Fork River
Keep in mind many of the fancier hotels have high rates, so visiting Aspen for a day trip might be the better alternative to staying there overnight if you’re on a budget.
If you’re a fan of literary lunacy, check out the neighboring town of Woody Creek, known as the former home of unhinged writer Hunter S. Thompson. Grab a drink at his favorite watering hole, the Woody Creek Tavern.
Nestled at the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Springs has a different vibe compared to Denver, Boulder, and the other major Colorado cities. It’s home to the United States Air Force Academy, Focus on the Family, and a large number of megachurches.
The Springs is also an excellent launch pad for a variety of outdoor activities including:
- Hiking in the Garden of the Gods
- Biking along Barr Trail
- Whitewater rafting in the Royal Gorge
Located about an hour from Denver, Colorado Springs has lots to offer. It’s typically worth staying at least a night or two.
Located along the western edge of the state, Grand Junction offers big-city culture with small-town charm.
With a robust and dynamic commitment to the arts, you’ll find galleries, theaters, and public art installations throughout Downtown Grand Junction. If you’re in town over the weekend, don’t miss the First Friday Art Tour.
Other popular art spots include the Avalon Theater, the Museum of the West, and the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra.
Outside, the city also boasts a wide array of outdoor activities at popular spots, including Grand Mesa, Colorado National Monument, and Canyon View Park.
As the name implies, Golden began as an outpost during the Gold Rush. Today, history stays alive with the Golden History Center and tours through the Historic Downtown area, which includes eight designated Historic Neighborhoods.
Golden is also home to the Colorado School of Mines, a leading science and engineering university. Every year, freshmen students carry whitewashed rocks to the top of Mt. Zion, forming a giant letter M that is visible for miles.
Finally, no trip to Golden is complete with a tour of the Coors Brewery. It’s a fun look at the entire brewing process, complete with a few free brews at the end.
“Breck,” as it’s known to locals, is often considered one of the best ski resorts in the US – and it’s easy to see why.
The town averages 330 inches of snowfall each year. However, you don’t have to suffer while you ski, because it also averages 300 days of sunshine.
Originally opened in 1961, Breckenridge has a history of innovation. In 1984, they were the first major ski resort to permit snowboarding.
Aside from winter sports, the town itself has a rich arts and culture scene. Several town tours are available, too, highlighting the town’s history and even it’s supposedly haunted locations.
Colorado is an excellent location for your next vacation, offering a wide array of arts, culture, sports, and outdoor activities. With friendly folks and generally wonderful weather, your visit is sure to create memories that will last a lifetime. Check out any and all of the Colorado vacation spots above to make sure your trip is filled with Mile High fun!
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