If you’re vacationing in Denver, it’s worth taking a day or two to discover some of the unique towns around the Mile High City. They are all less than an hour’s drive and deliver small-town charm near the big city.
At less than a square mile in size, Edgewater is a tiny town on the west side of Denver that derives its name from the fact that it sits on the banks of picturesque Sloan’s Lake. And this lake -- the largest in Denver proper -- is the main attraction. The easiest way to experience the water is by walking the 2.8-mile paved path all the way around it. It’s flat and easy to navigate, and there are picnic areas along the way for taking peaceful breaks. You can also fish in the lake, but you can’t swim. The lake hosts several events throughout the year, including the colorful Colorado Dragon Boat Festival -- the biggest festival of its kind in the country.
After your stroll, take in the lake views at one of Edgewater’s many restaurants. A popular spot is Joyride Brewing, where your beer comes with a view of the lake and fresh air when the taproom’s garage doors are rolled up. The Edgewater Inn has been part of the community since the mid-1950s and uses the original brick ovens to bake its family-recipe pizzas. And choice is on the menu at the town’s newest culinary addition, the Edgewater Public Market. This vast food hall is home to vendors selling everything from empanadas to pizza to lobster, and there’s family-style seating in the middle.
Rocks are the main attraction in Morrison. Just 15 miles west of Denver, this small town is best known for being the home of Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre. The open-air amphitheater is anchored by two large rocks, delivering acoustics not to be found anywhere else in the world. Check the event schedule to take in a show, or just go to walk around, appreciate the views, attend a church service, or take an outdoor yoga class.
Dinosaur Ridge boasts more than 250 dinosaur tracks on-site, along with fossils and a small museum. Unless you want to walk up a steep hill, your best bet is to pay $12 for the guided 45-minute bus tour.
For a thrilling ride, check out the drag-racing events at Bandimere Speedway overlooking the nearby mountains. In existence since the 1950s, the track and stands have undergone several renovations and now can hold more than 28,000 fans.
Eating in Morrison is an adventure of its own. The famed Fort Restaurant is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is your stop for Colorado game dishes. Along the main street, an unassuming building serves up some of the best Mexican food in the area. The Morrison Inn consistently wins awards for its margaritas and offers live music several days a week. Its outdoor space is consistently voted the best patio in Colorado and is an excellent spot to people-watch. On a nice day, you’ll see groups of cyclists heading up the canyon, as well as tired hikers and mountain bikers returning from the trails at nearby Lair o’ the Bear Park and Mount Falcon Park.
About 30 miles west of Denver, along Interstate 70, you’ll find Evergreen. It appears unassuming from the road, but exit here and wind your way into town, and you’ll find a quaint town with both mountain and lake activities.
Evergreen Lake offers a cool reprieve in the summer in the form of boating, paddleboarding, and fishing, and there’s ice skating in the winter. The Evergreen Golf Course sits along the lake, and it’s not uncommon to see elk sitting on the fairways. A 1.2-mile walking trail loops around the lake, giving you beautiful views from all angles. It’s a fairly easy walk, but there is a set of stairs to navigate.
If you’re looking for a more challenging hike, Alderfer/Three Sisters Park has nearly 16 miles of hiking and biking trails ranging from easy to difficult. You can hike to the top of Bergen Peak (9,708 feet) from Elk Meadow Park. This 1600-acre park is also your best chance to see a herd of elk in town. (And sometimes you will even see them crossing the road -- a magnificent sight that truly brings everything to a stop!)
For an indoor activity, head over to the Hiwan Heritage Park. The 25-room lodge offers free tours showcasing original furnishings and Native American art.
Just past the lake is the main street of Evergreen flanking Bear Creek. Grab a glass of wine at Creekside Cellars and relax on the outdoor patio overlooking the water. Or enjoy some of the best pizza in town at Beau Jo’s just a few doors down. The beers at Little Bear Saloon are served with a dose of history -- this live music venue has seen performances by the likes of Willie Nelson (who once lived in Evergreen), Neil Young, and Gregg Allman.
Pro Tip: If you’re in Morrison, you can get to Evergreen via Bear Creek Road. It’s not the most direct route, but it’s very pretty.
4. Black Hawk And Central City
One of two areas in Colorado that allow gambling, Black Hawk and Central City sit next to each other and form a National Historic Landmark District. Once a gold-mining hub, the district is now home to more than a dozen modern casinos, hotels, and top-notch restaurants. You can go on a self-guided walking tour to learn about the area's history, or hop on the free shuttle with numerous stops in both Black Hawk and Central City. Only 45 minutes west of Denver, tucked in the Clear Creek Canyon, this area can also serve as a home base for nearby hiking and mountain biking. Black Hawk is the start of the Peak to Peak Scenic and Historic Byway, which is gorgeous for road biking.
After all that activity, unwind in the area’s only full-service spa, housed in the Ameristar. It’s one of the larger hotels and also has an indoor pool and rooftop hot tubs. You can fuel up at one of the many casino buffets or relax at an intimate steakhouse.
Part of the charm of Black Hawk and Central City is the scenic, winding road to get there. Drive it on your own to be able to stop and take pictures, or relax and enjoy the views by taking a casino shuttle to the area.
5. Castle Rock
Head south from Denver, and in about 30 miles, you’ll see a large rock formation sitting high up on a hill. That rock gave the town of Castle Rock its name when it was settled in 1870, and you can climb up to it via a 1.4-mile trail loop. The trail can be a bit difficult to navigate because of its 370-foot elevation gain and rocky nature, but it offers vast views of the entire front range and the famed Pikes Peak. For a truly heart-pumping workout, head over to Challenge Hill at Philip S. Miller Park. Dubbed the “mini incline” because it’s a smaller version of the popular Manitou Incline, it has 200 wooden steps climbing 178 feet.
For a slightly less strenuous day, consider shopping in Castle Rock -- particularly for antiques. Your first stop should be The Barn, a building that’s been part of the community for more than 100 years. Today, it’s filled with boutique shops featuring antiques, home decor, women's fashions, and even fabric. It’s the place to go if you’re looking for that one-of-a-kind gift or treasure. Then head to The Emporium, where you’ll find more than 50 small, locally owned shops selling jewelry, antiques, clothing, art, and food. Finish up by strolling through Historic Downtown Castle Rock for even more unique shops. If you’re looking for something a bit more mainstream, hit the Outlets at Castle Rock. You can’t miss them -- they sit right off the interstate.
Pro Tip: Like scenic drives? You can experience the western foothill towns (Evergreen, Morrison, and more) by following the Lariat Loop National Scenic Byway, 40 miles of roads designed to retrace the tracks of early motor explorers in Colorado. Plan your own trip, or use one of the suggested day itineraries in order to see these towns and all of their highlights.
For more to see and do in and around Denver, visit this page.