With its breathtaking mountains, stunning national parks, scenic drives, historic sites, and toasty hot springs, Colorado offers visitors a bevy of things to do all year round. I’ve been fortunate to live in this beautiful state for 29 years. While I can’t say I’ve traversed every nook and cranny, I’ve certainly road-tripped to the most beloved attractions that continually wow visitors. Here’s my take on the 10 best things to do in Colorado.
1. Maroon Bells
Among the most photographed mountains in North America are the Maroon Bells. Located just a 10-mile drive from downtown Aspen, these 14,000-foot peaks — so named for their color and shape — loom over a pristine lake. Viewing these magnificent mountains is a must-do when visiting Aspen. If you’re game for a high-altitude hike, traipse around base trails. The scene is especially alluring in the fall when area aspen trees turn gold.
Pro Tip: Between mid-May and the end of October, you’ll need to make a parking reservation to drive your own car to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area. Or you can book a shuttle ride.
2. Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park And Grand Lake
Having visited 35 of 63 national parks in the United States, Rocky Mountain National Park is easily among my top five. It showcases Colorado’s quintessential jagged mountain peaks and evergreen wilderness, but it also offers glacial lakes for fishing, horseback riding trails, and opportunities for viewing wildlife, including elk, marmots, bighorn sheep, and moose.
Be sure to drive Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the United States at 12,183 feet in elevation. Snowdrifts close it in the winter, but it’s typically open between the end of May through October. Pull off at the Alpine Visitor Center for vast views from what feels like the top of the world.
Pro Tip: The mountain town of Estes Park is the popular gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and can get quite congested in the summer and fall. To avoid crowds, enter from the western side of the park near Grand Lake.
3. Pikes Peak
In 1893, Katharine Lee Bates ascended Pikes Peak by prairie wagon and mule. She gazed out into the vast wilderness, inspiring her to write “America the Beautiful.” Today, traveling to the top of this 14,115-foot mountain in Colorado Springs isn’t quite so primitive. Instead, you can drive a 19-mile winding paved road to the summit. If you prefer to leave the driving to someone else, hop aboard the historic Broadmoor Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Train conductors deliver entertaining and educational commentary along the way.
Pro Tip: The temperature can vary by 30–40 degrees Fahrenheit from the base to the summit. Be sure to wear layers. Also, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and help avoid altitude sickness as you ascend the mountain.
4. The Springs Resort
A visit to Colorado is not complete without a soak in its world-renowned hot springs. A stint in mineral waters not only soothes sore muscles after a day of adventuring outdoors, it’s said to enhance sleep and reduce inflammation. The Springs Resort in Pagosa Springs is a great way to get introduced to hot springs, as you can choose from among 25 different riverside pools of varying temperatures. Feeling bold? Take a dip in the chilly San Juan River then warm up in the toasty Lobster Pot!
5. Denver Museum Of Nature And Science
I’ve been taking my children to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science since they were toddlers, and now my biology-loving 23-year-old daughter often visits on her own when she’s in the state capital. Dinosaur fossils, Egyptian mummies, planetarium shows, spaceships, and a new Infinity Theater showing big-screen 3D films are among the permanent attractions that wow all ages.
6. Vail Scenic Gondola
You don’t have to be a skier or snowboarder to ascend to the top of Vail Mountain and enjoy the jaw-dropping vistas of the Gore Range. In the winter months, you can purchase tickets solely to ride the enclosed Eagle Bahn Gondola or Gondola One to the top and then back down again.
However, my favorite time of year to visit mountain towns is the summer, when blue skies and moderate, dry temperatures prevail. Ride the Vail Summer Scenic Gondola to the top and then hike through aspen trees, across green meadows, and amid wildflowers.
Pro Tip: Multiple statewide ski resorts transform into summer playgrounds in the warm-weather months with not only gondola rides but alpine slides and ziplines. Other options are Snowmass, Breckenridge, and Steamboat Springs for fun, high-altitude adventures.
7. Million Dollar Highway
Silverton And Ouray
One of the most spectacular drives in Colorado — perhaps in the United States — is a 25-mile stretch of Highway 550 between the towns of Silverton and Ouray. The “Million Dollar Highway” is not for the faint of heart. In sections, steep drop-offs and twisty switchbacks can freak out inexperienced mountain-pass drivers (and passengers). Just take it slow and stop at the pull-outs to fully enjoy the panoramic vistas that unfold around every corner.
Pro Tip: Ouray is one of my favorite Colorado small towns and worth an overnight. While the Ouray Hot Springs Pool is especially fun for kids with its climbing wall, inflatable obstacle course, and water slides, also consider a Wiesbaden Hot Springs day pass (or sleep at the lodge) to steam in the vapor caves.
8. Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado offers visitors an extraordinary opportunity to walk through cliff dwellings that the Ancestral Puebloans built more than 700 years ago. Entering the stone and earth dwellings built under rock overhangs does involve climbing ladders. If your mobility allows, the ranger-led tours of the cliff homes provide excellent insight into how this ancient culture once lived on the mesa.
Pro Tip: Ticketed time slots for tours of the cliff dwellings are available online 14 days in advance from mid-May to October. Be sure to book your reservation to avoid disappointment.
9. Colorado National Monument
Colorado may be known for its towering, jagged mountain peaks that remain snow-covered much of the year. But the far-western part of the state is composed of desert-like cliffs, mesas, and towers. A great place to take in this sandstone and red-rock landscape is Colorado National Monument in Fruita, about 25 miles from the Utah border.
For the most impressive views, take the 23-mile Red Rock Rim Drive all the way through the park. Like the state’s other iconic drives, it does take a winding route with some sheer drop-offs — a warning if you’re not a fan of heights.
Pro Tip: Fruita is about 25 miles from Palisade in Colorado’s wine country — worth the trip if you like to sip and savor surrounded by scenic mesas. Rent an e-bike to cycle along the Fruit & Wine Byway, not only to check out vineyards and tasting rooms but to visit fruit orchards and lavender farms.
10. Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine
The Colorado Gold Rush in 1859 and Colorado Silver Boom in 1879 lured thousands of fortune-seekers to Colorado — the large majority of them men. The Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine was one of the few strikes claimed by a woman.
Today, visitors can learn all about this Cripple Creek gold discovery on an hour-long tour that includes descending 1,000 feet underground on a mine shaft. Also see gold veins in their natural state and ride an underground tram locomotive. Wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, and strollers aren’t allowed.
Pro Tip: Cripple Creek legalized gambling in 1991 to encourage tourism in the area. If you’re a fan of the slots or blackjack tables, you can walk between nine different casinos in the historic downtown.
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