Colorado

Hands down one of the best states for access to, and diversity of, nature. Colorado is both a great place to visit and, I imagine, a great place to live. If you love the outdoors, Colorado is the place for you, only rivaled by California and the Pacific Northwest in my opinion. What blows me away about Colorado is the diversity. You have forests, mountains, deserts, lakes, and wildlife abound, certainly in the central and western parts. Not to mention, there are some really great cities for urban experiences. Colorado really does have something for everyone.

My Favorites


1. Denver Area

Eldorado Canyon State Park

Highlights: Nature, hiking, mountains, lakes, forests, food, music, rock climbing
Suggest Staying: 3-10 days
Stay Around: Boulder, Golden, or Longmont
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I categorize this section as the Denver area because it’s so vast and there’s so much to see and do. Plus Denver itself, namely downtown, is kind of “meh” in my opinion. There are a couple interesting neighborhoods, but the real jewels are outside of the downtown area. One of the neat things about the area is the concentration of outdoor activities and apparel stores which breathes life into this outdoor first metropolitan area. Definitely get out into the surrounding neighborhoods, cities, and parks to get the most out of your visit.

See & Do

  • Downtown. City center with shops, restaurants, and nightlife.
  • River North Arts District (RiNo). Revitalized hipster district.
  • The Denver Central Market. Restaurants and groceries.
  • Denver Art Museum. Various art.
  • Aurora. Suburbia, but nice area with shops and such.
  • Cherry Creek. Suburbia, but nice area with shops and such.

Food & Drink

  • West of Surrender. American cuisine, fun vibe, good food, healthy options.
  • Snooze A.M. Eatery. Especially great breakfast.
  • Ku Cha House of Tea. Tea shop with some of the best tea I’ve ever had. Locations in Denver and Boulder.
  • Millers & Rossi Speakeasy & Bar. Hidden in the back of an art gallery.

Nearby

  • Boulder. Beautiful city with a sprawling outdoor main street of shops and restaurants situated by nearby parks. There’s a college feel with outstanding nature in close proximity for hiking, river excursions, and mountain climbing. One of my favorite cities in Colorado.
  • Golden. Like a mini Boulder, home to the Coors brewery.
  • Eldorado Canyon State Park. Incredible place with gorgeous views and very popular for rock climbers. I highly recommend Rattlesnake Gulch and Fowler trails for some outstanding views with moderate hiking.
  • Roxborough State Park. Take an easy stroll through this beautiful group of rock formations which was once intended to be a resort.
  • Idaho Springs. Two places of note here include Indian Hot Springs (public pool and private tubs) and St. Mary’s Glacier (steep, strenuous 900′ ascent to a beautiful lake with a mountain and glacier in the backdrop). I accidentally arrived a bit later, but it ended up being perfect, which is to arrive at St. Mary’s Glacier maybe 2 hours or so before sunset, hike down around sunset or just before, and then head right to Indian Hot Springs. If you plan in advance, you can book an outdoor private hot tub and enjoy the stars once it gets dark. The public pool is also great and is basically inside a greenhouse.
  • Horsetooth. Actually closer to Fort Collins than Denver, this magnificent area has a massive reservoir lake for all kinds of boating activities or you just hike down to the lake. There are some open space areas and hiking nearby, as well as some beginner rock climbing spots.
  • Longmont. Not exactly a destination by itself, it’s a good place to consider staying in Denver since it’s a bit cheaper and closer to Rocky Mountain National Park. Neat little downtown with a few restaurants. Healthy eating options and grocery stores nearby.

Tips

  • Altitude. For those of you that live closer to sea level, note that Denver is at 5,280′ (a mile high) above sea level. While you won’t get altitude sickness or anything that drastic, unless you get into the mountains closer to 9K’ or 10K’+, the air is thinner, and f you’re doing any hiking or strenuous activity, you’ll get tired faster until you acclimate which takes a couple days. Stay hydrated!

2. Fort Collins

Fort Collins

Highlights: Shops, food, nightlife
Suggest Staying: 1-2 days
Stay Around: Downtown or Denver Area
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Fort Collins is a college town very similar to other hip college towns. It bears some resemblance to Austin, TX, though not nearly as big or weird. There are a lot of cool shops and local restaurants, all with a focus on the outdoors as you see pretty much throughout Colorado. Just a really cool town with great energy.

See & Do

  • Downtown. Main drag with shops and restaurants. Easy to do in an afternoon.
  • Edwards House. Historic lodge you can book.

Food & Drink

  • Ku Cha House of Tea.. Tea shop with some of the best tea I’ve ever had.
  • Snooze A.M. Eatery. Especially great breakfast.
  • Yampa Sandwich Company. Great sandwiches.

3. Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Highlights: Mountains, forests, lakes, wildlife, hiking, camping
Suggest Staying: 3-7 days
Stay Around: Denver Area, Estes Park, or Lyons (WeeCasa Tiny House Resort)
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One of the most diverse national parks in America (in my opinion), RMNP is vast and beautiful. It even varies from season to season and is particularly beautiful in the fall. There’s a ton to see and depending on when you go, you may see snow capped mountains or blossoming flora and fauna, including golden aspen trees. At any time of year this place is beautiful. Tons of hiking, magnificently and semi-terrifying mountain roads, alpine forests, tundra, and an abundance of wildlife. I went in the fall and was fortunate enough to experience both snow and sun under which each represented a different view and experience of the park. Nearby Estes Park offers a more touristy experience, but is also beautiful and feels like an extension of or basecamp for RMNP.

See & Do

  • Estes Park. Town that sits just before the park, beautiful and worth a visit. The city center has shops, plenty of restaurants, and places to stay. The drive from Denver along route 36 is beautiful. Be sure to check out the Stanley Hotel where Stephen King wrote The Shining!
  • Trail Ridge Road. The main road through the park which summits at 12K’! Absolutely breathtaking views. Plan at least 2-3 hours.
  • Views. Many Parks Curve, Rainbow Curve, Gore Range Overlook, Alpine Visitors Center, Medicine Bow Overlook, Fairview Curve, Forest Canyon.
  • Hiking, Marmots, Pikas, Tundra. Alpine Ridge Trail, Forest Canyon, Rock Cut.
  • Wildlife. Moraine Park, Wild Basin, Endovalley, Alluvial Fan, Old Fall River Road.
  • Bear Lake. Alberta Falls, Dream Lake, Nymph Lake, Emerald Lake, Sprague Lake. Do Bear Lake Trail which is 3.5mi round trip to Emerald Lake. If you’re short on time, just do Dream Lake, which I thought was prettier.
  • Deer Mountain. Easy hike for some nice views.
  • Moraine Park. Valley, look out for wildlife.
  • Wild Basin. Copeland Falls, Lily Lake. Great if you have time and want something a bit quieter and less traveled. The Wild Basin Trail is 1-6mi round trip depending on how far you go. Copeland Falls is 0.3 miles, Calypso Cascades 1.8 miles, and out to Ouzel Falls 2.7 miles.
  • Endovalley. Alluvial Fan, Old Fall River Road (requires high clearance and AWD/4WD if you want to do the full drive).
  • Grand Lake. Quite far from the East side of the park, but worth an afternoon if you have time, or even consider as an option to stay. Stop at nearby Lily Lake on the way down. If you’re up for a light hike, Adams Falls.
  • Peak to Peak Scenic Byway. About 55 miles, 3 hours, coming from Golden.

My Itinerary

I like to see my top things first and visit areas of the park that are nearby to each other on the same day to avoid wasting time. Between a cold front that brought snow and nearby forest fires, I had to swap between days at the park and days around Denver if the weather was bad or roads were closed. But I generally used the following breakdown that guided me efficiently through the park over the course of several days.

  • Trail Ridge Road. I actually did this my last day because the road was closed until then, but I would absolutely do this at your first opportunity.
  • Bear Lake Road / Glacier Gorge. The best collection of lakes and short(ish) hikes.
  • Endovalley / Old Fall River Road. Best for adventure and wildlife viewing.
  • Grand Lake. A bit of a drive, but a nice one and allows you to see a different part of the park, a little less touristy with similar beauty to Estes Park, though admittedly not quite as nice.
  • Estes Park. Towns are always easy to work in whenever because you don’t really need good weather to go shopping or eat, plus if you’re body is tired, take a break and hang out around town.

Tips

  • Getting There & Around. Fly into Denver and if you stay there, rent a car, preferably with high clearance and AWD. If you stay in Estes Park (or don’t feel like driving), you can take a free shuttle from there into the park. This is also convenient in the peak summer months when it gets very busy and parking is limited. There isn’t a lot of parking, so either get up early, go later, take the shuttle, or cross your fingers. Pro tip: go to the farthest point first and work your way back, I find it to be less crowded as people stop on the way “to” when you can just as easily stop on the way “back” later in the day when crowds have dissipated.
  • Driving. Roads are narrow, steep, curvy, and windy at parts along the Trail Ridge Road. Up at the summit it can get icy, even on warmer days. Be mindful of the type of car you drive, if you’re hauling a trailer, and if you’re scared of heights. I found it both exhilarating and terrifying at times, but it passed quickly. Just take it slow and pay attention. I’d leave the trailer in a parking lot or at your lodging. On the way down, use a low gear to let your engine do the work instead of your breaks to avoid potential break failure.
  • Weather. The peak months are June-August. You may get lucky in May with the weather. Shoulder season is Sept-Oct around which the Trail Ridge Rd closes for winter, so check the weather forecasts and park website for more info! The weather in the mountains is unpredictable and can turn on a dime from hot to cold, even snow! Always bring extra clothes in your pack just in case, including rain gear. Also plan more days than you think you need in case of closures due to weather. Had I not done this, I would’ve missed out on the Trail Ridge Rd, not to mention sunny views of the mountain lakes!
  • Hydrate. The park’s lowest point is over a mile high and gets up to 12K’ at it’s highest point along the Trail Ridge Road. The air is thinner and you don’t want to get light headed and possibly even pass out. The best way to prevent this is to stay hydrated! Drink more water than you think you need and that you’re used to at home (unless you actually live in the mountains).
  • Sunblock. If you have skin exposed, wear sunblock! Up at this altitude, even if it’s cold or cloudy, it’s much easier to get sunburned, which in turn also will dehydrate you. Wear sunblock!
  • Wildlife. For your best chance at seeing wildlife, go out to the valleys in the morning and around dusk where animals are more active and seeking food. You’re sure to see elk pretty easily. Bring binoculars or a camera with great zoom.
  • Hiking. Bring hiking poles if you got ’em because trails are steep and if there’s ice, these will come in handy to avoid slipping all over the place.

4. Colorado Springs

Garden of the Gods

Highlights: Mountains, lakes, forests, fossils
Suggest Staying: 1-3 days
Stay Around: Old Colorado City
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Colorado Springs is a small big city. Meaning, it’s a major metropolitan city in Colorado, but with a small city feel. Surrounded by incredible nature, friendly people, and enough activities, shops, and restaurants to keep you busy, I really dug this city. Certainly worth a stop if you have the time. A great jumping off point to other things in the area just outside of town.

See & Do

  • Old Colorado City. Historic downtown.
  • Garden of the Gods. Don’t miss these incredible rock formations! You can walk through the entire thing in an afternoon. Park at the visitor center or parking lot across the street and just walk into the park from there. It’s a short walk to the main section of the park and only a few miles to do the majority of the trails. I really liked the Central Garden, Siamese Twins, Scotsman, and Palmer trails.
  • Pike’s Peak. The highest summit in the U.S. east of it’s longitude at 14,115′! About 20 miles to the top, starting at 7.5K’ in elevation. Be prepared to wait to get through the entrance gate, pay your fee, then enjoy the highway up to the summit. Plan to spend about 2-3 hours. They say if you get a doughnut made at the summit and eat half there and half at the bottom, it tastes/feels different. Crystal Reservoir and Devil’s Playground were two cool places of note along the way to the summit.
  • Manitou Springs. Cool little town with tons of shops. Originally known for healing powers in its springs spattered throughout the town. There are also cliff dwellings nearby and the Manitou Incline which I didn’t do but is a 1mi 2K’ ascent that’s very difficult and a “fun” challenge if you’re looking for a workout.
  • Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. Interested in tiny houses? Check out Tumbleweed, one of the pioneers of the movement, and see where they actually build theirs.
  • Red Rock Canyon. Gorgeous open space filled with red rocks and beautiful lake. Also views of Garden of the Gods.
  • The Broadmoor Seven Falls. Private canyon area with a river and waterfalls. The stairs to the top are quite steep and not for the faint of heart if you’re scared of heights, unless you want to challenge yourself. There’s an elevator for one of the overlooks. You can also go ziplining.

Food & Drink

  • Yellow Mountain Tea House. I love tea and tea houses. This one is especially great and one of my favorite tea house experiences. The tea is outstanding, high quality, pure or blends, and some really unique stuff. Plus you can do a traditional tea tasting and even order dim sum. They also sell gelato. If you like tea, dumplings, or gelato, must visit!

Nearby

  • Bishop Castle. Private project built by the owner and shared for free with the public. Quite unique for sure.
  • Royal Gorge Bridge & Park. The largest suspension bridge in the world. Also has other activities and a gondola across the canyon in addition to being able to walk over the bridge. Costs money to get in and cross the bridge, free to stand outside and take pictures. The town of Canon City I thought was nice for a picnic or relaxing/swimming in the river.
  • Paradise Cove. Short hike through a maze of canyon and trees that leads up to a beautiful pool.
  • Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Fossil remnants. The drive out and surrounding area is gorgeous. I didn’t do much exploring around the monument itself.

Tips

  • Pike’s Peak. At the time of my visit in 2020, they were doing construction at the summit so the views weren’t great and you had to park in one of the lower parking lots at mile markers 13 or 16, then shuttle up to the summit. I’ll fully admit the drive at parts were absolutely terrifying with steep dropoffs and tight curves. Definitely put your car in low gear on the way down, it’s crazy steep! You will feel light headed and woozy at the summit, bring water and stay hydrated or risk passing out. I felt back to normal back at the parking lots.

5. Durango

Durango

Highlights: Mountains, skiing, forests, rivers, food
Suggest Staying: 1-3 days
Stay Around: City Center
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What a cool artsy old west style town with friendly people, good food, and gorgeous scenery. Just a really neat, hip town that hasn’t exploded like other nearby ski towns that have turned into major resorts and tourist destinations. Great place to chill out. Some exceptional restaurants. Surprisingly, Durango has the only tiny house community I was able to find in all of Colorado, albeit quite small and adjacent to a strip mall and Walmart.

See & Do

  • Downtown. Shops, galleries, restaurants.
  • Animas River Trail. Nice trail along the winding river with mountains as the backdrop.
  • Mesa Verde National Park. Not far from Durango, this place has amazing vistas, views, and cliff dwellings from the ancient Puebloans. Incredible what they were able to achieve creating mini communities etched into the sides of cliffs over a thousand years ago. Tours are required to get up close, otherwise, you can drive through the park along the mesas with sweeping views as far as New Mexico. The road through the park is quite steep and curvy. Check out the park website for visitor information.
  • Canyon of the Ancients. This requires a bit of work, but if you stop at the visitor center to get some maps, there are some adventure roads, hiking, and ancient ruins to explore. Just past Mesa Verde.
  • Million Dollar Highway. Awesome mountain road with some steep points and winding roads starting at Montrose extending down to Durango. Beautiful.
  • Ouray. Nice place to stop or even stay over. Be sure to take a dip in the outdoor hot springs pools.
  • Silverton. Stop along the Million Dollar Highway that’s very “old west” and also has a train you can take through the mountains to/from Durango.
  • Pagosa Springs. Hot springs resort town.

Food & Drink

  • Primus. American, meat and seafood.
  • Eolus. American, meat & seafood.
  • Seasons of Durango. American.
  • Mutu’s Italian Kitchen. Italian.
  • Old Barrel Tea Company. Tea shop. More about custom blends than traditional Chinese style tea.

Other Considerations


Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon South Rim

When I first saw pictures of this place I was hooked. It’s incredible. Like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon, but almost as impressive and more off the radar. It’s “similar” in that it’s a huge canyon with a river that runs through it, but the walls are totally different colors and more varied in the rock formations (in my opinion). If you pay attention, you can see some striking details and differences across the two rims of the canyon and even along the same rim. At a half mile deep, the vertical cliffs are intense at the overlooks and along parts of the rim drives. Breathtaking views, vertigo inducing drops, hiking trails, adventure driving, and fishing. I recommend staying for 2-3 days around the South Rim (camping) or Montrose (Riverbend RV Park & Cabins).

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See & Do

  • South Rim. Most popular, developed, paved roads, 12 overlooks. Best for camping. I’d recommend stopping at all of the overlooks. Sunset View was cool for sunset, but I personally liked Cedar Point better. Painted Wall was also cool. Plan about 2-3 hours to get to the end and back and budget some time for any hiking, like Warner Point and High Point, which I would recommend.
  • North Rim. Impressive views, a bit more off-the-beaten-path, dirt roads, hiking. Pretty far from Montrose and the South Rim, plan several hours just get there and back and another couple hours to stop at the overlooks, not to mention hiking. Exclamation Point was great, highly recommend.
  • East Portal. Steep, curvy drive down into the canyon to the river where you can fish, relax, kayak the rapids, or just take in the views. Beautiful in the fall. Can be easily done in an hour or two if you just want to drive down and back out. Maybe a 20-30 minute drive one way from top to bottom.
  • Curecanti National Recreation Area. In a word, gorgeous. Nothing but lake and views. Great place to relax. Reminds me of Lake Powell in Arizona.

Tips

  • Camping. At 8K’ elevation, it can get cold, so just be prepared if you’re camping. Skies are dark, so stargazing is fantastic with clear skies.
  • Into the Canyon. You can hike down into the canyon with a special, free permit. I read the trails are not well marked, so definitely get a map and bring a compass. Check out the park website for more details.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

This place is incredibly unique and needs to be seen and experienced in person. Pictures do not do it justice. The sand dunes are massive and just beyond them are mountain forests. In the summer, there’s even a river that flows through it. It’s a crazy and interesting ecosystem to say the least. Hike up to High Dune, but beware it’s tough since it’s all sand. It’s 3 miles round trip and takes about 2 hours. Want more punishment, keep going to Star Dune. The sunsets are magnificent, really from anywhere, but especially from Pinon Flats Campground, which is a great place to camp. Skies are dark, so stargazing is fantastic with clear skies. Keep in mind it’s around 8K’ in elevation so it gets cold at night. Wear sunblock while hiking the dunes. You can rent snowboards/sleds just outside the park.

Telluride

Telluride

Telluride felt like a bunch of rich folks, ski bums, and hipsters all arrived at the same time and decided to just stay and live together in this growing, beautiful ski based mountain town. Just up the road is Mountain Village which is really where the rich people and ski resorts lie. The town itself is a mix of old west and modern, plenty of art, shops, and restaurants jam packed into this small town. Not far from the Million Dollar Highway, worth a stop if you have time, whether you ski or not. It’s beautiful.

General Tips

  • Driving. Unless you plan to do nothing but interstate highway driving, many of the roads through Colorado have sharp curves and are very steep. Plan your route and know the driving conditions before setting out, especially if you're towing a camper. Also fun fact, since there is less oxygen in the air, your car will be able to run on less octane gas which you may notice at the gas stations. Unfortunately though this means that the higher the elevation, the more power your car loses. You'll notice this on mountain drives going up.
  • Water and Sunblock. I can't stress enough how important it is to stay hydrated, more so than you might think, even if it's cold, simply due to the altitude. For the same reason, it's easier to get burnt at higher elevations and thus you should protect yourself with sunblock, especially in the summer months when you're not bundled up and skin is exposed. Pace yourself and hydrate so you can do more and enjoy your trip.

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