Mountains, big cities, national parks, red rocks, hot springs, outdoor adventure parks – if you’re a nature lover, then Colorado is the place for you! I was invited by Colorado Tourism earlier this year with a group of 4 other creators (Raymond of Travelling Foodie, Bella of xoxoBella, Danielle of TO Foodies, and Craig of Big Daddy Kreativ). In 7 days, we visited 6 different cities – enough time to see some of the highlights of the state!
As a first-timer to Colorado, I had no idea just how diverse the state is! While famous for its first-class ski resorts and mountain towns (like Aspen), I was pleasantly surprised to see just how much there is to see and do, outside of Denver and Aspen, alone. The 12 places to visit in Colorado below will show you exactly why it’s a destination to visit all year-round. So, start packing your bags!
Know Before You Go
- Colorado is the 8th largest state in the U.S. in terms of geographical size. Needless to say, it’s HUGE! Depending on where you plan to go, you’ll have to account for transportation and travel time.
- Altitude sickness is a real thing! Denver is nicknamed the “Mile High City” because it’s a mile above sea level at an elevation of 5,280 ft. (1,609 m). Aspen is just below 8,000 ft. (2,400 m) above sea level. To put that into perspective for you, Machu Picchu sits at an elevation of 7,972 ft. (2,430 m) and Bogotà (the 4th highest capital city in the world) has an altitude of 8,612 ft. If you are prone to altitude sickness or even if you’re not, you should take the necessary precautions before taking a trip to Colorado. While in Colorado, there are a number of things you can do to prevent altitude sickness:
- Stay hydrated/drink lots of water
- Avoid alcohol and tobacco
- Fly into/stay for a night or two in a place with a lower altitude, so you can acclimate
- Climb/travel to higher altitudes gradually
- If traveling by ground transport, note that you’ll be going along windy roads, since Colorado is so mountainous. If you’re prone to motion sickness, then get the Gravol ready! There are also many areas where you will lose connectivity while driving.
- Nature is the name of the game in Colorado, so get outdoors and enjoy! The state is filled with dramatic landscapes and beautiful mountains, and there are 4 National Parks (Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park).
- For serious hikers, Colorado is the land of the fourteeners (mountains over 14,000 ft.). There are 96 fourteeners in the U.S., with the majority (58) being in Colorado.
- If you thought Canada is the only tourist destination to visit the Rocky Mountains, you’re wrong. The Rockies stretch for around 3,000 miles, from British Columbia down to New Mexico. The highest point in the Rocky Mountains (Mount Elbert) is actually located in Colorado.
- The weather in Colorado is truly variable (not only from town to town, but from one elevation to the next). Pack lots of layers, bring comfortable shoes, and don’t forget the sunscreen because Colorado boasts more than 300 days of sunshine year-round!
If the above facts haven’t piqued your interest enough, here’s a round-up of 12 places to check out in Colorado that’ll make you want to hop on a plane stat!
State capital and most populous city – it’s no wonder Denver is at the top of this list. I loved the laid-back vibe of Denver and was surprised to see just how hip(ster) and artsy it is in many areas. I especially liked the Union Station neighbourhood and RiNo (River North) Art District. A common thread amongst the two neighbourhoods is that they were both formerly high-crime and poverty areas and have been redeveloped over time. Many buildings sat abandoned for decades, until major revitalization efforts were undertaken, and there has been an intentional use of art to reclaim public space (e.g. murals in alleyways). Cool restaurants have popped up inside old buildings, in a way that celebrates their historical significance and brings people back into the neighbourhoods.
Union Station was renovated and reopened for its 100th anniversary in 2014. It now has numerous restaurants, bars and cafes, public space and a boutique hotel.
A great way to see a lot of Denver in a short time (and get a history lesson while you’re at it) is by taking an eTuk ride. eTuks are just like Tuk Tuks (rickshaws), but are electric.
Stay at Le Méridien Denver Downtown, not just for the location, but also for the décor (it’s BEAUTIFUL!). There’s a lobby bar (The Lobbyist) and restaurant serving American comfort food (Corinne) on the ground level, and the rooftop bar (54thirty) is buzzing on evenings! I’ll always remember this rooftop because it’s where my friends and I watched the Raptors eliminate the Milwaukee Bucks in game 6 to advance to the NBA finals!
For eats, I highly recommend Avelina, a beautiful and inviting restaurant in the LoDo (Lower Downtown) neighbourhood. I had my first taste of green chili (a Colorado classic dish) here, along with other yummy brunch dishes.
For a good dinner, head to Work & Class in the RiNo art district, where you can get a “square meal, stiff drink, and fair price.” They serve up small, shareable plates of Southern & Latin American cuisine. There is a big emphasis on local food and beer in Denver (in fact, there are over 70 breweries in the city).
2. Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre
The only naturally-occurring, acoustically perfect amphitheatre in the world, a visit to the Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre is a MUST when in Colorado. It doubles as a sort of outdoor gym during the day and concert hall at night – all with Colorado’s red rocks as a backdrop. The rocks were formed over 290 million years ago, and people have visited from all over the world to see the likes of some of the greatest musicians of all time, including The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and U2, to name a few.
3. Rocky Mountain National Park
Between the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake is Rocky Mountain National Park, one of four national parks in Colorado. The Continental Divide runs through the centre. You’ll find mountains, alpine lakes, and wildlife within various climates and environments, including forests and mountain tundra at Rocky Mountain National Park. It attracts more than 4.5 million visitors each year.
4. Trail Ridge Road/Loveland Pass
Depending on the time of year that you visit, you can drive along Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in Colorado. Because of the altitude and weather conditions, it’s only open from Memorial Day through mid-October. Spanning Rocky Mountain National Park from east to west, it’s also called the “Highway to the Sky”.
Trail Ridge Road is also the highest paved road in Colorado that crosses the Continental Divide. It crosses at different elevations and winds past many 12,000-foot peaks. We stopped for a quick photo op at Loveland Pass, which sits at an elevation of 11,992 ft./3,655 m, before continuing on to just below Trail Ridge High Point at 12,183 ft./3,713 m.
5. Estes Park
Not a park, but rather a town, Estes Park is a great base to explore Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a super quaint place with a handful of shops and restaurants. There is an Arts Market that happens every year on Memorial Day weekend. Estes Park offers activities for people of all ages, including wildlife adventures, trolleys, amusement parks, jeep tours, fly fishing etc. One of its claims to fame is The Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King to write “The Shining”, after he stayed for 1 night in 1973.
We stayed at The Ridgeline, a comfortable, craftsman-style hotel in the middle of Estes Park. The rooms were extremely spacious and designed like modern cabins. There is also an on-site restaurant and bar called Latitude 105.
For a hearty meal in Estes Park, head to Seasoned – An American Bistro, a family-owned restaurant with innovative dishes. We all were sold on the braised applewood smoked pork belly. Yum!
Chapel on the Rock (St. Catherine of Siena Chapel) is a bit of a hidden gem that we spotted from the highway en route from Denver to Estes Park. We were all struck by its immense beauty, so if you have a chance, stop here for a quick visit and photo op (it’s open to the public).
6. Steamboat Springs
Steamboat Springs (also called “Steamboat” and “Ski Town USA”) is an internationally recognized winter resort destination. Steamboat has produced more winter Olympians than any other town in North America. It attracts skiers from all over the world and has been home to world-class skiing competitions.
We stayed at the Steamboat Grand Hotel, which had massive, chalet-style rooms. I had a full room to myself, which could have fit a family of 6 with ease!
If there is one thing you should do before leaving Steamboat Springs, it’s booking a reservation at Aurum Food & Wine – hands-down, my favourite meal of the entire trip! It’s a seasonal New American restaurant with a prime location overlooking the Yampa River. Aurum serves up yummy creations, like steak tartare and bone marrow, seared Hudson Valley foie gras, bison skewers, house smoked pork ribs, pan seared scallops with mushroom consommé, and more.
Every single dish we tried here was outstanding and they have a robust selection of wines to go along with the food!
7. Strawberry Park Hot Springs
Some of the biggest attractions in Colorado are hot springs. Colorado has more than 30 hot springs, which range from very rustic to more developed. The minerals in the springs are said to have healing powers and soaking in them helps to relieve muscle soreness, among other benefits. Strawberry Park Hot Springs, just outside of Steamboat Springs, is one of the most beautiful hot springs in Colorado and one of its natural treasures. Nestled between the mountains and forest, they’re probably some of the most breathtaking hot springs I’ve ever seen. And they’re just about as rustic as you can get! The mineral pools are heated from geothermal energy and range from around 38-40 degrees Celsius.
8. Glenwood Springs
Another popular mountain town in Colorado, Glenwood Springs offers lots more than skiing and hiking. It’s a neat place with an adventure park at the top of one of its mountains and a giant hot spring pool in the middle of town.
At an altitude of 7,100 ft., Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park above Glenwood Springs is America’s only mountain-top adventure park. It has thrill rides and a cool cave system, and I recommend experiencing it all! My favourite was the Haunted Mine Drop that reminded me of the Guardians of the Galaxy ride at Disney California Adventure Park (which I wrote all about here). I never thought I’d enjoy learning about caves and spelunking as much as I did – thanks in part to our awesome guide at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park!
There is a tonne of history in Glenwood Springs and so much associated with where we stayed, Hotel Colorado. The hotel is stately—both inside and out—and being there is a bit like taking a step back in time. It was once a summer retreat for past U.S. presidents, like Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. One of the oldest hotels in all of Colorado, there are rumours about it being haunted. Thankfully, none of us were able to confirm these rumours during our stay!
The food scene in Glenwood Springs is hip and worth investigating. We ate at The Pullman and had a selection of tasty sharing plates, like bacon pickled deviled eggs, crispy pork rinds, crispy Brussels Sprouts, and braised local goat tacos.
Before leaving Glenwood Springs, head to Iron Mountain Hot Springs. Quite a difference from rustic Strawberry Park Hot Springs, Iron Mountain Hot Springs feels like a spa retreat. There are 16 mineral pools carefully mapped out and ranging in temperature, so you can choose according to what you’re comfortable with. Iron Mountain Hot Springs also has great amenities, like large change rooms with everything from private showers to keyless locks, and even a dryer for your bathing suit. If you get hungry, there is a café on-site.
An alternative to more touristy Aspen (which is just 9 miles away), Snowmass is a world-class ski town in its own right. Apart from the slopes, Snowmass offers views of mountain vistas, and a range of activities, including hiking, shopping, music, and dining.
We stayed at The Limelight, a funky and hip hotel. The original location of The Limelight is in Aspen, and the Snowmass Village location was newly opened (as of December 2018). The hotel has a good atmosphere, with a happening lobby, games room, and restaurant/lounge (Limelight Lounge) on the main floor, in addition to 2 pool spas on-site. There are 99 hotel rooms at The Limelight, which are spacious, modern, and airy.
Our dinner at Limelight Lounge was fantastic – so much so, we ordered multiple rounds of the truffle fries and pork belly rillons! The wood-fired pizza was also very good. We all agreed the food was delicious and approachable, and we appreciated the greeting from Chef de cuisine, Michael Coco.
The Rim Trail is Snowmass’ most iconic hike. I’m not an experienced hiker, so I found the almost 8-mile journey to be moderately challenging, especially given the altitude (it’s about 9,000 ft. above sea level at the top). We hiked up to Spiral Point/Yin Yang and the 360-degree views overlooking Snowmass Village were just incredible and made the hike totally worth it!
10. Maroon Bells
I can see why the Maroon Bells are the most photographed peaks in all of North America and the most photographed place in Colorado. About 10 miles west of Aspen and 16 from Snowmass, the twin snow-capped fourteeners (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak) have a reflective lake in front of them. The landscape changes colours with the seasons and is said to be most beautiful in the fall. Apart from stunning views, you can camp here and there are several trails for hiking.
11. Colorado Springs
Colorado Springs is the second most populous city in Colorado. So, it’s definitely worth visiting and spending at least a couple days in.
One of the biggest attractions in all of Colorado can be found in Colorado Springs: Garden of the Gods – a public park set amidst majestic red sandstone rock formations. Frequented by over 2 million people per year, you can explore Garden of the Gods on foot, hike, rock climb, or do some horseback riding. We did a guided horseback tour through Academy Riding Stables, and it was so much fun!
SCP (which stands for “Soul Community Planet”) is a comfortable place to stay in Colorado Springs. It has a holistic approach to hospitality, with earth-friendly and socially responsible practices. The hotel has a pretty hip vibe, and I especially appreciated the various lounge areas, games room with pool tables, and lobby bar.
The Ivywild School is a unique place to dine in Colorado Springs. It’s originally an elementary school that was built in 1916 and converted into a food hall a few years ago. You can find multiple restaurants, a bar, brewery, bakery and café on-site.
Another favourite meal in Colorado was at Restaurant 1858, a restaurant owned by The Broadmoor and located at the banks of Seven Falls waterfalls. You will find satisfying American comfort dishes here, like applewood bacon-wrapped shrimp, chili con queso, and classic Coloradan dishes, like wild boar green chili (the best I had in Colorado).
But don’t just go to The Broadmoor to dine at Restaurant 1858. Make some time in your itinerary to spend a day or overnight in one of its 779 rooms, if you can afford it (it’s a Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond resort)! The Broadmoor is one of Colorado Springs’ landmarks, and it’s welcomed heads of state, politicians, celebrities, and professional sports players. The Italian Renaissance style architecture is as impressive as the décor. I could go on and on about The Broadmoor, but you really just have to see it for yourself!
One of the highlights of Colorado Springs for me was our Rocky Mountain Food Tour. The company offers a variety of food and drink tours, each ranging from between 2.5 to 3 hours in length and making various stops at local bars and restaurants. Our Signature Cocktail Tour had a Prohibition focus to it, and we got to learn lots of interesting facts about the time period and Colorado Springs.
12. Manitou Springs
Last, but not least, Manitou Springs is a quirky town just outside of Colorado Springs. It’s known for the fresh water springs that are sprinkled throughout the town – each having a different mineral composition and ‘flavour’. It’s also an artist’s enclave, with art galleries, boutiques, candy shops, street performers, and creek-side restaurants. A lovely place to stroll for a few hours, try to sample the water from all 8 springs, if you can.
Special thanks to Colorado Tourism for hosting me on this trip. I can’t wait to return to Colorado to see more of what it has to offer! Is Colorado on your bucket list?
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*This post was done in partnership as a hosted press trip with Colorado Tourism and local tourism boards in Denver, Estes Park, Steamboat Springs, Glenwood Springs, Snowmass, and Colorado Springs. However, all opinions expressed are 100% my own.