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Top 10 Things To Do in Colorado, The Centennial State

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

Colorado - the state that evokes visions of snow capped mountains and pristine lakes and valleys, has been on my to-do list for a while. My husband, who went to school in Fort Collins, has always been a proponent of the state and its beauty. So when Covid happened, and many international borders closed or added restrictions, domestic travel destinations took higher priority on my travel bucket list.

Top things to do in Colorado

1. Denver

The capital city is an up and coming metropolis with an Old West charm. The best way to see this town is through a walking tour. Many such tours are available, but the one we tried and loved is Denver Walking Tour, in which local guides work only for tips and tell you some amazing stories that make this mile-high city so unique. The tours usually start at the State Capitol and take you to many interesting sites like the Denver Mint, the historic Larimer Square, the ultramodern Denver Art Museum and finally ending at LoDo (Lower Denver) along the 16th Street Mall.

Colorado State Capitol with its gold dome.

The sprawling and impressive Denver City Hall.

There are a number of interesting eateries in downtown Denver, especially around Larimer Square. If you are looking to wet your whistle with some local hops, Wynkoop Brewing Company is a good place, with large indoor space as well as flower lined outdoor seating for some great people watching.

Hubby dearest enjoying a LoDo IPA at Wynkoop

2. Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater

Just a few miles southwest of Denver is the stunning Red Rocks Park. Part amphitheater, part tourist attraction, the place gets its name from the red sandstone structures which also provide impeccable acoustics to the amphitheater. This draws many famous music artists and their fans to congregate for some memorable music concerts during the summer. The park also offers many trails that take you around these giant structures and provide a geology lesson of the area. Get your heart pumping by climbing the steps all the way to the top or master your downward facing dog with a morning yoga on the same stairs.

3. Garden Of The Gods

When you google for things to do in Colorado one of the top hits will be Garden Of The Gods in Colorado Springs. It is also rated as one of the top tourist attractions in the country! I was not personally impressed by this "park" and felt it was more of a tourist trap. There are some towering sandstone structures all grouped together and there is a trail that takes you around the formations. If you had previously visited Red Rock Park, then Garden Of The Gods will pale in comparison. My personal recommendation is to give this place a miss, if you are short on time.

The colors in the sky were more impressive than the ones on the ground.

4. Pikes Peak

Standing at 14,115 feet about sea level, Pikes Peak is the most visited summit in North America. It is also known as "America's Mountain", as the views from the top inspired the words to the song "America The Beautiful". Situated just a few miles outside Colorado Springs, it is a modern day marvel as this is one of the very few peaks in the world which can be accessed by car all the way to the top.

There are two ways to reach the top - via a combination of a car and shuttle, and via a cogs train. The Manitou Cogs Railway starts at the train depot in Manitou Springs and takes you on a 9-mile ride up to the Visitors Center at the peak and back. You can buy a round trip ticket or a one-way ride. But book early, as it gets sold out weeks in advance during the summer months.

The Manitou Cogs train unboarding its passengers at the Visitors Center.

If you prefer driving at your convenience, the Pikes Peak highway is a scenic although hair-raising road to experience, with awe-inspiring scenery at every bend.

Breathtaking views at every turn.

A lone biker makes his way slowly on Pikes Peak highway, above the cloud cover.

Cars are not allowed on the last 3 mile stretch to the peak, at which point, you would need to park your vehicle at a designated parking lot and ride a shuttle to the Visitors Center at the top. As of summer of 2021, there was a $12 fee to access the peak, which got sold out early in the day for weekend tickets.

The impressive and recently built Visitors Center at the peak is a great spot to catch your breath at the high altitude and also grab some food and souvenirs while at the same time read up on the history and geology of the peak. The view from the various viewing points is incredible. On the clearest days, you can see five states (Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Kansas) and even the curvature of the earth fading into the distance.

View of San Cristobal mountains from Pikes Peak Visitors Center.

5. The Great Sand Dunes National Park

Southwest of the state lies the Great Sand Dunes NP - a truly unforgettable place that you will be talking about for many years. This National Park is also the home of the tallest sand dunes in America, standing at a height of 755 ft. These dunes create an interesting desert-like landscape shadowed by 14,000 ft snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains to the west.

There are a number of activities to do in the park during summer, including sandboarding and sandsledding. There are also organized jeep rides starting at the Visitors Center, taking you through a designated trail amongst the dunes. You can also try hiking to the tallest dune, but that can be quite challenging, especially if you start out later in the day. There is a seasonal creek that is created in the early summer months from the melting of the snow from the nearby mountains. The stream is shallow in places which allows easy passage to the dunes on the other side.

We went just before sunset, and the light for our photos was just right. However, the evening sun also brought along with it a swarm of mosquitoes which infested the creek area. I found it easier to hike the dunes bare feet than with ankle length hiking boots as I saw some others doing. The sand had cooled to the touch by evening. The colors of the setting sun against the white sand on one side and green mountains on the other was a sight to behold.

Sunset over the dunes

6. Crested Butte

Crested Butte is a town on the western side of the Rockies (and the state), known as the Wildflower Capital of Colorado. The town gets its name from the 12,168ft peak in the Elk Mountain range. The downtown area is really cute and bustling with boutique stores, breweries and creameries. During winter, the area turns into a ski resort and in the summer it offers a myrid of activities, such as hiking and biking the numerous trails and meadows filled with colorful wildflowers. There are quite a few summertime hiking trails to view the wildflowers like lupines and Aspen sunflowers enveloping entire hillsides:

  • Brush creek trail, Easy, 4.3 miles round trip, 300ft elevation

  • Lupine trail, Moderate, 7 miles round trip, 800ft elevation

  • Judd Falls, Easy, 1 mile, 166ft elevation

  • Teddys Trail, Easy, 1.8 miles round trip, 292 elevation

But bear in mind that you will be hiking at over 9000 ft elevation. Although the trails seem easy in black and white, they can leave you gasping for breath within minutes. So take it slow and easy and take breaks often.

Beautiful blue lupines along Brush Creek Trail

Hillside covered with pretty yellow Aspen sunflowers.

7. Continental Divide

A large section of the continental divide runs through Colorado and they provide some of the best scenic views in the state. You can experience the divide via multi-day backpacking trips, small hikes or via scenic road trips.

One way is to drive the scenic road along Cottonwood Pass, which runs through south-central Colorado, and intersects the Continental Divide at 12,119ft. This pass is open only accessible during the summer months and is the highest paved crossing of the divide. The views of alpine lakes and high mountain ranges are spectacular.

Left : Large hairpin bend on the road leading up to the Cottonwood Pass Continental Divide.

Right: A pristine alpine lake at the Divide junction.

The sign says it all!

Independence Pass is yet another high-elevation (12,095ft) paved road that intersects the Continental Divide, near Aspen. Closed during winter, this road also offers stunning views of the mountains and valleys that make the Rocky Mountains range.

Jaw-dropping scenery on the way to Independence Pass

Here is a list of other mountain passes over the Continental Divide in Colorado :

  1. Buffalo Pass – Walden to Steamboat Springs

  2. Milner Pass – along Trail Ridge Road in RMNP from Estes Park to Grand Lake

  3. Rabbit Ears Pass – west of Kremmling to Steamboat Springs

  4. Loveland Pass – Loveland Ski Area to Keystone

  5. Webster Pass – near Dillon (4×4 only)

  6. Boreas Pass – Como to Breckenridge (4×4 recommended)

  7. Hoosier Pass – Alma to Breckenridge

  8. Independence Pass – Twin Lakes near Buena Vista to Aspen

  9. Cottonwood Pass – Buena Vista to Almont (near Crested Butte)

  10. Tincup Pass – St Elmo near Buena Vista to Tincup (near Gunnison)

  11. Monarch Pass – Monarch Mountain by Salida to an hour east of Gunnison

  12. Wolf Creek Pass – South Fork to Pagosa Springs

8. Aspen

Aspen is usually on every skier's must-ski bucket list. But did you know that this resort town is equally charming in summer? Most famous amongst Aspen summer activities is a visit and hike around the iconic Maroon Bells. The place gets its name from 3 large mountains in the shape of bells, in shades of red, towering over a pristine alpine lake. Between June and October, reservations are required to access the area using your own vehicle, or via the RFTA shuttle. The shuttle bus leaves every 15 minutes from Aspen Highlands to the Maroon Bells bus terminal, a 30 mins scenic ride of 9 miles. Being a popular Colorado destinations, reservations get booked up weeks in advance. So plan early!

There are a number of trails in the Maroon Bells area, the most popular being a 2 mile scenic loop trail which starts from the bus terminal, loops around the lake and back. If time permits, also do the 3.5 mile Crate Lake loop which takes you through a beautiful aspen forest and a great hike to see the aspen yellows during fall.

Maroon Bells

9. Rocky Mountain National Park

The name whips up images of tall, snow capped mountains with crystal clear lakes and expanse of green meadows. RMNP is truly all that, and more! At the time of this writing (October, 2021), a timed entry permit is required between the months of May and October to enter the National Park, along with an entry fee. There are two kinds of permit - one that is for the entire park, including the Bear Lake Road, and the other which is for the entire park, excluding the Bear Lake Road. If you have the option, do choose the one which includes Bear Lake Road, as some of the gorgeous vistas and lakes of the park lie in this area.

The best way to see the park is to traverse from the west entrance at Grand Lakes to the east entrance at Estes Park, or vice versa, along the Trail Ridge Road and check out the many trails and lakes along the way. Here are some quick and easy hikes in the park :

1. Lily Lake Loop

2. Sprague Lake Loop

3. Alpine Ridge Trail

4. Bear Lake Loop

5. Alberta Falls

10. Fort Collins

There are a number of small towns all over Colorado, like Boulder, Estes Park, Colorado and Manitou Springs, Glenwood Springs, etc., but my favorite was a charming little town called Fort Collins, in north Colorado. I was also partial to this town because hubby dearest went to grad school there. So it was an especially nostalgic visit for him, exactly 30 years after he graduated. It is a small university town with a delightful little downtown. We spent an afternoon here, visiting hubby's alma matar and ending our trip at yet another brewery.

Left: In front of the Administration Building at CSU, Fort Collins.

Right : Beer flight at Odell Brewing Company


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