Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the country’s most popular, but there are plenty of other reasons to visit Colorado
Sprawling over 415 square miles of mountains and laced by 300 miles of trails, it’s no surprise that Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is consistently one of the most visited in the US. But it’s far from being the Centennial State’s only attraction.
From deserts to remote mountain wilderness, luxury lodges to exhilarating expeditions, here are 10 thrilling ways to venture beyond Rocky Mountain National Park.
Photo courtesy of C Lazy U
Ride horses (and more) on a guest ranch
Few experiences are as quintessentially Coloradan as saddling up to explore the state’s diverse landscapes on horseback. Family-owned and operated for 100 years, C Lazy U spans 8,500 acres bordered by Rocky Mountain National Park, Arapahoe National Forest, and working ranches.
Winner of our 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards for Best Destination Resort, it’s open year-round, with experienced equestrians as well as first-timers participating in trail rides, lessons or instructional clinics. In addition to riding, guests can try a range of seasonal sports – from cross-country skiing to fly fishing – or relax and indulge in spa treatments and 4-course dinners.
All over the state, riders can tear up snow-packed trails on souped-up mountain bikes with extra fat tires. The Frisco Nordic Center in Summit County even hosts an annual Frisco Freeze Fat Bike Race (February 22, 2020).
If you want to try this growing sport, trails throughout Summit County, including an 8-mile stretch of the Summit County Recreation Path, are groomed for fat bikes. And shops throughout Frisco provide rentals and updates on trail conditions.
Photo courtesy of Mike Spasev
Colorado’s geologic diversity has long attracted the world’s most skilled and intrepid climbers. But thanks to a boom in via ferratas – fixed routes of steel cables, iron rungs, aerial walkways and more – forays into the state’s vertical world are more accessible than ever.
In May 2019, family-friendly Royal Gorge Bridge and Park in Cañon City introduced a course consisting of five open-to-the-public routes suitable for a range of fitness and experience levels.
Led by expert guides, guests aged 12 and up clip in and traverse the canyon’s vermilion cliffs hundreds of feet above the rush of the Arkansas River, taking in unmatched views of one of the world’s highest suspension bridges. And thanks to Cañon City’s mild winters, climbing is possible almost any day of the year.
In most of Colorado, winter hiking means piling on the layers. But puffy jackets, knit hats and heavy snow boots can be clunky and uncomfortable. Fortunately, at Colorado National Monument on the Western Slope, winter hikers can explore in moderate temperatures with lots of sunshine.
Though the elevations range from 4,000 to 7,000 feet, short and long trails traverse slick rock deserts, towering red monoliths and slot canyons.
Photo courtesy of Grizzle-T Dog & Sled Works
Averaging 180 inches of snowfall annually, it’s no wonder that Steamboat Springs is a champion at embracing winter. The northern Colorado ski town has produced more winter Olympians than anywhere else in North America, so whether you’re here to hit the slopes or prefer to watch the multi-sport fun at the annual Winter Carnival, you’ll be in good company.
And if you’re looking for a different way to appreciate the snowpack, Grizzle T Dog & Sled Works offers guide-driven and instructional “mush your own team” tours. Choose between two distinct trails to trace the shores of Stagecoach Reservoir or race into the backcountry.
Photo courtesy of NPS/Patrick Myers
Go sledding at Great Sand Dunes National Park
Tucked up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are the tallest sand dunes in North America, the centerpiece to Great Sand Dunes National Park and a four-season playground. Sandboarding and sledding (rent boards in nearby towns) are a favorite family activity in the dunes year-round, so long as the sand is dry.
In winter, many of the park’s hiking alpine trails are buried in snow, but the dunes themselves remain accessible. Hikers can explore deeper during the cold days than in summer, and backpackers prepared for storms and extreme temperatures can overnight on the sand.
Come spring, it’s time to splash (or surf) at the base of the dunes in the transient snowmelt waters of Medano Creek.
Home to the vibrant sandstone spires that make up Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs is best known for its above-ground beauty. But nearby Cave of the Winds Mountain Park gives visitors the chance to wonder at the subterranean as well. Millions of years old, Cave of the Winds showed up in Jicarilla Apache legends long before settler Arthur B. Love found it.
But it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the caves were excavated and tours began. Today, guides lead 45-minute to 2.5-hour tours of the limestone caverns throughout the year.
Families with little ones should consider the Discovery Tour, an easy walk among the stalactites and stalagmites, while adventurous types with older kids may want to try Caving 101 to learn some basic geology and spelunking skills.
Photo courtesy of San Juan Hut Systems Staff
Hut to hut
Colorado’s mountain wilderness is home to moose, bighorn sheep, bears, lynx and cougars, as well as 58 peaks above 14,000 feet. Heading out for a multi-day trek is the ultimate way to test yourself and take it all in.
Throughout the state, networks of trails and equipped huts let experienced hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers explore the backcountry unburdened by gear. In southwestern Colorado, San Juan Hut System manages 16 huts, five of which are open in the winter.
Near downhill ski mecca Aspen, 10th Mountain Division Huts operates 34 backcountry huts connected by 350 miles of trail. In addition to lodging, these organizations can assist with maps, GPS, avalanche information and support such as food drops.
Photo courtesy of NPS/Sandy Groves
Explore Mesa Verde Country
In the far southwestern corner of Colorado, Mesa Verde Country has been home to Indigenous cultures for millennia. The Ancestral Pueblo people inhabited the region for at least 700 years, from 600 to 1300 CE, and left behind petroglyphs, artifacts and cliff dwellings.
Mesa Verde National Park protects 5,000 archaeological sites and is open year-round, conditions permitting. Though ranger tours don’t run during the colder months, many overlooks and trails remain open to self-guided visitors.
For a deep dive into the area’s cultures, head to nearby Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, where tribal members lead both mellow and adventurous hikes to archaeological sites on the reservation.
Photo courtesy of Edoardo Rossi (Dunton Destinations)
Cozy up in hot springs
After days of adventuring, there’s no better way to unwind than by slipping into a steaming pool of spring-fed water. Fortunately, Colorado is teeming with hot springs. Relax among the aspens at Strawberry Park or play in the world’s largest hot springs pool at Glenwood Hot Springs.
For a more remote experience, head south. Ghost town-turned-luxury resort Dunton Hot Springs offers six ways to experience the waters, from an outdoor soak at the source to a restored 19th-century bathhouse.