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Colorado in the Rocky Mountains, has much to offer away from the city. So let Denver be your gateway to enjoy the beauty of the Centennial State – here are some of the best day trips from the Mile High City.
The city of Boulder, 40 minutes from Denver, offers plenty of outdoor recreation. Check out the Flatirons – mountain peaks shaped like old steam irons – or spend time hiking the trails in Chautauqua Park (pronounced shuh-TAW-kwuh). Downtown Boulder is full of lively breweries, laid-back restaurants and quirky shops. Take a stroll down Pearl Street Mall, or visit the Celestial Seasonings Tea Factory.
If you’re in the mood for an exhilarating drive, head an hour and 40 minutes from Denver to the Mount Evans Scenic Byway. The highest paved road in the country, it’s one of several “fourteeners” in Colorado – mountains rising more than 14,000ft (4,267m). The 28mi (45km) road starts at stunning Echo Lake, where people angle for catfish, and winds its way up to a viewing platform, from where it’s a short hike to the Mount Evans peak. Expect to encounter mountain goats and bighorn sheep along the way.
Less than 40mi (64km) from Denver are these two former mining towns turned gambling resorts. They’re home to casinos with overnight lodging and entertainment. Between counting your poker chips, make a call at Dostal Alley Casino and Brewpub in Central City for craft beer and pizza. Also worth a visit is the Central City Opera House, or take a tour with the Gilpin Historical Society for a deep dive into Colorado’s mining history.
About 70mi (113km) west of Denver is this forested terrain, with eight wilderness areas, 1,900mi (3,058km) of roadways and 2,500mi (4,023km) of hiking trails. Outdoor adventurers can get stuck into wildlife watching – keep your eyes peeled for lynx, elk and raptor – horseback riding, camping and hiking, of course. When winter arrives, dust off your ski gear and hit the pistes in the resorts of Vail, Snowmass and Breckenridge.
The second-largest city in Colorado is an easy hour’s drive from Denver. It buzzes with artsy, cultural institutions – the quilts in the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum are fascinating for starters. Hand-feed the giraffes at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, or take an athlete-guided tour of the US Olympic and Paralympic Training Center. If you’re into the great outdoors, make the looping drive up to Pikes Peak, or visit the Garden of the Gods, one of the most stunning city parks in the country, with red rock formations millions of years in the making.
With even a day, you’ll only scratch the surface of the Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the most visited in America. For animal lovers, it’s a magical place, home to beavers, black bears and cute little yellow-bellied marmots. Along its many roadways, glimpse views of stunning lakes and small glaciers. Trail Ridge Road is an awesome drive, cresting at an altitude of 12,000ft (3,658m). Alternatively, grab a permit and flee your worldly worries with some wilderness camping.
Georgetown is a unique mountain stronghold a few hours from Denver. It has an undaunted Victorian spirit, with many restored buildings dating from the late 19th century. Visitors who pile in for weekends stay in quaint B&Bs, sauntering along the charming Main Street and exploring its many antique stores. Board the narrow-gauge Georgetown Loop Railroad to ride high through life-affirming mountain scenery and over the Devil’s Gate High Bridge.
About 157mi (253km) from Denver, the mountain town of Glenwood Springs is a sight for sore limbs, with local hot springs and vapor caves bubbling and steaming. It has pedigree – many centuries ago, the hunter-gatherer Ute tribe were soaking in the thermal waters. If you’re here with the whole family, try the thrills of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park for its Alpine Coaster and Soaring Eagle Zip Ride. If you want something more adventurous, try hiking the Hanging Lake Trail, an approximately 1mi (2km) uphill trek culminating in beautiful views of cascades.
The mountain views are the main draw in Colorado, but the grasslands of the eastern plains are sensational, too. At the Pawnee National Grassland, a two-hour drive from Denver, there are nearly 200,000 acres (80,937ha) to explore, with swift foxes, snakes and prairie dogs roaming wild. Discover the area via its hiking trails or on horseback. There are campsites for extended stays; it’s worth considering as the stargazing is beautiful.
Think Colorado and you think mountains, and 80mi (129km) west of Denver is one of the best ski-resort towns in the state. Breckenridge, in fact, has outdoor excitement all year round. In summer it’s perfect for hiking, biking and horseback rides along hundreds of miles of trails. Meanwhile, autumn is a blaze of glory – keep a camera close by on that relaxing drive or afternoon of fly fishing. And when winter blows in, there are dozens of ways to enjoy the snow.
While this day trip is a bit longer at 230mi (370km) from Denver, the surreal landscape of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is worth the extra mileage. You’ll be awestruck at every turn. As you stand among the tallest dunes on the continent, you can take in the beauty of the wetlands, tundra, alpine lakes, aspen forests and grasslands surrounding the sand.
A visit to Buffalo Overlook, 30 minutes away from downtown Denver, isn’t so much a day trip – it’s more of a thrill ride. Just off the 1-70 in Genesee Mountain Park, this is the Wild West, with a covered observation deck affording views of bison herds roaming. This quick day trip is a must for any animal lover, and although it’s not guaranteed that you’ll sight the herd, it’s so close to the city that it’s well worth chancing it before you catch your flight home.
While Denver has a zoo, visit the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge instead, whether you want to spot animals, take a hike or both. An easy 20-minute drive outside the city center, it’s one of the biggest urban refuges in the United States – and you can tour it for free. Follow the 11mi (18km) Wildlife Drive for sightings of bison, deer, hawks, waterfowl and more, or pull over at one of the trailheads and go hiking.
Lions, tigers, and bears. While only one of these animals is native to Colorado, all three live at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, 40mi (64km) northeast of Denver. It’s home to many non-native rescue animals, such as leopards, hyenas, ostrich, alpacas and parrots. These beautiful creatures inhabit nearly 800 acres (324ha), and you can view them all safely and discreetly thanks to a 1.5mi (2km) elevated walkway, which is accessible, too, with sitting areas where you can take a break.
Long before Colorado was a state – and long before humans walked the Earth – prehistoric plants, insects and animals ruled the area. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, 100mi (161km) south of Denver, transports you back to the Eocene Epoch, with thousands of fossil deposits and petrified redwood stumps presenting a glimpse into the dim distant past. If you want to travel farther back in time, you’ll have to make the longer 250mi (402km) drive to the Colorado-Utah border, where you’ll find Dinosaur National Monument.