With more than 300 glorious days of sun and majestic landscapes to match, it’s no wonder Colorado beckons to outdoorsy types.
You’ll find adventures to be had in just about every corner of the state, from hiking trails and white water rapids to world-class mountain resorts and towering sand dunes.
But Colorado offers more than adrenaline rushes and Instagram moments. It’s also known for its layers of history, its vibrant art and music scene, its cowboy culture and tasty craft brews. Here are the best things to do in Colorado that showcase the variety the state has to offer.
1. Enjoy the fall colors in Aspen
Just beyond the cowboy-meets-Hollywood glam of Aspen, the twin Maroon Bell mountains rise dramatically over a long mirrored lake. Surrounded by thick aspen groves, fall brings a sea of fluttering yellow and orange leaves. It’s sublime, a dream and one of the best places in the state to see fall colors.
Planning tip: The trail near the lake can get crowded this time of year, especially in late September when the leaves are at their peak. Arrive before 8am for a parking spot, some solitude and the best chance at seeing wildlife. Otherwise, take the shuttle from town and hike deep into the aspen groves towards Crater Lake to take in the beauty without the crowd.
Mesa Verde is one of the US’s best-preserved Native American archaeological sites © Sopotnicki / Shutterstock
2. Explore ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde National Park is a one-of-a-kind place, the largest and best-preserved Native American archaeological site in the US. Nestled in a stunning landscape of canyons and mesas near the Four Corners region, Mesa Verde is home to more than 5000 Ancestral Puebloan sites that developed over hundreds of years before being abruptly abandoned in 1300CE for reasons still unknown.
What remains is one of the most exhilarating adventures in the West: clambering down ladders, crawling through tight tunnels and peering into elaborate cliff dwellings, all to puzzle over what life was once like here.
3. Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park
If there’s any place that’s quintessentially Colorado, it’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Every view is a picture postcard: a vast landscape of granite peaks and shimmering lakes, flower-filled meadows and dense forests.
But it’s no secret that RMNP can get jam-packed, especially in summer. Lose the crowds by leaving the roadside viewpoints and lacing up your hiking boots instead.
The park has 300 miles of trails catering to all levels of ability and ambition, from an easy stroll around Bear Lake to an epic trek up Longs Peak. Impressive vistas and perfect solitude also can be found on hundreds of thousands of acres of backcountry, areas home to herds of elk, scattered bighorn sheep, black bears and more.
Some buildings in St Elmo date from the 1880s © John Elk / Getty Images
4. Visit the ghost town of St Elmo
Following a bumpy dirt road to the abandoned mining settlement of St Elmo, it’s easy to imagine the prospectors who plied this same roadway, following tales of precious metal found deep in the Rockies. Tucked into the base of the Collegiate Peaks, St Elmo is Colorado’s best-preserved ghost town.
More than 40 buildings are still standing, most dating to the 1880s when the town hit its apex. Wandering past the saloon, billiards hall, courthouse and jail, visitors get a peek into Colorado’s past, when gold and silver ruled these hills. It serves as a modern-day reminder of the quick riches and busted dreams of the past, the making and breaking of the West.
5. Throw back a Colorado craft brew
Colorado takes its beer seriously, treating craft brewing like a high art. Almost any town you visit – from tiny Del Norte to beer-centric Fort Collins – has a favorite local brew or two (or 20). One thing’s for sure: you won’t go thirsty for an IPA in Colorado.
Planning tip: If you’re here in September, try to score tickets to the Great American Beer Festival. Held in Denver, the festival draws more than 1000 master brewers from across the nation, vying for Best of Show medals in categories like Best Coffee Beer, Best Barrel-Aged Strong Beer and many more. Best of all is the camaraderie of you and 60,000 beer buddies, all tasting outstanding beers one ounce at a time.
Natural acoustics made Red Rocks an iconic amphitheater © Capture Light / Shutterstock
6. Catch a concert at Red Rocks
There’s something about attending a concert at Red Rocks: the sounds of instruments and song, the sight of people dancing, an umbrella of dark sky above and the iconic 400ft-high red sandstone monoliths standing guard on either side. Once a sacred gathering place of the Ute tribe, today Red Rocks is world renowned for its natural acoustics and stunning beauty, a one-of-a-kind amphitheater.
It’s no surprise big name bands like The Beatles, U2, Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead have played and recorded albums here and that the venue continues to draw the world’s best musicians and performers. Just 15 miles from Denver, it’s easily accessible, too.
Planning tip: Do like locals do and catch the sunset before the show.
7. Soak in Glenwood Hot Springs
Perched at the end of a gorgeous canyon at the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers, present-day Glenwood Hot Springs have been treasured for their healing properties for centuries. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Ute bathed in these same steamy thermal waters, which they called yampah (great medicine).
Today, a historic resort sits on the site, the hot springs pumping out 3.5 million gallons of mineral water a day, flowing through two pools, one a whopping 400ft long.
Planning tip: Temperatures range from 93°F to 104°F, warm enough to soak in even on a snowy January day. Bring your swimsuit and, if need be, your ski hat.
8. Drive the Million Dollar Highway
Deep in the San Juan Mountains, the Million Dollar Highway connects the towns of Ouray and Silverton, is a mind-blowingly scenic drive, and one of Colorado’s best road trips. Twenty five miles of hairpin turns and tight S-bends cut through the Uncompahgre Gorge, whose steep mountainsides loom large and close, rising into lofty, mist-shrouded peaks, while the valley floor lies far below, dotted with fir trees and wildflowers.
Planning tip: Drive with caution. The road is formidable, even in good weather, and the lack of guardrails doesn’t help. Take advantage of pullouts. The Red Mountain Pass (11,018ft) is a favorite for its 360-degree views.
9. Hula hoop in Telluride
It supposedly all started back in the ’90s when Colorado ski-bum band String Cheese Incident started chucking hula hoops into the crowd at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Festival-goers turned the toys into dance partners, and the fad stuck. You can count on a large contingent of “hoopers” at every Telluride Bluegrass Festival show.
It’s just one of the many odd-ball pleasures of this amazing celebration of folk music and mountain life, held in Telluride every summer and drawing big-name bands and thousands of revelers. Telluride itself is stunningly beautiful, nestled in a narrow box canyon, surrounded on three sides by rugged peaks and even a waterfall. It’s not easy to get to, but it’s well worth the effort.
Experience the thrill of the huge dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park © Michael DeYoung / Getty Images
10. Surf down the tallest dunes in North America
Great Sand Dunes National Park sits like a surreal work of art next to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, an undulating dune field covering more than 30 square miles, its sandy peaks reaching hundreds of feet above the brush-covered valley floor. Climbing the dunes can be slow going – one step forward and a half step back in the ever-shifting sand – but that makes sand surfing down all the sweeter.
Special wood boards definitely make for the best ride, and they can be rented from the Great Sand Dunes Oasis just outside the park or in nearby Alamosa. Sport your ski goggles and long socks, if you got ‘em – the sand gets everywhere.
Planning tip: If you’re here in late spring, count yourself lucky. The Medano Creek emerges temporarily alongside the dunes, creating a beach for water play, tubing and, of course, sandcastle-making.
11. Discover Denver’s street art
Unexpected and totally fabulous, Denver’s trendiest neighborhood, RiNo (River North) – a one-time industrial wasteland that’s now the heart of cool – is draped in murals covering every sort of surface, from restaurant doorways and parking lot walls to alleyways, power boxes and garage doors.
Bright, opinionated and ever-changing, the artwork stops you in your tracks, speaking volumes about Denver’s diversity of people and thought, and its history and day-to-day life. Prepare to be wowed.
Tackle extreme rapids and gentle ripples on the Arkansas River © SWKrullImaging / Getty Images
12. Paddle the Arkansas River
Brace yourself for icy waters as you paddle into a roaring set of waves on the Arkansas River, one of the longest and wildest rivers in the state. With more than 150 miles of open water running from Leadville to the scenic Royal Gorge, the Arkansas has everything from extreme rapids to mellow ripples and includes the iconic class-II run through Browns Canyon National Monument.
Planning tip: The best paddling happens between late May and early July. Pick up a trip in Buena Vista or Cañon City.
13. Ski Vail, the state’s best ski resort
You might think Vail is merely a playground for the rich and famous, and not a serious ski resort. Think again: beyond the glitz and glam (and shocking prices), Vail is truly one of the world’s finest ski resorts, boasting more than 5000 skiable acres, 195 trails, and some of the best on- and off-piste terrain anywhere.
The front side is a paradise of silky corduroy – Vail’s groomers are artists indeed – ranging from mellow greens to long rowdy black diamonds like Blue Ox. But don’t miss the backside, especially the legendary Blue Sky Basin and seven – count ‘em, seven – bowls. There’s so much steep ’n deep that you’ll lose track of what you’ve skied or ridden. Colorado has many outstanding ski resorts, true, but Vail will steal your heart.
Check out fossils preserved in rock at Dinosaur National Monument © Kristi Blokhin / Shutterstock
14. Touch dinosaur bones
A must-see stop for dinophiles is Dinosaur National Monument, located in the desolate northwest corner of Colorado. It’s one of the few places on Earth where you can actually reach out and touch a dinosaur skeleton, snarling in its final pose, petrified eternally in rock and stone.
Home to one the largest fossil beds in North America, the dinosaur quarry here also shows off some 1500 prehistoric bones embedded in a cliff face. You’ll see everything from allosaurus to stegosaurus.
Planning tip: Ranger-led walks, talks and tours explain the site, and a bunch of hands-on exhibits add to the fun.
15. Summit a fourteener
Standing at the peak of a 14,000ft mountain, taking in the view from the top of the world, is practically a rite of passage in Colorado. The state’s 50-plus “fourteeners” offer access and challenge to all levels of hikers, from those reachable only with technical climbing expertise to the two peaks with roads right to the top.
Whether you decide to drive to the top of Pikes Peak (or take the cog train), hike the 3-mile trail to Quandary Peak near Breckenridge or make a run at Mt Elbert (the tallest of them all), they all deliver big.
16. Sport your Stetson at the National Western Stock Show
Saddle up for one of the country’s biggest stock shows – the National Western Stock Show – a Denver tradition since 1906. Held every January, come here for more than 20 rodeos, 15,000 farm animals, dancing horses, dog shows and even yoga with baby goats.
Don’t miss the iconic kick-off parade, when dozens of Longhorn cattle are herded right through downtown Denver, high heels and power suits giving way to cowboy hats, chaps and impressive belt buckles.