Colorado is one of those places that appear on just about everyone’s bucket list, and for good reason.
Whether it’s the majestic mountains, the outdoor adventures, the cowboy cool of its ski towns or vibrant cities filled with terrific art and dining, Colorado has a way of pulling you in.
While visiting this incredible state is usually hassle free, there are a few insider details that are good to know before you set off. These are our top tips and insights to help you navigate Colorado.
1. Layer up
Colorado weather can change quickly, especially in the mountains, so bring layers! A waterproof shell, fleece, a warm hat and a hat with a brim should go into your bag at any time of the year, and you’ll need proper cold-weather gear if you come here in winter.
2. Stay hydrated
Pack a water bottle. It’s easy to get dehydrated in Colorado, where high elevations, dry air, strong sunshine and lots of outdoor activity are the norm. Staying hydrated will also help you acclimatize more quickly to the altitude if you’re not accustomed to it. Plus, you’ll save cash (not to mention the environment) by opting to refill your water bottle or Hydro Flask instead of buying bottled water every time you feel parched.
3. Book a rental car in advance
For most of the things that visitors want to see and do, having a car will make life a whole lot easier. The usual international rental companies have offices in Colorado’s airports and cities, and you’ll have a wider choice of vehicles if you book ahead.
Once you hit the highway, you’ll find that roads in Colorado are well-maintained. There’s usually no need to splurge on a 4WD unless you’re headed to the backcountry or know you’ll be driving through big snow. If you do come in winter, keep a cold-weather kit consisting of food, water and blankets in the car in case of emergencies.
If you plan to camp amidst Colorado’s big landscapes, it pays to reserve in advance in summer © Gerardo Brucker / Getty Images
4. Reserve your campsite
Coloradans love summer camping, and plenty of out-of-staters do too. And there are some stunning places to camp here, from rugged canyons to dense forests. Reserve a spot early, especially if you’re headed to one of the state’s four national parks, particularly in summer or during school holidays. You can also reserve camping spaces at Colorado’s state parks up to six months in advance.
5. Buy pro sports tickets ahead of time
Pro sports are a big thing in Colorado with the Broncos (NFL), Avalanche (NHL), Nuggets (NBA), Rockies (MLB) and Rapids (MLS) all calling Denver home. Games sell out especially fast for Broncos and Avs games – buy your tickets as soon as you know when you’ll be in town. If you’re on a tight budget, catch a Rockies baseball game instead; bleacher seats (aka the Rockpile) start from just $6.
6. Double-check airline restrictions
If you’re bringing your skis, snowboard, mountain bike or any other bulky sports equipment to Colorado, confirm airline baggage restrictions when you book. Most airlines have dropped oversize luggage fees and many don’t require hard-shell cases, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
River rafters approach a rapid on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, Colorado © picchu productions / Shutterstock
7. Wear your puffiest jacket
Casual dress rules in Colorado and jeans and puffy jackets are the cornerstones of the local uniform. In fact, pretty much the only place jeans don’t work is out on the ski slopes. For a special night out, raise your game from a t-shirt to a button-down shirt or blouse, and put on your nicest sneakers (heels will work too).
8. Enjoy the local brew
Coloradans love themselves a craft brew – especially if it’s a hoppy Indian Pale Ale. And with so much beer made locally, it would be a shame not to tip one back when given the opportunity. If you must drink big brand beers, at least make it a Coors, brewed out of Golden, Colorado.
9. Tread lightly in the great outdoors
The outdoors is revered in Colorado, and with majestic mountains, roaring rivers, soaring mesas and sun-drenched plains, it’s impossible not to be awed by the beauty all around. Do as locals do and help protect it by following the rules: respect fire bans and ‘no swimming’ signs, stay on the trails, pack out the things you pack in (plus any litter you find) and don’t scratch your name onto rocks or trees.
10. Watch your words
Political opinions run the gamut in Colorado, and some views are held especially hard and fast. Use tact when talking about politics, and don’t assume people share your views, particularly if you come from a big city background. A good rule of thumb is to look at bumper stickers and billboards to get a sense of the political leanings of a place. In general, Denver and Boulder are the state’s liberal hubs, while Colorado Springs is decidedly conservative, and mountain towns can go either way.
A marijuana dispensary © Alamy Stock Photo
11. Get your Rocky Mountain high on (but follow the rules)
The bonfire smell of weed is a familiar scent in Colorado, and partaking is easy and legal for anyone aged 21 or older, provided you stick to the rules (for a deeper dive, check out the Colorado Pot Guide).
- Only buy from a licensed dispensary; they’re easy to spot, often sporting green crosses. ID is required and they only take cash.
- Don’t inhale in public places. It’s illegal to use cannabis – including edibles – in parks, bars, restaurants, and even concert venues (despite what you might smell).
- Never drive if you’re high – you could really hurt someone and you’ll face a Driving Under the Influence charge if caught.
- Don’t smoke in your car. It’s illegal to use or even have an open container of marijuana in the cab of your vehicle. Put your supplies in the trunk and wait till you get where you’re going before you partake.
- Before you light up in your hotel or Airbnb, be sure the property is ‘420 friendly.’ If dope is prohibited, you may get kicked out or face a steep clean-up bill.
12. Take it slowly going uphill
Altitude sickness is a genuine risk in Colorado, with elevations ranging from 3300ft to 14,400ft. Fatigue and slight headaches are common for visitors, and you might find yourself feeling nauseous and get winded easily too. If you’re headed to the high ground, ascend slowly to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
Pace yourself on large climbs, drink lots of water and allow yourself a few days to acclimatize along the way. Some ski resorts even sell disposable oxygen tanks to help with the process. Limiting alcohol intake helps too – fortunately, each drink goes a lot further when you’re at altitude! If you experience severe or continued nausea, headache and dizziness, head to a lower altitude and consult a doctor.
13. Cover up
With 300 days of sunshine per year and high elevations in many parts of the state, the sunshine can be especially powerful in Colorado. Cover up, slather on sunscreen and bring your shades. A wide-brimmed hat is a smart thing to carry too. If you’ll be skiing or snowboarding, throw on some SPF-infused lip balm – few things are more uncomfortable than sunburned lips!
Be mindful of the altitude and the proximity of wildlife while hiking in Colorado © Shutterstock / Marina Poushkina
14. Be wildlife smart
With so many opportunities to play in the outdoors, encounters with big American wildlife are a real possibility. Check in with park rangers and follow their instructions for what to do in case of a chance meeting with one of the Rocky Mountain’s big critters. Even deer and mountain goats can pose a danger to cars and cyclists if you meet one unexpectedly on a backcountry track.
It’s a good idea to make noise on the trail while you walk – singing or whistling can be a useful way to alert animals to your presence. If you encounter a big creature like a moose, mountain lion or black bear, back away slowly and avoid eye contact; do not run. Consider toting bear spray when hiking in wilderness areas.
15. Prepare for the road conditions
Weekends and holidays mean serious traffic on Colorado’s roads, as locals and visitors flock to the hills, so be ready for delays. In winter, snowstorms can lead to dangerous driving conditions – state law requires vehicles to have good tire tread and all-weather tires and/or All-Weather Drive when driving in a storm. Check for road and weather alerts before you set out and carry a set of auto-socks (a better version of chains) if you’re headed to the mountains.
It’s wise to prepare for unexpected delays (and possibly getting stuck in snow) by stocking up on snacks and drinks and carrying blankets, a mobile phone and a power block for charging it up in an emergency. Consider carrying a snow shovel, flares and an extra set of gloves and boots in the trunk, just in case.
16. Watch for gray clouds
Afternoon lightning in the mountains is a genuine danger, especially in the summer. Start your summit hikes early and plan to be well below mountain peaks and passes by noon. Don’t hesitate to turn back if gray thunderclouds appear – it could save your life.
17. Take avalanches seriously
Avalanches are a fact of life in Colorado’s backcountry. There are multiple deaths every year and even experienced outdoors people fall victim. Backcountry skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing require specialized training and gear; check out the Colorado Avalanche Information Center for information, and always go with an experienced partner or guide.