Rugged Colorado is famous for its spectacular landscapes, outdoor adventures and gorgeous Rocky Mountain getaways. The Centennial State is also home to a vibrant crop of hip and happening cities, fascinating historical sites and the best four-season weather just about anywhere.
Interstate highways zip between the state’s major hubs, though they can get packed with weekend warriors in season. The roads to more remote destinations are quieter, but be prepared for steep passes, hair-raising switchbacks and winter closures. Getting around Colorado by public transport is possible – just about – but you’ll get more out of the state with a car.Here are the best places to visit in Colorado.
Best for a luxe romantic getaway
The sublime natural surroundings combined with the evident opulence of this iconic mountain town make Aspen a perfect place for a luxe getaway for two. This Victorian-era mountain resort lends itself to pampering, with plenty of five-star hotels offering full-service spas (The Little Nell is a standout).
Aspen is small enough to enjoy on foot, so you won’t have to drive to duck into the edgy Aspen Art Museum before snacking on a charcuterie platter at Meat & Cheese or having a cocktail at the historic J-Bar saloon. Annual festivals like the Food & Wine Classic or the Aspen Music Festival add a bonus excuse for a long weekend with your boo.
And this being Colorado, there’s always the great outdoors. Winter brings world-class skiing, as well as snowshoeing and cozy sleigh rides for two.
Planning tip: Summer is all about hiking. The twin peaks known as the Maroon Bells are just minutes away, and miles and miles of trails await. Picture serene walks passing gurgling creeks and aspen groves, with just the two of you and the big blue Colorado sky.
The Chalk Art Festival is one of the many creative events on Denver’s arts calendar © Evan Semon / Visit Denver
Best for arts and entertainment
In a state known for its bring-it-on outdoorsy ethos, Denver is the cultural megastar. From celebrated museums such as the Denver Art Museum and the Clyfford Still Museum to wacky Meow Wolf Denver, the city bubbles over with art. Don’t overlook the city’s many public sculptures and the murals that drape across walls and sidings in neighborhoods such as RiNo and the Santa Fe Arts District.
For live entertainment, a trip to the Denver Performing Arts Complex is a no-brainer: this massive 10-theater complex gives equal billing to Broadway musicals, dramas, ballet, opera and the symphony orchestra. Smaller music and theater venues such as Dazzle Denver and the Curious Theatre make for an easy impromptu outing. Red Rocks Amphitheatre is just 15 miles down the road.
Planning tip: Denver has four more major art museums, plus great art walks on the first Friday of every month and scores of small galleries hosting shows and events.
3. Colorado Springs
Best for a family outing
A mix of urban and outdoorsy options makes Colorado Springs an easy go-to for family fun. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is a surefire hit, offering hand-feeding experiences with giraffes, elephants and rhinos. Garden of the Gods is a spectacular collection of red sandstone outcrops, mammoth boulders, jutting fins and exquisite pinnacles that can be explored on foot, by bike (rentals are available at the visitor center) or even with a stroller.
Alternatively, head underground to the Cave of the Winds, which offers an easy introduction to caving plus a zipline and ropes course for big and small adventurers. When it comes to inspirational museums, it’s hard to beat the US Olympic & Paralympic Museum, with hands-on exhibits about the Games and top American athletes, and regular meet-and-greets with real Olympians. When the kids reach for their tablets, take a trip to Manitou Penny Arcade instead, where you can school them in the art of Galaga and Skee-Ball.
Best for a winter basecamp
As winter basecamps go, you won’t find one better than Breckenridge. For starters, it’s home to one of Colorado’s best and biggest ski resorts. Whether you’re on a family ski vacation or on the hunt for untamed powder, the spacious groomed slopes and high alpine bowls won’t disappoint. There’s tubing and snowshoeing for even more winter fun.
The town is within striking distance of five other first-rate winter resorts, including Keystone, Copper and Arapahoe Basin, and there’s even free bus service between them. For some après ski fun, Breck’s quaint historic district – this was a working mountain town before the chairlifts got here – buzzes with life, with spots like Breckenridge Brewery creating a genuine community feel. You’ll find all this just two hours from Denver International Airport.
Hit the trails in Rocky Mountains National Park © Margaret.Wiktor / Shutterstock
5. Rocky Mountain National Park
Best for hiking and wildlife spotting
The crown jewel of Colorado’s national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park is a hiker’s wonderland. Some 355 miles of top-notch hiking trails traverse terrain that ranges from sculpted granite mountain tops to gorgeous flower-filled valleys. To ease in, consider the flat but rewarding trail around Bear Lake or the moderate hike to Gem Lake in the Lumpy Ridge area. Travelers with more ambition and strong legs are lured by the epic challenge of summiting 14,259ft Longs Peak.
Planning tip: Keep your eyes peeled for animals, big and small. Some 280 species of birds have been spotted in Rocky Mountain National Park, including great horned owls, bald eagles and ptarmigan. Elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer and moose also make regular appearances in these rocky valleys.
Best for soaking up Colorado’s beauty
The tiny town of Telluride is gorgeous and utterly unique – and all the more alluring because of the journey along backcountry roads to get here. Deep in the San Juan Mountains, the town is ensconced at the end of a narrow box canyon, surrounded on three sides by epic mountain scenery and the 365ft Bridal Veil Falls, Colorado’s highest waterfall.
The town’s long main street features charming century-old buildings, today filled with shops ranging from the simple to the chi-chi. Nearby, the Jud Wiebe Trail rewards hikers with spectacular views of the town and the mountains, while the local via ferrata course – a cable-protected scramble high on the surrounding cliffs – is simply heart-stopping.
Explore the historic cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park © Bboserup / Getty Images
7. Mesa Verde National Park
Best for First Nations story
The country’s largest and best-preserved Native American archaeological site, Mesa Verde National Park is a spectacular introduction to the ancient Ancestral Puebloan people (not Anasazi, which means “ancient enemy” in the Navajo language). People lived here for centuries in elaborate structures built into high cliff walls before abruptly abandoning the site around 1300 CE.
The park has several DIY hikes, but by far the best way to experience the site is on ranger-led tours that take visitors inside Mesa Verde’s famous cliff dwellings via wood-pole ladders, stone stairways and narrow tunnels. The Cliff Palace, an amazing engineering achievement with 150 rooms and 23 kivas(underground ceremonial spaces), is a definite highlight. Tours are not for the faint of heart, but they are a one-of-a-kind experience.
8. Great Sand Dunes National Park
Best for unexpected landscapes
As you pass through the jagged Sangre de Cristo Mountains and into the arid San Luis Valley, a massive dune field appears as if from nowhere – welcome to Great Sand Dunes National Park. This sprawling 30 sq mile expanse of sand is a surreal sight in a state better known for mountains, forests and rushing rivers, and it’s home to the tallest dunes in North America, standing some 750ft in height.
Hiking up the dunes can be challenging because of the shifting sand, but the reward is an otherworldly view from the top. For a thrill, rent special wooden boards for dune-surfing and slide down the sandy slopes.
Planning tip: If you time it right, you can even enjoy a beach day beside the dunes – in late spring, the seasonal Medano Creek is born from snowmelt that flows down from the mountains, creating a brief oasis for wading and water play. You can’t enjoy it for long – the water disappears by mid-summer.