Colorado is known for its mountain landscapes, breathtaking vistas and craft brews, and you can enjoy all those things and more for free.
From scenic drives and ghost towns to world-class hikes, off-grid camping and even a festival celebrating a dead guy on ice, Colorado has a dizzying array of sights and activities that don’t cost a dime.
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1. Hike around Red Rocks Amphitheatre
World-renowned for its natural acoustics and stunning beauty, Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre is an outdoor theater built between towering 400ft-high red sandstone rocks. Summer nights bring big-name bands and sold-out crowds, but the amphitheater and surrounding area are open and free to visit during the day.
Explore the venue, check out the panoramic views and then hit the many miles of trails through the surrounding meadows and remarkable namesake red rock formations.
A scenic drive on the Million Dollar Highway is particularly stunning in fall © Craig Zerbe / Getty Images
2. Drive the Million Dollar Highway
Deep in the San Juan Mountains, the Million Dollar Highway is one of Colorado’s most mind-blowing scenic drives. Stretching between the towns of Ouray and Silverton, tight hairpin turns cut through the Uncompahgre Gorge, where steep mountainsides loom large and close and the valley 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.
There’s a hike for all levels of fitness among Colorado’s 14ers © Patrick Poendl / Shutterstock
3. Climb Colorado’s 14ers
Colorado is home to more than 50 peaks higher than 14,000ft (hence the name “14ers”), each a gift of breathtaking views from the top of the world. While hiking at altitude is no joke, the variety of 14ers in the state offer access to all levels of hikers.
Whether you decide to hike the short 3-mile trail to Quandary Peak near Breckenridge, tackle a multi-day route to Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park or make a run at Mt Elbert – the tallest of them all – they all deliver big.
Hovenweep National Monument contains Ancestral Puebloan dwellings, kivas and rocky towers © Aaron Hawkins / Getty Images
4. Learn about Native culture at Hovenweep National Monument
Ancient culture, natural beauty and the imagination interweave at Hovenweep National Monument, an archaeological site on a vibrant desert landscape spanning the Colorado–Utah border. The site encompasses six Ancestral Puebloan villages, which were inhabited from 500 to 1300 CE.
Today, several dwellings, ceremonial kivas and sandstone towers remain, perched on canyon rims. Roads and trails lead visitors through the site, showcasing the remarkable masonry and design, a memorable testament to the skill and artfulness of its long-ago inhabitants.
5. Visit Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods is a spectacular showcase of red sandstone rock with a mountain backdrop of Pikes Peak. Explore the park’s intricate network of trails (some paved, most not) past mammoth boulders, jutting fins and exquisitely thin pinnacles. Bring a picnic and watch rock climbers test their nerves on towering walls.
A visitor center has hands-on exhibits plus knowledgeable rangers who offer helpful tips and maps. Guided tours of the park are offered for a small fee.
Planning Tip: Come on a weekday to avoid the crowds.
6. Get creative at Anderson Ranch Art Center
Anderson Ranch Art Center is a buzzing, magical place, and it’s an artistic and cultural hub for the region located on a five-acre historic ranch outside of Aspen. Visitors can observe internationally renowned artists at work, wander through the sculpture gardens and enjoy the works in the contemporary art gallery.
Planning Tip: Free cultural events – lectures, salons, workshops – are offered throughout the year too.
Camp away from the crowds on Colorado’s dispersed federal lands © Cavan Images / Getty Images
7. Go dispersed camping
Dispersed camping – camping on federal lands, away from established campgrounds – is a one-of-a-kind way to experience Colorado’s outdoors. Dispersed camping takes you deep into Colorado’s national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands to enjoy the great outdoors with no crowds and no fees.
With almost 23 million acres of public land in Colorado, you’ll find plenty of options from mountain peaks and aspen forests to high desert mesas and river valleys.
Planning Tip: Most dispersed camping areas are accessible by dirt roads. Stop at ranger stations for maps and look for tent symbols along the way.
Explore the ghost town of St Elmo, at the base of Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks © chapin31 / Getty Images
8. Get spooked in St Elmo ghost town
St Elmo is Colorado’s best preserved ghost town, an abandoned mining settlement tucked into the base of the Collegiate Peaks. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, more than 40 buildings remain, most dating to the 1880s when the town was at its peak.
Wandering past the saloon and billiards hall, courthouse and jail, visitors get a fascinating peek into Colorado’s past, when gold and silver ruled these hills. Look for the small placards on each building for information about its history.
Planning Tip: It’s popular on summer weekends, but a well-maintained dirt road takes visitors to St Elmo year-round.
9. Dress up for Frozen Dead Guy Days
Frozen Dead Guy Days is a fabulously quirky and macabre festival that draws more than 25,000 people to Nederland each spring. The three-day event celebrates Grandpa Bredo Morstoel, a Norwegian transplant who is cryogenically frozen in a local Tuff Shed awaiting his big thaw (seriously). A hearse parade and coffin races, polar plunging and frozen turkey bowling make this a festival to remember.
Planning Tip: Costumes are encouraged – the weirder the better.
Sample the suds at Great Divide Brewing Company © Nate Luebbe / Shutterstock
10. Tour Great Divide Brewing Company
Colorado takes its beer seriously, treating craft brewing like a high art. Among the state’s many masters, Great Divide Brewing Company consistently stands out. The brewery has garnered countless awards for its exquisitely bold and balanced beers, including 18 medals at the Great American Beer Festival.
Planning Tip: Free family-friendly tours of its downtown Denver brewhouse are offered daily, first come first served (12 and over only). This is a worthwhile stop for a behind-the-scenes peek at how its masterpieces are made.