Head out on one of these top day trips from Denver
Many visitors to Colorado base their stay in Denver – if you plan to be one of them, you’re in luck, as there are a wealth of day trips that are not only easily accessible, within a two-hour drive from the Mile High City, but are sure to offer an unforgettable experience that may be the highlight of your time in the Rocky Mountain State.
Estes Park is considered the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, but it offers a wide range of attractions of its own. Less than 90 minutes from Denver, and you can be in this scenic town surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks. It’s filled with art galleries, boutiques and eateries, and also hosts the Family Amusement Park which features mini-golf, bungee jumping, go-karts and a big slide. The legendary Stanley Hotel is located here too. This historic landmark that opened its doors in 1909, is the hotel for which horror novelist Stephen King based “The Shining” on. It’s not only open to overnight guests, it hosts a museum and an elegant restaurant that can be enjoyed by day-trippers as well.
Just outside the town is the famous national park that’s renowned for its wealth of wildlife, including an abundance of elk and deer, along with bighorn sheep, moose and many other animals. Visitors can enjoy hiking the miles and miles of scenic trails, fly-fishing in world-class streams, or just taking it all in from behind the wheel. Trail Ridge Road, one of America's most incredible byways and a national designated All American Road, is one of the park’s highlights, where you’ll have the entire sweep of the Rockies before you in every direction. It spans for 48 miles, from Estes Park to Grand Lake, winding across the tundra to its high point at over 12,000 feet in elevation, offering awe-inspiring views and wildlife sightings from the comfort of your vehicle.
Located at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills, Boulder is one of the state’s most popular towns, famous as one of the most active cities in the nation and offering a wide range of outdoor attractions as well as being a mecca for healthy, organic cuisine. Just a 40-minute drive from Denver, and you’ll be immersed in an entirely different world that sits against a backdrop of the stunning Flatirons, unique rock formations that serve as a beloved destination for hikers and climbers. Wander through one of the top open-air malls in the country, Pearl Street Mall, which not only offers a wealth of shopping and dining opportunities, but all sorts of free entertainment. Multiple buskers can be found performing on any given day, from the famous zip code man who’s memorised more than 30,000 zip codes, a skill that he shows off to passersby on the street, to talented musicians, contortionists and even fire-eaters. The Celestial Seasonings Tea Factory, one of the world’s top tea brands, is located in Boulder too. The facility hosts what’s considered to be one of the best factory tours in the U.S. – they’re free and include tea samples. There’s also an art gallery, gift shop and café onsite.
Another fun factory tour to take while you’re in the area is located nearby in Longmont. The Haystack Mountain Dairy is renowned for producing some of the tastiest goat cheese in the state, and visitors can experience the artisanal cheese-making process firsthand by taking the one-hour tour that includes a guided, five-course cheese tasting.
Nederland is nestled in the Rockies just west of Boulder, accessed via a gorgeous drive through Boulder Canyon, and many consider it to be the state’s most quirky town. Just a little over an hour’s drive from Denver, it hosts the world-famous Frozen Dead Guy Days festival, which celebrates a Norwegian immigrant whose dead body sits frozen here in a Tuff Shed. The annual March event features live bands and unusual competitions, including costumed polar plunging and coffin racing. If you can’t make that one, plan your trip around late August and you can enjoy NedFest, which features world music artists, jam bands, jazz and bluegrass along with some of the best microbrews around. No matter when you’re here, as Nederland has become well-known for its outstanding music scene, you’ll discover a wealth of fantastic entertainment to enjoy. During the day, there are lots of eclectic shops to explore and numerous trails for hiking and biking nearby.
Colorado Springs is home to the Garden of the Gods, less than 90 minutes south of Denver. Ranked the No. 1 park in the U.S. by TripAdvisor, it’s truly a must-experience with its fiery red rock formations creating a scene that has to be viewed in person to be believed. It boasts a jaw-dropping mix of over 300 sandstone formations, along with some 15 miles of trails that wind through the other-worldly landscape. At the Visitor & Nature Center, you can learn how the rock formations were created, and enjoy dining at the café which offers magnificent views overlooking the park and Pikes Peak, rising more than 14,000 feet.
There are numerous other attractions in this area as well, including Cave of the Winds, which offers cave tours that include the chance to view impressive geological formations, as well as the Wind Walker Challenge Course for thrill-seekers who navigate a maze of swinging ropes, ladders and steel beams. Seven Falls is a series of waterfalls that landed on National Geographic’s list of top international waterfalls, and in the city of Colorado Springs itself, there are a host of interesting museums, like the Spencer Penrose Heritage Museum which displays an extensive collection of horse-drawn carriages and antique vehicles. The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum sits within the 1903 El Paso County Courthouse and is an ideal place for exploring the region’s history and culture.
Just west of Colorado Springs is famous Pikes Peak, the most visited mountaintop in North America. While it’s impossible to miss even from afar, heading to the summit offers the chance to take in some of the most spectacular views around. It can be accessed by car on the Pikes Peak Highway, or, if you’re up for a challenge, on foot by taking the Barr Trail. Arguably the best way to do it is to take the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the highest of its kind in the world.
On the other side of Pikes Peak, the once thriving gold rush towns of Cripple Creek and Victor await. Victor was once home to a population of around 20,000 at its peak around the turn of the 20th-century. Today, there are only a few hundred residents, and stepping in feels like you’ve stepped back in time, with multiple period buildings like the Victor Daily Record newspaper office, the trolley depot and the 1899 Victor Hotel which features an impressive authentic bird cage lift. Be sure to visit the Lowell Thomas Museum where you can learn about the world famous adventurer and author who grew up in this high elevation mountain town. Cripple Creek, just a 10-minute drive away, is best-known today for its casinos, but it offers many other tourist attractions as well. Over 22 million ounces of gold was discovered here in the late 1800's, and when the calendar flipped to 1900, it was a booming city with a population of more than 55,000. Visitors can boo the villain and cheer the heroes in melodramas at the historic Butte Theater, explore the opulence of the Old Homestead House, once the town’s most famous brothel, and even descend 1,000 feet underground in an original 19th-century gold mine.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is also west of Colorado Springs, just under a two-hour drive from Denver. It offers the chance to learn about prehistoric Colorado through thousands of detailed fossils of insects and plants as well as petrified redwoods stumps that are up to 14 feet wide. There are also a number of hiking trails that lead through beautiful outcrops of weathered Pikes Peak granite, lush meadows and alpine forest, along with a visitor centre that displays some of the best-preserved small fossils.
Driving an hour north of Denver will bring you to the city of Fort Collins. Known as one of the state’s top brew towns, its home to a wide range of well-known craft breweries where visitors can enjoy brewery tours and samples, including New Belgium, the third largest craft brewer in America. Minutes from downtown is Horsetooth Mountain Open Space, a park with nearly 30 miles of biking, hiking and horse riding trails, while nearby Horsetooth Reservoir is a great spot to do some paddling in a canoe or kayak, either of which can be rented in town.
Red Feather Lakes
By heading into the mountains 45 miles northwest of Fort Collins, you’ll reach Red Feather Lakes, a year-round outdoor playground with an abundance of fabulous scenery, wildlife, hiking trails, and glistening lakes for activities on the water. This is also a great place for horseback riding, and Beaver Meadows Stables offers guided one- to two-hour rides on horseback through the Roosevelt National Forest.
If you’re looking to discover something unique, one of Red Feather Lakes’ lesser-known gems is what locals call either Gnome Road or Elf Lane, a quarter-mile stretch between Lake Hiawatha and Lake Apache. Travelling along this dirt road you’ll be immersed into a fantastical woodland that’s been livened up with gnomes, intriguing fairy doors, and all sorts of creatures. A handwritten sign displays the reason they live here, to “watch over children and all the little animals,” while another notes: “Do not take us, break us, or relocate us, as we live here on Elf Lane to watch over children and all the little animals.”