Colorado is one of the best states in the USA to visit. Not only is it beautiful and historic, but it is also full of some of the nicest people in America. Although I still call Asia home, If I ever move back to America it would be somewhere in Colorado. Never been? Colorado is amazing, you have to visit! Here are seven unique and offbeat travel destinations to help get your Colorado vacation started:
$10-20/person depending kid/senior/adult
Official Web Site
With history dating back to the 1870s, the Old Hundred Gold Mine hit pay dirt just after the turn of the century when they began supplying gold bars to the Denver Mint for use in coining. However the ever-increasing yields from the mine were the begin of the end and before long it was officially "mined out".
All-in-all the tour lasts almost an hour. After getting loaded up (and bundled up, it is a little chilly underground) you board the railcars and proceed underground. There we explored a couple of the original veins with a guide who gave us a firsthand history lesson of both the mine and mining processes. But the scenery does not stop there; even outside of the mine shafts the backdrop of the local mountains is breathtaking. One neat part of the tour includes a view of the original miners' cabin, which if I remember correctly dates back to 1904. The thing is perched way up on the mountain and just barely is hanging on. As a matter-of-fact, when they first built the cabin they had to secure it to the nearby rock face with metal cables to prevent it from falling down the mountain. Wild!
And of course no tour of a gold mine would be complete without a stop at a real-life sluice box where you can take your turn at panning for gold, silver, and other semi-precious stones just like the gold-panners of the past did. And, yes, no worries: you get to keep whatever you.
Due to the local weather this tour only operates during the warm season, from May to October. And, as with any decent tour, there is also a gift shop selling all sorts of related souvenirs and trinkets as well as snacks and drinks. Check the official web site for more information on directions, rates, and operating hours.
$19-25/person depending kid/senior/adult
Official Web Site
Wow, where to start. Think amusement park combined with natural wonder and you might be headed in the right direction. Covering 360 acres and featuring nearly two dozen rides, shows, and attractions to keep you amused, it is hard to get in and out of this place in less than a couple hours -- but then again, why would you want to rush it.
The prime attraction and namesake of this park is the Royal Gorge and its sky high suspension bridge, one of the highest in the world. It was built in 1929 for only $350,000 but the cost today would exceed $15,000,000. You can walk or drive across it but I definitely recommend walking, as that allows you to better enjoy the scenery as well as take some fantastic pictures using the 360° view. There is also an aerial tram that is apparently the world's longest single-span tram.
After enjoying the view from above, you can also admire it from below by riding down the 45° incline railway. Seeing it from this angle really puts it all in perspective; the towering bridge you just walked across is nothing more than a thing string stretching across the canyon like the tight-wire of a circus performer.
But the sights don't stop there! You can explore the gorgeous countryside by taking a mule rule ride through the pines and evergreens or strolling the Wapiti Western Wildlife Park. There is one of those free-fall skycoasters and a plaza theatre, a Mountain Man Trading Post (not sure what that is actually, I skipped it), and even a mountaintop lodge for those wanting to stay overnight.
The park is open year-round but some of the attractions may be seasonal or weather-permitting. I'm sure the official web site provide you with up to date information.
$10/person, $5/kids ≤12 yrs
Official Web Site
Located just 30 miles northeast of Denver and covering a grand total of 720 acres and sheltering around 300 lions, tigers, leopards, mountain lions, bears, wolves, and other large carnivores, the Wild Animal Sanctuary of Colorado is the first sanctuary of its kind to create large acreage species-specific habitats for its rescued animals. Since 1980 the Wild Animal Sanctuary has responded to nearly 1,000 requests from private citizens and government agencies to rescue animals from across the United States and even in Mexico.
After breaking free of the Welcome Center & Gift Shop, with a guide book in hand, you'll be set free to wander. They have huge closed-off habitats surrounding the main complex but by far the best thing is the observation ramps and decks that stretch over the animals in the center of the park. Walking up ramps and along observation decks suspending above the animals you can get a birds-eye view of some of nature's most impressive and majestic mammals.
Each of the main observation decks was thoughtfully designed with picnic tables and chairs, as does the small garden area at the foot of the main ramp. Visitors are encouraged to bring a picnic lunch, or if all else fails the gift shop does also sell a few drinks and snacks.
This is a great family expedition, absolutely perfect for the kiddos.
Beer? I like beer.
Fort Collins, Longmont, Boulder, Golden, & others
Colorado Brewers Guild
Craft beer is something that every real man should appreciate. It is something to be proud of, unlike that mass-produced swill that relies on a multi-million dollar advertising compaign to get you to buy their crap. It is said that pairing beer and cheese is akin to holding hands, whereas wine and cheese is like arm wrestling. If you are drinking a good craft beer then that is so very true. And if you are like me you'll be happy to learn that Colorado has a lot of microbrews, good microbrews. Colorado is one of the best states for craft beer lovers. As a matter-of-fact they have more breweries per capita than any other state in the USA. And for those that like the [ugh] mass-market beer, you probably already know that Colorado is where Coors proudly calls home. They even offer tours. I didn't go on one. Nothing fany about mass production. Craft breweries however are always cool and quirky!
Almost all of the larger cities have breweries. If in doubt just inquire in a local bar. I even found a restaurant in downtown Colorado Springs that has a glass-encased brewery right in its main dining room. The food was good and the beer was better. If you are in the area, definitely look up Phantom Canyon Brewing Company.
Have you been to any of the breweries in Colorado or tried any of the local beers? Share your thoughts and/or recommendations at the end of the article!
Entrees @ $15 - $20
Official Web Site
Forever immortalized by an episode of South Park, Casa Bonita offers an eating experience unlike any other and I just had to check it out for myself. True to the episode, this restaurant actually features shoot-em up gunfights, cliff divers, strolling mariachis, puppet shows, magicians, games, prizes, and more.
via Rob Lee
The restaurant is huge, covering over 50,000 sq ft and seating well over 1,000. Hell it has a 30-foot indoor waterfall. You pay for the show though with the cost of the food. Casa Bonita specializes in Mexican cuisine, but their menu is very limited and stereotypical. Everything except the kids meals is over-priced and none of what we ordered stood out or overly impressed us. But the sights, now that was a different story!
Kids will never want to leave this place, but even for adults it is worth at least one visit. Just one though.
Official Web Site
How can you beat free? You can't! So why not visit the Denver location of the US Mint and learn a little bit about the coin and currency we Americans use every single day.
Tours are fairly short, only about thirty minutes, but the the guides are very knowledgeable in all aspects of the Mint from the gold rush days up to its present day production of coins. There wasn't too much crazy stuff to see as far as the machinery that actually produces the coins, but there are some interesting displays and videos. And of course the mandatory gift shop.
via Ken Lund
However, there are a few warnings: first off, you must make a reservation online first or you will not be allowed entry. Additionally, don't plan on taking any pictures for obvious security reasons. And as security is just as tight as at the airport, don't bring with you what you do not need. Finally, there is no public parking. Not a big deal but noteworthy nonetheless.
Colorado has 54 "Fourteeners," otherwise known as mountains with peaks over 14,000 feet above sea level. One of the most well-known however is Pike's Peak. With a 19-mile paved road that winds and stretches all the way up to its 14,110 foot summit, it is no wonder this is the most visited mountain in North America.
Pike's Peak National Park is open year round, weather permitting. You can see it in the picture above (the red rocks in the picture are the Garden Of The Gods). Be warned, in addition to extreme winds, the temperatures at the 14,110 summit can easily be 40°F less than at the base, which is only at around 8,000 feet elevation. The road to the summit, although just recently fully paved (apparently the last stretch used to be gravel), still features on a couple guardrails, sheer drops, breathtaking views, and scenic view spots you can pull over to park and take pictures.
One of the reasons I love visiting Colorado is that I am always stumbling upon new things to do and sights to see. Known as the Garden Of The Gods, this tranquil park got it's namesake in 1859 from two surveyors from nearby Colorado City who happened to stumble upon the rock formations while exploring the area. As is too often the case, namesake goes to the first white guy to brag about something he discovered, instead of the locals who all too often have known of the existence of that place/species for 1,000+ years. Anyway, I digress...
The beauty of this place -- well, besides the obvious natural beauty -- is the this park is 100% free to the public. The park itself consists of a few main roads looping around the red rocks with numerous scenic overlooks and photo spots, as well as trails for hiking, biking, and even horseback riding. There are even Segway tours run by the nearby visitor center located just a few hundred yards down the road from the entrance to the park. (Those, however, are not free.)
Once you have had your fix of the free views and explored all you can around the park, I recommend following it up with a brief visit by the Garden Of The Gods Visitor & Nature Center. Just like any other national park souvenir shop, this place has it all. From historical items, local gems, books, artwork, clothes, postcards, native species of flowers, and anything and everything else you would expect to find, this place has it.
Not only that, but they offer also provide a wealth of information about Colorado, the Garden Of The Gods history, and of course the nearby Pike's Peak. Additional knowledge can be gained by watching (and that means paying) for the visitor center's information movies, which run on a loop every 15 minutes in the miniature movie theater.
Driving into Colorado Springs and the surrounding area it is impossible to miss Pike's Peak, which staggers up into the clouds and makes dwarfs of most of the other summits in nearby range. It is also home to the highest railroad in the United States, the Pike's Peak Cog Railway, which offers tours up to the summit. As such, Pike's Peak (aka America's Mountain) is the most visited mountain in North America. On a clear day the view from a distance can be absolutely breathtaking!
If you have seen the Garden Of The Gods then you will undoubtedly have noticed Pike's Peak in the background. (As a matter of fact, as they are located so close together I encourage you to visit both at the same time -- makes for the perfect way to kill an afternoon in Colorado Springs. And then when you come back down from the mountain, might as well go enjoy some tasty food and fresh home-brewed local beer at the Phantom Canyon Brewing Co in downtown Colorado Springs.)
Pike's Peak gets its name from Zebulon Pike, an explorer who led a failed expedition up to the summit in 1806, but was not made a national historic landmark and park until 1961. It was home to a gold rush in the mid-1800s and was also the site that inspired Katherine Lee Bates to write the song "America The Beautiful."
At the park entrance, which is actually just a tollgate entrance, you have to pay the fee before you can proceed up the 19-mile road that winds all the way up to the summit. It costs $10/person with a limit of $35 per vehicle, although fees may vary slightly between seasons. But happily enough the road was just recently completely paved from start to summit, eliminating the old stretch of gravel towards the top.
There are a few notices and heads-up that you are given at the gate, mostly pertaining to your vehicle and personal safety. Keep in mind you are going to want to have a fairly decent amount of gas in the tank, as you have to ascend and descent the steep and windy 19-mile road. Bring extra cash too, as the park offers three gift shops / snack parlors: two located at 1/3 and 2/3 of the way up and a third at the summit.
Additionally there are also many scenic view points and paved shoulders at various points, allowing you to pull over and take pictures, stretch the legs, or even give the car a break. (Yeah, that's another thing, definitely don't be showing up with any old and busted vehicles hoping to make the trek all the way to the top.) The most notable mile markers include: MM#3 Features you first view of Pike's Peak; MM#14 Scenic views of Garden Of The Gods, Colorado Springs, the Pike's Peak summit, and the Continental Divide; MM#16-16.5 Scenic views of the Switchbacks, Pike's Peak Reservoirs, the Continental Divide, Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range, and the Ghost Town Hollow Mine.
If you don't stop to take a bunch of pictures, and don't get stuck behind that one obnoxiously slow vehicle, then it takes between 45-50 minutes to reach the summit. Up there you can be prepared for the temperatures to be up to 40° F colder than at the base 6,000 feet below. I went during September and despite the fact that is was about 75° in Colorado Springs, it was 30° and snowing at the summit of Pike's Peak! Additionally, due to the extreme elevation oxygen levels are only at 60% of what they are at sea level.
The summit is absolutely breathtaking. I have been up at extreme elevations before, seen volcanoes and mountains up close in Costa Rica and Hawaii and other places, but each one is unique in their own way. Pike's Peak not only has the history but also the Cog Railway that rolls all the way up to the station up top, a mere few feet from the gift shop and prime picture zone. While I have not experienced the railway myself first-hand -- you have to buy tickets at least a day, if not several, in advance -- I have heard that trip to the top is even more spectacular than by taking the tollway.
Before beginning the less-exciting trek down the mountain, make sure to grab a few souvenirs from the gift shop. The offer all of the usual postcards, shot glasses, t-shirts and clothing, information books, magnets, random trinkets, and everything else you have come to expect from gift shops around the world, as well as food! Something about the high altitude always make me hungry ;)
Have you been to Pike's Peak or traveled up the Cog Railway? Maybe you've even been up an even taller mountain? Feel free to share your comments below!