Colorado boasts a diversity of landscapes, terrains and opportunities for travel, adventure and recreation as great as any state in the nation. Mountains and prairies, rivers and lakes, meadows and forests, dunes and canyons, Colorado’s State Parks offer a gateway to nature at its most varied and inviting. All year round there are more than enough activities on land, water and snow to suit every taste and energy level, from sedate, to vigorous, to off-the-chart…
Why not hike the Knife Edge Trail and gaze down on the Montezuma Valley as the sun sets? Or have a crack at kayaking, since Colorado boasts the headwaters of nearly 20 major rivers? Or ride your bike up Mount Evans and enjoy the single-track trails in Fruita and Crested Butte? Or savor the view from atop the highest sand dunes in North America in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve? Or spot bald eagles nesting for the winter at Pueblo Lake State Park?
Or…? Or..? Or…? The choice is yours, but below are just a few suggestions to get you out there. Welcome to Colorado…
Colorado’s State Parks
The dazzling variety of wildlife and natural habitats is on full display at the many Colorado State Parks. With millions of acres open to the public, Colorado gives you plenty of room to play, all year round. Take your pick from hiking, backpacking, camping, boating, fishing, biking and climbing, taking scenic drives, wildlife-watching, and when the world feels wintry, skiing and snowboarding, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing.
Spot bald eagles raising their young in Barr Lake State Park. Stroll through lush alpine meadows teeming with wildflowers at Vega State Park. Marvel at the red rock formations that rise from the greenery of Roxborough State Park. Witness the grandeur of the Continental Divide from Golden Gate Canyon State Park’s Panorama Point Scenic Overlook. Explore the mysterious caves and savor the spectacular triple waterfall of Rifle Falls State Park. A Colorado State Parks Pass is your gateway to Colorado’s worlds of adventure…
Plan Your Visit Colorado’s state parks are open every day of the year, weather permitting. Day-use areas are generally open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. and some parks may have closed gates after hours. Campgrounds are open 24 hours a day. Contact individual parks for hours of operation. Check cpw.state.co.us for seasonal or maintenance closures. Entrance Passes All Colorado state parks charge an entrance fee. Cost of a daily pass may vary by park ($7 - $9). A pass covers all occupants of a vehicle and is valid until noon the day after purchase. Some parks may charge a per-person fee for cyclists and walk-ins. Fees are used to help pay operating costs. Cherry Creek State Park charges an additional fee for the Cherry Creek Basin Water Quality Authority.
If you’re looking for shorter hikes, Colorado’s State Parks and National Parks offer a huge range of options. Every park has a visitor center where you can get excellent trail maps and advice on which routes will suit your schedule and ability level. And many of the parks are within easy reach of Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs.
As well as the spectacular variety of views, Colorado’s walking and backpacking trails give you the chance to spot the state’s extraordinary array of wildlife. Watch elk bulls fight for their ladies in Rocky Mountain National Park, see baby mountain goats scurry across crags near Mount Evans and spot bald eagles and other rare birds nest in the cottonwood trees of the Alamosa and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuges.
Hiking Do's Before setting out on any hike, make sure you have suitable footwear, plenty of water (at least two quarts per person), sunscreen and hat, sunglasses (especially if venturing into snow), extra clothing layers and waterproofs, a good map, and your cellphone (signal will vary of course, but you’ve got it just in case). It’s also a good idea to make friends or family aware of your route.
What better way to experience the spectacular scenery and, for much of the year, benign climate of Colorado than by camping? Lie beneath a starry canopy and drift off to the sounds of nature. Wake early as the natural world awakes, and the simple, hearty breakfast you cook will be the most satisfying feast you have ever tasted. Breathtaking natural beauty, lack of pestering insects and the range of outdoor activities at your fingertips make Colorado one of the nation’s most popular places to camp.
Well kept secrets? If you can get beyond the Front Range for the weekend, you will find more sparsely-used campgrounds with wondrous scenery and wildlife. Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument is at the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers, an awe-inspiring setting. Avalanche, south of Carbondale, has all the high alpine attraction of Aspen, minus the crowds. And the sites at Lost Trail, near Creede, all give spectacular views of ‘thirteeners’ – peaks of 13,000 feet elevation or more.
Colorado’s state parks manage more than 4,000 campsites throughout the state. They have everything from back-country sites for those who seek primal seclusion to full-hookup sites with all mod cons.
Packing Essentials • Tent with a rain cover • Down sleeping bag (even in summer, it can get below freezing in Colorado’s higher altitudes) • Pillow and sleeping mat (keeps you warmer than just sleeping on the ground) • Camp stove and/or matches to use your campsite’s fire pit • Plenty of drinking water and food • Can opener, aluminum foil, paper plates, cups/mugs, utensils, multi-purpose knife, trash bags, paper towels • Layers of clothing, including waterproof coat, wool socks and long underwear • Flashlights/headlamps/lanterns • Sunscreen, bug spray, first-aid kit, toilet paper, soap and hand-sanitizer
Like bike? Then a Colorado mountain-biking trek awaits you: the joy of white-knuckling down a winding, bouncing wooded trail, sun on your back, challenging and beautiful terrain in front of you. This is Colorado mountain biking, with a range and quality of single-track trails equal to anywhere on earth. Bikers from all over the world come to Colorado to tackle this rocky road paradise.
Beginner Bike Trail: Boreas Pass, Breckenridge, 6 miles Boreas is a fun family ride that begins as a wide road — an abandoned narrow-gauge rail bed — and develops into a forested single-track that winds past relics of the region’s mining past. The Boreas trail is perfect for an afternoon or early evening ride for those seeking a quick excursion with spectacular mountainside views. Intermediate Bike Trail: Hunter Creek Trail, Aspen, 2 miles This trail starts near Aspen, runs alongside Hunter Creek and rises up to a beautiful wildflower meadow. The shaded path crosses several bridges and climbs more than 700 feet in the first mile along steep, rocky terrain before easing out into a rolling single-track. Advanced Bike Trail: Monarch Crest Trail, Salida, 32 miles Pack a sturdy heart and good pair of lungs for this long-distance, high-altitude ride. This intermediate to expert rider’s playground begins at the top of Monarch Pass and is jumbled with boulders and trees along much of the route. The challenging climb tops out at about 11,960 feet and then tips you down onto an exhilarating downhill through rocky terrains and stream-beds.
From rolling prairies to red-rock mesas, from verdant alpine meadows to haughty ice-crowned peaks, from the distant thunder of dinosaurs, to the whispers of the earliest human settlers, to the rowdier rock-and-rattle of a more recent past, Colorado’s Scenic and Historic Byways have pretty much got it all. So why not take the high road to the Roof of America and sample the diverse wonders of the State’s scenic drives?
Winter driving tips Colorado's winter driving conditions can change from sunny to blowing snow within an hour or two.Be prepared at all times, but especially in winter. Know road conditions, know your vehicle, use proper driving techniques for the conditions you find, and have the right emergency gear and equipment along. Make sure your tires have good tread. Be sure to carry plenty of windshield wiper fluid as liquid de-icers used to treat the roadways may stick to your windshield. Have a scraper, snow brush, coat, hat, gloves, blanket, first aid kit, flashlight, tire chains, matches and nonperishable food in your car.
Colorado is America’s Ski Central. The state’s world-famous resorts encompass some of the largest networks of pistes and powder in the country, with the highest altitude lift-served terrain, which well-nigh guarantees lashings of the dry, fluffy snow the region is famous for. Vail and Aspen are as glamorous as any resorts on earth – but Colorado also offers plenty of hidden gems, niche resorts with intimate, homely appeal. If you need any more reasons to get up there, Colorado’s slopes open earlier and stay open later than almost anywhere else (roughly early October to late April). Colorado, snow, let’s go, no?
Beaver Creek Beaver Creek is a luxury ski resort located just west of Vail and near the town of Avon, Colorado. The mountain is known for its world-class restaurants, luxury lodging, endless shopping and family-friendly atmosphere. Aspen Get four ski vacations in one at chic, glitzy Aspen, America’s most famous winter sports mecca, where skiers will find more than five thousand acres of terrain between Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk. Not to mention the unsurpassed dining, nightlife and shopping opportunities the town is known for, providing more than enough reasons to visit one of the world's most exciting ski resorts. Breckenridge When gold was struck on the Blue River in the nineteenth century, miners flocked to Breckenridge to seek their fortune. Today, skiers and snowboarders head to Breck seeking something almost as valuable: the perfect winter sports resort. While the town’s frontier era architecture and designation as Colorado’s largest historic district make a trip to Breckenridge a historically fascinating experience, the range of diversions —from piste and powder to shopping, dining and nightlife — offers something for everyone.
Colorado is red rock heaven. From bouldering to scaling cliffs and spectacular wall formations, you’ll find a myriad of challenging rock climbs all over Colorado. For first-time climbers, Colorado has plenty of outfitters who can kit you up with the appropriate gear, give expert advice, and point you towards rock-climbing sites and routes you’ll never forget.
For extra peace of mind while venturing to remote areas, or undertaking climbs or other strenuous activities, consider purchasing a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue (CORSAR) Card.
Garden of the Gods Garden of the Gods is a local climb favorite and for good reason — it's almost on the doorstep of Colorado Springs. It's also wonderful to look at, with paved hiking trails that wind through a natural rock garden of red sandstone, glorious at sunset. While there are a wide range routes to conquer, not all of the rocks in the park are designated for climbing. Do check in with the visitor center before venturing into the park. Rifle Mountain Park For some of Colorado’s best limestone climbing, Rifle Mountain Park is a must. Here you can chalk up with local aficionados as they take to their favorite routes. Overhanging problems are the norm, and some jut out in exaggerated fashion, demanding the best of a climber’s biceps. If crowds aren’t your thing, don't worry: a wide spread of routes and wall options makes it easy to find a climb all your own. For multi-day outings, Rifle Mountain Park boasts 25 drive-in camp sites. Rocky Mountain National Park In Rocky Mountain National Park, you can rock climb, ice climb or boulder. The choice is yours. With more than 265,000 acres of space dedicated to the granite heights of the Rockies, Rocky Mountain is a climber’s heaven between Grand Lake and Estes Park. Guided tours are available for newcomers, to ensure you have the kit and routes to match your ability level. If you’re an expert, there are no limits to the heights you can aspire to.
With the headwaters of nearly 20 rivers beginning in Colorado, the state has long been considered the go-to place for kayaking and whitewater rafting. The unsurpassed variety of whitewater rivers, the gorgeous surroundings, and an environment conducive to the spirit of adventure make it a perfect place for veterans and beginners alike. With an abundance of water sport outfitters, Colorado has everything you need to get kayaking and find your own world of white water adventure.
Colorado’s rafting and kayaking season normally runs from May to September, with the fiercest running white water occurring in May and June. August is the best month for a more serene kayaking experience. Go, and go with the flow.
Classification River waters across the state vary and are classified Class I to Class VI, depending on the intensity of the rapids. Class I rivers offer an easy cruise downriver while Class III rivers have more challenging rapids, interspersed with boulders and narrow passages.
Spring marks the start of Colorado’s rafting season, when sunshine and gravity bring Colorado’s winter snows gushing down from the high country and into Colorado’s rivers for some of the world’s best white water adventuring.
You could find yourself passing by five ‘fourteeners’ on the Browns Canyon portion of the Arkansas River, or you could be negotiating narrow sections of the Cache la Poudre River. You could catch glittering glimpses of Gold Rush relics on Clear Creek, or gaze up at the yawningly high Royal Gorge Bridge from the Arkansas River, or drift amiably down benign stretches of the Colorado River near Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs.
With rafting hubs and companies conveniently located near dozens of Colorado towns, including Winter Park, Vail, Grand Junction, Buena Vista, Salida, Steamboat Springs, Durango and Fort Collins, you’ll always find an easy way to get wild, wet and wonder-struck.
Top rafting tips Wear quick-drying clothes of materials such as nylon, synthetic fleece or wool, and shoes or sandals with a heel strap. Bring sunscreen, lip balm and sunglasses with a strap (the water glare can be quite intense), waterproof cameras, drinking water, hats and a change of clothes with a jacket in case it’s chilly at the end of the trip. Most good suppliers will have these items available for purchase, and wetsuit gear available for hire. Avoid flip flops or Crocs, and try to minimize wearing cotton clothing; it makes you colder when it’s wet. Don’t bring valuables on the river.
Few places in North America offer such an abundant array of wildlife-watching opportunities as Colorado. Who among your group will bag the eagle eyes award by spotting some of Colorado’s most resplendent residents — Colorado’s state mammal the bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, elk, pronghorns and bald eagles?
Few regions make it easier to get out there and get spotting. With eight National Wildlife Refuges, 12 National Parks and National Monuments, hundreds of State Wildlife Areas, 42 Colorado State Parks and millions of acres of National Forest and other public spaces, the natural habitats of more than 900 species of Colorado wildlife are always close to your doorstep.
Some of the most popular destinations include Rocky Mountain National Park for elk, the Alamosa and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuges for bald eagles, State Forest State Park for moose, Bighorn Sheep Canyon for, you guessed it, bighorn, Mount Evans for mountain goats and the Comanche National Grassland for pronghorn.
State Forest State Park State Forest State Park, near Walden, has been dubbed the official moose capital of Colorado. Over 600 moose live there year-round, as well as elk, eagles, black bears, mule deer, beavers and foxes. Route: Seven miles along County Road 41 inside the park. Rocky Mountain National Park Elk can be seen (and heard) calling and sparring, especially during their fall rutting season, in Moraine and Horseshoe sections close to Estes Park. Route: Enter the park on the east side and follow signs to Moraine or Horseshoe. Bighorn Sheep Canyon Bighorn sheep can be seen all year round, negotiating the canyon walls and drinking from the Arkansas River, especially in the winter. Route: Hwy. 50 from Parkdale to Coaldale, near Cañon City.
Andrew Murray 2015