Perfect Road Trips for When You Need to Escape Denver

You could probably use a break.

garden of the gods colorado
Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs | Dave Faulkner/EyeEm/Getty Images
Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs | Dave Faulkner/EyeEm/Getty Images

The Mile High City is packed with things to do -- even with all the current restrictions and canceled events -- but whether you’re a Denverite looking to escape the city or you’re visiting and want to get a taste of the mountains, sometimes a day trip is exactly what’s needed. Just remember the basics of COVID-era safety while you explore. There is now a statewide mask mandate, which means a face covering is required for anyone over the age of 10 inside any public spaces, and while waiting to use public or non-personal transportation services like rideshares. You should also mask-up when in an outdoor space and social distancing from others isn’t possible, like when passing other parties on a hiking trail. Many of the spots on this list were closed during quarantine, so let’s all do our part to follow guidelines while enjoying them to make sure they stay open. Now get out there and do some exploring, safely.

Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre

Drive time from downtown Denver: 30 minutes

One of the world’s best music venues is in Denver’s backyard, and even though most of the scheduled concerts have been canceled, this natural red rock amphitheatre is still totally worth a visit for the views alone. After a brief closure, the park is back open for visitors, whether you’re heading there for Yoga on the Rocks, or just to explore. Entry is free, and the park is open one hour before sunrise and closes one hour after sunset. Head to the top of the amphitheater itself for sweeping views of the Mile High City in the distance, or trek down one of the trails that leads you near many of the giant sandstone formations (just don’t climb on them -- that’s a big Red Rocks no no). As an outdoor venue, masks are not required, but you should still plan on putting one on when social distancing from other groups isn’t possible.

winter park colorado
Riding through Winter Park | Courtesy of Winter Park

Winter Park

Drive time from downtown Denver: 1 hour, 30 minutes

In the winter, this small town is usually filled with skiers and snowboarders hitting the slopes at the resort, but it’s arguably an even better escape from the city in the summer. It’s not as packed with visitors as some other destinations, but it’s still got all the classic mountain town activities, from hikes (there are over 1,000 miles of trails in the area) and prime fishing spots to mountain biking and a gondola that will take you to an elevation of 10,700 feet. Most activities here are ideal for social distancing, but masks are required indoors or when you’re not able to maintain 6 feet of space from other parties.

garden of the gods sunrise
Garden of the Gods | CCallanan/Shutterstock

Garden of the Gods

Drive time from downtown Denver: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Colorado Springs to the south of Denver is packed with activities, but one of the best is this 1,364-acre park where you can hike, bike, or horseback ride your way around the massive sandstone formations. Entry is free, and masks are required in the visitor center and outdoors when social distancing isn’t possible. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can even check out the views from the top of the rocks with a guided climbing experience. The park sits at the foot of Pikes Peak, one of Colorado’s “14ers” (a mountain that rises to an elevation over 14,000 feet) and the literal “purple mountain” that inspired Katharine Lee Bate to write “America the Beautiful.”

cache la poudre river
Cache la Poudre River | marekuliasz/Shutterstock

Fort Collins

Drive time from downtown Denver: 1 hour, 20 minutes

There’s a reason locals call this college town north of Denver “Fort Fun” -- and it’s not just the bar and brewery scene (although those are definitely part of the reason… ). One of Fort Collins’ biggest draws is all things aquatic. If you’re looking for adventures in the water, this is your destination. Horsetooth Reservoir, just to the west of Fort Collins, is 6.5 miles long and for $9 per car, you’ll get access to swimming, boating, fishing, and even scuba diving. For some faster moving waters, head to the state’s only nationally designated “Wild & Scenic” river, the Cache la Poudre. It is open for rafting and tubing, but be sure to check out all of the safety information before heading out. If you prefer to stay dry, you can also experience the area via the paved, 21 mile long Poudre River Trail.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park | Ethan Welty/Aurora/Getty Images

Rocky Mountain National Park

Drive time from downtown Denver: 1 hour, 35 minutes

For iconic, postcard-perfect Rocky Mountain scenery, it doesn’t get any better than this national park. You do currently need a reservation to visit, so it’ll take some planning in advance, but the 415 square miles of pure alpine beauty is more than worth it. Get out into the fresh air with over 300 miles of hiking trails that lead to lakes, wildflowers, and breathtaking views. You can also explore the park in your car on Trail Ridge Road, which takes you on a 50 mile drive from one end of the park to the other reaching heights of over 12,000 feet. Look for wildlife along the way -- the park is home to 67 different mammals including black bears, moose, marmots, and elk. There’s a ton to explore, so if you want to extend your day trip, plan on staying in the town of Estes Park outside the park’s east entrance, or Grand Lake on the west side.

Glenwood Springs

Drive time from downtown Denver: 2 hours, 45 minutes

It’s a bit of a drive for a “day trip” but you won’t mind setting out early for this destination because when you reach it, you’ll be rewarded with the ultimate in relaxation: hot springs soaking. The town is home to three hot springs attractions. Glenwood Hot Springs is the original -- it’s been welcoming visitors since 1888 and is home to the world’s largest hot springs pool. In 2015, Iron Mountain Hot Springs opened with 16 pools of various temperatures for your soaking pleasure. Both are currently open, but reservations are required for Iron Mountain. At the Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves, you can experience the area’s geothermal features in a different way, with a natural geothermal steam bath. If all that relaxation leaves you craving an adrenaline rush, you can find that here too, at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park where attractions include the Haunted Mine Drop and a giant swing that’s on a cliff 1,300 feet over the Colorado River. All of these destinations require masks indoors and when outdoors and unable to practice social distancing. Masks are not required while soaking at the hot springs.

Lake Dillon

Drive time from downtown Denver: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Summit County is home to some of Colorado’s best known destinations for outdoor adventures including Frisco, Silverthorne, Breckenridge, and Keystone. Lake Dillon sits right in the middle of this Rocky Mountain playground, and is the perfect place to soak in the beauty of the area, boating-style. The marina, which is the highest deep water marina in the world, offers all kinds of watercraft for rent including kayaks, pontoon boats, and sailboats. You can also rent stand up paddle boards. Fishing is allowed both from boats and on the 27 miles of shoreline -- the lake is home to brown and rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, and arctic char.

Cripple Creek
Cripple Creek foothills | Susan Hoffman/Shutterstock

Cripple Creek

Drive time from downtown Denver: 2 hours

This kitschy gambling town southwest of Colorado Springs is filled with classic Old West vibes. Founded during the Gold Rush, it was originally a mining camp. There’s even a free roaming herd of donkeys that include descendants of the donkeys that were used in the original gold mining operations. Along with nine casinos where you can try your luck at becoming a big winner, the town is also home to several historic attractions including the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine and the Cripple Creek Jail Museum. The town is in Teller County, which is one of the county’s whose sheriff has said they will not enforce the current statewide mask mandate, but you should still plan on wearing a mask when inside any public places -- and you should just do it in general.

Royal Gorge Bridge & Park

Drive time from downtown Denver: 2 hours

Open to the public once again after closing during quarantine, this destination isn’t for those with a fear of heights. The Royal Gorge Bridge, built in 1930, is the highest suspension bridge in the country, hovering 956 feet above the Arkansas River. And if traversing this feat of engineering isn’t thrilling enough on its own, the park is also home to other attractions including the aerial gondola which you can take back after your trek across the bridge. The gondola spans 2,200 feet across the gorge, 1,200 feet in the air for a truly scenic ride. Or take that same trip, sans the safety of the gondola and opt for the zip line instead -- an experience that’s sure to get your heart racing. Most of the activities here are outdoors, but you’ll need a mask when inside or near others when outdoors.

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Molly Martin is a freelance writer in Denver, Colorado who is always on the lookout for fun things to do. Follow her Mile High adventures @mollydbu on Twitter and Instagram.