Travel

Perfect Fall Road Trips for When You Need to Escape Denver

You could probably use a break.

rocky mountain national park
Rocky Mountain National Park | Ethan Welty/Aurora/Getty Images
Rocky Mountain National Park | Ethan Welty/Aurora/Getty Images

It’s pretty likely you haven’t gotten to travel much this year because… well, you know. But that doesn’t mean you’ve got to spend all the colder months at home trying to find another soup recipe to warm your soul. We’re at the gateway to the Rockies, just a quick drive from some of the top destinations in the country—and you don’t need to  to reach them. So get out there and explore. Just remember to check the current Stay at Home level and current COVID guidelines in the county you’re heading to. The statewide mask order remains in place, so don’t forget a stash of clean ones when you head out, you’ll need to wear one unless you’re outdoors and at a 6 foot distance from others. Bottom line: Be smart, be informed, and be ready for some closer-to-home adventures this fall and winter.

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 concerts this year were canceled, this natural red rock amphitheatre is still totally worth a visit for the views alone. 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

Once ski season hits,  this small town will be bustling with skiers and snowboarders hitting the slopes at the resort, but it’s got a lot to offer even if you’re not heading to the mountain. Check out the tubing hill in nearby Fraser, or soak away your worries at Hot Sulphur Springs. And if you are into that ski resort life, you’re in luck -- Winter Park does plan to open, although walk-up tickets won’t be available so you’ll need to plan your ski days ahead of time.

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 Bates 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 outdoors. Horsetooth Reservoir, just to the west of Fort Collins, is 6.5 miles long and yes, swimming is not a great idea in the colder months, but the area does have some easy hikes that you can tackle no matter the weather. Then you should totally go out for a local beer after.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park | drewthehobbit/Shutterstock

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. It’s currently closed due to wildfires in the area, but is expected to reopen soon as colder weather moves in. You’ll also 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. While it’s most well known for Trail Ridge Road, this high alpine drive does close in the colder months. But that just means you can explore the park in a whole new way like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding in Hidden Valley.

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 which is open on weekends only in the fall and winter.

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.

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 and open subject to weather.

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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.