Travel

The Most Beautiful Places to Visit in Colorado

Get some fresh air.

Crystal Mill
Crystal Mill, Colorado | Peter Kunasz/Shutterstock
Crystal Mill, Colorado | Peter Kunasz/Shutterstock

Colorado is now in what the governor has dubbed the “safer at home and in the vast, great outdoors” stage of reopening. With that, comes the return of not only restaurants, bars, museums, and other cultural institutions, but also state and national parks, hiking trails, and campsites. So if you've been craving a Colorado adventure, now’s the time. But with so much to see, where should you start? We’ve rounded up the most beautiful, must-visit destinations. Just remember to check current safety guidelines before traveling, wear your mask in public, and practice social distancing as you enjoy all that this picturesque state has to offer.

roxborough
You won't find a better view than this | Phillip Thomas/Shutterstock

Roxborough State Park

Distance from Denver: 27.5 miles southwest, 50-minute drive
When you talk about red rock formations in Colorado, there’s one spot everyone knows: Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre. The park is home to one of the most famous music venues in the world, an amphitheatre set in the midst of natural rock formations. But, Red Rocks is currently closed to all visitors and all events are on hold. Instead, head a bit further south to this State Park which is open and boasts its own set of breathtakingly beautiful 300-million-year-old sandstone formations jetting out of the earth. The trails are ideal for beginning hikers, and you may even spot some wildlife along the way. The park is home to creatures like coyotes, red fox, deer, 145 species of birds, and even the occasional bobcat and black bear.

Rocky Mountain National Park
All of the other mountains can go home. The Rockies have stolen the show | Brad McGinley Photography/Moment/Getty

Rocky Mountain National Park

Distance from Denver: 66 miles northwest, 90-minute drive
With postcard-like vistas and 355 miles of hiking trails, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular National Parks in the country. It reopened for visitors on May 27, although you do need to make a day visit or camping reservation for entry before heading up. It’s open 6am-5pm so you can explore favorite hiking destinations like Bear Lake and Lily Lake. If you’re really up for a challenge, head to the trailhead for Longs Peak, one of Colorado’s 58 “14ers” (mountains with elevation over 14,000 feet). The assent is strenuous and the venture will take 10-16 hours round trip but it’s all worth it when you get a glimpse of the view from the summit of the highest point in the park. If you’d rather see the views without breaking a sweat, drive Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in the state. 
 
To get to the park’s entrance from Denver, you’ll go through the town of Estes Park where along with lots of local elk herds, you can also check out the shops and restaurants on main street and the historic Stanley Hotel (aka the real life place that inspired Stephen King’s The Shining).

Garden of the Gods
This isn't your typical garden | By John Hoffman/Shutterstock

Garden of the Gods

Distance from Denver: 68 miles south, 90-minute drive
This National Registered Landmark in Colorado Springs is another favorite for natural red rock formations, backed by the snow capped Pikes Peak (aka the mountain that inspired “America the Beautiful”). It’s free to visit, with hiking trails and a scenic drive. Be sure to look out for the famous “kissing camels” formation along the way. Horseback riding and rock climbing are other popular activities, along with a drive up the 19 mile Pikes Peak Highway which will take you to the summit of the towering mountain.

Breckenridge

Distance from Denver: 80 miles southwest, 90-minute drive
First, just call it Breck. Everyone else does. And once you’re talking like a local, you can enjoy this ski town haven in the Rockies like a local. In the summer, you can hit the slopes in a whole new way. Starting July 4, you’ll be able to ride the free BreckConnect Gondola from town to the base of Peak 8 where the alpine slide and alpine coaster will be operating for the summer. Scenic chair lift rides will also be available.

Back in town, though many of the traditional summer festivals have been canceled, you can still stroll. Part of the street has been closed to allow for easier social distancing while you explore the local shops and restaurants. Masks are required so pack yours and be sure to wear it when out in public. And if you want a little break from the crowds, go on a troll hunt. Literally. Isak Heartstone is a 15-foot-tall wooden sculpture that resides in the woods near town. He loves visitors, but hates trash, so pack out what you pack in.

Maroon Bells
Like Maroon 5, but with more rock | Lasting Image by Pedro Lastra/Moment/Getty

Maroon Bells

Distance from Denver: 170 miles southwest, 3.5-hour drive
When you think of Colorado, do you envision a valley with large, snow-capped peaks towering in the distance, reflecting on pristine mountain water? Yeah, that’s the Maroon Bells. Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak in the Elk Mountains (both 14ers) are the most photographed peaks in North America. You’re here for the natural wonder, so don’t rush through. Better yet, if you can swing a few nights camping in the area, do it.

Crystal Mill
If abandoned wooden shacks are your thing, you'll love Crystal Mill | Adam Springer/Shutterstock

Crystal Mill 

Distance from Denver: 203 miles southwest, 4-hour drive
Another favorite for aspiring photographers, this popular hiking or four-wheeling destination is home to the ruins of an 1892 wooden powerhouse. It takes some planning and effort to get to it, but if exploring a ghost town in the middle of the wilderness is on your bucket list, there’s no better place to check that off.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
You don't need an ocean to go surfing anymore | HELEN HRICHARDSON/MEDIANEWS GROUP/THE DENVER POST/GETTY IMAGES

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Distance from Denver: 238 miles southwest, 4-hour drive
Backed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado lies 30 square miles of sand dunes that reach 750 feet in height. The dunes were formed naturally thanks to thousands of years of wind sweeping dust across the San Luis Valley into this pocket of land. The result looks almost otherworldly. Medano Creek runs along the edge of the dune field, and in the summer, it’s the perfect place to cool off after a morning hiking (then sliding, or boarding back down) the dunes. A short drive outside of the park is The Zapata Falls Recreational Area where an easy 1 mile round trip hike will lead you to the base of the 30-foot-tall waterfall.

Colorado National Monument
Watch out for rattlesnakes if you hike the Monument Canyon trail | Zack Frank/Shutterstock

Colorado National Monument

Distance from Denver: 262 miles southwest, 4.5-hour drive
Far closer to Arches National Park in Utah than it is to Denver, this area of the state looks like the iconic Wild West. But while you might not spot any cowboys racing along the landscape these days, you can get up close and personal with the land. The park is opening in phases, but many of its main draws are available to the public including Rim Rock Drive which takes you 23 miles along the upper rim of the canyon and all of the 40 miles of hiking trails.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Distance from Denver: 251 miles southwest, 5-hour drive
The steep granite walls of Colorado’s deepest canyon is a dramatic sight. But it’s also somehow the state’s least visited National Park -- which is great for social distancing. Carved over millions of years by the Gunnison River, the cliffs reach over 2,000 feet and are often bathed in shadow, hence the dark name. You can hike both the north and south rim, camp under the star-filled night sky, and find some of the best trout fishing in the state. 

Mesa Verde National Park
Experience the rich history of Mesa Verde National Park | Connie Coleman/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty

Mesa Verde National Park 

Distance from Denver: 400 miles southwest, 7.5-hour drive
The Ancestral Pueblo people once called this area of the state home, and their remarkable cliff dwellings have been preserved in this protected area. Self-guided tours are currently available so you can see these, along with nearly 5,000 other known archeological sites in the park. While the museum and visitor’s center remain closed, campgrounds and other facilities are available as are many of the must-do’s like the Cliff Palace/Balcony House Loop Drive and all Morefield and Chapin Mesa hiking trails.

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Molly Martin is a Denver-based freelance writer who never met a mountain pass she was scared to drive. Follow her @mollydbu on Instagram and Twitter for more updates on food, fun, and life in the Mile High.