garden of the gods
Garden of the Gods is just one of many sights to see while you're here | John Hoffman/Shutterstock
Garden of the Gods is just one of many sights to see while you're here | John Hoffman/Shutterstock
Travel

The Best Places to Visit on a Trip To Colorado

Colorado may be well known for craft beer and legal marijuana, but its majestic mountain vistas and stunning natural landscapes are what really set it apart. One of America’s most beautiful and fastest-growing states unfurls an unrivaled assortment of picture-perfect scenery, frequent sunshine, year-round recreation opportunities, and a (still) laid-back mountain lifestyle that has been attracting people for generations. The only difference now? The rest of the country is finally discovering what locals have known for years: There’s no place on Earth like Colorado. It’s no wonder everyone is moving here.
 
Covering a vast expanse of more than 100,000 square miles to make it the eighth largest state in America by size, there’s a lot of ground to cover in an exploration of the Centennial State. To help narrow down the options on your next vacation, we’ve rounded up the 15 must-visit destinations in this must-visit state, sorted by distance from Denver along with worthy nearby excursions around each spot. Have fun out there -- we’re jealous of you already.

 Denver's Union Station
Denver Union Station -- AKA, Denver's Living Room | Denver's Union Station

Denver

Distance From Denver: 0 miles
It’s no secret that Denver is “So. Hot. Right. Now.” And one of America’s fastest-growing cities continues to add residents at an alarming clip. “Cowtown” no longer, Denver has transformed into a thriving urban metropolis with all the tourist trappings one could possibly want for a ridiculously fun weekend. A by-no-means-exhaustive listing of must-visit spots in Colorado’s capital city includes people-watching on the 16th Street Mall, sprawling out on a blanket under the bright Colorado sunshine in City Park, catching a game at Coors Field (or Mile High Stadium in the fall), and checking out the city-within-the-city that is the recently revitalized Union Station.
 
Grab an escooter to explore the cool art murals and hipster vibes of Denver’s booming RiNo neighborhood, hit a music venue or dive bar along Colfax Avenue (dubbed the “longest and wickedest street in America”), flip through the stacks at the Tattered Cover, feast on some Rocky Mountain oysters at Buckhorn Exchange (so says our Denver Gatekeeper), hoist a beer at one of 70+ breweries, catch some live jazz at the tiny hole-in-the-wall El Chapultepec, hit the delightfully kitschy theme park Elitch Gardens, or explore Denver’s thriving culinary scene at hotspots like Cart-Driver. Just be sure to end the night with some breakfast burritos at iconic 24-hour diner Pete’s Kitchen
  
While you’re here: There’s no escaping Denver International Airport and its notoriously evil “Blucifer” statue (a 32-foot blue mustang with creepy glowing red eyes that famously fell on and killed its sculptor.) Make the best of it. Or head to suburban Lakewood to experience Eric Cartman’s favorite restaurant from South Park, Casa Bonita (no joke.)
MORE: Dive deeper with our ultimate Denver travel guide

Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre
You won't find a better view than this | Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre

Red Rocks Amphitheatre 

Distance from Denver: 16 miles west, 30-minute drive
One of the most legendary music venues in the world, Red Rocks Amphitheatre was carved into its surroundings by ancient sandstone monoliths and today hosts some of the biggest and best live concerts in Colorado. Who you’re seeing at this epic 9,500-seat outdoor venue with rows made of slabs of stone doesn’t really matter that much; the venue is the real star here. On non-show days, you can also hike the park -- it is a public park owned by the City and County of Denver situated at 6,450 feet above sea level -- or stop by for occasional yoga or film events.
 
While you’re here: A side trip to the town of Golden, home of Coors Brewery, is never a bad idea (nor is a tour of the iconic brewery). Or if you can’t get enough cool Red Rocks-ish nature, head south to the lesser-known Roxborough State Park for more dramatic red sandstone cliffs scattered amidst verdant hiking trails.

pearl street
Spend some time and dollars at Pearl Street Mall | Arina P Habich/Shutterstock

Boulder

Distance from Denver: 30 miles northwest, 45-minute drive
The “People’s Republic of Boulder” may not be what it once was thanks to soaring prices and relentless gentrification, but this laid-back college town (home to University of Colorado) nestled in the Colorado foothills still exudes plenty of that famous hippie free spirit combined with a more active outdoor lifestyle. One glimpse at the famous Flatirons mountains that serve as the natural backdrop for the city will have you itching to get out and about as well.
 
The best place to take in the views is the popular Chautauqua Park, although less crowded (and easier) hiking options can be had south of town at spots like Doudy Draw. Boulder’s dining scene is also one of the finest in America for a mid-sized city, and downtown’s Pearl Street Mall is an absolute must-stroll location for some of that “only in Boulder” local flavor. Feeling adventurous? Grab a tube and float down Boulder Creek like a local, then stop for a drink afterwards at local dive Sundown Saloon or the more upscale St. Julien Hotel if you’re looking for booze with a view.
 
While you’re here: West of Boulder, the town of Nederland is where you can really see and feel today’s hippie spirit in all its glory. The town is famous for a crazy annual festival called Frozen Dead Guy Days, but any time of year is a great time to stroll along the creek or grab a drink while catching a live band at the lodge-style Pioneer Inn. The Gold Hill Inn in the tiny hamlet of Gold Hill is also a must for a romantic meal with a charming mountain town feel, while Eldorado Canyon State Park south of Boulder is an often-overlooked treasure.

Highway to Mt. Evans
Reach new heights at the highest paved road in North America | Missing35mm/E+/Getty Images

Mount Evans Scenic Byway 

Distance from Denver: 60 miles west, 90-minute drive
An excellent day trip idea from Denver is a windows-down, music-up cruise along the 28-mile Mount Evans Scenic Byway, the highest paved road in North America, which rises over 7,000 feet to reach a peak elevation of 14,130 feet. Along the way, stop off for a picnic at the lovely Echo Lake Park and grab a slice of pie at the homey 1920s Echo Lake Lodge. Then continue onward to the summit to snap approximately one billion photos.
 
While you’re here: Georgetown is a fun little Old West town in the area that helps to remind you that you aren’t in Denver anymore. Scenic train tours like the Georgetown Loop are a popular option here, or just stroll the charming downtown. One of the best hikes in Colorado can also be found at the often overlooked St. Mary’s Glacier in Arapaho National Forest, which is something of a locals secret, so shhh.

Downtown Fort Collins
Check out some of the events happening in downtown Fort Collins | Downtown Fort Collins

Fort Collins

Distance from Denver: 64 miles north, 90-minute drive
With nicknames ranging from Fort Fun to the Napa Valley of Beer, whatever you call Fort Collins, you can’t call it a bad place to be. The town once made famous by the bizarre 2009 “Balloon Boy” hoax is also famously the home of craft OG New Belgium Brewing Company as well as a vibrant Old Town downtown district packed with bars and restaurants more than worthy of your patronage. In the midst of its own mini-population boom, these days locals are still pumped about last year’s opening of the new 900-person music venue Washington’s -- which has quickly risen through the ranks as one of Colorado’s best venues -- and they’re as jazzed about tubing the Poudre River as ever. Preferably with beer in hand.
 
While you’re here: Red Rocks may get all the attention, and deservedly so, but a more under-the-radar yet still stunningly beautiful outdoor music venue lies about 30 miles west of Fort Collins at iconic riverside venue Mishawaka Amphitheatre, known as “The Mish” by locals. You don’t need to know more than that. Just go. You’ll love it. Everyone does.

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
Currently attracting more than 4.5 million visitors a year as America’s third-most popular national park, clearly the secret is out on Rocky Mountain National Park. But that doesn’t mean its stunning alpine lakes and high-altitude wilderness scenery aren't more than capable of still stopping you dead in your tracks. Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in America, offers eye-popping mountain vistas at every turn, while popular hiking destinations like Bear Lake and Lily Lake showcase peaceful alpine scenery at its most picturesque. Thrill seekers can also attempt the strenuous 10-15 hour ascent of Longs Peak, the park’s highest mountain at 14,259 feet.
 
The town of Estes Park, the elk-filled gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, is also buzzing with tourist activity from the world-famous Stanley Hotel (where Stephen King’s The Shining was inspired) to romantic local restaurants like the Dunraven Inn. Pro tip: Plan your visit to the park during weekdays in fall or off-peak hours in summer to try to avoid the ever-growing crowds.
 
While you’re here: With a gorgeous lake and Old West feel, the small town of Grand Lake is a fun little tourist treat at the edge of Trail Ridge Road on the lesser-visited west side of Rocky Mountain National Park (about a two-hour drive from Estes Park through the national park). Or if you’re driving up to the park from Denver, stop in the town of Lyons for a beer at Oskar Blues before getting on the Peak to Peak Highway, an alternative route to Rocky Mountain National Park packed with scenery and fewer cars.
MORE: The Stanley Hotel is one of the most haunted places in America… learn about the others here

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
Wow, this place is simply incredible. Just look at the photo. Horseback riding and rock climbing are options here in addition to more traditional hiking opportunities, but whatever method you choose, you’ll want to have your camera ready. Most visitors combine a visit to Garden of the Gods with a trip to nearby Pikes Peak, one of the tallest and most recognizable peaks in Colorado, which you can helpfully summit by car along the world-famous 19-mile Pikes Peak Highway.
 
While you’re here: The nearby town of Manitou Springs is a cute hippie-friendly tourist enclave perfect for a stroll or a look at the ancient Manitou Cliff Dwellings, while the military-centric city of Colorado Springs (Colorado’s second-largest city) has a restaurant inside an airplane. Enough said.

Breckenridge

Distance from Denver: 80 miles southwest, 90-minute drive
Sure, everyone has heard of Breckenridge. But this place is world famous for a reason. As Colorado’s closest major ski resort to Denver and one of the most popular in the nation (second only to nearby Vail), Breck has everything you need for a kick-ass ski vacation. But it’s during the rest of the year, when there’s less bumper-to-bumper traffic backed up on I-70, that this charming mountain village really shines. Whether you’re chugging brew at the annual Breckenridge Summer Beer Festival or taking a quiet autumn walk along the Blue River, Breck offers a tasty slice of Colorado mountain living at its finest.
 
While you’re here: A scenic drive along the lesser-known Boreas Pass outside of Breck is a must (especially in the color-packed fall), while a visit to the tiny mountain town of Alma is a world away from the glitz and glamour of the upscale skiing lifestyle in the best way possible. Meanwhile, a boat trip on nearby Lake Dillon surrounded by scenic mountain vistas is pretty much the perfect way to spend a sunny day in Colorado.

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
This show-stopping mountain landscape outside Aspen is reportedly the most photographed site in Colorado, it takes just a quick glance to understand why. Unlike some more remote destinations in Colorado, Maroon Bells (located in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness) doesn’t require a strenuous hike for you to get up close and personal to marvel at its natural wonders. The two twin peaks shimmering over the serene Maroon Lake both rise over 14,000 feet, and are both stunners. Lingering recommended.
 
While you’re here: You can’t come to Maroon Bells without spending some time in the world-famous resort community of Aspen, where the Red Onion and Belly Up are always entertaining ways to spend the evening. Hunter S. Thompson fans can be sure to visit nearby Woody Creek, where Thompson lived for much of his life, and stop by the infamous Woody Creek Tavern. (There’s also reported to be a secret shrine to Thompson in nearby Snowmass, a picturesque ski town worthy of a visit regardless of whether or not you can find the shrine.)

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

Crystal Mill 

Distance from Denver: 203 miles southwest, 4-hour drive
In the running with Maroon Bells for the title of most photographed site in Colorado, this dilapidated 1892 wooden shack perched on a rocky outcrop above the Crystal River is surely a sight to behold. There’s really nothing quite like it, which is why it has served as something as a magnet for photographers and budding Instagram influencers for years. The downside? Unlike Maroon Bells, this place ain’t easy to get to, requiring navigation along a rugged four-wheel drive road to the ghost town of Crystal (you can also hike). But getting there is half the fun, right?
 
While you’re here: You’ll most likely need to pass through the town of Glenwood Springs along the way to Crystal Mill, and you’d be wise to stick around for a while. This hot springs paradise offers A-plus whitewater rafting and fly fishing opportunities as well as the funky Doc Holliday Grave Site. Meanwhile, nearby Carbondale is yet another fun little Colorado mountain town with open vistas of the dominant Mount Sopris. Bask in the small-town charm every summer at the alarmingly fun Carbondale Mountain Fair.

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
WTF? Sand dunes? In Colorado? Yes, oh yes. As in the tallest sand dunes in America yes, surrounded by the shimmering peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range of southern Colorado. Dunes rise up to 750 feet high (which admittedly doesn’t sound like much when you’re talking Colorado elevations), but the sprawling dunes cover around 30 square miles of windswept terrain you can hike or -- as is becoming increasingly popular these days -- sandboard or sand sled. Strap a GoPro to your head and watch the likes come streaming in, brah.
 
While you’re here: Thanks to some of the darkest skies in the state (and plenty of surrounding nothingness), the nearby town of Alamosa is a UFO-sighting hotspot filled with eccentric characters. If you’re real hard-core about it, you can even camp at a creepy UFO Watchtower outside of town.
MORE: Check out 9 other underrated national parks here

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
This criminally overlooked expanse of the classic great American West landscape looks like something out of a John Wayne movie, more resembling neighboring Utah with its canyons and cliffs carved into red rock formations near the city of Grand Junction on Colorado’s western slope. Hike the 5-mile Monument Canyon trail or observe the action along the iconic 23-mile Rim Rock Drive traversing the upper rim of the canyon. Watch out for eagles, bighorn sheep, and, most of all, rattlesnakes. The park also boasts some of the best camping in Colorado.
 
While you’re here: The rugged badlands of the Arches National Park-style McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area border Colorado National Monument to the west, while to the east you can discover the Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world: it's located within the sprawling Grand Mesa National Forest. Also north of Colorado National Monument, more badlands (and dinosaur fossils!) await at Dinosaur National Monument tucked away in a remote section of northwest Colorado.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Distance from Denver: 251 miles southwest, 5-hour drive
The National Park Service says it best when it describes this underrated Colorado gem as “a vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky.” With extremely steep canyons and sheer cliffs resembling a smaller and greener version of the Grand Canyon, this natural oasis has been carved over millions of years by the Gunnison River and offers some of the best night sky viewing in the state, not to mention excellent trout fishing and rock climbing. Novices can take in the scenery along the main road, while the more advanced can try tangling with some extremely challenging Class V rapids via kayak.
 
While you’re here: Beaches are rare in Colorado, but nearby Blue Mesa Reservoir (within Curecanti National Recreation Area) is a popular spot with locals for fishing, boating on Colorado’s largest lake, and yes, relaxing on the beach in summer. Take a refreshing dip in the cool waters, rent a pontoon boat with your buds, or just kick back with some beers on the beach. As they say in Colorado, it’s all good man.

Main Street in Telluride
Take a ride down Main Street in Telluride | Photography by Deb Snelson/Getty Images

Telluride

Distance from Denver: 364 miles southwest, 6.5-hour drive
One of the most stunning mountain towns in not just Colorado but the entire world, your first look at the awe-inspiring mountain backdrops that greet you in historic downtown Telluride will leave your jaw on the floor. Pick it back up and board the free ski gondola (which runs most months of the year as the only public transportation service of its kind in America) to check out the sights as you bar and restaurant hop between downtown Telluride and Mountain Village, where the world-class Telluride Ski Resort is located. With a packed year-round festival schedule including Telluride Film Festival and Telluride Bluegrass Festival, you won’t even care if you’re not skiing here. (Although if you can fit that in, you’d be quite wise to do so.)
 
While you’re here: In a state famous for scenic byways, the San Juan Skyway is the king of them all. Linking Telluride to nearby mountain towns like Cortez and Durango, its most famous stretch is the gasp-inducing Million Dollar Highway passing through the must-stopover off-the-grid towns of Ouray and Silverton. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is another popular way to see the sights around these parts.
MORE: Check out more of America's best mountain towns here

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
While observing Colorado’s endless assortment of towering mountains and alpine scenery never gets old, Mesa Verde National Park is an interesting alternative when you want to do something different and learn a little in the process. This UNESCO World Heritage Site located near Colorado’s Four Corners region is home to more than 5,000 archeological sites of the Ancestral Puebloan people, including 600 fascinating cliff dwellings carved into the natural landscape. Explore ancient ruins such as Cliff Palace and Balcony House before taking in the rest of the park via the 6-mile Mesa Top Loop Road.
 
While you’re here:
Nestled along the banks of the Animas River, Durango is a historic Old West town near Mesa Verde more than worthy of some exploration. And for a unique way to get back to Denver, spend the next four to six weeks hiking the 486-mile Colorado Trail cutting through some of the most scenic stretches of Colorado wilderness. The trail starts just north of Durango and ends in Waterton Canyon southwest of Denver.

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Jay Gentile is a Thrillist contributor and freelance journalist who would much rather be in Colorado right about now. Follow @thejaygentile.