Colorado is a nature lover’s fantasy land. Whether it’s skiing on powder white snow in the Rocky Mountains in the winter, hiking any of the hundreds of trails that twist and turn their way through the state, or riding a bicycle through the backroads, you’re sure to find something that suits you.
While on a business trip to Colorado, I had some free time to explore and take in some of the sights around the Denver area. I wanted to make the most of the 1/2 day I had to explore, so before I got started on my adventure, I did what I always do – I asked the locals. The great thing about travel is that if you ask the locals, they will always give you their favorite places to go off the beaten path and less crowded. From great restaurants to the best sites to see, the locals always have the scoop on the “secret” places to go.
Colorado in the Spring is absolutely stunning, and I’m sure it’s equally as beautiful year-round. The temperatures tend to stick in the mid 70’s to low 80’s with almost no humidity, something that very rarely happens in south Texas. With the crisp air and vibrant blue sky, it beckons to be enjoyed in a convertible car. Top-down, with the breeze in your hair, taking in the stunning views all around, I can see why so many ride bicycles.
Since I only had about 1/2 of a day to see as much as I could before the sun went down and I had to fly home the next day, I carefully mapped out my route and headed towards the Rockies for my first stop.
Heading west on highway 36 from Boulder towards the Rockies, I stumbled upon what has to be one of the cutest little towns I have ever been to. Lyons is a quaint little town filled with boutique shops, red sandstone buildings, and some of the friendliest people I have ever met.
Lyons is the type of small-town where, when the school bell rings, parents are standing outside the elementary school ready to walk their children home. Kids don’t run out of the school with cell phones in hand but, rather, come out waiting to tell their parents or grandparents about their day. It reminds me of Mayberry, RFD; if you’re old enough, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
With a population of just over 2,000 and home to the most beautiful red sandstone buildings, this small unpretentious town is host to many events, including the Burning Can Festival and a summer outdoor concert series. Known as the “Double Gateway to the Rockies,” Lyons is home to amazing and unique art, architecture, and major folk and bluegrass music festivals, not to mention outdoor recreation.
Many of Lyons’ buildings are constructed from the red sandstone, which is quarried not far from the town. With the bright sun shining on the buildings, red and orange variations look like someone painted the colors rather than mother nature. Large slabs of sandstone make up many of the sidewalks in town that lead to cafes, coffee shops, bakeries, even the Stillwater Clinic and Apothecary with a large selection of herbs and natural remedies.
I found myself wandering around in no particular direction for quite some time, just enjoying the town and scenery, when I came upon a little park sitting at a fork in the road. Yes, it was really a fork in the road. In one direction, I could go towards what appeared to be a residential neighborhood, and in another, I could head towards a bridge that crossed a beautiful creek.
There were signs of Spring everywhere. Tulips had come out of their winter sleep and were shooting towards the sky in a beautiful display of color. The succulents, which at one point were covered with snow, had started to gain their color and were coming back to life.
Lyons is home to a tiny home rental community with the cutest name, River Bend Wee Casa. Sitting next to an amazing sandstone cliff and a beautiful stream, what I initially thought was a campground turned out to be an entire community of tiny rental homes. While I have watched them being constructed on TV shows, I have never actually seen one up close, and they were so cute. What’s great is these tiny homes are available as vacation rentals, something I’ll definitely have to look into.
As I got back into my car and headed towards the mountains and my next stop, I couldn’t help but be overcome with a sense of calm and happiness that I had found this amazing little town sitting quietly at the base of the Rocky’s. The kind of town where you can’t help but slow down, be happy, and relax. A great find for sure!
2. Estes Park
Continuing West from Lyons going towards the Rocky Mountain National Park sits Estes Park, home to a host of year-round outdoor activities including snowshoeing, tubing, fishing, and more. Don’t forget to pack some granola bars or nuts to feed the chipmunks; more on that later.
Along the drive, you can find many places to stop and take in the scenery and believe me; I did every chance I could. From the rock formations to the streams, there is no shortage of natural beauty to see. When I first started on the journey up the mountain, it seemed a bit barren of the pine trees that you would associate with the Rockies. However, after just a few miles, I was surrounded by towering pines and their scent. It’s like driving through Christmas.
Estes Park sits in a canyon in what could easily be considered a picture-perfect setting. At the summit, before heading down to Estes Park, there is a beautiful parking area to take in the stunning view of the town. It is a breathtaking view of both the town and the snow-capped Rockies.
While you’re at the summit taking in the amazing view of Estes Park below, don’t forget to grab your camera, a granola bar, or some nuts and feed the chipmunks. Tourists have fed the little cuties for decades, and as each new family member is added, they learn early on that they can get their fill from the tourists. I was lucky enough to have a granola bar in my car and built quite a following of the little critters while I was there.
Although I could have stayed there and fed the chipmunks all day, I needed to move along if I would stay in my timeline and see all I wanted to see. So, off I went down the mountain and into Estes Park.
Once I arrived in town, I was suddenly stopped by a herd of huge Elk standing on the side of the road. As Spring begins, the herds of wildlife come down from the mountains to graze and drink. There are many different species seen walking around, including Deer, Big Horn Sheep, and Coyotes.
I must admit, I was a bit taken aback by this. I have seen herds of deer on the side of the road before, but this was something completely different. As part of a state tracking program to help mitigate crop loss, the elk have electronic GPS tracking collars. The collars help wildlife officials track migration patterns to assess better how to help deter crop loss.
Estes Park has so much to offer, from outdoor activities to spa treatments to just relaxation. It is also home to one of Colorado’s haunted hotels. The Stanley Hotel first opened in 1909 and is believed to be haunted. Although the hotel has undergone several renovations over the years, people still say that paranormal activity exists on the property. There are daytime and nighttime tours available, and due to the high number of visitors on the tours, advance purchase through the hotel website is highly recommended.
So whether you want to sit by the lake and watch for herds of Elk to wander by, grab a rod and catch your supper, or take a horseback ride through the Rockies, you are sure to find adventure and fun in Estes Park.
3. Spirit Hound Distillery
Just West of Lyons, headed up the mountain, or down depending on your direction, is a wonderful hidden gem of a watering hole. Spirit Hound Distillery is a small, local craft distillery that specializes in whiskey and rum.
Housed in a single building, the team creates award-winning straight malt whiskey, gin, rum, and more from the freshest of ingredients. Of course, the clear, crisp water from the Rockies is a key ingredient, along with passion and love of the craft.
This unassuming distillery brings back thoughts of a TV show where everyone knows your name. The locals hang out, sip their adult beverages, and visit. They welcome everyone who enter with a smile, a hello, and a suggestion of what to try.
The tasting room is open to all, and from there, you can see the actual distillery. The still, fermenters, even barrels full of the good stuff are in plain view for all to see and enjoy.
“We built much of our own distillation equipment in order to capture all of the purity and flavor of our ingredients, making sure it gets into every bottle we sell – and every glass you drink.” www.spirithound.com
So, on your way back from Estes Park, stop in Spirit Hound and say hello to Curtis. He’ll give you a smile, a drink, and a lesson in the history of their wonderful distillery in the foothills of the Rockies.
4. Lookout Mountain/Buffalo Bill’s Gravesite
A little less than 2 miles from Golden is a drive that is sure to test your nerves, I know it did mine, but it is all worth it once you get to the summit.
Lookout Mountain Road winds its way from Golden to an elevation of 7,377 feet above sea level. It is a narrow, winding road shared with cyclists and has some of the most amazing views I found in the area.
Just halfway to the summit, and the cities of Golden directly below, Boulder to the West, and Denver, which is 12 miles to the East, can be seen in their entirety.
The earliest known inhabitants of the mountain were the Ute tribe, who used it as a lookout point for the surrounding region. Over the years, it has played key roles in recreation, water supply, telecommunications, and transportation.
Today, it is a very popular cycling road and tourist attraction, with the gravesite of Buffalo Bill and the Buffalo Bill Museum being at its summit. The gravesite and museum are both managed and maintained by the City and County of Denver to ensure it is available for generations to come. They also collect and maintain a large collection of artifacts relating to Buffalo Bill dating between 1846 and 1917.
Looking to the west, it’s hard to imagine what is on the other side of the Rocky Mountains as they seem to go on forever.
5. Red Rock Park and Amphitheater
A little over 8 miles east of Lookout Mountain and just 10 miles west of Denver is an amazing display of Mother Nature’s wonder and the history of life in the area.
The Red Rock Park and Amphitheater is a combination of both hiking trails and an outdoor concert venue surrounded by stunning beauty.
Once I exited the highway and started making my way along Red Rock Park Road, I soon discovered how and why the park got its name. With the sun beaming down on the sandstone, every sunset color seemed to be living in the rock.
Just before I got to the actual amphitheater, I came upon a tunnel carved out of a massive wall of red sandstone. Like a gateway to another time, the tunnel was the opening to eons and eons of history, in living color, right before me.
The amphitheater was the brainchild of John Brisben Walker, who had a vision of performances in the area surrounded by the red sandstone’s perfect acoustics. For over 100 years, it has been host to amazing performances, including The Beatles, John Denver, even U2. The first performance each season is a non-denominational Easter Sunrise Service. I can only imagine how stunning that must be with the sun rising behind the stage and the colors of the rock coming to life.
Originally the park was known as the “Garden of the Angels” from the 1870s to 1906, and then as the “Garden of the Titans” from 1906–1928. However, the park had always been known by the folk name of “Red Rocks,” which became its formal name when Denver acquired it in 1928. The amphitheater walls contain records dating back to the Jurassic period of 160 million years ago as nearby dinosaur tracks have been discovered, as well as fossil fragments of the 40-foot sea serpent Plesiosaur.
In addition to the amphitheater, the park has a myriad of hiking trails for both the novice and the expert that lead both from the amphitheater and some that are separate in other areas of the park. While climbing on the formations is not allowed, there are plenty of opportunities for a selfie or amazing photo throughout the entire park.
Several hiking trails are short drives from the amphitheater. I took a short drive, about 5 minutes, to a location that I was told had some amazing fossils, and I was super excited to see them, but I never actually made it to the fossils due to a wildlife caravan. As I was walking up the trail to the location, a herd of mule deer came up the mountain’s side headed to the other side. I must admit, containing my excitement at seeing them so close was difficult, and I was trying to keep another young lady quiet so she wouldn’t scare them.
Red Rocks Park is definitely a day trip in itself. With all of the hiking trails, the natural beauty of the rock formations, and the possibility of discovering a fossil or two, there is no shortage of history to discover.
There you have it! My choice of 5 amazing places near Denver that you can visit in less than a day. While I could have spent a full day at each location, exploring and discovering, it was well worth the 1/2 day to drive around, see the beauty of Colorado and take in some of the sights. If you find yourself in the Denver area, take a day and explore.