The word “Colorado” evokes images of hiking and fishing among tall mountain peaks in crisp, clean air. That’s not just clever marketing by the tourism department. The Centennial State treats visitors to great times in fabled mountain ranges, and you’ll soon discover that one visit isn’t enough.
Satisfy your appetite for outdoor recreation at Grand Junction on Colorado’s Western Slope on the banks of the Colorado River. From digging for dinosaur bones to high-desert hikes to backcountry bike trips and more, visitors to the Centennial State’s Western Slope are spoiled for choices when it comes to adventure. But a trip to Grand Junction isn’t just full-throttle fun. An award-winning wine and beer scene, coupled with vibrant downtown shopping and galleries, means there’s a little something for everyone. There’s also plenty of boating and fishing recreation on nearby waterways.
Journey just 14 west from the city to visit the jaw-dropping towering red rocks of Colorado National Monument. Whether you’re exploring the miles of hiking trails or taking in the sights from the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, it’s the area’s must-see outdoor escape.
Find hiking bliss at Colorado National Monument. Many casual hikers start with the Canyon Rim, Coke Ovens or Window Rock trails. Each of these top out at under 2 miles out and back but offer canyon views and the chance to see the deer, bighorn sheep and golden eagles that inhabit the park. Just outside the park, the town of Fruita is a cycling mecca with everything from easily accessible loops to the 140-mile Kokopelli’s Trail, a true backcountry gem for lovers of two wheels.
Nearby, Grand Mesa is the largest flat-topped mountain in the world and the namesake national forest that surrounds the city boasts expansive views, rugged woods and incredible fall foliage. For an indoor adventure, don’t skip the Museum of the West for an immersive and interactive glimpse into the area’s 1,000-year history of human habitation. The Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita is another popular destination.
Fun Fly Fishing on Tap
Find outstanding fly-fishing spots throughout the region. Adventurous anglers should head to the Lake of the Woods trail in Grand Mesa National Forest for backcountry access to Bull Creek, one of the park’s best trout pools. For more family-friendly amenities, try Ward, Alexander and Baron lakes, which have become boating and canoeing hot spots. For a new level of excitement, test your mettle against some of the country’s finest whitewater with a trip down the Colorado River’s Westwater Canyon. Just 30 miles downstream from the city center, the town has plenty of outfitters who can help organize this trip of a lifetime. Feel the thrill of Class III and IV rapids.
Smitty’s Chocolate Chip Kodiak Muffins
These weight-conscious treats are a great reward after a long day of travel. Recipe by Richard Smith, Colorado Good Sam State Director.
- 3 bananas mashed
- 1 cup or 8 oz non-fat cherry yogurt
- ½ cup unsweetened no-sugar-added applesauce
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup ultra-filtered non-fat milk (not skim milk); I use CarbMaster milk
- 2½ cups Kodiak Cakes Pancake Mix (buttermilk)
- ½ cup mini chocolate chips or ¾-cup no-sugar added chocolate chips
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 2 tsp allspice
- 2 tsp pumpkin spice
Line two 12-muffin pans with Reynolds Kitchens StayBrite Baking Cups (foil) In a large mixing bowl add: All ingredients (except for Kodiak Cakes Pancake Mix and chocolate chips), using a potato masher, mash all ingredients together until well mixed (there will be lumps). Add Kodiak mix and blend well, stir in chocolate chips. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill each muffin cup 3/4 full. Place in the oven closest to center and bake for about 20–25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool. Serve warm or cool. These muffins can be frozen and are great for a snack anytime or enjoyed with a glass of milk. Yields 24 Muffins. Each muffin only worth 2 Weight Watchers points.
Prefer lake fishing? Set out for the James M. Robb-Colorado River State Park, which is situated around Corn Lake near the north bank of the Colorado River. Drop a line for bass or northern pike in this tranquil environment. There’s also a one-mile natural-surface trail following the course of the Colorado River, giving hikers a view of the park while taking a pleasant stroll through the area’s geology.
Grand Junction Wine Country
Visitors may be surprised to learn that the Grand Junction area is home to one of Colorado’s two viticulture areas: the Grand Valley AVA. There are more than 20 wineries in the area, with tasting rooms open throughout the year, and plenty of local operators offering bicycles and horse-drawn carriages to enhance the experience. Most of the wineries in the area are in and around nearby Palisade, though the city of Grand Junction has vintners of its own.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Encompassing 265,000 acres of placid mountain lakes and rugged mountain terrain, Rocky Mountain National Park attracts adventurers from both sides of the continent. The Continental Divide runs through the park, and the headwaters of the Colorado River are found here. With so many superlatives, it is hard to narrow down high points.
Looming west of the park, one stalwart mountain stands out among the crowd. Longs Peak is one of 58 mountains in the state that rise above 14,000 feet (called 14ers). Its diamond-shaped face is immediately recognizable, but to scale this mountain takes some real grit, as hikers traverse tremendous boulder fields, pass through a granite “keyhole” and scale narrow rock ledges, all to be rewarded with a view for miles.
Built six years before Rocky Mountain became a national park, the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park is an ethereal attraction, bringing fans of the paranormal to the region. Built by inventor F.O. Stanley (of Stanley Steamer car fame) as a showcase for wealthy friends visiting from back East, the hotel was outfitted with the latest amenities for the time, including a hydraulic elevator and electric heat. But it never made a profit for Stanley.
Taking a ‘Shining’ to the Stanley
The second half of the 20th century wasn’t kind to the hotel, as it fell into disrepair. Then author Steven King and his wife spent a night there, and its fortunes changed. King’s nightmare in room 217 became the inspiration for one of his most popular books, “The Shining,” and bookings at the hotel soared as guests reported seeing ghostly figures and apparitions. Management has embraced the spooky stories, offering popular evening ghost tours of the property.
Going to Grand Lake
Following Trail Ridge Road through the park from the east, drivers will descend into the charming town of Grand Lake. Once the destination for wealthy resort guests in the late 1800s, this area is dominated by an enormous mountain lake, where canoes, fishing boats and catamarans glide on smooth waters. Spend a day on the water dropping a line, paddling along the shore or tacking with the wind.
Hit the trails at Rocky Mountain National Park. Over 350 miles of trails challenge summer visitors, with elevations from 7,500 feet to over 12,000 feet. Winter hiking on the trail is also quite remarkable, but mainly achieved with snowshoes or on cross-country skis.
Clear Skies and Cool Flicks
Rocky Mountain National Park is a haven for astronomy buffs. High altitude mixed with no light pollution presents a perfect stage from which to count constellations. Join a ranger-led program. Other events in the park revolve around its five visitor centers. Beaver Meadows offers a gift shop and screenings of a 20-minute film on the park.
Big mammals roam freely in the park, making it ideal for wildlife buffs. It’s not unusual to see elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep grazing along the road or on a backcountry hiking trek. Moose and black bear are a little shy, but can usually be found near forested areas.
Ride the Trail Ridge Road
For a drive of a lifetime, take Trail Ridge Road. It is the only path that connects the east side of the park to the west, but it is also the highest paved road in the country, rising to over 12,000 feet. One can only imagine the amount of snow that falls at that altitude in a good winter, but snowplow drivers do an amazing job of bulldozing through it, usually around Memorial Day.
Native Americans inhabited this rugged wilderness for thousands of years before the Ute and Arapaho tribes hunted here, but it went unnoticed by early European pioneers. So remote was this land that it wasn’t explored until the 1820s, and the discovery of gold in Colorado brought miners, who established towns. Within 10 years, the settlements were abandoned.
In the early 20th century, an effort to preserve pristine American lands made serious inroads. In 1915, the region officially became a national park. It wasn’t until 1932, however, that transportation could move from one side of the park to the other when Trail Ridge Road was completed, connecting Estes Park and Grand Lake.
The Spirit of Southwestern Colorado
Southwest Colorado is a place where canyons, deserts and mesas take center stage, the past comes shrouded in mystery and the legacy of the Old West endures. A haven for nature lovers and history buffs, this rugged slice of the Centennial State has all the makings of an unforgettable vacation. From desolate landscapes rich in outdoor recreation and spellbinding byways, to abandoned mining towns and the largest archaeological preservation site in the country, there’s no limit to what you can experience here. Come visit this enthralling part of America’s West and see what adventurers have been gushing about.
Black Canyon Adventures
Discover one of the continent’s deepest chasms and some of its oldest rock in Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Located 14 miles from Montrose and 63 miles from Gunnison, this national park is named after the plunging cliff walls that are blanketed in black shadow. The most dramatic cliff of them all is the Painted Wall, the highest in Colorado, standing 2,250 feet from the rim to the Gunnison River below.
Hiking Near the Canyon
See the Painted Wall in all its glory by traversing the Cedar Point Nature Trail. This easy 0.6-mile path found in the South Rim of the park weaves through plenty of local flora and ends with two overlooks offering marvelous views of the Painted Wall and river below. Hikers looking for more of a challenge can take on the North Rim’s Chasm View Nature Trail, a moderate 0.3-mile journey through pinyon and juniper forest that eventually leads to a lookout with the Painted Wall and Serpent Point as its backdrop. Don’t forget to look up during your trek as raptors, swifts and swallows are often spotted. Only the most seasoned hikers should tackle the inner canyon as maintained and marked trails are nonexistent.
World-class hiking isn’t the only draw here — the Gunnison River has been awarded the title of Gold Medal Water and Wild Trout Water. Drop a line anywhere between Crystal Dam to the river’s North Fork to bag some monster trout. On land, a diverse array of wildlife calls Black Canyon home. Bring binoculars and keep your eyes open for yellow-bellied marmots, mule deer, elk, badgers and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of the “ghost of the Rockies,” also known as the mountain lion. Other popular activities in the park include camping, kayaking, rock climbing and stargazing.
Ride into Black Canyon’s Past
Situated just 20 miles east of Montrose is Cimarron, which originally served as a link to transport ore from the San Juan Mountains’ mines and later functioned as a livestock shipping hub. Visit the area today and you’ll stumble upon an outdoor exhibit featuring original railroad stock cars and loading corrals. The National Park Service also runs a campground and picnic space here.
Just over 100 miles south of Black Canyon via U.S. Route 550 lies the dynamic town of Durango. The time-honored traditions of the area’s native and gold rush occupants are preserved through a host of historic attractions, while the timeless beauty of nature is evident in the stunning mountains that soar into the sky.
Durango sits tucked into the Animas River Valley at an elevation of 6,512 feet. Early visitors weren’t drawn here for the natural beauty of the landscape. Instead they were more interested in what they could find below the surface: silver and gold. Snowcapped mountain peaks, roaring waterways and soaring pine trees make this area a picturesque destination. Head downtown to learn more about the town’s history in the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum or find out about local flora and fauna at the Durango Fish Hatchery & Wildlife Museum. There are a number of camping areas in the San Juan National Forest that lies to the north of town.
One of Colorado’s top attractions, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has been in continuous operation since 1882, when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad line was extended to Silverton to carry gold, silver and other minerals from the state’s high-country mines. A ride on the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad takes you through spectacular mountainous scenery, with a layover in the colorful town of Silverton. Don’t overlook the heritage left by the predecessors of the cowboys. Relive the sights and sounds of yesteryear on the Cascade Canyon Express where you can take in incredible geological features and jaw-dropping scenery. The journey north to Silverton traces the course of the Río de Las Animas Perdidas (The River of Lost Souls) and climbs 3,000 feet as it traverses the breathtaking canyons and the majestic mountains of beautiful San Juan National Forest.
Many more adventurous trails can be found in the hills and valleys surrounding Durango. Pick your desired level of difficulty and head to the hills. Hike up Smelter Mountain for expansive views of the city below. The Cascade Creek Trail takes you through a forest of pine trees to a spectacular view of a tumbling waterfall. After a day of hiking and adventuring, sink into the Pinkerton Hot Springs or Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs to relax your cares away in one of Mother Nature’s hot tubs.
Elegant historic buildings rise high above the streets, dwarfed only by the snowcapped mountain peaks in the distance, giving downtown Durango a stunning beauty not found in many other cities. The famous archeological sites of Mesa Verde are only a scenic 45-minute drive west. The Animas River offers a range of water sports, and numerous spots to fish with convenient access from downtown. Experience the adrenaline-pumping excitement of a rafting adventure on this turbulent waterway. Wander Main Street and soak in the sights and enjoy all the unique shops and restaurants Durango has to offer. The Strater Hotel is also in Downtown and has been in operation since the 1887. The well-preserved hotel boasts the largest collection of walnut Victorian furniture on the planet. Hoist a beer at the Diamond Belle Saloon to get the full experience.
Foodies will love sampling the eclectic menu of restaurants found here. Agriculture is the heart of the community with the “eat local” mantra and an abundance of locally grown and raised meat and vegetables. Agritourism brings visitors in to truly experience some of the best of the region’s resources. Savor local farmers markets, farm-to-table meals and wine dinners with San Juan region’s best locally grown foods. Durango Mountain Resort even hosts foraging and cooking demonstrations during summer. For a hearty meal, order a burger at Grassburger, which uses only grassfed beef for its food. Eat it with fries cooked in non-GMO sunflower fry oil and chase it with a delicious Vegan Bliss Shake.
Famous Mountains and Super Skiing
With 2 million acres of wild national forest, it makes sense that Durango has been chosen dozens of times as the set for movies and film. And it has hosted a number of famous artists and writers over the years. Find the exact room where Louis L’Amour wrote his famed western novels, the Sackett Series at the Strater Hotel on Main Avenue.
Winter abounds with activity and beauty as Purgatory Resort, named in the top 10 on Conde Naste’s list of best ski resorts in the U.S. and Canada, according to their readers. It was also named as the “Best Value Ski Resort in North America” by TripAdvisor. Located about 30 minutes north of town, this winter paradise in the heart of the San Juan Mountains resort has all the amenities a skier wants with alpine skiing, a vibrant downtown and private lounge. During the summer and fall, book a mountain biking tour with Durango Bike Tours where they customize a ride that will match the trails and terrain to your skill level. This mountain biker’s playground is a place where arid desert terrain meets lush spruce forests. If you’re craving a few hours of bike playtime, check out the Horse Gulch trail system.
Within a short drive of Durango, in all four directions, there’s over 30 craft breweries, wineries and distilleries (and a cider house!). Colorado is known for having some of the best craft breweries in the country and Durango is no exception. Visit some of the best microbreweries and pubs and taste award-winning libations that will satisfy even the most discerning craft beer lover. Ska Brewing has been brewing since 1995, boasting flavorful brews like the award-winning Euphoria Pale Ale. Their True Blonde Ale recently received the 2019 Good Food Award. Durango Brewing Company is one of the oldest breweries in Colorado, having brewed their Amber Ale in the fall of 1990. Pick up their Great American Beer Festival Bronze medal winner, the Durango Dark Lager.
Spirits on Hand
Honey House Distillery creates hand crafted, small batch honey spirits. All of their spirits contain Honeyville Wildflower Honey, found in the Hermosa Valley. After you return from the slopes, grab something warm and boozy at the Office Spiritorium, where you can sit by the fire and sip hand-crafted drinks.
While visiting the area, many visitors take a side trip to scenic Bayfield, a small town just east of Durango. Sitting at an altitude of about 6,900 feet, Bayfield is close to the Four Corners of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Bayfield is the “Heart of the Pine River Valley,” featuring a small historic district with a few shops and restaurants in town. Vallecito Lake is one of southwest Colorado’s most cherished and secluded destinations. This secluded mountain valley is less than 20 miles from Durango, offering breathtaking mountain views and clear sparkling waters. Enjoy year-round fishing, great hiking trails and of course boating, kayaking and paddle boarding. The area’s waters are filled with kokanee salmon, rainbow trout and small mouth bass. Located 25 minutes from Bayfield and less than 40 minutes from Durango, the Vallecito Marina is the best way to enjoy Vallecito Lake.
The Front Range
Occupying the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado’s Front Range is dotted with Alpine vistas, laid-back mountain towns and Wild West heritage sites. Occupying the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, this region strikes the perfect balance of outdoor adventure and urban pleasures. Spend your days conquering majestic peaks and then unwind in vibrant cities like Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Boulder.
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the Front Range’s premier attractions. This natural wonderland contains an endless array of outdoor recreation, with 355 miles of trails, 150 lakes and towering peaks as far as the eye can see. Trek a portion of the Continental Divide Trail to reach meadows and waterfalls and keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, mule deer and elk along the way. Bring your tackle box too, as the streams and lakes support four species of trout. The scenic drives are just as rewarding as the waterways, so cruise along Trail Ridge Road or Old Fall River Road to admire Mother Nature from the comfort of your vehicle.
Reelin’ in Rocky Fish
Rivers, lakes and stocked reservoirs have put this region high on anglers’ wish lists. The reservoirs and lakes between Fort Collins and Denver are filled with walleye and smallmouth bass. Cast a line from popular spots like Carter Lake, Horsetooth Reservoir and Boyd Lake State Park. If you’re in the Denver metro area, try your luck at Cherry Creek State Park, Chatfield State Park and Stanley Lake, or venture into Boulder Creek to catch a bounty of rainbow and brown trout. Watersports are big in this region too, with activities ranging from tame to extreme. Rent a canoe and relax on Lake Estes or get the ultimate adrenaline rush by whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River.
Mountain adventure is just a short trip from Colorado Springs. Just minutes from town is Garden of the Gods, a National Landmark consisting of 1,367 acres overflowing with soaring red rock formations. Cross the dramatic landscape by horseback just as the pioneers did over a century ago or cycle down winding roads to get to pull-offs with the best views.
Spectacular Pikes Peak
A short jaunt south of Colorado Springs takes visitors to Pikes Peak, the world’s second-most-visited mountain. A popular way to get to the 14,000-foot peak is by hiking Barr Trail. The 26-mile path weaves through rock formations and dense forest before unveiling a 360-degree view at the top. You can also get to the summit by driving or biking along the Pikes Peak Highway or riding the Broadmoor Pikes Peak Cog Railway from Manitou Springs. On a clear day, you can spot Denver’s skyscrapers.
Merriment in the Mile-High City
Denver ranks as one of the top cities in the U.S., thanks to its professional sports teams, premier museums and endless brewpubs. Let your imagination soar at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and view one of the largest collections of Native American art at the Denver Art Museum.
Back in the 1800s, Pueblo’s streets were walked by characters like Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. Get an idea of what life was like in this rough-and-tumble town at the El Pueblo History Museum.
For More Information
Colorado Tourism Office
Visit Grand Junction
Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado Front Range