by Rebecca Treon –
Newcomer or native, Colorado offers a fantastic array of unique and once-in-a lifetime experiences, running the gamut from great food to fun festivals. Following is the ultimate checklist of 31 must-do activities in the Centennial State.
Eat This: Everywhere
Sample a Rocky Mountain Oyster
No bull: prepared well, they’re a local delicacy. Thin sliced, battered in corn meal flour and deep fried, they’re available at classic Western eateries like The Fort in Morrison (a replica of Bent’s Fort) or The Buckhorn Exchange (Denver’s oldest restaurant, it’s full of artifacts of the old west).
Sip a marg at The Rio
The state’s local Colo-Mex chain serves legendary margaritas whose top-secret recipe carries such a kick there’s a three drink per-person limit.
Savor high tea at the Brown Palace Hotel
Denver’s oldest hotel, nearly every president and countless celebs have held court there over the years. Offered daily in the elegant lobby, high tea is accompanied by long-timer John Kite tickling the ivories.
Indulge in fresh and local produce
Colorado is home to some incredible seasonal produce, despite the short growing season. Sample Palisade peaches, Rocky Ford melons and Olathe sweet corn whenever possible.
Sip a martini at the Cruise Room
The historic pink-hued deco bar is inside the Oxford Hotel, lined with panels depicting “cheers” in several languages. Legend has it that the bar once featured a pro-Nazi panel — torn down by a group pf Marines, it was never seen again.
Take a distillery tour
Stranahan’s was a Colorado first, but many others have followed suit in Denver (Laws Whiskey House, Golden Moon, and Leopold Bros. to name a few metro-area faves) and beyond (Peach Street, Marble, Woody Creek, Montanya… the list goes on).
Grab a legendary late-night burger at My Brother’s Bar
While development has sprouted up around it, this LoDo stronghold (in a building dating back from the 1880s) has no plans of going anywhere. Good thing — its burgers are a Denver classic.
Go to the Great American Beer Festival
Or, if that’s too overwhelming/tickets are gone, consider checking out places like Falling Rock, whose rotating craft beer selection offers a slice of what’s at the fest.
Go to Casa Bonita
The kitschy landmark isn’t known for its food (get the sopapillas) but it’s a must-do at least once while in Denver.
Do This: City Limits
Buy a classic western wear shirt at Rockmount
Founded in 1946 by “Papa” Jack Weil, the ranchwear company invented the snap button western shirt (literally).
See a concert at Red Rocks. The natural amphitheater has hosted rock legends from the Beatles to Mumford and Sons.
Check out live jazz at El Chapultapec
The iconic hole-in-the-wall jazz joint has hosted the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.
Go to the National Western Stock Show
The annual western heritage event draws visitors from around the globe for rodeo, live music, mutton bustin’, chainsaw carving, fiddling and more.
Go to a sporting event
Pro sports teams include Colorado Rockies baseball, Denver Broncos football, Colorado Avalanche hockey, Colorado Rapids soccer, Denver Nuggets basketball, Colorado Mammoth and Outlaws lacrosse and the Denver Barbarians rugby, not to mention all the state’s college teams.
Do This: Farther Afield
Hike the Manitou Incline
The popular staircase-style hike climbs 2,000 feet in elevation to reach the summit, but the view at the top is worth the sweat.
Visit a ghost town
To name a few, St. Elmo, Ashcroft, and Dearfield are all remnants of Colorado’s Gold Rush days. Gold Hill, near Boulder, may look like a ghost town, but is still a thriving small community.
Soak in a natural hot springs
Historic Glenwood Springs is the world’s largest, Steamboat’s Strawberry Park is clothing- optional after dark, part of Mt. Princeton is in a river and Dunton Hot Springs is part of a luxurious resort — whatever your choice, it’s a must.
Visit Mesa Verde and the Four Corners
Mesa Verde is the home of the Ancestral Puebloans, who built the phenomenal cliff dwellings in the 12th century. It’s a breathtaking, once-ina- lifetime experience to explore their way of life. Nearby, you can literally be in four states at once, where you can straddle the spot where the borders of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet at the Four Corners.
Ride a historic train like the Durango-Silverton Railroad
Get a slice of what life was like way back when, when Durango and Silverton were mining towns. The train winds through gorgeous scenery to Silverton, where the Old West is perfectly preserved, down to costumed interpreters and ragtime piano players in the saloon. The train offers several themed rides during the season, featuring beer tasting or live music.
Hike Hanging Lake
The park service now limits the number of hikers at any given time (tickets required) because the trail was so heavily trafficked it was damaging the fragile ecosystem. The hike increases 1,000 feet in elevation within the first mile and a half, with a view from the top that makes the trek worth it: pristine crystal-clear turquoise waters and waterfalls await at the summit.
Go to a Dude Ranch
You’ll ride horseback, learn what it’s really like to wrangle cattle, fly fish, hike, learn to two-step and best of all, get away from the daily grind. Options range from the reasonably priced Rainbow Trout Ranch (only an hour from downtown) to the Home Ranch, near Steamboat Springs, a luxury Relais & Chateaux property.
Stay at the Stanley Hotel
Stephen King’s visit to the notoriously haunted hotel inspired him to write The Shining. At the gateway of Rocky Mountain National Park, the historic hotel offers special events surrounding its colorful past with a backdrop of mountain peaks.
Glamp in a yurt
The Mongolian round tents are an affordable and comfortable alternative to either a hotel or tent camping. They’re found all over the state, and most offer some amenities and on-property activities. The Platte River Fort Resort & Event Center, near Greeley, is the state’s newest option.
Visit the Sand Dunes
The tallest dunes in North America, the Sand Dunes are open 24/7 all year round. Go sand sledding, play in the Medano Creek, gaze at the unpolluted night sky, or just get that perfectly ‘grammable shot of the dunes with the mountains in the background.
Experience wild animals in an unforgettable habitat
The 780-acre Wild Animal Sanctuary is home to more than 500 lions, tigers, bears, leopards, mountains lions and other large carnivores rescued from around the world. Travel along the elevated mile-long walkway and watch these wonderful animals below, as they frolic, feed and meander in an incredible environment featuring species-specific habitats. Or, get cozy with wolves. At the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide, the pack is so tame visitors can literally get close enough to get a wolf kiss. Oh, and also get a ton of education about what makes wolves so special.
Summit a ‘14er
Peak baggers know that Colorado has the most peaks with an elevation of 14,000 feet or more of any state. Every Coloradan has to climb at least one — the easiest for beginners are Longs Peak and Bierstadt.
Go leaf peeping
Colorado’s fall foliage is viewable during a fleeting window of just a few weeks in mid-September. The I-70 corridor offers great scenic drives, but for best results, seek out some back roads for a beautiful weekend afternoon.
Go to a Pow Wow
Witnessing members of the 568 recognized Native American tribes in the United States gather together in traditional dress to dance to ceremonial music is an awe-inspiring experience. Pow Wows are held almost year-round across the state — research etiquette before you go.
Take a classic photo at Maroon Bells
A hike near star-studded ski retreat Aspen. Treat yourself to an Aspen getaway while you’re at it but do it like a local. Stay at the cozy (think in-room fireplaces and private hot tubs) and affordable Molly Gibson, stroll the walkable downtown area for some shopping, hit the mining museum, the art museum and the opera house, attend an outdoor concert, chat with locals (everyone in Aspen has a story) and have a nightcap at Jimmy’s, an Aspen institution.
Channel your inner hippie in Boulder
Cruise Pearl Street Mall and watch some buskers, chill at Chautauqua Park, and check out the remarkable Dushanbe Tea House. Fondly known as ‘the Republic,’ it’s the place to get your chakras aligned, buy some mala beads and do all kinds of yoga.
Visit a dispensary
Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use, so it’s a rite of passage to go to a pot shop — this is not your mother’s weed.