The skyline of Denver as seen from South Colorado Boulevard. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

You touch down at Denver International Airport ahead of the MLB All-Star Game, get off the plane and make your way over to the terminal windows. But … everything is so flat and brown! Where are the mountains? Did the pilot make an emergency landing somewhere in Nebraska?

If you’re not familiar with Colorado’s geography then, yes, it might come as a surprise to learn that Denver isn’t actually in the mountains — it’s right next to them. (It’s extra confusing since our baseball team is named the Colorado Rockies.) While it’s true that Denver is situated at a much higher elevation than many other U.S. cities — 5,280 feet to be exact, 1 mile above sea level — the city is technically part of the High Plains, a slightly higher-in-elevation section of the Great Plains.

So, basically, flat.

But don’t fret too much. If you had visions of rustic log cabins, rocky peaks topped with snow, evergreen trees, wildflowers, wildlife and lots of red flannel, you’re not completely out of luck. If you have access to a car, you can be in the mountains in just an hour or two (and even more quickly for some destinations). While you’re in town, consider making a day trip to some of these Colorado mountain towns.

The sun rises over Dillon Reservoir on Sept. 12, 2018, in Frisco. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Frisco

A quick 75-minute drive from Denver (when there’s no traffic, of course), Frisco has that quintessential mountain town charm you’re looking for during a trip to Colorado. And, even better, it comes with a bonus: a massive, picturesque reservoir, flanked by craggy peaks, at more than 9,000 feet in elevation.

After lunch on Main Street, head to Frisco Bay Marina and rent a standup paddleboard, kayak, canoe or a pontoon for a day on Dillon Reservoir. (They’ll also rent you some fishing poles if you need them.) The marina is also home to a sandy beach, a playground and a rowing center, where you can take sculling lessons. If cycling is more your speed, rent bikes and ride the 6-mile Frisco Peninsula Lakeshore Perimeter Loop, which offers views of the water and surrounding mountains.

Afterward, rehydrate yourself (wink, wink) at one of Frisco’s many craft beverage establishments like Rising Sun Distillery, Pullman Distillery, Highside Brewing and BBQ, and Outer Range Brewing Company.

Moose and elk are often spotted in the marshy ponds, streams and meadows along the Devil’s Thumb trail as hikers descend from 11,700 feet at the Continental Divide to the trailhead near Fraser. (Laura High, Special to The Denver Post)

Grand County

Maybe you’ve been to Winter Park in the winter for its world-class skiing and snowboarding. But you should know that this easy-to-access mountainous region of Colorado is just as great in the summer, when it comes alive with hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, fishing, hot air balloon rides and aerial adventures. And don’t just stop at Winter Park, either — be sure to visit the nearby towns of Fraser, Tabernash and Granby, too.

Always wanted to learn to mountain bike? Book a lesson at Winter Park’s Trestle Bike Park, which offers 40 miles of trails for riders of all ability levels. Rather relax and enjoy the scenery instead? Then post up on the patio at Fraser Valley Distilling or The Peak Bistro and Brewery. Also check out the brand new Winter Park Art Trail along the scenic Fraser River Trail, with pieces that answer the prompt “I venture out because … .”

If you can swing it, consider extending your Colorado vacation with a stay at C Lazy U Ranch or Devil’s Thumb Ranch, luxurious dude ranches that offer a taste of the Centennial State’s wild West side. Or for a fun “only-in-Colorado” experience, sleep in a tricked-out Conestoga wagon or an Airstream trailer at River Run RV Resort. Play like a kid again at YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch, where you can stay in a cozy cabin and play disc golf, learn archery or soar through the air on a zipline.

Martin Percival (left) and Mark Anderson look at the scenery as they ride on the Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway towards the summit of Pikes Peak. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs isn’t exactly a mountain town, but it’s worth a trip down just to hike, bike, ride or drive up Pikes Peak, the 14,115-foot-tall mountain that inspired the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.” Not only are the views from the summit stunning, but there’s also a brand new, state-of-the-art, eco-friendly visitors center — complete with high-altitude doughnuts — to check out. Plus, the historic Pikes Peak Cog Railway just reopened after undergoing an extensive, $100 million renovation.

Colorado Springs also recently opened the new U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, which features interactive exhibits, Olympics memorabilia and artifacts, and a Hall of Fame featuring some of Team USA’s top athletes through the ages. The museum is here because Colorado Springs is home to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center. The center typically offers guided tours of its facilities, but has had to put those on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.

PHOTOS: Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Railway reopens for service

And while you’re south of Denver, pop over to Manitou Springs for a few hours. This funky mountain community is home to the infamous Manitou Incline, a punishing staircase that gains 2,000 feet of elevation and has an average grade of 45%. (Just remember: If you’re not used to the altitude, be sure to drink plenty of water and take it slow! Also, the incline is requiring reservations right now because of COVID-19.)

High winds aloft create a ribbon of wave clouds over Arapahoe Peak as the sunrises on Dec. 20, 2020, in Nederland, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Nederland

Nederland is perhaps best known for its annual Frozen Dead Guy Days festival — held every March to pay homage to a dead guy named Bredo Morstoel, who’s kept on dry ice in a shed in town — so that should give you a pretty good idea of this off-the-beaten-path mountain town’s quirky character and charm. It’s a quick one-hour drive from Denver and offers a true small-town feel, with lots of locally owned shops, restaurants, bars and breweries to explore.

The mountains are the main attraction in Ned, which is situated near the vast 73,000-acre Indian Peaks Wilderness area. Spend the day hiking, mountain biking, picnicking or taking a scenic drive along the Peak-to-Peak Highway. Stop for a sandwich at The Deli at 8236, then grab a beer at Very Nice Brewing Company or Knotted Root Brewing Company. Take a ride on Nederland’s iconic Carousel of Happiness, which features 56 hand-carved animals on a restored 1910 carousel, with music from a 1913 organ.

On your way to or from Nederland, be sure to stop in Boulder to snap a photo of the iconic Flatirons, get a massage at St Julien Hotel & Spa, hike Sanitas, wander around Pearl Street or rent standup paddleboards at Boulder Reservoir.

A view of fall colors in Breckenridge. (Provided by Owen Newnan)

Breckenridge

Beloved by locals and visitors alike, Breckenridge makes a perfect day-trip destination if you’re visiting Denver. Breck has tons of summery outdoor recreation options and a cute, walkable downtown with lots of local shops (several of them specializing in ethical and sustainable products) for snagging authentic Colorado souvenirs.

If you’re driving, it’ll take you less than two hours to get to Breck, so you’ll have plenty of time for hiking, shopping, mountain biking, taking pictures of wildflowers, eating and drinking. (And if you’re flying United, you can take a new luxury bus to Breck directly from the airport!) You can also learn about Breckenridge’s history as a mining town with walking tours, mine tours and exhibits at the town’s informative museums.

If bourbon is your thing, book a tour and tasting at the high-altitude Breckenridge Distillery. If you crave arts and culture, explore the more than 30 public art installations around town (including the popular 15-foot-tall “Breckenridge Troll,” which is officially named “Isak Heartstone”). If you love furry, four-legged friends, book a summer dog sledding tour with Good Times Adventures. Breckenridge has a little something for everyone.

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