“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” — John Muir
When writing about Denver, it’s hard for me to avoid waxing poetic.
Some people think Colorado is just a nice place to visit. And I’ll get to you with all kinds of visitor tips for the Denver metro area. Just you wait.
But first, I’m going to speak to those for whom Denver lives in the heart.
“Coming home to a place he’d never been before.” — John Denver, Rocky Mountain High
I first started visiting Denver with my family when I was 9. My uncle and his family had moved here; he and my dad were best buds; they had three girls, just like us. So every other summer we’d drive out and spend two weeks seeing the sites.
And I was HOME.
For some of us, the mountains get in your blood. They speak to your soul. And not just any mountains, but the Rocky Mountains. For me, not just any Rocky Mountains, but those that border this vibrant, beautiful city and show that nature surpasses anything man tries to build every time.
Denver is part of the appeal. Small towns are cute. I love to visit. But where do you get groceries? What if you need some hot asphalt and cab fumes? Or a billion new restaurants to explore?
See, Denver offers that…in an easy, friendly way. The pace is softer than Chicago. (And it is a heck of a lot sunnier — 300 days a year here.) The people are friendly. There is a tinge of Old West, which is rugged and fun, but you’ll find all kinds of glass and steel, and all kinds of reclaimed-wood-and-vegan-dishes kinds of joints.
Denver has its up-and-coming neighborhoods in the urban heart. There’s RiNo, short for River North, where a stroll down the street reveals hipster dudes with beards and hammers putting together a craft distillery pop-up event and young yogis walking dogs past abandoned warehouses to their new, sustainably built condos.
And yes, there’s the weed, especially on Broadway. (I knew you were wondering about that!) It’s not exactly the green revolution that most were hoping for, but it’s certainly a busy industry, with dispensaries elbowing for space among the antiques stores.
Denver has the Broncos right in the heart of downtown. Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve had a serious thing for John Elway since I was about 12, so this is a big deal for this girl. We have the Colorado Rockies, also in a beautiful stadium downtown surrounded by brewpubs. (Remember, we did craft beer here before most of the rest of the country.)
And yeah, we have some traffic. This place appeals to many more people than I. There are lots of statistics about growth in the Denver metro area. I could reach back to when I was a reporter for the Elbert County News on the plains of eastern Colorado, the first time I lived here some 20 years ago. I’d cover county meetings at which people would threaten to shoot newcomers, so plentiful were they even then. I could look back to when Highlands Ranch was the fastest-growing zip code in the country and a model for planned suburban development. It hasn’t shrunk.
I could think back to when I first visited, at age 9. There were prairie dogs in the fields around Ken Caryl Valley. There was nothing south of C-470; it was dark out there. Today, the south metro area is nearly contiguous from Denver through Castle Rock to Colorado Springs.
So today, I-25 is often a parking lot. I just avoid it, because I can.
Everybody wants to live here — it’s not just me! Check out these stats from the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation:
- Colorado was the sixth-fastest growing state between 2010 and 2020. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021)
- Colorado is the nation’s second-most highly educated state for residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher (42.7 percent). (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019)
- In addition, Colorado has the nation’s lowest obesity rate and is No. 2 for physical activity. (Trust for America’s Health, 2020; Kaiser State Health Facts, 2019)
That last part is due to what’s around Denver. The part that makes the city special, the part that sings to my soul.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” — John Muir
It’s what we do here in Denver. Bikes. Kayaks. Rafting. Skateboards. Skis. Snowshoes. Hiking boots. Climbing packs. We’re all geared up and ready to go. Why not? It’s gorgeous here, with an arid alpine climate that keeps the humidity low. There are very few bugs. (That’s something for those of us from the Midwest.) And it gets cool at night after the brilliant, blazing sun slides behind the hills.
It’s easy to get outside. There are parks and bike lanes everywhere. Gyms and studios and Patagonia and REI and eight trillion locally owned outfitters where passionate experts will teach you simply for love of the sport. Rocky Mountain high could also describe the unbridled enthusiasm and sheer joy exhibited by active people in Denver.
And the mountains, of course, are a short drive. But when you’re there, you could be a million miles from everywhere.
“He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below.” — John Denver, Rocky Mountain High
I’m quite sure that everyone has a different experience of Denver and the mountains. But for me, a woman with an insatiable curiosity, little fear and a huge desire for adventure, it’s a hiker’s paradise. I live for the days — and I try to carve out one each week — when I can strap on my Big Blue Boots, as my Salomons are known, and make like a mountain goat over rocks and pine needles. It feeds my SOUL.
I love finding and sharing trail magic. I love discovering wildlife and wildflowers and vistas that take my breath away. I love the secret burble of a hidden mountain stream and the bold, audacious glory of a rocky, thin-air peak. I like pushing my body to the limit. (Not the edge, of course, but the limit.)
There’s a reason why “America the Beautiful” was inspired by the purple mountain majesties of Pike’s Peak. God did shed his grace on thee when he made Colorado.
But enough with my sappy ode to Colorado. Let’s get on with the recommendations, shall we?
Things to Do in Denver Like a Local
It’s a great way to spend a rainy day, if you happen to have such a rare thing while visiting Denver. There’s a phenomenal collection of Western art, as well as Monet, Van Gogh and the heavy hitters. The newly reopened wing designed by famed architect Gio Ponti includes viewing terraces atop the seventh floor and a wine bar and coffee shop on the first. Park in the garage next door for just $7 and soak up the gorgeous goodness!
If you don’t get your fill at the DAM, head to the MCA — Denver’s vibrant contemporary arts museum. You’ll know it by the giant neon heart outside. The MCA makes a concerted effort to be relevant to teens; check the program schedule for events. And the view from the cafe and outdoor patio on the top floor is incredible.
While you’re at it, visit the Clyfford Still museum. The Abstract Expressionist determined how he wanted his work to be shown, and this is the result — even the building was designed exclusively with his work in mind.
Denver’s street art scene is popping. One of the best places to witness the innovation and jaw-dropping creative expression is in the RiNo Arts District. There are always events in the neighborhood, but the best time to witness the action is during Crush Walls in September, when artists take to the streets with the tools of their trade to make new murals.
If that riot of color and energy conjures an appetite, you’ll find countless restaurants and cafes. The Denver Central Market houses an array of choices under one roof, with vendors representing appetizer to dessert and everything in between. The district is populated with well-known and boutique brewpubs, wineries and distilleries; you can make a day of beverage tastings alone. Take a break and grab a brew — caffeinated or fermented — at Improper City, with its Insta-worthy lounge areas and patio space. Speaking of IG photo ops, swing by the Ramble Hotel at sunset, if you can find a corner on their rooftop in which to enjoy their swanky cocktails, you’ll be rewarded with a glowy, showy view.
Say hello, Molly.
The Molly Brown House is a terrific tour for families visiting Denver — especially girls. Molly was a woman ahead of her time. She was well-educated, she educated her daughter…she even taught the people who worked in her home. She earned the “unsinkable” moniker after the sinking of the Titanic, but she was unstoppable long before that. Rock on, Molly!
While you’re in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, check out the times for a tour of the Colorado State Capitol building. It’s a free peek at not only the legislative spaces but also the stunning Colorado Rose Onyx, stained glass windows and third-floor rotunda, with a side of Centennial State history.
Grab a beer.
Colorado was the leader of the craft beer industry in its youth; our former governor John Hickenlooper even operated an early brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing Company. You could take one of a plethora of brew tours: Some are independent operators who will take you from place to place; many brewpubs offer their own free tours. But the fact of the matter is, you can hardly walk a block without uncovering another spot to sip and savor a crazy array of flavors. I could give you a long list of favorites, including the Denver Beer Co. and Prost Brewing (both within walking distance of each other, as well as food hall Avanti with its killer city views and a short distance from the glorious REI flagship) and New Terrain out in Golden, situated beside North Table Mountain with fire pits and a hiker vibe. But really, there’s so much to sample; it’s hard to choose and you really can’t go wrong.
There are several ways to see this famous natural amphitheater with its incredible views. Hike to it from Matthews/Winters Park. Join a boot camp or yoga class there on Saturday mornings, or make your own workout running the stairs. Or see a concert. I’ve done all three. Boot camp up and down the stairs and seats is the only workout during which I truly thought I’d vomit. Concerts there are purely magical — as the sun sets, the lights of Denver begin to twinkle behind the stage.
We were BLOWN AWAY by this attraction on the west side of the city. Don’t let its proximity or modest marketing fool you. While you’re at Red Rocks, make time for a stop here as well. See the sidebar below for details and go!
Take a hike.
You could spend a lifetime walking all the trails within a short drive of the Denver metro area. Our advice? Get the AllTrails app and spring for the pro version. It will find trails based on your location, give you driving directions, let you download maps, and help you track your progress on your chosen trail even when there’s no wifi. Because very often, there’s not. Another good app here? CoTrex, or Colorado Trail Explorer, is officially updated with trail closures for maintenance, wildfire cleanup, etc.
Make side trips to Golden and Boulder.
Two of my very favorite places ever. Hike Lookout Mountain or the Mount Galbraith Trail just outside Golden (both pretty easy to get to and rather short), then head to Washington Avenue in Golden for some shopping and the pizza buffet at Woody’s Wood-Fired Pizza. (Or a sandwich at Snarf’s next door.) That’s one day. On another, drive up to Boulder and park near Pearl Street. Enjoy the artsy shops, the energy of the University of Colorado, the hundreds of organic, locally sourced restaurants and the incredible people-watching thanks to the hippie, activist vibe known as the Boulder bubble.
Go where the buffalo roam.
Head west on I-70 out of Denver. You’ll quickly start to see some rolling hills and beautiful scenery. But there is one point at which my heart stops every time, even after all these decades. As you come over the crest at the Chief Hosa exit, near Genesee, the breathtaking beauty of the Rocky Mountains explodes before you in all its white-capped, mysterious, majestic glory. Exit right there at the Chief Hosa exit and curve around to the right. Not only will you get a chance to really soak in this view without waddling semitrailers and antsy speeders all around, but you’ll also get to visit the buffalo herd that lives there. Don’t worry — they’re fenced in. And they’re a wild, wooly reminder of what the West once was.
It’s not in Denver, but one of the things to do in Denver is get out of Denver, as you’ll see from traffic patterns on Friday and Sunday afternoons along I-70. Go on a weekday; the Georgetown Railroad is a short drive through some of the most majestic scenery along the interstate. And then you get to ride a cool train through more! Check out the visitor tips below.
Schedule a spooky visit to The Shining Hotel.
Read our blog featuring a tour of the Stanley Hotel, Stephen King’s inspiration for his famous frightening novel. It’s worth the drive to Estes Park!
Be sure to check out the Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau’s site, which includes links to free activities for every season as well. And if you’re coming in to Denver from Denver International Airport and staying downtown, take the A Line train from DIA to Union Station. It’s clean, it’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s cheap!
There are so many more things to do in Denver and the surrounding area. I could write pages of blogs. (I kinda already did.) Because I love Colorado. Like just about every person who’s ever lived in or visited Colorado. We’re a state of transplants. And if you’ve been here, you understand.
“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.” — John Muir
Snow in the mountains, sunshine in Denver
One of the greatest myths that I often dispel when I tell people that I live in Denver: No, we don’t get a lot of snow. The mountains do. In fact, on a winter weekend, areas just a half-hour away from my home will get as much as 27 inches. Not for the year, but over the course of a few days. Here in Denver? It’s in the 40s and 50s and sunny.
The Rocky Mountains, with their incredible peaks exceeding 14,000 feet, do some weird things to the weather. It’s colder the higher you go, of course. Dramatically so. You’ll find pockets of snow year-round in the highest elevations. And it snows much, much more.
But the buck stops at the foothills. While they’re getting snow in the mountains, we might be enjoying sunshine in Denver. And our sunshine is intense, since we sit at 5,280 feet above sea level even downtown. It’s not uncommon to go golfing in January along the Front Range on a mild, sunny, 60-degree day.
We do get the occasional wild snowstorm in the metro area. In fact, the only two months of the year when we haven’t had snow in Denver are July and August. (And I may be tempting fate by putting that out there.) But more often, our snow events are a dusting that disappears in the next day’s sunshine.
If you’re prone to wilting on gray days like me, that sunshine is the very best part of it all. We enjoy 300 days of it per year here on the Front Range, more than Florida. Take that, Sunshine State. Coming from Indiana, where a chilly gray can settle in sometime in October and stretch till May, I marvel that there’s anyone left in the Midwest.
In fact, our climate in Denver is semi-arid, meaning we have dry days and cool nights all year. Other bonuses: almost no mosquitos, and the best sleeping weather ever. Really, should I be telling you this? The state’s natives may revoke my Colorado driver’s license, but the strip of land just east of the majestic mountains is a bubble of weather goodness.
A couple of caveats: Sometimes we get ridiculous winds coming down off the mountains. The impact ranges from an unwelcome dirt-and-sand exfoliating facial to trucks pushed off the road.
We also get hail, particularly during the daily June afternoon thunderstorms. It will break windows and dent cars and cause a slight panic in one’s belly if you’re out on the road when the clouds roll in.
That bubble of weather goodness doesn’t extend super far, either. Go east of Denver International Airport, and you’ll face all kinds of tornados and blizzards. It seems as if whatever kind of chaos is contained in the clouds as they skate high in the sky from the Rockies in the west floats right over the Front Range and descends with punishing force on the Plains.
Me, I’ll stay put in my safe band of mild. If I want to enjoy the snow in the mountains, I can drive up between storms. It *is* lovely, thick and glittering on the ground or pelting the peaks with flakes the size of footballs.
But most days, I’m really glad for my happy sunshine in Denver. Just keep our perfect winter climate on the down-low, would ya? Don’t let the Colorado natives know that I sent ya.
For more on weather and safety in the Colorado mountains, see the Do Colorado Right site.
Things to know about riding the Georgetown Loop
The Georgetown Loop is a classic. It’s a real live steam engine, chugging on a narrow-gauge track between Georgetown and Silver Plume. The distance between the two historic mining towns in the Rocky Mountains an hour west of Denver is just two miles, but to manage the steep grade, engineers in the 1800s plotted a 3.1-mile winding track that loops back over itself.
But to ensure a full-steam-ahead, there are a few things to know before you go:
Reserve your tickets online. Quite often, certain tours will sell out. Secure your time and location in advance to be sure you’re on track. (Apologies for the pun.)
Watch the timetables. The departure times vary between stations, from weekday to weekend, from month to month and with the addition of a mine tour. It almost takes a calculus degree to determine when you should be where.
Explore both ends. Georgetown is a quaint little town. You should definitely spend a bit of time wandering, or grab a bite at Lucha (fingers crossed it reopens after a fire), where you can get delicious fresh Mexican. But don’t skip Silver Plume. In fact, you may want to start your roundtrip ride there, because fewer people do. There’s also an interesting little train museum with retired cars and trivia gems such as railroad nails imprinted with the year that they were used. Grab a Silver Plume brochure in the ticket booth and see if you can locate the town’s oldest tree on the map inside.
INSIDER TIP: The best seat is on the red car with a roof at the end of the train. In one direction, you’ll be at the end, back far enough to see the engine loop around ahead. Upon your return, the engine will move to the other end of the train and couple up right in front of you, so you can watch the works up close.
Bring sunscreen and a jacket. In open-air cars at elevation, you could get a sunburn and you could freeze — often both at the same time. Check out these sun-smart tips.
Consider a mine tour. I haven’t tried any of the ones offered by the Georgetown Loop, but I loved the mine tour I took as a kid. Side note: We tried to take the free mine tour at the Argo Mine just down the road in Idaho Springs, but when we showed up at 4 p.m. for the last tour of the day, the “Closed” sign was already out, even though their posted hours said they didn’t close until 5. When we went on in, the young woman behind the counter informed us that the last tour was at 4 p.m. When I pointed out that it was 4 p.m., she said that we had to be there earlier to register. This despite the fact that the young tour guide was standing beside her. We passed several other disappointed families on our way out. Clearly, on a Friday afternoon, they were ready to pack it up and get out. So in my humble opinion, consider the Georgetown Loop mine tours instead!
Listen in. The conductor is full of bad puns. (The men living there in the late 1800s formed a baseball team—they played in the “miner” leagues. Ba-dum-bum.) But he’s also full of fascinating factoids. For instance, did you know that when crews were clearing the ground for the tracks, they turned the dangerous work of packing boulders with dynamite and lighting the fuse over to children? Kids were thought to be faster and more nimble, and thus better suited for the task. They called them powder monkeys. Share this with your kids the next time they’re complaining about making their beds.
Look for wildlife. Each time I’ve been on the ride, I’ve seen something wandering the surrounding forests. Most recently my daughter spotted a mule deer lunching in the shade along the route.
The Georgetown Loop railroad is most certainly a tourist destination, but it doesn’t feel too Disney. In fact, it’s a little bit rough and tumble, a little bit wild West, inspiring a sense of adventure around every twist and turn. Just the thing for the boys and for kids of all ages.
No bones about it: Visiting Denver’s Dinosaur Ridge is awesome
Remember Jurassic World? The production values are nothing like that at Dinosaur Ridge, but the sights still will blow your mind. Because they’re real.
You don’t seem to hear much about Dinosaur Ridge, even though it’s right between Denver’s west suburbs and the foothills. Or if you’re like us, you worry that it might be a cheeseball tourist trap for two-year-olds. Especially when you buy a pass from Groupon.
So we were in shock and awe when we moseyed up to the first stop on our walk and saw clear, distinct tracks in the stone from three prehistoric animals who were clearly having a dino dance party.
I won’t spoil all of the amazingness for you. I’ll simply offer a few tips to know before you go on your own Jurassic (and Cretaceous) expedition.
Dinosaur Ridge is actually two separate locations. We visited the primary location at 16831 W. Alameda Parkway, but there’s a separate hiking trail just north of there, Triceratops Trail near the southern edge of Golden. There’s no cost for that trail, and if the signage is as good as it was along the trail at Alameda, you can show up and go.
The Alameda trail is free, too. You can park at the Discovery Center and walk it yourself. It’s approximately 1.5 miles of paved road, easy walking but largely uphill. The nearby roads are the reason the dinosaur fossils were found — as workers were excavating in the 1930s, they found the uncovered bones and prints from hundreds of millions of years ago, pressed into neat layers by time and tilted when the Earth’s massive plates shifted to form the Rocky Mountains.
But you should take the guided shuttle tour. Dino Dan is SO worth it. The signs along the walking trail are phenomenal; really, I learned more in one hour of hiking than I ever did in school. But Dino Dan, our tour bus driver, is a retired geologist, so he knows the cool details behind the rocks and eras and can answer all kinds of questions. He showed us dinosaur footprints and bone marrow that made our own jawbones drop.
A membership is affordable. Our Groupon deal was $28 for four people for a year. It includes the shuttle tour and admission to the tiny exhibit hall. We’ll go do it again so we can absorb more details; plus, there are some nice side hikes up the Dakota Ridge hogback with incredible views of downtown Denver to the east and Red Rocks to the west.
Bring water and use sunscreen. There’s no shade along the walk, and Denver is a high desert climate. (I learned that from Dino Dan.) The sun will fry you like an Iguanadon egg.
Go early. Storms usually roll through the mountains and Front Range midafternoon. They come and go quickly, but if you go in the morning, you’re less likely to get wet.
There aren’t many places where you can see claw marks from crocodiles 40 feet long, find rocks 6,000 feet high bearing the wave marks of an ocean floor, or put your hand in the footprint of an animal that walked the same ground millions of years ago. Dinosaur Ridge is a hands-on experience, as well as a mind-boggling slice of our planet’s wonders. (Look for the concretion, a ball of rock within the rock that puzzles even scientists, or the claystone layer from volcanic ash raining down approximately 100 million years ago.)
The Rocky Mountains may be iconic to Colorado, but at Dinosaur Ridge, you can explore a time before they ever existed.
Although we strive to provide the most current information, bars, restaurants and attractions mentioned may close at any time, operate with a limited menu or reduced hours, or have takeout options only. We recommend checking individual websites for operating hours, updates, and social distancing measures before visiting.
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