Horseback riding in the Rocky Mountains can mean a quick trot on a paved trail through craggy red rocks or a weeklong stay at a working dude ranch, where guests rise at dawn and herd cattle from one mountain range to another.
Horse-pack trips are great ways to visit the backcountry, since horses can travel distances and carry supplies that would be impossible for hikers. Although horsemanship isn't required for most trips, it's helpful, and even an experienced rider can expect to be a little sore for the first few days. Clothing requirements are minimal. A sturdy pair of pants, a wide-brim sun hat, and outerwear to protect against rain are about the only necessities. Ask your outfitter for a list of things you'll need. June through August is the peak period for horse-pack trips.
Dude ranches fall roughly into two categories: working ranches and guest ranches. Working ranches, where you participate in such activities as roundups and cattle movements, sometimes require experienced horsemanship. Guest ranches offer a wide range of activities in addition to horseback riding, including fishing, four-wheeling, spa services, and cooking classes. At a typical dude ranch you stay in log cabins and are served meals family style in a lodge or ranch house; some ranches now have upscale restaurants on-site, too. For winter, many ranches have now added snow-oriented amenities.
When choosing a ranch, consider whether the place is family-oriented or adults only, and check on the length-of-stay requirements and what gear, if any, you are expected to bring. Working ranches plan around the needs of the business, and thus often require full-week stays for a fixed price, while regular guest ranches operate more like hotels.
Colorado Dude Ranch Association (www.coloradoranch.com.)
Academy Riding Stables, Colorado Springs. Ideal for visitors who have only a short time in the area but long to do a half-day trail ride, Academy brings red-rock country up close at the Garden of the Gods, with pony rides for kids and hay wagon or stagecoach rides for groups.
C Lazy U Guest Ranch, Granby. One of the finest ranches in the state, C Lazy U offers a relaxing upscale experience, from daily horseback rides with a horse chosen for the duration of the visit to supervised kids' activities and chef-prepared meals, deluxe accommodations, a spring-fed pool, and an on-site spa.
Colorado Cattle Company & Guest Ranch, New Raymer (near Fort Collins). The real deal, the adults-only Colorado Cattle Company is two hours from Denver International Airport and seconds from turning you on to a true Western experience, with continual cattle drives, branding, fencing, and roping on a 7,000-acre ranch with 1,000 head of cattle.
Devil's Thumb Ranch, Tabernash (near Winter Park). Their commitment to the environment, use of renewable resources, and focus on the finest quality, from the organic ingredients in the restaurant to the luxurious bed linens in the rustic yet upscale cabins, make Suzanne and Bob Fanch's spread a deluxe getaway. They continue to update the ranch, with a new spa and lodge added to the superior horseback-riding, cross-country skiing, and ice-skating programs already in place.
Skiing and Snowboarding
The champagne powder of the Rocky Mountains can be a revelation for newcomers. Forget treacherous sheets of rock-hard ice, single-note hills where the bottom can be seen from the top, and mountains that offer only one kind of terrain from every angle. In the Rockies the snow builds up quickly, leaving a solid base that hangs tough all season, only to be layered upon by thick, fluffy powder that holds an edge, ready to be groomed into rippling corduroy or left in giddy stashes along the sides and through the trees. Volkswagen-size moguls and half-pipe-studded terrain parks are the norm, not the special attractions.
The added bonus of Rocky Mountain terrain is that many resorts have a wide variety of terrain at all levels, from beginner (green circle) to expert (double black diamond). Turn yourself over to the rental shops, which provide expert help in planning your day and outfitting you with the right equipment. Renting is also a great chance for experienced skiers and snowboarders to sample the latest technology.
Shop around for lift tickets before you leave home. Look for package deals, multiple-day passes, and online discounts. The traditional ski season usually runs from mid-December until early April, with Christmas, New Year's, and the month of March being the busiest times at the resorts.
Skiing the Rockies means preparing for all kinds of weather, sometimes in the same day, because the high altitudes can start a day off sunny and bright but kick in a blizzard by afternoon. Layers help, as well as plenty of polypropylene to wick away sweat in the sun, and a water-resistant outer layer to keep off the powdery wetness that's sure to accumulate—especially if you're a beginner snowboarder certain to spend time on the ground. Must-haves: plenty of sunscreen, because the sun is closer than you think, and a helmet, because so are the trees.
Colorado Ski Country USA (www.coloradoski.com.)
Best Skiing and Snowboarding
Aspen. Part "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and part sleepy ski town, picturesque Aspen offers four mountains of widely varied terrain within easy access and some of the best dining in the state.
Breckenridge. Four terrain parks, each designed to target a skill level and promote advancement, give snowboarders the edge at this hip resort, which manages to make skiers feel just as welcome on its big, exposed bowls.
Keystone. The family that does winter sports together stays together at Keystone, which is small enough to navigate easily. Near Breckenridge and Copper Mountain, Keystone has a high percentage of beginner and intermediate offerings.
Vail. Those looking for the big-resort experience head to Vail, where modern comforts and multiple bowls mean a dizzying variety of runs and every possible convenience, all laid out in a series of contemporary European-style villages.
Winter Park. Winter Park has retained the laid-back vibe of a locals' mountain, and is still one of the better values on the Front Range. Mary Jane offers a mogul a minute, while the gentler Winter Park side gives cruisers a run for their money.
Hiking is easily the least expensive and most accessible recreational pursuit. Sure, you could spend a few hundred dollars on high-tech hiking boots, a so-called personal hydration system, and a collapsible walking staff made of space-age materials, but there's no need for such expenditure. All that's really essential are sturdy athletic shoes, water, and the desire to see the landscape under your own power.
Hiking in the Rockies is a three-season sport that extends as far into fall as you're willing to tromp through snow, though in the arid desert regions it's possible to hike year-round without snowshoes. One of the greatest aspects of this region is the wide range of hiking terrain, from high-alpine scrambles that require stamina to flowered meadows that invite a relaxed pace to confining slot canyons where flash floods are a real danger.
There are few real hazards to hiking, but a little preparedness goes a long way. Know your limits, and make sure the terrain you are about to embark on does not exceed your abilities. It's a good idea to check the elevation change on a trail before you set out—a 1-mi trail might sound easy, until you realize how steep it is—and be careful not to get caught on exposed trails at elevation during afternoon thunderstorms in summer. Bring layers of clothing to accommodate changing weather, and always carry enough drinking water. Make sure someone knows where you're going and when to expect your return.
Colorado Mountain Club (www.cmc.org.)
Bear Lake Road, Rocky Mountain National Park. A network of trails threads past alpine lakes, waterfalls, aspens, and pines. Stroll 1 mi to Sprague Lake on a wheelchair-accessible path, or take a four-hour hike past two waterfalls to Mills Lake, with its views of mighty Longs Peak.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. These are serious trails for serious hikers. There are six routes down into the canyon, which can be hot and slippery, and super steep. But the payoff is stunning: a rare look into canyon's heart and the fast-moving Gunnison River.
Chautauqua Park, Boulder. Meet the locals (and their dogs) as you head up into the mountains to look back down at the city or to get up close and personal with the Flatirons. There's even a grassy slope perfect for a picnic.
Colorado National Monument, Grand Junction. Breathe in the smell of sagebrush and juniper as you wander amid red-rock cliffs, canyons, and monoliths.
The Colorado Trail. The beauty of this epic hike, which starts just north of Durango and goes 500 mi all the way to Denver, is that you can do it all or just pieces of it.
Green Mountain Trail, Lakewood. Part of Jefferson County Open Space, the easy, mostly exposed trail affords panoramic views of downtown Denver, Table Mesa, Pikes Peak, and the Continental Divide from the top. You must share with bikers and dogs, as well as other critters.
Maroon Bells, Aspen. Bring your camera and take your shot at the twin, mineral-streaked peaks that are one of the most-photographed spots in the state.
The Rockies are a favorite destination for bikers. Wide-open roads with great gains and losses in elevation test (and form) the stamina for road cyclists, while riders who prefer pedaling fat tires have plenty of mountain and desert trails to test their skills. Many bicyclers travel between towns (or backcountry huts or campsites) in summer. Unmatched views often make it difficult to keep your eyes on the road.
Thanks to the popularity of the sport here, it's usually easy to find a place that rents bicycles, both entry-level and high-end. Bike shops are also a good bet for information on local rides and group tours.
Most streets in the larger cities have bike lanes and separated bike paths, and Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Durango, Crested Butte, and Colorado Springs are especially bike-friendly. Cities and biking organizations often offer free maps.
On the road, watch for trucks and stay as close as possible to the side of the road, in single file. On the trail, ride within your limits and keep your eyes peeled for hikers and horses (both of which have the right of way), as well as dogs. Always wear a helmet and carry plenty of water.
Bicycle Colorado (303/417–1544. www.bicyclecolo.org.)
Breckenridge. Groups of mixed-skill level bikers make for Summit County, where beginners stick to the paved paths, the buff take on Vail Pass, and single-track types test their technical muscles in the backcountry.
Cherry Creek Bike Path, LoDo, and Cherry Creek. The ultimate urban trek, the paved trail along the burbling creek is part of 400 mi of linked Denver greenway.
Crested Butte. Pearl Pass is the storied birthplace of mountain-biking (check out the museum devoted to it in town). If your legs are not quite ready for that 40-mi, 12,700-foot challenge, there are plenty of paths more suitable to mere mortals.
Durango. Bikes seem to be more popular than cars in Durango, another fabled biking center. You can bike around town or into the mountains with equal ease.
Grand Junction/Fruita. With epic rides such as Over the Edge and Kokopelli Trail, these areas beckon single-track fanatics with their wavy-gravy loop-de-loops and screaming downhill payoffs. Beware: The heat can be intense.
Keystone. Serious downhillers head to Keystone's Drop Zone, the resort's expert section packed with rock gardens and high-speed jumps. Don't like the grunt-filled climb? Hop on a chairlift and smile away the sweet downhill.
Rangely. From the Raven Rims, you can see the town from nearly every point along this fun mountain-bike ride that starts in the corrals at Chase Draw.
Steamboat Springs. Yes, it is a cowboy town. But the backcountry is also laced with miles of jeep trails and single-track perfect for the solitude-seeking cyclist.
Winter Park. Home to the fabled Fat Tire Classic bike ride, Winter Park features tree-lined single-track trails that vary from gentle, meandering jaunts to screaming roller-coaster rides.
Matthews/Winters Park, Golden. With expansive views of the Red Rocks Park, the moderate to challenging combination of double-track and single-track mountain biking is crowded at sunrise and sunset.
Rafting brings on emotions as varied as the calm induced by flat waters surrounded with stunning scenery and wildlife and the thrill and excitement of charging a raging torrent of foam.
Dozens of tour companies have relatively mundane floats ranging from one hour to one day starting at $20. Others fulfill the needs of adventure tourists content only with chills, potential spills, and the occasional wall of water striking them smack-dab in the chest. Beginners and novices should use guides, but experienced rafters may rent watercraft.
Seasoned outfitters know their routes and their waters as well as you know the road between home and work. Many guides offer multiday trips in which they do everything, including searing your steak and rolling out your sleeping bag. Waters are ranked from Class I (the easiest) to Class VI (think Niagara Falls).
Select an outfitter based on recommendations from the local chamber, experience, and word of mouth. Ask your guide about the rating on your route before you book. Remember, ratings can vary greatly throughout the season due to runoff and weather events.
"Raft" can mean any of a number of things: an inflated raft in which passengers do the paddling; an inflated raft or wooden dory in which a licensed professional does the work; a motorized raft on which some oar work might be required. Be sure you know what kind of raft you'll be riding—or paddling—before booking.
Wear a swimsuit or shorts and sandals and bring along sunscreen and sunglasses. Outfitters are required to supply a life jacket for each passenger that must be worn. Most have moved to requiring helmets, as well. Early summer, when the water is highest, is the ideal time to raft, although many outfitters stretch the season, particularly on calmer routes.
Colorado River Outfitters Association (720/260–4135. www.croa.org.)
Animas River, Durango. Even at high water, the Lower Animas stays at Class III, which makes for a great way to see the Durango area. Meanwhile, the Upper Animas runs between Class III and Class IV, hits a few at V, and gives little time to appreciate the mountain scenery and canyon views that race by.
Arkansas River, Buena Vista, and Salida. The Arkansas rages as a Class V or murmurs as a Class II, depending on the season. It's the white-water rafting destination in the state.
Blue River, Silverthorne. The Class I–III stretches of the Blue that run between Silverthorne and Columbine Landing are ideal for first-time paddlers. Be sure to check the flows; there is a short season.
Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, Glenwood Springs. Choose a wild ride through the Shoshone Rapids (up to Class IV) or a mellow float down the lower Colorado.
Eagle River, Vail. Three sections offer fun for beginners to expert paddlers. The water levels vary, as this alpine river is not dam-controlled and rises and falls according to snow melt.
Gunnison River, north of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument. Packhorses carry your equipment into this wild area that leads into Gunnison Gorge, where Class I-III waters take you past granite walls while bald eagles fly overhead.
Yampa and Green Rivers, Grand Junction. Ride the Yampa and Green rivers through the remote, rugged canyons of Dinosaur National Monument.
Trout do not live in ugly places.
And so it is in Colorado, where you'll discover unbridled beauty, towering pines, rippling mountain streams, and bottomless pools. It's here that blue-ribbon trout streams remain much as they were when Native American tribes, French fur trappers, and a few thousand faceless miners, muleskinners, and sodbusters first placed a muddy footprint along their banks.
Those early-day settlers had one advantage that you won't—time. To make the best use of that limited vacation, consider hiring a guide. You could spend days locating a great fishing spot, learning the water currents and fish behavior, and determining what flies, lures, or bait the fish are following. A good guide will cut through the options, get you into fish, and turn your excursion into an adventure complete with a full creel.
If you're comfortable with your fishing gear, bring it along, though most guides loan or rent equipment. Bring a rod and reel, waders, vest, hat, sunglasses, net, tackle, hemostats, and sunscreen. Fishing licenses, available at tackle shops and a variety of stores, are required in Colorado for anyone over the age of 16.
If you're not inclined to fork over the $250-plus that most quality guides charge per day for two anglers and a boat, your best bet is a stop at a reputable fly shop. They'll shorten your learning curve, tell you where the fish are, what they're biting on, and whether you should be "skittering" your dry fly on top of the water or "dead-drifting" a nymph.
Famed fisherman Lee Wolff wrote that "catching fish is a sport. Eating fish is not a sport." Most anglers practice "catch and release" to maintain productive fisheries and to protect native species.
A few streams are considered "private," in that they are stocked by a local club; other rivers are fly-fishing or catch-and-release only, so be sure you know the rules before making your first cast.
The season is always a concern when fishing. Spring runoffs can cloud the waters; summer droughts may reduce stream flows; and fall weather can be unpredictable. But as many fishing guides will attest, the best time to come and wet a line is whenever you can make it.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (303/297–1192. www.wildlife.state.co.us.)
Arkansas River, Buena Vista. Fly-fish for brown or rainbow trout through Browns or Bighorn Sheep Canyon, or combine white-water rafting with fishing by floating on a raft through the Royal Gorge.
Gunnison River, Almont. In a tiny hamlet near Crested Butte and, more importantly, near the headwaters of the Gunnison, they live fly-fishing.
Lake Dillon, Dillon. Pick your spot along 26 mi of shoreline and cast away for brown and rainbow trout and kokanee salmon. The marina has rental boats and a fully stocked store.
Lake Granby, Grand Lake. Can't wait for summer? Try ice fishing on Lake Granby, on the western side of the Rockies.
Roaring Fork River, Aspen. Uninterrupted by dams from its headwaters to its junction with the Colorado, the Roaring Fork is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the state, plus it has a healthy population of 12- to 18-inch trout.
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