Denver is filled with folks who stopped to visit and never left. After a few days in the Mile High City and surrounding metro area it's easy to see why: Colorado's capital has much to recommend it, including a thriving cultural scene, restaurants representing every ethnicity, plenty of sunshine, outdoor options galore, and snowcapped peaks for visual variety.
The Old West still holds sway in visitors' imaginations, and there are plenty of throwback trappings to check out, but the reality is that Denver is a modern metropolis that offers cosmopolitan amenities and state-of-the-art amusements.
Logistics: There are myriad well-marked ground transportation options near baggage claim at the sprawling Denver International Airport (DEN). Head to the taxi stand to pay about $60–$70 to get downtown, or visit the RTD desk for bus schedules (SkyRide operates multiple routes starting at $11 one-way). Several independent companies operate shuttles from desks within the airport for about $25 one-way, and many hotels have complimentary shuttles for their guests.
All of the major car-rental companies operate at DEN. The rental-car counters that you see in the main terminal are there merely to point you toward the shuttles that take you to the car-rental center. Depending on time of day and traffic, it will take 40 minutes to an hour to reach downtown Denver and another 40 minutes for Boulder and the foothills.
After you've settled into your hotel, head downtown, or if you're already staying there—always a good option to truly explore the city—make your way to Lower Downtown, or LoDo. The historic district is home to many of the city's famous brewpubs, art galleries, and Coors Field, as well as popular restaurants and some of the area's oldest architecture.
Hop on the free MallRide, the shuttle bus run by RTD, to head up the 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian-friendly, shopping-oriented strip that runs through the center of downtown. From there you can walk to Larimer Square for more shopping and restaurants, as well as the Denver Art Museum, the History Colorado Center, the Colorado State Capitol, the Molly Brown House, and the U.S. Mint.
Logistics: Vending machines at each station for TheRide, Denver's light-rail, show destinations and calculate your fare ($2.25–$4 depending on the number of zones crossed). The machines accept bills of $20 or less and any coin except pennies. Children under age five ride free when accompanied by a fare-paying adult. RTD buses also provide an excellent way to get around; schedules are posted inside shelters and are available at Civic Center Station at the south end of the 16th Street Mall and Market Street Station toward the north end. Fares are $2.25 one-way.
Boulder takes its fair share of ribbing for being a Birkenstock-wearing, tofu-eating, latter-day hippie kind of town, but the truth is that it is one healthy, wealthy area, exceedingly popular and rapidly heading toward overdevelopment. For now, though, it's still a groovy place to visit. Stroll along the Pearl Street Mall and sample the excellent restaurants and shops, catching one of the dozens of street performers; or head just outside the city to tour Celestial Seasonings, the tea manufacturer; or to Chautauqua Park to hike in the shadow of the dramatic Flatiron Mountains. In winter, Eldora Mountain Resort is a 21-mile jaunt up a steep, switchback-laden road with no lift lines as payoff. The University of Colorado campus here means there is a high hip quotient in much of the nightlife.
Logistics: You can take an RTD bus to Boulder from Denver, but it's just as easy to drive up U.S. 36, and if you're going to go beyond the Pearl Street Mall, it's nice to have a car once you're there. Parking, though, can be quite tight.
Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a year-round marvel, a park for every season: summer's hiking, fall's elk-mating ritual, winter's snowcapped peaks, and spring's wildflowers. Estes Park is the gateway to RMNP but a worthwhile destination itself, a small town swelling to a large one with the tourists who flock to its Western-theme shops and art galleries. The alpine-surrounded Grand Lake is a rustic charmer and an idyllic locale for a family vacation.
Logistics: Estes Park is a hop-skip from Denver and Boulder, about 65 miles northwest of Denver via I–25 and then CO–66 and U.S. 36. To get to RMNP, simply take U.S. 34 or U.S. 36 into the park. Grand Lake is on the other side of RMNP via U.S. 34, or from Denver, it's 100 miles by taking I–70 to U.S. 40 over Berthoud Pass through Winter Park, Fraser, and Granby, and then turning onto U.S. 34 to Grand Lake. It can be a bit more challenging in winter.
The drive to Aspen sends you straight through the heart of the Rocky Mountains, from the foothills to the peaks, with plenty of highs and lows between. Along the way there are several possible stops, including small-town diversions in places such as Idaho Springs and Georgetown, outlet shopping in Silverthorne, high-alpine mountain biking and hiking in Vail, and a dip in the hot springs in Glenwood Springs. Once in Aspen, world-class dining, upscale shopping, and celebrity-sighting await, while, depending on the season, the slopes will serve up wildflower-covered meadows or some of the best skiing in North America. Do not miss a pilgrimage to the Maroon Bells Wilderness area for a glimpse of the famous peaks.
Logistics: There are several flights in and out of Aspen/Pitkin County Airport daily, most routing through Denver. Many travelers drive to Aspen, however, making the 220-mile journey west on I–70 from Denver to Glenwood Springs, then taking U.S. 82 to Aspen. From May until about mid-October, Independence Pass, a more scenic option, is open; from I–70 take U.S. 91 at Copper Mountain south through Leadville to U.S. 82 and then use Independence Pass.
The Colorado Springs area may be dominated by 14,115-foot Pikes Peak itself—long ago the inspiration for "America the Beautiful"—and certainly getting to its summit, whether by cog railway, foot, or car, is a worthy goal. But there are other options along this popular corridor, such as strolling through the red rocks of the Garden of the Gods, peeking at the tunnel in Cave of the Winds, checking out the animals at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, taking advantage of the healing vibes in the artists' community that is Manitou Springs, or exploring the old gold-mining town of Cripple Creek.
Logistics: Colorado Springs sits 70 miles south of Denver on I–25. You'll enjoy mountain views on most of the drive; Pikes Peak is visible on clear days. Take U.S. 24 west from I–25 to reach Manitou Springs; follow CO–67 south from U.S. 24 west to visit Cripple Creek.
The way the Collegiate Peaks open up in magnificent panorama as you come around the bend on U.S. 285 is only one of the draws of a trip from Denver to Buena Vista and Salida. The plethora of outdoor activities available in this mountain- and river-rich region adds to the appeal. Salida has become a haven for its bevy of artists making a national name for their Western-oriented themes and grassroots sensibilities, and the banana-belt weather makes it all the more alluring.
Logistics: Take U.S. 285 south to Buena Vista. To reach Salida, continue on to Poncha Springs, then follow U.S. 50 east. Winter sports enthusiasts will want to make a side trip to Monarch Mountain, while mountain bikers won't want to miss the Monarch Crest Trail at Monarch Pass, both about 18 miles west of Salida on U.S. 50.
The sand dunes dominate this sleepy, agriculturally abundant area, though they are only one of the natural playgrounds available to visitors. Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge is famous for its crane migrations, the fishing is superior in the Rio Grande, and the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness has its peaks and trails. Hop aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad for a 64-mile trip back in time; the area, not to mention the train itself, has changed little since the 1880s.
Logistics: The round-trip is a worthwhile excursion alone, because the corridor between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the San Juans is one of the largest intermountain valleys in the world. Take I–25 south to Walsenburg, then head west on U.S. 160 to Alamosa and north on CO–150.
Durango is about an eight-hour drive from Denver, and well worth the effort. Mountain bikers make it a mission to try their mettle on the tough trails, and the Old West feel and small-town charm put this energetic spot high on the list for tourists. Telluride, though second home to several notable celebrities and famous for its film festival and other national events, presents a less glitzy face than other ski resorts like Aspen and Vail; and the San Juan Skyway, a 236-mile loop that connects Durango, Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton, is a gloriously scenic tour of mountains, alpine forests, and wildflower meadows. Mesa Verde National Park, meanwhile, safeguards the 1,400-year-old cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans.
Logistics: To go straight to Durango, take U.S. 285 southwest to Monte Vista and then head west on U.S. 160. Mesa Verde is a 1½-hour drive from Durango, heading west on U.S. 160. For Telluride, take I–70 to Grand Junction and go south on U.S. 50 to Montrose; continue south on CO–550 to Ridgway, then turn right onto CO–62. Follow this to CO–145 and turn left. Follow the signs into Telluride. Telluride and Durango also have regional airports with limited service from major carriers.
Guard against the effects of altitude. Drink lots of water, slather on the sunscreen, and watch your alcohol intake. And pace yourself, especially when hiking or engaging in other outdoor pursuits.
Pack a lunch for your day in Rocky Mountain National Park. You'll have your pick of jaw-droppingly gorgeous spots for a picnic.
For the night in Aspen, consider reserving a room down-valley in Basalt or Carbondale if the rates in Aspen proper look too steep.
Denver and Aspen are the places to splurge on meals.
If you have a morning flight, consider staying the final night in Denver.