When people think of places to visit in the U.S., the middle of the country is often forgotten or glossed over. Not exactly Midwest, but not exactly West Coast either, Colorado is really its own bubble with regional nuances unlike anywhere else. Nestled between the mountains and reality, Boulder and Denver have been called the foodiest, happiest, beeriest, and fittest cities in the country so the next time you’re looking for a quick getaway – look inward.
People come to Colorado for access to the mountains, 300+ days of sun a year, and any outdoor recreation you could possibly imagine from hiking and whitewater rafting in the summer to skiing, snowboarding and dog sledding in the winter. If you’re planning a Colorado road trip, allow at least a week to even begin to scratch the surface of all the places to play. While you could spend a week just hiking, hitting the slopes, or hot springing, this itinerary is designed to give you a taste of it all. So, break out your finest yoga pants and gym shoes because this is the quintessential Colorado experience.
Day 1: Denver
Explore LoDo (Lower Downtown), the area surrounding Coors Field and Union Station, and RiNo (River North), Denver’s hippest neighborhood. Full of colorful street art and a colossal craft brewery scene, to taste a bunch of local microbrews in one fell swoop, First Draft has an innovative “pour your own” tap system. Denver’s also known for its 10+ food halls, which are a great way to sample a bunch of local bites under one roof or opt for a food tour. AVANTI was one of the pioneers (and also has one of the best rooftops in the city), but the Milk Market is another cool mixed-use space downtown.
If you’d rather stretch your legs on an easy day trip, head up to Golden to tour the Coors Factory (it’s free — but maybe Uber since they give you three full-sized samples) or explore Red Rocks, the most acoustically perfect outdoor amphitheater in the world and a great hiking spot just 20-minutes from town.
Pro Tip: You’ll want to allow at least a day or two to get acclimated because the altitude is real. Denver’s only at 5280 ft. but that still means you’ll get drunk faster, sunburnt easier, and get headaches more often. Stay hydrated and dress in layers because we have been known to have all four seasons in one day.
Denver Hotel Recommendations: If you like classic luxury, the Brown Palace has hosted presidents and dignitaries and makes its own honey from an apiary on the roof. If you like contemporary, centrally located boutique properties right in the heart of the action, check out The Crawford in Union Station or The Ramble in RiNo, which has some of the city’s top restaurants and bars right in the lobby.
Day 2: Boulder (45-minute drive from Denver)
Named the closest college town to heaven, literally and figuratively, according to Playboy, Boulder has a whole different vibe than Denver. Wander Pearl Street, the hippie pedestrian mall that’s reminiscent of San Francisco in its heyday, taking in the boutiques and street performers.
While most cities tout their coffee culture, Boulder is really a tea city. The Dushanbe Tea House was a gift from their sister city in Tajikistan and painstakingly rebuilt tile by tile. Celestial Seasonings also offers free tours with a mint room that’s…memorable. Like Denver, Boulder also has a big brewery scene (Avery, Boulder Beer Co.), but there are some great cocktail spots too – the speakeasy License 1 and Bitter Bar, which make some of the best mules in Colorado. Shine is a crazy potion bar that claims its drinks help you shine from within.
Boulder is also hugely a foodie city, even more so than Denver. Everywhere from the gourmet grilled cheese stand on Pearl St. to the food truck park at the Rayback Collective is full of tasty treats. Head to Flagstaff House or Frasca for a splurge meal or the Sink (keep an eye out for where Obama signed the ceiling) or Illegal Pete’s if you want something more casual. There are so many ethnic gems – Sushi Zanmai where the sushi chefs play guitar under a disco ball, A Cup of Peace’s Korean rice bowls, Il Pastaio, the freshest pasta you’ll ever eat outside of Italy, and great Ethiopian food. You also don’t want to miss Top Chef winner Hosea Rosenberg’s restaurants, Blackbelly and Santo, which have best green chile in all the land. Brunch is also big business – plan to make a pit stop at the Buff or Lucille’s to start your day right.
If you’re looking to get active, Chautauqua is one of the last remaining associations of its kind and a popular hiking destination. For a taste of Colorado’s ski scene, Eldora is just 30 minutes away and “Rocky Mountain Lite.” It’s home to one of the most robust Nordic ski programs in the country if downhill seems intimidating. If you do want a thrill, there are scenic glider flights and hot air balloons to get a bird’s eye view of the picturesque Flatirons, the mountains shaped like ironing boards.
Boulder Hotel Recommendations: The Boulderado is one of the oldest buildings in town and one of those if the walls could talk kind of places. The St. Julien is a bit more bougie if you’re in search of serious pampering. On the other side of town, the Basecamp Hotel is for adventure-y souls with bunk beds and mattresses built into the floor – kind of like glamping indoors.
Day 3: Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park (one hour from Boulder)
Now that you’re acclimated, it’s time to really take advantage of Colorado’s beauty. It’s a choose your own adventure kind of day with mountain biking, snowshoe and fondue tours, hiking, UTVing, ice climbing, and rock climbing all in the area. When you’re ready to explore Rocky Mountain National Park, drive up Trail Ridge Road for epic views and overlooks, hike Dream Lake, see the wild elk herd (seasonally in the summer and fall), and practice your nature photography.
Estes Park Hotel Recommendations: Estes Park is home to the iconic Stanley Hotel where the Shining was filmed (and an epic whiskey bar). If you like being spooked, spend the night and do one of their ghost tours or hunts. If you’d prefer a less eventful evening, there are plenty of quiet inns, cabins, and lodges surrounding RMNP.
Day 4: Colorado Springs / Manitou Springs (two hours from Estes Park)
As Colorado’s second largest city, Colorado Springs is often overlooked as a tourist destination, but it was actually the state’s original resort destination and has a ton to offer visitors. Much closer to the mountains, you can drive Pike’s Peak Scenic Byway for epic hairpin turns and views of five neighboring states, hike or rock climb Garden of the Gods, the best free park in the U.S., and feed the friendly giraffes at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Neighboring Manitou Springs has even more of leftover hippie counterculture with mineral springs said to have healing properties. Explore the quirky boutiques on Main Street, get a thrill above or below ground on the adrenaline rides and cave tours at Cave of the Winds, or relax at one of the many spas.
Colorado Springs Hotel Recommendations: If you want ultra-luxe, the Broadmoor is Colorado’s only five-star, five-diamond property. Their traditional hotel is beautiful, but they also offer curated wilderness explorations like Cloud Camp if you’d prefer more of a glamping experience. Cheyenne Mountain Resort and Garden of the Gods Resort & Club are also excellent options.
Day 5: Breckenridge (two hours from Colorado Springs)
You haven’t truly experienced Colorado until you’ve done the iconic drive down I-70. It still takes my breath away every time the peaks come into view, looming closer as you come nearer. Breckenridge is one of the best examples of a classic Colorado mountain town, the downtown the largest National Historic District in the state and a former mining town. Main Street is awash in art galleries, boutiques, and tasty treats from breweries and patios to tasty Breck-fast burritos and mini donuts. Don’t miss Breckenridge Distillery, which uses Rocky Mountain snowmelt for mineral infused perfection and is the highest distillery in the nation. Whether you want to ski, explore the trails, mine for gold, go on a ghost tour, or have a relaxing day in the mountains, the free gondola boasts some of the best views of the Rockies.
Breckenridge Hotel Recommendations: Breck has a ton of alpine lodges and vacation rentals, many of which are ski in/ski out. BlueSky Breckenridge by Wyndham Vacation Rentals is one of the nicest, while the Bivvi is a uniquely high-end hostel if you’d like to try roughing it in style.
Day 6: Vail (45-minutes from Breckenridge)
Another bucket list Colorado destination, where Breck is a mountain town, Vail is more of an all-encompassing ski resort. The base village is pedestrian-only and highly worth a stroll where upscale dining and shopping abound. They essentially put Colorado skiing on the map so hit the slopes and take on the epic back bowls, or at least take advantage of the landscape somehow – whether that means hiking, biking, rafting, or fishing in the summer or riding the alpine coaster or ski biking in winter.
Day 7: Glenwood Springs (one hour from Vail)
Hanging Lake is one of the most iconic hikes in Colorado and a great way to end your trip before indulging in some R&R. The travertine lake appears to be upside down, making it a Natural National Landmark and a shining example of Colorado’s natural wonders. The 1.2 mile- trail is steep but doable. Once you’ve gotten your fill of nature porn, head to the world’s largest hot springs pool or the better-kept secret, the vapor caves. Soak in everything you did, ate, and conquered this week and start planning your trip back because trust me when I say there’s plenty more to see.
Glenwood Springs Hotel Recommendations: Glenwood Springs has a lot of quaint b&bs if you’re looking to cozy up, but Hotel Colorado is a 1800s palatial estate fit for royalty (which has hosted many celebrities and dignitaries in its day).
Alternate Ideas: This itinerary was meant to give you a taste of Colorado without venturing too far from the Front Range that’s all decently accessible from Denver and the airport. Depending on the season and your interests, Colorado has tons of other places to go for white water rafting, waterfall hikes, skiing, hot springs hopping, etc. that are a bit further afield. Royal Gorge is great for rafting, Steamboat Springs is another delightful mountain town, Aspen is well, Aspen, and Telluride is another must-see city in Southern Colorado, albeit a hike (eight hours from Denver). Colorado has so much to offer visitors that a week barely does the state justice. In short, we hope you come back soon.
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