Content Produced in Partnership with Visit Colorado Springs
When I moved to Colorado, I thought I had found utopia. The sun was always shining, people were genuine and cheerful, drinks at popular bars were $2, and it seemed like a place where the work-life balance actually existed. But just as quickly as I settled into a new norm of midday explorations and smiling at strangers, the secret was out.
Denver’s population boomed at such an unsustainable rate there was a severe housing shortage, traffic and parking nightmares, and transplants who seemed to bring the worst of their home states with them (Texans, looking at you). Virtually overnight, my utopia was tarnished and Denver quickly became as annoying as every other big city. Every time I returned home to more and more construction, I would get sadder and sadder.
Sometimes it takes leaving to appreciate what you have in your own backyard. Sometimes it takes leaving to want to come home.
It took a recent staycation in Colorado Springs to remind me that despite my grievances with the capital, how much I still love about the state. As Colorado’s second largest city, the Springs is a little over an hour away but feels far removed from the chaos and urban sprawl. Originally founded as a resort town, you have all the conveniences of a major urban hub, but you’re much closer to the beloved mountains and at a higher altitude, that crisp mountain air is a natural mood enhancer. So do yourself a favor — the next time you visit the Rocky Mountains, base yourself in the Springs. There’s a ton to do right in town and a number of epic day trips that promise all the mountain magic without any of the stress. And they have their own airport. Not saying, just saying.
Visit Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods is one of the best free attractions in the country and regularly voted one of the best parks in the U.S. on TripAdvisor. A National Natural Landmark, the 300-foot red sandstone monoliths tower above a backdrop of blue as Pike’s Peak stands majestically in the background. An outdoor playground, the area is a climber’s haven (and a great place to try rock climbing for the first time), but there are also over 15 miles of trails that can be explored by hiking, biking, Jeep, or Segway. Some of the most popular photo spots include the easy 1-mile Siamese Twins Trail, which leads to a natural rock window, High Point Overlook, Ridge Trail Overlook, and Palmer Trail. Pro Tip: the park is much less busy on weekdays so plan your visit accordingly.
Tour the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center and Museum
If you enjoy cheering for Team USA, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center and Museum is where to fangirl over all your favorite athletes. The facility is home to summer training programs and dorms for Olympic and Paralympic sports like gymnastics, swimming, and cycling. Private tours are led by guides and the athletes themselves and include lunch at the athlete cafeteria and a visit to the Hall of Fame.
Hike Seven Falls
The Broadmoor’s world-famous waterfall, Seven Falls is the only waterfall in Colorado to be included on Nat Geo’s list of must-see waterfalls around the world. Named for its seven separate tiered falls, each segment technically has its own name and characteristics. You must take a shuttle to get there and purchase a ticket (yes, you need a ticket to hike), but the base of the falls is an easy .8-mile walk from the park entrance or a $2 tram ride. From there, you can either take the stairs or an elevator up to the Eagle’s Nest observation deck before climbing the 224 stairs to the top of the falls to hike around the circumference. Be sure to come back at night when the flowing water is bathed in colored lights (year-round, beginning around 5:30 p.m.).
Meander Manitou Springs
My favorite town in Colorado, Manitou Springs is Colorado Springs’ quirky, eclectic neighbor. Home to naturally occurring mineral springs said to have extraordinary healing properties, the area attracts characters from far and wide to test the waters so to speak, giving the town a distinct boho vibe. Pay a visit to the Cliff Dwellings (thousand-year-old Native American pueblos), play vintage games at the Penny Arcade, and hike the Incline. A challenge for serious athletes, the Incline was a cable car track turned Stairmaster that gains almost 2,000 feet of elevation in less than 1 mile. It’s basically 2,744 steps of pure torturous pride if that’s your thing. When you’re ready to ease your sore muscles, soak in the mineral-filled cedar tubs at Sunwater Spa for a bit of relaxation and rejuvenation because you earned it.
Drive Pikes Peak Highway
It’s not every day you can scale a mountain from the seat of your car… if you can handle the hairpin turns and a general lack of guardrails, that is. The second most visited mountain in the world and one of Colorado’s most accessible 14ers (one of 54 mountains over 14,000 feet), Pikes Peak is a 19-mile toll road that zigzags up to the summit. You’ll pass through four different biozones along the way with a mixture of flora, fauna, wildlife, and climates so be sure to dress in layers because the snowcapped peak is absolutely freezing. It takes about an hour to ascend with plenty of scenic viewpoints en route. On a clear day, you can see up to five states (Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Kansas) and supposedly even the curvature of the Earth in the distance (take that everyone who think the planet is flat). It’s important to note that during the busy summer months (June 1 to September 15), you can only drive to Mile 16 where a shuttle waits to take you to the summit. Pro Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for Bigfoot and the North Pole/Santa’s Workshop on your way out.
Monkey Around at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
One of the best zoos in the country for its interactive animal experiences, you can feed a number of fuzzy and furry friends from leopards and lions to elephants. The star of the show is the giant giraffe herd, though, which never seems to tire of lapping up lettuce right from the palm of your hand. You could spend all day watching them amble about, but there are also plenty of unique creatures to seek out like the tapir, coati, and my personal favorite, the okapi, which looks like a cross between a deer, zebra, and pony. Pro Tip: Don’t leave without driving up to the Will Rogers Shrine for one of the best views of Colorado Springs.
Get Your Adventure on at Cave of the Winds
Discovered accidentally by two young boys in 1880, Cave of the Winds is a 500-million-year-old underground world with 10,765 feet of surveyed passages that are mostly open to the public. One of 22 nationally recognized cave projects from the U.S. speleological society, the Discovery Tour offers a good overview of the history and geology of the unique environment. You’ll be guided through the tunnels to some of the more beautiful rooms to identify stalactites and stalagmites in shape and sizes with names like “ET phone home” and “Tall man’s headache, fat man’s misery” as you suck, tuck and duck your way through the dimly lit abyss (Fun Fact: Cave of the Winds was the third cave in America to install lights, which was so impressive that Thomas Edison had to see it for himself). If you don’t mind the dark, the Lantern Tour is a spookier trip down memory lane full of ghost stories and tall tales. When you’re ready to return to the surface, you can pair the experience with one of their stomach-dropping thrill rides like the Terror-Dactyl, which casually flings you off the cliff at 100 mph, or a tamer alpine adventure like the Wind Walker Challenge Course and the Via Ferrata, a vertical canyon climb.
Attend a Chuckwagon Dinner
A working cattle ranch since the ’50s, the Flying W hosts one of the largest weekly chuckwagon shows in the country to introduce and immerse visitors to cowboy culture. Way more than just dinner, there’s a petting zoo, tepee village, Native American dancers, and the Wranglers, the second oldest western band in the world who put on quite the performance. Part dinner show, part homestyle BBQ with all the fixings and trimmings it’s a fun wholesome night out for the whole family.
Marvel at the Paint Mines Interpretive Park
One of my favorite lesser known spots in Colorado, the Paint Mines are under an hour from Colorado Springs in Calhoun and a great day trip. They look like a mini Badlands, full of colorful hoodoos, spires, and crazy rock formations. Native Americans used the clay for painting (hence the name), and the area displays evidence of human life as far back as 9,000 years. It’s a flat, easy stroll (a little over a mile) for epic landscapes and better photos.
Get Your Adrenaline Pumping at Royal Gorge Bridge & Park
Another great day trip or weekend getaway from Colorado Springs, Royal Gorge (a little over an hour drive) is the highest suspension bridge in America. Most come to raft under the bridge, but you can also climb the via ferrata or ride the gondola, skycoaster, or record-setting zipline to see Royal Gorge from sky, land, and water.
Where to Eat in Colorado Springs:
There are dozens of highly-rated restaurants in Colorado Springs (including a number of popular Denver offshoots), but here are a few of the more unique, standout dining experiences. You can also get a taste for the town on a food tour.
The Airplane Restaurant – If you’re into unique dining experiences, the Airplane Restaurant is exactly what it sounds like — a restaurant inside a Boeing KC-97 fighter plane. Owned by a former pilot, all the tables are his real flight maps with tons of paraphernalia all over the dining room. The owner has all kinds of crazy stories about Russian and Finnish spies and the FBI, so be sure to pick his brain because it’s one of those if walls could talk kind of places.
King’s Chef Diner – It’s hard to miss a bright purple castle, but isn’t that the point? A historical landmark since 1956, what started as a tiny 13-seat diner has since expanded to two locations in the area. Known for their monster portions, King’s Chef actually offer dishes in ½ and ¼ size options because their plates are so enormous. Featured on “Outrageous Food” on the Food Network, if you’re looking for a place to try traditional Colorado green chile, theirs is award-winning.
Ivywild School and Bistro – A marketplace and brewery housed in an early 19th-century elementary school, Ivywild has been a community-gathering place since inception. Concerts and events are always going on and as you wander the halls, keep your eyes peeled for original artwork done by the students. Don’t leave without paying a visit to the Principal’s Office — you’ll be glad you did.
Restaurant 1858 – The Broadmoor’s Seven Falls restaurant was named after the year gold was discovered in Colorado, the single most important economic event during the state’s founding. The menu was inspired by German, French, and Creole settlers who traveled here in search of good fortune. And while landlocked Colorado isn’t exactly known for its plentiful seafood options, the Rocky Mountain Trout is the menu standout with shrimp and grits the overwhelming fan favorite. Cutesy drink names have gold rush references including a category that’s “temperance friendly” aka non-alcoholic.
Four by Brother Luck – A popular cheftestant on Top Chef, Brother Luck’s restaurant is a clever homage to the four purveyors behind his cooking – hunters, fisherman, farmers, and gatherers. The menu features seasonally updated small plates and comfort food like short rib grilled cheese, but it’s the chipotle bacon fat popcorn for the table that steals the show.
The Rabbit Hole – Billed as Colorado Springs’ best-kept secret, this speakeasy is underground, hence the “fall down the rabbit hole” reference. An Alice in Wonderland themed restaurant and bar, it’s a whimsical fantasyland for adults. Make sure to make reservations ahead of time because they’re ridiculously popular for being a “secret.”
Where to Stay:
For the ultimate private Garden of the Gods Park experience, the gorgeous Garden of the Gods Resort rooms, casitas and cottages are like your own secret luxury outdoor oasis with million dollar views everywhere you turn from your back patio to the adults-only infinity pool overlooking the insane rock formations. Every detail and finish is meticulously thought out from in-room wine dispensers to the carefully curated oils and lotions at the spa.
Cheyenne Mountain Resort has that cabin in the woods, wellness retreat, and four-star, four diamond hotel feel all rolled in one. Home to a championship golf course, 16 tennis courts, three pools, private lake, and three restaurants on a sprawling 217 acres, you’re nestled at the base of a mountain for views, views, views yet minutes away from all the major attractions downtown. The suites are huge and actually feel like you accidentally stumbled into someone else’s room with two adjoining rooms complete with separate door numbers, multiple bathrooms, and private balconies, while the Mountain View Restaurant’s cozy oversized fireplaces are the ideal spot to enjoy perfectly prepared steaks and a warm, toasty nightcap.
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