With its stunning mountain backdrop, active lifestyle, laid-back hippie spirit, big-city culture and small town feel, Boulder is the perfect introduction to the Rocky Mountains.

But one of its more underappreciated advantages is its location, halfway between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park along Colorado’s Front Range. Boulder offers the best of both worlds – city life and the great outdoors within easy driving distance – not to mention easy access to some of the most unique little mountain towns you’re ever likely to stumble across.

Get in the car and explore! On our favorite day trips from Boulder, there are adventures (and glorious mountain vistas) around pretty much every turn.

Introducing Colorado

Get the Rocky Mountain vibe at Estes Park, Colorado

Why go?: Explore Rocky Mountain National Park
 
One of America’s most scenic national treasures sits just 45 minutes north of Boulder in the tourist-friendly town of Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Watch elk graze the golf course as you meander into town, then take a placid stroll along the Estes Park Riverwalk to explore the bevy of quaint shops and restaurants. 

Essential stops include such perennial favorites as Poppy’s Pizza and favorite local dive bar The Wheel Bar. Take a ride on the Estes Park Aerial Tram for a panoramic view of town before toasting your good fortune at finding such a great location at Estes Park Brewery.

Once inside Rocky Mountain National Park, get a taster with a scenic drive along Trail Ridge Road (the highest continuous paved road in America) or embark on a thrill-seeking climb of 14,259ft (4,346m) Longs Peak.

Less experienced hikers may prefer the open vistas and easy trails around Upper Beaver Meadows and Horseshoe Park; other moderate, gentle strolls include the paths to Bierstadt Lake and Deer Mountain. If time allows, drive the entire 48 mile (77km) length of Trail Ridge Road to the less-trafficked western part of the park and kick back in the laid-back mountain oasis of Grand Lake.

How to get to Estes Park
The most direct route to Estes Park is Highway 36, running due north from Boulder – the city soon melts into a backdrop of open valleys roamed by wild horses. Stop in smalltown Lyons at the iconic Oskar Blues for good food, beer, and maybe some live music on the way up. This route can get quite congested on weekends, so consider the slightly longer but even more scenic Peak to Peak Highway as an alternative.

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View of downtown Denver from the top of Union Station
Looking out at Denver from the top of Union Station © Brad McGinley / Getty Images

Dose up on culture in Denver, Colorado

Why go?: Experience a modern-day boomtown

It seems that everyone is moving to Denver these days, and with good reason. The capital of the American West is continuing its decades-long transformation from cow town to regional cultural powerhouse. Few cities can match Denver's combination of world-class urban amenities and breathtaking natural beauty. Take in a ballgame at the affable Coors Field (home of the Rockies), explore the hip murals of the RiNo neighborhood, or just relax on the grass in Washington Park with a good book. It’s, as they say in Denver, all good.
 
Top Denver music venues such as The Fillmore and Ogden Theatre should not be ignored and the same goes for A-plus cultural attractions such as the Denver Art Museum and the bustling city-within-in-a-city that is Union Station. Grab dinner in a hip former shipping container at Cart-Driver, then immerse yourself in some of the city’s endless breweries – our top pick is Great Divide.

How to get to Denver
Denver is located about 45 minutes south of Boulder along Highway 36, although heavy traffic can extend that travel time significantly. Public transit options between Boulder and Denver are excellent; smart travelers take the RTD bus and leave the car at home.

A couple hiking in mountain scenery near Breckenridge, Colorado
Breckenridge's ski country is a playground for hikers in summer © Jacob Stock Photography / Getty Images

Hike in ski country at Breckenridge, Colorado

Why go?: Hike a fourteener or go boating on the lake

Most visitors have heard of Breckenridge, but many fail to clock its proximity to Denver and Boulder. A drive of less than two hours from Boulder lands travelers in an entirely different world (complete with its own local weather), as the Front Range fades into the massive 14,000ft (4,267m) mountains of Summit County, soaring above one of Colorado’s most famous ski towns.

Visitors in summer and fall will find plenty of ways to keep busy, from alpine boating trips on majestic Lake Dillon to high-elevation day hikes like the view-tastic trip to Sapphire Point. Stroll Main Street to explore the shops and restaurants before heading out to investigate the surrounding area.

Recommended detours include the Boreas Pass scenic drive (an explosion of stunning foliage in fall) and the out-there mountain town of Alma. Pause here to grab a fried chicken sandwich from Otto’s Food Cart and continue on to the old Western town of Fairplay (inspiration for the TV show South Park).

How to get to Breckenridge
Visitors can access Breckenridge by picking up the I-70 west of Denver, easily one of the most beautiful stretches of interstate in America. Be aware that traffic is an absolute bear on this route at weekends during the ski season; expect delays. Thankfully, there are plenty of cool spots to stop off along the way such as Idaho Springs or St Mary’s Glacier, one of the best and least crowded hikes in Colorado.

Take the back route to the Rockies on the Peak to Peak Highway, Colorado

Why go?: Endless mountain views and cool small towns

Not only is the Peak to Peak Highway a less-trafficked back route to Rocky Mountain National Park, it's also packed with instantly lovable small towns framed by screensaver-worthy mountain scenery. Start your journey in the hippie outpost of Nederland and get a taste of Boulder’s counterculture past, before continuing north towards Allenspark to marvel at the spectacular setting of the Chapel on the Rock.

Head off the main road to delve deeper into Boulder’s backyard by exploring towns such as Gold Hill, whose romantic Gold Hill Inn restaurant is a great pick for any special occasion. Also worth a visit is the tiny hamlet of Jamestown, where the canyon-tucked Jamestown Mercantile (aka The Merc) serves up nourishing fuel for the day’s adventures in a setting full of colorful characters.

How to get to the Peak to Peak Highway
Take Highway 119 west from Boulder to Nederland, where you can either travel south to the twin casino towns of Central City and Black Hawk or north along Highway 72 towards Estes Park. The northern route offers more natural scenery and more small towns to check out.

Mountain goat grazing on wildflowers in front of Torreys Peak
When driving around Boulder, take time to hike and meet the locals © Bogdan Petre / Shutterstock

Big name shows and Old West fun in Golden, Colorado

Why go?: See a show at the world-famous Red Rocks
 
While this charming Old West-style town is technically a suburb of Denver, its mountain town aesthetic is impossible to ignore. “Denver’s closest mountain town” is an easy 20 mile (32km) drive from Boulder. Park under the iconic “Welcome to Golden” sign and explore the cute little downtown on foot.

Stroll along Golden’s Clear Creek and grab some BBQ on the roof of the newly opened Golden Mill mini food hall, then hop in the car to cruise up to the top of Lookout Mountain for some serene trail hiking and scenic overlook peeping.

The best thing about this day trip? You’re a 10 mile (16km) drive from one of the world’s best music venues. Carved into an ancient stone monolith, the world-renowned Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre hosts everything from national touring music acts to yoga sessions and film shows. It also has a beautiful park to explore on non-concert days. You’ll pass right by on your way into town from Boulder.

How to get to Golden:
Getting to Golden is half the fun. The drive from Boulder along Colorado 93 traverses Eldorado Springs (where you can take a side trip to the highly underrated Eldorado Canyon State Park), as well as the aforementioned Red Rocks. For an extra bit of fun and local flavor, stop by Rocky Flats Bar & Grill along a lonesome stretch of Highway 93 on the way there or back.

You may also like:
A beginner’s guide to hiking in Boulder, CO
Top ski resorts in Colorado for beginners to powder hounds
Top things to do in Colorado that are simply unmissable

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