Remarkable in its diversity, beauty and grandeur, Colorado delivers endless powder runs, outdoors adventures, surprisingly cosmopolitan arts and dining scenes and 300 days of sunshine – and Denver sits right in the middle of it. You can access incredible hiking, awesome cultural institutions and lovely little towns to explore within two hours' drive.

Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel and opening hours may vary. Check the latest guidance in Denver before planning a trip, and always follow local health advice.

Woman biking at Chautauqua Park
Boulder has wonderful hiking trails and one of the best open-space park systems in the US ©John Kieffer/Getty Images

1. Boulder

Boulder is simply a wonderful place to be. Less than an hour's drive from downtown Denver, it sits at the edge of the most beautiful open-space park systems in the US. At the center of it all sits the University of Colorado campus with manicured quads and towering stone buildings. 

Beyond the campus, the town is a lovely grouping of small retail enclaves, like pedestrian Pearl Street Mall, walking paths, parks and Victorian houses dating back 100 years.

How to get to Boulder: Boulder is accessible from Denver via public transport. The FF1 bus travels between the Boulder Transit Center and Union Station in Denver and route AB1 runs between Table Mesa Park-n-Ride and Denver International Airport. In a car it takes less than an hour on US36.

Further reading: A beginner's guide to hiking in Boulder

Family hiking on summer vacation in Colorado mountains.
Families will love finding gorgeous trails to explore at Rocky Mountain National Park © MargaretW / Getty Images

2. Rocky Mountain National Park 

The crown jewel of Colorado's national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 415 sq miles of granite mountain top, alpine lake, wildflower-filled meadow, hiking trails, start-filled nights and adventures large and small. 

While it can be a zoo at the height of the summer season, you can leave the crowds behind by getting just a little off the main trails. The park protects moose, elk, bighorn sheep, black bear and more. Climbers will be challenged by the area's high peaks, while families and sightseers will love driving over the rooftop of the Rockies on Trail Ridge Road, taking part in ranger-led activities and tackling short forays into the glorious wilderness. 

In winter, the park is slightly hard to access depending on snowfall, but the pristine quiet that blankets the landscape is total zen. 

How to get to Rocky Mountain National Park: There are a variety of routes to get to the park from Denver, but the most direct is on HWY 36 through Boulder and Lyons and into Estes Park. It But any route you take will be a spectacular drive, through rugged foothills, rock formations and lush forest. Lyons and Estes Park are both cute towns with stops for lunch if you didn't bring your picnic.

Further reading: Best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Man fly fishing in winter.
From fly fishing to skiing, mountain biking to boutique shopping, Breckenridge has something for everyone no matter the season © Tyler Stableford / Getty Images

3. Breckenridge

This unique ski town is the heart of Summit County. Not planned originally as a ski town, Breckenridge was built from the sweat and dreams of miners over a hundred years ago. The quaint historic center now houses T-shirt shops, high-end restaurants and converted Victorian Inns. 

These deep historic roots give Breckenridge a more grounded feel than other ski destinations. You also get some of the best riding in the world on the resort's five peaks, plus wonderful views from every part of town over the dramatic Tenmile Range, and a party atmosphere that brings fun and laughter to everything you'll do.

This is a great family resort as well, with plenty of activities for children along the way. Although it's primarily a ski destination, don't overlook a visit here in the summer. Wildflowers fill the meadows, mountain bikes take to the trails and there's a delightful off-road paved trail system.

How to get to Breckenridge: Breckenridge is about two hours outside of Denver on I-70. You'll head straight west and climb into the mountains past Idaho Springs and Georgetown, both small mining towns worth a stop if you have a few minutes. And if you have the time, take a 40 minute detour up Mt Evans. It's the highest paved road in the US and you'll be able to "bag a fourteener" (summit a peak over 14,000ft) without the huffing and puffing. 

Dusting of Snow Garden of the Gods
The rock formations at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs © Ronda Kimbrow Photography / Getty Images

4. Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs is absolutely gorgeous. Pikes Peak hangs over the city, and the vertical sandstone towers of the Garden of the Gods loom nearby. Cute little neighborhoods make it feel like a cozy mountain town. Taking a day to explore everything the town and its environs have to offer should make it onto any Colorado Top Five list.

On the west side of town, you'll find shops and bistros in Manitou Springs and Old Colorado City. As you head into the foothills, there is amazing hiking, mountain biking, outdoor adventures, cliff dwellings, cave tours, and a trip by car to the top of Pikes Peak.

If you're so inclined, the famous Broadmoor is located in Colorado Springs. As one of the top five-star resorts in the US, everything here is exquisite: acres of lush grounds and a lake, a glimmering pool, world-class golf, myriad bars and restaurants, an incredible spa and uber-comfortable guest rooms. The elegant property makes for a very romantic stay if you're looking for a quick getaway with a loved one. 

How to get to Colorado Springs: Head south from Denver on I-25. You can take a Grey Hound bus from Denver, but with so much to see in town its best to drive.

Pawnee Butte
Many people forget that much of Colorado is plains and there is great natural beauty there too © Pat Gaines / Getty Images

5. Fort Collins and Pawnee National Grasslands

Fort Collins is unassuming, direct, free-loving and gorgeous. The core downtown areas feature a world-class university campus, raucous nightlife, playful Victorian houses with  tree-bordered avenues, a restaurant pedestrian zone, more brewpubs than you can possibly visit in a week, and a delightfully chilled air that feels unpretentious, honest and just about as open as you can get.

Get a glimpse of what the Great Plains may have looked like before the westward expansion in the 190,000-acre Pawnee National Grassland, just 35 miles east of Fort Collins. The highlight is a hike around the signature Pawnee Buttes. 

The towering blond sandstone buttes are the only bump in this singular landscape of grass and prairie. You can get around the buttes in about two hours on a 4.1-mile circuit. There is also plenty of wildlife to be spotted here, from Colorado's state bird, the lark bunting, to mountain plover, burrowing owls and a number of raptor species. You might also spot the occasional band of pronghorn and mule deer, along with predators like coyote and fox.

After your hike head back to Fort Collins, where a tall microbrew awaits.

How to get to Fort Collins: Fort Collins is 65 miles north of Denver, to the west of the I-25 corridor. Take the Prospect Rd exit to reach downtown.

Further reading

Best time to visit Denver
The great Colorado 'Fourteener' road trip
How to explore Denver’s hippest hoods

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