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Six things to do in Colorado besides get high

With the news of marijuana legalization, Colorado tourism has been smoking in the press lately. But like Amsterdam, visitors can't just roll in, score an ounce and blaze up in a public area (or hotel rooms, for that matter), so for now tourists' options for enjoying this new enticement continue to be pretty limited.

Snow-covered road in the Colorado Rockies. Image by Alan Stark / CC BY-SA 2.0
Snow-covered road in the Colorado Rockies. Image by Alan Stark / CC BY-SA 2.0

Fear not. Colorado has plenty of alternative highs. Here are a few ways to get (legally) buzzed.

Mountains

Unless you were raised near the Alps or the Pyrenees, traveling through Colorado will have to be done one-handed, as your other hand will be needed to hold your slack jaw closed.

Highly recommended is U.S. Route 550 from Silverton to Ouray (aka 'the Million Dollar Highway,' aka 'San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway') which is punctuated by mountain peaks, dramatic passes, cliffs, narrow lanes and, frequently, no shoulder or guardrails. So, stay alert.

Less hair-raising, but just as gorgeous is the long drive from Grand Junction to Denver, which starts off with views of the Grand Mesa (said to be the largest flat-topped mountain in the world), then winds through a number of mind-bending valleys and tunnels surrounded by steep slopes of desert rock, scrub and other high altitude greenery. Check out our selection of Colorado's best scenic drives for more routes.

Chocolate

Colorado's surprisingly copious small-batch and artisanal chocolate offerings long pre-date weed legalization, so you can shelve the cheap wisecracks. Look for these chocolates in various specialty shops across the state as well as their retail outlets.

Animas Chocolate Company (animaschocolatecompany.com) makes and sells Belize-sourced chocolate out of their small retail shop in Durango, including artisan truffles like Green Fairy (absinthe-infused salted caramel) and Cowboy Coffee. Their toe-curling Smelter Hot Chocolate is a mix of their 55%, 63%, 71%, milk and white chocolates. And their Dark Chocolate Espresso Cheese Cake needs no further elaboration.

Drost's Chocolate in tiny Eckert has a legacy going back to 1906. They make their own fudge, caramel, toffee and marshmallows as well as big sellers like the Double Dark (dark truffle dipped in dark chocolate) and their caramel dipped in chocolate, covered with Hawaiian sea salt. People who appreciate a serious salty tongue-zap should try the Himalayan.

Inside Drost’s Chocolates in Eckert, Colorado. Image by Leif Pettersen / Lonely Planet
Inside Drost’s Chocolates in Eckert, Colorado. Image by Leif Pettersen / Lonely Planet

Inside Drost’s Chocolates in Eckert, Colorado. Image by Leif Pettersen / Lonely Planet

Piece Love & Chocolate (pieceloveandchocolate.com) produces over 60 different types of wildly creative chocolates out of their tiny shop in Boulder, such as a champagne cognac with ‘encapsulated CO2’ (carbonated candy) and a dark salted liquid caramel. They also do fresh-baked chocolate desserts like cookies, cupcakes, tortes (whole cakes or by the slice), and a ‘chocroissant.’ All manner of unusual chocolate-infused products are available in their shop like pasta, olive oil, coffee beans and lip balm.

Ritual Chocolate (ritualchocolate.com) in Denver focuses all their energy, and their miniscule production area, on a mere seven types of single-origin chocolate bars, including the Novo Coffee, Costa Rica and the Nib Bar. They sell their bars out of their minimalist retail space, online and at Whole Foods.

Distilleries

In the past decade, the number of micro-distilleries in Colorado went from zero to 65 at last count. These brandies, gins, vodkas and more can be found around the state, as well as the east and west coasts of the US and even Europe. The oldest among them is Peach Street Distillers (peachstreetdistillers.com), best known for their Goat Vodka, Jackelope Gin and pear brandy with a whole pear in the bottle. Check out the bar and tasting room in Palisade.

Peach Street Distillers at night. Image courtesy of Peach Street Distillers
Peach Street Distillers at night. Image courtesy of Peach Street Distillers

Leopold Bros. (leopoldbros.com) takes freshly harvested Colorado barely and malts it on site, the distillery equivalent of farm-to-table. Their new facility in northeast Denver, which has a 1,900 square foot tasting room, is one of the largest in Colorado, producing vodka, gin, whiskies, liqueurs and absinthe.

Peak Spirits is best known for their James Beard nominated CapRock organic gin, brandy and vodka as well as biodynamic grappa and wine. They grow much of their own fruit and hops at Jack Rabbit Hill Farm in western Colorado where they also distill about 6,000 cases of product per year from a single still. They have a retail outlet in Hotchkiss.

If you can get by the finicky door attendant, visit Williams & Graham (williamsandgraham.com) in Denver, a classic speakeasy style bar where you can taste all these products and much more in a single sitting. Keep on the lookout – it’s hidden behind a bookcase door and so dimly lit that anyone over age 35 will need the menu read to them.

Breweries

Craft breweries are not new to Colorado. Colorado has over 220 craft breweries and Denver holds one of the world's largest annual beer events each October: the Great American Beer Festival featuring over 600 American craft brewers.

Boulder Beer, which opened 35 years ago as the nation's first microbrewery, is still going strong. They run a pub in Boulder and lead free brewery tours Monday through Saturday. They sell a variety of year-round and seasonal beers including the 'Hazed and Infused' (unfiltered amber ale), the 'Mojo Risin'' (double IPA) and the very exclusive 'The Dude's Bane' (barrel-aged barleywine), sold only at their pub.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper was part of the crew that founded Denver's Wynkoop Brewing Company in 1988, which has now attained local legend status. While they are arguably best known for their red ale, they produce over 40 ales, lagers and seasonal 'experiments.' Join their public brewery tours Tuesday through Saturday.

Denver Beer's premium artisan ales and lagers can be found in bars, restaurants and shops across the city, but you'll want to go to the source to enjoy their popular outdoor beer garden. The always changing list of beers on tap include the Graham Cracker Porter (vanilla, mulling spices, chocolate and roasted malt) and the Incredible Pedal IPA (a hoppy, medium bodied ale with notes of floral, citrus, and tropical fruit).

Cheese tasting

Colorado's 'men of the curd' may not be large in number, but their heroic dedication to cow, goat and sheep cheeses is truly remarkable.

Cheese drying at James Ranch. Image by Leif Pettersen / Lonely Planet
Cheese drying at James Ranch. Image by Leif Pettersen / Lonely Planet

James Ranch, outside Durango, welcomes drop-in visitors to tour the ranch, eat their products (the Signature Burger with Belford cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce and rosemary garlic mayonnaise is sublime) and buy cheese, eggs, milk and beef in their market.

Avalanche Cheese Company (avalanchecheese.com) makes hand crafted goat cheese (specifically, pasteurized fresh, aged and raw milk cheeses) and invites people to get dirty on their goat farm near Paonia, gathering eggs, tending chickens and feeding and milking their 180 Saanen, Alpine and Nubian goats, who are totally cute and crave attention like puppies. They also have a rustic, but comfortable cabin for rent on the property that sleeps four.

Haystack Mountain Goat Cheese (haystackgoatcheese.com) produce award-winning fresh, bloomy rind, Monterey Jack and raw milk cheeses in their facility in Longmont. Tours and tastings are available each Thursday, which include lectures on goats and cheese-making. Haystack and a number of other cheeses (and wine) can be sampled at Cured Cheese Shop (curedboulder.com) in nearby Boulder.

Fruition Farm (fruitionfarmsdairy.com) is Colorado's first and currently only artisanal sheep dairy and creamery. You can't visit, but look for their award-winning sheep's milk ricotta, pecora, and shepherd's halo at select shops around Colorado and at a number of Colorado restaurants, including the outstanding Fruition Restaurant in Denver.

Goats at the Avalanche Dairy Farm. Image by Leif Pettersen / Lonely Planet
Goats at the Avalanche Dairy Farm. Image by Leif Pettersen / Lonely Planet

Biking, skiing, rock climbing

With four national parks, 25 scenic byways, 42 state parks and 25 renowned ski areas and resorts (including Vail, the largest ski resort in the U.S.), Colorado is literally a playground for outdoor enthusiasts.

With an average of 300 days of sunshine combined with the physiological advantages of training at altitude, Colorado has long been a beacon for pro cyclists, but amateur and casual cyclists have plenty of opportunities as well. Once one has made the somewhat uncomfortable adjustment to exercising in the thin air (usually about a week), the scenic byways, wide variety of terrain and cycling-oriented infrastructure (Colorado is currently the No. 2 most bicycle-friendly state in the U.S.) make for ideal touring conditions. Additionally, Boulder, Breckenridge, Fort Collins, Crested Butte, Durango and Steamboat Springs all score high for urban cycling.

The state famously enjoys about 300 inches of average snowfall annually, fluffing up Colorado's 25 ski areas (a combined 42,676 acres), including heli-skiing, hike-to-ski and cat skiing. In February 2015, Vail and Beaver Creek will host 700 athletes from over 70 nations at the Alpine World Ski Championships, second only to the Olympics in size.

With all that vertical and near-vertical real estate, Colorado is unsurprisingly a climber's jamboree. The state's most popular climbing spots include the three pointed rock faces at Boulder's Flatirons, Eldorado Canyon (also near Boulder), and Clear Creek Canyon outside of Golden.

Colorado is also a great destination for ice climbing. Remote Ouray has a man-made ice park (ourayicepark.com) said to be one of the most popular locations for ice climbing in the world and the Ouray Ice Festival is considered the premiere ice climbing event in the United States.

A great resource for the state's climbing options is Colorado Mountain School (coloradomountainschool.com).