At the center of Colorado in the dizzying heights of the Rocky Mountains you will find a million-and-one attractions. Much of the adventure centers in iconic ski resorts like Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge. By summer, these are also great spots for hiking, mountain biking and other alpine adventures into the vast alpine wilderness found here.
In the less-known areas around South Park and Leadville you can still find world-class rafting, mountain climbing and vistas that go on for miles. There are alpine lakes to be visited, wildlife to be seen, backroads to mining ghost towns to be explored, steam trains to be ridden and much more.
It's also a place of fun-loving irreverence, wild parties and plenty of mountain-town high jinx. Part of the journey is connecting with the sun-kissed broad-smiled locals.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Central Colorado.
Barney Ford was an escaped slave who became a prominent entrepreneur and Colorado civil-rights pioneer, and made two stops in Breckenridge (where he ran a 24-hour chop stand serving delicacies such as oysters) over the course of his incredibly rich, tragic and triumphant life. He also owned a restaurant and hotel in Denver. The museum is set in his old home, where he lived from 1882 to 1890.
The pinnacle of many visitors’ trips to Colorado is a drive to the alpine summit of Mt Evans, less than an hour west of Denver’s skyscrapers. It was opened in 1930 and remains the highest paved road in North America. Be prepared for cool weather, even when Denver is baking hot. The road only opens in summer when conditions are safe for driving.
Wildflowers and windswept trails, boulders and snowfields – these are the disproportionately big rewards for the easy hike up to St Mary’s Glacier. It’s a quick day escape from Denver, and the modest elevation gains, short distance (half-mile) and summer snow and ice make it ideal even for the littlest hikers. Although the area gets fairly busy on summer weekends, the views on a clear day are remarkable, and a scramble around the lake will bring you to the glacier itself.
About 16 miles north of Leadville on Hwy 24, just over Tennessee Pass, lies the former US Army facility Camp Hale. Established in 1942, it was created specifically for the purpose of training the 10th Mountain Division, the Army’s only battalion on skis. At its height during WWII, there were over 1000 buildings and some 14,000 soldiers housed in the meadow here.
Set on the site of the original town saloon in 1889, and later converted into the town’s second school in 1901, this museum features a number of historical displays, including one on the Ute nation, a diorama of the original Ten Mile Canyon railroad that fed and connected the mining camps of Leadville and Frisco, and a historic map of Colorado (c 1873).
This award-winning museum sheds light on a pioneer lured west by the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in 1858. He reached the Blue River valley in 1860. An original environmentalist, he noticed the impact of mining on wildlife early on, documenting genetic deformities (such as two-headed animals) that he suspected were linked to leaching toxins.
In October 2010, a bulldozer working near Snowmass unearthed the tusk of a female mammoth. Spurred by this unusual discovery, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science moved in for the next 10 months to conduct its largest-ever fossil excavation, resulting in the discovery of some 36,000 bones from 52 different Ice Age animals (including camels, sloths and mastodons – distant relatives of the mammoths).
Originally known as Breckenridge Pass (11,481ft), this road first began serving stagecoaches in 1866 when prospectors flooded into the area from South Park looking for gold. In 1882, a narrow-gauge railway replaced the wagon road and remained in operation until 1937. Although the upper section across the Continental Divide is unpaved, you can easily drive up in summer and in fall for spectacular views.
This family-oriented destination lumps together several attractions at once: the Fairy Caves (once billed as the eighth wonder of the world), a full-on amusement park, and a tram ride 1300 ft up to the top of Iron Mountain. The regular cave tour is probably the main attraction here: this is the largest cave in Colorado open to the public.