Colorado is perhaps best known for the Rocky Mountains that stretch across the state and offer up hiking and biking in the summer and skiing and snowboarding in the winter. But what most people don’t know about Colorado is that the state also has beautiful red rock formations set in the dry desert, ancient cliff dwellings, and alternative towns that dance to the beat of their own drums.
The one thing that binds everyone who lives in or visits Colorado is a love of nature and the outdoors — be it river rafting, climbing 14,000-foot peaks, or wildflower viewing. And as someone who grew up in the state (and lives here now), I’ve spent several decades exploring the vista-rich Centennial State. These parks, monuments, towns, and sites showcase the variety of experiences the state offers.
Here are 20 of the best places to visit in Colorado.
Rattlesnake Canyon Arches
While Utah’s Arches National Park takes the crown for the highest concentration of natural arches, Colorado’s Rattlesnake Canyon Arches come in a close second. This hidden gem features 35 captivating arches within a scenic canyon on a sprawling 123,400-acre preserve.
Denver’s vibrant downtown area, known for its natural beauty, is not to be missed. Larimer Square, Denver’s first designated local historic district, exudes charm with its picturesque shops and eateries. Just a short stroll away from the heart of the city at Union Station, it offers a quintessential Colorado experience.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Immerse yourself in the true essence of Colorado by witnessing the majestic sight of a golden eagle soaring above the steep gorge of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This stunning national park in western Colorado showcases a river-carved gorge with sheer walls, and the awe-inspiring Painted Wall cliff that appears to be adorned with giant stripes.
Colorado National Monument
If you envision the quintessential American West, then the Colorado National Monument will captivate your imagination. Located atop the Colorado Plateau, it boasts awe-inspiring features like towering monoliths, sheer canyon walls, herds of bighorn sheep, and soaring eagles. Take a scenic drive along Rim Rock Drive, enjoy year-round camping, or embark on hiking and biking adventures.
Although Aspen is a well-known destination, its popularity is well-deserved. This picturesque mountain town is nestled amidst four renowned ski areas, all accessible with a single lift ticket. Despite its modest population of around 7,000 residents, Aspen surprises visitors with its vibrant cultural scene. Don’t miss the opportunity to photograph the iconic Maroon Bells, the most photographed mountains in North America.
Mesa Verde National Park
Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park holds great cultural and historical significance. Once inhabited by the Ancestral Pueblo people, who constructed their homes within the sandstone cliffs, this park preserves their legacy and architectural wonders. It is recognized as a World Heritage Site and an International Dark Sky Park, making it a truly sacred place.
Amache National Historic Site
Deeply rooted in Colorado’s history is the Amache National Historic Site, also known as the Granada Relocation Center or Camp Amache. This site holds great significance as it was the place where thousands of Japanese Americans were unjustly interned during World War II. Today, this eastern Colorado location serves as a memorial, sharing the stories of over 10,000 individuals, the majority of whom were American citizens, who endured this difficult chapter in American history.
In the vast expanse of Colorado, nestled within the charming town of Pagosa Springs, lies a true natural gem—the world’s deepest hot spring. While the state boasts numerous hot springs, Pagosa Springs stands out for its unique location. The Springs Resort & Spa, with its terraced tubs alongside the river, offers an unparalleled spot for relaxation. For those seeking a more budget-friendly option, the “hippy dip” on the opposite side of the river provides a free and refreshing soak.
Rocky Mountain National Park
As Colorado’s most visited national park, Rocky Mountain National Park is a must-see destination. Just a little over an hour’s drive from downtown Denver, this park holds a special distinction—it spans the Continental Divide. During the fall season, the Old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road treat visitors to a breathtaking display of vibrant colors. For avid mountaineers, conquering the summit of Longs Peak, the park’s tallest mountain, is an exhilarating adventure.
Tucked away in the heart of Colorado, Crestone stands as an embodiment of the state’s alternative spirit. With a population of fewer than 150 residents, this small town exudes a commitment to sustainable living and spirituality. It’s a place where off-the-grid homes and spiritual centers abound. The Crestone Mountain Zen Center and the Tashi Gomang Stupa are just a couple of the noteworthy sites that contribute to Crestone’s unique character.
Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre
A short distance west of Denver, an awe-inspiring sight awaits: the massive red rocks that seemingly emerge from the earth’s depths. Long ago, these striking rock formations were transformed into a natural amphitheater, renowned worldwide for its exceptional sound quality. Today, performing at Red Rocks has become a coveted achievement for many renowned artists, making it an iconic venue for unforgettable live performances.
For an all-encompassing mountain town experience, Glenwood Springs reigns supreme. With a population of just over 10,000, this lively town is conveniently located along the interstate, allowing easy access from Denver. Visitors can indulge in three developed hot springs, revel in the thrill of a mountaintop adventure park accessible only by gondola, and partake in various activities along the picturesque river, such as paddling and fishing.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Colorado surprises visitors with its diverse landscapes, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a prime example. This protected area showcases an extraordinary natural phenomenon—massive sand dunes formed at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is home to the tallest sand dunes in North America and the enigmatic “surge flow” of Medano Creek, making it a captivating destination for explorers.
While Crested Butte may share similarities with other Colorado mountain towns, it stands out for its breathtaking display of wildflowers, earning it the well-deserved title of the “Wildflower Capital of Colorado.” Each year, the town hosts a vibrant 10-day festival celebrating the vibrant blooms, offering a unique opportunity to immerse oneself in the beauty of nature.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
In the mesmerizing red rock canyons of southwestern Colorado lies the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, an archaeological wonder. Encompassing a staggering 174,000 acres, this expansive monument reveals clues about the daily lives of ancient Indigenous people. Among its treasures are over 8,300 recorded villages, cliff dwellings, shrines, kivas, petroglyphs, and other historic sites, providing a glimpse into a rich cultural past.
With its combination of hot springs and a distinctive American West ambiance, Steamboat Springs presents a unique blend of experiences. This Colorado hot spring and ski town boasts a landscape that entices outdoor enthusiasts, where cowboy hats are as common as Chacos. Two ski areas, geothermal hot springs, and the nearby state park offer a plethora of recreational opportunities for visitors to indulge in.
Denver Union Station
Denver’s Union Station is not just an ordinary transportation hub; it has transformed into the vibrant heart of the city. The 1914 Beaux-Arts train station, a designated historic landmark, now boasts an array of ten chef-owned restaurants and bars, a boutique hotel, and a handful of distinctive shops. With the added charm of four bee hives on the rooftop, Union Station offers a unique blend of history, dining, and shopping, all conveniently connected to bus, light rail, and Amtrak services.
Perched at the meeting point of mountains and desert, the city of Durango showcases a diverse landscape that caters to all tastes. Hot springs, ski areas, mountain biking trails, and the picturesque Animas River flowing through town offer an abundance of outdoor adventures. For a memorable experience, embark on a scenic journey aboard the 19th-century Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, traversing a mountain pass from Durango to Silverton.
Dinosaur National Monument
For enthusiasts of prehistoric creatures, Dinosaur National Monument is a dream come true. Straddling the Colorado-Utah border, this national monument showcases abundant evidence of the dinosaurs that once roamed Colorado’s landscapes. Embedded within the rocks, visitors can discover dinosaur remains, petroglyphs left by early humans, and a wealth of outdoor activities, including river rafting, hiking, and camping.
Boulder, a vibrant college town with its close proximity to Denver and the mountains, offers a wealth of attractions. The iconic Flatirons, magnificent rock formations flanked by numerous hiking trails, grace the western side of the city. In the downtown neighborhood of Pearl Street Mall, visitors can explore art galleries, savor inventive cuisine, and browse unique boutiques, making it an ideal destination for leisurely strolls and exploration.
Can I camp in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park?
Yes, camping is permitted in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. There are two campgrounds available: South Rim Campground and North Rim Campground. Both offer tent and RV camping, but they have limited services and facilities, so plan accordingly.
What are the must-see attractions in Aspen?
Apart from the renowned ski areas, Aspen offers several attractions. Don’t miss the Maroon Bells, Independence Pass, the Aspen Art Museum, Wheeler Opera House, and the quaint streets of downtown Aspen, lined with shops, galleries, and restaurants.
How can I explore Mesa Verde National Park?
Mesa Verde National Park offers various guided tours to explore the cliff dwellings and archaeological sites. You can join ranger-led tours, including visits to the famous Cliff Palace and Balcony House. Tickets for these tours can be purchased at the visitor center.
Is there an entrance fee for Rocky Mountain National Park?
Yes, there is an entrance fee for Rocky Mountain National Park. The fees vary depending on the type of entrance pass, such as a private vehicle pass or an individual pass. It’s advisable to check the official park website for the latest fee information.
Can I visit Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve year-round?
Yes, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve can be visited year-round. However, certain activities, like sandboarding and splashing in Medano Creek, are more enjoyable during the late spring and summer months when water flow is higher and temperatures are warmer.
How can I reach the Great Sand Dunes from Crestone?
The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is located approximately 15 miles northeast of Crestone. You can reach the park by driving northeast on CO-17 and then turning onto County Road 6 to access the park’s entrance.
Are there guided tours available in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument?
While there are no official guided tours provided within the monument, visitors can explore the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument on their own. The visitor center provides maps, brochures, and information to help plan your self-guided exploration.
As I conclude this journey through the best places to visit in Colorado, I hope you’ve been inspired to explore the diverse landscapes and unique destinations that this beautiful state has to offer. From the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the red rock formations and ancient cliff dwellings, Colorado showcases a harmonious blend of natural wonders, cultural heritage, and vibrant communities.
Whether you find yourself hiking through Rattlesnake Canyon Arches, immersing in the historic charm of Larimer Square, or witnessing the awe-inspiring beauty of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, each place on this list reveals a different facet of Colorado’s allure. The love for nature and the outdoors is ingrained in the hearts of those who live here and those who visit, creating a shared appreciation for the Centennial State’s remarkable landscapes.