Who’s got a friend who moved to Colorado recently? Just about everyone…because it’s awesome. It’s a state where mountains erupt from the earth with red cliffs, snowy peaks, and sand dunes. Cities are as cosmopolitan as they are granola, with bankers leaving work early to hit the mountain bike trails and farm-to-table waiters serving to sustain their ski habit. Coloradans have got it figured out, between natural beauty, great weather, and a healthy lifestyle that leaves room for a few craft beers. We’re perfectly happy as nomads, but towns like Denver, Fort Collins, and Steamboat Springs had us looking up real estate. We drove over 1,200 miles, zigzagging in every direction and the state never ceased to amaze. We didn’t mean to be on a Colorado road trip for two months but check out our favorite places and adventures and you’ll see why it was so hard to leave.
Great Sand Dunes
Entering Colorado from the South, you expect pine-covered mountains, not North America’s tallest sand dunes. Surrounded by the snow-dusted Sangre de Cristo Mountains with a river running at its feet, Great Dunes National Park seems remarkably out of place. We walked into the ranger station, asked for trail recommendations, and got the best response, “For the dunes, there are no trails, just blaze your own path to the top.” We geared up with long pants, bandanas, and sunglasses like a modern-day Laurence of Arabia and followed the contours of the peaks and valleys. You could see the wind changing the shape of the dunes, and our footsteps only expedited the process. We reached the 750-foot summit (way higher than it sounds when your trekking in sand), only to see the dunes continue another 30 square miles until they hit the ring of mountains. Then we ran down the slippery sand, like school kids…giggling, fearless, unstoppable.
The Wild West of Cripple Creek
Colorado’s historic hunt for gold in the hills inspired roads and quirky towns in some unlikely places. We embarked on the Gold Belt Scenic Byway, starting at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument with remarkable petrified redwoods, palms, and insects dating back 34 million years. Continuing south, we reached Cripple Creek, the state’s most prosperous mine town from the 1800s to present. We drove down the main drag and it was like no time had passed, with saloons and gambling halls in Victorian buildings. It happened to be Mike’s birthday so we used his lucky day as an excuse to play a few slots and drink beers on the house.
Stagecoach Shelf Road
By far the biggest win from Cripple Creek was discovering Shelf Road—one of our favorite routes of the entire 29,000+ mile road trip. Built as a stagecoach route in 1892, this narrow, unpaved road is cut into the limestone cliffs, snaking around corners without guard rails and dipping into rocky river valleys until it spits you out at Cañon City. Watch this video (if you aren’t afraid of heights).
Music on The Rocks
One of the reasons we came to Colorado was for IPW, a five-day travel conference with the USA’s biggest players in tourism. We had some really exciting meetings with tour operators, tourism boards, and journalists; plus, we were blown away by their event lineup. IPW hosted a 3,000-person party on the Broncos’ football field, brunch was prepared by James Beard chefs, Broadway dancers performed at lunch, followed by the B-52’s and Rob Thomas, and then…One Republic performed a private concert at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheater. This venue, sandwiched between two 300-foot sandstone fins, has been hosting shows since 1904, with the Beatles, Sting, Jimmy Hendrix, U2, The Grateful Dead, and countless others clamoring to perform in this acoustically perfect temple of music. During his incredible set, lead singer Ryan Tedder said, “I’ve performed in over a hundred venues around the world—even an amphitheater by Alexander the Great—and nothing rivals Red Rocks.” Music lovers, make sure this amphitheater is on your bucket list. Watch the concert highlights, here.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Mike’s been taking his two brothers on road trips since he got his license and it was time to spark the tradition back up. With one brother (Matt) already in Breckenridge, another (Ryan) just a Southwest flight away from San Francisco, and a camper big enough to sleep three, the stars were aligning again. To give them some quality bro time, I bid the boys farewell in Denver and they set out on a three-day camping adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park. Extensive trip research has never been their MO, so the fact that the park was still largely under snow never came up until they were knee deep. Turns out sneaker sledding, bonfires, and snowball fights worked out better than sunshine, and they had a blast making plenty of new memories (including Mike nearly slicing his finger off with a heroic drone catch).
Park Tips: Try to time your trip when Trail Ridge, the highest continuously paved road in the USA, is open and visit midweek. Hike a portion of the historic Ute Trail from the Alpine Visitor Center. Make multiple photo stop along the Continental Divide. Bag three lakes in one short hike from the Bear Lake Trailhead. Watch out for lots of moose and grazing elk.
Did we tell you we housesat for ten days in Colorado Springs? We didn’t put it on Instagram Stories since we were in hard-core book research mode and barely left the house (which had mountain views and a bocce court, so it wasn’t too rough). Despite our hermit phase, we couldn’t leave “The Springs” without a night on the town and a hike at the Garden of the Gods. This park and national natural landmark are made of red sandstone fins, cliffs, and spires that shoot up 300 feet. It’s an amazing series of easy hiking trails and very advanced rock climbing. After our hike, we got sent to The Principal’s Office: a bar within the old Ivywild elementary school. This 100-plus-year-old building and its halls of learning are now the brewing facilities of Bristol Beer, a series of boutiques, bakeries (with teacher discounts), and of course, the Principal’s Office. We went for “Detention Hour” specials, sipped on a Sack Lunch (rye whiskey, creme de cassis, lemon, and peanut butter) and a Teacher’s Pet while playing hangman on the chalkboard bar.
Arapaho Valley Ranch
The best part about the glamping book research is actually experiencing North America’s most unique properties in the great outdoors. For our “Living History” chapter we are highlighting properties that keep traditions alive and breathe new life into the past–whether it’s restoring a train stop town or a Navajo family inviting guests for a night in their contemporary hogan. When we heard about a 100-year-old guest ranch (started by an enterprising woman under a male alias) with the town’s original dance hall and the house of Charles Lindbergh’s flying and drinking buddy, we were intrigued. The ranch was practically abandoned for a decade, then Todd & Emily Gold had the dream to restore the historic buildings, add glamping tents and teepees, and create a luxury campground for people to enjoy this storied section of the Indian Head Peaks Wilderness. Tucked between a river, lake and granite cliffs, this place is gorgeous with a laid-back vibe, which we soaked up for three glorious days. Can’t wait to come back when the dance hall is restored to its two-stepping days.
My maiden name is Collins so I’ve always wanted to see our namesake fort town. To get there we gladly cut back through Rocky Mountain National Park and wound through more incredible canyons until we hit this lively city. It happened to be the “First Friday” art walk and the Summer Sessions concert series so we hopped from the outdoor dance floor to galleries to live music bars. The next day followed with an antique car show and the Poudre River Music Fest at the New Belgium Brewing Co. If this is how every summer weekend goes down, we may just move in.
Did you know there are no steamboats in Steamboat Springs? The name comes from the hissing and whistling sounds of the hot springs that bubble up all across town. Needing to get a bit of work done, we posted up at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and it turned out to be one of the prettiest we’ve seen in the country. As we typed, we watched kayakers and SUPers catch waves in the Yampa River, bikers cruise the boardwalk, and the springs steam. By night we went to the downtown hot springs and pubs and by day we watched ski jumpers practice at Howelsen Hill, one of just three complete ski jumping complexes in the United States (helping yield 89 US winter Olympians).
Colorado….what can we say? With all the beautiful landscapes, lively cities, and fun people (not to mention a ton of our friends), you wooed us and we’ll undoubtedly be road tripping your way again soon.