Looking for something fun to do this summer in Colorado? Here are a few of our favorite picks around the Centennial State.
1. Rifle Falls State Park
Take Interstate 70 to the cattle ranching town of Rifle and teleport to the tropics, finding yourself at the lush base of a three-pronged waterfall. The water crashes down from some 80 feet, lending a refreshing breeze. Easy trails lead to the views above the cascades and to the dark depths of limestone caves tucked behind them. Your Colorado nature photo album isn’t complete without a visit.
2. Garden of the Gods
Join the droves of tourists who motor through the 300-foot stunning sandstone formations every summer. Everybody’s on a mission to walk among the geologic wonders, and with 15 miles of trails through the park, you’re sure to find one with an appropriate level of difficulty.
Rock climbing, bouldering and horseback riding are also available. Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site, a living history farm and museum, is nearby, as well as Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center.
And don’t forget the park’s No. 1 photo op — pretending to hold up Balanced Rock with one finger.
3. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
This is not the spot where you want to slip on gravel. The canyon yawns more than 2,700 feet from its rim to the Gunnison River, more than twice that of the Royal Gorge. The opening is so narrow at points that sunlight only reaches the bottom at midday.
The South Rim offers a 7-mile drive, 5 miles of trails and the opportunity to walk to the canyon floor. The North Rim features a 5-mile unpaved drive. Both sides are rich with wildlife sightings, such as bears, golden eagles and peregrine falcons.
4. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
If you miss the days of hanging out with your kindergarten buddies in a little square sandbox, a big surprise awaits you in the southern part of the state.
The national monument is home to North America’s tallest dunes, shooting up more than 750 feet and surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Visitors are invited to surf the wind-shaped geologic wonders, either by sand sledding or sandboarding. Equipment is available to rent.
Folks also come here to hike, stargaze and take advantage of Medano Creek, often dubbed a secret beach. Its snowmelt waters peak around late May, and the creek vanishes come July and August.
5. Hanging Lake
Mother Nature has a special gift for you at the end of your 1.2-mile grueling hike in Glenwood Canyon in the White River National Forest: a glittery, teal lake and waterfalls in the middle of the woods.
The lake is the result of a geological fault, and water flowing over Bridal Veil Falls for years has built up the lake edge. Increasing popularity has damaged the vegetation and trail, so a plan was put in place last year to protect the National Natural Landmark. Visitors now must reserve a $12 permit, online or at the welcome center, from which you’ll be shuttled to the trailhead between 6:45 a.m. and 8 p.m. through Oct. 31, and allotted three hours until you’re picked up. You can shorten or lengthen your visit.
6. Dinosaur National Monument
There’s dinosaur bones in them thar cliffs. Head to the northwestern edge of our fair state, and you’ll find the Yampa River Canyon and the remains of our gargantuan predecessors in the red rocks of the monument.
Inside the Dinosaur Quarry Exhibit Hall are about 1,500 more dinosaur fossils, all still encased in the rocks in which they were found, and petroglyphs and pictographs are in several spots in the monument. Take a ranger-led hike if you’d like to dive deeper into the area’s history.
Once you’ve had your fill of triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex tales, take advantage of the scenic roads for a long drive, hit the hiking and biking trails, saddle up a horse or find a spot to throw out a fishing line.
7. Mesa Verde National Park
The past comes to life in the Four Corners region, where semblances of this state’s earliest people remain. It’s much more than semblances at Mesa Verde National Monument. This archaeological treasure chest protects elaborate homes and gathering places that Ancestral Puebloans built along the cliffsides many centuries ago.
Most striking is Cliff Palace, believed to be North America’s largest dwelling of its kind with 150 rooms. Rangers tell visitors to channel their inner Indiana Jones at Balcony House, where a 32-foot ladder leads to tight tunnels and passages. Behold in-ground water basins and mysteries atop two more ladders at Long House, reached after a mile-long hike and canyon descent.
8. Colorado National Monument
The Grand Canyon has its slice of the Colorado Plateau and Utah’s famous arches have theirs. Meanwhile, the name state of the mighty plateau has the monument encompassing these 20,500 acres, where the possibilities are as endless as the horizon.
From any viewpoint, you might snap the next picture that hangs in your house. You’ll want to catch the sun rising and setting, painting the ancient rock slabs and pinnacles orange and red as they protrude from the green valley floor. Ensure the view by reserving a campsite or finding a place in the backcountry. Otherwise, take your self-guided tour on Rim Rock Drive, where it’s easy to feel one with the sky.
9. Maroon Bells
We’ve seen the display everywhere — on calendars, brochures and social media feeds. But the pictures don’t do it justice. Sure, you can wait for fall when the hillsides between the twin, pyramid peaks are awash in aspen gold. But the layer of forest green is still spectacular in the summer.
Either way, between June 8 and Oct. 7, you’ll have to take the shuttle from Aspen Highlands — unless you’re on a bike, the locals’ preferred method of transportation. At Four Mountain Sports, the ticket to ride is $8 for adults, $6 for youth and seniors. The view is well worth the price.
10. Lone Eagle Peak
The sight is worthy of all praises, unlike anything else in Colorado: a mountain shaped like a perfect triangle, like a craggy pyramid watching over an emerald pool. That is Lone Eagle Peak at Crater Lake, and it’s a sight that must be earned.
It’s at the end of the Cascade Trail, about 7.5 miles one way. The path meanders forests and meadows with views of awe-inspiring promontories and glaciers along the way. At Crater Lake, the 12 designated campsites are almost always booked in the summer (first come, first served after Sept. 15).
You’ll likely have to make an out-and-back trip of it, meaning you’ll probably want to stay overnight near the trailhead in Grand County to ensure an early start. You’ll be sore upon your return, and Lone Eagle’s haunting beauty will stay with you long after.
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