14 Top-Rated Attractions & Places to Visit in Colorado, USA
Colorado is a year-round destination that piques the imagination and inspires the soul with its dramatic landscape and natural beauty. The state is nothing less than stunning, with a diversity that ranges from the majestic Rocky Mountains to the rolling hills, rivers, streams, and high desert of the Colorado Plateau. Mountain towns beckon skiers, hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all types, but are also great places to soak up some tranquility and enjoy the mountain vibe. Scenic drives through parks and along state highways are some of the best ways to see the amazing sites that the state has to offer. Remnants of the cultures that inhabited the area and the dinosaurs that once roamed the land can be seen and better understood by visiting some of the national parks and monuments. Colorado is an unbeatable destination that will make you rethink your future travel plans.
1 Rocky Mountain National Park
Just a few miles from the town of Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the United States. The soaring mountain peaks, alpine lakes and meadows, forests, and abundant wildlife showcase nature at its best. The park has more than 100 peaks over 10,000 feet, including Longs Peak, the highest in the park, at 14,259 feet.
The Trail Ridge Road, which itself reaches an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, is the main driving route through the park and offers easy access to this incredible terrain. You can sightsee from the comfort of your car or stop off along the way for a hike or easy walk. The park has an extensive system of hiking trails that range from paths of less than a half-mile to full-day and multi-day hikes. If you're lucky, you may see elk, bighorn sheep, deer, and other critters.
Summer is the busy season in Rocky Mountain National Park, with the most popular activities being hiking, wildlife viewing, camping, fishing, horseback riding, climbing, and bouldering. Winter in the park holds its own unique beauty and fascinations. Many of the roads are open year-round, although closures may occur due to weather conditions. People often come here at this time of year to snowshoe or cross-country ski, and ranger-led tours are offered in both of these sports.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Rocky Mountain National Park
2 Mesa Verde National Park
Regardless of whether or not you have seen cliff dwellings before, you will be blown away by Mesa Verde and the amount of access to the actual ruins that the park allows visitors. The park's centerpiece, Cliff Palace is one of the most impressive dwellings in the entire Southwest, with a dramatic setting and incredibly preserved ruins. Ranger-led tours, which run regularly during the summer high season, allow you to climb ladders right up into the heart of the dwelling. If you aren't up for that level of activity, you can get a full view of the site from a nearby overlook.
Mesa Verde was home to the Ancestral Pueblo who inhabited the dwellings from approximately 600 AD to 1300 AD. Thousands of archeological sites lie within the park, although the cliff dwellings are the most spectacular. A road allows access to numerous sites, many of which are on top of the mesa. A number of hiking trails, which do not require a ranger tour, lead to lookouts and interesting sites, including petroglyphs.
Located near the towns of Cortez and Mancos, Mesa Verde is reached by a long road that leads high up above the surrounding landscape. The drive from the highway up to the site takes about 45 minutes. Near the highway is one of the visitor centers, where you can get information on the park and road conditions before driving up. You can book a ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace when you arrive so you know what time to show up for the one-hour tour.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Mesa Verde National Park
3 Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods, a registered National Natural Landmark, is a unique landscape of jagged stone towers and fins jutting up 300 feet from the earth, and giant balanced boulders and rock piles dotting the landscape, with distant mountains completing the scene. Fifteen miles of trails, most of which are short and easy, allow you to get up close to the dramatic rock formations and wander through the surreal scenery. The park is a popular area for rock climbing, but other activities in the park include road biking in designated biking lanes, mountain biking, horseback riding, and Jeep and Segway tours.
The Garden of the Gods Park Visitor & Nature Center functions as a museum with exhibits and a 20-minute video on the geology of the park. Views from the visitor center are incredible, and the onsite café, with huge windows, is a great venue for enjoying a snack or beverage.
4 Vail and Nearby Mountain Towns
The ski resort town of Vail draws huge crowds in winter but it's also a pleasant place to visit at any time of year. When it comes to skiing, this is one of the top ski resorts in Colorado. The town at the base of the ski hill is postcard cute, with chalet-style restaurants, shops, and hotels that make you feel like you are in the heart of the Alps. This is a high-end resort with luxury hotels, fine dining, and designer stores.
Vail doesn't always fit with everyone's budget, particularly if you want to spend a night during the high season. In the vicinity are a number of small towns and villages that are less well known but more affordable and also worth a visit. Frisco is a charming mountain town, but not a ski resort. This is a nice base if you are exploring the I-70 Corridor around Vail and Beaver Creek. The town has all kinds of quirky cafés, shops, and restaurants, and a true mountain vibe. Just up the way from here is the small town and ski resort of Breckenridge, at an altitude of 9,600 feet.
West of Vail is the town of Avon, and Beaver Creek is just a short drive up the hill from Avon. Avon can be a good place to find accommodation. Beaver Creek is a ski resort with another adorable village at the base. The village has a full range of restaurants, from casual to fine dining, a skating rink in the main square, and hotels.
5 Pikes Peak in Pike National Forest
At 14,115 feet in elevation, Pikes Peak, in Pike National Forest, is one of the Southwest's famous "fourteeners," a reference to mountains that stand over 14,000 feet. The snow-capped peak is easily recognizable from the nearby town of Colorado Springs. This is one of the most visited mountains in the world, second only to Mt. Fuji. Unlike many mountain peaks that are inaccessible to the average person, you can drive to the summit of Pikes Peak on the Pikes Peak Highway, off highway 24, west of Colorado Springs. Travel time is about 1.5 hours. Alternatively, you can take the Pikes Peak Cog Railway for a scenic 8.9-mile trip, with a round-trip time of just over three hours.
In addition to simply appreciating the views from the top, the area offers a range of recreational opportunities. In the vicinity are numerous hiking trails, as well as mountain biking areas and opportunities for fishing in reservoirs.
6 Durango and the Silverton Narrow Gage Railway
In southern Colorado, the town of Durango has a lovely setting at the base of surrounding mountains. The historic downtown area has some well-restored, grand old buildings that function as hotels and restaurants. Some are done in southwestern décor, with an Old West feel.
In the summer, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gage Railway is one of the town's main tourist attractions. This historic train runs day trips up the valley from Durango to the old mining town of Silverton, high in the mountains. Durango is also the terminus of the Colorado Trail, a 500-mile-long backcountry trail that runs from Denver to Durango. You can do a day hike or mountain bike along the trail, going out and back the same way. The trail follows the scenic Junction Creek and then climbs up to Gudy's Rest, where many people enjoy lunch and then turn around. In the town of Durango and in the surrounding mountains are numerous hiking and mountain biking trails.
In winter, Durango is a full-on ski town, supported by the nearby Purgatory Ski Resort, just 15 minutes outside of town. This is a family resort that attracts both locals and skiers from around the Southwest. Some skiers also base themselves in Durango, which has reasonably-priced hotels, and ski at Telluride, two hours away.
7 San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway and the Million Dollar Highway
A spectacular scenic drive stretches from the old mining town of Silverton, to the town of Ouray, along what is called the Million Dollar Highway. This is a 46-kilometer two-lane highway that hugs the mountainside in places and looks out over jaw-dropping cliffs and across valleys to inspiring mountain peaks. It is one of the most spectacular mountain drives in Colorado. If you have time, you can extend this into a longer route and drive the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. The Skyway is a full-day trip that you will want to do in good weather, but can be done in winter or summer.
Beginning in Durango, the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway is a complete loop that will take you up to Silverton, along the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray, over to Placerville, south to Telluride, Dolores, Mancos, and back to Durango. If you have less time or are only planning on heading in one direction, you can do the Silverton to Ouray section beginning from Durango, up to Silverton, over the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray, and beyond to Montrose or further north to Grand Junction.
Some of the highlights along the way are the towns of Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride. Set at more than 9,300 feet and surrounded by mountains, Silverton has one main street with a few shops and restaurants. In summer, it can be ridiculously busy, but in winter, most of the establishments are closed, and the place can feel like a ghost town. Ouray, with a sign at the main lookout calling it the "Switzerland of America," is another mountain town, known for its hot springs. If you choose to do the Skyway, you can stop in at Telluride. Known for the Telluride Ski Resort, this is one of the most beautiful mountain towns in America, with a traditional main street and gorgeous mountain scenery. You can take a free gondola up the mountain for a better look over the area.
8 Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a fabulous, rugged looking canyon, and it's remote enough that it has the feeling of being undiscovered. Steep cliff walls rise up from the Gunnison River, creating a narrow and dramatic canyon. The depth of the canyon is around 2,000 feet, with Gunnison Point and Chasm View at just over 1,800 feet and Warner Point at 2,722 feet.
The main things to do here are to simply gaze out over the canyon and appreciate the environment or wander along the walking paths and short hiking trails on the rim. These are generally flat and easy trails. If you're adventurous, you can hike into the canyon, but trails are not maintained or marked, conditions are difficult, and you are basically on your own and responsible for the costs of rescue, should the need arise. Three campgrounds are located in the park; the North and South Rim campgrounds are open to tents and RVs but the East Portal is only open to tents.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is about 75 miles southeast of Grand Junction. If you are based in Grand Junction or Fruita, you can easily visit both the canyon and Colorado National Monument on a day trip.
9 Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness showcases some of Colorado's most spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery and offers a chance to get out of your car and into nature. This area has six mountains over 14,000 feet, along with forests, alpine lakes, meadows, and 175 miles of trails to help you explore the terrain. Alternatively, you can enjoy the views on some of the scenic drives.
The recreational activities are what draw most people to Maroon Bells. The hiking here is incredible, with all kinds of day hikes and backpacking areas. Mountain biking trails cover hundreds of miles. Fishing in lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams is popular in summer. In winter, people come here to ski, snowshoe, and snowmobile, making it a year-round outdoor playground.
10 Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Home to the tallest sand dunes in North America, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is a unique sight in Colorado with a diverse landscape that most visitors are not expecting to find. The 750-foot Star Dune is startlingly high, particularly when you are considering climbing it, and the mountains in the distance create a stunning setting.
You can climb and slide on the dunes or test your boarding skills cruising down the sand. On hot days, children and even adults enjoy splashing around in the Medano Creek that runs along the base of the dunes. Hiking trails run through the forest on the edge of the dunes. The four-wheel drive Medano Pass Primitive Road opens up some unique terrain, and car camping sites are located along the roadside. Regular camping is available at the Pinon Flats campground, which offers both tent and RV campsites.
11 Mount Evans
Another of Colorado's fourteeners, Mount Evans reaches an elevation of 14,271 feet. Almost equally impressive is the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, which extends almost to the summit. This is the highest paved road in the United States, reaching over 14,130 feet. The views from the top and on the way up, above the tree line, are outstanding, with meadows, lakes, and rolling mountains extending out into the distance. The area is so open and exposed that you have a good chance of seeing wildlife, particularly bighorn sheep.
This is a seasonal highway that is closed in the winter. From Denver, you can reach the summit of Mount Evans, about 60 miles away, in less than two hours.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Mount Evans
12 Colorado National Monument
Just outside the towns of Grand Junction and nearby Fruita is Colorado National Monument. A scenic road snakes its way through some outstanding scenery. This is not typical mountain scenery, but a landscape of huge rock spires, cliff walls, canyons, and desert-like surroundings with small trees and scrubby bushes. Most people drive through the monument along Rim Rock Drive and stop at the lookouts that peer over the landscape below. The road is also a popular road biking area, with hearty souls peddling their way up to the lookouts. A number of day hikes access some scenic areas of the monument, most of which involve moderate elevation changes that range from approximately 300 feet to more than 1,000 feet.
13 Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument, in northwest Colorado, combines dramatic scenery with natural and cultural history to create one of Colorado's most interesting sites. Dinosaur remains embedded in exposed rock walls reveal evidence of the giants that once roamed these areas. Petroglyphs offer insight into the cultures and people that lived here long ago, and surrounding it all are cliff walls and the Green and Yampa Rivers snaking through the otherwise dry landscape.
Your first stop should be the Quarry Visitors Center from where you can access the main attraction at the park, the Quarry Exhibit Hall, built over the Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry. A huge wall of windows allows in natural light, making it feel more like an excavation site than a museum. Fossils are in various states, from still encased in the stone wall to fully assembled skeletons.
Dinosaur National Monument is so diverse that the possibilities here extend well beyond the archeological aspects, from a simple driving tour through the monument to hiking, fishing, rafting, and camping. A number of scenic drives run through the park on both paved and four-wheel drive roads. Hiking trails range from short nature walks of less than a half mile to eight-mile-long day hikes. Campgrounds, some of which are open to both tents and RVs and others open only to tents, are spread around the park. It's possible to spend a few days in this area if you are interested in exploring the park.
14 Mountain Biking Trails near Fruita
For mountain bikers, Colorado is a haven, with great trails all over the state. Unfortunately, the mountain climate limits the season in many areas. But the town of Fruita, near Grand Junction, has the climate to enable you to stretch out your mountain biking season through the shoulder seasons and into the winter months. It's also a quirky little town with enough character to make you want to stay a while and return.
The mountain biking trails around Fruita are some of the top-rated trails in the state. Most notably are the 18 Road Trails, with the infamous Zippity Do Da trail, and the Kokopelli Loops. This is desert terrain, with trails that run along the tops of ridges and everywhere in between or alongside cliff ledges with views over the Colorado River. This area has, for many mountain bikers, become an alternative to Moab, Utah. During the spring, you can even combine sports; mountain biking in Fruita one day and skiing at Beaver Creek or Vail - just over two hours away - the next.