You are here

Jonathan Stull | 10.23.2016

A friend once said that Colorado was central to everything: the Great Plains to the east, Yellowstone to the north, the ocean to the south—but why travel outside of state lines? Nothing in Colorado is created without the deity, as the saying goes. The Centennial State is diverse, sporting rugged peaks in the Rockies, sandy dunes, deserts, and canyons. It has world-class skiing, mountain biking, hiking, and mountaineering. It has four national parks and a rich history of human activity, mines spread throughout the many peaks in the state, and Mesa Verde’s mysterious cliffside dwellings.

There’s a lifetime of outdoor adventures to explore in Colorado. Get started with 10 of our favorites.

1. Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is the National Park System’s third most visited national park, receiving over four million visitors in 2015. It is close to Denver, making it an alluring escape for Coloradans and tourists alike.

  • Chasm Lake: A spectacular day hike to a lake basin just below the summit of Longs Peak.
  • Nymph, Dream + Emerald Lakes: The most popular hike in the park.
  • Wild Basin: Southwest of Longs Peak, it is one of the less-visited areas of the park while featuring dramatic mountain vistas, waterfalls, and flora and fauna.
  • CCY Route: A challenging ascent to some of the best views in RMNP.
  • Explore some of Rocky Mountain’s human history at Lulu City or the Stanley Hotel.

2. Great Sand Dunes National Park

One of the most unique features in Colorado—an otherworldly desert terrain that seems more fitting of Lawrence of Arabia. Go exploring!

3. Salida

This little mountain town is still relatively overlooked for its outdoor adventures. Hike nearby Mount Antero, known for its deposits of aquamarine. The Sawatch Range boasts 15 fourteeners, and Salida sits at the headwaters of the Arkansas River and the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, a kayaking mecca.

4. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

One of the newest entrants to the National Park System, the Black is just reaching driving age. It sees very few annual visitors, which is odd considering its beautiful canyon views and a challenging array of descents to the canyon floor.

  • South Rim Road: An easy introduction to the canyon with a dozen or so overlooks to get your heart pumping.
  • Chasm View Nature Trail: See the view from the top of the canyon walls.
  • S.O.B. Draw: On the north rim, an excellent introduction to the Black’s canyon descents that also features backcountry camping options on the canyon floor.

5. Telluride

Nestled at the end of a box canyon in the San Juans, Telluride is one of two mountain towns in the range to circle for backcountry adventure. More upscale than Silverton, it has a glitzier, resort town feel, and the kind of tourists that environment attracts, to boot. Nevertheless, there’s a reason Texans flock to Telluride.

  • Jud Wiebe Trail: The local’s trail, and a great overview of Telluride and the surrounding peaks.
  • Last Dollar Road: For the driving type, a spectacular mountain road with views of the Sneffels Range.
  • Sneffels Highline: A challenging day hike into the heart of the Sneffels Range.
  • Via Ferrata: Once an obscure local’s secret, now a thrilling traverse of the canyon walls for all.

6. Silverton

In contrast to Telluride, Silverton has a grittier feel that harkens back to its history as an Old West mining town. There’s plenty of mining history to explore, as well, and one of the most scenic drives anywhere, let alone the West.

  • San Juan Skyway: Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton is one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the country.
  • Highland Mary Lakes: A lakes basin high above Cunningham Gulch

7. Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness

The Maroon Bells are one of Colorado’s most-oft photographed scenes, especially in the fall, when the aspen turn a vibrant yellow. That said, there’s a lot more to like here: snowshoeing and cross-country skiing when the snow falls, one of the most-visited hot springs in Colorado, and more.

  • Crater Lake + Maroon Lake: Maroon Bells’ iconic vista, and an entry point for backpacking destinations in the wilderness.
  • Four Pass Loop: A multi-day backpacking journey that begins at Maroon Lake
  • Conundrum Hot Springs: Hot springs with a beautiful, long view over the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Cross your fingers for a permit system to limit access, at which point the hot springs will be restored to all their glory.

8. Grand Junction

Some of the best mountain biking in Colorado can be found in Grand Junction. The season starts early here, too, well before the mountains dry out from the winter’s snows.

9. Mesa Verde National Park

A place full of mystery, Mesa Verde is a great place to get a fix on Colorado’s human past. The cliffside dwellings here are unreal, entire villages nestled into cracks in the canyon walls.

  • Cliff Palace: Mesa Verde’s headliner, a huge complex built into the rock.
  • Chapin Mesa: The starting point for many of Mesa Verde’s best tours.
  • Long House: Almost as big as Cliff Palace, but fewer visitors

10. Garden of the Gods

Outside of Colorado Springs, the Garden of the Gods is a geological wonderland of rock spires and formations. Its trail network, relatively small compared to other places on this list, still packs in abundant outdoor opportunities in hiking, rock climbing, and horseback riding.


Have updates, photos, alerts, or just want to leave a comment?
Sign In and share them.