As John Muir famously said: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” If the mountains are calling you, there’s no better time than summer to visit the Colorado Rockies. Long celebrated for their ski slopes and fresh powder, the mountains have plenty to offer in the warm-weather months too—from hiking and mountain biking to paddling and trail-riding. Or if a slower pace is more your style, there are hot springs, microbreweries, festivals, and more.
Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are part of an impressive range that stretches nearly 3,000 miles from northern Canada to New Mexico. In Colorado itself, the Rockies are more commonly known by their subrange names: Sawtooth, San Juan Mountains, Sawatch, Front Range, and so on. If you’re planning a trip to the mountains, here are our recommendations based on the state’s most popular ranges.
Front Range (Northern)
Home base: Estes Park
The Front Range is notorious for crowds and traffic, yet—since it’s a short drive from Denver—it also offers easy mountain access to eager travelers. With a surplus of great mountain towns, there’s more than one gateway to the front range. But for those who want the classic Rocky Mountain experience, consider Estes Park. Sure, it’s a busy tourist town, but with just 6,000 residents and a quaint downtown, it still has plenty of character. Plus, its backdoor opens to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Stay: For camping, there are five campgrounds within the national park. But reservations fill up fast so it’s also worth considering campgrounds outside the park. Try Estes Park KOA, Estes Park Campground at Mary’s Lake, or the YMCA of the Rockies. Or—if you prefer to come home each night to indoor plumbing—there’s always The Stanley Hotel, a beautiful Colonial Revival hotel that also happens to be the film location of Stephen King’s The Shining.
Eat & Drink:
Do: One of the area’s most popular activities is to take a scenic drive through Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile stretch of Highway 38 that winds through park. It’s the highest paved road in Colorado and offers amazing views.
Front Range (Southern)
Home base: Colorado Springs
With a half million people, Colorado Springs stopped being a mountain town long ago. Yet if you’re looking for a vacation that’s a mix of city and mountain life, it still offers both. The city lies on a plain 68 miles south of Denver but the southern end of the Front Range—including iconic Pikes Peak—is its scenic backdrop.
Stay: The thing to know about Colorado is it’s state parks often rival the beauty and recreation of national parks. Outside of the city, you’ll find Cheyenne Mountain State Park, a 2,700-acre park with 51 RV-friendly campsites and 10 walk-in sites. Hotel options abound in the city but for a peek into Colorado’s past, check out The Broadmoor, a majestic 100-year-old resort.
Eat & Drink:
Do: As long as you’re in the area, it’s worth it to either drive or take the cog railway to the top of Pikes Peak. The view is stunning and unlike any other peak in Colorado, there’s a donut shop at the summit. Colorado Springs’ most beautiful outdoor spot, however, is Garden of the Gods, a park that includes majestic sandstone rock formations nearly 300 feet tall. For an up-close look, hike some of the park’s 15 miles of hiking trails.
San Juan Mountains
Home base: Ouray
After the arid landscape and rocky peaks of the Front Range, the emerald-green slopes of the San Juan Mountains are an unexpected sight. Although it’s a 6-hour drive from Denver, it’s worth the road trip. Ouray is commonly referred to as the “Jeep Capital of the World.” When you consider the number of 4×4 trails in the area (and start counting the number of Jeeps around town), it’s easy to understand why.
Eat & Drink:
Do: There are an incredible number of 4×4 trails in this part of the state but the most well-known is the Alpine Loop. For 65 miles, this trail carves through the mountains, crossing two 12,000-foot passes, and winding through ghost towns.
Home base: Steamboat Springs
Steamboat Springs was a sleepy mountain outpost until its eponymous ski resort opened in 1960s. It’s not sleepy anymore yet its distance from the Front Range gives the town a slower pace and laidback vibe. A lively main street offers shops and restaurants and hiking trails crisscross the surrounding mountains.
Eat & Drink:
Do: Many hot springs in Colorado appear to be overpriced public pools. Not so at Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Just outside the city of Steamboat Springs, Strawberry Park Hot Springs is a rustic spot where the steaming water fills natural rock pools surrounded by trees. The $15 entrance free is worth it.
Home base: Aspen
With its luxury reputation and penchant for celebrity sightings, it’s easy to overlook Aspen when looking for an authentic mountain experience. Yet, with the Maroon Bells Wilderness just up the road, a network of 4-wheel trails, and a resident black bear population, Aspen isn’t your typical luxury destination. The secret is to visit in the fall, post-Labor Day frenzy and before the snow flies. (The crowds come back with the ski season.)
Stay: Daytrippers abound at the Maroon Bells Wilderness. (Which is why the park now uses shuttles to bus people in.) If you’re camping, however, you can bypass the shuttle and head straight to your site at Silver Bar, Silver Bell, or Silver Queen.
Eat & Drink:
Do: If you’re looking for a peaceful place without leaving the city, visit Rio Grande Park and the adjacent John Denver Sanctuary. For a skier’s-eye view of the city, take a gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain and the Sundeck restaurant.