Colorado is known for its skiing in the winter, but it is also a great summer vacation spot. The state is full of cute towns surrounded by incredible scenery with lots of fun outdoor activities that you can do in the summer, making Colorado the perfect state to drive around for a summer road trip. Here are five towns to check out in Colorado for the ultimate summer road trip.
First Stop: Boulder
Boulder is technically a city, not a town, but I included it in this blog post because the city is known for its outdoor activities. Boulder also has a lively downtown area, so there is something for everyone here. The city is a 45 minute drive from Denver’s airport, making it a good first stop on your road trip around Colorado. Also, before you start driving around Colorado, it may be a good idea to stay in Boulder for a few days so that you can adjust to the high altitude before heading up into some of the state’s smaller towns in the mountains. Here are some fun activities and cool places to check out while you are in Boulder.
Hike to see the Flatirons
The Flatirons are slanted rock formations that are part of Boulder’s foothills. They have become an iconic symbol of the city, and hiking to see the Flatirons is a popular activity for both visitors and locals in Boulder. If you want to hike to see the Flatirons, the National Historic Landmark Chautauqua Park is a good place to start, which is located at the base of the Flatirons. Here, you can access multiple trails that will take you closer to the Flatirons, or if you’re not into hiking, you can enjoy the view from the bottom of the park. A popular hike starting from the Chautauqua trailhead is the Flatiron Loop Trail, which is a pretty easy 2 mile hike that takes you through the forest under the Flatirons. Another option is the Royal Arch Trail, which is a harder 3 mile hike that ends up at a natural rock arch where you can see views of the Denver skyline and the Great Plains.
Boulder Creek Path
Another fun outdoor activity that you can do in Boulder is walk, bike, or jog along the Boulder Creek Path. It’s a pretty flat and easy trail that stretches from Boulder Canyon through downtown Boulder on to the Stazio baseball fields, which is 5.5 miles total. The Boulder Creek Path is a popular place among tourists and locals to enjoy Boulder’s nature and get some exercise in.
Bike around the city
If you’re looking for more exercise while you’re in Boulder, then you should rent a bike and ride around the city. Boulder is a very bike friendly city with 96 miles of bike lanes and 84 miles of multi-use paths within the Boulder Valley. Biking can also be a fun way to explore and get to know a new city. One place where you can rent bikes in Boulder is Full Cycle which offers a variety of bikes that you can rent for a day or two or for a whole week. You also can do a group bike ride with Full Cycle.
Pearl Street Mall
The Pearl Street Mall is an outdoor shopping area that stretches from 8th to 20th street in downtown Boulder. It features big name brands as well as smaller boutiques with more than 1,000 stores filling this pedestrian-only area. The Pearl Street Mall is also known for its restaurants and street performances, making it a cool place to walk around in the city, especially on summer nights. One popular store in the Pearl Street Mall is Art Mart, which sells locally-made art and is a great place to buy artsy souvenirs to remember your trip to Boulder. Another cool store to visit here is Into the Wind, which is primarily known as a kite shop but also sells all kinds of other unique stuff, such as puzzles and games.
Celestial Seasonings Tea Factory
Celestial Seasonings Tea is based in Boulder, and while you are visiting the city you can do a free, 45 minute multi-sensory tour of their factory. Celestial Seasonings was founded in 1969, and it has since become the largest producer of herbal tea in North America. On the tour, you get to see the packaging process, the Celestial Herb Garden, and an art gallery with art made from tea boxes. You also will get to do some sampling with over 90 types of tea to choose from. The most memorable part of the tour however is the visit to the Mint Room, where the factory stores giant bags of peppermint and spearmint creating a powerful aroma.
Wonder Wonder is a digital art display in Boulder featuring 18 rooms of light displays and art installations. You can walk through the buildings to enjoy these unique and sometimes disorienting creations. It is the place to visit if you’re looking for that perfect Instagram picture. Tickets are $16 for adults and $12 for children ages 5-12. It also is recommended that you buy your tickets in advance online as it can sell out.
Second Stop: Estes Park
Your next stop on the ultimate Colorado summer road trip is Estes Park, which is around an hour drive from Boulder. Estes Park is a must visit for any horror fan, because it is the site of the Stanley Hotel-Stephen King’s inspiration for the hotel in The Shining. But if you’re not interested in horror books and movies or visiting the Stanley Hotel, Estes Park still has a lot of cool outdoor activities to offer. Here are some of my suggestions for things to do in Estes Park.
The Stanley Hotel
If you’re a horror fan, a trip to Colorado wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Stanley Hotel. Along with being a huge inspiration for The Shining, the Stanley Hotel is rumored to be haunted. You can learn all about the history of the hotel, how it inspired The Shining, and tales of the hotel’s ghosts on one of the Stanley Hotel’s tours. The hotel offers a historic day tour and a folklore night tour. Tickets for adults are $23 and children 17 and under tickets are $17. Also, children 8 and under are not allowed on either of the hotel’s tours. If you’re interested in doing a tour, you have to make a reservation in advance. The earlier you can reserve a ticket the better, because this popular tourist attraction fills up, especially in the summer.
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road is a scenic drive that takes you through the Rockies, and it’s the highest continuously paved highway in North America. The highway covers 48 miles, from Estes Park in the East to Grand Lake in the West. Trail Ridge Road reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet, and for an 11 mile stretch, you will be driving above the tree line. So, this may not be the drive for you if you’re uneasy about heights. Because you will reach such a high elevation, as you drive it is often windy and can be 20-30 degrees colder up there than in Estes Park. The views on this scenic drive are incredible, and there are different lookout points where you can pull over and enjoy the view.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Part of Trail Ridge Road goes through Rocky Mountain National Park, another great place near Estes Park to enjoy Colorado’s nature. The national park is famous for its views of the Rocky Mountains surrounding the Estes Valley, with more than 100 peaks within the boundaries of the park rising over an altitude of 11,000 feet. A lot of the taller peaks within the national park are part of the Continental Divide, which separates the water, mostly from snowfall, that drains into the Pacific Ocean from the water that goes to the Atlantic Ocean. You can reach these peaks by hiking, driving, or horseback riding.
Kayak on Lake Estes
Another fun activity that you can do while in Estes Park in the summer is kayaking on Lake Estes, which is near the downtown area of Estes Park. You can rent a kayak, paddleboard, or pontoon boat from the Lake Estes Marina to take out onto the water. Kayaking is a good way to get some exercise while on vacation that is pretty easy to pick up if you have never kayaked before. Kayaking on Lake Estes will give you a new and unique view of the Rocky Mountains surrounding Estes Park.
Although it may mainly be known for its outdoor activities, Estes Park is also a cute town that is fun to walk around and hang out in. One place to check out in Estes Park is the Riverwalk which starts at the Visitor Center and goes along the Big Thompson River and Fall River which weave through downtown Estes Park. Along the Riverwalk, you can check out the different shops and restaurants. There also are multiple plazas where you can sit and relax as well as bronze animal sculptures and rock water features along the path.
Third Stop: Breckenridge
Next stop is Breckenridge, which is around a 2.5 hour drive from Estes Park back down towards Boulder. Breckenridge was founded in 1859 as a mining town in the Rocky Mountains, and it’s home to Colorado’s largest historic district. With a lot of history and beautiful scenery, there is something for everyone in Breckenridge.
Walk Along Main Street
Visiting Main Street is one of the most popular things to do in Breckenridge. Lots of historic buildings and restaurants line this street, and this also is a great place to visit if you like to shop. Mainstreet has over 200 shops with many of them selling unique handmade and locally produced items. Besides the shopping and dining on Main Street, this central area in Breckenridge also has fun events, music, and lots of other activities throughout the year. While you’re in Breckenridge, you should definitely take some time to walk along Main Street, hop in and out of different stores, and people watch, all while enjoying the view of mountains in the background.
Barney Ford Victorian Home
If you’re interested in history, you should visit the Barney Ford Victorian Home, located on East Washington Ave right off of Main Street. This museum will teach you about the life of Barney Ford, who was born into slavery but escaped and traveled throughout the country as an enreprenuer before settling in Breckenridge and building this Victorian home with his wife, Julia. Barney Ford fought for civil rights in Colorado and is considered one of the state’s founders. The museum is free to visit but a $5 donation is suggested.
Highline Railroad Park and Museum
Another place where you can learn more about Breckenridge’s history is the Highline Railroad Park and Museum. At this museum you will learn about how the development of a railway system in Breckenridge in 1882 changed the small mountain town. The rail system allowed Breckenridge to more easily obtain supplies, leading to it becoming a more developed Victorian town. The museum is only open in the summer from June to September. It’s free to visit but a $5 donation is suggested.
Boreas Pass Road
Boreas Pass Road is a high mountain pass that originally served as a path for people coming into Breckenridge during the gold rush in the 1860s. Today, the pass is a scenic hour-long drive open in the summer that stretches from Breckenridge to Como through the Rockies. In 1882, a railroad track was laid on the pass that connected Como to Breckenridge and operated until 1937. Along the pass you can see the remains of the Boreas Station and railroad tracks as well as views of the Blue River Valley as you drive back down into Breckenridge.
There are plenty of places to hike around Breckenridge for all skill levels. One place you can hike is at the Sawmill Reservoir, which is a fairly easy 1.3 mile trail near downtown Breckenridge that takes you to the Sawmill Reservoir, a 10-acre lake. Hiking this trail is a great way to enjoy some of Breckenridge’s scenery and nature with its views of the surrounding mountains and wildflowers that you can see in the spring and summer.
McCullough Gulch Trail
Another place to hike near Breckenridge on the North side of the Quandary Peak is the McCullough Gulch Trail. This 2.9 mile trail is in the White River National Forest. Along the trail, you’ll see lots of wildlife and wildflowers, as well as waterfalls and a lake. The lake has a long shore, making it a good place to explore and enjoy the views of the surrounding mountains.
For a more challenging hike, you can hike up to the summit of Quandary Peak near Breckenridge. You can access the most popular route to get to the summit at the Quandary Trailpass, which is a little north of the Hoosier Pass. Quandary Peak is in the White River National Forest, and it is the only peak that has an elevation over 14,000 feet in this mountain range. The hike up to the summit is not very long, but because of the elevation and the steepness of some sections of the trail, it may be difficult. The hike is worth it to see the views at the summit, which includes a view of nearby mountains such as Mt. Bross, Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Cameron and Mt. Democrat. If you plan on hiking up to the summit of Quandary Peak, or any other higher elevation hikes while you’re in Colorado, it’s important to be aware of lightning risks, because afternoon thunderstorms can start suddenly in the summer. It is recommended that you plan to be off the summit before noon to avoid the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms.
Peak 8 Fun Park
Breckenridge’s Ski Resort has a lot of fun activities available in the summer with its Peak 8 Fun Park. You can get up to the Peak 8 Fun Park by a free gondola ride that can be accessed in Breckenridge, not far from Main Street. A popular activity here is the Breckenridge Gold Runner Coaster, which is an elevated roller coaster track. There also are three alpine slides going down the ski slopes, which is a fun way to enjoy the views from Peak 8. For the best views, you can take a ski lift up the mountain. The park is also a popular spot for mountain bikers.
Fourth Stop: Cripple Creek
Your next stop is Cripple Creek, which is around a 2 hour drive from Breckenridge. Cripple Creek is another historic mining town that’s full of history and surrounded by beautiful scenery. You also can do some shopping in Cripple Creek where a lot of the renovated historic buildings house a variety of unique shops. The town is especially known for its antique stores. Today, Cripple Creek is also known for its casinos and gaming halls. The town is located at the base of Pikes Peak. It’s surrounded by Pike National Forest, which has a lot of hiking trails, making Cripple Creek a good place to stay if you are interested in exploring the forest. Here are some of my suggestions for things to do when visiting Cripple Creek.
Cripple Creek District Museum
If you want to learn more about the town’s mining history, you should visit the Cripple Creek District Museum. At the museum, you’ll be able to see old mining artifacts, photos, and mineral displays some of which include gold. The museum is in 3 different historic buildings in downtown Cripple Creek in an old railway terminal. The Midland-Terminal Railroad Depot was an influential rail system in Cripple Creek that operated from 1895 to 1949. Admission to the museum is $12 for adults and free for children 12 and under.
Outlaws & Lawmen Jail Museum
Another interesting museum that you can visit in Cripple Creek is the Outlaws and Lawmen Jail Museum where you can learn about some of the town’s criminal figures during the gold rush era as well as the people that tried to keep the peace. The museum is in a historic building that was the Teller County Jail for 90 years. People visiting the jail can see the inside of old jail cells to learn about what life in jail was like during this time period. The museum is open Friday-Monday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and admission is $5 and free for kids 10 and under.
Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad
If you’re looking for another way to learn more about Cripple Creek’s history while enjoying the town’s scenery in a unique way, you should take a ride on the Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad. You can ride an authentic, century-old steam locomotive out of Cripple Creek and past historic gold mines to learn more about the Colorado gold rush. The trains run only in the summer, from mid-May to Labor Day. They depart every 70 minutes from the depot made in 1894 at the top of Bennett Avenue in town. Tickets for this 45 minute train ride are $17 for adults and $12 for children ages 3-12.
Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine Tour
The Colorado gold rush is an important part of Cripple Creek’s history, and you can learn more about it by actually going into an old mine with the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine Tour. This one hour tour takes you 1,000 feet underground to learn how underground gold mining has evolved. You also get to see natural gold veins and ride an underground tram air locomotive. Tickets for this exciting underground tour are $25 for adults and $15 for children 3-12. This tour is only available from May to October, and tours run every 30 minutes from 9 am to 5 pm.
Fifth Stop: Manitou Springs
The last stop on your Colorado Summer road trip is Manitou Springs. It’s only an hour drive from Cripple Creek, and it’s a little over an hour drive back to Denver from Manitou Springs. The town was founded in 1871 as a scenic health resort partly because of the healing mineral springs in this area. The founders of the resort wanted to provide water therapies using these natural springs. Today, 8 of these natural springs, each with their own minerals and distinct flavor, are open to the public and located throughout town which you can sample from. In the 1960s, Manitou Springs was known as “hippie haven”, and today the town is known for being very artsy. Here are some of my recommendations for places to visit in Manitou Springs.
Manitou Springs has a big arts scene, so if you like art you should visit some of the town’s art galleries. One popular art gallery that you should check out is the Green Horse Gallery. This gallery is managed by seven local artists and it features a variety of art including oil paintings, pottery, and silver jewelry. In addition to art done by the seven local artists who manage the gallery, the Green Horse Gallery also displays and sells artwork done by 50 other artists, the majority of whom live in Colorado. Another good place to visit if you’re interested in art is the Commonwheel Artists Co-Op, which has displayed artwork from local Colorado artists since 1974. At this shop, you can purchase unique, handmade gifts done by local artists.
Miramont Castle Museum
Miramont Castle is an interesting Victorian museum in Manitou Springs. The museum features 30 rooms full of an art collection and vintage artifacts that help tell the story of the town’s history. In the spring and summer, you can visit the Castle Gardens, which are built in the Victorian style and have a variety of flowers and other plants. Miramont Castle also has the Queen Parlour’s Tea Room where you can try multi-course teas and eat lunch. In the summer, Miramont Castle is open every day from 9 am to 5 pm. Tickets for the museum are $12 for adults and $8 for children 4-12.
Manitou Cliff Dwellings
The Manitou Cliff Dwellings are Anasazi Native American ruins which are estimated to be between 800 and 1,000 years old. This archaeological site has 40 rooms, and it was originally located in the McElmo Canyon before the cliff dwellings began to be relocated in 1904 by the Colorado Cliff Dwellers Association in the hopes of protecting this historic site from looters. In 1907, they were opened to the public. Today, you can walk through these cliff dwellings and visit the Anasazi Museum to learn more about this Native American tribe. The museum features tools, pottery, and weapons, as well as informational videos about this tribe. Weather permitting, the cliff dwellings are open 7 days a week all year. Tickets are $12 for adults and $7.50 for children ages 4-11.
Garden of the Gods
You can see one of the best views in this area of Colorado at the Garden of the Gods park. The main entrance to the park is less than a fifteen minute drive from downtown Manitou Springs. From the visitor center’s terrace, you can see a view of Pikes Peak with the large red sandstone rock formations that the park is famous for. You can enjoy the scenery in this beautiful park through a variety of activities. The park features 15 miles of hiking trails, there are places to rent bikes or take a guided bike tour, and there are guided horseback riding tours. If you’re visiting Manitou Springs or the nearby city Colorado Springs, the Garden of the Gods Park is a must visit.
Speaking of great views, if you’re looking for a challenging hike while in Manitou Springs, then you should check out the Manitou Incline. The Manitou Incline is an extreme hike that gains around 2,000 feet of elevation in less than a mile, and it’s recommended for advanced hikers. The incline was originally built for a cable car that carried materials to build pipelines on Pikes Peak. Following the completion of the pipeline construction, the Manitou Incline opened up as a tourist attraction. However, in 1990, a rock slide damaged part of the track causing it to shut down, and the rails were removed leaving only the railroad ties that formed a staircase. If you’re up to the challenge, you will be able to see views of Colorado Springs and the Eastern Plains at the top of the trail. Once you get up to the top, it is strongly discouraged to hike back down the incline, so you can take the Barr Trail four miles down back to the bottom of the incline.
The Broadmoor Seven Falls
In nearby Colorado Springs, you can visit the Broadmoor Seven Falls, which is a series of seven different waterfalls flowing down. The Seven Falls are located in a natural box canyon and have 181 feet of waterfalls. For a good view of the waterfall, you can climb up a 224 step staircase to the Eagle’s Nest Viewing Platform, which is also accessible by elevator if you don’t want to walk up all those steps. There also are two hiking trails, the Inspiration Point Trail and the Midnight Falls Trail, so that you can explore the area around the Seven Falls. It’s open Thursday-Monday, and the falls are lit up at night in the summer. Tickets are $16 for adults and $10 for children ages 2-12. If you’re an adventure seeker visiting the Seven Falls, then you may also be interested in the zip line located above the falls called the Broadmoor’s Soaring Adventure.