Colorado’s scenic terrain draws millions of travelers looking to get swept up in its natural splendor. With a bevy of cities and towns, each with its own unique outdoor offerings, cultural attractions, and general Colorado charm, it may be difficult to choose the best place for your next vacation. U.S. News took into account a number of factors, including the variety of attractions, as well as the opinions of experts and travelers, to determine the best places to visit in Colorado. Have a favorite? Cast your vote below to help determine next year’s list.
The origin of this Colorado village’s very unique name is unknown, but there are two dominant theories. The first is that Telluride comes from the word “tellurium,” the nonmetallic element (often signifying the presence of gold deposits) that prompted so many pioneers to make their way to the region. But many locals will tell you the name is just an easier way of saying “to hell you ride” – a creative explanation that highlights the killer ski slopes that lure many a winter vacationer each year. Powderhounds will find 2,000-plus skiable acres ideal for novices, experts and everyone in between. “To hell, you ride” also refers to the region’s rowdy atmosphere. Residents and visitors alike regularly gather in Town Park or Telluride’s bars for a foot-stomping good time. In the end, it doesn’t matter where the name comes from – all that really counts is the great experience you’re bound to have here.
Rocky Mountain National Park
At 265,000 acres, Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t the country’s largest national park, nor is it the most-frequented with about 4 million annual visitors (compared to Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s more than 11 million visitors). But there is something definitively magical about RMNP, which rises 12,183 feet into the Colorado sky. The main attraction is hiking its 350-some miles of trails that wind through pine and spruce forests, glittering alpine lakes, swaths of wildflowers and if you’re lucky, some elk or bighorn sheep. And maybe it’s the thinner atmosphere that goes to visitors’ heads, but even the most jaded report feelings of awe and wonder after a day or two of breathing in that refreshing mountain air.
When it’s time to come back down to earth, or at least down to an elevation of 7,500 feet or so, visitors can devour some homemade ice cream, take a spooky tour of the Stanley Hotel or simply meander through the delightful village of Estes Park. Plus, fellow Colorado hot spots – Boulder and Denver – are each just a short drive away.
Many travelers see Denver as a jumping-off point for a Rocky Mountain getaway, using the Colorado capital for its airport and nothing else. But those folks are missing out: The Mile High City offers a mix of urban excitement and natural surroundings that other American cities can only dream of. We’re not saying you should pass on the opportunity to hike the Rockies’ trails or ski their slopes – just that you shouldn’t do so without making reservations at some of Denver’s eclectic eateries, exploring its museums or sampling a few of its famous brews. Working some of these more metropolitan enticements into your vacation will allow you to experience the Denver that locals know and love.
Denverites are much more laid-back than residents of other major American cities, promoting an active, outdoorsy culture that thrives on good food and craft beer. Take a cue from the city’s residents and spend your days in the Mile High City getting to know its hiking paths, shopping streets, and brewery trails. In addition to loving nature, Denver’s population also exhibits a passion for art, culture, and cuisine. If Mother Nature isn’t your companion of choice, spend your time wandering around the Denver Art Museum or Larimer Square before grabbing a basket of Rocky Mountain oysters along the Capitol Hill district’s Restaurant Row. And if you happen to have kids in tow, you’ll find plenty of ways to keep them entertained here, from a world-class zoo to the fascinating branch of the U.S. Mint.
In terms of winter wonderland status, few destinations can compare to Aspen. This scenic mountain town is straight out of a snow globe, featuring picturesque mountain chalets hugged by the soaring Colorado Rockies. Of course, the main draw here is skiing and there are four premier ski areas nearby that cater to powder hounds of all levels. But there’s more to Aspen than winter sports: With high-end shopping, fascinating museums, funky galleries, and fun festivals, it might be a struggle to make it to the slopes. No matter how you choose to spend your time here, it will be a vacation you’ll never forget.
For several decades now, this village has been the diamond in the Roaring Fork Valley, and we’re not just talking figuratively. This small ski town has long been a respite for the rich and famous, with high-end resorts like The Little Nell and Viceroy Snowmass luring celebs with the promise of luxurious privacy. But don’t let the possibility of sticker shock keep you away; instead, you can offset the high cost of deluxe lodging by simply enjoying your surroundings. Some of Aspen’s most popular sites – like Maroon Bells – come to us from Mother Earth, who doesn’t charge admirers a cent.
Settled in 1859, Breckenridge retains the same Victorian-era charm it did during the height of the gold rush. Its down-to-earth and friendly atmosphere has also endured its transformation from a silver- and gold-mining town to one of the country’s most beloved skiing destinations. What’s more, Breck – as it’s called by locals – is a quick drive from other popular Colorado destinations, including Vail, which is 40 miles northwest, and Denver, which is 80 miles northeast.
Winter days in Breck are defined by runs on the Tenmile Range and nights spent refueling at downtown restaurants and bars – not to mention a collection of breweries and even a distillery. In the summer, winter sports are replaced with hiking and cycling. But no matter the season, the majesty of a Breckenridge sunset and star-studded night sky is a wonder to behold – and worth coming back to year after year.
Don’t let Vail’s small size or remote location fool you: This is one of the most beloved cold-weather destinations in the country for one reason: skiing. Sandwiched between the Gore Mountain Range to the north and the Sawatch Mountain Range to the south, this narrow valley is home to several notable ski areas, including one of the country’s largest single-mountain resorts. Jagged peaks, miles of slopes and perfect powder attract thousands of visitors every year, earning Vail a noteworthy place among Colorado’s other winter heavyweights, Aspen and Telluride. In fact, Vail’s expertly manicured slopes – as well as its luxury hotels, spas, and restaurants – frequently welcome A-listers like Will Smith, Cameron Diaz, and Justin Timberlake.
That being said, this is a hard city for those on a shoestring budget. The gorgeous scenery is accompanied by bank-busting hotel rates and lift tickets. The only way to avoid these prices is to sidestep the slopes, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Visit during the summer and you’ll discover a variety of ways to enjoy the mountains, from hiking and biking to horseback riding and even whitewater rafting.
It’s easy to see why Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to write the lyrics to the famous patriotic ballad “America the Beautiful” from Colorado Springs. Look in one direction and you’ll see the majestic “purple mountains:” the Colorado Rockies. Shift your eyes in the other direction to find yourself gazing out at “amber waves of grain:” the Great Plains. The beautiful scenery isn’t the only reason to head to this charming town. Colorado Springs is also home to such American institutions like the Air Force Academy and the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. And over the years, it’s become a cross-section of personalities. Take to the streets and share the sidewalks with budding politicos, young families, art lovers and more: All stake their claim on this portion of America the Beautiful.
Colorado’s second-largest city has cultivated a stellar reputation, continually earning a spot on the U.S. News Best Places to Live to rank. It’s also well-known for being a central political and religious hub, but over the past couple of years Colorado Springs has eased up on the religious rhetoric, even adopting a hint of the laid-back vibe that Colorado visitors normally associate with Boulder or Telluride (to experience this side of the Colorado Springs area, head to nearby Manitou Springs). But most visitors don’t come here to sample the political and social discourse – they come for the all-encompassing views found at the top of Pikes Peak, the towering cliffs that make up the Garden of the Gods and the blushing cliffs at Red Rock Canyon.
Although it’s practically a suburb of Denver, Boulder seems worlds away from its Mile High comrade. A university town stuck in a ’60s mindset, Boulder has welcomed every conceivable trend – from alternative healthcare to fad diets – and a perpetual love for nature has made bicycles the choice mode of transportation. Though the city is known less fondly by more conservative Coloradoans as “The People’s Republic of Boulder” and “28 square miles surrounded by reality,” those who live here (or visit frequently) do so for the love of urban parks, crisp mountain air, and a free-spirited ambiance. Come for a spot of herbal tea, quality education and a strong helping of liberalism.
While granola-lovers are common characters in this town, Boulder appeals to a much broader public with its thriving arts scene, trendy shops, bubbling breweries, and cozy cafes. Hikers can stretch their legs along the Boulder Creek Path or on the trail to the Flatirons, while more leisurely strollers can get their exercise while perusing the shops at the Pearl Street Mall. And like most college towns, Boulder boasts a bevy of bars and brewpubs (many located near the University of Colorado) coming to life once the sunsets.
Named for its famous hot springs, Steamboat Springs is a must-visit destination for nature lovers and adventure junkies. This Colorado city is surrounded by working ranches, but its plethora of outdoor pursuits are what entice visitors. Fishing and camping are popular things to do in the summer, while the winter months are ideal for snowshoeing and snowmobiling. But the city’s most well-known activity is skiing. Featuring roughly 3,000 skiable acres, and more affordable rates than other ski destinations like Aspen and Vail, Steamboat Springs (nicknamed Ski Town, U.S.A.) is a prime spot for shredding powder.
No matter what time of year you visit, start with a ride on the Steamboat Gondola for panoramic views. Outdoor enthusiasts can hike to Fish Creek Falls, hit the slopes at Steamboat Ski Resort or bike the Yampa River Core Trail, while those in search of some rest and relaxation can unwind in Strawberry Park Hot Springs’ mineral pools. If you prefer more urban pursuits, downtown Steamboat Springs has more than 100 bars and restaurants, as well as art galleries and the Tread of Pioneers Museum. And if you encounter inclement weather during your stay, check out The Tennis Center at Steamboat Springs and the Howelsen Ice Arena for tennis, ice skating and more
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve offers a unique outdoor experience. Visitors can sled down the tallest sand dunes in North America or float down the park’s stretch of Medano Creek. Hiking, fat biking, and horseback riding are other fun ways to explore the area’s diverse ecosystems. And at night, travelers can admire the unfiltered night sky while camping. Great Sand Dunes is open year-round, but keep in mind that winter can be chilly and summer can bring scorching sand and thunderstorms, so parkgoers should plan their trips accordingly.
The largest city in Colorado’s Western Slope region, Grand Junction makes an excellent base for exploring area attractions like Colorado National Monument and the Grand Mesa. But don’t overlook the city itself. Downtown Grand Junction’s Main Street is full of shops and restaurants. Plus, the city is home to a vibrant arts community and one of the largest outdoor sculpture collections in the country. Its location in Colorado’s wine country also means it’s one of the best places to taste wine in the state.
Known as both “the last great Colorado ski town” and “the wildflower capital of Colorado,” Crested Butte beckons to outdoorsy types year-round. In winter, skiers and snowboarders will find trails for all skill levels, though the town is most famous for its extreme terrain and steep slopes. When temperatures rise, visitors can trade in their skis or snowboards for mountain bikes to take advantage of Crested Butte’s hundreds of miles of bike trails. Arrive in July to see the town burst with color and partake in the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival’s activities.
Dinosaur National Monument
Feel as if you’ve journeyed back in time during a visit to Dinosaur National Park. Spread across Colorado and Utah, this protected area is known for its archaeological treasures. You won’t find any dinosaur bones on the Colorado side, but budding archaeologists can test their skills by looking for small sea creature fossils on the Harpers Corner Trail. This side of the park is also a prime spot for outdoor activities like hiking, river rafting, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. For breathtaking views of the surrounding canyons, go for a scenic drive on Harpers Corner Drive
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Colorado’s version of the Grand Canyon features some of the state’s most stunning views. Carved by the Gunnison River millions of years ago, the Black Canyon’s more than 2,000-foot depth has impressed spectators for centuries, including the Ute Tribe who once called the canyon home. Now, along with its incredible scenery, parkgoers can enjoy fishing in the Black Canyon’s highly regarded waters, climbing its towering rock formations and hiking or skiing its impressive trails. At night, attention shifts from the rocks and river below to the sky above when visitors can stargaze in this International Dark Sky Park.
Mesa Verde National Park
The former home of the Ancestral Pueblo people, Mesa Verde National Park contains about 5,000 of America’s best-preserved archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. Many of the sites can only be accessed by ranger-led tours that may involve quite a bit of walking, climbing and, in some cases, crawling, so travelers should keep their physical health and limitations in mind before visiting. Still, the park’s rich history makes the sometimes strenuous journeys well worth the effort.