While we usually highlight parts of the East Coast, I just had to give Colorado a shout-out as a must-see destination, because the landscape there is so breathtaking. Just driving through the mountains alone is worth the trip. We have been lucky enough to take a couple of road trips there, and these are some of the highlights, listed in order from Denver (because Denver International Airport is where most people begin their journey) to Aspen, CO, which is one of the most beautiful places to ski, hike, or just view the incredible fall foliage in the mountains.
The land in Colorado tends to look dry and parched in the foothills, but along the Colorado River, which rushes through the mountains in frothy torrents in some places, and wends gently in others, wildlife abounds. The mountains become increasingly dramatic and show a variety of different scenes, from stark rocky outcroppings to lush slopes marbled in autumn with evergreens and aspens fluttering in the purest gold, with splashes of coral and scarlet foliage. In some areas the minerals color the rocks in different shades of auburn and copper, with long slabs of chalky white below.
Garden of the Gods and the Manitou Cliff Dwellings: If you’re in the Denver area and don’t have the opportunity to go far, or in particular far enough west to view the cliff dwellings found in places like Mesa Verde, you can see an awesome collection of them here. Not only is the landscape at Garden of the Gods otherworldly, but seeing how people carved out there homes and livelihoods right into the cliffs at Manitou is a site to behold, and one you and your kids will enjoy learning about as well. Also in the area is Pike’s Peak, so if you’re ready to climb a gazillion steps, you’ll get to see some gorgeous waterfall views. This is not part of the drive from Denver to Aspen, but the following destinations are right on the way.
Genesee Park: If you want to see Bison, you can sometimes see a heard from highway I-70 in this area, but of course stopping off at the park to take a closer look is worth it. While you’re never guaranteed to see any particular form of wildlife, the chances of seeing them here are pretty good!
Georgetown: We enjoyed stopping off at this tiny town nestled in the mountains, and watching a herd of wild big horned sheep that live on the steep, rocky mountain face right across the highway from the Wildlife Viewing Area. This small adobe-type structure is just past a lovely mountain lake, and has several tower viewers to view the sheep, or you can bring your own binoculars. We got to see them with their young and although they are far away, it is so much fun to view them in their natural habitat doing their thing. In October and November you may see some of the males knocking their big curved horns together during the seasonal rut.
Leadville was another small town with big character, and a very “wild west” feel. There is a cute little visitor center with volunteers who are happy to give you some pointers. There’s even a saloon with some of the original structure from the 1800’s, back when the mining town was first built.
Independence Pass: As long as you’re not scared of heights, its worth veering off of I-70 to go through Independence Pass – just check the status of the road before you go. I-82 closes in October till May due to snow, and there are sometimes snow storms that will shut down the roads even during other months. If it is open, drive up one of the highest paved highway in the US, and stop at Independence Pass to get a taste of the alpine tundra on the mountain tops and see those other worldly views. This is also faster than staying on I-70, though it is not for the faint of heart.
Twin Lakes is a very beautiful place to take photos, with small parking lots near the lakes and campsites with stunning views. You can stop in a non-fee area for free and wander around the rocky slopes towering all around the crystal clear lakes, or get right in to wade through the water if you don’t mind the icy temperatures. You can walk as far or as little as you want.
Grotto’s Trail is a really different, fairly easy trail through the forest and along the river, where you can view some really unusual rock formations/caverns. It’s less than a mile to get to the ice caves and only a few miles outside of Aspen.
Maroon Bells is probably the most photographed place in CO, and it’s easy to see why. Make a reservation well in advance in order to experience this breathtaking mountain/lake view and hike.
Glenwood Springs – if you drive back to Denver via I-70, you’ll get to drive through Glenwood Springs. Hanging Lake was unfortunately closed due to mudslides when we passed through, but if given the chance I would go back again to try and visit this picturesque site, which is close to the hot spring area. There is a ton to do besides just the springs, but the springs themselves are ample reason to spend some time here.