Once the snow melts in Colorado, late spring and early summer is an ideal time to explore my home state. As much as I enjoy skiing our sublime slopes in the winter, the months between April and August are the reason I moved to Colorado from the East Coast 20 years ago. You simply cannot beat the warm-weather months, with their blue skies and moderate temperatures. Also, there’s no humidity in sight! The weather is perfect for a myriad of outdoor activities.
From Denver, I recommend a number of multi-night getaways (see below). For out-of-state visitors, however, I always suggest booking a Denver hotel for a few days to acclimate to the altitude; Denver sits at 5,280 feet above sea level, but mountain communities are much higher.
Just one hour south of Denver, Colorado Springs could be explored in one day, but it really deserves at least three, namely because there is so much to do. The urban destination has a surprising number of outdoor attractions, including Garden of the Gods (pictured above), with its otherworldly red-rock formations. Since this natural attraction is part of the city park system, entrance is free, and hiking trails include easy nature walks and more moderate loops.
Maneuvering the ropes on the Wind Walkers Challenge Course at Cave of the Winds
Another unusual natural wonder is Cave of the Winds, where you can embark on an informative tour of the limestone caverns and their stalactite-studded passageways. Man-made fun here includes a Wind Walker Challenge Course; in a harness, you walk across steel beams, balance on ropes, and make your way around a maze that is perched at the top of a 600-foot cliff. Not for the height-averse, this activity is equal parts terrifying and humbling (my children made their way through it faster and more confidently than I did).
Pikes Peak is the area’s highest mountain, and you can drive to the top in a car. For something different, I think riding the Pikes Peak Cog Railway is a kick. It’s a 3.5-hour round trip to 14,115 feet, and on the way, your guide-conductor points out the high-alpine flora and fauna. Keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep! When you get to the top, have a doughnut from the country’s highest-altitude bakery and take in the expansive mountain views.
Still more Colorado Springs highlights: the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, which has a new Africa exhibit; historic Manitou Springs, whose giant open-air arcade is a hit with kids; and the U.S. Olympic Training Center, which offers free guided tours.
Where to stay in Colorado Springs: The Broadmoor is my favorite Colorado Springs hotel for its white-glove service, upscale restaurants, and beautifully manicured grounds. Opened in 1918, this five-star hotel has its own lake for paddle-boating and an outdoor pool with water slides, plus a stellar spa, three golf courses, and multiple tennis courts.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado has four United States National Parks, each with striking natural formations and historic and cultural relevance. If you have time to visit only one of these parks, I’d head to Rocky Mountain National Park, about 90 minutes northwest of Denver. This park is home to quintessential Colorado mountain peaks–snow-capped year round–and an incredible array of wildlife, such as bear, fox, moose, and elk.
Driving Trail Ridge Road is a great way to see the park’s varied ecosystems; this is the highest continuous paved highway in the United States and it tops out at 12,183 feet. The road passes through vast alpine tundra well above treeline. (Pack a fleece jacket or sweatshirt for this drive—it’s chilly and typically windy at this height.)
Rocky Mountain National Park also is filled with dozens of hiking trails, picnic spots, fishing holes, and horseback-riding options. Your first stop in the park—whether you enter on the west or east side—should be one of the five visitors centers, where knowledgeable rangers can give you tips on what to see and do. They’ll also let you know about any trails that are still closed after severe flooding impacted the park in September 2013.
Viewfinder Tip: Grand Lake, on the opposite side of Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park, is a more laid-back alternative for a home base.
Where to stay in Rocky Mountain National Park: With no lodges in the park, your options inside its boundaries are limited to tent and RV campsites. Otherwise, overnighting in Estes Park, at the east entrance, offers easy access. I like the grand Stanley Hotel, where Stephen King penned The Shining. Yes, nighttime ghost tours are offered, but I recommend spending your evening bellied up to the Whiskey Bar at Cascades Restaurant, which features nearly 600 labels.
Colorado ski resorts transform into fun mountain playgrounds in the summer months. You really can’t go wrong with a visit to any of them: Steamboat Springs, Vail, Breckenridge, Winter Park, or Durango. However, I’m partial to Aspen in the summer since it’s in my backyard.
One absolute must-do when visiting Aspen is a bus tour to the Maroon Bells, so named because these twin peaks have a purple tint. Once you see the striking, jagged mountains against a bright blue sky, you’ll understand why they are among North America’s most-photographed peaks. Traipse around Maroon Lake to take your own photos, or embark on a longer hike up into the aspen groves and pine forest.
With Aspen as your home base, it’s easy to embark on outdoor adventures, such as scenic gondola rides up to the top of the ski mountain, guided raft trips in the whitewater rivers, mountain biking, fly-fishing, and hot-air balloon rides. Shopping also is a popular endeavor here, with funky thrift shops and outdoor-gear stores lining the streets downtown alongside upscale boutiques, such as Prada and Gucci.
Where to stay in Aspen: Three high-end hotels are found in downtown Aspen, and you can’t go wrong with any of them if you don’t mind splurging: Hotel Jerome, The St. Regis Aspen and The Little Nell. More reasonably priced hotel rooms include the pet-friendly Limelight Hotel, the hip and irreverent Sky Hotel, with a lively poolside apres-hike scene, or The Gant, with its multi-bedroom condos.
What are your favorite spots for a weekend getaway?