Colorado is so beautiful that many people want to visit. But sometimes it’s nice to get away from the tourists and remember what Colorado was like in the good ole’ days. Here are a couple of my favorite day trip destinations, their local attractions, some side trips, and some places to stay if one day isn’t enough to enjoy these beautiful Colorado delights.
Here are three of my favorite off the beaten path day trips from Denver Colorado.
You can avoid the tourist spots around Colorado Springs and drive into the hills above the Air Force Academy to a little town that actually reminds me of the frontier towns in Alaska. I think it’s the wood carvings. Or maybe the eateries with names like the Hungry Bear Restaurant or the Historic Ute Inn Restaurant & Saloon. Or possibly the unassuming western wear store called the Cowhand.
And if you’re like me and you only eat Donuts on vacation, then I have the place for you. “A Woodland Park landmark, the Donut Mill has drawn visitors and local residents for decades with fresh baked donuts, sweet rolls, huge sticky buns, and their own special biscuits & gravy.”
When I was a kid, picnics included fried chicken and homemade potato salad. Moms today can just stop by Joanie’s Deli to pick up the fixins’ for a picnic in the park.
In Memorial Park, on Fridays from 8am – 1pm during the summer, the Farmers Market is available. Memorial Park also boasts a nice playground with a fantastic view as well as a revamped family fishing hole (children 15 years old and under can fish without a license). Other facilities at the park include:
- Horseshoe Pits
- Tennis Courts
- Basketball Court
- Sand Volleyball Court
- Picnic Tables
If your kids are into dinosaurs, you might want to stop by the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center which has a play area and educational activities at the Children’s Learning Center. (Going on a guided tour and on a week day is recommended.)
And if you want your kids to think you’re smart, you can download the Woodland Park Historic Walking Tour and while you’re walking through town, you can answer questions like “I wonder what that old building is?”
When we moved into our previous house, down the hill in Lakewood, there were some unusual pieces of trees in the back yard – like fossils. We didn’t really know what they were until we found Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument about 15 miles south west of Woodland Park. ”Beneath a grassy mountain valley in central Colorado lies one of the richest and most diverse fossil deposits in the world. Petrified redwood stumps up to 14 feet wide and thousands of detailed fossils of insects and plants reveal the story of a very different, prehistoric Colorado.” While you’re there, you can hike around the Hornbeck Wildlife Loop and see the woman-owned homestead of Adeline Hornbek.
But to get to the fossil beds, you have to drive by Colorado Wolf Adventures. If you’re looking for a once in a lifetime, amazing “walk with a wolf” experience, this is it. Children do need to be 8 or older, you need to wear good hiking shoes or boots (sandals are not allowed), and reservations well in advance are required, and it is pricey.
Another alternative, south of Divide, is the Mollie Kathleen Mine in Cripple Creek (24 miles from Woodland Park). “Discovered in 1891, the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine was the first claim to be struck by a woman in the Cripple Creek and Victor gold camp — a true rarity in those days.”
If you’re intrigued by Woodland Park and want to spend a couple of days in the area, there is camping near Woodland Park and around Rampart Reservoir.
Or if you prefer a B&B, you could see if Pikes Peak Paradise Bed and Breakfast or Bristlecone Lodge have availability.
Concerned about starting to start planning travel now? Check out my blog about How To Start Planning Travel Now.
Almost everyone has heard of Estes Park and probably visited Rocky Mountain National Park via Estes. If you’ve driven across Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park, then you exited RMNP at Grand Lake. If you were traveling with children, you probably stopped at the Alpine Visitor’s Center at the top of Trail Ridge Road with it’s gorgeous views (and bathrooms), then most likely drove by Grand Lake in a hurry to get home. 🙂
Grand Lake is both a town and a lake. We’ve stayed in Grand Lake (the town) twice. The first time was when my husband and his pal hiked from Estes Park through RMNP to Grand Lake (21 miles). I hiked Bluebird Lake Trail (12 miles), then drove across Trail Ridge Road to pick them up. We stayed at the Gateway Inn, which is a lovely lodge built to look like an upscale log home. I loved the mammoth outdoor decks and gorgeous views. You can look for availability here.
The next time we stayed in Grand Lake was for a combination of my birthday and because we needed to be out of our house (for an open house). We stayed in a rustic cabin and hiked the Shadow Mountain Fire Lookout Trail. This trail starts with a nice walk along the eastern shore of Shadow Mountain Lake, then winds up through the woods to the fire lookout (which is closed to visitors). But the view up there is quite outstanding. It is a mostly easy hike but fairly long at 9.3 miles. One reviewer said, “Took a 9 year old and 10 year old – they were able to make it with some stops.”
The historic town of Grand Lake was established in 1881 and sits at the confluence of Grand Lake (one of the most scenic alpine lakes in Colorado) and Shadow Mountain Lake, with the majestic mountains of RMNP as the backdrop. The main drag, Grand Ave (it’s a very Grand place), is a nice, wide street with parking on either side that is nose-in (not parallel parking) and lined with buildings that look like they came out of a John Wayne movie complete with wooden boardwalks. They have locally-owned and operated shops, including a “wide array of clothing boutiques, art galleries, jewelry stores, antique shops, bookstores and outdoor retailers sprinkled amongst the old-fashioned ice cream parlours and candy shops.”
With Grand Lake being the deepest and largest natural lake in Colorado and connected to Shadow Mountain reservoir via a short canal, there is a plethora of water fun. The Grand Lake Marina rents pontoon boats and Boston Whalers. It also offers chartered sunset party cruises for up to 35 people. The Trail Ridge Marina on Shadow Mountain Lake rents pontoon boats, fishing boats and pleasure boats. It also offers boats tours for up to 12 people.
“If you are looking to use your arms or feet to power your own boat, a couple businesses on the lakefront offer kayak and pedal boat rentals. You’ll see the glimmering gold, pink and purple pedal boats lining one of the wooden docks on Grand Lake. Pedal boats are a great way to experience the lake with kids.” More tips here.
For winter fun, Grand Lake is the “Snowmobile Capital of Colorado”, with over 300 miles of trails, 150 maintained. You can also snowshoe, cross country ski, and ice fish.
Besides the lakes, RMNP, and Winter Park, there is plenty to do near Grand Lake. The Upper Colorado River is the best whitewater rafting trip for families with young children and older adults or for anyone who wants to raft a fun, easy stretch of the river on “a scenic float trip with abundant wildlife and playful rapids.” You can go to Liquid Descent or Mad Adventures in Kremmling (50 min west on hwy 40) to join a family-fun raft trip, but advanced reservations on their website are recommended.
Fossil Ridge is just miles from Kremmling. “Did you know that the entire state of Colorado was once at the bottom of a vast, life-supporting sea? Take a trip back in time to Kremmling’s Fossil Ridge and discover the remains of the aquatic creatures who once inhabited this ancient ocean.” Stop into the BLM Kremmling Field Office at 2103 E Park Ave. in Kremmling for more information and a map to the site.
“The Gore Canyon Whitewater Park at Pumphouse is now open! Kayakers, stand-up paddle boarders, and boaters can now enjoy this Colorado River location, between the Class V expert reaches of Gore Canyon and the family friendly Class II-III reach below Pumphouse Recreation Site. This scenic area provides peace, solitude and beautiful canyon views for thousands of visitors each year. The BLM maintains river access, bathrooms, parking, and a Pumphouse Recreation Area campground. There is excellent fishing available along the river trail as well.”
The Visit Grand County website lists several good camping areas.
Check out this link for some places to stay in Grand Lake.
Pictures from our trips are here:
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We’ve lived in Colorado for 30 something years and August 2020 was our first time staying in Buena Vista! We’ve driven through it and around it and even rented a pop-up camper there one time on our way to Lake City, but never found the time to visit it until recently.
NOTE: As you’re coming down 285, just before Johnston Village, there is a pull-off on the right that has a Collegiate Peaks Overlook. It is most definitely worth stopping 1) to see the view, 2) to look at the map telling you which peak is which and 3) to take a selfie. 🙂
Buena Vista has a new whitewater park, the big sister to the one in Kremmling above. With 5 water features, changing rooms, beaches for warm weather, mountain bike and hiking trails, and climbing rocks, this is the ultimate multi-use attraction. It is also a nice place to walk along the river and listen to the rapids and maybe catch a video of a kayaker practicing in the waves.
The park is adjacent to the unique South Main neighborhood with its restaurants, nightlife and shopping, including the Eddyline Restaurant, which serves the locally made Eddyline beer on tap.
Buena Vista Heritage Museum includes mining relics, traditional clothing, an old jail cell door, and a working model railroad of the Upper Arkansas River Valley in 1900.
For something a little more exciting, you can zipline through the Arkansas River Valley. (Minimum age 6, minimum weight 40 lbs. Maximum weight 250 lbs.)
And of course one of the most exciting things to do is the White Water Rafting. There are many companies available, but we’ve used River Runners in the past. The minimum age for whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River is 7 years old. However, there are sections of the river for ages 15+ only. River Runners has a Family Float. You will need to book in advance.
Collegiate Peaks Wilderness is right next door and the trail head to Mount Yale is about 15 minutes from Buena Vista. All Trails lists 61 trails in the Buena Vista area.
Mount Princeton Hot Springs is a family friendly, odorless hot springs less than 10 miles from Buena Vista. The upper hot spring pools have a 400 foot water slide. These pools offer incredible Rocky Mountain views and are kept at about 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
An easy drive, about 20 miles from Buena Vista, on the road past Mount Princeton Hot Springs is Colorado’s most original ghost town of St. Elmo. The website outtherecolorado.com has some great photos and mentions: “The fact that there are still locals here is one reason that makes St. Elmo unique among other ghost towns. While the older buildings are abandoned, a few blocks away from the main strip, you’ll find new Jeeps and satellite dishes for television at a few newer homes. While most ghost towns are so remote that habitation is impractical, St. Elmo’s accessible nature has kept it an option for some.”
“Situated at the base of the 14,000+ foot Collegiate Peaks alongside the Arkansas River, Buena Vista is a beautiful place to camp. It’s teeming with outdoor recreation, with a slew of great campgrounds and free dispersed camping options.”