17 Best Places in Colorado to Take a Summer Vacation
K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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Colorado may best be known for its plentiful winter powder that offers some of the best skiing and boarding in the world, but summer brings the chance to enjoy a wealth of spectacular scenery and all sorts of outdoor adventures too. These Colorado towns may top them all when it comes to enjoying an ideal mix of both.
Vail is one of the world’s most popular ski resort towns, but in the warmer months of the year, it offers plenty of things to do and see, including mountain biking, hiking, golfing, and riding whitewater rapids. Throughout the season, there is an abundance of music and dance festivals, including the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival features orchestras like the New York Philharmonic that performs at the outdoor Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, as well as the Vail International Dance Festival and the Vail Jazz Festival. Just a few of the other highlights include botanical tours through the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, rock climbing excursions in Vail Valley, and the wealth of shops, bars, and eateries in the village of Vail itself.
Another one of the state’s most popular skiing and snowboarding destinations, Steamboat Springs may be a winter wonderland during the chillier months of the year, but the summer brings an endless landscape of green dotted with brilliant wildflowers. This is when this Wild West town really comes alive, with visitors enjoying fly fishing, inner tube rides and rafting trips on the Yampa River, endless scenic hiking and mountain biking trails, and natural hot springs that are ideal for soothing sore muscles afterward. If you can be here around late June/early July, you can attend the legendary annual Hot Air Balloon Rodeo and Art in the Park festival, which boasts an extensive display of colorful hot air balloons along with some 50 artist vendors, live entertainment, food and drink vendors, and an interactive children’s art area.
Telluride is one of the best places to visit in Colorado, offering the quintessential mountain town experience. Not only are its streets lined with grand Victorian buildings, but it has become a hub for adventurers, athletes, and artists of all types, nestled in an isolated box canyon, far from the chaos of modern life. While there’s no skiing this time of year, visitors can still take a ride on the gondola up the mountain to get a bird’s eye view of the town and the breathtaking surrounding landscape. There’s also the opportunity to hike to the state’s longest free-falling waterfall, Bridal Veil Falls, and enjoy fantastic fishing, golfing, and biking. This little town is big when it comes to festivals, too, with the annual Bluegrass Festival bringing a multitude of bluegrass bands to the area to enjoy the sun and the tunes in the outdoor amphitheater.
Getting to Ouray is a spectacular adventure in itself, especially if you take the Million Dollar Highway that follows a 25-mile stretch of US 550 from Silverton to get here. The road’s endless twists and turns, many at the edge of sheer cliffs, brings some of the most jaw-dropping vistas in the world. As you turn each corner, the views of the soaring, jagged peaks of the San Juan Mountains seem to keep getting better – providing a pretty big clue as to why Ouray is often called the “Switzerland of America.” It’s an ideal spot for soaking in natural hot springs, gazing at countless waterfalls, and even exploring old mines. For in-depth knowledge of the town’s gold and silver history, head to Bachelor-Syracuse Mine, where you’ll find out what it was like to be a miner back in the day. There are also lots of interesting shops on the main street, historic walking tours, and even a ghost tour if you’re brave enough.
This southwestern mountain town is ideal for multi-sport adventurers who want to have access to activities on land and in the water. The Animas River snakes right through Durango and is famous for providing some of the best kayaking and rafting in the state. Head just uphill, and you can be surrounded by the soaring peaks of the Rockies, hiking in out-of-this-world alpine terrain, while the lowlands offer outstanding mountain biking on over 1,000 miles of trails in the Durango area alone. One of the must-dos, no matter when you’re here, is to hop aboard the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a narrow gauge steam train built specifically built to handle the narrow mountain routes, chugging along at 18 miles per hour as it climbs the steep and magnificent mountain passes between Durango and Silverton. Much of its downtown area is a designated National Historic District and offers a number of interesting places to visit, like the San Juan County Historical Society, housed in the old county jail, as well as the Mayflower Gold Mill National Historic Site and the Old Hundred Gold Mine.
The town of Dolores may be small, but it’s well worth spending some time in, tucked in a magnificent canyon with the picturesque Dolores River cutting along one side and rock cliffs on the other. The second largest reservoir, McPhee Reservoir, can be found here, and San Juan National Forest, just a mile from town, provides excellent opportunities for fly fishing, hiking, and biking. In addition to outdoor activities, the town boasts four parks, a brewpub, and a unique mix of restaurants and shops.
Grand Lake is arguably the biggest attraction in the town of Grand Lake, offering boating, sailing, fishing, swimming, kayaking and yachting – it even hosts a Regatta Week in early August. This is also where you’ll find the biggest Fourth of July fireworks display in all of Colorado, as well as a wealth of popular tourist spots like candy shops, old-time photo galleries and saloons, an array of gift shops and even mini-golf courses. Plus, as it sits near the western entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll be steps away from one of the country’s most spectacular wildlife-filled parks too.
Crested Butte may be off the beaten path, but it’s worth the trip as one of the most stunning mountain towns in all of Colorado. The atmosphere is one that combines the charms of a historic mining town with hippy flair. Set at the base of the Rockies, it’s world-renowned for skiing, but in the warmer months, it becomes a top hiking and mountain biking destination and is the perfect time to see the colorful flowers in bloom. It also draws visitors in for the chance to take once-in-a-lifetime whitewater rafting adventures through the Taylor Canyon. A true mecca for mountain bikers, there are hundreds of miles of trails linked together to create an endless day of touring from Gothic to Mt. Crested Butte, Irwin to Gunnison, or even from Crested Butte all the way to Aspen. If you don’t have a bike, stop by Big Al’s Bicycle Heaven and rent one for the day or for the length of your stay. In addition to riding the trails, you can ride around town and check out all the historic buildings and funky alleyways.
Fort Collins is just an hour north of Denver, but it offers a ton of fun outdoor things to do when you want to take advantage of the sunshine. Just minutes from downtown is Horsetooth Mountain Open Space, a 2,711-acre park with 29 miles of biking, hiking, and horseback trails just west of Horsetooth Reservoir, which happens to be an ideal spot for paddling out in a canoe or kayak. Mountain Whitewater offers whitewater rafting trips on Cache La Poudre River, which flows right through downtown, while the Farm at Lee Martinez Park is an educational zoo that has animals for feeding and cuddling up with, pony rides, hayrides, and interactive adventures. Beer lovers can tour and taste at a number of outstanding area breweries or even take a Beer & Bike tour where you can enjoy a variety of beers after a hard day of pedaling.
Keystone is the ultimate year-round outdoor playground. Families will discover a wealth of things to do to keep the kids – and themselves – happy, with everything from Keystone Science School Day Camps and the summer snow tubing hill to stand-up paddle boarding and boating on the lake, miniature golf, GPS Geo-Cache Adventures and dinner wagon rides. Then there are the festivals, like the Keystone Bacon and Bourbon Festival, Bluegrass & Beer Festival, the River Run Art Festival, and the Mountain Town Music Festival.
Leadville isn’t the most well-known town in Colorado, but it’s the country’s highest incorporated city at over 10,000 feet above sea level and offers jaw-dropping Rocky Mountain views, lots of history to explore, and plenty of outdoor adventures without the big crowds. In the downtown area, there are 70 square blocks designated as a National Historic Landmark of Victorian architecture, including the elegant brick Tabor Opera House, while the famous Matchless Mine nearby offers both guided and self-guided tours. During the winter, budget-friendly skiing without long lines can be enjoyed just 20 minutes away at Ski Cooper.
Just an hour’s drive from Denver, Boulder sits at the base of the foothills of the Rockies and offers a great mix of city and outdoor attractions. The Flatirons are the first thing you’ll see when approaching and serve as a popular spot for hiking and wildlife watching, with mule deer, black bear, bobcat, and coyote in the area. The top attraction downtown is Pearl Street Mall, an open-air pedestrian mall that’s great for people watching and enjoying free, live entertainment with plenty of buskers here on any given day. You might see everything from fire-eaters and contortionists to talented singers and musicians as you browse the shops, galleries, and bookstores.
The eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, is just an hour and 20 minutes from Denver, providing an ideal base for outdoor adventures like hiking, wildlife watching, and much more. It lies along the Big Thompson River and is surrounded by soaring peaks, while the downtown area offers a wide range of fun shops and enticing eateries. It’s not uncommon for elk to be seen lounging around the town’s golf course while mountain goats and bighorn sheep scurry around the cliffside. There’s an amusement park with a big slide, go-karts, bumper cars, mini-golf, and even bungee jumping.
A hidden gem between the Collegiate Peaks and the Arkansas River, Buena Vista tends to draw mostly Coloradans and avid whitewater enthusiasts but it offers something for everyone, including stunning mountain views. Rafting is a popular active pursuit here, and you can also kayak, fly fish, or paddleboard on the river. The network of off-road trails is popular for Jeep and ATV touring, while nearby Mount Princeton Hot Springs is the perfect place to relax afterward, with natural warm water pools segregated by rocks and manmade pools.
The location of the last great Colorado gold rush and nearly the capital of the state thanks to its riches, Cripple Creek sits on the west side of Pikes Peak and offers a trip back in time. It has an Old West feel with lots of historic buildings dating from the late 1800s. While quite a few now serve as casinos, visitors can explore multiple fascinating museums, including one that used to be a brothel and still retains much of its original furnishings. There’s a gold mine that offers the country’s only 1,000-foot vertical shaft tour, while the Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad provide a fun ride with scenic views. Be sure to spend an evening at the Butte Theatre to enjoy an old-fashioned melodrama too.
Aspen is the quintessential Colorado mountain town, known worldwide as a top ski destination. Nestled in the heart of the White River National Forest, surrounded by the peaks of Elk Mountain, there’s something to do here in every season. The famous Maroon Bells are a must for your Instagram feed, with the Elk Mountain peaks often reflected across the still waters of Maroon Lake. There are miles and miles of hiking and biking trails while downtown hosts swanky shops and high-end hotels known to attract celebrities, along with fine dining restaurants, breweries and entertainment venues.
It feels amazing to soak in the natural hot springs in Glenwood Springs while the snow is falling during the winter, especially after a day on the slopes at Sunlight Mountain Resort, just 13 miles south. But during the summer months and sometimes into the fall if the weather allows, there’s an aquatic playground with a fast-moving river ride, waterfalls, interactive play areas, and a splash and show fountain. Plus, you’ll have opportunities for mountain adventures, including incredibly scenic hikes like Hanging Lake Trail, which leads to a waterfall that plunges into a serene emerald pool.