Colorado is one of the most diverse states in the U.S. for visitors seeking beauty and exhilaration. Not only do the Rocky Mountains run through it, the Colorado Plateau and the Great Plains are an outdoor playground waiting to be explored. As Canadian travellers we love any opportunity to sample our favourite outdoor recreation in other places. Although visitors have a long list of exciting things to do when in The Centennial State, there are a few adventures that stand out from the rest.
Ride the Rapids
Some look at the snow-covered peaks and imagine skiing them – others know that all that glittering white stuff will soon melt, filling the rivers with rushing water. Beginner, mid-level and even advanced rafters will find more than enough stretches of river to ensure a fun and satisfying trip. The choices of places to drop a raft are almost endless, but one of the most picturesque is the Arkansas River.
The Arkansas River runs through the canyons in the center of the state, dropping more than 5,000 feet in the first 125 miles of its journey. Does that get your attention? Not only does the Arkansas take rafters through diverse and spectacular landscapes, it’s easily managed in sections. This means adventurers can choose between a friendly, family float or heart-stopping escapades through foaming rapids.
Three towns are situated along the Arkansas, providing easy launch points. (Plus the reward of a post-rafting craft beer.) Buena Vista, Salida and Cañon City have operators that offer multi-level tours and supply all the necessary equipment. Choose from a half-day adventure or go all-out with an overnight trip that takes you through the incredible geology of the region. There’s no better way to see the canyons and gorges than from the bottom-up.
Hike the Wilderness
The Maroon Bells are two of the most spectacular peaks in the U.S. and certainly the most photographed. Located in the White River National Forest, also called the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, the peaks are ''fourteeners." What does that mean? They are over 14,000 feet in height, and among the most difficult to ascend. Hikers wanting to summit either Maroon Peak or North Maroon Peak must prepare for unstable, loose, rocky ground. Those not interested in reaching the top can enjoy the beauty by exploring any of the lower hiking trails.
The Maroon Lake Trail is relatively easy and a short 5 kilometre jaunt. Despite the gentle grade, plan extra time for taking photos and appreciating the stunning vistas along the way. Much of the route follows Maroon Creek, and the Bells peek in and out of sight as the trail winds through aspen forest. When in season the path is lined with wildflowers.
At almost 11 kilometres, the Maroon Creek Trail is a bit more of a challenge, but the terrain is still somewhat easy. The path is mostly wooded but a small clearing near the end provides an amazing view of the Bells. The trail is less frequented than others and you're more likely to see wildlife.
The third main trail is short and difficult, and while it's little more than 5 kilometres long, it has tricky footing. Fortunately hikers are rewarded with a view of Maroon Lake from above and lovely Crater Lake at the end.
Wander Through Nature
Garden of the Gods was named back in 1859 when a surveyor proclaimed the area fit for the Gods to assemble in. Interconnected trails lead hikers and mountain bikers through the large red-rock formations that are unique to the area. Stop in at the visitor centre to get a map, and enquire about conditions on the more than 24 km of trails. Arrive early to have the best chance of seeing wildlife while hiking.
Several paths are short and easy enough for those with difficulty walking. Perkins Central Garden Trail is 2.5 km over paved ground while the 0.8 km Ridge Trail takes visitors right into the rocks. The shallow incline on the Siamese Twins Trail poses no difficulty for most people and the view of Pike’s Peak through the Twins is wonderful.
Mountain bikers and equestrians have access to many of the trails as well. Bikers and riders are asked to familiarize themselves with permissible trails and be respectful of other users. Remember, this is a trail for enjoying the scenery, not racing to the finish.
Rock climbers are welcome and must register at the visitor centre before setting out. Pick up a copy of the regulations while there and check over equipment. Rock scrambling is not allowed and climbers may be asked to avoid nesting areas in the spring.
Great Sand Dunes National Park was established in 2004 and protects more than 44,000 acres of dunes. Formed less than 440,000 years ago, these are some of the tallest dunes in North America. They are continually growing, changing daily as the wind reshapes the sand. Check the park website for alerts before leaving home and pack plenty of water. Plan your trip for early morning or late evening, as the sand reaches 65°C and grit-filled winds can turn the area into a sand blaster.
Don’t expect to bring an old snow sled or worn down skis to try out the dunes. Cardboard and plastic saucers won’t be able to overcome the friction either. Only sand sleds and sandboards with a specially designed slick base will allow users to pick up some speed on the slopes. No rental equipment is available within the park; you must bring your own.
Wear good shoes; one area of sledding can be reached via a primitive road (when open) but most require a short trek in appropriate footwear. Getting to the top a dune is no easy feat either, but slip-sliding up a slithery slope is all part of the fun. Don’t try to find the highest dune as perspective is difficult in this rolling landscape. Just pick a tall dune and start up.
Soak it Up
Hot springs in Colorado range from wild and primitive to carefully maintained spas. Some of the untended areas are only accessed by hiking in and are an all-day venture. Penny Hot Springs near Carbondale is a great balance between the two; the setting is natural yet easily reached from a parking area. The springs are free to use and although swimsuits are required, some users insist on going au natural. Avoid Penny if you are totally uncomfortable with nudity.
The pools are fed by hot mineral water and the temperature can be adjusted by moving rocks to allow cooler water from the Crystal River to enter. Snow melt in the spring makes the water quite cold, but summer and fall are glorious times to relax in the warmth.
The pools were once owned by hotelier Dan Penny although the bathhouse he put up for the convenience of his guests is long gone. There’s no restroom or caretaker, and guests are asked to clean up when they leave. Bring a towel and dry clothing if planning to do some hiking before or after a long soak.
Summers in Colorado are verdant and beckoning, and you can challenge yourself to a strenuous hike or enjoy a lazy float down a river. It doesn’t matter if you are a solo adventurist or a family looking for fun – the beauty of the state will leave you dazzled.
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