With Denver being a bustling city and Rocky Mountain National Park only a short drive away, it’s easy to see why Colorado has become a top destination for city lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. I spent a 4 day weekend covering as much ground as possible and was enamored by all that Colorado had to offer.
As I’ve learned from experience, it can become quite overwhelming planning a first-time visit when there’s so much to explore. So to help my fellow travelers, I’ve outlined Colorado’s top destinations along with the itinerary I followed. This will get you the best bang for your buck to see Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the quaint mountain town Boulder.
Getting to Denver is very easy being it has a large, international airport. Deciding on where to go and what to do once you’re in Denver is the fun part! You could spend the whole time exploring the city or it’s possible to check a few different areas off your list if you plan accordingly and have the energy.
A city growing in popularity, known for its high elevation, mountain views, local brews and close proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll most likely start here, which is what I did.
Neighbors with Denver, Boulder is a smaller college town with the famous Flatirons in its backyard. This is a perfect spot for those who want a quieter (or cheaper) stay than in Denver.
About 1.5 hour drive from Denver to the south, Colorado Springs is a small town known for Pike’s Peak (highest summit in the front range) and Garden of the Gods. It’s also a popular weekend destination for Denver city-dwellers. I spent a long weekend exploring Colorado Springs and surrounding area on a separate visit to Colorado. You can read more about Colorado Springs here.
One of my favorite parts of Colorado Springs? The Via Ferrata at Royal Gorge Bridge & Park! You can read more about my experience with the Via Ferrata and how to visit Royal Gorge Bridge and Park here.
About 1.5hr drive northwest of Denver, the national park is one of the most popular in the US. It covers about 425 miles of protected land with multiple peaks over 14,000 ft. You can even drive up past the tree-line on Trail Ridge Road which is the highest paved road in the US.
Popular ski towns decked with some of the best ski resorts and slopes in the country. Definitely places to look into for a winter getaway!
It goes without saying, you could spend a full weekend in any of these locations; but for my eager, go-getters you can definitely check 2-3 of these places off your list!
So without further ado,
And pick up your rental car (a necessity for covering all the ground we plan to explore).
Explore the city – luckily Denver has a lot of walkable neighborhoods so you can park and spend at least a few hours in each spot. What’s your vibe?
Pick up some lunch and happy hour drinks while shopping about in Larimer Square, or LoDo, if you want updated, chic, urban feels.
Want some more edge, art, culture? Go on a street art tour through River North Arts District (RiNo) or Five Points. After you get your art fill, rest your legs at one of the many restaurants or breweries in the area.
Pro Tip: At some point before heading in for the night, stop at a grocery store and pick up some trail snacks for tomorrow’s adventure.
For lodging, we opted for an AirBnB in Boulder since this would cut some time off of the drive to Rocky Mountain NP and it was cheaper than Denver.
Rise and shine early birds! You’ll want to hit the road first thing to beat the crowds at the park.
Pro Tip: Make sure to stop at the Ranger station for trail updates, a map of the area, and any recommendations the rangers may have. I always stop at the ranger station/visitor’s center when visiting a national park and each time it has paid off with helpful information.
A moderate, out and back trail perfect for getting those Colorado Mountain views; the trail is 5.6 miles with about 1,400 ft elevation gain. Enjoy your packed lunch at the top before heading back to the car.
Now resting your legs, take the Trail Ridge Road all the way up to Alpine Visitor Center where you can take a brisk walk up past 12000ft. There are lots of pull outs along the way to the visitor center for you to take pictures, as well. If you’re super ambitious and can wake up early enough, you can catch a spectacular sunrise here (though I wouldn’t know first-hand because I like my sleep).
Make your way back down Trail Ridge Road and head to Bear Lake Trailhead. Bear Lake is an alpine lake with a beautiful picturesque setting. You can take a leisurely stroll around the land though there will most likely be a lot of people around. Even with the high traffic, you’ll most likely see some wildlife! Definitely worth the stop, in my opinion.
Pro Tip: Be prepared for some altitude sickness if you’re not accustomed to the high elevations. Bring lots of extra water, take some ibuprofen, etc. I had never heard of altitude sickness before and was hit with a severe headache by the end of the day (I wasn’t drinking enough water either). Learn from my mistake!
We stopped for dinner at a casual western-esque spot in Lyon on the way back to Boulder, much too tired and hungry to wait for a snazzy restaurant in Boulder.
If you’re tired of hiking, Day 3 could be spent back in Denver; if you’re ready for more of the great outdoors, head out for a popular hike in Boulder – the Flatirons.
The Flatirons are rock formations that look like flat irons – creative I know. The hike is about 2.6 miles roundtrip and about 1400 feet elevation gain. It’s a sweaty workout on a hot summer day for sure, but it’s pretty fun with lots of rocks to climb over towards the top and great views of Boulder.
Make sure to get an early start as parking fills up fast especially on the weekends – and you have places to be anyway!
After a quick shower (and maybe a nap), it’s time to see all that Boulder has to offer. Check out Pearl Street – bustling with shops, restaurants, bars, you could spend the entire day here (which we did). Fun arcade themed bars, upscale tacos from Bartaco, we had a blast on Pearl Street and so will you!
I highly recommend checking out the music scene in Boulder or Denver. We bought tickets to see Trevor Hall at Chautauqua park in Boulder which was perfect after a long day a.k.a. they had seating to enjoy the show. First, we grabbed dinner at the Chautauqua Dining Hall which is a historic landmark serving up farm-to-table cuisine – definitely recommend.
Our first choice would’ve been catching a show at the Red Rocks Amphitheater but tickets were sold out for the whole weekend.
Pro Tip: Plan ahead and buy tickets for a show at the Red Rocks Amphitheater way in advance. You can plan your trip around seeing a favorite artist perform live at one of the best outdoor venues in the US.
Snooze AM Eatery is a very popular Brunch spot in Denver with at least 3 locations around the city. However, Snooze is known for its long lines and we weren’t patient enough for that so I can’t say if it’s worth it or not.
After brunch, hit the town to explore more shops for music, books, art, clothes, baked goods and more. This is always a favorite of mine, not that I particularly like shopping but seeing all of the unique small businesses in a city really showcases the personality.
Finally, sadly, it’s time to head home. But cheers to a weekend well spent! While you wait in line at security, google some of the crazy conspiracy theories out there about Denver’s airport.
And there you have it – a full weekend exploring the best Colorado has to offer