Colorado travel: Ten easy Rocky Mountain highs
In Colorado, it’s easy to get to the top. No other state is as fixated with altitude. Whether it’s climbing one of Colorado’s 54 peaks that soar to 14,000 feet and above, or standing exactly a mile above sea level on the steps of the State Capitol in Denver, there is a need to get high. Here are 10 easy ways to do it.
1. Head to the Rooftop at Coors Field
People in the Mile High City live outdoors, so there are more than a dozen rooftop bars in downtown Denver alone, but there’s only one big enough to actually call itself “the Rooftop” — a massive 38,000-square-foot pleasure dome on the top of Coors Field. Although it’s only open when the Rockies are playing, you don’t need a ticket to the baseball game to go. A $14 access ticket lets you go anywhere in the stadium, except to a seat. Head to the Rooftop, where you’ll find cabanas, outdoor fire pits, deluxe food stations, and two levels of balconies offering spectacular (but standing) views of the ballgame and the sunset over the Rocky Mountains. Best of all? Your access ticket is a credit for $6 at any food station, so dig into a local CHUBurger and a handspun milkshake. And just to make sure you know you’re in Denver, look for a giant purple “5280” floating on a girder above the cabanas, reminding you that you’re exactly 5,280 feet above sea level — one mile high.
2. Drive up Mount Evans
The 14,260-foot-high summit of Mount Evans, just 60 miles outside of Denver, is the highest spot reached by any paved road in North America. It’s insane. To get there you drive through five climate zones, zig-zagging your way above the timberline on a road with no guardrails. But the views and the strangeness of it all make up for that. You’ll pass through a forest of Bristlecone pines — 2,000-year-old trees, bent and gnarled by the wind that are among the oldest living things on Earth — and almost certainly see a herd of Rocky Mountain goats. The road is only open between Memorial Day and Labor Day because it can snow at any time, and even on a nice day, the temperature drops 3 degrees for every 1,000 feet elevation gain, so it will be 24 degrees colder than in Denver. Bring a jacket and some nerve, but leave the carbonated beverages at home. They don’t do well in your stomach with the elevation gains.
3. Climb the continent’s highest sand dunes
This one’s not so easy. There are 26 square miles of sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park, and no trails. You just take off your shoes, wade across shallow Medano Creek, and have at it. The highest dune is 750 feet above the valley floor. The challenge is that for every step you take up, you slide back three-quarters of the way. Seventy percent of the grains of sand are the width of a human hair. Stacked any steeper than 34 degrees, and they simply give way to gravity and cascade down. And so will you. But it’s a trip to get over the first ridge and be in valley-like Lawrence of Arabia, completely surrounded by sand mountains. You can get specially designed sandboards and sand sleds at the Oasis store just outside the park and slide down the dunes. But don’t forget you have to walk back up.
4. Get a little looney in the San Luis Valley
The San Luis Valley of southern Colorado is the largest alpine valley in the world. It covers an area the size of Massachusetts and receives less rainfall than the Sahara. There are only 40,000 people here, making it one of the most isolated, quietest, and darkest places on the planet. And when things get quiet and dark, they also get strange. You can stop in Crestone, which many consider a vortex to another dimension. Just down the road in Hooper is the world’s only UFO Watchtower. There have been more alleged UFO sightings in the San Luis Valley than in Roswell, New Mexico, so local resident Judy Messoline built a wood deck surrounded by UFO art. Just across the road is the Colorado Gators Reptile Park, home to 300 alligators, crocodiles, snakes, turtles and lizards. The gators live outside in geothermal pools of water that remain a constant 87 degrees. You can hold a gator, feed a gator, and even take a class on how to wrestle a gator. If gators in Colorado seem wacky, the park recently bulldozed a gigantic hole and is accepting donations to create Colorado’s largest outdoor geothermal scuba diving tank. Presumably, it will be gator-free.
5. Be like Indiana Jones and ride the continent’s highest steam locomotive
Indiana Jones’ childhood home is beside the tracks of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. You can stay in his house from the film (now a B&B) and ride the train that stood in (with a lot of CGI) for the circus railroad. The Cumbres & Toltec is the nation’s longest, highest, and most authentic stream railroad. Unlike most tourist railroads, this 64-mile trip through the Rockies steams over trestles and through tunnels and is the real deal. (Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday rode this train.) You can walk and ride between passenger cars, or outside in a gondola car. The train travels at 12 miles per hour and is completely off the grid, so there’s no reception. Trains depart daily from Antonito, which is home to the 420-friendly Steam Train Hotel. You can even book a room that is 420-friendly and haunted. Don’t miss Cano’s Castle down the block. It’s a genuine castle made out of beer cans and hubcaps. Hang around outside, and if Cano is home, he’ll invite you in for a tour.
6. The cheapest way to get high? Ride a gondola in Telluride.
The Telluride Gondola just celebrated its 20th year as the most unique transportation system in North America, and it's especially good in summer and fall. There are three gondolas that take you from the center of Telluride to Mountain Village Center at 10,500 feet, and then on to Town Hall Plaza. And they’re all free. You can hop on at sunrise (they start at 6:30 a.m.) or take a sunset ride. They lead to mid-mountain hiking and biking trails, or to bars and restaurants in the modern developments. The gondolas are even pet-friendly. Hop on at night, when the steep gondola slides silently down into the twinkling lights of Telluride below, one of the most scenic of all Colorado mountain towns. Telluride’s legendary festivals include Bluegrass (June 15-18), Yoga (July 20-23), Jazz (Aug. 4-6), and most of all, Film (Sept. 1-4).
7. Best way to get high without a car? Ride the Summit Stage.
Summit Stage is an incredible network of free buses that makes it possible to stay anywhere in Summit County without a car and easily get from Breckenridge to Boreas Pass, Keystone, Frisco, Copper Mountain, or Silverthorne. Or rent a bike and travel around on paved bike trails linking the resort towns. (Throw the bike on the bus when you’re tired of pedaling.) There are almost a dozen dispensaries in Summit County — unlike Vail, which has none — and hundreds of restaurants, breweries, and distilleries. Hiking trails leave right from town centers. Frisco is particularly off the beaten path. The historic mining town is just as pretty as Breckenridge, with outdoor cafes and a river flowing through town, but it's far less hectic and crowded. Its location on Lake Dillon adds boating and kayaking as activities, while the town’s Adventure Park has tubing in the winter and a bike and skate park in summer. Nearby, Silverthorne has a professional theater company with Ghost the Musical, Noises Off, and other productions this summer, while Breckenridge has a music festival, bike festival, and its 16th Annual Arts Festival in August.
8. Get high on thrills at Royal Gorge in Canon City
There’s any number of ways to reach new highs at the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park. They have the world’s highest zipline, racing 1,200 feet above the Arkansas River, and one of the world’s highest suspension bridges. It’s a creepy feeling crossing this 1929 bridge on boards where you can look straight down a thousand feet through the gaps between the wood. When a car goes over it, all the boards rattle under your feet. No worries about boards on the Royal Rush Skycoaster, where you free-fall at 50 mph while dangling 1,200 feet in the air. Down below, you can also whitewater raft through the canyon, or ride along its edge on a train. For a really horrifying experience, stop by the Canon City Prison Museum, which is literally in a prison (it shares a wall and guard towers with the still-operating 1871 prison) and used to house Alfred Packer, the famous cannibal. By the way, you’ll probably want to leave your cannabis at home.
9. Get high on food in Denver’s new dining scene
Denver has an annoying habit of naming every five blocks a different neighborhood with a different acronym: LoDo, LoHi, SoCo. It’s confusing, and the most confusing of all is the one neighborhood to visit right now: RiNo. Technically, it’s “River North,” but it’s actually two neighborhoods, split by a railroad. Here’s where to go:
RiNo (Larimer side): On the Larimer side, start at the new Denver Central Market at 27th and Larimer, a giant food hall with seafood, bakery, meats, veggies, pizza, coffee, handmade chocolates, and a communal seating area. All the alleys for blocks in every direction are covered with murals. There are nine breweries, a distillery, several dispensaries, and a winery within walking distance. Try Denver “super chef” Troy Guard’s Los Chingones, a kick-ass take on Mexican with shrimp, octopus, and pork belly tacos, or sample their guac made with rattlesnake chorizo. Nocturne is a jazz and supper club around the block, while Milanese chef/owner Andrea Frizzi will greet you at Il Posto, an impossibly hip multi-level slice of northern Italy with an open kitchen and changing menu.
RiNo (Brighton side): Brighton Boulevard used to be an industrial road connecting downtown to I-70. But the city is transforming it into a grand boulevard lined with thousands of new apartments, bike lanes, lampposts, banners, and public art. It’s worth visiting to see this amazing transformation in progress. Check out the Source, an 1880s-era brick foundry transformed into an epicurean marketplace with some of the city’s top food destinations, including the authentic, slow-cooked Mexican street food of Comida and the American-inspired small plates at Acorn. A new Source Hotel, opening later this year, will offer a foot bridge to Larimer. There are still sketchy blocks in RiNo, but there are also 18 galleries and studios mixed into the construction sites.
10. Get high on music at Red Rocks
The first rock ’n’ roll concert at Red Rocks was the Beatles in 1964. Now there are more than 160 annual concerts, plus yoga events and Film on the Rocks, during which local bands play and giant films are shown on the screen. (It's generally an easier event to get tickets.) Even without a performance, the Rocks are a great visit. You can have lunch at the Ship Rock Grille, and hike up trails that go around the surrounding rocks, offering incredible views of the bizarre landscape. A short hike away is Dinosaur Ridge, where the first dinosaur bones were discovered. You can still see dinosaur bones in the rock, and huge dinosaur footprints.
Rich Grant is a Colorado-based travel writer.