This article was first published on June 7, 2019, in Roadtrippers Magazine, in partnership with Visit Denver
From peak-to-peak scenic byways to the best open-air concert venue in the world, Denver is an outdoor lover’s dream come true
Guarding entryway to the Rockies, where the mountains meet the great plains, Denver is perfectly situated to be an outdoor adventure hub. So it should come as no surprise that opportunities abound, both inside and outside the city limits. In and around Denver’s downtown streets, you can bike, kayak, throw axes, or join an urban scavenger hunt. Or, if you’re more of a D.I.Y. picnicker, there are more than 5,000 acres of green city parks and trails. And if your schedule allows for a day trip outside the city, your activity menu gets exponentially longer. I’ve rounded up a few of my favorite activities that are either located in downtown Denver or within a 90-minute drive.
During concerts at Red Rocks, my biggest dilemma is usually whether to stay low to see the band close-up or climb to the top of the seats for the massive view of the Front Range. Regardless, it’s a win-win situation. Universally recognized as one of the best outdoor concert venues in the world, Red Rocks is an absolute must-see, especially in the summer. If the concerts are sold out during your visit, then come during the day to hike the Trading Post Trail or the Geologic Overlook Trail. And if you plan to run the stairs, start early in the morning to avoid the heat (and be aware that you are 6,400 feet above sea level!).
If you go: Contact https://www.redrocksonline.com, 720-865-2494.
There are plenty of indoor rock gyms in Denver, but there are only a few companies that take beginners out on real rock cliffs. Every day, Denver Climbing Company whisks climbers to various sites between Golden and Boulder.
On a spring afternoon, my daughter and I decided to join 18 strangers for a day of outdoor climbing. After a quarter-mile hike to the top-rope sites, we clipped in, then belayed each other for several hours, taking turns on the different routes hundreds of feet above the Coors Brewery. We were only 20 minutes from downtown Denver, but for those four hours, we were in another world. Lunging up from a tiny outcrop of a foothold and reaching higher, I heard shouts of encouragement from my belayers, my daughter, and the crowd below.
If you go: In addition to the beginner classes, Denver Climbing Company also has advanced skills courses and ascents up the Flatirons in Boulder. All equipment is included; shuttles are available to and from your hotel in Denver. Contact http://www.denverclimbingcompany.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, 888-560-6994. The “Intro Rock Climbing course” is offered daily at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and costs $129 per climber.
My assigned coach, Stephen Ezeonu, demonstrated the proper hold and swing for tossing a five-pound axe. I took hold with two hands and steadied myself. “That’s it,” he said. “Now fire it forward using one fluid motion.” I let go and my blade stuck in the bottom of the target with an incredibly satisfying “thunk.”
The Downtown Art Gallery and Axe Room (DAGAR), centrally located just a few blocks from Coors Field, was Denver’s first axe bar. Walk-ins are possible, but most people make reservations for their group of two or more (they routinely handle large groups and teams as well). As its name promises, DAGAR is also a gallery of some of the city’s well-known street artists. Most tossers sign up for a two- or three-hour session. It’s kind of like reserving a lane at a bowling alley except each lane at DAGAR has a supervising coach, who provides a safety briefing, teaches you to throw, and can run games for your group like “Cricket,” “21,” “Race to 50,” or “Thunderdome.”
If you go: Contact https://www.downtownaxeroom.com, 720-204-1878. DAGAR is open Tuesday–Friday 5 to 11 p.m , Saturday-Sunday 1 to 11 p.m., or by appointment. For same-day reservations and walk-in availability, call 720-389-8699.
Let’s Roam is an urban activity platform in 350 cities around the world, including every major city in the U.S. In Denver, the most popular activities are the LODO Scavenger Hunt and Denver’s Golden Treasures. They assign you an interactive role, then offer a succession of clues that take you through the city’s major landmarks, where you answer riddles and trivia questions, and complete photo challenges along the way. Other themes include paranormal ghost hunts, bar crawls, date night, and historic scavenger hunts. All you need is your smartphone and a couple of friends to start your self-led hunt (no reservations or tour guides required). In addition, Let’s Roam offers a dining membership program, partnering with 40 Denver restaurants and bars that will get you 2-for-1 entrees and drinks (and other deals) before or after your hunt.
If you go: Contact https://www.letsroam.com, 833-202-7626. The hunt costs $11 per person.
West of Denver
My first choice for a westward day trip from Denver along I-70 is Idaho Springs for a soak in Indian Hot Springs—either in the steaming-hot cave baths or the big family pool in the glass-enclosed area. From Idaho Springs, head south and upward (gaining 9,000 feet of elevation!) for the famed 28-mile scenic drive to the top of Mount Evans—a “fourteener” as we call mountains over 14,000 feet tall in these parts. The drive is the highest paved road in North America and takes about an hour each way (if there’s no traffic). There are a few stunning pullouts, picnic spots, hiking trails, and lakes on the way.
If you go: There is a $10 fee for cars to pass through the byway.
For a rafting, camping, and ATV adventure, head further west (on I-70, upstream along Clear Creek) from Idaho Springs to Mile Hi Rafting + ATV in Dumont. They have a range of rafting and other activity packages, or just pick one of the above. Just up the same frontage that follows the rushing creek, Lawson Adventure Park is a unique activity and lodging option. The steep, wooded property is close to the interstate and Clear Creek, and has a wide variety of campsites, cabins, and yurts available, plus a high ropes course with a unique self-belay system. There’s a climbing wall, tramp jump, and—if you need a rinse ‘n spin—a ZORB ball track. If that’s not enough, they can help arrange a rock climbing trip, or you can try their new Via Ferrata and zip line.
North of Denver
The best bang-for-your-buck, snow-capped mountain view day trip from Denver is a drive north along the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), one of the crown jewels of the National Park System. I like to pick up Highway 7 in Nederland, at the top of Boulder Canyon, making an 85-mile trip from downtown Denver.
As the third most visited national park in the country, RMNP received 4.6 million visitors in 2018. That means it gets busy, especially on Sundays and holidays, so you’ll want to get up there as early as possible to beat the crowds. The majority of visitors are happy with a whistle-stop driving tour of the best vista points and visitor center, but if you have time to go deeper with a hike, there are over 300 miles of trails. You can also drive Trail Ridge Road to its high point of 12,000 feet above sea level.
If you go: Contact https://www.nps.gov/romo, 970-586-1206. Hear the pre-recorded Trail Ridge Road status at 970-586-1222 (the road is opening later this year due to the enormous snow pack).
Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, is a fun place to stop for a meal and some shopping, either before or after your national park adventure. The last time I was there, I took my out-of-town friends for some BBQ and a tour of a local whiskey distillery. We sipped small, coffee-infused cordials in the wood-paneled tasting room before driving back down to The Mile High City.
However, if you prefer to spend the night in this quaint mountain town, the Stanley Hotel is your best option. A stunning colonial style building overlooking Rocky Mountain National Park, this hotel offers a variety of elegant rooms and suites, as well as regular concerts and live performances.
If you go: Contact http://www.visitestespark.com. The town has all kinds of fun festivals, celebrating everything from Scottish culture to Bigfoot. Contact the Visitor Center at 970-586-0500; open Monday–Saturday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.