I’ll begin with a stat: 58 of America’s 96 Fourteeners—mountains over 14,000 feet—are in Colorado. If your definition of beauty means skyscraping mountains, precipitous canyons, glassy alpine lakes and formidable rock formations, Colorado has more life-changing places than I could squeeze into ten articles.
Some of these natural wonders defy logic, like huge wedges of rock raised and tilted at improbable angles by tectonic uplift, or canyons thousands of feet high but so narrow that sunlight can’t reach their floor.
There’s the mystique of the Old West, at mountain-guarded Gold Rush towns and landscapes immortalized by movies, and places with a past that reaches back much further, where the Ancestral Puebloans built sophisticated villages under overhanging cliffs.
Here is my list of the best places to visit in Colorado!
1. Trail Ridge Road
A drive like no other, the Trail Ridge Road crosses the breadth of Rocky Mountain National Park from the northeast to west, between Estes Park and Grand Lake.
Such is its elevation as the highest paved road in the country, Trail Ridge Road is only open between Memorial Day and mid-October.
You’ll traverse the kind of alpine tundra normally only glimpsed by the hardiest of mountaineers, with a desolate, almost lunar scene of barren slopes and serrated peaks rising 12,000+ feet.
The crescendo on this “Highway to the Sky” is the point where you cross the Continental Divide at almost 12,200 feet. I find it astonishing that the Trail Ridge Road was completed as long ago as 1932, earning a listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
Colorado is scattered with mountain towns guarded by gargantuan peaks, but Telluride’s location, deep in a box canyon on the San Miguel River, causes the San Juan Mountains to press in on this place. You almost have to crane your neck to see the peaks above their steep forested slopes and sheer cliffs.
Telluride grew up in the 1870s following the discovery of the Smuggler gold vein on the upper slopes, and in 1889 the San Miguel Valley Bank was robbed by Butch Cassidy.
Set off by those monstrous mountainsides, Colorado Avenue is a marvelous snapshot of the American West, with its old clapboard frontages now giving way to upscale restaurants, boutiques, and galleries. Telluride is known as much for its snowsports as its summer bluegrass and film festivals, held in June and September respectively.
Be sure to also check out my guide on the best small towns to visit in Colorado!
3. Pikes Peak
Standing alone above Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak inspired Katharine Lee Bates to pen America the Beautiful after she took in the view from its summit.
At more than 14,000 feet, this granite mountain is taller than any peak in the United States east of this point.
My favorite view of Pikes Peak can be enjoyed a little way east, as one of the highlights of Garden of the Gods. If you want to scale this American icon and see what Bates saw, you have a few options.
The most unique is the The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the highest cog railway on the planet, running since 1890. Weaving up the eastern slope is the Barr Trail, with a grueling 7,800-foot elevation gain in 13 miles and a camp at the halfway mark.
A more convenient but no less spectacular route to the top is the toll road, approaching the summit from the northwest.
4. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
The tallest dunes in North America are in a nook below the western slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The dimensions of the Great Sand Dunes will make your head spin, with the highest culminating at 750 feet.
At any time of year you can come to sled or sandboard down these soft, forgiving slopes, and take pictures of the desertscape that will make you feel like a professional photographer.
The dunes are the big draw, but also one element of a 150,000-acre park with a wealth of different ecosystems at different elevations, from high alpine lakes to bird-rich wetlands tracing the sands.
The breadth of experiences is awesome, whether you’re hiking in cool forest trails, cooling off in Medano Creek, observing the sandhill crane migration in spring and fall, or marveling at the perfect night skies in this remote location.
5. Black Canyon of the Gunnison
I think it’s good for all of us to be reminded of our insignificance from time to time, and few places in the world can do that like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
A national park encompasses the deepest and most intimidating section of this 48-mile granite chasm, where you can inch your way to the edge of 2,000-foot cliffs and look down if you dare, at the Gunnison River, which seems tiny at this height.
You can drive or walk along the rim, and if that doesn’t do the trick, grizzled adventurers can hike the extremely challenging trails of the inner canyon (with a permit).
6. Crested Butte
As if the glorious mountainscapes in all directions weren’t enough, Crested Butte is a town with a personality all its own. I love the dignified Victorian facades lining Elk Avenue, a holdover from a mid-19th century coal and silver boom.
While similar towns faded away, Crested Butte survived because it was on key supply routes, remaining in stasis for decades waiting for a renaissance as a ski town.
You’ve got more than a thousand acres of skiable terrain at Mt. Crested Butte (9,375 ft), always present to the east.
The warmer months bring outdoor adventure, but also wildflowers, with a wealth of species forming beautiful splashes of color at all elevations. In July, the world-renowned Crested Butte Wildflower Festival celebrates this fabulous display.
When filmmakers need a location that encapsulates the Old West and all of its rugged mystique, Durango is often top of the pile.
A slew of classic westerns were shot in and around this old mining town, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), most famously the scene where the pair leap into the river.
That very spot is called Baker’s Bridge, where generations of youngsters have done their own Redford and Newman impressions.
In summer the Animas River Valley is a paradise for whitewater rafting, kayaking and tubing, while the nearby Purgatory Resort is the place to go in winter, with close to 100 trails.
To soak up the scenery and that western spirit, you can ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, with original vintage steam locomotives chugging past mountains and along the rim of canyons in an unforgettable trip to Silverton and back.
You may also like my guide on the best hidden gems in Colorado!
8. Garden of the Gods
I could be excused a little hyperbole trying to describe a place like Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. These 1,340 acres are littered with awe-inspiring, gravity-defying formations.
A mix of sandstone, conglomerate and limestone, in tones ranging from crimson to white, the outcrops have been tilted and in some cases rotated by the same unfathomable forces that have driven the Rocky Mountains skyward.
They have since been sculpted by glaciers and the winds into the bizarre figures that greet us today.
Take the precarious-looking Balanced Rock, perfect for quirky photographs, sitting across from Steamboat Rock, resembling the bow of a wrecked ship.
There are 15 miles of trails in Garden of the Gods, with something amazing to see every few steps, including the monumental Pikes Peak to the west.
9. Maroon Bells
One of the images that will spring to mind when you mention Colorado is this pair of mountain peaks reflected in Maroon Lake.
Both Fourteeners, the Maroon Bells are composed of a brittle maroon-colored mudstone that makes them perilous to climb.
Luckily, the U-shaped slopes of the Maroon Creek valley do a perfect job of framing the mountains from afar, creating one of the most photographed scenes in Colorado, especially when they harmonize with the autumn foliage below.
Due to its popularity, access to this viewpoint is limited in summer and fall. My pro tip is to take the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) bus service, and come in the middle of the week when you can enjoy the solitude that this sight deserves.
10. Royal Gorge
Within five minutes of downtown Cañon City there’s a deep and narrow canyon carved out almost vertically by the Arkansas River. Royal Gorge runs for 10 miles and its forbidding granite cliffs plummet to a maximum depth of 1,250 feet.
At its maximum width, the canyon is just 50 feet at the bottom and 300 feet at the top. Unlike some of Colorado’s far-flung spots, this place is a true tourist attraction, and there are plenty of ways to gauge the amazing size of the gorge.
You can cross the Royal Gorge Bridge, officially the highest suspension bridge at 956 feet above the river.
Adrenaline junkies can ride the Royal Rush Skycoaster, protruding over the rim, while there’s a more sedate experience on the Royal Gorge Route Railroad which trundles along the dark bed of the canyon.
A few local companies also offer rafting trips on the Arkansas, with boiling rapids and privileged views of the gorge and its wildlife.
11. Colorado National Monument
For all of Colorado’s wilderness, I’ll never get over how many of the state’s natural wonders are within minutes of a big city.
This is true for the Colorado National Monument, with sheer cliffs and strange monoliths an easy drive from downtown Grand Junction.
The most famous image of this region of high desert is Monument Canyon, spanning the width of the park and impressing with its towers of reddish sandstone.
This immense, gnarled landscape can be enjoyed from the comfort of your car along the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive, weaving along the plateau.
If you want dust on your boots there’s no shortage of trails, but the Monument Canyon Trail gets you close to the park’s emblem, Independence Monument, a striking sandstone pillar.
12. Mesa Verde National Park
Between 600 and 1300 CE the Ancestral Puebloans built hundreds of dwellings high in Southwest Colorado, sheltered by overhanging cliffs.
These preserved structures are extraordinary, ranging from singular storage spaces to large and interconnected villages with more than 150 rooms.
The national park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, and has more than 600 such dwellings, and safeguards more than 5,000 archeological sites.
To go with the undeniable scenic beauty of Mesa Verde I love the intimate insights you get about ordinary people hundreds of years ago on ranger-led tours of these structures.
You can stand back and survey the landscape from the Cliff Canyon Overlook, and decipher Ancestral Puebloan rock art along the Petroglyph Point Trail.
13. Red Rocks Amphitheatre
A concert venue without equal, Red Rocks Amphitheatre is revered in the music world for its acoustics and a setting that almost defies belief.
Just 15 miles from downtown Denver, this 9,525-seater venue is astounding, walled by epic outcrops of ochre sandstone that stand as a backdrop but also rise dramatically on both sides of the seating.
The layers in the rock are almost at the same angle as the slope in the amphitheater, and the view from the upper rows is truly humbling, encompassing Denver and the vast openness of the plain.
Many of music’s great performers have played Red Rocks and raved about it, from The Beatles to The National.
There are more than 90 concerts a season, as well as yoga sessions and movie nights. I do recommend bracing yourself for Red Rocks’ high elevation, 6,450 feet above sea level. It’s important to stay hydrated, and slow things down a little if you’re drinking.
14. Hanging Lake
I mean, Glenwood Canyon on the Colorado River is already extraordinary, but a short and rugged hiking trail along the tributary Dead Horse Creek will take you to something that could have been conceived in a fantasy novel.
Crowded by massive cliffs and fed by gauzy waterfalls, Hanging Lake is a rare and highly sensitive travertine formation, with layers accumulating around the shore, all deriving from dissolved limestone along the course of Dead Horse Creek.
The carbonate minerals dissolving in the lake’s clear water give it a beguiling turquoise hue, and rounding off this otherworldly scene is one of the best and largest examples of a hanging garden plant community to be found in the United States.
15. Boulder Flatirons
A stirring symbol for Boulder, this row of five monumental sedimentary slabs dominates the vista to the west of the city. The Flatirons are lined up along the east slope of Green Mountain, on the Front Range of the Rockies.
This sandstone was formed around 290 million years ago, and then was lifted and tilted between 35 and 80 million years ago, during the period of mountain building that gave us the Rocky Mountains.
These slopes are part of Boulder’s Open Space & Mountain Parks, and can be admired and photographed from a distance and then explored up close on trails like the tough Royal Arch Trail, culminating at a natural arch with spellbinding views of the Boulder area.
You can also climb these monuments, with multi-pitch routes up the first and third Flatirons.
With alpine vegetation and the sky-scraping San Juan Mountains all around, I reckon it’s easy to see why this town in Southwest Colorado has been billed as the “Switzerland of America”.
Founded in 1876, the cute town of Ouray is couched in a natural bowl, 7,800 feet above sea level, and if you’re an active person those soaring mountainsides will have you dreaming of the possibilities.
There are more than 60 different activities right outside your door in Ouray, whether you’re pushing yourself to the limit on a trail, discovering natural wonders like Box Canyon Falls, scaling sheer walls of rock, or soaking away your cares at the Ouray Hot Springs.
17. The Broadmoor Seven Falls
This private attraction in Colorado Springs has been on the tourist map since 1883 and presents Colorado’s most spectacular waterfall.
The Seven Falls is a string of seven plunges, dropping into a 1,000-foot box canyon, with craggy granite walls. What elevates this place, in every sense, is the staircase winding up the canyon, giving you a front row view of the falls.
This has 224 steps, with a platform halfway to the top where you can stop for a breather and to appreciate the full splendor of this place.
Once you reach the top there’s a pair of hiking trails, one tracing South Cheyenne Creek to another waterfall, and the other leading to Inspiration Point where you can set your gaze on Colorado Springs and the endless plains behind.
The falls have been illuminated since 1947, and I think it’s worth coming both during the day and at night.
18. Paint Mines Interpretive Park
Geology, archeology and diverse ecology all merge at this dazzling place away from the Rockies and out on the plains in El Paso County.
Visually striking, the Calhan Paint Mines is an area of grassland interrupted by peculiar hoodoos, gnarly spires and striated walls of rock with contrasting tones from red to yellow, purple and bright white.
For thousands of years the vibrant clay here was used for pottery, ceremonial paint and arrowheads. If you’re exhausted by the thought of another mountain hike, the Paint Mines’ beauty unfolds along an easy 3.4-mile trail with a lot of interpretive signage to spark your imagination.
19. Crystal Mill
Not too far north of Crested Butte, Crystal is a ghost town that you can only get to by four-wheel-drive.
Lasting only 30 years or so, Crystal was a mining settlement established in the early 1880s when silver deposits were discovered at the confluence of the North Fork and South Fork of the Crystal River.
In the summer, explorers come to hike, go mountain biking, drive the rocky shelf roads, and photograph the scenery.
If there’s one sight that sums it all up, it’s the Crystal Mill, a wooden powerhouse from 1892 resting on an outcrop.
The river would power a turbine, driving an air compressor used for machinery. This rickety structure, set against the mountains and woods, captures all the romance of the Colorado wilderness.
20. Bear Lake
My abiding memory of Rocky Mountain National Park is the view from this high-elevation glacial lake commanded by Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain to the west.
Bear Lake is encircled by a paved trail, with signs telling the human and natural history of this magical place.
At the southeast shore there’s a rocky ledge where you can pause to contemplate those peaks and surrounding spruce and fir forest, all reflected in the water.
There’s a parking lot just off the east side, so as well as a destination in its own right, Bear Lake can be the starting point for an adventure, at the head of several trails.
If you’ve fallen for Bear Lake’s scenery you can take on the tough trail up to Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, Lake Haiyaha and Emerald Lake.
21. Pagosa Springs
In 2020 a team of scientists from several institutions, including the U.S. Geological Survey, tried to measure the depth of the geothermal hot springs, which come to the surface in this gorgeous town in Southwest Colorado.
Their measuring device was 1,002 feet long, but still wasn’t long enough to find the true depth of the springs.
These waters, crusted with sulfur deposits, can be enjoyed all year round, as they were by the Ancestral Puebloans, and a succession of Native American peoples, including the Navajo for whom they hold spiritual importance.
The “mother springs” rise at The Springs Resort & Spa, with almost two dozen pools along the banks of the San Juan River.
There’s tons to see and do nearby, from the country’s snowiest ski area at Wolf Creek to summer activities like hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and camping in the boundless wilderness of the San Juan National Forest.
22. Rifle Falls State Park
A stunning triple waterfall, Rifle Falls plunges over a travertine wall from a height of more than 70 feet.
This state park is about 20 minutes from the town of Rifle, and the parking area is barely 50 yards from the foot of the falls.
Trails allow you to get up close to the waterfall on both sides, and you can even get behind one section.
There are several little caves to explore in the cliffs, while the waterfall and the East Rifle Creek are responsible for the lush vegetation in the valley, with wonderful greenery spring through fall.
There are many facets to the allure of this famous mountain town. First up, Breckenridge is a giant in the ski world, with close to 2,900 skiable acres, the highest ski lift on the entire continent, and a fun-loving après-ski to rival the best.
At this high elevation, 9,600 feet above sea level, the ski season continues well into spring.
When enough of the snow finally melts, Breckenridge can be a luxurious base camp for climbing, high ropes adventures, mountain biking, kayaking, paddleboarding, fly-fishing, or golf at one of the most scenic courses you’ve ever played.
I haven’t even mentioned Breckenridge’s Old West charm, as a Gold Rush town that produced more than a million troy ounces of gold, and that mining heyday is reflected in the rustic clapboard and log storefronts.
24. Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic Byway
For a road less traveled, try this eye-popping 133-mile drive between Whitewater in the north and Placerville in the south.
Allow as much as half a day to get the most out of the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic Byway, during which you’ll pass through some of the Bureau of Land Management’s wildest and most remote terrain.
You’ll see lofty buttes and the high, banded sandstone walls of the Dolores River Canyon, with tumultuous waters bubbling below.
If, like me, you’re a sucker for historical factoids: Around Uravan, halfway along the byway, you’ll be in an area where the uranium for the country’s earliest atomic bombs was mined.
Also keep your eyes peeled for Hanging Flume, the last vestiges of a cliffside aqueduct system, built for the mines in 1891.
25. Twin Lakes
I’ll wrap it up with an unfrequented place on the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway. Comparatively speaking, not a lot of people make it to Twin Lakes, a small community by a pair of stunning glacial lakes with campgrounds and hiking trails on their shores.
Reflected in the water is the tallest peak in the Rockies, Mount Elbert (14,400 ft), as well as the majestic Collegiate Peaks to the south, comprising nine Fourteeners.
In the late 19th century the mining industrialist James V. Dexter saw Twin Lakes’ potential as a tourist attraction, and established the Interlaken resort.
A small cluster of buildings from the resort, all on the National Register of Historic Places, has been frozen in time as a ghost town. In summer you can cross the Continental Divide on the 36-mile Independence Pass between Twin Lakes and Aspen.