The discovery of gold in Colorado inspired the Rush to the Rockies exactly 150 years ago. Although many fortune-hunters who set off on the arduous journey across the plains to Pikes Peak territory never arrived, and still more gave up on ever striking it rich and headed back home, those of heartier stock decided to stick around and dug in for the long haul. Just like residents of the Front Range today, these pioneers discovered that you don't need to find precious metal to enjoy a solid-gold life in Colorado.
This summer, the state features a particularly rich vein of events, all designed to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the gold rush. Visitors flying into Denver International Airport can pick up historic nuggets at Colorado's New Gold Rush, an exhibit on the walkway from concourse A; other celebrations range from Colorado Springs's symposium on the Pikes Peak or Bust syndrome to Central City's annual Lou Bunch Day, with bed races down the main street in honor of the notorious madam. But even without a special birthday, Colorado is always full of things to treasure.
In addition to all the priceless scenery, there's a wealth of activities for those who like music, those who like the arts, those who like athletic events. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the hills will be alive with the sound of not only music, but of running races and bike races and burro races, of food festivals and art festivals and wildflower festivals — just about everything under the summer sun.
Eight Weird and Wonderful Attractions
Mesa Verde, Pikes Peak, Coors Field: The big names get the most visitors when it comes to Colorado tourist attractions. But there are smaller places worth visiting, too. Off the wall, off the beaten path or just plain odd, here are some of our favorites.
Colorado Alligator Farm
Yeah, that's right: Almost a thousand miles from the nearest swamp, we got gators — hundreds of them. Turns out that when Erwin and Lynne Young moved to this Mosca outpost decades ago to run a geothermal tilapia fishing operation, they decided to throw in a few imported gators to gobble up excess fish. A few became many, and now they host alligator rodeos and gator-wrasslin' classes. Newer residents include ginormous pythons, exotic turtles, ostriches and emus. Now they're just being cocky.
Cano's Castle Antonito
In the tiny, ramshackle town of Antonito, you'll find Donald "Cano" Espinoza's self-described "Jesus Castle," which is sheathed almost entirely in flattened beer cans and hubcaps. Legend has it that back in Espinoza's partying days, his mom demanded he do something with all the beer cans lying around the front yard. Well, he did. And now, Espinoza, who has since sworn off the sauce, collects cans from local bars to add to his shrine. You can't miss it, since there isn't another three-story building in town — at least not one that gleams in the sun.
World's Largest Rocking Chair
You'll find what was once the World's Largest Rocking Chair in Penrose, perched behind a fence near the now-closed Doxey's Apple Shed Mercantile. It stands an impressive 21 feet tall. The problem is that other, larger chairs have since grabbled a share of the title, including one in Lipan, Texas, that's almost six feet taller, and another in South Dakota. Even more reason to visit the original, because whoever buys Doxey's and the surrounding land just might send Ol' Roxy to the wood chipper.
The Wonder Tower
Standing about sixty feet tall and looking sort of like a neglected lighthouse, the Wonder Tower is amazing. The owner claims you can see six states from the top deck, but there's even more to look at inside, where you'll find a two-headed calf, a petrified walrus penis and jars filled with eight-legged pig embryos. There are also life-sized scarecrow people hanging around. And all those old cars parked outside? They haven't moved in years. A wonder, indeed.
Museum of Colorado Prisons
Gas chambers, whipping racks, electric prods and isolation units: You'll find them all at the Museum of Colorado Prisons, a little gem of torture and punishment. There are even creepy animatronic characters that tell absurdly detailed stories and a gift shop filled with stuff made by real live convicts! Homemade files, anyone?
This handsome, 92-year-old bed-and-breakfast near Rocky Mountain National Park is supposedly home to the world's largest collection of keys — nearly 20,000 of them. Visitors have been bringing them to the owners from all over the world for decades. Keys to the White House, the Pentagon, Buckingham Palace, Hitler's desk, Edgar Allan Poe's dorm room — even Fort Knox. Interestingly, though, the Baldpate's front door doesn't have one.
Basically a raised platform surrounded by a beyond-awesome gift shop and a mystical healing garden filled with donated peace rocks and magical junk from visitors around the planet, the UFO Watchtower is the spot to check out alien spacecraft. And not only is it an inter-dimensional vortex of mysterious occurrences, but it's also a popular spot for weddings, receptions and family gatherings.
The Birthplace of the Cheeseburger
More of a mini-memorial than an attraction, anyone who considers cheeseburgers to be America's culinary equivalent of the bald eagle must visit this stone marker at 2776 Speer Boulevard. Now located at the edge of a bank parking lot, it's the site where Louis Ballast patented our glorious and juicy sacred meat sandwich in 1935, at the Humpty Dumpty Barrel Drive-In. Sacred ground, indeed.
Ten Picnics in the Park
One of the many pleasures of summer is putting together a picnic and heading to the park to enjoy some simple dining al fresco. But not just any park will do. To make a true outdoor event of your meal, you'll need some additional distractions, and we know just where to find them.
Sloan's Lake Park
Here's a cardinal guideline for selecting a good picnic park: Areas containing bodies of water generally offer more in the way of entertainment than those without. Sloan's Lake Park not only hosts water-skiers, the annual Colorado Dragon Boat Festival and the Latino Rhythms Festival, both in July, but it also has a running and biking path that surrounds the lake, and grills and tables for picnickers. Plus, there's plenty of open acreage in which to throw a cartwheel, a Frisbee, a football or whatever else this expanse of grassy green inspires.
Ruby Hill Park
In the wintertime, Ruby Hill Park is home to several top sledding hills and the Ruby Hill Rail Yard (except for this past winter, when there wasn't enough snow). But in the warm summer months, outdoor adventurers use the park's high bluff, which gives a spectacular view of the cityscape, for kite-flying and picnics. The park also features lighted baseball and softball fields, grills, picnic benches, a shelter and an outdoor pool. Just don't jump in right after that ham sandwich...
Lookout Mountain Nature Center & Preserve
So you want your out-of-town guests to see the splendor of the Rockies but aren't committed to a full day of driving? Lookout Mountain, a 110-acre preserve west of Golden, is just the ticket. After you're done admiring the impressive views — of both the mountain range and Denver itself — enjoy your baguette and Brie beneath some truly ponderous Ponderosas, then check out the free Nature Center (chock-full of interactive exhibits and wildlife facts) while you digest dessert.
There's so much to do at Washington Park it almost boggles the mind. There are two lakes, complete with boat rental and licensed fishing available; grills and benches; a recreation center; innovative playgrounds; countless fitness options — a bicycle/pedestrian pathway, crushed-granite jogging trail and fitness course; tennis courts; a horseshoe pit; and even a lawn-bowling/croquet area. Just feel like watching? Sit underneath a shady tree and check out the frequent volleyball and soccer games, or partake in the awesome people-and dog-watching. Wash Park may be crowded, but it's easy to make new friends there.
Loretto Heights Park
Sometimes, all you want in a picnic spot is simple beauty, with just enough distractions to keep the kids occupied. Loretto Heights Park fits that description: It's got a playground, a picnic-table pavilion, lots of green grass for game-playing, plus a rose garden so lovely that many a bride has chosen this very spot for a wedding ceremony.
Every parent knows that familiar summertime whine: "I'm bo-o-o-red." But you won't hear it at Westlands Park, which boasts a playground to rival those in your most vivid, whimsical dreams. Comprising two large climbing structures, swings, sandboxes, playhouses, slides, bouncy animals mounted on springs and more, the play area is indeed formidable, and the water-fountain sculpture and in-line hockey rink — plus the drinking fountains, bathrooms and picnic facilities — are just icing on that massive playground cake.
Wouldn't it be nice if you could sit on the banks of the South Platte River, right where the city of Denver was founded, and gaze at a reconstructed piece of sand prairie filled with native plants on one side and terrific city views on the other? Welcome to Commons Park, a perfect mix of urban area and nature preserve — and not a bad place for sunbathing, either. Commons includes a tree-dotted walkway along Little Raven Street with numerous alcoves for sitting and munching.
E.B. Rains Jr. Memorial Park
Nestled in Northglenn, E.B. Rains Park contains a basketball court, playgrounds and Webster Lake, where you can rent paddle boats — plus six pieces of public art that are changed once a year as part of Northglenn's "Art on Parade" program. The park also features several large pavilions with electrical outlets that can be rented out when your picnic plans involve more than just chips and bologna sandwiches.
It's tough when everyone in the family enjoys different activities: You're into horseshoes, the kids are more about baseball and basketball, and your partner would rather play football than anything else. What's a nuclear social unit to do? Head to Northridge Park, where all of these options are available in abundance (three baseball fields and four football/soccer courses), along with barbecue grills, picnic tables, bathrooms and even a concession-kitchen facility — just in case you burn the burgers.
City Park has it all. Not only is the 314-acre jewel more than big enough for a day's worth of exploration, but it also contains a public golf course, lakes, beautiful fountains, flower gardens and plenty of tree-shaded spots perfect for a post-picnic nap. Plus, if you get the urge to supplement your dining with a little learning, you can always check out the Denver Zoo, the Museum of Nature & Science or the Martin Luther King Memorial. Watch out for the Canada geese, though: They like picnics, too. –Amber Taufen
Nine Mountain Festivals
Some Denverites don't need an excuse to head for the hills and enjoy a day or two in our beautiful Rocky Mountains — but some won't even think about leaving the city unless there's some payoff beyond all that nature crap. In their honor, we've rounded up a list of some of the best high-country festivals — mountain madness they're sure to enjoy.
Snowmass Chili Pepper & Brew FestSnowmass
There are three very good reasons that the Chili Pepper & Brew Fest is the perfect kickoff to summer. One: the International Chili Society's two chili competitions and tasting sessions. Two: a summer-ale competition among more than fifty microbreweries, which also includes two tasting sessions for attendees. Three: the music, including the Boulder Acoustic Society, the Emith Band, Particle with Michael Kang, Leftover Salmon and more. If chili, brews and tunes aren't enough to entice you into the high country, then you're a lost cause.
FIBArk Whitewater Festival
FIBArk is the oldest whitewater festival around, which is why they really do need four full days to cram in all the fun. Featuring training sessions, competitions, film, live music, a raft rodeo, a costume show, a parade, a chili cook-off, foot races, award ceremonies and plenty of beer (FIBArk is, after all, sponsored by New Belgium Brewery), you clearly don't even have to like whitewater sports in order to have a good time here.
Colorado BBQ Challenge
Where does the nation's best barbecue come from? It's a question that's hotly debated from North Carolina to Texas to California. But anyone from the Midwest will tell you that Kansas City 'cue is the best, and this summer's Colorado BBQ Challenge is a Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned event. More than sixty teams from around the country will compete for more than $15,000 in cash prizes, and not just in the standard pork-and-beef categories; expect to find strange ingredients (alligator or tofu, anyone?) in the mix as well. Of course, barbecue secrets will be jealously guarded, but that shouldn't stop you from sampling them all. Then digest with everything from live music to pig races.
Crested Butte Wildflower Festival Crested Butte
The annual Crested Butte bloom extravaganza is a perennial favorite. The week-long fest includes a range of color-splashed outdoor activities, such as hikes, bicycle rides, yoga classes and off-road tours in and around Crested Butte's beautiful mountain meadows. There are also more sedate events, including garden tours, photography classes, medicinal classes (botanical ingredients), seminars on using wildflowers for artwork or cooking, gardening workshops and even birding and butterfly programs.
Telluride Yoga Festival
There's a reason that yoga poses are named after things in nature, be it an animal or a mountain, and the Telluride Yoga Festival helps participants reconnect with the planet through three days of meditation and intense yoga sessions led by a variety of renowned yogis. Plus, the festival gives 25 percent of its net proceeds to an environmental cause — something everyone can feel good about.
Leadville Boom Days
Leadville is the highest city in the United States, founded at its extreme elevation as a mining camp in the 1880s. During the annual Leadville Boom Days festival, the town celebrates its historical heritage through gunslingers, burro races and tests of mining skill. But history haters need not fret: There will also be a gun show, vendors, live entertainment, a parade, a car show, motorcycle rodeo, a costume contest and more, including plenty of children's activities.
Palisade Peach Festival
If all you've seen of Colorado's fruit industry are a few sad apples at your local farmers' market, then you'll be pleasantly surprised by the luscious, juicy peaches that the town of Palisade produces year after year. These peaches are so awesome, in fact, that they have their own festival. In its 41st year, the fest features tours, a parade, a five-mile run, a car show, a tug-of-war competition (wherein the Palisade fire department will take on the high-school football team), plus recipes and food galore, including a peach-eating contest.
Telluride Mushroom Festival
Have you ever met a mushroom fanatic? Those folks are crazy! They travel the globe in search of the most succulent fungi available, from your plain old button 'shroom to the oft-lauded morels. Colorado hosts a handful of fests for the mushroom-minded, and the Telluride version is the oldest mycological conference in the nation, with workshops, films, slide shows and lectures, plus a parade and daily hunt-and-gather forays into the San Juan Mountains. Mushroom master Gary Lincoff is the featured lecturer and guide this year.
Creede Salsa Fiesta
What better way to close out the summer than by eating a lot of salsa? You can thank the town of Creede for this particular stroke of genius; the annual salsa fiesta takes place alongside theatrical productions, a pie sale and mountain runs, and features salsa-judging by you, the consumer, in an array of categories (red, green, fruit, freestyle and "hot tamale"). With children's activities and more salsa than you can shake a salted corn chip at, it's the perfect end to a long, hot summer. –Amber Taufen
Six Arts Festivals
As the planet tilts on its axis this season, warming the northern hemisphere via direct sunlight, artists come out of hibernation to tour the country and display their wares. Colorado has its share of arts festivals, of course, but not all artsy events are created equal. We're confident, however, that these will pass the muster of any art browser — and you might even find something beautiful to add to your own collection.
www.larimerarts.org/la_piazza_dell_arte.html Not quite an arts festival? Maybe. But with more than 200 artists chalking images in brilliant colors on the streets around Larimer Square — plus vendors and plenty of food and booze — this Italian street-painting festival comes close. And here's the best part: If you see a particular square that strikes your fancy, you can head to the main tent to place a bid on a bona fide replica of the artwork, one you can actually take home and hang on your wall.
Telluride Plein Air Festival
June 29-July 4
Have you ever seen an artist working on a beautiful landscape or slice-of-life painting and wished you could just pull it off the easel and take it home with you? Telluride Plein Air makes that possible. For five days, you can watch some of the top outdoor artists in the country hard at work; there's also a cocktail party/auction/concert, a quick-draw event and the big exhibition and sale taking place on July 3 and 4.
Cherry Creek Arts Festival
This is the big one, the papa of all arts festivals in Colorado. Why? Because aside from innovative entertainment, culinary delights and a host of exhibitions and demonstrations, the Cherry Creek Arts Festival offers the best selection of quality fine art — in every medium imaginable, including some you've probably never heard of — in the state, and is a top contender for one of the best of its kind in the entire country. After all, 350,000 annual visitors can't be wrong. Go early to beat the crowds and bring lots of water to beat the heat — but whatever you do, don't miss it.
Hot Air Balloon Rodeo and Art in the Park
Steamboat Springs doesn't do anything by halves, including its annual arts festival. Why limit a festival to eye candy on the ground when you can also include beautiful balloons to brighten the sky? Dozens of hot-air balloons will float above the mountain town while an array of vendors set up shop for Steamboat's biggest arts festival. The town also hosts a half-marathon and 10K race over the weekend, plus an actual rodeo to supplement the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo. It's colorful Colorado at its best.
Golden Fine Arts Festival
You don't have to drive forever to get the mountain-town art-festival atmosphere. The Golden Fine Arts Festival is an open-air juried event that includes live entertainment, a hands-on Kids Art Zone, artist demonstrations and even free carriage rides through historic downtown Golden. Most of the artists are gleaned from Colorado's finest; in fact, local artists make up about 70 percent of those who will be displaying sculpture, photography, painting, mixed media, glass, jewelry, ceramic and fiber works for purchase.
Mesa Verde Country Food, Wine & Art Festival
Let's face it: A big part of the reason that you love arts festivals is the food and the booze. That's cool; we get it. Sometimes you just need some snacks and a big glass of regional wine to accompany your perusal of independent artwork. The Mesa Verde Country Festival has got you covered, with local and regional food, wine and art, plus live entertainment. It all takes place in beautiful surroundings and includes supplemental events such as dinners, tastings, open houses and more. Eat, drink, browse the art and be merry. –Amber Taufen
Ten Places to Get Wet
Every cloud has a silver lining, and every summer has the sun, the blazing, merciless sun. How to cool off without cranking the AC or camping out in the frozen-foods section of the grocery store? Water does the trick just fine. Slap on some sunscreen and head to one of our ten best places to beat the heat.
This one seems obvious, but with 64 acres of waterlogged fun, including the largest variety of water attractions in the country (46 different ways to soak yourself), it has to top the list. The rides and slides vary in intensity; you can spend the morning shooting down the Turbo Racer and the Revolution, then commit your afternoon to lying supine in the Lazy River or the Wave pool. Weekend crowds can get a little wild, so take a "sick day" from work. You'll be the coolest cat in town.
The Fountain at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Remember when you were a kid and used to run screaming through the sprinkler in your back yard on hot summer days? Well, the Museum of Nature & Science offers a public alternative: The fountain out back spouts geysers that are the perfect way to refresh yourself. Our suggestion? Wear your bathing suit beneath your clothes, check out the great exhibits inside, then head outdoors to unleash that inner child — or your real child — and go crazy. Don't forget to bring a towel.
Congress Park Pool
Public pools get a bad rap; after all, what kid hasn't been warned by an adult to keep his mouth closed while swimming lest he ingest some strange pathogen left floating in the water by his less-hygienic neighbors? But Denver's public pools are well kept, and with a reasonable daily admission fee of $2 for youths and $3 for adults — plus aqua aerobics, pool passes and swimming lessons available — what's not to like?
We gave the pools at Stapleton a Best of Denver award, but they deserve another mention. Stapleton residents get free admission to the nearly-new Aviator, Puddle Jumper and F-15 pools, while outsiders pay only $3 (kids) or $7 (adults). While kids get top billing, adults can swim in a kid-free pool every 45 minutes and relax afterward with a canned (no bottles, please) beer or other beverage. Now, that's living easy.
It's not summer unless you've spent at least part of it splashing in a creek. Unfortunately, the South Platte probably isn't the creek you want to jump into. But Denverites are lucky enough to have Bear Creek charging down a canyon just west of the city. Highway 8 winds from Morrison up to Evergreen right alongside Bear Creek, and between those two towns are myriad spots to pull off in your car and charge into the water. It's cold, of course, since much of it is snowmelt, but that just builds character.
Cherry Creek Reservoir
Boaters, jet-skiers, fishers and other recreational water enthusiasts love Cherry Creek and Chatfield reservoirs, located on the southeast and southwest sides of town, respectively. These two big bodies of water are our city's main beaches. Swimming is another story, however. Although it's allowed in designated, roped-off areas at both places, be careful of the dreaded "swimmer's itch," which can result from bacteria that float into your bathing suit (the Centers for Disease Control recommend that you shower after swimming in a reservoir). In that case, maybe you'd better just pack in a picnic and trail your toes in the water while the sun beats down on your boat.
Standley Lake Regional Park
Standley Lake Regional Park is much less scary in terms of the bacteria-fest that lakes can be; it's also boater-friendly, featuring a four-lane boat ramp and two auxiliary ramps. And since the park only gives out a limited number of powerboat permits, you won't be overwhelmed by the deafening roar of boats whizzing by every few seconds. Standley's numerous picnic areas and campsites are just gravy.
If you're missing your annual scuba or snorkel trip to Hawaii, shed yourself a tear or two, then head to the Downtown Aquarium, where you can scuba-dive and snorkel with moray eels, a 350-pound Queensland grouper and 500 other little fishies. There's also an option to go diving with the sharks, including sand tiger sharks, brown sharks, barracudas, zebra sharks and even some sweet Pacific green sea turtles.
Bear Creek Lake Park
Unlike those aforementioned reservoirs, this is one swimming area that's both close to nature (i.e., no concrete) and clean enough to backstroke in without worrying about E. coli. The swim beach at Soda Lake is unguarded, so parents should keep a close eye on the little ones; picnic sites, restrooms, a playground, two sand-volleyball courts and a concession stand round out the attractions. There are also paddleboat, canoe, kayak and sailboard rentals, plus a water-ski school if you want to hone your skills.
Secret Swimming Holes
These are by far the best places to get wet during the summer — but you need to make nice with the locals to find them. Take, for example, a swimming hole near Cañon City, fed by Cripple Creek, accessed by taking Highway 50 west out of Cañon City, heading north on Highway 9, hanging a right on Road 11 and looking for a series of cars parked in the middle of nowhere. Or, closer to Denver, there's the Hillbilly Waterpark, a series of smooth rocks surrounding a waterfall you can slide down to splash into a stream. That one's found by Pine, near the Bucksnort camping and rock-climbing area. We'd tell you exactly where it is — but then we'd have to drown you. –Amber Taufen
Six Outdoor Screen Gems
The best thing about summer? Doing everything you do during the rest of the year, only outside. Like, for example, watching movies. In fact, watching movies outdoors trumps indoor stadium seating any day: You can recline on a blanket with your sweetie, munch on snacks you brought along, and enjoy the strange sense of community that unfolds when a group of strangers sit together to catch a flick.
Film on the Rocks
Red Rocks Amphitheatre,
The folks who bring unparalleled independent programming to Starz FilmCenter team up every year with Red Rocks Amphitheatre to give viewers not only a respectable selection of outdoor movies, but live music and comedy, too. The music usually ties into the film somehow, so early arrivals can get in the mood and grab a prime spot before the sun sets and the movie starts. It's one of the larger and louder outdoor film series in the region, so if you feel like catcalling your Hollywood crush when he or she shows up on screen, there's bound to be someone in the audience who will second that emotion.
Of the ten films that the Denver Parks and Recreation department is hosting through Movies in the Park this summer, Skyline Park will be the venue for six of them: Babe, E.T., Spiderman, The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the gentle (and vastly underrated) kids' film The Iron Giant. This film series offers live entertainment, and concessions (popcorn, anyone?) are also available. Best of all, Movies in the Park is free, and the spectacular views and cushy grass in Skyline Park only add to the appeal.
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88 Drive-In Theatre
The Cinderella Twin is dead, and she will be sorely missed. She wasn't the last of the local drive-in movie theaters, though — just the most centrally located. The 88 Drive-In Theatre in Commerce City is a bit farther afield, but it's open every night, and you can take advantage of the pizza special (two twenty-ounce drinks and a twelve-inch pizza for a mere $10) at the self-service snack bar every Monday through Thursday. The 88 screens top summertime first-run movies and charges only $8 for the nightly double feature (kids under twelve get in free).
Boulder Outdoor Cinema
Wide selection and low prices ($5 suggested donation, a portion of which benefits the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art) make Boulder Outdoor Cinema one of the best places to catch an open-air flick. And no other outdoor-film venue encourages wacky seating options (bring your own couch!). Located behind the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, this series offers up independent short films and entertainment to keep you amused before the main feature starts. The series runs on Saturdays, with returning favorites such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Princess Bride, plus some edgier options like Grindhouse, Pineapple Express, Slumdog Millionaire and Evil Dead II.
Confluence Park, Denver
Every Thursday in August, the Greenway Foundation hosts family films in picturesque Confluence Park. The free series features spectacular views and an intimate setting; this year's lineup includes Transformers, The Italian Job, Young Frankenstein and The Iron Giant. You know the drill: Bring snacks, a blanket and your favorite people to enjoy a classic favorite — oh, and maybe some bug repellant.
Cherry Creek North
The annual Films on Fillmore isn't making a full return this year; there's still too much construction on Fillmore Plaza to give the film series the space and attention it truly deserves. But rumor has it that Cherry Creek North will still be showing movies throughout the summer; visit the website and check the calendar page for further details.