There's no shortage of gorgeous spots in Colorado. But where are the top places to see Colorado's state animal, state bird or even state insect -- and what's the finest Denver mountain park? The scribes who helped assemble Best of Denver's 2014 edition have the answers to those questions and more. Continue for ten great destinations for experiencing the wild beauty of Colorado, featuring links and original Best of Denver text.
See also: Photos: Ten best Colorado hikes
Fishing might not be the first thing that comes to mind when Denverites think of the South Platte River. Pollution, maybe. Or used condoms. But the river that winds through the Mile High City is more than most people give it credit for, especially when it comes to stalking big-ass fish. In recent years, fly-fishing the South Platte for carp has become increasingly popular; there's even an annual Carp Slam fly-fishing tournament hosted by the Denver chapter of Trout Unlimited. Carp are resilient freshwater fish that can grow to nearly 100 pounds, and they're plentiful in the South Platte. That doesn't mean they're easy to catch, though: They're excellent at avoiding fishermen's hooks, which makes reeling one in that much more of an accomplishment. Best Place to See the Colorado State Mineral: Denver Museum of Nature & Science
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is home to what's widely considered the best, if not the biggest, rhodochrosite specimen in the world. Discovered in 1992 in the Sweet Home Mine, a former silver mine near the town of Alma, the impressive block of nearly transparent, cherry-red crystal is called the Alma King. And if its regal name isn't enough to entice you to go see it, consider how one museum geologist describes it: "It reminds me of a giant piece of candy. It makes you want to go up and lick it." Sadly, you can't, because the Alma King is kept behind glass and away from visitors' tongues. Continue for more of the ten best places to see the Colorado's wild beauty. Best Place to See the Colorado State Insect: Castlewood Canyon State Park
The best way to find our state insect -- the Colorado Hairstreak butterfly -- is to first find a Gambel oak tree, where said butterfly prefers to spend its time flitting around and dining on tree sap, honeydew and raindrops (adorable!). Castlewood Canyon State Park, near Franktown, happens to be full of Gambel oaks and is therefore a prime location for the Hairstreak. Optimal viewing season is from June to August -- and you'll know you've spotted one by its colors: purple and black, just like a certain Colorado baseball team... Best Place to See the Colorado State Bird: Pawnee National Grassland
Lark buntings, the Colorado state bird, are rare, but they're a little easier to see in the spring, when the so-called "troubadours of the plains" arrive in Colorado before flying south again at the beginning of fall. During the summer, they can be spotted feeding in large flocks along roadsides on the eastern plains and, in particular, in the Pawnee National Grassland in Weld County. Their coloring makes them easy to see: The males are black with a white patch on their wings, which makes them look like they're wearing tuxedos. Fancy. Continue for more of the ten best places to see the Colorado's wild beauty. Best Place to See a Bald Eagle: Barr Lake State Park
Brighton's Barr Lake State Park is like Boca Raton for bald eagles: While our nation's big birds can summer anywhere, they are increasingly spending their winters here -- and one pair stays to nest every year. In fact, the proud mamas and papas of Barr Lake have produced a total of 45 eaglets. The mating season begins in early winter, and by February, there's often an egg or two in the nest. From mid-February to mid-March, Ma and Pa take turns incubating the eggs -- which is a perfect time to catch a glimpse. The best place to see the nest is at the Barr Lake gazebo, which is an easy 1.3-mile walk from the Nature Center, where you can borrow a pair of binoculars with which to ogle these most American of birds. Best Place to See the Colorado State Animal: Georgetown
Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep favor steep and mountainous terrain, which means they hang out in places that are hard for humans to access. But at the Georgetown Bighorn Sheep Viewing Area, looky-loos can pump a few quarters into the giant binoculars and take a gander at the hundreds of sheep that make up the "Georgetown herd." One of the best times of year to spy on sheep is in November, when the town hosts the Georgetown Bighorn Sheep Festival. It's also the species' mating season, which means visitors are more likely to see male sheep head-butting each other to establish dominance -- and for a shot at makin' it with the ladies. Continue for more of the ten best places to see the Colorado's wild beauty. Best Place to See a Moose: Colorado State Forest State Park
Don't let the confusing name fool you: This 71,000-acre swath of forest, lakes and trails is an uncrowded gem. Colorado State Forest State Park, near Walden, is also home to more than 600 moose, which can be viewed year-round. Start at the Moose Visitor Center, where moose-seekers can take a virtual tour of the expansive park, learn about the animal and get tips on where to spot one. Even if the moose prove elusive, visitors might be lucky enough to see some of the other mammals that make their home here, including bighorn sheep, elk, black bears and deer. Best Place to Leaf-Peep: Maroon Bells
They may not be the tallest or the most-hiked of the state's fourteeners, but Aspen's Maroon Bells are some of Colorado's most photographed peaks, especially during the fall. Groves of aspen around the craggy sandstone mountains turn yellow as they prepare to shed their leaves, staining the nearby slopes and valleys bright gold -- and drawing in gaggles of leaf-peeping tourists who pay $10 to drive down the park's access road. The quintessential place to snap a picture is from the shores of Maroon Lake, but it can get crowded; strap on a backpack and ramble down a trail into the surrounding White River National Forest for a chance to find your own aspen grove -- and maybe catch a glimpse of a moose or beaver -- before the trees drop their colors and the snow settles in. Continue for more of the ten best places to see the Colorado's wild beauty. Best Place to See the Colorado State Flower: Crested Butte Wildflower Festival
Crested Butte isn't called the Wildflower Capital of Colorado for nothing. When it's not digging gold out of skiers' wallets, the old mining town banks on other colors. In the summer, the valley and mountainsides are a riot of wildflowers, a sight so spectacular that it inspired the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, a week-long celebration of petal power....
Note: This year's festival took place earlier this month, but additional events are scheduled through August 20. Visit the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival website for more details.
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Thank magazine publisher John Brisben Walker, who saw the natural sandstone amphitheater outside of Morrison in 1906 and envisioned the grand stage it would become. Or thank the Civilian Conservation Corps, whose workers helped turn it into a reality. Whoever you credit, no other venue in the country can match Red Rocks for pure grandeur. The 9,450-person-capacity theater has become a staple for touring acts from Dave Matthews Band to Pretty Lights; on summer nights, with the stage lights glowing on the rocks and the stars twinkling above, the music takes on a depth beyond the strictly aural. And lest we forget, Red Rocks is a damn fine park in the traditional sense, too, drawing local hikers, bikers and sightseers with its miles of trails, which link to the Jefferson County park system. Meanwhile, dedicated exercise groups turn the empty amphitheater into an outdoor gym during the daylight hours.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.