Ten Places to Explore This Summer for a Real Rocky Mountain High

’Tis a priivilege to live in Colorado...
’Tis a priivilege to live in Colorado... Caleb Backus
As Westword's first marijuana critic, I didn't need to head to the mountains to explore the high country. These days, though, I have a new career renting vintage and modern campervans from my company, Rocky Mountain Campervans, and spend my days detailing vehicles and advising tourists on some of the not-so-common places they should check out.

If we all have to stay close to home this summer, we’re damn lucky to call Colorado home. Here are ten of my favorite places to recommend...and revisit myself.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Get your hard-core geology geek on just two hours from Denver. The Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is loaded with amazing fossilized fish, insects and — most impressive — trunks of coastal redwoods that thrived in Colorado’s ancient coastal environment about 32 million years ago. Although it's just west of Colorado Springs, Florissant seems to fly under the radar of a lot of locals we’ve sent out lately, and every time we’ve ever been there as a family, the place is empty. While the visitors' center that holds the best fossil specimens is closed right now, the self-guided tours of the area and simple, easy hikes are open and easy to access. Nearby Riverside Campground is a good option if you don’t want to make the drive back to Denver. Find out more here.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Want to figure out if you have vertigo? Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the place. With nearly vertical walls carved out by the raging Gunnison River below, it’s not uncommon to see people white-knuckling the handrails at viewing stations at the South Rim visitors' center or moms holding their toddlers extra-tight by the shirt collar. Hiking junkies can get their kicks doing treks into the canyon, but rim trails are perfectly acceptable and have some killer views of places like Painted Wall, a 2,250-foot sheer cliff that is the tallest in the state. Campgrounds at the South Rim are currently open, but reservations are suggested.

St. Elmo Ghost Town/Mt. Princeton

Colorado is home to dozens of ghost towns and old mining camps, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one more Hollywood-esque than St. Elmo, tucked into the Sawatch range about twenty miles from Buena Vista. The abandoned buildings date back to the 1880s, when the town was a booming hub for miners working in nearly 150 nearby mines, large and small. Pack a picnic lunch (or grab some food at Brown Dog Coffee in Buena Vista before heading out), and grub down by the river. Beware of the overly-friendly chipmunks that will rob you blind. If you stay at Mt. Princeton Campground, you can spend the evening soaking at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs. Find out more about Mt. Princeton at fs.usda.gov.

McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area

Why go all the way to Moab to see sandstone arches and natural caverns? Utah doesn’t want you there right now, anyway (look it up). Instead, head to McInnis Canyons — Colorado’s own (slightly smaller) version of Arches National Park. McInnis has plenty of naturally carved stone arches and open space to explore, without the massive crowds of Arches. Camping in the park at Castle Rocks is pretty choice; if spots there are full, try to reserve one of the individual sites scattered through the park the BLM website.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Boyd Fletcher
Contact: Boyd Fletcher