Downtown Aquarium

You might think swimming with sharks would be a tall order in a landlocked state like Colorado. But the Downtown Aquarium — housing more than a million gallons of water in the heart of the city — has you covered. For $185, certified scuba divers can sign up to plunge into the aquarium's "Sunken Shipwreck" exhibit and get up close and personal with several species of sharks, as well as sea turtles, guitarfish (which look kinda like a cross between a shark and a ray) and barracudas. As a bonus, the fee includes a "Dive With the Sharks" T-shirt and a free appetizer at the aquarium's restaurant. (The Downtown Aquarium is actually owned by Landry's Restaurants, which bought it in 2003.) Who needs an ocean when you can have complimentary beef sliders?

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.

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. This year's event, set for July 7 through 13, features classes where you can draw wildflowers, photograph them and cook with them; on various tours, you can see wildflowers while walking, biking, jeeping or riding on horseback. You'll spot everything from the mainstream mule's ear to wisps of prairie smoke — but the king of the hill is the columbine, Colorado's state flower, in hues ranging from pale pink to yellow to blue to deep purple. Look, but don't pick.

Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Aaron Thackeray

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.

Castlewood Canyon State Park
Castlewood Canyon State Park Facebook page

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...

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.

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.

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.

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.

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