While some people treat river rafting as if it were an amusement-park ride that they just strap into before someone hits the switch, savvier adventurers understand that it's an outdoors experience fraught with unpredictability that could put you way outside of your comfort zone. The good news is that Colorado offers quite a few rafting experiences with miles of flat water that are just right for first-timers, and this section of Clear Creek fills that bill. Just thirty miles west of Denver, the put-in at Idaho Springs for the Gold Rush segment winds through a historic mining valley for a two-and-a-half-hour float that never gets more challenging than Class III rapids, with most of the seven miles sitting solidly in the Class II range. Kids as young as six can go with the flow here, and this gentle introduction is so enjoyable that rafters of all ages will be begging for big water as soon as they hit dry land again.

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This Class IV-V ride is not for the faint of heart, as the Arkansas River turns into a bit of a beast when it hits the Royal Gorge Canyon. But for whitewater enthusiasts, it's a bucket-list must. Enjoy huge drops, long wave trains and a narrow canyon with steep walls that's completely cut off from the road. Then get ready for paddle-gripping rapids with names like Sledgehammer, Squeezebox, Wallslammer and Boateater. The Royal Gorge Route Railroad goes past twice a day, and there's a good chance you'll see bighorn sheep on the banks, all of which just adds to the dramatic scenery you're zipping past. The truly courageous should do what local outfitters refer to as the Grand Slam or the Double Dip, the heart-racing river rat's dream run through the Royal Gorge twice in one day, with lunch in the middle and a shuttle back to the beginning. Forward!

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Just a few miles from Cañon City in the Wet Mountain Valley, Grape Creek winds toward Westcliffe through Temple Canyon. Although it takes some sleuthing to locate the public-access points and a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get in there (BLM 6227 is a good bet, and you can hike in from the bridge parking just west of Cañon), it's well worth the trouble in spring, early summer and fall for serious anglers looking for gentle stair-step rapids and deep pool after deep pool of brownies, rainbow, brook and cutthroat trout. Fish tales tell of seventeen- to twenty-inchers, but the majority are in the ten- to thirteen-inch range, and because it can take some bushwhacking to get to the best spots, you're likely to be solo. When the fish aren't biting or it's time for a break, hike around the canyon for views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the cliffs of Scrapping Ridge.

Readers' Choice: Golden Gate Canyon State Park

Outside Canon City

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Hit this section of the South Platte River, between Spinney Mountain and Eleven Mile State Park east of Hartsel, at sunrise for the big ones: The browns, rainbows, cutthroats and cutbows are all famously "monster-size." Named for the late Denver Post outdoor columnist famous for his love of all things hunting and fishing, this section is ideal for beginners, because the high-desert prairie location means there's very little for the fly to tangle in, and the clear water makes it easy to spot your prey. The fact that the area has become so well known means you're not likely to be alone, but anglers willing to cast on windy or colder days will be rewarded with some solitude. And don't forget the waders: This Dream Stream, as it's also known, is always numbingly cold.

Readers' Choice: Steamboat Springs

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Orvis
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There are about a dozen Orvis authorized stores around the state offering free fly-fishing classes, but the Cherry Creek shop also has the location going for it, surrounded by good restaurants for that post-lesson discussion about which stream to head to first. And trust us, you'll be ready: The Fly-Fishing 101 class, which is offered Saturdays from 9 to 11:30 a.m. starting March 31 and running through mid-August, covers all the basics of fly-casting and outfit rigging, and anyone eight and older can participate (under sixteen, bring an adult). Once you complete the course, you get a free one-year membership to the conservationist nonprofit Trout Unlimited, as well as coupons for gear. In the winter, learn Fly-Tying 101 for free, too. Not surprisingly, these classes are popular, so reservations are a must.

Be warned: The Conejos River in the San Luis Valley is remote, and although you can find a guide, there are no services or rafting outfitters running it, and you're pretty much on your own for access and shuttles (you have to hike a couple of miles through the South San Juan Wilderness to put in). That said, the 52.7-mile stretch from Saddle Bridge to the bridge at state highway 17 can be three to four days of pure trout-fishing bliss, punctuated by Class II-III whitewater and miles-long float-and-bloat sections through high-alpine meadows and past swanky ranches. Because this largest tributary of the Rio Grande runs through private property on its way to Chama, New Mexico, be aware of sections where you can't use the banks, and also keep an eye out for the dozen or so barbed-wire fences strung across the water, as several need to be manually lifted to pass. Put in just below the Platoro Reservoir for an extra 6.5 miles of Class III-IV rapids, and get a good river map to plot out the named campgrounds you want to hit along the way. No raft? There are several points of public access, and the annual Superfly competition is a hoot.

San Luis Valley

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Best Fourteener for a Newcomer
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While the masses head to Grays and Torreys or Bierstadt for their first Fourteener experience, you're smart enough to take the extra time to get to Quandary in the White River National Forest. You won't be alone. The thirteenth-highest Fourteener, at 14,265 feet, is still pretty popular, and its easy access from Breckenridge or Fairplay makes it part of a nice weekend getaway. The East Ridge is the standard — and simplest — route, a Class 1-rated, 6.75-mile jaunt to the top on a well-marked, well-trodden trail that's almost guaranteed to take you past herds of snowy-white mountain goats. At the top, revel in your achievement and check out the views of several other Fourteeners that might be in your future, like Mounts Bross, Cameron, Lincoln and Democrat.

Readers' Choice: Mount Bierstadt

Tenmile Range

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Best Fourteener for a Native
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So you've bagged a bunch of Fourteeners and you're ready for the quintessential Colorado experience. It's time for Windom, an isolated peak in the San Juans that sports a spectacular view and an even better approach: Take the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train from Durango or Silverton to the Needleton trailhead in the Chicago Basin ($89 per person, round trip), a scenic ride that drops you at the base camp at 11,000 feet, right at the foot of three Fourteeners. Camp overnight (no permit needed), nail the summit, then take the train back when you're done. The hike up can start with a quick dip in Twin Lakes, about a mile from the trailhead, followed by a five-mile journey that gains 3,000 vertical feet over rock slabs, streams and some steep scree slopes. Along the way, you'll be treated to a waterfall and lots of wildlife; after traversing the rocky ridge at the top, look down on Upper Sunlight Lake amid the surrounding peaks.

Readers' Choice: Longs Peak

San Juan Mountains

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Best Fourteener for the Whole Family
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Not only is Denver's closest Fourteener located at the end of North America's highest paved road — which means if you're nervous about your kids' first time, you can drive nearly all the way to the summit and check out their high-altitude reaction not far from the car — but the 14,264-footer is ideal for all first-timers, with routes rated as easy as Class 1. The shortest and easiest is the 2.9-mile trek from Summit Lake, or you can take more motivated tykes to Echo Lake for the fourteen-mile Class 2 Chicago Creek Route. Make a game of counting the bighorn sheep, mountain goats and marmots, and be sure to check out the 1,700-year-old bristlecone pines at the alpine garden, where your young'uns can make jokes about how they're almost as old as you.

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Best Thirteener
Flickr/Jon Holm

Savvy mountaineers know that it's not just about the Fourteener checklist; many of the Thirteeners in Colorado are harder and far more interesting. Pacific Peak in Arapaho National Forest falls into that category, and has the bonus of Pacific Tarn, the highest lake in the country, which sits at 13,420 feet on the way to the summit at 13,950 (which, by the way, makes it one of Colorado's so-called Centennial Thirteeners, the state's hundred highest). Located not far from Quandary, Pacific takes hikers past two abandoned mines and several lakes tucked into glorious high-alpine meadows, and also offers ice climbers two challenging couloirs. The four ridges at the top — choose your route carefully, because each ridge approach varies from moderate to expert in skill level, and all of them require some route-finding — are exposed and rocky, but slow-and-steady to the talus field results in a straight shot at Quandary, the Tarn and the whole Tenmile Range.

Readers' Choice: Dallas Peak

Tenmile Range

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