Dying to get away from Denver, but can't spare the time (or money) for a full weekend? Here are ten great options for summer day trips that will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to take on the urban jungle again.
Central City and Black Hawk
Long ago, these two tiny towns west of Denver were just historic mining towns – and some of that heritage still remains, with tours of the famous Teller House and its face on the barroom floor and Central City Opera House running year-round. But these days, the towns are known for gambling; between the two, there are nearly twenty casinos in operation. Black Hawk is home to the bulk of the gaming houses, but Central City retains historic charm. Shuttles run from Denver and between the two municipalities regularly, so you can enjoy gaming and guzzling drinks with abandon.
A quick seventy-mile jaunt up I-70 can put you in a mountain frame of mind. This town offers not only all sorts of terrestrial activities, but also boasts plenty of time on the water, thanks to its proximity to the southwestern shore of Dillon Reservoir. Frisco Bay Marina rents canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards in addition to pontoons and fishing boats. Novice skippers can book sailing lessons or guided lake tours, while Frisco Kayak Park puts your paddling skills to the test with Class 3 through 5 sections of Ten Mile Creek.
Even if you aren't nostalgic for glory days spent at Colorado State University, Fort Collins is worth the hour trip north. There's the usual hiking and biking, but there are also quirky museums (Totally ’80s Pizza & Museum and the Swetsville Zoo, with animals made from old car parts) and enough breweries and taprooms to keep you busy for weeks, not just a day. New Belgium has been getting college freshmen drunk since 1988, and newer outfits Funkwerks, Jessup Farm Barrel House, Black Bottle, the Mayor of Old Town and tiny Choice City Deli, which offers a sophisticated tap list belying its hippie vibe, are also worthy. And with the Regional and Music City Hot Chicken serving excellent comfort food, the Olive Garden is no longer the best restaurant in town.
Drive 45 miles west from the Mile High City, and you'll be taking a trip back in time. Many of historic Georgetown's buildings date back to the late 1800s, when the city known briefly as the "Silver Queen of Colorado" was the center of Colorado's mining industry. You can get your fill of Victorian buildings at the Hamill House and Hotel de Paris museums or descend 1,000 feet into an old gold mine to get a feel for what subterranean life was like for miners. But the crown jewel of Georgetown is the Georgetown Loop Railroad, a narrow-gauge railway that transports visitors past the Lebanon Mine to Silver Plume and back in a steam engine.
Most of us pass Idaho Springs in a blink — either too excited to get into the mountains or too anxious to get home to give it much attention — but this little town thirty miles west of Denver has enough attractions to make it a great day trip. Spend a few hours driving the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, a 28-mile route that climbs 7,000 feet to an altitude of 14,130 feet and provides plenty of pull-offs with wide-open vistas and views of mountain goats and bighorn sheep. If your tastes lean more toward the water, there are plenty of rafting and kayaking outfitters to guide you down area waterways, and you can finish off the day with brews and bites at Westbound & Down, one of our favorite brewpubs in the state.
Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre
18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison
Don't believe Red Rocks (which is just fourteen miles from downtown Denver) qualifies as a day trip? See how many hours it takes you to get home after a show; you could make it to Vail in less time. But this 640-acre park is worth a trip for plenty of reasons other than a concert. Trails wind between sandstone rock formations, through meadows, along creeks and into neighboring Matthews/Winters Park for miles of hiking and biking. There's also the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, which is open daily and houses an impressively creepy sculptural rendition of John Denver. Thirsty after all that fresh air? Stop by the Morrison Holiday Bar, a wonderfully grimy local institution, for live music and cheap beer every night of the week.
Rocky Mountain National Park
1000 U.S. Highway 36, Estes Park
Hop in the car right now, and in just ninety minutes, you'll be in the midst of 415 square miles of wild mountain landscape. In addition to scenic drives up gravelly, twisty Old Fall River Road and the much wider, much less terrifying Trail Ridge Road, there are over fifty fishing areas and 350 miles of hiking trails within the park. Climbers can summit Long's Peak via the Keyhole Route (though that makes for a long day, indeed, as the climb can take upwards of ten hours). Don't want to deal with heavy summer traffic and packed parking lots? Take advantage of the park's shuttle buses, which run daily through September.
Royal Gorge Bridge & Park
4218 County Road 3A, Cañon City
At just over two hours from Denver, the Royal Gorge might as well be a million miles away: The views are otherworldly. It's the perfect place for selfies, as well as artsy shots of the Arkansas River rushing 1,200 feet below and the steel cables that make up the highest suspension bridge in the country. Overlooks provide vantages of the bridge itself and brave souls boarding the gondolas and zipline that traverse the canyon. Adrenaline junkies will also want to try the skycoaster (where you're slingshotted through the air to momentarily dangle above the river) and — new this year — the Via Ferrara, a protected climbing route with cables and iron runs attached to rock faces that gives climbers a whole new perspective on the Gorge.
Wild Animal Sanctuary
2999 County Road 53, Keenesburg
The Denver Zoo isn't the only place in Colorado to see lions, tigers and bears (oh, my); it's not even the largest. Travel to tiny Keenesburg, just forty miles from central Denver, for a unique animal experience: The 789-acre complex includes a 48,000-square-foot visitor center that's reminiscent of Denver International Airport (right down to the themed cafe and ice cream shop) and facilities where big cats are rehabilitated before being released into the rest of the sanctuary, but the star of the show is the 1.5-mile-long catwalk stretching above open land, where over 450 large carnivores roam in open spaces, free from the stresses that come with small habitats and humans encroaching on their environments.
Just under a hundred miles west of Denver, you'll find yourself in a charming Bavarian-style village where, as in much of Germany, your dollar won't go very far. But you can mitigate the damage to your pocketbook by spending just a day in Vail, which is easy to do given the ninety-minute commute. There are over fifteen miles of paved paths in town (making it a great option for family outings) and even more bike paths and trails. Stroll through the perennials, meditation areas and rock gardens of the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, then settle in for casual German fare at the Alpenrose or craft brews at Bart & Yeti's, or spring for a luxe dinner at Matsuhisa or Mountain Standard.