Colorado isn’t just landlocked; it’s “doubly landlocked," one of ten states from which you'd have to travel through two U.S. states, Mexico or Canada in order to reach a major body of water. There's no shortage of sunshine here, though, and considering that and our proximity to the flaming yellow dwarf star, it’s no surprise that we crave water.
Fortunately, there are some stellar places not far from Denver where we're able to dip, wade, wallow, sink and swim. Here are ten of the best wet spots around the state, from super-cool swimming pools and water parks to natural and manmade lakes, perfectly suited for a quick afternoon visit or an Independence Day jaunt.
5100 North 51st Street, Boulder
The little beach with a dedicated swim area at this 700-acre site sports a gorgeous backdrop of the foothills, which light up at sunset, and the shallow, roped-off area boasts a seasonal lifeguard, making this a great place to take the kids. The reservoir hosts several open-water swims each summer (see the website for 2019 dates), and there are also grills and picnic tables, along with a decent cafe that serves the crispy-hot fries of your pool-going childhood; local food trucks pop up in the parking lot, too. An on-site concessionaire rents pontoon boats, canoes, pedal boats, paddleboards and kayaks — all good ideas in this setting — and beach volleyball setups and floating decks expand the entertainment options. Fair warning: Some remodeling is under way this summer, with plans that include an amphitheater for movie nights and shows and a boardwalk of sorts. There’s a $7 entry fee from May to September.
Devil’s Punch Bowl
Near Aspen: Colorado 82 toward Independence Pass; pullout is just past mile marker 50, at 39.119709, -106.708672
Near Crested Butte: Take Gothic Road (Route 135) north 15.6 miles from town over Schofield Pass, past the West Maroon Trailhead to a parking area near the South Fork Crystal River.
One Devil's Punch Bowl is not enough for Colorado; this state has two. One is about nine miles from Aspen, a rock-lined hole that’s fed by several small but powerful waterfalls coming from the Roaring Fork River, creating impossibly blue water and a sweet little swimming hole surrounded by cliffs and caves. The one closer to Crested Butte is spelled Punchbowl and sits at 10,707 feet in the Elk Mountains, at Schofield Pass. It’s fed by the South Fork Crystal River and is more aquamarine-colored, but also has cliffs and caves to explore, along with the soothing sounds of a huge waterfall crashing into the swimming spot. A 4-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended for getting into the CB Punchbowl, which also requires a 200-foot hike down into the bowl. Both bowls are full of snowmelt (read: freezing cold), which is welcome on a blazing-hot day, and both have a twenty- to thirty-foot drop into the water, depending on the melt — but we’re not recommending that. Instead, we suggest you simply climb down into either and stake out your own little hidey-hole. Bottom line: Whichever one you visit, you’re the lucky devil.
U.S. 34, Grand Lake
Situated at the headwaters of the Colorado River on the far side of Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Lake is Colorado’s largest natural lake, and it’s a must-visit for fans of boating, fishing, swimming and anything else you can do in 600 acres of glacial goodness. Surrounded by pine trees — keep your eyes peeled for the moose and elk that feed at the edge of the woods along the shores — the aptly named Grand is big enough for pontoon boats, fishing skiffs, canoes, kayaks and speedboats to share the lake love, which means fishing and waterskiing and tubing, and the sporadic sandy areas create nice beaches for swimming. The marina has a little coffee shop and rents a variety of boats, along with stand-up paddleboards; you can also hire a guide to help you navigate the water and find the good fishing eddies.
Jackson Lake State Park, near Orchard
Tree-lined sandy sections and a soft, sandy bottom make Jackson Lake a solid choice for a day at the beach.Take your floatie out into the water and while away the day watching water- and jet-skiers tool around this 1,910-acre body of water, a reservoir built in 1902 using the South Platte River to irrigate crops east of Greeley. Birders flock here for a peek at the many species that call this park home, including Swainson’s hawks and the occasional long-billed curlews and whooping cranes. Because it’s a state park, there’s plenty of camping (the sites farther from the lake have fewer bugs), and the fishing is good and plentiful: The lake is stocked with walleye, catfish, Northern pike, large- and smallmouth bass, rainbow trout and crappie. There’s also an off-highway vehicle (OHV) track in the park, so when you tire of water sports, you can ride your dirt bike around, and the two geocaching sites can keep kids occupied for hours. A daily pass is $8.
La Alma Recreation Center
1325 West 11th Avenue, 720-865-2200
It was nearly a hundred years old when it finally fell apart, but you’d never know that based on the remodel of the outdoor pool at La Alma Recreation Center in Lincoln Park. This pool is completely up to date, with a separate and elaborate kiddie area with all kinds of water-spewing features, as well as a whirlpool and a super-fun water slide with twists and turns crazy enough to make big kids squeal, too. Serious swimmers can use the lap pool, with six lanes and a diving board. The entrance fee is $5 for the day, and you can bring your own food to eat at one of the umbrella-topped tables. The only bummer is that it’s closed on Sundays.
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
This isn’t just any creek — it’s the waterway created by snowmelt at the base of the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, the biggest sandy beach around. Medano Creek — the word médano is Spanish for sand dune, by the way — doesn’t appear every year, but it's definitely been going gangbusters this season because of the epic snowpack from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains looming behind the sandy peaks. You can swim, surf, skimboard, splash around, and watch kids ruin each other’s sand castles with the chilly water. Make the four-and-a-half-hour drive soon, though, because as the summer heats up, the creek dwindles to a trickle. Don’t forget the bug spray.
Paradice Island Pool at Pioneer Park
5951 Monaco Street, Commerce City
It’s so bright and colorful, it looks like an oversized candy store, but Paradice Island Pool — which is named for its game theme (pair o’ dice, get it?) is more like a water park, with two acres of fun, especially for families. Three separate pools address the water-loving needs of all ages and activity levels, from a toddler pool with zero-depth entry to a lazy river with a bubble pit and games such as basketball and volleyball, to three slides (one that uses inner tubes) that empty into a big plunge pool. Spouts, spigots, hoses and sprayers shoot water every which way, and there’s an enormous bucket that fills with water and dumps it on the unsuspecting (and also the suspecting, as some kids park themselves beneath it). Bring your own food and rent a cabana or picnic at one of the shaded tables; Commerce City residents pay $4, but non-residents are welcome for $10 a day.
Pirates Cove Water Park
1225 West Belleview Avenue, Englewood
Small and easily navigable, Pirates Cove is perfect for families who feel overwhelmed by the bigger water parks but still want something beyond a pool with a diving board at one end. Here that something comprises three water slides, a little sandy beach, a spray garden and three separate pools — including one with six lanes for laps that can be entered via the diving board or a drop slide, and a lazy river that tempts the more adventurous into a “swirling vortex” of water.The 750-gallon dump bucket is powerful and popular, and there are cabanas for rent. Adult admission is $14 weekdays and $16 weekends, and you can bring in your own coolers of food.
8801 Pecos Street, Federal Heights
Water World has been a wet-and-wild mecca for decades. Since it opened in 1979, this 67-acre park, which had the first two water slides in the state, has grown to include fifty attractions, including two wave pools, a lazy river and multiple rides for inner tubes, multi-person rafts and boogie boards. One of the most popular, Voyage to the Center of the Earth, pulls your raft through prehistoric times on a journey of drops, waves and bumps past animatronic dinosaurs in a completely enclosed space; Screaming Mimi, a roller coaster that you ride on a board, will propel you to speeds of up to 30 mph before skidding you across a big pool. Two gift shops and twelve restaurants make it easy to part with some money, but the park allows you to bring your own food, which can be eaten in one of the covered shelters, with picnics tables strewn about; cabanas and “bungalows” (chaise lounges under clamshell coverings) are available for rent. Admission is $34.99.
21843 Stoney Pass Road, Bailey
The privately owned Wellington Lake in Bailey is open to the public year-round, and although the ice fishing in this trophy fishery is fabulous in the winter, summer is really the time to visit. You can paddle in the clean water (no lifeguard), play with pool toys you're allowed to bring from home, and catch some rays on one of the little beaches (some sandy, some rocky). If you come for the day, you’re limited in the areas where you can hang out; if you camp overnight in one of the 75 sites (complete with fire pits), you have access to the whole lake, which is surrounded by forest, with the towering cliffs of Castle Mountain in the background. And you can bring your furry best friend to swim with you! Admission is $10 for ages thirteen and up, plus $5 per vehicle for parking.