QUESTION: Hello from Israel,
We love coming to the States and have been almost everywhere, yet not in Colorado.Now my wife and I are planning a three-week trip for September 2017, out of which around 15 days in Colorado. We are in the mid 50's and appreciate very easy hikes, overlooks, nice drives, good food and outlet shopping. Though we love the convenience of being in a major city like Denver (we will fly in and out there) due to great restaurants and shopping, how would you suggest planning this trip? We prefer excellent hotels also, however budget is important. Thank in advance.
September is absolutely my favorite month up here--the weather is usually gorgeous, and our fall colors typically peak at the end of the month. One caution about only having 15 days--Colorado is deceptively large. If you drive from east to west at highway speeds on Interstate 70 (I-70), it takes about 8 hours without any stops. From north to south on I-25 is about 5 hours, and when you drive in the mountains on the smaller roads, typically you are not driving at highway speeds......
Denver is near the center of the state, but some of the more scenic areas are still a fairly significant drive, so I might suggest a loop starting and ending in Denver, but traveling across the state as well.
If you are here Labor Day weekend (Sept. 1-4 next year), there is a large festival in Denver called "A Taste of Colorado". They close down several streets around the State Capital and have an outdoor street fair with food vendors, artists, etc. In Denver itself, hotels can be pricey--especially downtown ($200 per night is pretty average). If you stay just outside of downtown near a light rail station, you can save a lot on hotel costs (although they will be fairly generic hotels), and just take the train downtown for the day.
In Denver, Red Rocks Amphitheater is a must see--especially if they are having a concert that interests you (www.RedRocksOnline.com). If you want to splurge for dinner (excellent food and views, but expensive.....) while you are in that area, try The Fort, just next door (www.thefort.com). One of the best steaks I ever ate was Buffalo prime rib at The Fort!
There is also a restaurant called Buckhorn Exchange closer to downtown that is, I believe, the oldest restaurant in Colorado (we don't have 6000 years of history like Israel does, so "historical" by our standards is obviously a relative term......). They are also known for their wild game specialties--they can be pricey for dinner, but their lunch prices are pretty reasonable. If you are interested in museums, the Denver Art Museum has a great reputation, as does the Denver Museum of Science. For outlet shopping, Colorado Mills is right on the west side of Denver near Golden, The Outlets at Loveland are about 40 miles (about 65km) north of Denver on I-25, and The Outlets at Castle Rock are about 40 miles south of Denver on I-25.
To see the REAL Colorado, you have to get out of Denver, though. Spend a day or two in Denver, but then spend the rest of your time looping through the mountains--ESPECIALLY in September. From Denver, I would suggest heading up to the town of Estes Park, which is right at the eastern entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. The elk will be very active right in town in September, and you can also tour the historic Stanley Hotel--which, besides being a beautiful, historic property, is also the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write "The Shining".
From Estes Park, head west through the national park (plenty of scenic stops along the way) to the town of Grand Lake on the other side. There, you will be traveling along the headwaters of the Colorado River--the same river that eventually carved the Grand Canyon further downstream--where it is still a small mountain stream. From Grand Lake, head down to US40 and head west to the little town of Kremmling, then south on Colorado Hwy 9 to Silverthorne (Summit County), where you can visit the historic ski town of Breckenridge if you like.
Further west on I-70 you will go through the town of Vail (weekdays during September are considered more of an off-season up here, so you can get rooms at really nice resort hotels fairly reasonably most of the time). Then, I-70 continues down through Glenwood Canyon (spectacular!) to the town of Glenwood Springs. There is a historic hotel called the Hotel Colorado there, and a large outdoor hot springs pool if you want to take a soak. They also have Glenwood Caverns--an underground cave system that you can tour--and the town of Aspen is just a short side trip down Hwy 82 from there.
Continuing west toward Grand Junction, you come into our area wineries and peach orchards, and then just above Grand Junction is the Colorado National Monument, which is worth a drive through to see the red rock canyons, etc.
South of Grand Junction off US50, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is DEFINITELY worth a stop! From there, US550 to Durango is consistently rated as one of THE most scenic drives in the US. It is a fairly narrow, curvy mountain road, so take your time--but there are scenic turnouts all along the way, so you will want to anyway. From Durango, Mesa Verde National Park is an easy drive if you are interested in the history of some of the Native Americans in the area.
Then, if you head east on US160 over Wolf Creek Pass, you head down into the San Luis Valley and then take US285 right past the Great Sand Dunes National Park (the tallest dunes in North America--right in the middle of a beautiful mountain valley.....). Continue north on US285 through the Arkansas River Valley and then up across South Park and back to Denver. If you have time, in the town of Fairplay, there is a museum called South Park City (www.southparkcity.org) where they took a bunch of buildings off several of the old mining towns in the surrounding area, and re-created a street from the 1880s. It is actually really interesting, as you can walk through the buildings and see how the pioneers in the Old West here in the US used to live.
Anyhow--that would be my suggestion for a loop to see some of the best of Colorado. It is a LOT of driving, but you will see a wide variety of scenery that we offer, and also hit some of the best known attractions at the same time. Obviously this does not even include Ft. Collins, Colorado Springs, the Royal Gorge, or anything out on the eastern plains--but that would be even MORE of a trip.......
Please note that we DO get snow--especially at the higher elevations--in September, so be prepared for some chilly weather at times. Usually the snow will not start accumulating until the end of October, so it will normally melt off by 10 or 11am, but to see snow falling would not be unusual at that time of year. During the day, though, it is usually sunny and warm!
Hope that gives you some ideas, but please let me know if you need more information on any of this.
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thank you very much Steve!!!
I checked the loop you are suggesting (18 hours of driving and over 900 miles).Beyond a stop for a few days in Denver, leaving us with about 12 days for the loop, we would like to have not too many stops, perhaps 3-4, in good hotels and nice locations with restaurants to choose from. Even if it limits our loop a bit. can you suggest these stops/hotels? Then we would go for day trips returning in the evenings, which is our preference. Thanks in advance again!
It is a LOT of driving. If you want to shorten it a bit, I would leave off the Grand Junction and Durango sections--even though the scenery is spectacular, they are pretty far away for a 2 week trip.
The one thing I am struggling with is when you say "budget is important", but also "excellent hotels". Those two do not always coincide........
When I travel personally, I tend to try to spend less on hotels so that I have more money to spend actually DOING things--however, that means the hotels are not always memorable. I don't stay in bad hotels, but they tend to be a bit more generic. What type of budget do you have for hotels?
In downtown Denver, I like the Hotel Monaco (www.Monaco-Denver.com) or the Hotel Teatro (www.hotelteatro.com). The "known" hotel is The Brown Palace (www.brownpalace.com), but that is where, for example, heads of state stay when they come to visit Denver (we hosted a G8 Summit a few years ago, and that was where all the leaders stayed), so it will not exactly be a budget option......
If you don't mind staying outside of downtown, I really like the Westin Westminster or the Omni Interlocken--both on the main highway between Denver and Boulder. Another, more unique, place is the Table Mountain Inn in Golden (just west of Denver--www.tablemountaininn.com).
From any of these, Estes Park and the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park is only about a 2 hour drive, so that would be an easy day trip for you if you wanted to maintain your base in Denver. You could also head up to the outlets in Loveland and Fort Collins for a day if you would like.
Then, for your "mountain" base, I would suggest heading up I-70 (please do NOT go on a Friday afternoon--traffic can be terrible, but only on that one day of the week), with stops in Breckenridge, Vail, and Glenwood Springs, and then find a base in the Aspen/Snowmass area for a night or two. In Aspen, I LOVE the Hotel Lenado (www.hotellenado.com) bed and breakfast, but it is not inexpensive. The Molly Gibson Lodge (www.mollygibson.com) is usually a bit less expensive. You will save quite a bit if you stay in Snowmass Village (www.gosnowmass.com), which, in itself is a beautiful resort, but also only a free 20 minute shuttle ride from downtown Aspen.
Aspen is WELL known for its restaurants and shopping, and the scenery is gorgeous as well. I would highly recommend a horseback ride up to the Maroon Bells--ESPECIALLY in September (www.tlazy7.com). I don't think there are many more scenic locations on the planet.......
Then, from Aspen, take Hwy 82 over Independence Pass (SPECTACULAR!) down to US24, and then follow that into Colorado Springs. A really special hotel to use as a base there would be The Cliff House at Pikes Peak (www.thecliffhouse.com) in Manitou Springs. From there, you can take the Cog Railway up to the summit of Pikes Peak (the view from there is what inspired the song "America the Beautiful"), tour the Garden of the Gods, the US Air Force Academy if you would like, and there is a wolf rescue center (the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center--www.wolfeducation.org) that offers really interesting tours (it's best to do a tour earlier in the day, as the animals are more active before it gets too warm). If time allows, you could also use Colorado Springs as a base to head down to the Royal Gorge Bridge, and perhaps even take the train ride through the base of the canyon. If you want one final splurge in Colorado, a dinner at any of the restaurants at The Broadmoor would be memorable. The US Olympic Training Center is also located in Colorado Springs, and they offer tours as well.
From Colorado Springs, Denver is an easy 1-2 hour drive (depending on your start and ending points and traffic).
With that loop, you would cut off a large portion of the drive I mentioned on the previous loop, and you would have stops in Denver, Aspen/Snowmass, and Colorado Springs. That is probably a bit more manageable. Denver to Aspen is about 4 hours of actual driving time, Aspen to Colorado Springs via Independence Pass is about 5 hours, and then Colorado Springs back to Denver is only an hour or two. After you get a taste of Colorado (it's addictive....) with this tour, you will have to come back to see the rest!
Obviously there are less expensive hotels than the ones I mentioned, but I am trying to balance your requests for nicer hotels that may not necessarily break the bank completely........
Does that help?