Garden of the Gods
There’s a reason this park in the heart of Colorado Springs attracts 2 million visitors per year. Named a National Natural Landmark in 1971, its stunning 15 miles of hiking trails lead you through its sandstone formations, and admission is free.
For a 1.5-mile easy loop, park at the main parking lot at the Perkins Central Garden Trail.
You can drive your car in, but there’s a summertime shuttle and Jeep, Segway, trolley, horseback and bike tours. Timing is everything since this park is a popular attraction, so beat the crowds by going at sunrise or near sunset.
“At dawn and early evening, the light is really dramatic and you get relief from the heat,” says Amy Long, chief innovation officer of Visit Colorado Springs.
Another tip? Start at the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center, an interactive museum with exhibits, gift shop and a movie that costs a nominal fee.
“It’s almost something you’d experience at Epcot,” says Long. “You time-travel through millions of years to see how mountain and red rocks got there.”
Stop by Bean Sprouts for fresh, organic food that’s so kid-friendly it serves items like Crocomole, an avocado hummus dish with veggies shaped like a crocodile. Don’t miss the park’s best photo opp, featuring Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak in the background on the second-floor patio.
Summit a 14,000-foot peak without having to break a sweat on Pikes Peak. Just minutes from downtown, this iconic mountain offers travelers the option to hike up, bike up or drive up to reach its 14,115-foot summit. There are a handful of companies that offer tours, so you can take in the views instead of driving. Starting in May 2021, visitors can take reconstructed The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway to the summit.
Along the way, be on the lookout for Bigfoot, a large ape-like creature, near the Bigfoot crossing sign on the road. On April 1, 2016, there was an increase in reported sightings. The new Pikes Peak Summit Visitor Center opens in early summer 2021, featuring a brand-new sustainable building with interpretive exhibits, a gift shop, café and the world-famous summit donuts.
If you’re driving yourself, allow for at least two to three hours for this adventure: you’ll spend about an hour each way driving, depending how often you stop. And fill up your gas tank before you reach the Pikes Peak entrance. There’s no gas station on the road, and you’ll need a minimum of a half tank of gas for the entire trip.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
Visit an uncrowded national park site just 35 miles west of Colorado Springs. During prehistoric times, redwood trees dwarfed nearly everything else that lived under their giant canopies, including three-toed miniature horses, in this area. Today, you can walk by their massive, petrified stumps, which are some of the largest in the world. Some are up to 14-feet-wide. You’ll also discover insects, leaves, fish, birds and a few mammals whose fossilized remains give us clues to the area’s past. Start at the visitor center to see the 14-minute Shadows of the Past movie. Outside, take the 1-mile Petrified Forest Loop and see the Big Stump, one of the biggest petrified tree stumps on Earth.
Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center
For an unforgettable experience, visit this sanctuary to see its wild animals. You’ll find timber wolves, Arctic wolves, Mexican gray wolves, as well as coyotes, red foxes and swift foxes.
“It’s one of my favorite attractions,” says Long.
Choose between several tours, including the feeding tour, full-moon tour and the one-hour standard tour. At the end, you’ll howl with the wolves, an ethereal experience. On the Interactive Alpha tour for those 18 and older, you’ll be able get up-close with the wolves and receive up to 15 digital photos to take home. Advanced reservations are required for all tours. Located 35 minutes from Garden of the Gods, the sanctuary is in Divide, Colo., just outside Colorado Springs. It’s closed on Mondays.
Royal Gorge Bridge & Park
As you leave Colorado Springs, head south toward Cañon City to walk on one of the world’s highest suspension bridges at the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park. The Royal Gorge Bridge is a footbridge that sits 956 feet above the Arkansas River. If it was 100 feet deeper, you could fit the entire Eiffel Tower in it. After walking across it, head to the park’s Cloudscrapes Zip Line. It’s the country’s highest zip line, sending you across the gorge 1,200 feet above the Arkansas River. For a different weightless experience, try the Royal Rush Skycoaster that will lift you and up to two other people high above the edge of the gorge before releasing you into a 50 mile-per-hour free fall. Some attractions are height, age, weight and weather dependent.
Paint Mines Interpretive Park
When you catch a glimpse of the vibrant spires called “hoodoos” and brightly colored hills here, you may feel as if you have been transported to another world. But this hidden gem is located in Calhan, Colo., 45 minutes from Colorado Springs in the rolling hills of Colorado’s eastern plains and arguably most Coloradans don’t know it exists.
Named “Paint Mines” because Native Americans used the colored clays here to create paint, this 750-acre park has four miles of trails, interpretive signs and restrooms. Plan on a 10-15 minute relatively flat walk to reach the formations and amazing views. While it’s not paved, the path is hard-pack, making it ADA-accessible.
“It’s pretty otherworldly,” says Amy Long, chief innovation officer of Visit Colorado Springs. “You could easily spend 13 hours here, depending on how much you want to walk.”
Admission is free. No dogs are allowed. Please don’t climb on the hoodoos and be sure to leave no trace.
For more information:
Visitor Information Center, 515 S Cascade Ave.