Sure, Colorado is perfect for skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer, but what about all those lesser known attractions that give the state its personality? Colorado is full of hidden gems that some locals don’t even know about! These are places that you can’t see and things you can’t do anywhere else. Tack them onto your next Colorado getaway itinerary, or plan a new one. You can even use it as an excuse to book that cozy mountain Colorado vacation rental you’ve been eyeing. Whether you’re in it for the views, or seeking some adventure, here are the most interesting hidden gems in Colorado.
1. Last Dollar Road
Get ready to kick off your Colorado adventure with this winding, one-lane, hidden dirt road. Start at the Dallas Divide and careen around the Mount Sneffles Wilderness before dropping into the San Miguel River Valley. This lush ranchland is full of aspen, spruce, and pine forests. You’ll feel like you’re stepping into a postcard except for the fact that pictures won’t do it justice. Don’t miss the clear view of Wilson Peak, the recognizable mountains seen on Coors bottles everywhere. Another point of interest is the historic ranch from the original “True Grit” western starring John Wayne.
2. Lost Creek Wilderness Area
Named after the Lost Creek which frequently gets “lost” underground into rock piles, this Pike National forest treasure is located near Bailey and Fairplay. Fisherman flock here for the mysterious waterway, and hikers love the 130 miles of secluded trails, but the main attractions here are the bizarre red rock formations. Campers are welcome, or choose a beautiful, vacation rental in Fairplay. Lost Creek Wilderness is a little off the beaten path. To get there, head northeast from Fairplay on Hwy. 285. Turn right onto County Road 56. Continue onto County Road 39/Lost Park Road. Keep left at the fork. Follow signs to the Lost Park campground and trailhead.
3. Penitente Canyon
Formed more than 30 million years ago during one of the earth’s largest recorded eruptions, Penitente Canyon in the San Luis Valley was discovered by rock climbing enthusiasts in the 1980’s. Today, rock climbers from all around the world come to scale the canyon’s 100-foot walls. There are also a number of manageable hiking trails, a network of single-track trails for bikers and horseback riders, and a campground. For your own Penitente Canyon adventure, stay in a vacation rental in nearby La Garita.
4. Devil’s Causeway
Here’s another amazing view that will blow you away. Devil’s Causeway is the nature made version of the Great Wall of China. The narrow rock ridge runs through the Flat Tops Wilderness, and in some places the trail slims down to only three feet wide! Only accessible by hikers, you can get to the Devil’s Causeway via a trail that begins at Stillwater Reservoir, east of the small town of Yampa and south of Steamboat Springs. It’s a six-mile round-trip to the causeway or 10-mile round-trip if you continue on a loop that returns back to the reservoir. While the thrill of crossing the Devil’s Causeway isn’t for everyone (especially those prone to vertigo), you’ll be rewarded with unparalleled views of the surrounding high mesas and the valleys below.
5. Island Lake
This alpine lake can only be reached by a four-mile hike near Silverton. Even though there’s likely to be snow nearby year-round, one glimpse of the aqua-blue water will immediately transport you from Colorado to the tropics. This hidden gem of the San Juan National Forest gets its name from the flat-topped rock “island” that’s visible whenever the water levels ebb. Visit during the summer to see the entire basin alive with alpine-wildflowers. At such high elevation, afternoon storms are common so dress in layers and be prepared to cross some small streams along the way.
6. Never Summer Wilderness
Tucked among the clouds on the northwestern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, this 21,000-acre wilderness area is located west of Fort Collins and straddles the Continental Divide. It receives a healthy dose of snow year-round, even in July! These snowy peaks can be seen from neighboring Arapaho and Routt National Forests and the nearby vacation magnets of Estes Park and Grand Lake, but you’ll want to hike here to appreciate its true beauty. Hikers of all skill-level are welcome, with trails ranging from 8,900 to 12,520 feet, with gentle forested paths and steeper, more challenging tundra.
7. Zapata Falls
Reaching this secluded 25-foot waterfall is a bit of a trek, but it’s more than worth it. Wade through chilly waters and climb over slippery rocks to get to the falls, or balance on a log bridge to avoid getting wet. While it may sound daunting, this fun adventure is only a half mile from the parking lot. Actually, even the parking lot is worth the visit to Zapata! Here, you’ll find breathtaking views of the Great Sand Dunes against the base of the Sangre Cristos to the north. To the west, across the San Luis Valley, you’ll see the sharp volcanic domes of the San Juan Mountains. Visit during sunrise or sunset when pink, purple, and gold tones light up the landscape.
8. Ute Mountain Tribal Park
Thousands of years ago, Ancestral Puebloans built dwellings into the canyon walls, irrigated and farmed the land, and developed a highly sophisticated culture. Today, you can take a trip back in time and visit an interpretation of the culturally diverse homelands of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe at the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. Spend the day with a knowledgeable Native American Ute tour guide who will navigate you through the wilderness that abuts Mesa Verde National Park’s southern boundary. Your guide will teach about Ute Indian History, Ute pictographs, geological land formations, and Ancestral Pueblo, Petroglyphs, artifacts and dwellings.
9. Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
This is a must-do if you’re vacationing in the Denver area. 15,000 acres of land just 10 miles outside of the city was originally a Plains Indians hunting ground. Then, it was a homesteader farmland, WWII weapons arsenal, and agricultural-chemical plant, before becoming a peaceful sanctuary for more than 280 native plants and 330 animal species, including mule deer, coyotes, bison, songbirds, burrowing owls and bald eagles. It is now one of the largest refuges in the country, welcoming birdwatchers, fishers, hikers and naturalists year-round. The center also hosts wildlife tours, classes, moonlight hikes, fishing workshops and homestead history tours.
10. The Manitou Springs Incline
The Manitou Springs Incline was a one-mile cable tram built to support the construction of a hydroelectric plant, and it’s waterline in 1907. The railway was later purchased by Dr. Brumbach and turned into a tourist attraction. The incline boasted a 16-minute ride to “scenic splendors,” 10 miles of hiking trails in Mount Manitou Park, and claims to be the “longest and highest incline on the globe.” It gains almost 2,000 feet of elevation over less than 1 mile and is not for the faint of heart. If you’re up for the challenge, you might be climbing next to an Olympic athlete! People from all around the world travel here for a heart-pounding workout.
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