5 Reasons to visit the U.S. destination of Denver, Colorado

Denver, Colorado, is both a gateway to the Rockies and a vibrant arts, food and culture destination, as New Zealander Jacqui Gibson finds out on a visit to the United States. In this article Jacqui shares her top five reasons to visit Denver, Colorado, USA.

Denver Art Museum - modern angular silver buildingDenver Art Museum - Credit: Stevie Crecelius

Gunning down US Interstate 70 in your hire car flanked by trucks as huge as overturned skyscrapers isn’t the best tonic for a shaky soul. One wonky move and you’re custard. And, as if driving here wasn’t enough to make you feel small, you look up to the horizon, through a gap in the traffic, to see something even more disorienting – a chain of mountains so tall and so wide they make our own Aoraki-Mount Cook look, well, a bit try-hard.

It’s the Rocky Mountains coming into view; the so-called ‘fourteeners’ to be precise. Fifty-eight mountain peaks clustered within the state of Colorado, they rise to more than 14,000 feet (or 4,000 metres) to provide the 5.6 million people who live here with an ever-changing outdoor playground for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, rafting, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, road-tripping and spa-pool soaking – the entertainment list is truly endless.

With that in mind, here are five reasons to visit the U.S. destination of Denver, Colorado.

1. OUTDOOR PLAYGROUND

Colorado is an outdoor lover’s playground.

With 42 state parks, eight national monuments, 960 wildlife species, 26 scenic and historic byways, nearly 10,000 kilometres of rivers and (an intriguing) 1,500 ghost towns (remnants from the gold rush era), this part of the U.S leaves an adventurous visitor spoilt for choice. And a teensy bit breathless.

Yes, the vast beauty of the red rock landscapes will do it. But more likely it’s the altitude you’re frequently warned about when you arrive.

When I touch down in the state capital of Denver, I’m apprised of its effect in no uncertain terms.

“You’re in the Mile High City now. We’re 5,280 feet above sea level – the highest altitude of a major city in the U.S. – so be sure to drink plenty of water, watch your alcohol consumption and take it easy on the exercise until you adjust. And, be warned, it’s not uncommon to feel dizzy or short of breath.”

Today, however, as I hurtle along the freeway, with the blue, blue sky and bouncy white clouds overhead, I simply feel giddy with the joy of being alive.

See, that’s what happens in Colorado, the eighth largest state of the U.S., so endless are the options for filling your days, you just want to jump in the car, get on the road and see where it takes you.

 Denver Skyline at Night - ColoradoDenver Skyline at Night - Credit: Marcia Ward

2. ROAD TRIPPING

In my case, the highway takes me higher still into the Rocky Mountain range, through Colorado’s highest alpine pass, Loveland Pass, and on to the barren high-altitude town of Salida.

It’s there I spend a couple of days hiking the hills, guzzling craft beer and watching young, bearded tourists bail out of rubber rafts on the Arkansas River.

On my return journey to Denver, I take U.S Highway 285, stopping to check out the historic gold mining town of South Park City in Fairplay and paying $US10 to spend the hour immersing myself in the replica village of 44 heritage buildings.

And that’s just one of many roadies you can do from Denver.

Boulder, the famously laid-back university town chocka with mountain trails, restaurants and gourmet brewpubs, is just a half-hour drive northwest of the city.

In winter, travellers flock to Denver to access the region’s 29 ski resorts. Winter Park, Vail, Loveland, Keystone and Arapahoe are five popular ski spots you can get to in under two hours’ drive.

3. ROCK ON

In summer, it’s places like Garden of the Gods and Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the country’s best outdoor concert venue (as noted by Rolling Stone Magazine) that bring in the hoards.

On the day I spend at Garden of the Gods, a park of towering sandstone formations, visitors are hiking, rock climbing and cycling. A small group carves up the flat mountain trails on e-bikes.

4. CITY FIX 

Then there’s the city of Denver itself.

As one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. (its population has reportedly jumped up 17.4 percent to 704,000 since 2010), Denver attracts 31.5 million visitors a year.

Marijuana tours are increasingly popular in Colorado since legalisation in 2014. You can visit dispensaries and commercial growers, as well as get a behind-the-scenes look at cannabis cooking and glassblowing.

Denver’s longest running half-day tour, the Original Colorado Cannabis Tour, and others just like it can be booked online.

View of cookbooks for cooking with legalized cannabis marijuana weed in a kitchen store in Boulder, ColoradoCannabis Cookbooks - Image by EQRoy

Tourists also come to Denver for the arts.

Every September, Denver’s River North (RiNo) neighbourhood hosts one the of the world’s largest street art festivals called CRUSH WALLS (though you can walk the colourful district yourself or with a guide any time of year).

There’s an entire precinct dedicated to the performing arts if you want to see top-rate opera, ballet, symphony orchestras or the latest touring Broadway shows.

There’s the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art and the Clyfford Still Museum, which exhibits roughly 95 percent of the leading American abstract expressionist’s canon.

My pick for an arty afternoon is Denver Art Museum on Bannock Street. Over two hours, I peruse the museum’s impressive collection of masterworks. I see works by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian. 

Before I leave, my museum host points out what she calls: “the single finest Frederic Remington bronze – The Cheyenne, made in 1903.”

The sculpture is magnificent – the movement and the detail of the native Indian rider and his horse are perfectly captured.

Looking at it, I’m reminded of that bygone era when Denver was the beating heart of the American Wild West.

5. HISTORY HIT

The Mile High City has plenty to offer history buffs – from the Colorado Railroad Museum and the Black American West Museum to the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave (which, incidentally, gives kids the chance to lasso a live calf).

But if stunning heritage architecture is more your thing, then Denver’s Union Station in downtown is a must-see.

Still the city’s main transportation hub, Union Station is a beautifully-refurbished historic terminal building, heritage hotel (the Crawford Hotel) and food and drink destination.

In the few days I’m in Denver, I enjoy a Malice dry cider at Union Station’s Terminal Bar and a gin cocktail from Ultreia.

Collage of different colored beers in various beverage glassesBeer Trail Beers - Credit: Visit Denver

I visit the Oxford Hotel, built in 1891, for a look-see at the city’s longest running bar, The Cruise Room bar, a hidden gem that opened a year after the repeal of prohibition in 1933.

And I pop into the Brown Palace Hotel, open since 1892, to join the crowds for Devonshire tea, fresh-cut sandwiches and a tour with the hotel’s own historian, Debra Falkner.
Finally, I head to Rockmount Ranchwear on Wazee Street for a bit of Wild West history I can wear home on my back.

A family-owned store and museum, Rockmount Ranchwear sells a range of western shirts, hats, footwear.

I buy an American-made, red-check shirt with snap buttons because, after all, the store’s founder Papa Jack Weil invented the handy button.

And if these shirts are good enough for the likes of Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, June Carter Cash and, yes, our own Flight of the Conchords, they are certainly good enough for me.


To read more of Jacqui's articles go to Travel with Jacqui Gibson

Jacqui Gibson avatarJacqui Gibson
Kia ora, I'm a New Zealand freelancer based in Wellington, our capital city. I write about hiking and heritage travel; food, wine and gourmet travel; and road trip destinations. My latest travel stories explore New Zealand's Wairarapa wine region for US magazine AAA Traveler Worldwise and San Juan Islands National Historical Park for Heritage New Zealand magazine.

Get in contact. Got a story idea to pitch? Want Jacqui to write for you? Find out more, go to: www.jacquigibsonwriter.co

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