The Complete Guide To Colorado

The state of Colorado contains nearly three-quarters of all the serious mountains in the US. The Rockies have played a huge part in shaping the image of this rectangular block of land, but it is also home to huge tracts of prairie and deep desert canyons. Simon Calder and David Orkin explore the highs and lows of the eighth-largest state
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The Independent Travel

A STATE OF BLISS?

A STATE OF BLISS?

Certainly, if you love the high life. Colorado is America's mountain state, attracting skiers and hikers, rafters and snowboarders. It is the eighth-largest state in the union, but possesses a majority of the territory over 10,000ft on the US mainland. But Colorado has plenty more to offer than just the Rockies. To the west of the mountains is a region of desert canyons, while to the east lie the wide-open prairies, home to ranches, farmers and cowboys, roamed by herds of antelope and watched over by gliding birds of prey.

Once the snow melts on the lower mountain slopes, there is plenty of magnificent nature to explore. Colorado has 10 national parks, monuments and recreation areas, over 30 state parks and 11 national forest areas. Six states surround this rectangular territory - Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas. The state has 54 peaks that rise higher than 14,000ft (the highest is Mount Elbert at 14,433ft), and over 1,140 peaks over 10,000ft.

WHERE DO I START?

Denver, known as the Mile-High City because of its altitude (officially 5,280ft). Colorado's state capital claims over 300 days of sunshine each year and is home to many museums, most notably the excellent Denver Museum of Nature and Science (001 303 322 7009; www.dmns.org) which displays and explains the natural wonders not just of Colorado Rockies, but of the earth and universe to boot. It opens 9am-5pm daily, admission is $9 (£5.30).

The best area to get a feel of this lively and sporty western city is LoDo (lower downtown), the area roughly between 14th Street, 20th Street, Wynkop and Larimer. Here you'll find great galleries, bookshops, micro-breweries, restaurants and bars - check to see if your visit coincides with a concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre out at Morrison (001 303 640 2637; www.redrocksonline.com), which is one of the best open-air music venues in the US.

The place to stay, if your credit card will stretch to it, is the Brown Palace Hotel (001 303 297 3111; www.brownpalace.com), which opened in 1892: guests have included President Eisenhower and The Beatles. The hotel's Palace Arms restaurant has a good reputation. If you're heading into the mountains, take a couple of days to get used to the height. Altitude sickness can be a problem, and Denver's thin air gives you a chance to acclimatise.

THE BEST SKIING?

Colorado has close to 30 well-developed ski areas known for their unrivalled powder snow. Most British visitors head for resorts within easy reach of Denver, which usually means those close to Interstate 70, the main highway that runs west from the capital through the heart of the Rockies to Utah. The big names are Vail and Aspen. The former is virtually on I-70 and is the country's most popular ski resort as well as its largest, with over 5,000 acres of skiable terrain, 174 trails and 33 lifts. You wouldn't call Vail charming or historic but it offers fantastic après-ski and it's incredibly fashionable: the resort got a huge boost during Gerald Ford's presidency - he owned a house in Vail and spent many of his holidays there.

Aspen, on the other hand, has a great range of slopes, and is also a genuinely historic ski town. Less well-known resorts - which tend to be further from Denver and I-70 - include Telluride, one of the country's best-preserved Victorian towns; Crested Butte; Steamboat Springs; and Durango. Other popular resorts include Copper Mountain, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin and Breckenridge - which has fabulous trails for skiers of all abilities. Close to the capital, Winter Park is also a good, accessible choice. The ski season normally runs from the end of November through to Easter.

Tour operators specialising in winter sports in Colorado include Ski Dream (0870 350 7547; www.skidream.com), which offers a week's holiday based at the Wyndham Peaks hotel in Telluride, for £999 for departures until 11 December. The price includes flights from Heathrow via Chicago or Washington on United Airlines, transfers and room-only accommodation.

I WANT A SUMMER HOLIDAY

Then head for the Rocky Mountain National Park (001 970 586 1206; www.nps.gov/romo) for wildlife and mountain scenery. There are over 350 miles of hiking trails, and between the end of May and late October you can drive the breathtaking Trail Ridge Road that links Estes Park on the east side of the park to Grand Lake to the west. For a complete contrast, visit the 38,000-acre Great Sand Dunes National Monument (001 719 378 6300; www.nps.gov/grsa), where the wind-borne sand, carried north-eastward from the San Luis Valley, is deposited at the base of the Sangre De Cristo mountain range. You don't need marked paths here; just choose your dunes (some are hundreds of feet high) and climb them.

At the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument (001 970 641 2337; www.nps.gov/blca), the Gunnison river has carved a 12-mile gorge through some of the world's oldest rocks to a depth of 2,700ft. The top of the canyon is about 1,000ft wide, but shrinks at river level to just 40ft.

There are plenty of good hiking trails. In the west of the state, close to the Utah border, the glorious vistas of red-rock canyons and sandstone monoliths of the Colorado National Monument (001 970 858 3617; www.nps.gov/colm) are easily seen on the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive. There are plenty of opportunities along the way to get out and wander between the bizarre rock formations.

The Garden of the Gods (001 719 634 6666; www.gardenofgods.com), a 1,300-acre park close to Colorado Springs, qualifies as neither a national nor a state park, but contains fantastic red sandstone formations and good walking trails. Close by it is no surprise to find, in the land of the automobile, that there's a road all the way to the top of the 14,110ft Pike's Peak (001 719 385 7325; www.pikespeakcolorado.com) - another private enterprise. You can drive (there's a $10 (£6) per person toll for the 19-mile partly paved road), or take the cog railway to the summit. From here you can see Denver, 75 miles to the north, and the Sangre De Cristo mountains, 100 miles to the south. Pike's Peak holds great significance for citizens of the US, as, while enjoying the view in 1893, Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to write the hymn "America the Beautiful".

In the south-west of the state, the prime attraction of Mesa Verde National Park (001 970 529 4465; www.nps.gov/meve) isn't the scenery - this is home to perhaps the most impressive cliff dwellings in the country, some of which are 1,300 years old. Mesa Verde was the first national park set aside to preserve works created by humans. The Ruins Road through the park comprises two six-mile loops that provide several lookout points (you'll be able to see sacred Ship Rock across the New Mexican border), and allows access to some of the 40 sites built by pueblo dwellers. You can find more such ruins near the Colorado-Utah border. The best location is the largely undeveloped Hovenweep National Monument (001 970 562 4282; www.nps.gov/hove).

ANYTHING OLDER?

This state is a haven for dinosaur devotees. At the Dinosaur Trails of Purgatory (001 719 384 2181; www.fs.fed.us/r2/psicc/coma/palo), in the Picketwire Canyonlands of south-east Colorado, is a collection of over 1,000 dinosaur tracks. Dinosaur Ridge National Natural Landmark (001 303 697 3466; www.dinoridge.org), near Morrison, has tracks of ornithopods and theropods preserved in beds of 100-million-year-old sandstone.

On the Utah border, Dinosaur National Monument (001 970 374 3000; www.nps.gov/dino) has become internationally known for its wealth of dinosaur excavation sites, exhibits, fossil trails and hands-on archaeological activities. The area lays claim to more than 30 dinosaur species.

If your imagination struggles when confronted with fossils, footprints or a skeleton, Fruita's Dinosaur Journey Museum (001 970 858 7282; www.dinosaurjourney.org) contains several robotic dinosaurs. It opens 10am-4pm daily except Sunday, admission is $7 (£4).

ANY MORE MAN-MADE MUST-SEES?

For atmosphere and history in magnificent surroundings visit Telluride, Ouray, Crested Butte, Durango and Leadville. Neil Young fans will want to visit Cripple Creek ("Cripple Creek Ferry" was on his seminal album, After the Gold Rush). Other than in Denver, lively evenings can also be enjoyed in Aspen, Breckenridge, Vail and Steamboat Springs. Boulder, right on the edge of the Flatirons (a striking section of the Rocky Mountain foothills) is a fun and lively university city that is popular with lovers of all things spiritual - and organic.

Colorado's most acclaimed engineering feat is probably the Royal Gorge Bridge (001 719 275 7507; www.royalgorgebridge.com), which spans the Arkansas river near Cañon City. Built in 1929, it claims to be the world's highest suspension bridge and passes 1,000 feet above the water. There's a charge to drive or walk across it, as the bridge now forms part of a theme park that includes the world's steepest inclined railway and a cable car. In theory these are all open year round (weekends only between early October and March), but you should check opening days, times and prices before setting off.

AND WHEN THE SNOW HAS MELTED?

Almost every fresh-air pursuit you can think of is possible in Colorado, from golf to llama-trekking, hot-air ballooning to fishing. Most ski-resort gondolas remain in operation during the summer, giving access to the mountain tops from where you can set off on extensive hiking and mountain biking trails or just relax and breathe in the views.

Every June, July and August, over 2,000 plant species bloom in the foothills and high country of the Rockies. Between mid-September and mid-October, foliage takes centre stage as the slopes are ablaze with brilliant autumn colours.

Then there is wildlife. Every autumn the mountains echo with the bugling and crashing antlers of rutting elk bulls as they battle to impress the females. This isn't grizzly country, but black bears and mountain lions are sometimes seen, as are moose. Look out also for marmots, mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Down on the prairies, pronghorn antelope prance across the grasslands and you may well spot coyotes. Raptors are plentiful both in the mountains and grasslands.

WHERE CAN I GET AN ADRENALIN RUSH?

On the rivers or, if you are a mountain-biker, on trails in a variety of locations: the Winter Park and Crested Butte areas are two of the most highly-rated. Rafters and kayakers get their thrills on a number of rivers including the Arkansas and Clear Creek. The water tends to be at its most extreme in late May and early June. Choose an operator that is a member of the Colorado River Outfitters Association (001 303 280 2554; www.croa.org).

Colorado enjoys a colorful history of gold fever, outlaws and infamous Wild West characters, and a number of ghost towns are scattered throughout the state (http://coloradoghosttowns.com). To rinse off the dust and soothe the aching muscles after all the strenuous outdoor pursuits, make for Glenwood Springs and the Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves (001 970 945 0667; www.yampahspa.com). Have a massage, body or herbal wrap and soak up some steam in the only natural vapour caves in North America.

ANY UNUSUAL PLACES TO STAY?

Colorado Springs' The Broadmoor (001 719 634 7711; www.broadmoor.com) opened a year ago as a casino. This lovingly restored pink-stucco building is now the centrepiece of a huge resort complex with enough activities to keep you occupied for weeks. Somewhat more intimate, the nearby Hearthstone Inn (001 719 473 4413) comprises two adjoining historic Victorian homes, where the sumptuous breakfast will keep you going for the day. On a mountainside on the outskirts of Boulder, The Alps (001 303 444 5445; www.alpsinn.com) is a delightful log lodge while the Hotel Bristol (001 970 879 3083; www.steamboathotelbristol.com) offers character in Steamboat Springs.

If you're heading into the Rocky Mountain National Park, stay at the Stanley Hotel (001 970 586 3371 www.stanleyhotel.com) in Estes Park, a Georgian-style structure dating from 1909. Don't be surprised if you hear bumps in the dark - attracted by many ghostly tales, Stephen King stayed here while writing The Shining.

Two more noteworthy historic properties are the Hotel Jerome (001 970 920 1000; www.hoteljerome.com) in Aspen and the splendid Victorian Strater Hotel (001 970 247 4431; www.strater.com) in Durango. To take the waters, stay in one of the authentic 19th-century log cabins at Dunton Hot Springs (001 970 882 4800; www.duntonhotsprings.com) near Dolores, or for a taste of the "real West" stay at a guest ranch: contact Ranch America (01923 671831/2; www.ranchamerica.co.uk) for further information.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Only British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies direct from the UK to Colorado, with a daily service from Heathrow to Denver. Winter fares start at £408 (book by 23 November for a special offer from £368); summer fares start at a steep £752. Various other airlines offer lower fares involving a change of planes: for example, Travelmood (08700 664556; www.travelmood.com) offers discounted fares to Denver on Continental via Newark from Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Bristol (from 20 May 2005), from £349 for departures until 11 December. Departures between May and 22 June cost £515, and £709 from 23 June-14 July.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

Unless you're just visiting the Denver area or spending all your time in a ski resort, you'll need to hire a car to see the state. You're likely to save money booking flights and a car through the same operator: for example British Airways Holidays (08702 433406; www.ba.com/holidays) offers return flights and 14 days fully inclusive car hire from £685 for departures in May and June 2005 (bookings must be made by 14 December).

WHAT ABOUT A TRAIN RIDE?

Though not much use in terms of getting from A to B, Colorado has some fine historic rail opportunities: steam train adventures include the Durango and Silverton Railroad (001 888 872 4607; www.durangotrain.com), a narrow-gauge line built over 120 years ago to take miners to Silverton. Bad news for railway history buffs is that the Georgetown Loop (001 303 569 2403; www.georgetownloop.com) which ran over Devil's Gate High Bridge and allowed a tour of the Lebanon silver mine ceased operations last month. It may be worth checking for any reprieves. However, criss-crossing Colorado's border with New Mexico, the Cumbres and Toltec (001 888 286 2737; www.cumbrestoltec.com) is North America's most authentic steam-era railway and runs between Antonito (Colorado) and Chama (New Mexico). The Royal Gorge Route (001 303 569 2403; www.royalgorgeroute.com) doesn't use steam but offers a spectacular ride along the Arkansas river. The highest train journey in the United States will take you to the top of Pike's Peak on a cog-wheel, diesel-powered railway (001 719 685 5401; www.cograilway.com)

SEVEN COLORADO FESTIVALS

Monte Vista Crane Festival (001 719 852 3552; www.cranefest.com); celebrates the annual visit of thousands of greater sandhill cranes, 11-13 March Telluride Film Festival (001 603 433 9202; www.telluridefilmfestival.org) 02-05 September Aspen Music Festival (001 970 925 9042; www.aspenmusicfestival.com), classical music in a mountain setting 23 June-21 August Great American Beer Festival, Denver (001 303 447 0816, www.beertown.org) 29 September-1 October Crested Butte Wildflower Festival (001 970 349 2571; www.crestedbuttewildflowerfestival.com) 11-17 July Folks Festival (001 303 823 0848; www.planetbluegrass.com), Americana music in Lyons, 19-21 August Olathe Sweet Corn Festival (001 970 323 6006; www.olathesweetcornfest.com): early August - dates tbc

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Colorado tourist information in the UK is handled by Cellet Travel Services (01564 794999; www.colorado.com).

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