By Lori Kackenmeister
Sun. Snow. Mountains. Wildlife. Fresh air. Majestic views. Good beer. It’s hard to find a destination that has more to offer than the Centennial State. In spring of 2016, Chris and I took a quick weekend trip to Colorado to explore the greater Denver area, where we were able to explore all of those things - and more - in less than 48 hours. It’s the perfect weekend trip: far enough away to get the traveling high (no pun intended) but not so far as to prohibit you from escaping for a weekend getaway.
We decided to make the trip while we were still on the grind with full-time jobs. Rather than traveling back to our home in San Francisco for the weekend, Chris jetted over directly from his work project in Dallas, while I met him at Denver International Airport to hit the ground running.
The Denver area has so much going for it, and we wanted to bring you a taste of the things we loved about our trip so that you can plan your own Colorado exploration. Below you’ll find some tips that we discovered while on the ground in Colorado -- along with our favorite places to grab a bite or a unique local drink.
Accommodations and Getting Around
Consider staying outside of downtown Denver. If you’re budget conscious, you could save $50 to $100/night by avoiding downtown; and if you’re like us and intend to spend a significant amount of time exploring the area outside of Denver proper you may find it’s an added convenience not to have to drive back into the city after a day of adventuring. (Tip: Westminster is a suburb north of the city - a great location to get an early jump on Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) or Boulder while still being a quick 15 minute drive to downtown Denver).
A rental car is necessary. If you're like us, you'll want to spend some time in Denver while also taking advantage of Colorado’s natural beauty in destinations like Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Colorado Springs -- all of which are a quick day trip from Denver.
Rocky Mountain National Park: Just over an hour and a half from downtown Denver, RMNP is an iconic area you can’t miss. While it didn’t take long during our mid-May visit to realize that the majority of trails are still snowed over that time of year, the park’s scenic drives alone are worth the trip. On the other hand, if you come better prepared for the Colorado climate than we did or visit in the summer, hiking is plentiful with something to offer all skill levels. Regardless of how you decide to get around the park, you’ll be hard pressed to miss the abundant wildlife and picturesque vistas. (Tip: Consider an America the Beautiful annual park pass if you’re planning four or more one-day national park visits within the next year. At $80, you get unlimited entry to all national parks and monuments, which normally costs $20 per car per day).
Garden of the Gods: In stark contrast to the lush green of RMNP, the sandstone formations create an otherworldly feel. The park is a little over an hour’s drive south from Denver and can easily be done in a morning before heading back to spend the day in the city. We found the trail signage in the park to be more confusing than helpful, so be prepared to let the spirit of exploration take over. The park is relatively small, so getting lost won’t be an issue (Tip: Nearby Red Rock Canyon Trails provided the light morning hike we were looking for without the crowds of Garden of the Gods).
Pike’s Peak: Two hours south of Denver, Pike’s Peak is nicknamed “America’s Mountain” because it is the most visited if all North American peaks, second in the world only to Mt. Fuji. Weather permitting, there are three ways to get to the top: hiking, driving, or a ride on the scenic Cog Railway. Although it can be crowded, the railway is a unique experience and worth it if you can stomach the $38/per person cost. Without someone stuck with driving duty, your entire group can thoroughly enjoy the experience (if you’re like us, one person always ends up stuck behind the wheel, missing half the views...sorry Chris!). (Tip: Bring lots of water and dress in layers - when at elevation the temperature drops significantly and you’ll inevitably be extra thirsty due to the altitude).
Breweries: There are tons of great ones in CO, with tastings that are inexpensive and hard to beat, often just $2 or $3 for a 3-5 ounce pour. Our favorite of the trip was Avery Brewing Company in Boulder. With plenty of hoppy beers and IPAs for those who like that sort of thing, Avery also has plenty to satisfy those who prefer a less...intense flavor. Perzik Saison, Salvation Ale, Liliko'i Kepolo, and (surprisingly to our remarkably unrefined palates) Raspberry Sour rose to the top. (Tip: Avery gets crowded, so it may be worth calling ahead for a reservation if you plan to eat while you're there or visit with a larger group).
Something harder: We were smitten by Mile High Spirits. A distillery serving house made vodka, rum, gin, tequila, bourbon and peach whiskey, they've got something to satisfy everyone's tastes. Cocktail flavors are simple, straightforward and delicious. You can make them a double for two extra dollars and trust us: you'll want to. There's cornhole on the back porch and free movie theater-style popcorn. What more could you ask for!?
Marijuana: It’s legal but that doesn’t mean you can buy it at any dispensary. Certain dispensaries (denoted as “medical”) require a prescription, while others make available marijuana for recreational use - so spend five minutes of research first to determine you are headed somewhere you can actually enter and make a purchase. (Tip: Many dispensaries are cash or debit card only and most close by 7 PM).
Delicious vegetarian food awaits. While meat-centric cuisine is plentiful in Denver, we were pleasantly surprised at the abundance of vegetarian options available. Must tries include:
City O’ City: Located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, City O’ City is the perfect dinner spot after a day of exploring downtown Denver. The food is flavorful, hearty, and comforting -so be sure to come with a big appetite or be prepared to share, as there is no skimping on portion size here. Seitan Wings are fried and have one of the best textures I’ve had yet in a vegan wing. The other standout was the vegan (and gluten free) Chicken and Waffles; we loved the sweet and savory mash-up of the original with bourbon-brined cauliflower “chicken” towering over a thick, savory waffle that’s topped with maple syrup, vegan creme fraiche, and carrot bacon. Sinful and delicious. The bar also features a neighborhood tap with a rotating offering of local brews, and their cocktails are also nothing to sneeze at. (Tip: While the wings are delicious, they are incredibly rich - ask for a half-portion and save room to sample more variety).
WaterCourse Foods: Just under two miles west of City Park, WaterCourse is another great veg-friendly option also known for their wings. They feature both cauliflower and seitan and, for consistency, we went with the seitan. Had we not just hit the vegan wing jackpot earlier in the trip, these wings would have been great. But when compared to their City O’ City counterparts, they were a little less crispy and less flavorful. That said, the menu is robust and the quality was solid - we also had the sweet potato and black bean-filled Street Taco Platter and house signature WaterCourse Burger. We’d definitely recommend checking them out if you’re in the area.
Sherpa’s: Sherpa’s is a satisfying stop in cute downtown Boulder to hit on your way back to Denver from RMNP or after a day of exploring Boulder breweries. Located just off well-known Pearl Street, Sherpa’s offers a hearty taste of traditional Nepalese, Indian, and Tibetan food. It’s hard to go wrong here, but we’re particularly fond of the vegetarian Momo (dumpling) Platter and the veggie Sherpa Stew. Flavors are mild but hearty, fresh and delicious. Just what’s needed after a day of hiking (or beer tasting)!
Have other Denver favorites or quick tips to share? We’d love to hear from you. Let us know what you like - or would like to hear more about - in the comments below!