Colorado is known around the world as the home of some of the tallest mountains in North America, contained within beautiful Rocky Mountains National Park. Visitors can enjoy some of the nation's top outdoor recreational experiences for free throughout the state, ranging from Rockies hiking and mountain biking to opportunities to see preserved dinosaur tracks and indigenous cliff dwellings at sites like Dinosaur Ridge and Mesa Verde National Park. Major cities like Denver and Boulder are home to some of the nation's most-renowned production facilities, ranging from breweries to greeting card manufacturers to United States mints, which offer free guided tours throughout the week showcasing operations.
1.Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway
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Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway is one of the Rocky Mountains' most stunning scenic drives, showcasing a number of gorgeous mountain summits that reach more than 14,000 feet above sea level, including lovely Mounts Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. The Collegiate Peaks mountain range is named for its mountain summits that are named after prestigious American and international universities. Visitors can begin the scenic drive in the charming small town of Granite and head up to Salida along United States 24, viewing bighorn sheep in their native cliff habitats. During the autumn months, the mountains are known for their stunning red, orange, and yellow leaf colors. Along the way, visitors can enjoy a plethora of opportunities for outdoor recreation at areas such as Lost Canyon, Buena Vista River Park, and Cottonwood Lake.
2.The Colorado Capitol Building
The Colorado Capitol Building is home to Colorado's executive and legislative branches of government, including the offices of the state's General Assembly, governor, and lieutenant governor. The lovely capitol building was opened to the public in 1894, designed by renowned architect Elijah E. Myers and meant to evoke the character and style of Washington, D.C.'s United States Capitol Building. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique design elements, which are created with rare Colorado rose onyx marble. Inside the capitol, lovely elements such as stained-glass windows depicting civic events in the state's history are on display to the public. More than 30,000 annual visitors participate in free tours each year with advance reservation, showcasing the workings of the state's government. Visitors are also welcome to peruse the building as part of self-guided tours during regular business hours.
200 E Colfax Ave, Denver, CO 80203, Phone: 303-866-2604
Dinosaur Ridge is one of the most renowned dinosaur fossil sites in North America, originally excavated in 1877 as part of the major paleontological dig efforts that resulted in the discovery of some of the world's most recognizable dinosaur species today, including the Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Allosaurus. The ridge is located within the Morrison Fossil Area National Natural Landmark in Jefferson County, just outside of the city of Morrison, within the Dakota Hogback natural unit. It has been overseen by the Friends of Dinosaur Ridge nonprofit organization since 1989 and is open to the public for free access throughout the year. Visitors can also explore the lovely Dinosaur Ridge Exhibit Hall at the site and view informational exhibits on dinosaur species uncovered at the site. Interpretive trails offer informational panels detailing the region's geology and paleontology.
Morrison Fossil Area National Natural Landmark, Jefferson County, CO
4.Garden of the Gods
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Garden of the Gods is located on an area of land in Colorado Springs that is believed to have been inhabited by humans for over three millennia. Though it was known as Red Rock Corral by early area European settlers, it gained its current name in 1859, after land surveyors Rufus Cable and M.S. Beach deemed it "fit for the Gods to assemble" in. It was declared a public park by the City of Colorado Springs in 1909 to preserve its unique former namesake red rock formations. Today, it is one of the most popular hiking and rock climbing destinations in Colorado, attracting over two million annual visitors for outdoor recreation. Visitors can explore the park's 15 miles of hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding trails or watch for more than 130 native and migratory bird species in their natural habitats. A free-admission visitor center showcases natural history exhibits and documentary showings.
1805 N 30th St, Colorado Springs, CO 80904
5.Leanin' Tree Tours
Leanin' Tree Tours showcase the operations of nationally-renowned greeting card company Leanin' Tree, which was founded in 1949 by Ed Trumble and has remained a family-operated business ever since. All cards created by the company are produced and shipped from its Boulder factory, which offers greeting card manufacturing tours for free throughout the week during the morning hours. Reservations are not required for free tours, which showcase printing press operations, card cutting, and automated batching and folding operations. Tours last approximately 45 minutes and include a half-mile walking tour of the company's plant, along with a showing of a brief documentary film outlining the company's history and operations. Children under the age of 15 must be accompanied by an adult on tours at all times. A lovely gift shop at the factory showcases discount greeting cards and gifts by Colorado artists.
6055 Longbow Dr, Boulder, CO 80301, Phone: 303-530-1442
6.Manitou Springs Incline
Manitou Springs Incline, commonly referred to as the Incline, is a unique hiking trail rising above the city of Manitou Springs, formerly operated as a funicular service incline providing gravity-fed water pressure for the city of Colorado Springs. The incline operated as part of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway until a 1990 rock slide, when it was put out of service rather than repaired. Today, it is open to the public as a popular hiking and fitness route, known for its stunning views of the area's skyline and natural wonders. Its steep grade, which averages 45% and can reach up to 68% in some places, makes it a popular fitness challenge for Colorado Springs area residents and visitors. It gains 2,011 feet of elevation throughout its route, showcasing approximately 2,744 steps from its trailhead to the top of its summit.
7.Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge
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Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge is a delightful United States National Wildlife Refuge within the beautiful San Luis Valley, located near the town of Monte Vista in Rio Grande County. The refuge was originally established by the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission in 1953 as a habitat for native San Luis Valley waterfowl and wildlife, located on the site of a former agricultural area. It is known as a major stopover point for migrating greater sandhill cranes traveling between southern Canada and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, seeing approximately 20,000 cranes migrating each spring and fall. Each year in March, the refuge hosts the annual Monte Vista Crane Festival, celebrating the return of the beautiful birds.
6120 CO-15, Monte Vista, CO 81144, Phone: 719-589-4021
8.The National Center for Atmospheric Research
The National Center for Atmospheric Research is the United States' premiere facility for meteorological, environmental and climate science studies, overseen as part of the National Science Foundation's research and development initiatives. The center is home to a wide spectrum of laboratories that study various aspects of Earth's atmosphere, ranging from climate change to weather prediction to atmospheric study. Visitors can explore several free-admission facilities overseen by the center throughout the Denver area, including its beautiful Mesa Laboratory and Visitor Center building, which was designed by internationally-renowned architect I.M. Pei. Program staff are on hand at the visitor center, which is open to the public daily with the exception of major national holidays, to answer questions related to the facility's research and give guided tours with advance registration.
1850 Table Mesa Dr, Boulder, CO 80305
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9.Paint Mines Interpretive Park
Paint Mines Interpretive Park is one of the most unique open spaces in El Paso County, named in honor of the colorful clays found at the site that were once used by indigenous tribes to create paint colors. The mines have been a site of human activity for at least 9,000 years, known for their gorgeous brightly-colored bands of clay that are created by oxidized iron compounds. Today, the mines are known as one of Colorado's hidden natural wonders, located along the state's gorgeous eastern plains. Visitors can explore unique geological formations such as hoodoos and spires, which showcase vibrant rock colors like orange, purple, gray, and chocolate brown. Four miles of hiking trails are offered at the park, along with interpretive signs detailing the region's natural wonders and public restrooms.
29950 Paint Mine Rd, Calhan, CO 80808, Phone: 719-520-7529
10.Picket Wire Canyonlands
Picket Wire Canyonlands are home to North America's largest dinosaur track site, which showcases over 1,900 dinosaur prints across 130 separate trackways extending along more than a quarter-mile of bedrock on the banks of the beautiful Purgatoire River. The canyons, which are located within the beautiful Comanche National Grasslands, can be accessed via a 11.2-mile roundtrip hike beginning at the Withers Canyon Trailhead near the city of La Junta. Visitors can descend more than 250 feet into the canyons and pass points of interest such as the preserved historic Dolores Mission and Cemetery along their hike. Guided auto tours are also offered for an additional fee, taking participants to the track site in four-wheel-drive vehicles.
1420 E 3rd St, La Junta, CO 81050, Phone: 719-384-2181
11.Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre
Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre is the home of the world-renowned Red Rocks Amphitheatre, which became known throughout the 20th century for hosting iconic performances by internationally-recognized pop and rock music acts such as U2, the Beatles, and the Grateful Dead. The beautiful amphitheatre still hosts acts by major popular and classical music acts throughout the year today, some free admission and some for a ticketed upcharge. Visitors can explore the lovely facility throughout the year and use its 10,000-seat historic amphitheatre as a workout center during down times, taking advantage of its high elevation and rock stair seating for challenging climbs and jogs. Surrounding Red Rocks Park offers pedestrian trails, including areas for horseback riders and mountain bikers. Two free-admission visitor museums are offered onsite, including the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, which honors the state's musicians via interactive exhibits.
18300 W. Alameda Parkway, Morrison, CO 80465, Phone: 720-865-2494
12.Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge spans nearly 16,000 acres near the city of Commerce City, approximately eight miles northeast of Denver's downtown district. The lovely wildlife refuge is located on the grounds of the former United States Army Rocky Mountain Arsenal chemical weapons manufacturing facility, which was restored to its natural state as part of an environmental cleanup effort and designated as a national wildlife refuge in 1992. Today, it is overseen by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and is home to more than 330 species of native animals, including coyotes, bison, raccoons, deer, and black-tailed prairie dogs. Visitors can explore the refuge as part of 11-mile self-guided scenic wildlife drives or view interactive exhibits at the refuge's visitor center. Hiking, fish, and nature photography opportunities abound, along with chances for snowshoeing and cross-country hiking during the winter months.
6550 Gateway Rd, Commerce City, CO 80022, Phone: 303-289-0930
13.Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation
Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation is a lovely wildlife refuge facility that has rehabilitated a population of rescued wolves that have been abandoned, neglected, or abused by their previous owners or injured in their natural environments and unable to return to the wild. The facility offers free guided tours featuring up close and personal experiences with animals on site, available for adults and for older children with parental supervision. Visitors can enter directly into animals' living spaces and play with wolves cared for onsite at the facility after signing permission waivers. Tours are available with advance reservation throughout the week. Though tours are free, donations are greatly appreciated to ensure continued wildlife foundation operations.
3661 Co Rd 102, Guffey, CO 80820, Phone: 719-660-5480
14.South Park City Museum
South Park City Museum is a delightful open-air museum located in the beautiful town of Fairplay, open to the public for free between mid-May and mid-October each year. The museum reconstructs a historic mining town from the days of Colorado's Gold Rush and Silver Boom, which hit the South Park area in the mid-1850s and lasted through the 1880s. It was opened in 1959 following two years of construction by the South Park Historical Foundation and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. 35 authentic relocation structures and buildings showcase more than 60,000 artifacts from Colorado's 19th-century gold and silver mining towns, including two individually-listed NHRP sites, the South Park Brewery and the Summer Saloon. Each year, the museum hosts the annual Living History Days event in August, showcasing costumed demonstrations and performances.
100 4th St, Fairplay, CO 80440, Phone: 719-836-2387
15.The Colorado Governor’s Mansion
The Colorado Governor’s Mansion has housed every one of the state's governors since 1959, with the exception of Governor John Hickenlooper who served between 2011 and 2019. The splendid Georgian Revival-style residence, which is also commonly known as the Cheeseman-Boettcher Mansion, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and maintained as one of Denver's most notable living history museum facilities. Visitors can enjoy free guided tours on select dates throughout the year, showcasing the mansion's gorgeous interior spaces and historically-relevant areas. Visitors should note that no advance registration is offered for tours and should arrive well in advance of tour times to secure tour slots.
8th Ave, Denver, CO 80203, Phone: 303-837-8350
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16.Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway
Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway stretches for 75 miles between Copper Mountain and Aspen, traveling through the beautiful Fremont and Tennessee Passes of the majestic Rocky Mountains. The designated National Scenic Byway, which stretches along portions of State Highways 82 and 91 and United States Route 24, maintains extremely high elevations throughout its route, at consistently over 9,000 feet above sea level for much of its journey. Visitors can enjoy unparalleled panoramic views of some of the Rockies' most majestic peaks, including Mounts Elbert and Massive, two of the United States' highest mountain peaks. Along the route, attractions detail the state's mining history at areas such as Leadville. Outdoor recreational opportunities abound at areas like the White River National Forest and Mount Massive Golf Course, the nation's highest-elevation golfing experience.
17.U.S. Mint of Denver Tours
U.S. Mint of Denver Tours let visitors explore the inner workings of a United States Mint facility and learn about the history and manufacturing operations behind the creation and distribution of United States currency. The Denver Mint facility was opened as a private mint in 1860 following the state's 1858 Gold Rush and remained in private operation until its consolidation into the United States Mint in 1895. Today, it is the world's largest producer of coin currency, creating over 50 million circulating and commemorative tokens each day. Visitors can enjoy 45-minute guided tours of the mint Monday through Thursday mornings and afternoons and view coin-making operations up close and personal. Tour slots are only available with same-day reservation, so visitors are advised to arrive as early as 6:00am each morning to secure tour reservations.
320 West Colfax Avenue, Denver, Colorado 80204-2693, Phone: 303-405-4761
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18.The United States Air Force Academy
© The United States Air Force Academy
The United States Air Force Academy is the premiere military academy for United States Air Force officer cadets, located on a beautiful campus just north of the city of Colorado Springs. The academy is known for its extremely competitive four-year education program, intended to give incoming cadets all the skills they will need as Air Force officers. More than one million tourists visit the Academy's campus each year and view free exhibits at the campus' Barry Goldwater Visitor Center, named in honor of the retired Arizona Senator of the same name, an avid Air Force supporter. Exhibits detail the history of the academy and the traditions and roles of typical cadet life, spread out over 35,000 square feet of museum space. A snack bar and gift shop are also offered on site at the museum, which is open to the public daily during typical business hours.
2346 Academy Drive, United States Air Force Academy, CO 80840, Phone: 719-333-2025
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19.Celestial Seasonings Tours
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Celestial Seasonings Tours take participants through the factory of one of the United States' top tea brands, which was founded in Boulder in 1969 by Mo Siegel, Peggy Clute, and John Hay. The company, which has been under the operation of the Hain Food Group since 2000, is known for its delicious herbal tea blends, including favorites such as Sleepytime and Red Zinger, along with a variety of green, black, white, and chai teas. Free factory tours are offered at the company's Boulder production factory throughout the week, showcasing how the company's teas are blended, packaged, and shipped throughout the world. Tours last approximately half an hour, with free tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis.
4600 Sleepytime Drive, Boulder, CO 80301, Phone: 303-581-1266
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20 Best Free Things to Do in Colorado
- Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway, Photo: Uwalthie Pic Project/stock.adobe.com
- The Colorado Capitol Building, Photo: f11photo/stock.adobe.com
- Dinosaur Ridge, Photo: jesus/stock.adobe.com
- Garden of the Gods, Photo: Nelson Sirlin/stock.adobe.com
- Leanin' Tree Tours, Photo: jenoche/stock.adobe.com
- Manitou Springs Incline, Photo: arinahabich/stock.adobe.com
- Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Photo: Phillip Rubino/stock.adobe.com
- The National Center for Atmospheric Research, Photo: jzehnder/stock.adobe.com
- Paint Mines Interpretive Park, Photo: Angela/stock.adobe.com
- Picket Wire Canyonlands, Photo: bkpardini/stock.adobe.com
- Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre, Photo: naughtynut/stock.adobe.com
- Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Photo: hansstuart1nm/stock.adobe.com
- Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, Photo: swkrullimaging/stock.adobe.com
- South Park City Museum, Photo: Teri/stock.adobe.com
- The Colorado Governor’s Mansion, Photo: anystock/stock.adobe.com
- Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway, Photo: toroverde/stock.adobe.com
- U.S. Mint of Denver Tours, Photo: jzehnder/stock.adobe.com
- The United States Air Force Academy, Photo: The United States Air Force Academy
- Celestial Seasonings Tours, Photo: ribalka yuli/stock.adobe.com
- Cover Photo: Neil/stock.adobe.com
Destination Spotlight: All About Mesa Verde National Park
While there is a small per car fee to visit, the $20 fee ($15 in the off season), is well worth it. One of America’s richest repositories of archaeological wonders, Mesa Verde National Park was the home of choice for the ancient Pueblo people for some 700 years, from about 550AD. Their culture was sophisticated and their lifestyle replete with mysteries and surprisingly advanced innovations, including sunken living rooms, an air deflector for the fire (an early understanding of the need for a chimney), and beautifully painted pottery. In about 1200 AD, they moved away, and were decimated as they integrated into other cultures, but they left behind them relics of their rich and complicated lives. Mesa Verde, which in Spanish is Green Table, is today a protected National Park, ratified and created as such in 1906. More Fun Things to Do in Colorado
History: In 1891, spurred on by the field work which had been conducted on an informal basis by Wetherill and Mason, the first trained scientist to visit the area was Sweden’s Baron Gustaf E A Nordensköld, who was a trained mineralogist. He spent considerable time drawing, photographing and excavating parts of the area. Some 600 objects which he found there are still, today, housed in the National Museum of Helsinki, in Finland, and the momentum for the push to make Mesa Verde a national monument began. Many researchers have subsequently visited the area, and artifacts originating from it are housed in prestigious museums all over the world. The bid to form a bill to protect the region was rejected in 1901, but in 1906, the bill was passed and it was signed by President Roosevelt.
Effectively what this bill meant was that it became a federal crime to destroy or vandalize any historic or pre-historic architecture or object found in the area. By 1908, the area was being marketed as a park for the public to visit.
And so it developed. In the 1930s, to combat the dire realities of the Depression, Roosevelt instituted Civil Conservation Corps under the aegis of the New Deal Project, and Mesa Verde was one of the areas that benefited from this. Young able-bodied but unemployed men and women were consigned to build trails and roads, set up exhibitions, develop technology and generally make an unsophisticated and hostile area of vast history, pre-history and nature into something that was accessible and user-friendly to society.
In 1978 Mesa Verde National Park was deemed a National Heritage Site by Unesco. Consisting of the massive Wetherill Mesa Archaeological Project, the park brings together all the best elements of research and informal education that any self-respecting national park should. When it celebrated its official centenary in 2006, it did so with the dignified private reburial of the contents of numerous graves that had been upset in the excavation processes.
As you enter the park, you will encounter its Visitor and Research Center which was refurbished in 2012. This is the facility where you will find all that you need to make your trip as exciting, safe and informed as possible and it is also here where you can buy tickets to the tours offered in the park, including amazing walking expeditions through Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House.
Another must-visit facility in Mesa Verde is the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, where you will see films and explanations about the lives and times of the ancient former inhabitants of this land, as well as display cases containing some of the most extraordinary artifacts found in the area over the years.
But unquestionably the highlight of your trip to this park will be the visits you pay to the cliff dwellings themselves. While some of these visits are handled under the guidance of a ranger, there are self-navigable tours as well, at different times of the year. Spruce Tree House is unfortunately closed at the moment, as it is not safe for public use, due to the danger of rock falls.
Mesa Verde is used as the site of an artists’ residency program and a writers’ retreat. For ordinary members of the public, there are hiking and exploratory trails as well as evening courses, which focus on a variety of activities, from twilight photography to listening to fireside tales.
But winter in Colorado is no small matter, and there are specially designed winter programs, which you can enjoy, which include cross country skiing and snow-shoe trails, each designed to give you a completely different insight into the area when it is under the smooth white and chilly blanket of snow.
Visit Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is open all year long, but due to changing weather patterns, the times vary, so it’s a wise suggestion that you consult the park’s timetables before you arrive. As an initiative to encourage visitors, the park’s entrance fees are waived on ten days during the year.
There are several different types of accommodation in Mesa Verde including the Far View Lodge, which promises views as its name suggests, and in terms of all amenities, it’s as good as it gets. There are also camping facilities in the area and four conveniently located restaurants.
When you go on a trail that involves an archaeological ruin, your own good judgment with regard to your fitness levels is important to consider. Many of these trails will take you to an altitude of over 7,000 feet, and there is a lot of steep walking involved in reaching all of the most fascinating places. You don’t want to hold up the rest of the group, or hurt yourself in trying to keep up with everyone else.
On your visit, be very careful of the roads in this park. They are often very narrow and with hairpin bends at high altitude, you must ensure that you obey all the rules, including speed. If you’re cycling on these roads, bear in mind that there are no dedicated cycling lanes and that you are forbidden from bringing your bike onto pedestrian lanes.
While all the precautions surrounding being in the natural world apply, with regard to everything from wild animals to remaining safe in extreme weather, keep a strong look out for the potential perils of lightning in this area. The safest place to be in an electric storm is in a building or in your car.
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