Distance: 3.5 hours
Aspen is a beautiful year-round destination, and only a short drive away from Denver!
Although Aspen is famous for its golden Fall foliage and world-class skiing, I think this place is stunning year-round. There are lakes, rivers, bike paths, gondolas, kids areas, tons of hikes and really great food.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Distance: 4 hours
The variety of nature in Colorado blows me away to this day. I wasn’t expecting to find such stunning steep cliffs in the mountains, but here we are!
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a National Park in Southwest Colorado. You can approach it from either the North or the South rims. Although the shortest distance between the two rims is only 40 feet at the base, it takes about two hours to get from one rim to the other by car. This canyon is one of Colorado’s least visited parks due to its remoteness and lack of nearby accommodation, and I feel like it is also one of the most underrated.
There are limited camp sites, and the closest towns are Montrose (30 minutes from the South Rim) and Crawford (40 minutes from the North Rim.)
We opted to stay in Crawford since we wanted to see the North Rim. This was a pretty great choice – we found a beautiful farm-style Airbnb with horses that our toddler was able to pet and feed. The owners were incredibly sweet and even waited for us to arrive before feeding the horses so that our toddler could get a chance to interact with them! We also had a beautiful head-on view of Needle Rock right from our bedroom window.
While the South Rim has a pretty well-serviced visitor center that accommodates, let’s just call it, lots of visitors, the North Rim only has a ranger station and – you guessed it – NO VISITORS. We ran into at most two other couples during our time there. I’ve never seen such a stunning, and better yet, empty, National Park.
We drove past Montrose on our way to our next destination and were glad we spent the night at Crawford instead.
Distance: 6 hours
This was truly a gem. No crowds, fresh mountain air, and unbelievable skies! Ophir is a tiny mountain village of about 200 people, just 30 minutes from Telluride. It’s at 9500′ elevation and sits right at the entrance to Ophir Pass.
We stayed at a very cozy Airbnb and had incredible views right from our window. This Airbnb came with access to a hot tub which we definitely made the most of after putting the kids down to bed 🙂
You can either take a 4×4 up to Ophir pass or hike it since it’s only about a 2 miles. The only issue with hiking is that it’s all uphill and the starting elevation is at 9,500′! We had to turn around because I’m apparently way too out of shape to carry a baby up this particular mountain.
Bonus: If you’re into old abandoned buildings, only 30 minutes away from Ophir is a ghost town called Alta. This abandoned mining town sits at 11,800’. The drive here is quite bumpy and I considered turning our Accord around after only seeing 4x4s drive past us. But we made it, and, with sheer luck, no tires were hurt in the making of this trip 🙌
Distance: 1 hour
Estes Park is probably the most common suggestion you will hear for places to visit near Denver, given it’s proximity. There’s no shortage of things to do: from strolling down Main Street, to frequenting the many cafes and playgrounds, to going on many a hike in the surrounding nature.
There are a few hikes here that are technically part of Rocky Mountain National Park but are accessed without driving in through the main entrance. These particular ones don’t require a fee and don’t have the same amount of foot traffic as the proper Rocky Mountain National Park hikes, and are just as magnificent!
There are also a TON of these guys roaming the streets and stalling traffic. If you’re after some wildlife spotting, this is the perfect spot!
Rocky Mountain National Park
Distance: 1.5 hours
Just a little further past Estes Park is Rocky Mountain National Park. We usually combine a trip to Estes Park with a visit here. There are countless trails, lots of wildlife, mountains galore and a whole lot of elevation 🙂
Most hikes at this park start around 9,500′ with an ascent to climb even higher. Make sure to take this into account if you’re arriving from sea-level! This is really high, and nearly double the elevation of Denver. If you’re not acclimatized you can experience altitude sickness fairly quickly and may have a less than ideal time.
Despite the altitude, this park is insanely popular, especially Bear Lake Trailhead. The parking lot here gets full by probably 7 or 8 am in the summer so you’ll most likely need to park at the park n’ ride and take a shuttle up if you arrive later. The shuttle is pretty great, but can take a fairly long time to get on (sometimes up to an hour or more) if it’s a busy weekend. All the trails can be found here.
Distance: 6.5 hours
Never-ending art and music festivals, mountains in every direction, herds of elk posing in the meadows, and free gondola rides! This is as Colorado as it gets.
This is yet another beautiful year round destination and has a ton of things to do nearby. Our toddler’s highlight for this trip: (free) gondola rides to Mountain Village! Our highlight: free toddler entertainment. And unlimited 😉
But also the views, of course.
We happened to get here in the middle of Plein Air, a festival where nationally acclaimed artists from all over the US come to Telluride and paint the beautiful scenery out in the open. You can come watch, chat and pose (ok maybe not that last part), and see the different styles and art come to life. What a cool experience!
One of the highlights here for me was Bridal Veil Falls. The falls are visible from the Main Street and look quite impressive from a distance. To see them up close, you can park at the bottom just past Pandora Mill and hike up the switchbacks by foot. If you have a 4×4 you can also opt to drive up this road right to the falls. We didn’t go all the way to the mill since the best view is best caught from the second-to-last switchback. For true adventure-seekers there’s also a pretty cool Via Ferrata that we got see bits and pieces of which splits off near the start of the trail.
The town itself is gorgeous. There are a lot of great cafes and restaurants, but one of our favorites was a cafe with a playground attached called The Butcher and the Baker right off the main street.
Everything is walking distance so it doesn’t really matter where you stay. Although if you pick right, (and stay on the East-most end of town) you can catch a glimpse of the Milky Way right outside your bedroom!
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Distance: 4 hours
Did you know Colorado has the tallest sand dunes in North America? I didn’t even know Colorado had sand dunes! But this place is truly unique. It really feels like you’re in the middle of an African desert!
The dunes are located just 4 hours south of Denver and are easily accessible by car. The main sites do not require a 4×4, but if you’re feeling adventurous there are plenty of areas to explore on an all wheel drive.
We stayed at Crestone when we visited, an hour outside the park. There aren’t too many options for staying closer, unless you’re planning on camping.
One of the highlights here for us was sandboarding down the dunes. Our toddler was scared at first, but after the first run did not want to leave the park! I was quite pregnant at the time with our second so I couldn’t bring myself to hike up so many sand dunes, but I promised it looked like loads of fun! You can rent the boards at Great Sand Dunes Oasis, right outside the park entrance.
There are crop fields all around the park, which look pretty cool from above:
If you time your visit right, you can also catch the seasonal Medano Creek. This creek usually peaks around May and only lasts until July. It’s great for toddlers to splash their feet and float around on floaties and tubes.
Mesa Verde National Park
Distance: 6.5 hours
Known for its Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde is quite a unique National Park. This is the largest archeological preserve in the US, and has about 600 of these cliff dwellings sprinkled around 50000 acres of land. The Ancestral Pueblans inhabited these dwellings for 700 years, between 550 A.D. to 1300 A.D.
Today, you can take a guided tour down to some of these dwellings and see them for yourself. There are three cliff dwellings that are accessible via a guided tour, and guided tours are the only way to see them. That’s probably the only part we didn’t like about the whole thing. We had to spend a full hour on the tour, but there’s only about a total of 400 meters of distance to cover. There was a lot of standing around and “listening to the surroundings”, “soaking in the views”, “imagining what the people who lived here were like”, and “waiting for the other group to finish doing the same thing”. This is nice and all, but not when you have an impatient toddler who wants to climb all of these cliff dwellings that are not to be touched.