These former gold rush towns are known for their casinos, but there are other stops to explore.
Welcome to Central City.
—Photo by Daliah Singer
Think the only reason to visit Black Hawk and neighboring Central City is to gamble? Well, you're mostly right. But if you'd like to get some fresh air—and maybe keep some of those chips—these former gold rush towns do have a few other things to offer. Simply follow our handy guide. But, really, don't feel too bad about all that blackjack: According to the nonprofit Colorado Gaming Association, "Casinos contributed over $110 million in gaming tax revenue for historic preservation, roads and transportation, infrastructure improvements, tourism promotion, and the State of Colorado’s general fund" in 2015.
The Odometer: 38 miles, one way
Stay: Lodging is limited in this region. For a sure bet, book a room at Ameristar Black Hawk (prices vary widely, but we've seen rooms offered for as low as $109 on weekdays). The beds are comfy and the showers soothing, and you're only an elevator ride away from the casino floor. Other amenities worth enjoying include the rooftop pool and hot tub and the Ara Spa. Make a day of it by choosing three or more spa treatments (50 minutes or longer) and you can take 10 percent off your bill.
Eat: Almost all of the area's restaurants are located inside casinos. Our favorite escape from the dinging slot machines is Timberline Grill on the main gaming floor at Ameristar. You'll be tempted to fill up on the assorted bread basket while you wait for your food, but don't. Save that room for a bowl of French onion soup. Then choose your favorite cut of meat (we're fans of the New York strip) paired with a side of asparagus or a loaded baked potato (ask your server to put the toppings on the side so you can build it to your liking). The only hiccup during our most recent experience: The restaurant stores their reds and whites together, at the same temperature, so our Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, arrived slightly chilled.
In the morning, get some fresh air by walking to Mountain Mocha Cafe. The small spot in Black Hawk sells their coffee hot, iced, or blended. Choose from solid lineup of inexpensive breakfast sandwiches and burritos. (Our croissant egg sandwich with turkey, spinach, and tomato was just $5; pictured above) And don't overlook the diverse selection of intriguing, house-blended teas.
Sip: Central City is lacking in places to fuel up, but Dostal Alley Brewpub solves that problem by serving as a three-in-one establishment: brewery, pizzeria, and casino. Sidle up to the bar for a pint of Summer Wheat Ale or Shaft House Stout (a three-time medalist at the Great American Beer Festival); enjoy it with a hand-tossed pie and some video poker. Just like at the casino, your beers are free while you're playing. Non-drinkers can enjoy house-made root beer and cream soda. Grab a growler to-go.
Get Outside: Leave the stale casino air behind for some fresh Rocky Mountain oxygen at Golden Gate Canyon State Park, located about 10 miles northeast of Black Hawk. Hikers, horseback riders, and mountain and road bikers will find plenty to enjoy in the area. A variety of trails lead to Panorama Point (pictured), a can't-miss photo-op. So take your pick—the 7.4-mile Mule Deer trail loop is one of the first you'll reach upon entering the park—and enjoy the sensational views along the way.
History Lesson: Central City is oozing with Colorado lore, and there are myriad ways to experience the olden days for yourself. The Gilpin Historical Society leads tours (prices start at $6 per person per building) of the Central City Opera House, which originally opened in 1878; the Teller House and the famous "face on the barroom floor"; the Thomas House, a frozen-in-time home of a middle-class family in the early 1900s; and the Coeur d'Alene Mine Shaft House, a once-active mine that shut down in the 1940s. Main Street is also the site of short, recreated Old West shootouts on Saturday afternoons, on the hour from noon to 4 p.m. through August 27.
For some history with a side of culture, stop by Gilpin Arts. The nonprofit arts association has been around since 1947, and it's located in the longest continually used building in the state. Evidence of its former identity as a courthouse is everywhere, from the original jurors' deliberation table upstairs to the original jail door on the main floor (the cell it leads into is recreated). A variety of mediums are on display in Essence of the West through September 4. Bonus: Central City Opera's summer festival is currently underway; check out the lineup and plan your visit to coincide with a show.
If You Do One Thing... Gamble, duh. That's why you drove up here after all. Our favorite spots are in Black Hawk. Beyond Ameristar, it's worth trying your luck at the Gilpin Casino, Golden Mardi Gras Casino, and Lady Luck Casino.
—Golden Gate Canyon photo courtesy of Erin Skarda; all others courtesy of Daliah Singer
Follow senior associate editor Daliah Singer on Twitter at @daliahsinger.