We uncover more than 60 supersecret restaurants, vistas, hikes, attractions, and quirky, only-in-Colorado experiences you probably don't know about—but should.
Sometimes you simply don’t want to share Colorado’s majesty with anyone. At these spots, you don’t have to.
Pawnee Buttes, Pawnee National Grassland
With all due respect to Horace Greeley, we’re going to skip the whole “Go West” thing in favor of the 193,060 acres of stunning grassland 45 minutes east of Fort Collins. Despite its relative proximity to Denver, Pawnee sees only 270,000 visitors per year, compared to the more than 3 million that descend upon Rocky Mountain National Park. So the only souls you’ll likely share the 1.5-mile-long trail to the Pawnee Buttes with are the antelope, coyotes, and foxes that call the area near the 300-foot sandstone towers home.
Collegiate Peaks Scenic Overlook
CDOT’s not stupid. It knows it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road when driving through overwhelming natural beauty like that along the 103-mile stretch of U.S. 285 between the Front Range and the Arkansas River Valley. That’s why it created several pull-offs along the way. Sadly, one of best options—the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Overlook on the west side of Trout Creek Pass—gets few visitors because it’s so close to many drivers’ final destinations. Too bad. They’re missing out on a vantage point that offers an unparalleled perspective on the jaw-dropping grandeur of the Collegiates reigning over the verdant Arkansas River Valley.
This 12,126-foot mountain pass between Buena Vista and Crested Butte on the
Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway closes for winter, which means sneaking a peek at the Sawatch Range towering over Taylor Park Reservoir remains a warm-weather-only opportunity. It doesn’t mean you have to share the view with every Nikon-wielding motorist who stops at the Continental Divide sign, though. Avoid the hordes by taking the dirt trail that begins behind the yellow-and-brown Cottonwood Pass sign and skirts up and over a knoll. A short hike this way will give you just enough distance from the parked cars—and lazy masses—to capture a panorama that’s all yours.
Curecanti National Recreation Area
It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the best views in Colorado can only be had at night. After the sun sets, millions of stars light up the skies over Curecanti National Recreation Area, an isolated series of reservoirs guarded by impressive mesas that qualifies as one of the darkest parks in the state. Set 20 miles from the nearest source of light pollution (Gunnison), Curecanti gets just 15 inches of precipitation a year. Translation: clear, dark skies that make for prime stargazing. Get a guided look on one of Curecanti’s ranger-led stargazing hikes this summer. Worried about neighbors wrecking your solitude? Fear not. Groups rarely number more than 15.
Two hours down a two-lane road from Craig, Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge’s remote location near the borders of Utah and Wyoming made it a popular hideout for outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once upon a time. Today, the only thief left in this rarely visited corner of the state is Mother Nature herself. She’ll regularly steal your breath as you wind through the 50-mile-long valley’s ruggedly beautiful terrain. Must-see stops include Vermillion Falls, a 25-foot cascade near the park’s southwestern entrance; the Gates of Lodore, where the Green River carves between spectacular red walls; and Swinging Bridge, a pulse-quickening single-lane span across the Green River that’s just 8.5 feet wide.
FORGET THE FOURTEENERS
Colorado adventure writer Dan England offers his close-to-Denver picks for the state’s less famous 13,000-foot peaks.
McHenrys Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park
The trip up 13,327-foot McHenrys is packed full of wild, unbelievable views, but you’ll have to earn them: The journey is 14 miles round-trip and includes some Class 3 scrambling. Along the way, you’ll pass Black Lake, where you’ll find what may be the quintessential Colorado lake scene—a dark pool with an impressive peak presiding over it and a rare view of Longs Peak’s back side. This climb requires a pre-dawn start, but you won’t mind the early wakeup call when you’re savoring the solitude on the stony summit.
Mt. Audubon, Indian Peaks Wilderness
You’ll gain 2,800 feet over about four miles on the trek up 13,223-foot Mt. Audubon, making it one of the milder summit adventures on offer among Colorado’s cadre of thirteeners. Audubon might be less demanding, but that doesn’t make it less pretty. You’ll hike through an almost Pacific Northwest–like forest for the first mile and a half or so before breaking through the treeline and switchbacking up the remaining 2.5 miles. There you’ll lay eyes on gape-inducing panoramas of the Never Summers, Indian Peaks, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Rinse off the remains of your day with a quick dip in Brainard Lake, where your trip began, once you’ve descended.
South Arapaho Peak, Indian Peaks Wilderness
If you stopped to smell all of the proverbial roses on your way up this 13,397-foot mountain, you’d never reach the summit. Deep in Boulder County, the 4.3-mile hike from the Fourth of July trailhead may well qualify as one of the best places to see wildflowers in all of Colorado, especially in mid-summer. The Monet-worthy scene transitions to one of stone and sky at the 3.5-mile marker, near the saddle of South Arapaho and Old Baldy, where the expansive view of the Arapahoe Basin will keep you motivated for that final summit push.