First-Timer's Guide: Fort Collins

Located just over an hour from Denver, this mid-size college town offers an ideal mix of outdoor recreation, casual dining and drinking, and activities for day and night.

February 18 2016, 8:00 AM

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If you’ve written Fort Collins off as a run-of-the-mill college town, it’s time to take another look. Although Colorado State University’s sprawling campus is one of the town’s focal points, this midsize city offers much more than what first meets the eye. As Larimer County’s largest metropolis, Fort Collins boasts majestic natural surroundings, unbeatable recreation opportunities, a friendly, youthful culture, a thriving dining and drinking scene, and a picturesque historical district. It’s that mix—plus the proximity to the Cache la Poudre River (the only river in Colorado to receive a Wild and Scenic Rivers designation), Rocky Mountain National Park, and Denver—that has made Fort Collins one of the fastest growing metros in the entire nation. If you haven’t taken the time to explore this Front Range destination yet, now’s the time to plan your trip.

The Odometer: 65.2 miles, one-way

Name Game: Fort Collins had its start as Camp Collins in 1862. Originally used as a post for weary travelers on the Overland Trail, the camp was swept away in a devastating flood. The town was rebuilt on higher ground (near modern-day Old Town) and abandoned for a time before it became a thriving Northern Colorado agricultural hub.


Get Outside: Surrounded by rivers, lakes, reservoirs, mountains, and grasslands, it’s safe to say that there’s no shortage of ways to enjoy the great outdoors in Fort Collins—even in the winter. Although there’s no downhill skiing or snowboarding here, there’s plenty of other ways to stay active when temperatures are chilly. For an easy workout, rent a bike from Lee's Cyclery and cruise around town. Stick close to College Avenue (the street winds through the heart of the city, bypassing Colorado State University and historic Old Town), check out one of the many parks, or pick up the Poudre trail, which runs alongside the river. For a more mountainous experience, rent a pair of snowshoes from Outpost Sun Sport and make the trek up the Poudre Canyon to Cameron Pass. This pristine recreation area stays open year-round, and it’s a popular spot amongst locals. If you’re lucky, you might even spot some bighorn sheep. (Do exercise caution, though—this area is sometimes prone to avalanches.) If you're looking for a challenging activity close to town, rent a fat bike from Peloton Cycles and head to Horsetooth Mountain Open Space (located just west of town) for a calorie-burning climb. These hardy bikes employ oversized tires for conquering a variety of tricky terrain, including snow.


Blue Cheese Eggs Sardou Benedict from the Silver Grill Cafe. Image courtesy of the Silver Grill Cafe.

Eat: Start your day at Fort Collins' breakfast staple the Silver Grill Cafe. This cozy diner is one of the oldest restaurants in Northern Colorado, and it's known for its giant cinnamon rolls (try them in a decadent sundae) and hearty breakfast fare. Try one of the eggs Benedict specials dreamed up by chef Heather Beckman, and don’t skip the insanely well-stocked weekend Bloody Mary bar (which sometimes offers as many as 50 different garnish options). Waits are almost always long, but at least there is complimentary coffee to ease the pain. If you're looking for a quick morning bite, you can't beat the scratch-baked treats at the quaint Little Bird Bakeshop. Pick up pastries like French canelé, Manchego cheese biscuits, and monkey bread to take with you, or linger over lunch plates like warm Irish cheddar and cranberry chutney on house-made sourdough bread. For a casual dinner option, visit the Colorado Room. This friendly counter-service spot focuses on locally procured ingredients for mouthwatering slider-sized sammies and towering poutine plates. Order the Colorado bison brisket sammie and a Fort Collins beer from the changing list of daily taps on the chalkboard, then grab a seat at the beetle kill pine booths and take in the local art hanging on the walls.

Underground cocktail bar Social is a popular Old Town destination.

Sip: If you're looking for an afternoon pick me up, head to Harbinger Coffee. This minimalist third-wave shop stocks Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters beans and crafts Instagram-worthy drinks, like the slightly sweet Winter Warmth latte with maple and brown sugar. Once cocktail hour strikes, seek out swanky cocktail lounge Social, which is located in a sultry subterranean space beneath Old Town (to find it, look for the clock next to the stairway). Order one of the charcuterie and cheese boards to share, then opt for one of the creative cocktails (like the Marble Rye, with rye whiskey, Bénédictine DOM, Cynar, Punt e Mes, and caraway bitters). For a classic, you can’t go wrong with the Social G & T, crafted with house tonic syrup and garnished with fragrant juniper berries.

Fort Collins has long been known as a beer town, and with heavyweights like New Belgium Brewing Company and Odell Brewing Company calling it home, its no wonder why. Both offer engaging tours (and tap rooms pouring hard-to-find brews). For a smaller scale hometown experience, visit the comfortable and lively Equinox Brewing and order the Borealis Winter Ale. If you're looking for something a bit harder, visit Feisty Spirits Distillery. This grain-to-glass distillery was the first to open in Fort Collins, and it’s still pushing the limits with its experimental elixirs. Sign up in advance for a tour, or make a pit stop at the tasting room to sample creative tipples like red corn and oat bourbon and quinoa whiskey. 


Stay: While FoCo is close enough to Denver for a day trip, booking a hotel room will give you a bit more time for exploration (and a good excuse to sample a few more beers). For a luxurious stay, book a room at the historic Armstrong Hotel, which is located right downtown. This gem opened in 1923, and while it saw some rough patches over the years, it’s been restored to all of its art-deco glory. For a more affordable option, check out the Solarium International Hostel. This somewhat new (it opened in 2014) hostel offers a relaxing oasis with its indoor tropical garden, funky decor, and communal kitchen.

The Aggie Theatre hosts a wide variety of local and national acts. Image courtesy of Conrad Meyer.

Do: If the weather outside is frightful, consider spending the day at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. Part history museum and part hands-on science center, the MoD offers 16,000 square feet of exhibits and collections guaranteed to spark curiosity, wonder, and imagination. Noodle around on an instrument in the music and sound lab, learn about extinct creatures at the fossil wall, and explore the history of agriculture in the food, forage, and farm exhibit. For after-dark fun, check out a show at the Aggie Theatre, a mainstay for both local and national music acts. Genres vary wildly, but upcoming shows include the likes of Hot Buttered Rum and Hieroglyphics.


If you do one thing...: Take a stroll around downtown and Old Town. Although the gorgeous lights won't be illuminating the trees again until next November, the downtown area is still rife with charm. In fact, Disneyland's Main Street USA was actually modeled after this section of Fort Collins. You could spend an entire day browsing the boutiques and shops in this area alone. Don't miss Blue Harvest Apparel for clothes, the Cupboard for cooking essentials and gifts, and the Fort Collins Food Co-Op for edible artisan souvenirs (like MouCo Cheese Company cheeses and Horsetooth Hot Sauces).

(Check out more First-Timer's Guides from 5280)