Founded in 1859 by gold-mining prospectors, Idaho Springs is now Clear Creek County’s most populous community with around 1,700 residents. The city’s rich mining history is still present today, but Denverites probably best know the town as a quick food or gas pit stop on their way to the Rockies. We say: Exit 241-A is worth a longer stop.
The Odometer: 33.2 miles, one-way
Stroll: Miner Street (pictured) is the heart of Idaho Springs’ historic downtown—and it’s just one of several sites in and around the town recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. Start on two feet at 17th Avenue to peek in the block’s quaint shops and eateries at your leisure, but don’t miss the Soap Shop. (If a bubble floats into view, you’re there: The storefront has an outdoor bubble-making machine.) Inside this fragrant and wondrous brick-and-mortar sits thousands of organic soaps and lotions—all handmade weekly by owner Shonna Mangeris and two helpers. Another must-stop for homemade delights: Miner Decadence Chocolate, where owner Connie Tlanck makes ice cream, turtles, toffee, peanut butter cups, and more from scratch.
Where to Nosh: Smokin Yard’s BBQ makes some of Colorado’s best barbecue. There’s no better way to refuel on your trek back to Denver after a day on the slopes than with platters of smoked ribs, pulled pork, or whole chickens, along with traditional savory sides such as mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, and collard greens. (Pictured: a pig smoking a cigar outside of Smokin Yard’s.) For a lighter lunch (or breakfast), head to Two Brothers Delicatessen on Miner Street; order the Green Forest veggie sandwich, ask to add some peppered turkey, and cushion it between two slices of rosemary-olive oil bread. If you stick around long enough for a third meal, hit up Beau Jo’s for a “mountain pie,” aka Colorado-style pizza.
Sip: Visiting a Colorado town’s local brewery is basically a rite of passage. In Idaho Springs, that means grabbing a bar stool at Tommyknocker Brewery and ordering a sample tray. Fair warning: The brewery’s tasters are five-ounce pours each, so tread lightly if you’re driving. (Pictured, from top: Hop Strike Black Rye IPA, Alpine Glacier Pilsner, Maple Nut Brown Ale, Tundrabeary Summer Ale.) Also make time to visit Vintage Moose, an intimate watering hole with a rotating Tommyknocker tap, a small but delectable menu of barbecue, and an L-shaped bar top perfect for eavesdropping on—and joining—locals’ conversations.
Tour: Take time to learn about Idaho Springs’ ore and gold history with a mine tour. My favorite is the Phoenix Gold Mine Tour (pictured), which is off the beaten path but just a 10-minute drive from downtown. Hank—a passionate volunteer tour guide who is a wealth of information—will lead you through the labyrinth of tunnels, where you can still see many rainbow-like streaks of precious minerals. The tour costs $10 (but make sure to leave a tip for your gracious guide).
If You Do One Thing…: Make the trek to St. Mary’s Glacier. This landmark perma-ice form is more than worth the 20-minute drive (from Idaho Springs) and 1.5-mile round-trip hike. Pack a lunch from the aforementioned Two Brothers Delicatessen and your camera, and schedule in extra time to relax and take in the landscape and astounding views. (Pictured: St. Mary’s Glacier in the summertime; photo by Sarah Boyum.)