When my maternal grandmother died, she left behind a collection of souvenir spoons. None of her surviving adult relatives wanted the tiny, not-real-silver scoopers, but to nine-year-old me, the assortment of tourist-shop tchotchkes was a treasure trove. I took them home and put them in the drawer of a music box, where they disappeared for a couple of decades.

In 2017, I bought a home in Arvada and finally reclaimed the baubles my mom had shoved into bins when she cleaned out my childhood bedroom. Most of it—yearbooks, stuffed animals, love notes from my high school boyfriend—went straight into the trash can, but I paused when I came upon the music box with Grammy’s spoons.

One, with a dolphin dangling in a cutout in the handle, was from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where my family met her and the rest of my Pennsylvania relatives for a weeklong beach vacation every summer of my childhood. Another was from Las Vegas, and I giggled at the thought of my teetotaler, Mennonite grandparents strolling up and down the Strip. I recognized a spoon with a picture of Mickey and Minnie that I’d insisted my parents buy for me to gift to Grammy after we visited Walt Disney World when I was five.

So, even though I didn’t really need two-dozen-some doll-size spoons (and displaying them in a rack on the dining room wall like Grammy had didn’t exactly fit my decor aesthetic), I stashed them in our hutch. I couldn’t bear to toss them and the history of her life, and the people who loved her, they represented.

Today, my family enjoys using her shovel-shaped spoon from Wisconsin to sprinkle Pecorino Romano on our pasta, and I employ a particularly small scooper from Yosemite to fill my thumbprint cookies with jam every Christmas. I don’t have delusions that they’re significant enough to end up in a museum someday, but it does make me think about how museum collections—particularly more niche assemblages, like those that populate some of the Colorado museums on our list below—get started. After all, Colorado Springs’ May Natural History Museum began with a man named James May picking up interesting bug specimens on his world travels. So perhaps someday, someone, somewhere will deem Grammy’s spoons display-worthy once more.

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Read more: 11 Weird and Wonderful Colorado Roadside Attractions

The Old Jail Museum

The white exterior of the Old Jail Museum
Photo courtesy of the East Central Council of Governments

A little more than two hours of tumbleweeds east of Colorado Springs is the no-stoplight town of Cheyenne Wells—and perhaps the state’s coolest Old West jailhouse. Now known as the Old Jail Museum, this building was once the temporary home of the baddest of eastern Colorado’s bad men. Today, visitors (call 719-767-5865 to make an appointment) to the white-washed, Romanesque-style jail—designed by famed Mile High City architect Robert S. Roeschlaub, whose CV includes Denver’s East High School—can see two 130-year-old cells along with day-to-day items, newspaper articles, and photographs documenting Colorado’s early Eastern Plains denizens. A striking feature is the second-story turret, which gave lawmen miles-long views across the mostly barren landscape.

A Molybdenum disk from the Climax Mine sits in the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, in Leadville Colorado.
A Molybdenum disc from the Climax Mine in the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum

In the country’s highest-elevation incorporated city, this museum is a shrine to underground exploration. More than 60 exhibits, an elaborate model railroad, and a walk-through replica of a hardrock mine fill the 25,000-square-foot building, which also has sweeping Rocky Mountain views. Hang out in the Gold Rush room to examine crystals, native gold specimens, fluorescent rocks, and geodes the size of basketballs. From Memorial Day to late September, you can add on a guided or self-guided surface tour of the once-silver-rich Matchless Mine.

Amache Museum

Amache Museum in Granada, Colorado
Photo courtesy of Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo

Camp Amache, the former World War II Japanese internment camp in southeastern Colorado, only officially became a National Historic Site earlier this year. But since 1996, the Amache Museum has preserved artifacts from this shameful chapter in American history, when the country incarcerated tens of thousands of people with Japanese heritage, many of whom were U.S. citizens. The Granada institution is run by students from the local high school who oversee a collection that includes tea sets, clothes, and other items that once belonged to residents. The teenagers have also played an enormous role in unearthing details of camp life, such as discovering a long-buried koi pond.

Dragonman’s Military Museum

Get an up-close look at World War II–era tanks, planes, and weaponry and perhaps the greatest collection of 20th-century military uniforms this side of the Smithsonian—all stockpiled on a 260-acre compound that includes a go-kart track and a paintball park. The brainchild of “Dragonman” Mel Bernstein, the museum is shocking for its size and scope but remains impressive for its ability to contextualize the cost of war for those who’ve seen its horrors.

A beetle specimen from the May Natural History Museum
Photo courtesy of May Natural History Museum

May Natural History Museum

Nine miles south of downtown Colorado Springs, off of CO 115, you’ll find a giant beetle on the side of the road. Lovingly dubbed Herkimer, this 10-foot-tall statue of a Hercules beetle (one of the largest beetles in the world) greets all who visit the May Natural History Museum, known by locals as simply the Bug Museum. Herkimer’s real life counterparts, which can grow up to nine inches long, can be found inside—along with 7,000 other insect specimens.

From colorful butterflies to giant grasshoppers, the May Natural History Museum catalogs and displays various tropical creepy-crawlies. The museum’s founder, James May, spent most of his life traveling the world collecting and trading for those insect specimens. Now, Diana Fruh, one of James’ great-granddaughters, serves as the museum’s director and can be found showing visitors around when the museum is open (May through September). And while the Hercules beetle remains one of the most popular insects at the site, Fruh recommends also seeking out the Morpho butterflies, which have distinctive, iridescent blue wings, and the tarantulas, some of which can be as large as dinner plates.

While the Kit Carson County Carousel’s 46 hand-carved, hand-painted steeds—which range from a giraffe with a snake around its neck to a deer with real antlers to an armor-clad horse—are the main draw of this Eastern Plains attraction, don’t skip the on-site museum that opened in 2007. There, exhibits detail the history of the carousel (including its purchase from Elitch Gardens in Denver, an extravagant expenditure that cost one county commissioner his seat), how the animals were carved, and the 1976 restoration of the Wurlitzer Monster military band organ that provides the carousel’s music.

Museum of the Mountain West

  • Where: 68169 Miami Rd., Montrose
  • Cost: $12.50 (self-guided tour) or $15 (guided tour) for adults; $7.50 for teens 12 to 18, $5 for kids six to 11

More than half a million artifacts—collected by museum founder and archaeologist Richard E. Fike—from the 1840s to 1940s fill this Western Slope tourist destination’s indoor exhibit building, where you can explore a manufactured Main Street lined with eight stops, including a saloon, drug store, and doctor’s office. Outside, scattered across the site’s six acres are 28 historical buildings that make up a life-size Old West town: The Stott Hotel features a restored 18-foot cherry wood bar that was originally part of Telluride’s Clipper Saloon; a recreated sheriff’s office has a jail cell from the Ouray County Courthouse; and a 1913 German Evangelical Lutheran church from Montrose is available to rent for weddings. Spring for the docent-guided tour for insider anecdotes, helpful historical context, and better access to the shops and buildings.

Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience

Visitors to the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience look up at a T rex
Photo courtesy of the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience

The three-story ropes course—and the 20-foot-tall animatronic T. rex it takes guests eye level with—outside the Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience is what’s likely to catch your eye as you drive by on your way to the better-known Royal Gorge Bridge & Park. And certainly, the dozen-plus other life-size, skinned specimens that populate the Dinosaur Wild Walk are one reason to get out of your car and stretch your legs while the tykes excavate for faux bones in the pea-gravel-filled Kids’ Dig. But don’t leave without perusing the inside of this opened-in-2016 institution, where there are plenty of real fossils from the nearby Garden Park quarries (one of Colorado’s prolific dino discovery zones) and a laboratory where the Garden Park Paleontological Society preps new finds.

Museum of Colorado Prisons

Located in the state’s self-described correctional capitol, Fremont County, the Museum of Colorado Prisons is just 12 miles away from the infamous U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility (aka ADX, America’s highest-security federal prison)—and one stone wall separates the exhibit-filled former Women’s Prison building from the active Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, where up to 985 medium-custody male inmates can be housed. Visitors will learn about the lives of Colorado inmates (including convicted cannibal Alfred, or Alferd, Packer) and guards from 1871 to the present while touring the cell house, whose restoration was finished in 1988. As if that’s not creepy enough, ghost hunters age 18 and up can also sign up for paranormal investigation events and spend a full or partial night in the museum looking for signs of lingering spirits.

Cussler Museum

Clive Cussler climbs into a 1913 Stutz Bearcat automobile that is a part of his car collection at his museum in Arvada in 2011.
Clive Cussler climbs into a 1913 Stutz Bearcat automobile that is a part of his car collection at his museum in Arvada in 2011. Photo by Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Open May through September, the Cussler Museum is a destination for autophiles and bibliophiles alike, seeing as the collection of more than 100 vintage vehicles was curated by New York Times bestselling author Clive Cussler. Although the one-time Coloradan, who died in 2020, is best known for his fictional thrillers starring marine engineer and government agent Dirk Pitt, he was also an underwater explorer who discovered more than 60 shipwreck sites and a lover of classic automobiles. Museum guests will find a restored 1906 Stanley Steamer, 1921 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, and 1918 Cadillac V8 Touring that Cussler hoped would someday “be looked upon as mechanical masterworks of art and receive the admiration that is given to the Van Goghs and Rembrandts.”