America's Purple Mountain Majesties on Display in Colorado
"Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain."
In 1893, a trip to the top of Colorado's Pikes Peak inspired English professor Katharine Lee Bates to write the poem that later would become the lyrics to "America the Beautiful." Bates was not the only person to be inspired by Colorado's wide-open vistas and spectacular mountain-top panoramas. The beauty of the Centennial State has been capturing visitors' imaginations for generations.
But there's more to Colorado than its incredible views. From its vast natural resources to posh year-round resorts with first-class culinary and shopping options, the state offers something for everyone. Here are five reasons to plan your own Colorado vacation.
1. Year-Round Recreation
Colorado offers myriad opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts any time of the year. In winter, Colorado offers some of the best skiing and snowboarding in North America, if not the world. There are more than two dozen ski resorts in the state for those seeking powder, bumps, and exhilarating runs. Popular Colorado resorts like Vail, Aspen, and Breckenridge rank among the world's best.
The rest of the year, miles of trails through Colorado's scenic wonderland invite exploration by backpackers of all abilities. For a true test of endurance, the state has more than 50 mountain peaks above the elevation of 14,000 feet to tempt those seeking to join the exclusive "14ers club." Mt. Elbert is the tallest of them all, rising 14,433 feet above sea level. Its out and back trail, at 5.5 miles each way with an elevation gain of 4,600 feet, may not be for the faint of heart but is not technically difficult if one is properly conditioned.
Mountain biking, zip lining, and whitewater rafting adventures also await thrill-seeking visitors to the state. The world's largest elk population attracts thousands of hunters to the state each season, while anglers have 6,000 miles of streams in which to cast for trout.
2. The Country's Best Ski Resort
America's largest single-mountain ski resort is a winter paradise. Vail Mountain offers 193 trails and 5,289 acres (approximately 10 square miles) of skiable terrain for skiers of all ability. Vail is famous for its back bowls, which offer a seven-mile expanse of powder with double and triple fall lines that challenge even the most expert of skiers. Blue Sky Basin, the resort's innovative recent expansion, provides a back country experience through glades and meadows with no defined trails. Even novice skiers need not confine themselves to the bottom of the mountain; many beginner runs are located on the upper portion of the Vail Mountain, and the resort has one of the biggest and best ski schools in the country.
At the base of the mountain lies picturesque Vail Village, built in the Bavarian style with covered bridges and pedestrian-only streets. Accommodations include luxurious ski-in/ski-out lodges and condominiums with amenities like ski valets, in-room fireplaces, and outdoor hot tubs. The village's more than 100 dining options range from casual pizza joints and pubs to world-class restaurants, and there is plenty of high-end retail shopping, too.
Getting to Vail:
Vail is located 100 miles west of Denver on I-70 through the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel. There are direct flights available from several U.S. cities to Eagle County Airport, located 35 miles west of Vail.
Where to Stay in Vail:
The recently-renovated Tivoli Lodge is located in the heart of Vail Village just steps from the Vista Bahn Gondola and a short walk to many restaurants and shops. The family-owned and operated hotel offers unobstructed mountain views, free hot breakfast, and ski valet service. After a day on the slopes, you'll love curling up in a comfy chair in front of the lodge's massive stone fireplace with complimentary hot chocolate and homemade cookies.
Where to Eat in Vail:
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- Pazzo's Pizzeria: A Vail institution known for its handmade pizzas and laid-back atmosphere. Inexpensive; walk-ins welcome.
- Sweet Basil: Consistently ranked Vail's top restaurant featuring contemporary American cuisine made with fresh, local ingredients and an extensive wine list. Expensive; reservations recommended.
3. Diverse National Parks
Colorado is home to four national parks, all of which offer accessible sightseeing, stunning terrain, and lessons about our land's geology, nature, and history.
Colorado's national parks, from north to south, are:
- Rocky Mountain National Park: Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous highway in the United States, climbs above the tree line and above the clouds across a long, tundra-covered ridge, with many places to stop to take in 12,000-foot views of the park's rugged scenery and abundant wildlife.
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: A drive along the rim offers plenty of scenic overlooks to peek into one of the most dramatic canyons in the country.
- Great Sand Dunes National Park: An ocean of breathtaking sand hills provides visitors an otherworldly experience
- Mesa Verde National Park: The archeological mysteries of an ancient cliff dwelling civilization are hidden in the walls of a rocky canyon.
Learn more about Colorado's national parks, historic sites and trails, and other sites operated by the National Park Service.
National Parks in Colorado
4. Lessons in History
Colorado has a rich and fascinating history. Humans have inhabited the area since at least 9200 B.C., when big game hunters roamed its plains. They were followed by the Cliff Dwellers, who built a great civilization in the Mesa Verde region during the first millennium. Numerous Native American tribes would settle in the land that would become Colorado, including the Utes, who moved to the southern Rocky Mountains around 1500 A.D. and became the longest continuous residents of the state. Later, Spanish and French explorers would journey to the area to stake their claims.
The United States acquired a large chunk of the future Colorado through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Most of the rest was ceded by Mexico through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. American settlement of the territory began in the early nineteenth century when fur trappers and traders established frontier outposts. Further settlement was spurred in the middle of the century with the advent of the railroad and the discovery of gold, silver, and other valuable mineral deposits.
Life on the frontier was difficult, with frequent food shortages and escalating tensions with Native American tribes. The Colorado War, an armed conflict between the United States and an alliance of several Native American tribes between 1863 to 1865, resulted in the removal of four tribes to reservations in Oklahoma. One notorious episode of the conflict, known as the Sand Creek Massacre, is viewed as a shameful incidence of genocidal brutality against the native people.
Colorado became the 38th state in 1876. Mining, particularly coal mining, would remain a significant industry in the state well into the twentieth century. Mining was a dangerous way to make a livelihood, and the state saw numerous occupational deaths as well as violent confrontations between miners and mine owners over wages, hours, and working conditions. Agriculture also became an important part of the Colorado economy and huge cattle ranches flourished. Today, tourism plays a central role in the state's economy.
Today, visitors to Colorado have many opportunities to explore its history. The state's numerous historical places include:
- Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway: Visit archeologically significant sites of the ancient Pueblo people on this scenic tour of southwestern Colorado. The 116-mile drive around Cortez, Colorado, will take you by Hovenweep National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park.
- Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site: Experience life on the American frontier at the reconstructed adobe fort that served as a fur trading post on the Santa Fe Trail in the 1840s. The fort is located 8 miles east of La Junta, Colorado.
- Leadville Historic District: Relive the heady days of Colorado's silver rush with a visit to historic Leadville, Colorado. The former boomtown's seven museums include the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum and the Matchless Mine. Tours of the Hopemore Mine take visitors 600 feet below ground to experience the life of a Colorado miner in the late 1800s.
- Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad National Historic Landmark: Take a ride on the historic narrow gauge railroad between Durango and Silverton, Colorado. A vintage steam locomotive makes the scenic 45-mile trip through the mountains. The line originally was used to carry gold and silver ore from mines in the San Juan Mountains and has operated continuously since 1881.
5. Cultural Opportunities
Colorado's beautiful natural setting provides a splendid backdrop for a thriving arts community. From small-town art galleries to the world-class Denver Performing Arts Complex (home to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Denver Center Theater Company, and Opera Colorado), the state's creative industries are flourishing.
Colorado also is home to numerous annual festivals that celebrate music, dance, art, film, and the culinary arts in gorgeous Rocky Mountain venues, providing multiple cultural opportunities for visitors throughout the year. Events include:
- Aspen Food & Wine Classic: Each June, some of the world's greatest chefs and wine experts are showcased at this premiere culinary event presented by Food & Wine Magazine. Three days of cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, and seminars culminate with the spectacular Grand Tasting at the base of Aspen Mountain. The steep ticket price ($1,125-$1,225 for a full pass in 2012) doesn't deter dedicated foodies who want to mingle with celebrity chefs and other culinary luminaries; the event is always a sell-out. Future dates: June 15-17, 2018
- Telluride Bluegrass Festival: The historic mountain town of Telluride has a reputation as the festival capital of Colorado, playing host to more than 25 events each summer. One of the best is the four day celebration of American roots music held every year around the summer solstice. Festivarians, as festival-goers are known, dance away the longest days to a musical lineup ranging from legendary bluegrass pickers to contemporary folk bands. Recent line-ups have included such artists as Elvis Costello, Mumford & Sons, and Sam Bush. Future dates: June 21-24, 2018.
- Aspen Music Festival: The nation's premiere classic music festival for over 60 years is held for eight weeks each summer, featuring over 300 orchestral, chamber, and operatic events held in venues throughout Aspen. The Aspen Music School runs concurrently with the festival, bringing together more than 600 talented students and 130 faculty/artists for a program of intensive instrumental and vocal instruction and professional performances. Future dates: June 28-August 22, 2018.
- Crested Butte Art Festival: One of the country's top art festivals is held in the ruggedly beautiful Crested Butte, a former coal mining town now known as the Wildflower Capital of Colorado. The weekend-long festival features a juried art show, eclectic entertainment, culinary events, artist demonstrations, and an art auction. Festival proceeds support sustainable arts outreach programs for the Gunnison Valley community. Future dates: August 3-5, 2018.
- Boulder Fringe Festival: Part of the international Fringe movement with its roots in Edinburgh, Scotland, Boulder's festival is a 12-day celebration of arts events, including live theater, dance, visual arts, and workshops, featuring local, national, and international artists and held at multiple venues throughout downtown Boulder. Future dates: August 17-26, 2018.