Denver and Beyond - Your Long Weekend Colorado Itinerary
The end of May rolled around, which meant I was in need of a birthday trip. I’d been living in Atlanta for a few months and I craved some cool, fresh air. That’s when I decided Colorado was calling my name. I wanted to get lost in the Rockies (figuratively, not literally) and take in a concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, in Denver.
So I planned a 4-day itinerary that would give me a taste of Denver, Colorado Springs and what I was most excited for, Rocky Mountain National Park. While this was a great long weekend, my next visit will be exclusively in the Rockies. There were so many incredible trails that I only touched the surface. Colorado, I’m in love.
GO IF YOU LIKE:
The Outdoors | Reflective Lakes | Wildlife EncouNters | Being Active | Slow Travel
Expand the Legend on my map for my 4-days in Colorado itinerary
I’ll cut to the chase. If you’re going to visit Colorado the highlights are all outdoors. I had a great time in Denver, Colorado Springs and Rocky Mountain National Park. If I could do it again, I might have sacrificed my time in Denver to spend more of it in RMNP. My next trip will definitely be exclusively in the park. Here were some of my highlights from 4 days in Colorado.
Catching A Concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre
During the summer months The Red Rock Amphitheatre opens up for concerts and mass yoga sessions. An outdoor concert seemed like the perfect way to spend my birthday. By using the natural surrounding rocks, this place had incredible acoustics.
Most people show up early, for tailgating. The parking lots fill up with people having drinks and dinner in the back of their cars. From the parking lots we slowly made our way up the stairs that wind themselves through the red rocks and into the theatre.
You can buy drinks and snacks in the venue and if the sky is clear, when the sun sets, you can enjoy the stars. With the sound reverberating off the rocks, you get the urge to dance. Almost everyone is standing and moving to the music. So regardless of who is playing, just go. It’ll be an amazing time.
See the Chapel at the US Airforce Academy
While I don’t often get excited about religious monuments I have to say this chapel is one impressive piece of architecture. It’s certainly worthy of a visit to the US Air Force Academy.
It’s an easy stop on your way to Colorado Springs. And if it’s not being used at the time you’re free to enter and take a look around. The surrounding grounds are also pretty cool with interesting military monuments.
Park at the visitor center then walk on a short trail to the chapel. If you’ve got more time there are additional trails around the Academy where you can see more of the facilities and some of the bombers. The visitor center can give you a map with all the details for a self-guided tour.
Climb the Rocks in the Garden of the Gods
Taking a trip out to Colorado Springs, at least for the day, is certainly worth it. The hot weather was already starting to kick in at the end of May, but with an overcast sky it was tolerable.
Parking can be tight at the Garden of the Gods, so the visitor center recommends that you park there and take the shuttle bus to the main entrance point. I don’t like relying on bus schedules so we drove around and were able to get parking, especially towards the end of the day.
Before entering the Garden itself we drove to Manitou Springs, did a small hike and had lunch overlooking the Garden of the Gods. It’s really interesting to see the rocks from this perspective. Hidden in with the trees and next to houses.
Once inside the park you can drive to different points and see the impressive rock formations. The visitor center will give you a map with all the stops.
If you’re into rock climbing then this is the place for you. There were tons of climbers throughout the park. Even lots of people who looked like they were trying it for the first time. I can’t think of a better place for initiation.
Also, keep your eyes open and your camera ready at all times. There’s lots of cute critters hiding in the bushes.
Drive the Trail Ridge Road
On the first day in RMNP I wanted to take it easy. Some of the trails and sights are subalpine and alpine levels, meaning the altitude can take a tole on your body. It’s important to stay hydrated, eat carbs and don’t push yourself too much.
The end of May is usually when some of the higher altitude roads start to open up. If there aren’t any major snow storms they’re ploughed and easy to drive.
We drove the Trail Ridge Road to The Gore Range Overlook. This route was absolutely amazing. We would stop every few minutes to take in new vistas, or watch some deer as they grazed.
To see which roads in the park are open visit the park’s website.
The higher up you go the trees start to disappear as the air thins out. While the bottom was shorts and t-shirt weather, the top had me breaking out my sweater. Because of the altitude, even small walks to the lookout points left me breathless (in more ways than one).
Hike to Nymph, Dream, Emerald and Bear Lake
This experience was easily my favourite from the entire trip. I have so many great photos and tips that I’m writing an entire post on it. This is a summary in the meantime:
This hike is so amazing because it connects 4 beautiful lakes. The hiking trail is relatively easy. In May, because of the colder weather at higher altitudes, the trail starts as a marked path but by the end you find yourself trekking through snow. Each lake was incredible. It made you so excited to keep on the trail because it just kept getting better and better.
Bear Lake is at the start of the trail, it’s a loop around the lake and very flat. It’s an easy trail for kids or the elderly. The rest of the trail is also fairly easy, though get’s a bit more challenging toward the approach to Emerald Lake.
But it’s worth it. Trust me.
Fill that Belly
Colorado wasn’t somewhere that was on the top of my list as a food destination but I was pleasantly surprised.
In Denver I was intrigued when I found a Native American restaurant called Tocabe. The owners use traditional recipes passed down through generations. I had never tried Native American foods so this was a must for me. We ordered the posu bowls which were served on traditional fry bread. The toppings included corn, cheese, wild rice and I got bison as my protein. It was delicious!
Breakfast in Denver on the weekend is a marathon. The top rated breakfast places, like Snooze, all had over hour-long waits. There’s times when I’ll wait for food but when my hanger kicks in there’s no telling what I’ll do. So after some walking we stumbled upon Kachina Cantina. This Mexican restaurant had your classic American breakfasts but the highlights were the beignets.
After a day in Colorado Springs give Edelweiss a try. It’s a traditional German restaurant that serves delicious schnitzel and rich cake.
Rocky Mountain National Park
On your way to Rocky Mountain National Park stop for breakfast in Boulder at the Dushanbe Teahouse. This restaurant is named after the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe. The teahouse was initially constructed there then dismantled and brought to Boulder. It’s a really interesting interior and their speciality is their chai tea. We enjoyed a lovely breakfast before heading to RMNP.
After a day in RMNP I needed a hearty meal! Dinner at Latitude 105 was exactly what I craved. A big old bison burger, with custom toppings. I ate the entire thing in under 5 minutes.
Where to stay in Colorado
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We used Denver as a hub to explore the city and Colorado Springs. It was an easy enough drive and central to the three locations we wanted to visit. We stayed at the AC Hotel by Mariott in downtown Denver. The rooms were clean, and the location was central to everything. Note parking in most hotels in Denver costs $40 per night.
In Rocky Mountain National Park I think we lucked out. I found an AirBnb which was awesome and I wish we stayed there for the entire trip. Not only was the location only 5 minutes away from the entrance to the park, but we had the upstairs room which felt like it’s own apartment. It had a wrap around balcony and Cindy, the host, was very friendly. She also had some cute dogs which came to greet us. The photos online don’t do it justice.
Colorado Photography TIPS
This may be a no-brainer but you go to Colorado for landscape and wildlife photography. So what does that mean? Make sure to bring your wide angle and zoom lenses at the very least. These are the two Fujifilm lenses I used a lot on this trip. The 16mm is WR so that’s great in case you get caught in sudden rain.
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Since you’ll likely have a car bring a tripod with you too. This will help you capture some of the epic landscapes for sunrise or sunset.
For the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, they do not allow cameras with detachable lenses. I was able to get away with it at the entrance by saying I took an Uber and didn’t have a car to leave my gear in, but I was sternly told that if I was caught taking photos I’d be kicked out. Ok, I got one, but not of the stage. You determine your own risk.
Most important tip is to be respectful of all wildlife in the park. Don’t make noises to get their attention, don’t feed them or come within 23 meters. Just bring a good zoom lens and you’ll be all set.
Getting Around Colorado
A car is pretty essential to get to all these locations in 4 days. You’ll want to drive to different spots, park and explore. Parking can be tricky during peak season in RMNP and Garden of the Gods but the best advice is just to get there early, and you’ll likely find a spot.
Know that most hotels charge roughly $40 per night in Denver, just be aware so you can factor that into your budget.
Safety in Colorado
Overall Denver, Colorado Springs and RMNP were safe places to visit.
When in RMNP you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Keep your distance from the wild animals, especially in the fall, during elk rutting season. This is when the males get aggressive and territorial, and those antlers don’t mess around so stay back.
Maintain at least 23 meters from elk and big horn sheep and 36 meters from bears and moose. For perspective, 23 meters is about 2 school buses and 36 is 3 buses.
When in the higher altitudes of RMNP drink lots of water to avoid altitude sickness. If you start to feel short of breath descend to a lower altitude where there is more oxygen.
For all safety precautions you should consider before visiting the park see their official website.