Think “Colorado” and what likely comes to mind is powder-dusted ski slopes, frosty pints of craft beer and the wild beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park. All amazing, to be sure. But tucked inside the seemingly unassuming rectangular state are 104,185 square miles of secrets to uncover — from desert wineries and ghost towns to glacial lakes so blue, you’ll never think of the color the same way again.
Here are 10 of our favorites.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Brace yourself for inevitable jaw dropping at the sight of sheer stone walls and buttresses soaring more than 2,700 feet above the thundering Gunnison River. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park boasts numerous nature trails and scenic drives, perfect for ogling the canyon’s many alluring angles. Don’t miss the Painted Wall Overlook for glimpses of Peregrine falcons swooping past pink-ribboned slabs at the highest cliff in Colorado. Anglers will delight in fishing Gold Medal Waters brimming with rainbow and brown trout, while the Milky Way slices through the heavens to thrill astronomers of all ages in this International Dark Sky Park.
The Ice Lakes
Tucked inside the San Juan National Forest are four aquamarine gems known as the Ice Lakes. The hike to these alpine lakes has a reputation for being strenuous and steep — but the stellar views and scenery are ample reward for the trek. Expect glacial waters of cerulean and turquoise whose mirror-like surfaces reflect snow-streaked peaks and the tundra that surrounds them. Summer brings an extra splash of color, as trails are lined with high-altitude blooms in varying shades of yellows and purples.
McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area
You’ll find the nation’s second-largest concentration of striking red sandstone arches squirrelled away in a high-desert ecosystem of juniper-dotted mesas and blossoming cacti. McInnis’s Rattlesnake Canyon is a little off the beaten path, but adventurous hikers find the payoff — the eight major Rattlesnake Arches — well worth the effort. Meanwhile, mountain bikers flock to Kokopelli Trail for day trips and bikepacking getaways. Bonus secret: Colorado wine country is right next door. Celebrate your endeavors with the elevated flavors of cab francs and refreshing rosés.
Conejos River Valley
The 93-mile long Conejos River is a tributary of the Rio Grande and a fly-fishing dream. The waters are partially made of pure snowmelt, and you’ll find plenty of access to the banks as well as open meadows that make casting a breeze. Toss in spectacular vistas of rugged cliffs and — in autumn — fists of golden aspens punching through dark evergreen forests, and you’ve got an angler’s paradise. For an extra dose of fall color, take a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, where you’ll catch views you can’t get from the road.
Hovenweep National Monument
The Ancestral Puebloans of Colorado were such skilled architects and masons that parts of their structures have been standing for more than 700 years at Hovenweep National Monument. Explore six prehistoric villages where you’ll see underground kivas (circular rooms used for spiritual ceremonies) and towers perched on canyon rims and boulders. Many structures are only accessible by foot, so grab your hydration pack and take in the otherworldly landscape of ruddy mesas flecked with wildflowers, cacti and desert shrubs as you tour the historic sites. Tip: GPS will send you astray within the monument, so old-school maps are the way to go.
Never Summer Wilderness
The aptly named Never Summer Wilderness cozies up with the clouds west of Rocky Mountain National Park. Here, 20 miles of hiking trails wind through lush conifer forests and pastel-hued tundra, passing peaks named for cloud types — Cirrus, Stratus, Cumulus and Nimbus — along the way. The views are, naturally, outstanding. But what’s most captivating about this area is the ecosystem. Its secluded location makes it prime for catching moisture, leading to the formation of rare high-altitude bogs — home to moose, pygmy shrews, astoundingly large trees and intriguing flora, like flowering bogbeans.
Phantom Canyon Road
Turn down the right Colorado backcountry road and you’ll discover a world of history and heritage. Phantom Canyon Road, a Gold Belt Tour byway detour and the former route of the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad, is no exception. As you drive, you’ll gain 4,000 feet in elevation, pass through narrow mountain tunnels and cross the Adelaide Bridge — the railroad’s only remaining structure. The ruins of ghost towns pepper the route, so keep an eye out for these historic sites and, according to local lore, the spirits of their former inhabitants.
Comanche National Grassland
The eastern side of Colorado is awash in seas of prairie, providing a stark contrast to the Rocky Mountains. Comanche National Grassland is home to some of the country’s last remaining shortgrass prairie. Amid the breeze-stirred brown and green grasses, you’ll spot some of the state’s most fascinating wildlife, including pronghorns, the lesser prairie chicken, swift foxes, collared lizards and burrowing owls. In fact, the region is known for being a birdwatching hotspot — so don’t leave those binoculars at home.
Yampa River Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument
The striking red and orange striations of Yampa River Canyon’s 2,500-foot walls carve straight through the northwestern corner of Dinosaur National Monument. This tributary of the Colorado River boasts some of the world’s most sought-after guided whitewater adventures, where you’ll yelp with glee as you run rapids created from Rocky Mountain snowmelt and glacial runoff. The monument itself offers plenty of opportunities for additional excursions, from backcountry camping, fishing and horseback riding to fossil exhibits and hikes to petroglyphs and pictographs.
Sangre de Cristo Wilderness
Nature gets a bit dramatic here — but in the best way. This region of the state is bordered to the west by the windswept dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve and studded with the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Budding photogs will love the golden hour here, as the setting sun bathes the peaks in majestic crimson hues. The sight so inspired Spanish explorers, they named the range the “Blood of Christ” mountains. This area is also home to some of Colorado’s best stargazing, so stick around after dark to revel in diamond-dotted, inky-blue skies from a peaceful campsite.