Whether natural or manmade, Colorado is home to a multitude of astonishing sights. These aren’t hidden gems by any means, but they are memorable enough to brave the crowds for—and that’s saying something.
Let’s check out five of Colorado’s most celebrated sights.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
The dunes in Colorado are naturally on everyone’s list whether you’re a tourist, a transplant, or even a native. And for good reason—the dunes are like something straight out of a space flick. We were lucky enough to nab a spot at the Pinon Flats Campground (~$20/night), which sits right against the dramatic backdrop of the dunes. We camped the second weekend in September, and the dunes were still hot enough to scorch our feet at midday and send us running back to the campsite. I’d recommend checking out the dunes in the fall months, or even scheduling a trip for winter, when it’s cooler and sometimes you can even witness an ethereal dusting of white snow atop the dunes.
Tip: Check out the Zapata Falls hike during any season for an amazing view of the area. Hike to the falls during the summer or even during winter to catch them frozen in time. You can also camp at the Zapata Falls campground if you’re unable to secure a spot at one of the places closer to the park.
We stumbled upon this gem purely by chance. A few days before our planned trip to New Mexico, a friend told me about this place so we added a pit stop on our drive down. Not knowing what to expect, my mind was blown by the sheer magnitude of this structure. Crazy Old Man Bishop—who can often be heard shouting his political opinions at the site, shotgun in tow—built the castle by hand…literally using rocks he collected in the national forest. The castle has no guardrails, no entrance fee, no rules…and it’s most definitely not up to code. It’s basically an adult playground and for that we’re thankful. Just make sure your Tetanus shot is up to date.
Tip: Keep taking the spiral stairs upward until you find yourself on one of the many turrets. And if you’re feeling brave, you might even scale your way up further.
Mount Evans Summit
Fourteen-thousand-foot peaks—or 14ers as the “peak baggers” call them—are all the rage in Colorado. The views from 14,000 feet are completely unparalleled, with colors of red, green, blue, and purple bleeding into the horizon. Not to mention Colorado is home to a whopping 54 of them. For most of these granite giants, it’ll take a lot of legwork to get to the summit, and many people spend a lot of time training for such climbs. But some rare rocky monoliths are paved all the way to the top. Mt. Evans is one of those in which lucky visitors can motor up using gas and not and not quads…making it a favorite for those of all activity levels and a breathtaking spot on your tour de Colorado. Plus, just 60 miles from Denver, the Mount Evans scenic byway is the highest paved road in North America.
Tip: Because of weather, the road is only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Drive up at sunrise or sunset for a colorful scene in the sky you won’t soon forget.
The Bells were named the most photographed spot in Colorado—and for good reason! Between the sharp peaks and saturated textures unique to the Elk Mountains, the Maroon Bells offer views like no other. Plus, getting to this majestic spot is as easy as driving up a winding road and parking at the top—the lake is just a few steps from the parking lot, making it accessible to most people!
Tip: If you’re in good shape, comfortable with elevation, have experience in the backcountry, and want some of the most breathtaking views of the Bells without the crowds, Four Pass Loop is one of the best and most popular backpacking excursions in the state. Begin at the lake and work either clockwise or counterclockwise. While the loop takes most folks 3-4 days, crazy ultrarunners have been known to conquer it in a day.
Garden of the Gods
If the name isn’t enough to get you there, the pictures should do the trick. A picturesque garden of—no, not plants—but towering rock formations of red and pink sandstone, all seemingly teetering just a bit to one side. Visit the aptly named Cathedral Valley, enjoying pullouts along the way. Grab a map at the visitor center and try one of the trails throughout the park.
Tip: Go during early or late winter, when glittering white snow blankets the formations—it makes for incredible photos and you may even have the park to yourself!