As a born and bred Coloradan, the first question I get asked, after the obvious yet somewhat suspicious “so you’ve done pot?” is always “you must be a big skier, then?” Well, the sad truth is no. I have never been skiing. Although Breckenridge, Aspen, Vail – all the renowned resorts – are only a few hours’ distance from my house, and I can see the glorious, snow-capped peaks of the Rockies from my bedroom window, I’ve never felt the overwhelming urge to propel myself down a mountain strapped only to two thin pieces of plastic.
So, to all of you who blew off visiting Colorado because you’re like me and don’t want to end up tangled in a tree, here’s 36 hours in Colorado for the “non-skier.”
Friday morning: Snooze: an a.m. eatery for breakfast
Snooze Eatery is the perfect way to start your whirlwind tour of the Centennial State. With its bright, vibrant setting and wildly American brunch menu, what’s not to love? Get a taste of what the US does best: order from a range of iconic (and satisfyingly fluffy) pancakes, including sweet potato, pineapple upside down, and molten chocolate. Or, if you can’t decide which one to smother in syrup, order the “pancake flight” and sample all of your favourites.
Downtown Denver is one of the most artistic and thriving cultural hubs in the US. The only way to experience what makes this city so creatively unique is to walk it, starting with 16th Street Mall. With countless restaurants, art exhibits, and shops to explore, 16th Street is home to a variety of spontaneous street performers (and the occasional painted piano or two). You’re bound to see something you’ve never seen before. Be on the lookout for a cheeky socked whale or a giant blue bear. Both are famous figures in the Denver art community.
While you’re at it, stop by Larimer Square a few streets over to see Denver’s “first block” or peruse the Denver Art Museum. Fancy meeting a potential Broadway star? Grab a coffee at Backstage Coffee, where cast and crew members of current productions are known to pop in and sip on an iced chai.
And, if you tire of the urban scene, there’s always the chance to take a leisurely stroll in secluded Washington Park or the Denver Botanic Gardens. There’s so much to do: take the morning to navigate downtown and the limitless oddities it has to offer.
Mercantile for lunch
Now, you can’t go wrong with picking a good place to eat in Denver. That being said, one of my favourite lunch spots (with a great view from one of the most interesting historic landmarks, refurbished Union Station) is Mercantile. Fresh produce and quality service make this modern market a don’t miss. My recommendation? Try either the confit chicken salad (served on a warm, buttery croissant that could rival the most experienced Parisian baker) or the Colorado quinoa salad.
Friday evening: Pearl Street for dinner
Although Pearl Street is famous for its incredible dinner selections, another Colorado “must” is the classically popular Beau Jo’s Pizza. Once you’ve worked up an appetite from sightseeing, head over and put your name on the list for some Colorado-style pizza. Feeling particularly courageous? “Conquer a legendary Colorado 14er!” Order the $80, 14-pound “challenge,” a mountainous pizza which, if eaten by two people in one hour, promises an unforgettable legacy (and several prizes). Otherwise, stick to a delicious “mountain pie” or “prairie pie.” You can use the leftover handmade crust to dip in honey.
Red Rocks concert
There is only one thing that is absolutely essential to experience in Colorado, because it will change your life forever.
Attending a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre is transcendent; there is simply no better way to put it. The naturally formed, world-renowned venue is located right outside Denver and hosts a variety of events and performances. Not only is the view spectacular, but the casual and laid-back atmosphere itself strengthens the communal identity that seems to form as soon as you spread your blanket, buy a beer, and tune into the opening act. Beneath the towering rocks and clear sky, with the shadowy silhouette of the city on the horizon and thousands of people singing along to your favourite band, you truly believe you are on top of the world and anything is possible. I’ve made some amazing memories listening to Ed Sheeran, Mumford and Sons, One Republic, and the Barenaked Ladies.
It doesn’t matter who you see, or even if you know their music. When you’re in town, buy a ticket to whatever’s on. Or plan accordingly so you get a chance to see someone you really love in a venue that’s truly indescribable.
Friday night: Sweet Cow or LittleMan Ice Cream for dessert
Finish off the night with a quick trip for some late-night ice cream. What’s the best spot to satisfy that sweet tooth? Try Sweet Cow for a thick and creamy milkshake or Little Man Ice Cream for a scoop or two.
Set in a large, hollow cream can, LittleMan prides itself on freshly-made waffle cones and exotically flavorful concoctions, including strawberry balsamic vinegar, blackberry goat cheese, and Earl Grey tea. Be prepared to wait: the line for Little Man has been known to last for two hours. Good thing every night of the week has a theme, and live entertainment is provided. Enjoy some lively jazz or even a film to distract that rumbling stomach.
Saturday morning: VooDoo Doughnuts for breakfast
With a big, adventurous day ahead (and probably a bit of an ice cream hangover), what’s a few more calories? Because this place is worth every. Single. Bite. VooDoo Doughnuts hails originally from Portland, Oregon, but has set up shop in Denver to fuel even the most farfetched of cravings. Ever wanted to try sizzling bacon on a maple bar? How about the phallic-shaped phenomena “Cock N Balls” or the “Maple Blazer Blunt”?
Here, nothing is off limits; no topping is taboo. Keep in mind: the best time to go is between 4-6 am. After that, the wait is usually upwards of 45 minutes, making VooDoo Doughnuts the perfect place to stop at before heading up into the mountains.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Hopefully by now you’ve slept off that sugar rush in the car and are ready to fully embrace the Rocky Mountains. Rocky Mountain National Park offers extraordinary landscapes and great hiking opportunities. If you’re looking to enjoy the sights and easily traverse them, then I’d suggest the path that connects Bear Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake.
This will take you deep into Tyndall Gorge while providing glimpses of Hallett Peak and Long’s Peak (one of the more well-known 14ers). Keep in mind: the higher you go, the more you’ll see. If you’re feeling up to it, try the strenuous trek to Mt. Ida. With its summit at 12,889 feet, Mt. Ida exemplifies the natural beauty of Colorado through sweeping panoramic views of the valleys and jagged peaks below. But beware. Lightning is a serious risk, so it’s best to have descended before noon.
Explore Colorado Springs
Sometimes, weather-depending, the National Park isn’t always the best place to visit, especially since some of the more difficult hikes might be closed due to snow (yes, that is a very real concern, even in June and July). In that case, having a back-up plan is a good idea. So, why not explore the breathtaking beauty of Colorado Springs instead? My favourite spots?
Garden of the Gods Park provides some adventurous hikes for that inner pioneer. Set against the glorious backdrop of the wild frontier, you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported into a true western movie. The Cave of the Winds is another great location with “an inside look” into Colorado’s mining past during the Gold Rush.
Explore the deep abyss of the caverns on a Discovery or Lantern tour or launch yourself off a 200-foot cliff at a speed of 100+ miles per hour on the terrifying Terror-Dactyl, a two-person swing which drops into the canyon below. Either way, this is the perfect place to learn more about Colorado’s past. Or, if you would like a fitness challenge, climb the daunting Manitou Incline, an old railway track which now serves as a 68 per cent grade trek (at its highest) up the side of a mountain. Although less than one mile long, the path ascends 2,000 feet (610 m) in elevation. I’ve done it before, and trust me, it’s not for the weak of heart. But you will certainly be rewarded with a view that you can’t quite get anywhere else.