Sea-levelers often find touchdown at Denver International a breathtaking experience — literally. After all, they don’t call this the Mile High City for nothing.
As a University of Colorado student, I drove my share of fly-in friends wheezing all the way back to Boulder, or worse, directly to a ski lodge at Copper Mountain or Vail. Going from sea level to nearly two miles high in a couple hours will purge you of that over-oxygenated, mongrel sea air pronto. Should that be your itinerary, by all means avoid in-flight cocktails or you’ll be in for a very rough landing.
First glances at the majestic Rockies can be equally memorable. There’s an unusually crisp clarity to the air here. Even if you’ve seen countless images of those snow-capped 14,000-foot peaks, they still appear surreal at first sight.
How’s the local scene? Creative, musical, outdoorsy, cowboy liberal – and lately sprinkled with more than the usual soupcon of fairy dust since Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012.
Once you’ve acclimated, these 10 excursions will leave you Rocky Mountain high for weeks:
The Stanley Hotel, Estes Park: Despite its historic past, this century-old landmark, nestled “7,500 feet above the ordinary” just 90 minutes northwest of Denver, is best known as the inspiration and setting for Stephen King’s The Shining. Don’t miss the ghost tour – but should check-in assign you to King’s Room 217, you should probably request a re-deal.
Red Rocks Park & Amphitheater: If this amphitheater, carved into the red rock walls of the Rockies, isn’t the nation’s most awesome concert venue, it’s surely among the top three. You must see and hear it to believe it. No concert? No problem; you can also hike Trading Post Trail, horseback ride on Red Rocks Trail or experience Yoga on the Rocks.
Whitewater rafting: Abundant river rafting, from mild to wild, is available within a short drive from the city. Arkansas Valley Adventures runs rafting trips for all ages and abilities on eight Colorado rivers, throws in free wetsuits and paddling jackets, and features zipline fun at two of its locations.
16th Street Mall: Completed in 1982, this tree-lined pedestrian promenade that winds through the outdoor cafes, historic office buildings and glass-walled skyscrapers of downtown helped earn Denver its Brooking Institution rating as the nation’s fourth most walkable city.
U.S. Mint: Come on, you’re not going to miss the opportunity to see how spare change is made, right? The Denver Mint turns out 50 million coins a day, and the free 45-minute tour walks you through the entire process, Monday through Thursday. Reservations required.
Larimer Square and LoDo: Larimer Square, aka “The Square,” is Denver’s historic Victorian showpiece, filled with chic boutiques, outdoor cafes and nightclubs. LoDo, short for Lower Downtown, is the hip new mixed-use scene in town, with 20 art galleries, 100 restaurants and clubs and a thousand loft residences.
Rocky Mountain National Park: Just past Estes Park, elk, moose and big-horn sheep take over as your tour guides while hawks and eagles soar overhead at Colorado’s top attraction. What’s not to love about 350 miles of wildflower-lined scenic trails, waterfalls, alpine lakes – and of course, those magnificent snow-capped peaks? Breathtaking!
Tea at the Brown Palace: What can I say? I’m a traditionalist – at least when it comes to the fine art of afternoon tea. The venerable Brown Palace, home to Denver’s transplanted sophisticates since 1892, upholds the tradition in style, with Devonshire cream shipped directly from the “ould sod.”
Butterfly Pavilion: Make no mistake; there are plenty of museums worth a visit in the Mile High City, including the Denver Art Museum, the home of Titanic’s “Unsinkable” Molly Brown and the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art. But the one that will fill your inner child with wonder is this cockeyed collection of 5,000 small sea creatures, tarantulas and invertebrates, surrounded by 1,600 colorful butterflies in a lovely rain forest setting.
By Jay MacDonald
Photos: Shutterstock.com, Albert Pego / Shutterstock.com, James Becker / Shutterstock.com