South central Colorado is a land of dichotomies. Explain that the region is famous for encompassing 29 of the state’s 54 fourteeners (mountains 14,000 feet or higher), and you leave out the 125-mile, perfectly flat San Luis Valley. Say you rafted the raging Rio Grande River, and someone will ask, “Yes, but did you go to Great Sand Dunes National Park?”
Who knew just one part of the state could be so diverse? In the east, Colorado Springs — the state’s second-largest city — is a jumping off point to explore flaming-red foothills, tiny Gold Rush-era mining towns and the nearby Royal Gorge, a dramatic crevasse spanned by North America’s highest suspension bridge.
This landscape, in the shadow of 14,110-foot Pikes Peak, was once covered by ocean. Evidence has survived the ages at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Different geological wonders were discovered to the west, where silver and gold deposits made circa-1850s prospectors in Leadville, the country’s highest-altitude city, rich.
Nearby, the headwaters of the Arkansas River snake south, passing by the Collegiate Peaks toward the San Luis Valley. The state’s spiritual center comprises ever-shifting dunes, serene hot springs and picturesque ranchland wedged between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains.