Colorado Springs is one of the state’s most popular vacation destinations, thanks to its proximity to the mountains, amazing natural sights and attractions and its historic national treasures.
Day 1: Downtown Colorado Springs & Beyond
Use your first day in Colorado Springs to explore all that the city has to offer. Downtown is a great place to start, with plenty of options for breakfast or a cup of coffee, and the new PikeRide bike-share program makes it easy to get around on two wheels. Head to Tejon Street for some window-shopping and latte sipping, or grab a freshly baked bagel at the Ivywild School, a 1916 elementary school renovated into a community market featuring Bristol Brewery, the new Axe & Oak whiskey distillery, community gardens, live music, a deli and a bakery — all selling local items. Or catch the new kid on the block: Lincoln Center, another former school now home to tasty tenants like Goat Patch Brewing, Nightingale Bread, Tailgate BBQ and several food trucks.
Spend a few hours at one of the area’s exceptional museums, including the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, with rotating and permanent exhibits, the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, the Spencer Penrose Heritage Museum, the McAlister House Museum or the new Ent Center for the Arts, a magnificent cultural building complete with a contemporary-art gallery.
With more than 50 pieces of permanent public art, esteemed cultural institutions and a roster of events and festivals, it’s no surprise that downtown Colorado Springs was recently named one of 23 Certified Colorado Creative Districts. A free First Friday Art Walk shuttle will take you to the galleries around town, as well as in nearby Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs, from April to December.
Afterward, visit the U.S. Air Force Academy or the U.S. Olympic Training Center. At the Olympic Training Center, take a guided tour of the facilities, which also house the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, a cafe and the U.S. Olympic Spirit Store. Or hold out for spring when the brand-spanking new United States Olympic Museum debuts just blocks away from the Olympic Training Center (they don’t call this Olympic City USA for nothing!).
The Air Force Academy is open daily and offers an informative exhibit about cadet life in the visitor’s center. Be sure to take the short nature hike to the famous and beautiful Cadet Chapel (which will close for a four-year restoration in late 2018). Every weekday at 12:30pm the newly reopened U.S. Air Force Academy Planetarium & STEM Center explores the universe and life on Earth in its open-to-the-public shows.
For dinner, Colorado Springs offers a wide variety of fine dining options, including one of Colorado’s two five-star restaurants, The Penrose Room, located at the world-famous Broadmoor Hotel. Or, you might choose to take in a show at the Pikes Peak Center performing arts complex. The center has received international acclaim for its design and acoustics and hosts more than 200 fascinating music and theater shows every year.
Day 2: Garden of the Gods, Pikes Peak & Manitou Springs
Start your day with a visit to Garden of the Gods. This National Natural Landmark offers free admission to some of the most astonishing and memorable scenery in Colorado, featuring unusual sandstone rock formations up to 300 feet high silhouetted against the backdrop of Pikes Peak and the deep blue Colorado sky. You can explore the entire park by car, Segway or vintage scooter via a paved loop, but many of the hiking and walking trails are also paved and offer excellent access for visitors with mobility limitations. A new shuttle whisks all visitors from the entrance to the main part of the park in no time.
From here, take your visit to new heights and explore Pikes Peak itself. The summit can be reached via the Pikes Peak Highway by car, on foot via the strenuous Barr Trail, or — perhaps most uniquely — via bike. Book an excursion with Pikes Peak Bike Tours, who will shuttle you to the top of the 14,115-foot summit in a passenger van. From there, take in dazzling 360-degree views of the area before you descend 7,000 feet down the mountain on bike. Since the trip is 95 percent downhill, it's perfect for all abilities.
Explore in the peak’s shadow at the Southern Slope Recreation Area, with hiking and singletrack trails, fishing and bighorn-sheep viewing. If you’re feeling extreme, traverse 2,000 feet in elevation in one mile on the Manitou Incline, one of the most challenging trails in the country. Or head over to the Red Rock Canyon Open Space, with picnic areas, hiking trails, a free-ride bike park, technical climbing routes and off-leash dog loops. If your pooch is along, finish his day at the Pub Dog, the state’s only restaurant where dogs can eat indoors with their owners and plenty of Fido-friendly amenities make it worth their while.
There’s also the Overdrive Raceway, the nation’s first two-story indoor electric go-kart race track, featuring two quarter-mile Formula One race tracks and other amusements.
Red Rock Canyon Open Space is one of the easiest ways to get on trails for all experience levels minutes from downtown. Canyons, ridges, trails, sheltered enclaves, picnic areas, off-leash dog areas and a bike park are just a few of the attractions that make this park a favorite with visitors in the know.
For dinner, explore historic Manitou Springs, named one of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in the country by Budget Travel magazine. This cozy mountain town is home to several historic restaurants, as well as many favorite neighborhood eateries. If you have time, wander the charming streets and check out the artisan galleries that call Manitou home. North of town, Rainbow Falls Historic Site — a series of small waterfalls along Fountain Creek — recently reopened to hikers and picnickers following improvements to the trail system.
Day 3: Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Royal Gorge & More
Start your morning with a visit to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the only mountain zoo in the U.S. Here, you can ride the tram that circles the park, check out native species in the Rocky Mountain Wild section and even hand-feed more than 30 giraffes!
Have a little snack yourself and then head out to the Cave of the Winds and Seven Falls. At Seven Falls, a 224-step staircase will take you to the top of the 181-foot waterfall, or you can choose to take the 14-story mountain express elevator through solid rock to reach the top. The Soaring Adventure zipline just outside the falls delights visitors with multiple courses and scenic features. At the Cave of the Winds, explore the magnificent geological formations and hear tales of the cave’s historical significance on a discovery tour — or take your adventure to a thrilling new level with a flashlight tour after 5pm. Or celebrate early at North Pole, Home of Santa’s Workshop, where it’s Christmas all year and a zipline whisks you around the park in Santa’s sleigh.
Spend some time in Cañon City, home to epic rock climbing, mountain biking, ziplining and river rafting. The Oil Well Flats trail system provides more than 10 miles of varied singletrack routes for mountain bikers. The Cat’s Pajamas trail takes riders to the edge of a 200-foot rim for views of Cañon City and the Sangre De Christo Mountains. And some of the best fishing in the state can be had on the Arkansas’ Gold Medal trout waters, including the area around Parkdale (just above the Royal Gorge).
More than 1,000 feet above the rushing Arkansas River, the Royal Gorge Bridge is America’s highest suspension bridge. Navigate the rapids beneath it on a whitewater raft trip or put on a harness and slide along sky-high cables with Royal Gorge Zip-Line Tours or find thrills at the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, which recently opened new attractions, including a new visitor center and the world’s longest single-span aerial gondolas. For another scenic exursion, enjoy lunch or dinner ride in the glass-topped Vista Dome cars of the historic Royal Gorge Route Railroad.
The Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience is an architecturally stunning museum and outdoor-education center. Explore science-focused interactive displays, full-scale dinosaur fossil casts and hands-on exhibits with real dinosaur fossils, as well as a multi-story ropes course and more.
Walkable downtown Cañon City has shops, restaurants, cafes and a public-art program that make a pleasant space to while away the day and people watch. The Fremont Center for the Arts hosts exhibits and events exploring local arts and history. The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey is a serene little tasting room and shop set against the Wet Mountains. Farmers’ markets and farm stores are a great way to experience the region’s delicious apples and other local bounties. Treasure hunters may want to spend a day Florence, a charming little town near Cañon City with an extensive antique shopping district.
Legends of gold rushers, agriculture pioneers and even dinosaurs abound in the region. Self-guided Fremont County Heritage Tours offer great opportunities to discover the history. Learn about the architecture of historic structures like the Colorado Territorial Prison on the Cañon City tour; or investigate dinosaur tracks and ancient fossils on the Skyline Drive tour.
Take a scenic drive southwest of Cañon City to the towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, nestled between the Wet Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo range. The quiet area, home to 200 miles of hiking trails and 54 alpine lakes, has an air of being undiscovered. Peek into the Westcliffe Depot railroad museum and stop for a performance or movie at The Historic Jones Theater.
Check out our Field Guide itineraries: Pikes Peak Country: Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs & Cañon City, A Tale of 7 Adventures in the Pikes Peak Wonders Region and Family Fun in the Pikes Peak Region.