Family holidays are always exciting and more so when planned after a rather long break. With the covid situation easing and places opening up, we decided to take a short family vacation. Being cooped up inside for over a year, both adults and kids were yearning for some fresh air, open spaces and enjoyment. We zeroed in on Denver, Colorado. We soon curated an itinerary for Denver best places to visit and we were on the plane to the “MIle-High City”.
Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
We landed at the airport early in the morning. Enroute downtown to our hotel, a 45-minute drive took us to Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Located on the outskirts of Denver, this 17,000-acre wildlife refuge is the largest urban refuge in America. This one-time US Army chemical weapons production facility is now home to over 330 species of wildlife, including bison and bald eagles. Wide open spaces with lush greenery and two sparkling lakes made for a perfect start to our trip.
The gorgeous landscape of Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge definitely calls for a picture!
The wildlife refuge holds over ten miles of easy hiking trails passing through different terrain like wetlands, woodlands and grasslands. We also spotted wildlife like bison, mule, deer, otters and bald eagles which was exciting for all of us, especially the kids. There is a Visitor Center with a well-curated exhibit hall and a hands-on 'Discovery Room' for kids with displays and wildlife activities. This beautiful spot was surrounded by local housing communities and we headed out from here thinking how lucky these people were to live around such spectacular environments.
Bisons up close and personal at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
Sunkissed and refreshed we were on our way to our next stop, Hammond's Candies. Established in 1920, it is the oldest candy factory in Denver. The kids were super excited as this is a candy paradise! There are free tours every half an hour to showcase behind the scenes of the factory. Large video screens show various processes and interesting tidbits about the candy world. From candy canes and ribbon candy to lollipops, it was amazing to watch these precious treats being pulled, twisted, cut and packed, mostly by hand. One of the standout features of Hammond's Candies is that they specialize in handmade confectioneries. Most of the machines here date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. We were amazed by the unique and unorthodox flavors created like pumpkin spice etc. All in all, we had a "sweet" experience and left Hammond's Candies with a sugar rush.
My little one is thrilled to visit Hammond's Candies, the candy haven!
It was time to check in at the Comfort Suites Denver Tech Center and after relaxing, we went to Shoreline Village Park near the hotel.. There are many fun things to do in Denver Colorado and this was the perfect place for the entire family to relax and enjoy. The magic of Long Beach was captured beautifully in this quaint and charming park. We enjoyed a fun cycle ride around the park and indulged in some delicious ice cream. There are many downtown Denver places to visit. We then hopped on a boat ride and enjoyed the gorgeous landscape around. Then we strolled along the streets passing many colorful shops soaking in the sun and enjoyed being out in the open.
We enjoyed a leisurely fun ride in this surrey bike around Shoreline Village Park, Denver Colorado
We had heard about 16th Street Mall and were curious to discover if it was similar to Bourbon Street in Austin (insert link to story here). We reached there and were totally enthralled with the ambience. We parked at 16th Street Mall parking as there are free shuttle rides that take visitors from one end of the street to the other. No other vehicles are seen here. These buses stop at every corner making it convenient for people to hop on and off as they please. The street is over 1.25 miles long and is a vibrant pedestrian promenade made of granite stone. There is no need to worry as 16th Street Mall Hours are 24/7. The sidewalks are sprinkled with fun spring seats for kids and have fancy vintage cars on display. This street has everything from outdoor cafes to fine dining restaurants and exhaustive shopping options to movie theaters. It is the perfect place to spend time with kids and indulge in some retail therapy as well. As the sun set, the millions of lights twinkling from more than 200 trees that line the promenade made for a spectacular sight. What a crackling start to our four-day trip to Denver, Colorado! With much more planned for the next few days, it was time to get some rest.
Day or night, 16th Street Mall is full of character
There are interesting places to visit within 2 hours of Denver. The next morning we had one of such places to visit near Denver, towards east of Denver. Have you ever experienced a natural amphitheater? Well, this was our first time...We were headed to Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater, which is just outside the city. Set between 400ft-high red sandstone rocks the 9,000-seat theater offers unrivaled views and stunning scenery of the 600-acre Red Rocks Mountain Park that surrounds it. An outdoor natural theater, it makes for one of the most spectacular venues in the world and has been used as a venue since 1941. Its natural acoustics coupled with the orange glow from the rock formations at sunset creates the most electrifying ambience.
A gorgeous sunny morning with my family at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater, the only naturally-occurring, acoustically perfect amphitheater in the world
We visited in the morning as Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater is open to visitors only upto 2 pm. After that, the place is closed to visitors as preparation for performances in the evening take place. This is also one of the Denver places to visit in Summer, as there is something happening here almost everyday. Music performances and special activities like Yoga on the Rocks are hosted here. Besides being a natural amphitheater, it is also an amazing place to hike. The kids did try their voices and I did too to see if the acoustics would sweeten our voices..a fascinating experience, overall.
A stunning panoramic view of Red Rocks Park from the amphitheater
Day two was the day to explore the natural wonders of Denver. Our next spot was Mount Evans,the highest motorable peak in the US. We had rented a car to roam around. We are usually good behind the wheels but the sight of the narrow curvy road from the base with the steep drop on one side made me very nervous. Thankfully, we had a safe and enjoyable drive with the most spectacular views! We were surprised to see snow around since we visited in summer. This drive is one of the top things to do in Denver Colorado.
We were an excited bunch to see snow in June at the base of Mount Evans Scenic Byway
As we drove up on Mount Evans Scenic Byway to the peak, at a height of 12,840 ft, was the "Summit Lake". This forty-acre alpine lake is famous for its panoramic beauty and unique ecosystem. It was a gorgeous place for a stopover and of course some photo ops as well. From here we continued uphill and reached the topmost peak and the view was indescribable. It was worth every bit of effort to reach here and we also got to see mountain goats in their natural habitat. Their antics like jumping off cliffs had the kids totally elated. We also saw the ruins of Mount Evans Crest House, the highest business structure in the US. Built between 1940-41, it is well known for both its unique architectural design and unusual location. The building housed a restaurant, gift shop until it was partially destroyed by a fire in 1979. This "Castle in the Sky" was a gift of Justus Roehling, a German carpenter to his wife.
The view from the summit of Mount Evans is spectacular!
Our next stop was at Dinosaur Ridge Discovery Center. It is a segment of Dakota Hogback in the National Natural Landmark. Ranked as the #1 dinosaur track site in the United States, it is a haven for Dinosaur lovers. The first fossils and some of the best-known Dinosaurs were discovered here in 1877 by Arthur Lakes. With the most unique and fascinating displays of the Dinosaur era, the guided tours give you history and significance. Dinosaur Ridge Main Visitor Center is also a great place to spend time with kids. After posing with models of some funky prehistoric Dinosaurs, we headed back to our hotel. It is advisable to keep an eye on Dinosaur Ridge hours as this place is not open 24 hours.
My kids curiously examining the teeth of one of the smaller dinosaur models, daring don't you think?
After resting for a while, we visited Monster Mini Golf in Centennial. This place is a kid's paradise and honestly we adults too had an equally good time. This place has one of the most unique mini golf experiences we have ever seen. It has 18 holes of glow-in-the-dark mini golf with bright black lights surrounded by walls that come alive with vibrant pop-culture artwork relatable to Denver and Colorado. There is a huge arcade that had animated monsters walking around. There was also a virtual reality zone that offered players some monstrously entertaining adventures. It was an exhilarating experience! Exhausted, we returned to the hotel and had a delicious Thai meal which we enjoyed. Another eventful day came to an end with more to look forward to the next day.
Playing golf in the glow-in-the-dark Monster Mini Golf course was a first for us and super fun
The next day, we had planned to explore Colorado Springs, which is south of Denver. We headed to the Garden of Gods known as Colorado Spring's paradise. It is possibly the most picturesque place in Denver and also one of the best places to hike. The 300-million years of geological history embedded in these towering sandstone rock formations is truly fascinating. There is a visitor & nature center where you can get a map of the place and also watch a 12-minute film in the Geo-Trekker Theater about how the red rocks came into being. We did some rock climbing,one of the Colorado Springs things to do and of course took a ton of photos.
These unique red rock formations in the Garden of the Gods are fascinating with exciting hikes to explore
When planning our itinerary, we were really excited about Cave of the Winds and we were finally heading there. With mountain experience on zip lines, exhilarating rides offering spectacular views and cave tours, this place has so much to do above and below ground level. The kids thoroughly enjoyed the cave tour walking through stunning natural caverns. There was an element of spookiness that added to the experience and we saw some of the most beautiful formations deep inside the mountain. There was a gust of wind constantly inside the caves creating an air-conditioned atmosphere. These tours have to be booked and one is not allowed to wander around without a guide. All in all, it was a special experience that we as a family will always remember.
Cave of the winds is believed to be the home of a Great Spirit of the Wind and is one of the places to visit within 2 hours of Denver
We then headed to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (also known as Colorado Springs Zoo), one of the most spectacular zoos I have seen. It is the best way of showing kids of all ages the wonders of the natural world and creating lifetime memories. This visit was planned keeping the kids in mind and they had a blast. At an elevation of 6,714 ft, it is the highest zoo in the US. With viewing places being higher than the places where animals are kept, visitors have a vantage point from where to view the animals. The kids got an opportunity to pet and feed several animals, of course under supervision. We spent a long time here as the entire family was enjoying the experience and the kids were overjoyed. Another eventful day came to an end and it was time to call it a day.
My son and the gorilla having a moment at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Our last day in Denver was planned exclusively for our kids so we spent the entire day at Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park. This park has a very interesting history. Earlier known as Elitch Gardens, it was a farm owned by John and Mary Elitch that was opened to the public in 1890. Over the years the property changed hands and evolved into the fantabulous place it is today. It is one of the oldest consecutive-operating family owned amusement parks in the US and is 130+ years old. Spanning across 63 acres, it offers 50+ rides, live entertainment, and dining. There is an observation tower that offers the most astounding views of Denver. Between the rides and the water park we had the most amazing family time ever. There are a few hotels near Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park in case you prefer to stay here.
A day of fun and excitement at Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park
It was the most refreshing family vacation that my kids, husband and I absolutely enjoyed. It was such a well-rounded trip that worked beautifully for the entire family. There are abundant Denver places to visit in summer making it one of the emerging holiday destinations. We boarded our flight back to Houston with the kids still bubbling with excitement about the splendid holiday they had. We were glad they loved it because we did too! While bidding adieu to the Mile-High City, I could sense another holiday plan brewing in our minds...Family holidays are the best and we would plan one in a heartbeat!
What should I not miss near Denver?
There are many places to visit within 2 hours of Denver but one should not miss Red Rocks park and Amphitheater.
What is the best month to visit Denver?
The best month to visit Denver is June, although April to October is the season.
How long does it take to drive up Mount Evans?
Mount Evans scenic byway is 28 miles long and takes about an hour to drive to the top. Make sure you stop on your way up and enjoy the scenic views.
What food is Denver known for?
Denver is a cosmopolitan state catering to all food preferences. Of course the steaks and burgers are the most popular.