The Royal Gorge Bridge. Courtesy photo

Fall Day Trips from Boulder: the Paint Mines, Royal Gorge, Steamboat, Denver


Fall is one of the best times to visit Colorado. No, really.

While winter and summer get all the hype, that’s exactly why we love exploring the state in the fall. It’s not as crowded, it’s easy to find travel deals and the scenery (and weather) are just as fantastic; while you’re likely to get an occasional chilly day here and there, the truth is, fall in Boulder and the surrounding areas is pretty mild.

Whether you live in Boulder or you’re visiting, fall is the perfect season to venture out for a weekend to some of the best places in Colorado.

Here’s where we’re digging this fall, and why it’s worth the drive for a staycation from Boulder.

The Paint Mines. Photo by Flickr user Mark Byzewski

The Paint Mines Interpretive Park

Where is it? About two and a half hours from Boulder in El Paso County, near Calhan.

Why visit? This park is totally unique, like nothing else you’ve ever seen before. You have to see it to believe it exists on this planet. These rock formations are marked by lines of colorful bands. They look like someone painted them, but this is the artwork of Mother Nature. These colorful stripes were painted by oxidized iron compounds on clay. This clay was used by Native Americans to make paint, hence the name of the park.

What to do? The 750-acre park is great for hiking, as well as learning about history. Here, you can find artifacts dating back 9,000 years. As for hiking, there are four miles of trails that include interesting interpretive signs to help guide the way.

The Paint Mines Trail is appropriate for all skill levels, and best of all, it’s not super busy. It’s best to hit this trail before it gets too cold in October. You’ll find slight inclines but nothing extreme, although beware of mud from the clay after a rain or snowmelt. Leave your dogs at home.

In addition to the views of the striped rocks, you can see Pikes Peak from this trail.

Where to stay? This is close enough to Boulder to drive there and back in a single day, but if you want to make a weekend out of it, the Cheyenne Mountain State Park is less than an hour away for camping. Or there’s the Damn Near Anything Swine Ranch, with a campground and pigs, cattle and chickens, a half hour away in Rush. It’s not every day you can say you camped on a pig ranch.

The Royal Gorge

Where is it? About three and a half hours from Boulder near Canon City.

Why visit? First, the scenery. The 10-mile-long canyon is embraced by massive, 1,000-foot-tall red walls. It’s called the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas.”

Second, the bridge (and the adrenaline that comes with it). The Royal Gorge Bridge is perched 955 feet above the Arkansas River, earning it the title of the highest bridge in the United States. It was the world’s highest suspension bridge until 2003, when a taller suspension bridge was built in China.

What to do? Why, walk across the terrifying/beautiful bridge, of course! If your legs freeze up, you can force yourself to sit on the gondola, which casually zips across the gaping canyon all day. On the other side, you’ll be rewarded with a playful carousel, obstacle course (for kids) and other activities. You can zipline across the gorge or try your courage on a wild sky-coaster.

The Royal Gorge Bridge. Courtesy photo

Prefer to experience the Royal Gorge from below? You can book a whitewater rafting trip on the Arkansas River through Echo Canyon River Expeditions, although availability is going to be limited in the fall. Less nail-biting: Cast out a line and go fishing or do a Jeep tour to check out the changing of the leaves.

Where to stay? The Royal Gorge Cabins or new luxury glamping tents.

The tents are perched on heated concrete slabs and are appointed with real beds, flatscreen TVs, wifi, a private deck, fire pit and more. It’s like camping, without all of the inconveniences. You can rent tents through October.

The high-end, spacious cabins are ideally located across the street from Echo Canyon River Expeditions (a reputable hook-up for all kinds of activity in the area) and next door to the Dinosaur Experience. It’s just minutes from the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. Cabins offer dramatic views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and are truly the top place to stay in the Royal Gorge area. They’re open year-round.

“The success of the luxury cabins and glamping tents exceeded our expectations by far,” says Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions. “We are so pleased to share our little piece of Colorado heaven with increasing numbers of travelers.”

The Governor’s Penthouse in Steamboat Springs, via Moving Mountains. Courtesy photo

Steamboat Springs

Where is it? Three and a half hours from Boulder.

Why visit? Steamboat is beloved for its ski slopes but it’s a fantastic vacay destination year-round. Guaranteed jaw-dropping leaf-peeping in the fall.

What to do? Steamboat is called Bike Town USA for good reason. It has seemingly endless bike trails for road bikes, mountain bikes and even gravel bikes (road bikes with fat tires, a growing trend). Steamboat hosts an event in September called the Steamboat Bike Festival.

See the changing trees while walking the Yampa River Core Trail or exploring Zirkel Wilderness.

And of course, the Strawberry Park Hot Springs is one of Colorado’s favorite natural hot springs, tucked away in the wilderness, surrounded by trees and sparkling stars at night (when it’s also clothing-optional).

In town, Yampa Street was recently revamped, and the power lines were replaced with white party lights. It’s setting the mood for more, new restaurants to pop up on the river. Steamboat is about the blow up, guys.

The rooftop deck at the Governor’s Penthouse in Steamboat, via Moving Mountains. Courtesy photo

Where to stay? Moving Mountains is our favorite source for a Steamboat vacation. This family-run company rents out luxurious, independent properties (like a penthouse directly on the Yampa River and one block from downtown) that you could never otherwise get access to.

Skip the hotel experience, and upgrade from the VRBO concept; Moving Mountains also offers a concierge service to help you plan your trip. Don’t feel like cooking? It will hire a private chef to make all your meals. Don’t know where to find the best coffee, sushi or hiking trails? This locally based company has firsthand experience living in Steamboat for decades and knows the ins and outs.

The model is based off the popular “catered ski chalet” concept in Europe.

Proof that Steamboat is the up-and-coming place to be? Moving Mountains’ summer demand has doubled every two years recently, and its winter demand is up 10 to 20 percent every year.

The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch in Beaver Creek. Courtesy photo

Bachelor Gulch

Where is it? About two hours and forty-five minutes from Boulder, near Avon, just past Vail off Interstate 70.

Why visit? Bachelor Gulch is like a private island in the middle of some of Colorado’s most impressive mountains. It’s a gated area just outside of Avon, with a charming downtown and a small-town vibe. Although it’s impressive, it’s still laid back and friendly.

What to do? Stroll through nearby Beaver Creek and go shopping, explore the small town of Avon, go hiking. Oh, the hiking. It’s perfect this time of year.

Fun fact: For the first time ever, the Bachelor Gulch Express (Chair 16) will run in the off-season. Take a ride on the chairlift and enjoy the views.

After hiking, relax with a unique, only-in-Colorado-style spa treatment at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch Spa. The Miner’s Mineral Mud Wrap uses indigenous ore acquired from the depths of Colorado’s mines, hand-mixed with detoxifying activated charcoal mud. Add in amethyst oil, roze quartz salt and shea butter for a full body splurge. The treatment includes a body exfoliation, body wrap, scalp massage, full-body massage and a bath in a special hydrotherapy tub.

Where to stay? Our favorite place to stay in the area is hands down the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch. If you can’t afford Ritz peak season prices, fall is the time to indulge in more affordable luxury; look for specials and room deals in this off-season between summer and winter.

The RC Bachelor Gulch is consistently recognized as one of North America’s best hotels and one of Colorado’s premier luxury ski destinations (but it’s lovely year-round). If you can, consider booking one of the dreamy penthouses, with full kitchens and living rooms.

At this hotel, you can also visit Vail Valley’s only cigar lounge, take a dip in the heated pool (open year-round) with perfect views of the mountain and visit the spa.

Grab a bite to eat by the fireplace at WYLD, a Colorado-centric restaurant using local ingredients and “mountain cooking techniques.” For example, there’s a Colorado rosemary garlic lamb rack served with fermented black garlic jus; organic poached egg with quinoa, asparagus and shaved parmesan; or black truffle mac and cheese with wild mushrooms.

The Ritz-Carlton Spa in Denver. Courtesy photo


Where is it? Less than an hour from Boulder, depending on where you’re going.

Why visit? If you want to get out of the Boulder bubble but don’t want to go too far, Denver is an easy target.

What to do? Here are some of the new things to do in Denver this fall:

  • Visit Steuben’s Uptown, 523 17th Ave. Steuben’s is considered a Denver institution, and the new menu is getting some hype. Try the Rachel sandwich (like a Reuben but lighter) with chicken fried pickles.
  • Book the Couples Spa Escape at the Ritz-Carlton Spa in Denver. This is an incredible and unique couple’s spa experience at a Forbes Four-Star spa: Have the entire spa to yourselves. It’s booked as the last spa treatment of the day. Get a 50-minute, side-by-side massage and full, private access to all the facilities. Bonus: Valet is complimentary when you use the spa.

    Churro waffles at La Sandia Cantina. Courtesy photo
  • For a fun, Mexican spin on brunch, try the new weekend brunch at La Sandia Cantina. We’re talking churro waffles with cajeta, vanilla ice cream and bacon crumbles and steak con huevos with morita salsa and charro bacon beans. This is a family-friendly brunch joint, too.

Where to stay? The new (dual-branded) Le Méridien and AC Hotels by Marriott. The Le Méridien Denver Downtown is filled with original artwork that elevates the hotel and makes it a destination, in and of itself. While there, check out 54thirty, Denver’s highest, open-air, seasonal rooftop bar with stellar views.

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