Colorado, USA: Why you need to visit Denver and Estes Park this year
Craft beers and hipster malls in Denver, wildlife watching and epic adventures in the Rockies, plus a 200 million-year-old concert venue. When it comes to the ultimate stateside destination, Colorado might just clinch the title
- By Tom Powell -
"It's the real thing," boasts a washed-out Coca-Cola mural as I whirr along the scorched tarmac of Denver's Highland district in the back of an electric tuk tuk, passing stationary yellow school buses, sizzling-hot SUVs and a staggeringly long queue of punters outside a milk churn-shaped ice cream vendor. That being said, I'm starting to wonder if what I'm seeing is the real thing at all. It's hot, I'm thirsty and I want nothing more than an ice-cold bottle of Coke.
Suddenly, my driver brings me to a halt in front of a Ramada Super 8 hotel – a red and yellow-painted slice of Americana that pops out of the blue sky behind it like a heavily filtered Insta post.
As I turn towards the downtown skyline, the sun beats down hard on my back, the heat caking my jeans to my calves and making it feel like the glue in my shoe soles is melting into the paving slabs beneath my feet. Did I mention it's hot?
I'm staring out across the neighbourhoods of Denver with the CanAm Highway flowing steadily beneath me, twinkling in the sun: Lower Downtown is right ahead of me, the up-and-coming street art-covered district of River North (or RiNo, as in rhino) is way out to my left, and just visible beyond the Pepsi Center, the amusement park and the Broncos football stadium, there's Colfax Avenue – the 26-mile-long former artery through the city once described by the late Hugh Hefner as the "longest, wickedest road in America". Seems he wasn't one for sticky-floored dive bars, music venues and glorious plates of junk food. His loss.
"They say we've changed the state bird to the crane because you see so many of them building in Denver right now," says my driver, with whom I've skittered along sun-charred boulevards, passing whopping-great Whole Foods Markets and the heady scent of hot dogs around the ballpark on the way to this unlikely viewpoint on the edge of the city centre. And he's not wrong – Hefner's low view of Colfax aside, this is a city on the up, literally. From the blocky modern condos springing out of old industrial sites on the edge of town to the trendy new-build hotels and chi chi redevelopments of buildings like Union Station downtown, everything feels like sun-soaked old America licked with a pleasing amount of digital-age lustre.
Denver these days is a place full of hipster malls fashioned out of former factories and shipping containers. It's fuelled by amber ales, pale ales, bodacious West Coast-style ales and malty East Coast-style ales. It's full of bars and breweries and bottle shops selling all these ales. And thankfully, besides the beers, the food markets, the small-run clothes stores and open-air art galleries that riddle its outskirts, this modern metropolis has so far managed to keep itself a lot less pretentious than some of the more testing bits of Shoreditch.
Talk to any local and it seems that every waiter, shop assistant and, er, electric tuk tuk driver has a more important side project like acting, music-making or (you guessed it) brewing. But how is such a lust for the good things in life – and the dogged positivity it takes to hang onto your dreams in spite of your day job – all possible? I'd wager it's because this city gets 300 days of sun each year, has an elbow in some of the most exciting beer-making history on the planet, and just happens to be a state that sells marijuana for personal consumption completely legally.
That said, aside from the occasional passing bud-friendly Loopr bus and 'Clean Colorado: Sponsored by Starbuds Dispensary' road sign on the highway out of town, you wouldn't necessarily notice. Pristinely clean and perfectly balanced, this is certainly a city full of meticulously organised vapers, rather than the pizza-troughing, booze-slopping, hard-partying dudes you'd associate with US stoner movies.
The real draw to this mile-high city is another natural high altogether, one that rumbles quietly up from New Mexico to British Columbia in Canada, forming a distant but ever-present backdrop: the Rocky Mountains.
These mountains are in the culture and nomenclature of this entire region: they're the reason the hipsterville-USA town of Boulder – full of skaters, young folks in yoga gear and ethical outdoors stores – got its name. They're the reason why Denver is home to one of the biggest REI backcountry gear stores in the States, complete with a vast indoor climbing slab that puts most UK walls to shame. They're also why people say kids born at Colorado hospitals burst into the world wearing Osprey backpacks and Patagonia trucker caps, supping milk from the bitey straw of a Camelbak. OK, that last one was a lie, but you catch the drift: here, in the biggest city on this 3,000-mile-long mountain range, the outdoors rule.
Visit Denver/Red Rock Amphitheatre
And that's exactly why we roll straight up to the mountain town of Estes Park from Norwegian's inaugural flight from Gatwick to Denver, tracking the old road through old-school frontier towns with old-school frontier town names like Lyons and Hygiene, and passing movie prop-sized boulders along the Little Thompson River on our way.
As the hazy mid-afternoon sun begins its slow arc down behind the continental divide, numerous nameless peaks wrap their way around the sides of the van, forcing me to slide back in my seat and crane my neck sideways just to see the brooding skies and daylight above them. Travellers, take note: if you ever plan to ride shotgun in the Rockies, make sure you rent a car with a sunroof.
As far as mountain towns go, Estes Park packs quite the pedigree. Sure, it's not known for its skiing like Aspen, Breckenridge or Vail further south (although the winter snowshoe scene here is meant to be nothing short of exceptional), but it is home to the forward-thinking Elkins whiskey distillery, elite big-wall climber Tommy Caldwell and – come the rut in early autumn – hundreds of horny elk.
It's those last Coloradans we see first, just as we pull into town in search of a meatloaf dinner, a couple of swigs of Elkins' oaky, infused-via-ultrasound Colorado whiskey and a good night's rest. Right now there aren't loads of the guys with antlers making themselves known, although apparently they do become fixtures in gardens, parkland and (in our case) the planted-up roundabouts in the centre of town throughout September and early October. Our customer is loping around the dual-carriageway, tired from all the randiness, and bleating desperately in a last-gasp search for a mate. It's 4pm in Estes Park, but this feels like 4am in the club and this young buck is possessed with the energy of a drunk bloke who's just realised he's going home alone again. We retreat.
The next morning we're up at the crack of dawn; it's crisp, cold and feels about a thousand miles from the heat of downtown Denver. Walking onto the forecourt of the Ridgeline Hotel is like stepping into the centre of a shallow bowl hewn from the mountains around me. Before I know it, I've been whisked out of town past sleepy diners, turn-offs to lakeside hiking trails and deep into Rocky Mountain National Park.
Bluebirds burst from the shrubbery around my stirrups and mule deer hide, their pointy ears peeking out behind boulders yards from the trail
We hop out of the van on the edge of an elk-filled valley to the buzz of a nearby campground and the ho-hum sighs of horses in the nearby corral. The sun shafts gently through the pines and the clouds move quickly above the mountains, but there's little time to admire the view – we'll get a better view from the saddle, anyway.
Once I've clambered onto the back of my lazy-looking steed, I immediately begin to see the appeal. Riding through the US's third-most-visited national park on horseback, you're forced to take the world at a slower pace, appreciating the smaller, finer bits of nature from a slightly higher vantage point. Bluebirds burst from the shrubbery around my stirrups and mule deer hide, pointy ears peeking out behind boulders yards from the trail. And then there's the mountains: distant, looming and near panoramic.
The mountain views take your breath away, and not just because the altitude (two-times the height of Ben Nevis at its lowest) makes the air pretty thin for a Brit. It's also because there are just so many peaks to ogle, from plump gravel mounds to the intimidating, diamond-faced slab of Longs Peak, which rises to a mighty 14,259ft, making it what Coloradans term a 'fourteener'.
And there's nowhere better to see a few more fourteeners than on Trail Ridge Road, an epic mountain-top drive through the park's alpine tundra from east to west that's packed with switchbacks, jaw-dropping vistas and (if you're particularly lucky) bighorn sheep.
Hopping out of the van on the road's lower reaches and scrambling down a steep gravel slope to get the perfect shot of the mountains unfolding across the other side of the valley, my phone flies out of my hand and skims face-first through the scree. By the time I pick it up, it's a battered, gibbering mess that's firing out emojis by the hundred through Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Virginia before crossing the Atlantic to bemuse my friends and family back home. No perfect holiday snap then, I think, resolving that the mountains must have conspired to make me switch off.
Thankfully, this nature-imposed detox helps colour Estes even more – with the air rattling into your lungs and nothing to distract you (except perhaps your inadequate kayaking ability), there's no choice but to sit back and admire the view.
Where to stay
The Ridgeline Hotel, Estes Park
Refurbished in 2017, this central Estes hotel has great mountain views, a downstairs alehouse and easy access to everything the town has to offer, from Rocky Mountain National Park to Elkins Distillery and the Stanley Hotel, a supposedly haunted property which inspired The Shining. From £70pn. ridgelinehotel.com
The Kimpton Hotel Born, Denver
Right next to Denver's bustling new Union Station development, and minutes from shopping and dining district Larimer Square, this contemporary bolthole has all the frills you'd expect of a high-end city retreat, including Citizen Rail – a restaurant that specialises in meat cooked on its wood-fired grill. From £168pn. hotelborndenver.com
This is the thing about Colorado – you could just as easily spend your time doing little more than soaking up an atmosphere as you could spend your time hopping between bars, music venues and laid-back mountain towns. And it was this sense of chilled-out sublime that I found the next night at Red Rocks, a natural amphitheatre carved slowly into the hills outside Denver over the last 200 million years. Nowadays, the space is fitted with 70 rows of bleachers that provide space for over 9,000 beer-swilling punters to listen to tunes and swoon at the scenery.
While it was Muse that entertained us on stage for the night, the thing that sticks in my mind isn't a particular song, moment or visual effect. Instead, it's the sight of a nimble coyote slinking up the side of the rocks, ignoring droves of gig-goers and signs telling it not to climb. Even here – surrounded by merch stands, hotdog vendors and guys wearing gargantuan backpacks of Colorado beer – we're in a wild, historic place, a place that's just as much of a landmark as Longs Peak or the pine-filled valley of Moraine Park. And that's the thing about Colorado: its parks, its wilderness and its city streets are just like that faded Coke mural I clattered past on my e-tuk ride – they're age-old, they're iconic and more than anything else, they're the real thing.