When most people think of Colorado as a travel destination, they picture snow-covered mountain ski resorts in places like Aspen and Vail, and they’re right, in part: skiing accounts for about $3 billion annually in the state. However, that’s only about one fifth of the total travel spending in Colorado each year. So, whether you ski or don’t (about four out of every five Coloradans don’t according to a 2006 study. In fact, that same study found far more people bike than ski, interestingly enough), people flock to Colorado for our natural year-round beauty. So why pay for expensive air travel when some of the best travel destinations in the country are a short drive away? Here are some fun and thrifty “staycations” that won’t leave your bank card needing a vacation of its own.
Mesa Verde National Park
One of four national parks in Colorado, Mesa Verde is one of the largest and most well-preserved American Indian historical sites in existence. Located just outside Cortez, the park’s main features are the cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloans, commonly referred to as the Anasazi people. The impressiveness of the astounding ancient architectural feat is only magnified by the beauty of Colorado’s section of the Four Corners area—the meeting of state boundaries between Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. During your visit, if the weather allows, check out the San Juan Skyway, a free (if sometimes precarious) drive that offers some of the most spectacular mountain views in the world. Make sure you allow yourself enough time to complete the loop—about seven hours.
If you’re looking for a good deal on accommodations, consider checking out airbnb.com, which allows folks with an empty house or bedroom to rent it out to travelers. These options tend to have more of a “homey” feeling, but lack some of the amenities of a hotel room (like a free continental breakfast). Many times, they can provide a better value, even if it’s a bit more expensive, purely because it may be more comfortable, and more like being a houseguest than a hotel guest. A quick search of the Cortez area found a few options that were equivalent or cheaper than a motel room. Naturally, traditional options are available, so use websites like TripAdvisor, Hotwire.com, Hotels.com, and others to find a good rate.
Colorado’s second-most populous city boasts some of the most picturesque mountain views you can get without venturing to higher altitudes. Just a 45 minute drive from Denver, the Colorado Springs area is home to several military installations, including Fort Carson, Peterson Air Force Base, and the United States Air Force Academy. Staying in the Springs affords more time to experience some of the interesting attractions visitors might not be able to pack into a day trip. The Colorado Springs Visitors Bureau website offers some deals and coupons for lodging, food, and other activities. Make sure you still check the usual travel websites mentioned above to compare prices before booking.
In the city itself, one of the most picturesque spots is Garden of the Gods, which has the main advantage of being free to visit. Additionally, tours of the United States Olympic Training Center, Air Force Academy, and the better-than-average Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (be sure to feed the giraffes!) afford visitors a look at Colorado many people in the Metro Area don’t choose to see.
Located just a short drive up US-36 from Denver, Estes Park is a beautiful mountain community in the Rocky Mountains at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park. Although it was severely damaged by the 2013 flooding, the town has recovered fairly well—most of the shops and businesses are reopened, though hotels are reporting slower-than-normal capacity.
If you’re looking for a family experience that’s different than the typical hotel stay, look into the YMCA of the Rockies. Nestled beneath the Front Range mountains in RMNP, the camp offers a variety of options for families looking for a vacation that focuses on outdoor activities—even in the winter, when cross country skiing and snowshoeing are options with rentals available on-site. The camp also offers indoor activities like basketball, and even roller skating. Don’t expect to spend the whole trip inside watching TV (the cabins at the camp don’t have any) but you can enjoy plenty of family bonding time over board games and puzzles. You can even bring your pets (for a $10/night additional fee.) Rates and availability vary, so check them out online.
Although the first thing most people think of when it comes to winter in Steamboat is skiing—and there is no doubt skiing in Steamboat is wonderful—a hidden gem in Routt County is Strawberry Park Hot Springs, located just a 20-minute drive north of Steamboat. The hot springs themselves are great, but the rustic cabins and, yes, wagons available to guests offer a unique way to spend a snow-covered winter weekend. The resort also offers massages from 10am-8pm daily, and if you happen to be a Routt County resident, they have a “locals discount”. Check the Hot Springs’ website for availability and pricing.
Strawberry Park isn’t the only hot spring in the area, with the Old Town Hot Springs in the heart of Steamboat providing a fun, albeit less isolated, way to enjoy the natural hot springs. In addition to swimming or soaking in the eight spring-fed pools, the facility also offers a fitness center and (yes) massages. If you’re worried about what to do with your little ones during that massage, they do offer childcare at a reasonable rate of $6/hr for non-members and just $3.50/hr for members. And if you do live nearby, the Old Town Hot Springs lets you pay for your annual membership by trading volunteer time. Check out the website for more details.
Western Colorado Wine Country
Colorado is famous for their craft beers, but the Centennial State also boasts some of the best wineries in the Rocky Mountain region. Although other sections of the state have their own, the Grand Valley between Grand Junction and Palisade, home to over 20 wineries, is considered the Napa Valley of Colorado. Not sure where to begin? Check out the Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau website for a guide on planning your visit, including loads of deals and coupons for hotel stays and winery tours and tastings. Also, as with the other locations in this article, a quick check of Airbnb found a number of options available for a weekend stay in early January for rates comparable to or cheaper than hotel rooms. It’s all about what you’re going to enjoy most, but don’t forget to compare rates so you can use the extra money you saved to bring home a case of Cabernet!