In terms of winter wonderland status, few destinations can compare to Aspen. This scenic mountain town is straight out of a snow globe, featuring picturesque mountain chalets hugged by the soaring Colorado Rockies. Of course, the main draw here is skiing and there are four premier ski areas nearby that cater to powder hounds of all levels. But there's more to Aspen than winter sports: With high-end shopping, fascinating museums, funky galleries and fun festivals, it might be a struggle to make it to the slopes. No matter how you choose to spend your time here, it will be a vacation you'll never forget.
Although it's practically a suburb of Denver, Boulder seems worlds away from its Mile High comrade. A university town stuck in a '60s mindset, Boulder has welcomed every conceivable trend – from alternative healthcare to fad diets – and a perpetual love for nature has made bicycles the choice mode of transportation. Though the city is known less fondly by more conservative Coloradoans as "The People's Republic of Boulder" and "28 square miles surrounded by reality," those who live here (or visit frequently) do so for the love of urban parks, crisp mountain air and a free-spirited ambiance. Come for a spot of herbal tea, a quality education and a strong helping of liberalism.
Settled in 1859, Breckenridge retains the same Victorian-era charm it did during the height of the gold rush. Its down-to-earth and friendly atmosphere has also endured its transformation from a silver- and gold-mining town to one of the country's most beloved skiing destinations. What's more, Breck – as it's called by locals – is a quick drive from other popular Colorado destinations, including Vail, which is 40 miles northwest, and Denver, which is 80 miles northeast.
It's easy to see why Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to write the lyrics to the famous patriotic ballad "America the Beautiful" from Colorado Springs. Look in one direction and you'll see the majestic "purple mountains:" the Colorado Rockies. Shift your eyes in the other direction to find yourself gazing out at "amber waves of grain:" the Great Plains. The beautiful scenery isn't the only reason to head to this charming town. Colorado Springs is also home to such American institutions as the Air Force Academy and the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. And over the years, it's become a cross section of personalities. Take to the streets and share the sidewalks with budding politicos, young families, art lovers and more: All stake their claim on this portion of America the Beautiful.
Many travelers see Denver as a jumping-off point for a Rocky Mountain getaway, using the Colorado capital for its airport and nothing else. But those folks are missing out: The Mile High City offers a mix of urban excitement and natural surroundings that other American cities can only dream of. We're not saying you should pass on the opportunity to hike the Rockies' trails or ski their slopes – just that you shouldn't do so without making reservations at some of Denver's eclectic eateries, exploring its museums or sampling a few of its famous brews. Working some of these more metropolitan enticements into your vacation will allow you to experience the Denver that locals know and love. For a local's perspective, you may want to sign up for one of the best Denver tours.
At 265,000 acres, Rocky Mountain National Park isn't the country's largest national park, nor is it the most-frequented with about 4 million annual visitors (compared to Great Smoky Mountains National Park's more than 11 million visitors). But there is something definitively magical about RMNP, which rises 12,183 feet into the Colorado sky. The main attraction is hiking its 350-some miles of trails that wind through pine and spruce forests, glittering alpine lakes, swaths of wildflowers and if you're lucky, some elk or bighorn sheep. And maybe it's the thinner atmosphere that goes to visitors' heads, but even the most jaded report feelings of awe and wonder after a day or two of breathing in that refreshing mountain air.
Named for its famous hot springs, Steamboat Springs is a must-visit destination for nature lovers and adventure junkies. This Colorado city is surrounded by working ranches, but its plethora of outdoor pursuits are what entice visitors. Fishing and camping are popular things to do in the summer, while the winter months are ideal for snowshoeing and snowmobiling. But the city's most well-known activity is skiing. Featuring roughly 3,000 skiable acres, and more affordable rates than other ski destinations like Aspen and Vail, Steamboat Springs (nicknamed Ski Town, U.S.A.) is a prime spot for shredding powder.
The origin of this Colorado village's very unique name is unknown, but there are two dominant theories. The first is that Telluride comes from the word "tellurium," the nonmetallic element (often signifying the presence of gold deposits) that prompted so many pioneers to make their way to the region. But many locals will tell you the name is just an easier way of saying "to hell you ride" – a creative explanation that highlights the killer ski slopes that lure many a winter vacationer each year. Powder hounds will find 2,000-plus skiable acres ideal for novices, experts and everyone in between. "To hell you ride" also refers to the region's rowdy atmosphere. Residents and visitors alike regularly gather in Town Park or Telluride's bars for a foot-stamping good time. In the end, it doesn't matter where the name comes from – all that really counts is the great experience you're bound to have here.
Don't let Vail's small size or remote location fool you: This is one of the most beloved cold-weather destinations in the country for one reason: skiing. Sandwiched between the Gore Mountain Range to the north and the Sawatch Mountain Range to the south, this narrow valley is home to several notable ski areas, including one of the country's largest single-mountain resorts. Jagged peaks, miles of slopes and perfect powder attract thousands of visitors every year, earning Vail a noteworthy place among Colorado's other winter heavyweights, Aspen and Telluride. In fact, Vail's expertly manicured slopes – as well as its luxury hotels, spas and restaurants – frequently welcome A-listers like Will Smith, Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake.