It is really the easiest request of all to fulfill from anywhere along the Front Range of Colorado: “I want to see the mountains.” And yet, it isn’t quite as simple to pull off as it seems. But, the Rocky Mountains are one of the best places to visit in Denver for anyone planning a trip to Denver.
Seeing the Mountains While In Denver
To see the mountains from Denver, Boulder, or any of the cities along the length of I-25, seeing the mountains is as easy as looking west. There they are (if they aren’t, they’re behind that building) rising up out of the plains into a purple / blue / gray / white (depending upon the day) ridge in the sky. But, that isn’t what people really mean when they say they want to see the mountains. What Colorado travelers mean when they ask to see the mountains is to be in the mountains.
This, is slightly trickier than it sounds, because being in the mountains actually makes it kind of hard to see the mountains. First, off, that little ridge in the front is actually what we call the foothills. The real mountains are behind those. Second, when you are in the mountains, there will be what appear to be hills blocking your view of the mountains. Those “hills,” of course, ARE the mountains, but they can block that majestic feeling of vast mountain-ness you are going for. Fortunately, there are some great places to really see the mountains and experience the big, wide, huge, TALL mountain feeling you are looking for.
Mount Evans is, among other things, the highest paved road in North America. It is also one of Colorado’s 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet high). It’s also a really great way to get friends and family up into the mountains. The road goes all the way to the top, and since it is the tallest mountain around, you get magnificent views in every direction. Technically, if you really need to hike to feel like you went up into the mountains, there is a boulder field to get up every so slightly higher than where the parking lot at the top stops.
If you’re lucky, you may even see wildlife on the road up. Look for mountain goats and deer. Also, around the parking lot, it is common to see, and hear, marmots, which look a lot like beavers, without the special tail.
The drive from Denver takes between 90 minutes and 2 hours depending upon traffic and weather. As you might expect, at 14,000 feet, the road closes in the winter. In the summer, afternoon thunderstorms are common. Such storms can be dangerous and will restrict your views, so a morning start is best for this trip.
A similar view and experience can be had from Trail Ridge Road, which is further away up in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Georgetown Railroad Loop
Another great way to see the mountains is a ride on the Georgetown Loop Railroad. Back during the gold rush days, they built a railroad connecting the towns of Georgetown and Silver Plume. This is a lot easier said than done thanks to steep mountainsides. To make the track work, engineers used narrow gauge track and plenty of switchbacks. Also, lucky for us tourists in Colorado today, they built a spectacular bridge over Clear Creek called the Devil’s Gate High Bridge that the train still crosses today.
Getting to Georgetown is easy. It sits directly off of I-70 about an hour west of Denver (traffic and weather dependent). There are signs to direct you up to the railroad. The train itself is just a loop from Georgetown to Silver Plume and back. But, on the way, you’ll spiral up the mountains without having to take a long hike, and get plenty of great views along the way.
Before or after, stop into Georgetown, a little mountain town with a few shops, and a nice lake just east of town if you want to see a cold snow fed lake. In town, find the candy shop where they plenty of homemade sweets including multiple flavors of fudge. Sometimes, they even have Dreamscicle fudge, which tastes exactly like those orange ice cream treats (but not much at all like fudge, so get a chocolaty one too.)
Further away, but up a smaller, curvier, mountain road, you’ll find Estes Park which is the town that sits on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. They have a few great streets of various mountain tourist shops, as well as two year-round Christmas stores. Get off the main drag to follow the river behind town for more mountain views and a rushing river as well. (Extra rushing available in springtime as the snow begins to melt.)
I-70 Scenic Views
If all this sounds like too much, the easiest way to visit the Rocky Mountains is to drive up I-70. Keep going until you find a scenic overlook that looks promising. Roll down your window, and you can get amazing scenic mountain vista shots without even getting out of your car.
Celestial Seasonings is one of the largest tea makers in North America. It was merged (bought out) into the Hain Celestial Group in 2000. However, all the Celestial Seasonings teas are still made in the original factory near Boulder, Colorado.
There are free tours of Celestial Seasonings every day except major holidays. Tours leave on the hour and are first-come first serve. If you go during the week, you can usually just walk up and get on the next tour. On weekends, that may not be the case. The best way to avoid having to wait too long for your Celestial Seasonings tour is to show up near the half hour. That is, if you want to take the 11:00 am tour, show up before 10:30 am. Also, the people who missed the previous tour builds up as the day goes on, so if you get there early, you’ll be less likely to have to wait.
Go past the Tea Shop (gift shop) and straight to the tour desk to put your name down on the list. The tour ends in the Tea Shop, so don’t worry, you won’t miss it.
Celestial Seasonings Sampling
Once you have signed up for the tour, they will give you a cup and you can sample their teas. The tour desk is in the sampling room. There are five or six teas already sitting there ready for tasting (plus usually two around the other end of the counter that are iced teas). However, those aren’t the only teas you can sample. To sample other teas, you simply ask the workers behind the counter. They’ll pour some hot water into your tea cup and put in a bag. That way you can sample almost all of the Celestial Seasonings tea varieties.
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Free Celestial Seasonings Tour
They’ll announce the tour in the Celestial Seasoning taste test area. The tour starts with a 10 minute video about the company and a little of its history. Then, they pass out the hair nets. Since the tour goes through the actual production facility, all visitors have to follow health code rules including full hair nets. For super fun, and ridiculous pictures, visitors with beards have to wear beard nets as well.
The tour guides are generally pretty knowledgeable, so feel free to answer questions. The first stop is a look through the window into the Milling Room where they actually sift and chop the various ingredients that go into the tea.
Next up is a look at the large bins those ingredients are stored in. Then, there is a look into the Tea Room. As it turns out, the three most popular Celestial Seasonings teas have no tea in them at all. They are Sleepytime, Chamomile, and Peppermint. They are called Herbal Teas mostly because the public didn’t understand earlier names like “infusions.”
However, many of the varieties do contain actual tea. And tea, is absorptive. That means that if they left it out on the main floor with other ingredients it would absorb those flavors and smells. The fun part for tour takers is that the tea room smells wonderful since it is a closed room with no ventilation.
Mint, it turns out, is the opposite. Mint is invasive, giving off its flavor and smell to other things.As the tour guide says, if they left the mint out in the main area, they would have 80 varieties of mint tea. It seems that some people can handle strong mint smell, and others can’t. If you can, be sure to stand in the mint room. Your nasal passages will never be clearer. (Mint pulls water out of your body, so you’ll also be thirsty when you are done with the tour.)
Finally, the tour goes to the packaging area. It’s everything you would hope for in a modern manufacturing facility. Automated machines, robot arms, and conveyor belts rushing boxes of tea by.
The tour ends in the Tea Shop, which is a great little shop with tons of great little gifts in addition to most (if not all) Celestial Seasonings teas.
Celestial Seasonings Fast Lane
While you are in the Tea Shop look for the Fast Lane tea. Currently, it has a picture of three flying superhero types on the box. Fast Lane has more caffeine than a cup of coffee. The company claims that it is a smoother, more natural caffeine than others as well.
If you can’t remember ever seeing it on the shelf, you aren’t wrong. Fast Lane is sold on the CU Boulder Campus, in nearby Boulder, Colorado. According to the tour guide, they’ve canceled that variety a few times, and every time, they call up and beg them to bring it back. A high-caffeine tea isn’t really what Celestial Seasonings is known for, so you can only get it on campus, or order it online. Of course, you can also get it straight from the manufacturer by buying it in the Tea Shop.
The Celestial Seasonings manufacturing plant is just outside of Boulder, Colorado off of the Diagonal Highway (runs between Boulder and Longmont) and Jay Road. While you could theoretically get to there via public transportation, that would take a lot of time and effort. A cab ride from Denver (and maybe even Boulder) would be very expensive. So, this is a Denver day-trip that you’ll need a car to get to.
Don’t worry, there is plenty of free parking, and traffic is an non-issue unless it’s rush hour, or there is a major event like the Bolder Boulder or a CU football home game.
When most people think of Colorado, they think of mountains. The Rocky Mountains are visible from Downtown Denver and provide a handy navigational guide (they’re west). Although Denver sits along the front range and its weather is dominated by the mountains, the city isn’t really in the mountains. Many Denver visitors enjoy a trip into the mountains.
There are numerous choices for a mountain day trip. One popular and fund mountain day trip from Denver is Estes Park. Estes Park is a small community located right near Rocky Mountain National Park. Many park visitors use Estes, as it is known locally, as their base of operations when visiting RMNP, but it is a fun destination all on its own.
Getting to Estes Park from Denver
Estes Park is about an hour and a half drive from Denver. Of course, if you aren’t used to driving the winding, twisting mountain roads, it can take a little longer.
There are basically two ways to drive to Estes. The most common, and shortest, route is to to drive north on I-25 to the Boulder Turnpike (U.S. 36) and then up to Boulder, Colorado. Plenty of visitors enjoy a visit to Boulder, and its a good place to grab a bite to eat if you are hungry on the way up, or on the way down. Stay on Highway 36 (U.S. 36) through town and up to the north. Eventually, you’ll come to a T intersection. Head left through the town of Lyons.
Beware the speed limit in Lyons. Even though this part of town is little more than a single block wide spot in the road, they drop the speed limit on the highway down to 25 MPH and they mean it. There is little for the police here to do other than ticket speeders, so slow down, grit your teeth and remember that Lyons isn’t very big. Head right (north) through town and follow the winding road all the way into Estes Park.
If you prefer a more interstate heavy route, take I-25 all the way north to Loveland and then head west on Highway 34.
What To Do in Estes Park
There isn’t any particular thing you do in Estes Park. Remember, you come here for the beauty of the mountain area. That being said, Estes is a charming little mountain town. While there is a whole residential area on the eastern part of the town, most visitors will want to stick with quaint walking area on the western part of town.
Drive into town on Elkhorn Ave. and find a parking space anywhere. The larger public lots are city owned and free, with no time limit. If you make it up early in the day on the weekend or anytime during the week, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a spot. On busy weekend afternoons, you might have to circle a lot or tow and wait for someone to pull out, but it usually works out well.
The main attraction of Estes park is the line of shops along Elkhorn Avenue. This part of Estes sits on a mountain so that as soon as it ends, your heading up the side. Walking up is west, down is east.
There are plenty of tourist traps in here, along with the requisite “funny” T-shirt shops, but there are plenty of quaint little shops and interesting stores as well. What makes the walk so worthwhile is the eclectic mixture of shops ranging from clothing and rustic furniture and decorations to a handful of Christmas shops (open year round) and other specialty stores. Take your time and duck into any of the shops that pique your interest. Look for the Golden Leaf on the eastern (lower) end of town for a selection of nesting dolls bigger than any you’ve seen not in a place called “Little Russia.”
On your walk down (East) be sure to turn up Riverside Drive at the stop light and head toward the old movie theater. Right before you get there, look for a path that follows the river down the mountain. There are plenty of nice shops back along this way and a nice view of the river and mountainside across it as you go down. Work your way back up (if necessary) on the main Elkhorn road.
Eating in Estes Park
The other reason people loving going up to Estes is the food, but not necessarily the restaurants. Rather, Estes has more than its share of mom and pop sweets stores. You’ll find fresh saltwater taffy, homemade ice cream, multiple kinds of fudge, and more. A personal favorite, called Grandma’s near the west edge of town sells cookies (and more) made into sandwiches with a huge frosting middle. Get the snicker-doodle cookie sandwich.
Staying in Estes Park
There are more hotels and motels in Estes Park than you might imagine. Remember that there aren’t a lot of lodging options in Rocky Mountain National Park and you’ll know why there are plenty of lodging options here.
The most famous (and most expensive) hotel in Estes is the Stanley Hotel. The Stanley is famous for being the place where the Shining movie was filmed, the original one with Jack Nicholson, not the crappy remake. Of course, the hotel was only used for the exterior shots. The inside was filmed at a movie studio lot.
If there isn’t a major event or it isn’t too crowded, you can drive right up to the hotel and park in a visitor lot. Otherwise, you’ll have to hike up. Either way, head inside to the bar and grab a drink to enjoy out on the huge front patio. You’ll get a nice drink, a great view, and wonderful ambiance.
Don’t forget the Denver Zoo has its annual Zoo Lights event in December. The zoo lights up a large portion of its park with Christmas lights of all kinds and an array of animal light sculptures. If you are looking for places to take kids to see Christmas lights in Denver, Zoo Lights should be at the top of your list. You can find more information about Denver Zoo Lights 2011 on the Undefeated Daddy blog along with other useful dad parenting tips.
More Christmas events and attractions coming soon!