Mount Evans Road Elevation Sign

How To See the Mountains From Denver

The Rocky Mountains are one of the best places to visit in Denver for anyone planning a trip to Denver, even though, technically, the mountains aren’t really in Denver.

Denver does sit at an elevation of 5,280 feet, and yet, it technically sits in a valley in an area gently sloping away from the foothills, a 20+ minute drive to the west. And, the mountains, are behind THOSE.

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 you don’t see them, then 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, and Denver visitors, 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 you see in the front of the mountains 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

Mount Evans Road Elevation Sign

 

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, while satisfying that “I want to see the mountains,” wish. The road goes all the way to the top (there’s a little hill left to climb if you want to go to the tippy-top), and since it is the tallest mountain around, you get magnificent views of mountains in every direction.

mount-evans-view-denverIf 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. They make a squeaking sound a little bit higher and squeakier than you would expect for their size.

baby mountain goat mt evans

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 once the snow buries it too much to bother plowing out. It usually reopens near the beginning of July. Check the CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation) road conditions webpage to make sure the road is open if you plan to go in early summer.

In the summer, afternoon thunderstorms are common. Such storms can be dangerous and the clouds 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.

georgetown loop railroad

 

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 Winter, when the ice gets thick enough, they race Jeeps out on the frozen lake.

In town, find the candy shop where they make 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.)

Estes Park

Further away, and up a smaller, curvier, mountain road, than I-70, 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 when the snow melts.)

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.

 

Denver Botanic Gardens

The Denver Botanic Gardens is a typical botanic gardens located in the center of Denver. The Botanic Gardens is located just a few miles from downtown Denver, near Cheesman Park, on Josephine Street. Admission costs $12.50 for adults and $9 for kids. Kids 2 and under are free. The Botanic Gardens, of course, has acres of flowers, plants, and trees.

denver botanic gardens flowers

One of the most interesting thing about the Botanic Gardens in Denver is its Tropical Conservatory. One of Denver’s first wealthy families was the Boettchers. You have seen their name on things if you have been sightseeing in Denver at all. In fact, today’s Governor’s residence is in, you guessed it, Boettcher Mansion. The Boettchers made their money in cement, supplying the building materials during Denver’s boom. So, when the time came to build something to house tropical plants, the Boettchers donated it, and cast the whole thing out of cement.

denver botanic gardens tropical conservatory

Inside, the tropical forest has live, towering jungle trees, flowers, coffee trees, and more. There are also some ducks. Stairs in the center take you up three stories to the top of the jungle canopy. It’s worth the price of admission on it’s own.

Next door, a newer addition has a warm, moist area for a collection of orchids and other plants.

orchids at denver botanic gardens

Outside, wide open trails and a friendly attitude make it a great place for a stroll, with or without kids. Around the edges are “hidden” paths off of the main paved trails. There is also a science pyramid, a bonazi garden, lilly pad ponds, beautiful fountains and more. The Botanic Gardens had a very successful show of Chihuly glass art in 2014. When the show left, the Gardens bought a beautiful, permanent, glass work to display. You’ll find it near the Gardens southeast corner.

permanent chihuly glass sculpture at denver botanic gardens

As an added treat, there is a Botanic Gardens Cafe near the entrance. The pastries and quiches here are very good, and definitely worth a stop. The cafe in the middle of the gardens near the Japanese ponds is more hit or miss, but if you need a burger, or slice of pizza, it’s your place.

botanic gardens lilly ponds

Across the street on top of the parking  structure, is a Children’s Garden. It has fun paths, including a simulated hike up to 10,000 feet, and hearty plants. The main draw for most kids is the, go ahead and play in it, simulated stream in the center of the Children’s Garden.

Around Christmas time, the Denver Botanic Gardens does an extensive Christmas light show using the trees and plants in the Gardens. It can get cold at night in Colorado during December, so check the weather and bundle up.

Usually, the Botanic Gardens is not crowded and a great, relaxing experience. However, the Botanic Gardens offers free days that get very crowded, and they have big plant sales a few times each year which bring out the crowds as well. If you want the gardens to yourself, you’ll want to avoid those days.

The Denver Botanic Gardens hours are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m from Mother’s Day until Labor Day and 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the winter months. They are open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

If you want a less sculpted, more outdoorsy experience, there is another branch of the Botanic Gardens south of Denver at Chatfield Reservoir.

Rocky Mountain National Park

rocky-mountain-national-park-graphic Rocky Mountain National Park, RMNP, is the crown jewel of Colorado’s great outdoors. Covering some 415 square miles, the park lies north and west of the Denver area. Of course, the park envelopes part of the Rocky Mountains mountain range that runs from Canada down across virtually the entire width of the United States, finally petering out somewhere in New Mexico.

Within Rocky Mountain National Park are 17 peaks higher than 13,000. The highest mountain in RMNP is Long’s Peak, with a peak elevation of 14,255, making it one of Colorado’s famed “14ers,” mountains with a top elevation above 14,000 feet. But, there is more to Rocky Mountain National Park than just high mountain tops.

Much of the park’s land has an elevation of just 7,500 to 9,000 feet. While, still most defiantly mountainous, the terrain and scenery at this elevation can be beautiful and lush. In addition, it is packed with all manner of animals including, elk, bears, wildcats, several species of deer, moose, beavers, and the official state animal of Colorado, bighorn sheep. Recently, Canadian Lynx were also reintroduced to the park, as part of a national effort to repopulate the Lynx’s former habitat within the United States.

Trail Ridge Road

One of the favorite ways to enjoy Colorado’s largest national park is by taking a scenic drive over Fall River Pass on Trail Ridge Road. In addition to consistently being named one of America’s most scenic drives, Trail Ridge Road holds the distinction of being the highest paved road in the U.S.

There are numerous places along the road to pull off and take in the beautiful mountain scenery. Watch for signs designating scenic viewpoints. The twisty nature of the mountain road can make it hard to see these areas until drivers are right on top of them, so the signage warning, is the best way to ensure that you don’t miss anything, while not having to jam on your breaks and crank the steering wheel to avoid missing it.

Near the summit of Trail Ridge is the Alpine Visitor Center on Fall River Pass. The visitor center itself sits at 11,796 feet. The large wooden sign outside makes a favorite tourist photograph and a great keepsake souvenir of any traveler’s visit to the Rocky Mountains.

The full drive is 48 miles long and takes around 3 hours for those used to driving in the mountains, and a bit longer for “flatlanders” or those from areas without any hills or mountains. Trail Ridge Road is only open during the summer months. During the winter, snowfall and wind make it impossible to keep the road open. Highway crews try to get the road open by Memorial Day each year. It usually closes sometime in October when the snow drifts start to overmatch the plows.

Trail Ridge begins as branch off of Fall River Road which passes through the Fall River Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. It is also designated as U.S. Highway 34. It winds its way up the mountains until Milner Pass which sits astride the Continental Divide. From there, it runs back down to the Southwest side of the park and the Grand Lake Entrance.

Estes Park

To get to the road from Denver, visitors head for Estes Park. Estes Park is a small mountain town whose primary purpose is to be the town next to the national park entrance. For the most part, it is composed of a main street and two or three blocks extended outward on either side. However, there are some great little pockets of charm, beauty, and fun to be explored. These include the Stanley Hotel, made famous by the movie The Shining — the good one with Jack Nicholson. The exterior shots of the sinister Overlook Hotel are of the Stanley Hotel, though the interior of the hotel was not used for the movie which was shot on a Hollywood movie set.

The quickest way to Estes Park is to take I-25 northbound to U.S. 36 (a.k.a. Boulder Turnpike). Travel on U.S. 36 through Boulder and Erie. The highway then winds its way all the way up to Estes Park.

Numerous signs in Estes Park point the way to Rocky Mountain National Park and the nearby Fall River Entrance.