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Local Traveler: Unexpected Colorado

Discover the unique offerings of the Centennial State

Folks visit Colorado for skiing and snowboarding. But the state has so much more. From exploring cryptids and mythical creatures to sledding down mountains of sand, Colorado is just a 13-hour drive from Dallas, making it the perfect place for your next adventure. 

Here are some unexpected places to visit next time you’re in Colorado:

The Stanley Hotel 

333 E. Wonderview Ave., Estes Park, CO 80517

Driving through the Rocky Mountain foothills, Estes Park, Colorado, looks like the picture-perfect mountain town you’d find in a Hallmark rom-com. But it’s best known for The Shining. Following a visit in 1974, when he stayed in room 217, Stephen King drew inspiration from the property for his horror novel.

“I dreamt of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming,” King wrote on his website. “He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in the chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”

And guests believe the historic hotel is haunted. In 1911, a power outage led owner Freelan Oscar Stanley to install a gas lantern in each room. But a leak caused a buildup of gas to form in, you guessed it, room 217. Head chambermaid Elizabeth Wilson entered the room with a candle, causing an explosion — leaving her and several others severely injured. 

If you’re brave enough to stay the night, tune in and watch the constant loop of The Shining on the hotel’s TVs, or take a night tour of the hotel to immerse yourself in the stories of hauntings. To this day, guests and workers claim they see Stanley, Wilson and countless other spirits wandering the grounds. 

This year, the Stanley Hotel became the home of Colorado’s Frozen Dead Guy Days. After his passing, Grandpa Bredo, now aged over 120 years, resided in a Tuff Shed nestled in the hills above Nederland, Colorado, in a state of extreme cold. Presently, he remains frozen in suspended animation, in anticipation of the moment of reanimation — the significant thaw that will bring him back to life.

Behind this intriguing narrative lies a fascinating tale that traverses the world from Norway to California to Colorado. It involves such elements as cryonics, deportation, psychics, celebrations, a devoted Ice Man and a cryonics rescue mission. The saga garnered international attention and has given rise to an annual, not-to-be-missed event known as Frozen Dead Guy Days. Join in on coffin races and polar plunges during the annual week-long celebration. 

Buckhorn Exchange

1000 Osage St., Denver, CO 80204

If you’re looking for a culinary adventure, Buckhorn Exchange is a must. Wall-to-wall taxidermy sets the scene for delicacies such as rattlesnake, buffalo, alligator tail, elk, quail, pheasant and, of course, Rocky Mountain oysters. The location was allegedly visited by Buffalo Bill himself, and the Buckhorn annually hosts a Buffalo Bill look-alike contest, showcasing past victors along the staircase walls.

Hanging Lake

70 County Road 125, Glenwood Springs, CO 81601

Hanging Lake, a National Natural Landmark, is one of the most awe-inspiring places in Colorado. Its crystal clear waters and picturesque waterfall make it one of the best hikes you can find. 

The lake took shape due to a geological fault that led to the lake bed separating from the valley floor above. The inflow of water into the lake occurs gracefully over Bridal Veil Falls, and the lake’s perimeter is enriched by dissolved carbonates deposited along the shore as water cascades over it.

Embarking on the journey to Hanging Lake involves navigating a challenging 1.2-mile trail that winds its way up through Deadhorse Creek Canyon, ascending a quick 1,000 feet through steep switchbacks from the base of Glenwood Canyon. This rocky path offers a scenic route, unveiling the beauty of the landscape as it leads adventurers to the captivating Hanging Lake.

As you reach the culmination of the trail, you’ll find yourself on a boardwalk encircling the lake — a brief offshoot from the trail leads to Spouting Rock. Here, for centuries, water has meticulously carved a passage through the limestone, culminating in a breathtaking waterfall that emerges dramatically from a sheer cliff wall.

Doc Holliday’s Grave

Bennett Ave. & 12th St. Ditch, Glenwood Springs, CO 81601

Visit Glenwood Springs’ mysterious Linwood Cemetery to uncover the resting place of infamous outlaw Doc Holliday. The exact location remains unknown, but a short trail leads to his marker and other historic gravesites.

Holliday, a dentist turned gambler and gunslinger, died from tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs in November 1887 at the age of 36. Through his association with Wyatt Earp and his hopeful belief in the healing powers of the hot springs, Doc’s life has become a legend in American folklore. No trip to Glenwood Springs is complete without finding Doc’s marker in Linwood Cemetery, marked by signs and often adorned with mementos like coins and playing cards.

Bishop Castle

12705 CO-165, Rye, CO 81069

Surrounded on three sides by the San Isabel National Forest in southern Colorado stands Bishop Castle. What started as a small cabin for Jim Bishop and his wife has transformed over the past 60 years into an iron and stone castle. 

Back in 1959, Bishop, a mere 15 years old, invested a hard-earned $450 in a two-and-a-half-acre piece of land. That same year, he dropped out of high school, told he would never amount to anything. So, he married and got to work on a one-room cottage where he could live and hunt. Over the next 60 years, Bishop’s dedication manifested into a marvel, complete with many interior rooms, a grand ballroom exuding grandeur, and towers and bridges that offer breathtaking vistas spanning a hundred miles. Yet, perhaps the most enchanting feature is the fire-breathing dragon, a mythical creature that watches over the castle’s walls.

Today, the frontier fortress stands proudly, soaring to a height exceeding 16 stories and adorned with three expansive cathedral windows and intricate wrought iron walkways. Even now, at 79 years old, Bishop continues his construction endeavors, adding to the strange yet magical castle. 

The North Pole — Santa’s Workshop

5050 Pikes Peak Highway, Cascade, CO 80809

Nestled at the base of Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, Colorado, The North Pole — Santa’s Workshop is a charming vintage amusement park for the whole family. This festive destination houses Santa’s Village and the cheerful man himself, ensuring that the spirit of Christmas thrives throughout the entire year. At 7,500 feet above sea level, The North Pole provides refreshing mountain air and sweeping panoramic views.

Casa Bonita

6715 W. Colfax Ave., Lakewood, CO 80214

Call it a rite of passage, but you can’t call yourself a true Coloradan until you’ve been to Casa Bonita. In 1974, Bill Waugh opened Denver’s renowned restaurant and entertainment hub, marking the beginning of its journey of indoor cave divers and notoriously terrible Mexican cuisine. The restaurant gained even more popularity in 2003 when the satirical animation show South Park released an episode about the iconic pink palace. 

After about 50 years — hundreds of negative dining reviews and a bankruptcy later — Casa Bonita closed its doors. But it was a cherished icon, and Coloradans were hellbent on making sure it lived. Thanks to South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and a $40 million renovation in 2023, Casa Bonita was saved.

The dining experience may have been upgraded, but the things that made Casa Bonita a true masterpiece remain. Divers still leap from a 30-foot indoor waterfall while guests gather to eat. Before you leave, make sure to check out the lifesize South Park characters and the vintage-style video arcade. No wonder Eric Cartman says, “Casa Bonita is my favorite place in the whole world; I’ll just die if you don’t take me.”

Breckenridge Troll

189 Boreas Pass Road, Breckenridge, CO 80424

Situated along the Trollstigen Trail in Breckenridge, Colorado, Isak Heartstone is a towering 15-foot wooden troll sculpture. Initially constructed for the annual Breckenridge International Festival of Arts, Isak was crafted by the globally recognized Danish artist Thomas Dambo. Dambo is renowned for promoting recycling and upcycling, showcasing his ability to create impressive structures from discarded materials. Find Isak near the newly built trailhead at the southeast corner of the Stephen C. West Ice Arena parking lot, adjacent to the Illinois Gulch Trailhead.

The Wild Animal Sanctuary

999 County Road 53, Keenesburg, CO 80643

Comprising the world’s largest carnivore sanctuaries, The Wild Animal Sanctuary is also home to the world’s longest elevated footbridge, constructed to allow visitors to observe animals without subjecting them to the undue stress often associated with traditional zoos and ground-based displays. 

Since January 1980, The Wild Animal Sanctuary has answered over 1,000 pleas for assistance from both private citizens and government agencies, rescuing animals from various locations in the U.S. and around the globe. The animal residents, hailing from diverse backgrounds, were rescued from abuse, abandonment and illegal captivity. Currently, the sanctuary has over 33,000 acres of natural habitats where 750 rescued animals thrive.

Footnote: In December 2017, the sanctuary was called upon to save 39 tigers and three bears from Joe Exotic’s roadside zoo, which became infamous after the 2020 Netflix series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Some of the 42 animals were subjects of an ongoing court case, while others were voluntarily surrendered by Joe Exotic. To date, the sanctuary has rescued close to 150 animals associated with the individuals featured in the Netflix series.

The UFO Watchtower

201-249 CO-17, Center, CO, 81125

The UFO Watchtower stands out as one of Colorado’s most unique roadside attractions, beckoning both extraterrestrial enthusiasts and inquisitive minds to visit in hopes of glimpsing something from out of this world. Supposedly, this site has witnessed numerous UFO sightings over the years, possibly facilitated by the expansive and unobstructed night sky views offered by Alamosa. For just $15, guests can even camp at the site. 

Sandboxes aren’t just for kids. Resting within the embrace of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the dunes in Great Sand Dunes National Park have been shifting for countless ages, shaped by the distinctive wind patterns of the San Luis Valley. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

11999 CO-150, Mosca, CO 81146

Encompassing a stretch of more than 30 miles, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve holds a staggering quantity of over 5 billion cubic meters of sand. The park’s altitude of 8,200 feet and its remote setting make it a beloved destination among stargazers. Campers can enjoy sleeping under the stars for a weekend trip, but day trips are also perfect for those seeking an adventure. 

Guests can climb, hike, and ride an ATV or on horseback through the dunes, but the best part of the park is sledding down the massive hills. For hikers, forest trails skirt the periphery of the dunes, offering shaded pathways such as the Montville Nature Trail and the historic Mosca Pass Trail. The latter was once used by Native Americans and early settlers and served as a route to access the valley. 

Visitors arriving at the park during the spring and early summer should allocate time to explore Medano Creek, a temporary stream that usually flows only from May to June. But the weather is typically best (with the most amazing sunsets) during early fall. 

The entrance fee for a noncommercial vehicle is $25, granting access for seven days.

Indiana Jones Bed & Breakfast

502 Front St., Antonito, CO 81120

At the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Henry Jones Jr. flees a gang of grave robbers, eventually reaching his childhood home where his father resides. The actual house used for this scene has embraced its cinematic legacy and transformed into the Indiana Jones Bed & Breakfast.

Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs

44200 County Road 36, Steamboat Springs, CO 80487

Colorado is full of adventure, but it also offers some of the most peaceful experiences and landscapes. If a spa day sounds more appealing than hiking, be sure to visit the Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs

Situated just beyond Steamboat Springs beside Hot Springs Creek is one of the world’s most stunning mineral springs. Picture yourself unwinding in healing mineral water as Steamboat’s renowned Champagne Powder snow delicately blankets the adjacent forest. Indulge in a massage in a charming private massage hut or experience Watsu therapy in the secluded pool. These pools provide an ideal retreat for relaxation after a full day of skiing or snowboarding, or just for a leisurely day-long visit. 

Strawberry Park Hot Springs showcases five descending hot pools enveloped by intricate handcrafted stone masonry. The thermal soaking pools vary in temperature, ranging from 101 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing you to discover your personalized oasis of geothermal bliss.

During the summer, you can reserve tenting sites and cabins at Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Additionally, there are some year-round accommodations, including the authentic and renovated train caboose. (Entrance to the hot springs is included in the lodging costs.) But winter is usually the most magical time to visit, with the snow creating an even more picturesque scene. 

While you’re there, be sure to take a stroll through downtown Steamboat Springs for great restaurants with a hometown feel and unique small businesses. 

The Sasquatch Outpost

149 Main St., Bailey, CO 80421

Ranked among the top 10 quirkiest destinations in Colorado, The Sasquatch Outpost is a must-visit for anyone intrigued by the mystery of Bigfoot. Once a general store, this Bigfoot museum now features a collection of local sightings on a map, as well as unique artifacts and a life-size Bigfoot model. 

Palisade, Colorado

Palisade is famous for its peaches, and for good reason, but the wines of Palisade are something special. 

Known as an integral part of Colorado’s wine region, the town is renowned for its dynamic winemaking community, contributing to 80% of the state’s grape production for winemaking. Many of the wineries offer tastings and tours for guests to enjoy the history and process of the diverse wine options. 

While cabernet franc and riesling thrive in Palisade’s climate, the region also produces a diverse array of wines, including meritage white, chardonnay, syrah, merlot, viognier, port and more. Embrace the chance to broaden your palate by exploring more innovative options with wines crafted from honey, peaches, apricots, blackberries and other delightful ingredients.

But you can’t leave Palisade without eating your fill of peaches. Every corner of the town is full of roadside vendors selling the peaches singly or in bulk. These peaches are celebrated for their exceptional juiciness and sweetness, attributed to the region’s extended sunny days and cool summer nights. These climatic conditions contribute to the development of delightful fruity sugars in the peaches.

If you visit during the summer, the town celebrates the Palisade Peach Festival — a yearly event full of music, activities, food and, yes, peaches.

This article was featured in Local Profile's latest magazine