At about an hour and a half’s drive from downtown Denver, you might not think of Colorado Springs as a vacation site. But after doing some research on the greater Denver area, we decided to extend our Denver vacation by spending the last half of it in Colorado Springs.
Starting Off Strong
We reached Colorado Springs after a long, beautiful drive from Cheyenne through Boulder, so we settled into our rental house in the suburbs and headed out to a beautiful and delicious French-restaurant called Marigold Cafe & Bakery. I had the rotisserie chicken and cheesecake for dessert. Both were impressive.
We didn’t do much on our first night, but the next few days were quite an adventure.
Garden Of The Gods
A truly spiritual experience, Garden Of The Gods is a must if you’re going to be anywhere near the Denver or Colorado Springs area. It’s a park filled with natural red rock formations that appear to take certain shapes, and it’s registered as a National Landmark. From the “Kissing Camels” to “The Scotsman,” the shapes are fun to find and the hiking is incredible. You’ve probably heard of the famous “Balancing Rock” which is a completely natural formation where, literally, a big rock balances on another one. It looks like it could fall any second – and it would, except that the park directors had to cement the rocks together after a group of teenagers tried to knock it over at night. At least, that’s what our tour guide told us. The views are unforgettable and indescribable.
We chose to experience the park both on foot and with a guide. We started with our guide on an ATV at the visitor’s center. His name is Greg, but he’s supposed to go by Duke, a “more Western name,” apparently. Duke/Greg is a man who has lived in Manitou Springs, the town just outside of Colorado Springs and Garden of The Gods, for a very long time. He gave us both the traditional tour and the residential insider’s perspective on the area. We stayed in the ATV almost the whole time. The tour we selected was a history lesson on the park, but it also took us through downtown Manitou Springs, where we were able to taste the natural spring water. The water tasted strange and carbonated, but our guide filled his water bottle with it, saying that the locals are used to it and love it.
Aside from trying the natural spring water in Manitou Springs (you can find natural spring fountains scattered throughout the town), there are several fun, quirky, and unique stores and restaurants to try. Manitou Springs is a very artsy town, and they proudly support the slogan “Keep Manitou weird.”
The town sits near the base of Pikes Peak, a mountain with a terrifying yet exciting trail that takes you over old rail tracks. It’s ridiculously steep.
The Loop Mexican Restaurant
The Loop is home to ginormous, sweet, and delicious margaritas as well as phenomenal Mexican food. I sprang for the “Burrito Panini,” basically a grilled and flattened burrito. Very tasty. I absolutely recommend the pomegranate margarita.
Pike’s Peak Chocolate and Ice Cream
This ice cream shop is rated the best in the area. When I first heard that I was unsure given the lack of other ice cream shops in the area. However, it was quite good. I enjoyed the Mocha Java Jolt.
Manitou Brewing Company
The only brewery in Manitou Springs, Manitou Brewing Company, is hoppin’ (just accept my bad joke and keep reading). They have good bar food – fried pickles, burgers, etc., and their beer collection is quite extensive for a small brewery. They don’t only serve their own brews. Nonetheless, my dad and I both really liked their Belgian Wit, called “Wit It and Quit It.” I suggest stopping in one night for burgers and beers.
The streets are loaded with fun gift shops and art stores, but I think my favorite was the Quacker Gift Shop because half the store is dedicated to rubber ducks. You can find a rubber duck that best emulates you or your friends and take it home. It’s an experience.
This part is almost hard to believe, but Manitou Springs has an arcade that spans over multiple stores AND includes outdoor machines. There are probably at least six indoor rooms, and then a few separate outdoor sections that are loaded with old-school arcade games. You can play original Pacman, Donkey Kong, old pinball machines, etc. – you can find just about any old arcade game that you can think of. Plus, most of them are ridiculously cheap, like they haven’t changed the prices since 1940. Games run anywhere from a nickel to 50 cents (though there are a few newer games that will cost a bit more).
Manitou Cliff Dwellings
Just outside of Manitou Springs and Garden Of The Gods, you’ll find the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. It’s a museum that includes real pieces of Native American architecture that are likely 1,000 years old. You can see them, touch them, and learn all about them. It’s both an indoor and outdoor museum, and you can do the whole thing in less than an hour. The gift shop is huge and has lots of interesting finds – you can’t miss it if you walk through the museum, and I suggest that you don’t pass it by. Also, I 10/10 recommend their fudge. The super-sweet Jelly Donut flavor is amazing, as are the typical flavors.
Museum Of Mining & Industry
I’ll be honest with you. I like history, but I was bored here. That may be because it was the end of the trip and I was tired, and we were roped in with a preschool tour. I mean, the kids were cute, but it’s harder to pay attention and learn things when half the tour is the kids raising their hands and then not actually having anything to say.
If you are interested in the history of the mining industry, it is very informative and the staff is very nice and excited to tell you about it. My guess is that if we weren’t in a tour with a preschool group, we would’ve been in and out in an hour. I think we were there for about double that.
Old Colorado City
Old Colorado City is a small, adorable town just outside of Colorado Springs. It actually used to be named Colorado City and was supposed to be the capital before Denver took the reigns. Now it’s trademark is a few blocks of restaurants and shops, including Front Range Barbeque. Living in Tennessee, I don’t normally jump to try barbecue when I’m traveling, but this was good. Like, probably the best meal of our whole Denver-Cheyenne-Boulder-Colorado Springs trip. 10/10 pulled pork.
Believe it or not, you can tour the Airforce Academy in Colorado Springs. You have to show government ID before you can even drive in, and you can’t bring in large bags. You’ll drive up to the visitor’s center which includes the school store and a small indoor museum. Most of what you’ll enjoy seeing, though, is on a map that you’ll get at the desk when you walk in the visitor’s center. It points out all the things you can see. The coolest part, in my opinion, was going to see the chapel and then looking down and seeing the young cadets leaving their lunch hour, marching together.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
I deal with the same struggle all the time: do I go see the cool animals, or do I stop giving money to people who put animals in cages? I gave in this time, but it was worth it to see a zoo built on a mountain. I felt pretty content with the amount of room that most of the animals had. Still obviously much less than what they would have in the wild, but enough to give them space to roam while we can observe and learn about animal needs and behaviors.
I don’t agree with any instance of human-wild animal interaction, and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo allows visitors to feed giraffes, elephants, and rhinos. That upset me a bit, but other than that I was content with the zoo. Also, the elephants were swaying, which generally is a sign of distress.
I was very surprised to find that the food court actually had some really good food! Even the pizza, which I fully expected to be frozen quality, was almost NY-style (and I’m a New Yorker saying this). They also had fresh meat and various international cuisine. The best part, though, was the cart we went to for dessert. It was just outside the food court, though I don’t know that it’s always there. I had delicious fried Oreos, and my brother enjoyed his fried Snickers.
Visit Colorado Springs
I’m sure that when you think of visiting Colorado you think of Denver and Aspen, but consider Colorado Springs. Visit Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs in the warmer months, when you can enjoy beautiful hikes and other outdoor activities.
The only thing I’m sad I missed is outdoor laser tag that apparently exists there. Please go there and tell me about it so I can live vicariously through you.