The Best of Colorado Springs: A Travel Guide
This time of year, everyone seems to be dreaming of taking a vacation. Well, today I thought I would give you my current home as a travel suggestion.
I have lived in Colorado Springs for about two years and when I have friends and family come to visit I become an unofficial tour guide. So today I’ll be your tour guide and walk you through EVERYTHING that is worth a trip to Colorado Springs.
First, I’ll give you a little context on why Colorado Springs is so unique and then I’ll jump in and go into detail about the six types of attractions that I consider “can’t miss” and some of my personal favorite options in each of those categories. So, without further ado, let’s start exploring Colorado Springs!
The first thing you will notice upon arriving in Colorado Springs is Pikes Peak. Nicknamed “America’s Mountain”, Pikes Peak is the only 14-er visible throughout the Springs. It looms over us wherever we go, and we love it. It isn’t the highest mountain in Colorado by far, but it is unique because it stands alone in the Springs, meaning it isn’t part of a range with lots of larger mountains and, therefore, sticks out more.
Speaking of the height of our mountain, the elevation in the Springs is probably much higher than you’re used to (no pun intended). Throughout town, the elevation fluctuates between 5,740 ft and 14,115 ft but averages out to about 6,035 ft (or 1.14 miles) in town. This means that you should remember to drink lots of water and moisturize because when you become dehydrated you will start experiencing altitude sickness, and no one likes that.
The beauty of nature in the Springs really is awe-inspiring. For example, did you know that the woman who wrote the song “America the Beautiful” was actually inspired to write the song while she was visiting Colorado Springs by train in 1893? Beyond this example, countless authors and artists have been inspired to write some of their best work in Colorado.
Another fun fact, the US Olympic Training Center is in Colorado Springs (plus the headquarters to 24 US National Federations for various Olympic Sports). If this interests you, stop by the training center for a tour!
I’ll leave you with two other quick notes on the Springs and then we can get into the really fun stuff!
First, there are five separate military sites in Colorado Springs, although there are three main ones. There is the Fort Carson Army Base, the Peterson Air Force Base, and the US Air Force Academy. That being said, don’t be surprised when you see TONS of military walking around town, it is perfectly normal to see someone in uniform running into the grocery store to grab some dinner on their way home.
Second, be aware that you CANNOT trust the weather forecasts. There have literally been multiple days in the past few years where it has snowed, hailed, and rained and then has gotten up to 75 degrees and sunny all within the SAME DAY. One of the meteorologists in the Air Force told me that Colorado Springs is one of the hardest places in the world to predict the weather (because of our mountain) and even when they do the science 100% right, they still have a 50% chance of being wrong. How do we handle this crazy weather? We try to be prepared. Layers are your friend, try to keep an umbrella in your car, and, if the weather gets too crazy, remember that it never lasts long.
All that being said, let’s explore some of the most unique things you can see while visiting Colorado Springs.
There are endless trails, parks, and mountains to explore while you are visiting, but there are six places that I consider “can’t miss” above everything else.
- Pikes Peak – Obviously this mountain makes the list. But there are lots of different ways you can choose to explore this mountain.
- The Cog Railway – This railway goes straight up the side of the mountain and has been running since 1891. The trip is a little bit over 3 hours and is a perfect way to learn about pikes peak while actually climbing to the summit in comfort.
- The Incline – If you want something intense, try the Incline in Manitou Springs. It is a 1-mile hike to the top, but don’t let that fool you. During that one mile, you gain 2,000 feet and are climbing at a grade of 45% on average (although in some spots it gets as steep as a 68% grade). Depending on how fast you take the trip, it can take from 30 minutes to 2 hours to reach the top. At the top, you can connect with the Barr Trail and take switchbacks back down to the bottom. Or, if you’re REALLY ambitious…
- Barr Trail – You could take the Barr trail all the way to the top of Pike’s Peak. Please note that this is rather difficult and is almost impossible when the mountain is still snowcapped.
- Drive – If none of those options seem like the right fit, you can simply drive to the top yourself. It costs $15 per adult to take the drive yourself and takes 2-3 hours round trip.
- Garden of the Gods – The beautiful rock formations at Garden of the Gods will leave you in awe. You can simply drive through the park, stop at the gift shops and visitors center, or hop out and walk some trails. The most common trail (Perkins Central Garden) is paved and, therefore, easy to walk. It also has the most amazing views of the various rock formations. Another pit-stop must is the Balanced Rock which you can drive right past or park and take some fun photos.
- Seven Falls – Seven Falls was bought by The Broadmoor after a flood in 2013 and took two years to reconstruct the roads and trails that had been destroyed. Now, when visiting the Falls, you must park at the Broadmoor and take a free shuttle up to the Falls. I describe the Seven Falls as a “pre-test for the Incline”. If you have a hard time hiking the 224 steps (with railings) to the top of the Falls, you probably shouldn’t try the Incline. But if you do make it to the top, don’t stop there! Keep on hiking and you will be able to take a trail to Inspiration Point. It is absolutely beautiful and worth it when you get there. After you’re done with your hike, go into the mountain and take the elevator to an overlook where you can view the falls that you just hiked.
- Cheyenne Mountain Zoo – This zoo is entirely worth the trip and is considered to be much better than the Denver Zoo by locals. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is the only zoo actually built on the side of a mountain. You can hike to the Shrine of the Sun at the top of the zoo, or just enjoy all of the animals. Be sure to bring your camera because you will have the chance to hand feed the Giraffes! Also, take a chance to look at the upcoming events to see if any line up with your visit. Personally, I love their 21+ evening events in the summer with food, drink, and live music!
- Manitou Cliff Dwellings – These dwellings are ruins from the Anasazi people that lived in Colorado from 1200 BC to 1300 AD. They are a truly amazing piece of history to explore.
- Cave of the Winds – This cave is full of amazing rock formations and gives countless tours each day. Take part in the Discovery Tour to explore the unique sights found in the cavern, try the Lantern Tour to hear local ghost stories and experience how the caves were originally explored, or try Caving 101 and get dirty by crawling through muddy passageways.
WOW! After all of those adventures, you’re going to be hungry. Don’t fear, Colorado Springs is chock-full of amazing local food. I always tell my friends and family when they visit that we could eat out for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day and still not have a chance to try all of my favorite restaurants in town before their trip is up.
○ Mountain Shadows Restuarant – This is a great little place, but get there early because the locals love it! My suggestions: the cinnamon roll (featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives) or the Reuben Omelette – it might sound weird but it is delicious!
○ King’s Chef Diner – There are two locations for this place, one is smaller but shaped like a castle and very cute, the other is downtown and a little bigger. Regardless of which location you go to, there is almost guaranteed to be a wait. But it is so worth it! When you look at the menu, pay attention to the different sizes you can order. Keep in mind that a 1/4 order here is about equal to a normal-sized order anywhere else! My favorite is The Grump while my husband jumps back and forth between The Thing and the Breakfast Burrito (be sure to get the green chili – locals will put green chili on everything).
○ Paris Crepe – They have both sweet and savory crepes so you can really eat here for whatever meal you wish. Plus, it is a great place to stop in when you are shopping downtown. My favorite is the French Crepe, it’s like a Nova Bagel!
○ Omelette Parlor – This is a unique find. The Omelette Parlor is actually the home where a movie star, Ruth Etting, retired in 1893. Since then it has been turned into a restaurant, but you can still tell that it was once a home the second you step inside. I love their skillets, try the Continental Divider Skillet or the Mount Elbert Skillet for something truly delicious.
○ Bonus: Snooze – So there are no Snooze’s in Colorado Springs, but I make a point to stop at the one in Lone Tree whenever I am picking someone up from the Denver Airport. I actually make my family and friends fly in early in the morning so that we can get breakfast at Snooze on the way back to Colorado Springs. If you are flying into Denver, I strongly suggest you do the same. What should you get if you stop in? The Bella Bella Benny. Hands down. That being said, they have some pretty out of this world pancakes as well!
○ Mona Lisa Fondue Restaurant – When was the last time you went out for a fondue dinner? Chances are, it has been a while. Mona Lisa Fondue is located in downtown Manitou Springs and is a great choice for a fancy night out. Make sure you make a reservation, don’t be afraid to upgrade your courses, and don’t skip the dessert! It is promised to be worth it.
○ The Rabbit Hole – This is a truly unique dining experience. First of all, it is underground. The entrance looks like a subway entrance with a door. After winding down the staircase, you reach the restaurant, which is entirely Alice in Wonderland themed. From the paintings on the wall to the menu, you will find references to Alice in Wonderland everywhere. Be sure to get a reservation if you want to experience this – they fill up VERY fast. If you want a good cocktail, try The White Rabbit. After all, who doesn’t love flaming marshmallows?
○ TILL Kitchen – The Till is a relatively new addition to Colorado Springs and my husband and I absolutely love it. It is highly environmentally friendly, even their tables are made out of local pine trees that were killed by beetles. They also try to get all of their food from local farms that are committed to sustainability. Not to mention how delicious all of their food is. This place fills up pretty fast on weekends so I would suggest a reservation here as well. What’s my favorite thing on the menu? A drink called By Way of Bees – I promise you will be in for a pleasant surprise.
○ Edelweiss Restaurant – Are you German? Or do you at least enjoy German food? If so, you cannot miss Edelweiss. This family-owned, authentic German Restaurant has been around for over 50 years and lives up to its name. You dine among endless German decor and they even have strolling musicians on the weekends. It fills up fast, so get a reservation here as well. If you want an appetizer, both the Brie and the Potato Pancakes are amazing! However, all dinners come with a German side salad so you won’t be going hungry if you skip the appetizer.
○ Briarhurst Manor – Okay, this is my last suggestion that requires a reservation (and probably needs a reservation the most of all of the places I’ve mentioned). This is another place that used to be a home and has been transformed into a wonderful restaurant. It is also located in Manitou Springs but is a bit separate from downtown, so there is plenty of parking. This home was built in 1876 by the founder of Manitou Springs. A little-known fact is that this fancy restaurant and popular wedding venue is also considered one of the most haunted houses in the area. The good news, all of these spirits seem to be friendly and, if you ask, you may even be allowed to explore the manor after dinner looking for your own spiritual encounters.
○ Alchemy – This is a small pub in Old Colorado City with unique food and even more unique cocktails like the Cotton Candyland or the Walking Dead. Stop in for a bite (or just a drink) while shopping.
○ Bad Daddy’s or Skirted Heifer or Bingo Burger or Crave – So there are a LOT of good burger restaurants in the Springs and, honestly, you can’t go wrong with any of the ones I listed. Bad Daddy’s is a sit-down place with a sports bar feel and create-your-own burgers. The Skirted Heifer and Bingo Burger are right next to each other in Downtown Colorado Springs and are very small (you might want to get your burgers to go). Finally, Crave is located in a shopping complex on the north side of town. If you want to see burgers as big as your head, Crave is your best option. So, regardless of what atmosphere you are craving, we have a great burger place for you!
○ Rudy’s BBQ – If you didn’t know any better, you would drive right past Rudy’s. It almost looks like a truck stop with a gas station attached and everything. But don’t let its appearance deceive you, it is the best BBQ in town. I always get the Pulled Pork Sandwich, while my husband always gets a few Breakfast Tacos.
○ Jack Quinn’s Irish Pub & Restaurant – If you want some good Irish food, look no further than Jack Quinn’s. Located in Downtown Colorado Springs, it is a great place to enjoy the evening. Their food is delicious (I especially love their Irish Nachos) and they have live music almost every night of the week.
○ Thunder & Buttons – Located in Old Colorado City, this is a delicious local pub. The pub was named after two elk that used to drive around a local to the various bars in town in the 1880s. This is a really friendly place with various weekly events to check out in the evenings.
○ La Baguette – Last but not least, if you look right next door to Thunder & Buttons you will find La Baguette. This is a perfect place to grab a quick lunch in between shopping. If you want to feel like you stepped into Paris, look no further. I personally enjoy their French Onion Soup.
First of all, if you’re still holding on after all of those restaurants, I’m impressed. Now, food and nature aren’t all that the Springs has to offer. If you enjoy shopping, you’ll love it here – you just need to know where to look. Sure we have endless shopping centers as well as two malls, but the really great finds aren’t in any of those places. Here are my five favorite shopping areas:
- Old Colorado City – This is my favorite shopping spot. Almost all of the shops are privately owned, there are tons of local artists being featured, they have great events throughout the year, and four of my favorite restaurants are located here! Take an afternoon to stroll down Colorado Avenue and enjoy, not only the shops, but the great atmosphere of the town. Like many places in town, furry friends are usually welcome and many restaurants have water bowls on their patios for your four-legged friend.
- The Promenade Shops at Briargate – If you’re looking for some middle to high-end chains, this is the place to go. Here you can find places like Athleta, Eddie Bouer, Loft, Pendleton, Williams-Sanoma, and much more. Like all of the best shopping in the Springs, this is an outdoor complex. Plus, if you would like to take a break, one of my favorite burger joints is just around the corner (Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar).
- Downtown Manitou Springs – Of all of the different shopping options I’m mentioning, Manitou Springs is probably the most “tourist-y”. You will find countless t-shirt shops and tiny souvenirs; but if you can look past all that, it is a really beautiful and historical town. Manitou Springs is where you go if you’re heading to Pikes Peak. This is where you will find the Cog Railway, the Incline, and Barr Trail. The Cave of The Winds and The Cliff Dwellings also reside here; so, chances are you will spend some time in Manitou no matter what. Manitou also has tons of cute shops and great food (three of my favorites reside here as well as the Swirl Wine Bar). When you stop in Manitou, be sure to stop and fill up your water bottles at one of the eight local mineral springs around town. Each spring tastes a little different, but many of them are naturally carbonated and have a sweeter taste. Shoshone Spring is right downtown at the corner of Navajo and Manitou.
- The Outlets at Castle Rock – If you are always looking for name brand items at discounted prices, the Outlets at Castle Rock are worth the drive. If you are driving in from Denver you will pass these outlets about 30 minutes before reaching Colorado Springs. With over 100 name brand stores, you will be sure to find something to your liking.
- Downtown Colorado Springs – Last but not least is Downtown Colorado Springs. With over 50 privately owned shops, there is plenty to see. Stop by Josh & John’s Ice Cream for a cool treat, peruse through Zeezo’s costume shop for some fun, and stop by Poor Richard’s for used books or a nice coffee shop or some pizza (this shop is actually three shops that are all connected)!
By this point, you might be wondering, “what doesn’t Colorado Springs have!?!”. Well, to be honest, I’m not really sure. You can have just about any experience you want here and what better way to show that then for me to share my six favorite adventures that you can have while here?
- Rock Climbing – Are you the type of person that looked at those amazing rock structures at Garden of the Gods and found yourself thinking, “I want to climb those”? Well, you can! Front Range Climbing Co. will gladly schedule either half or full day, private rock climbing trips in the Garden of the Gods for you! Don’t worry about being part of a large group of people where your trip is tailored to the 5-year-olds, this will be perfect for you.
- Horseback Riding – Maybe instead of climbing those rocks, you just want to experience them as the pioneers did when they first found them in the 1860s. Pick either a one or two-hour ride and enjoy a ride through the many horse trails in the Garden of the Gods park with the Academy Riding Stables.
- White Water Rafting – Do you want to get your adrenaline pumping? Maybe you should plan a half or full day trip down the Royal Gorge with the Whitewater Adventure Outfitters. Not only will you get the chance to see the beautiful and historical gorge and race through the rapids, but you will also get a chance to race the historic Royal Gorge train.
- Riding the Rails – Speaking of the Royal Gorge train, you can book rafting and a train trip as a package, or just enjoy this wonderful train trip. Sit in the Vista Dome to see above you as well as out the windows or sit in either the dining car, the club car, or in coach. You can choose to take a lunch or dinner trip or just grab some snacks. Regardless of where you choose to sit, there is on open air car where you have access to take in the beautiful views. If you would prefer to stay a little closer to town, don’t forget about the famous Cog Railway up to Pikes Peak.
- Zipline Tours – Hop in a Jeep and drive out to a local zipline course to enjoy the sights from the sky! Adventures Out West has zipline tours all summer from 8:00 am to about 4:00 pm. With their Colo-Rad tour, you will take part in five separate ziplines over Manitou Springs, the longest of which is over 600 feet long.
- Hot Air Balloons – Another fun option that Adventures Out West has to offer is hot air balloon rides. You can choose to fly as part of a group of 10 people or pick a private trip. Get ready to get up early, most of these flights start at dawn, but it will be worth it to spend 3-4 hours flying over the sights with a champagne toast and breakfast in the field after your beautiful morning flight.
If these six adventures aren’t enough, there are even more options out there. Adventures Out West alone also offers Jeep Tours, Segway Tours, Guided Hikes, and Van Tours.
Regardless of what time of year you choose to visit, there is bound to be a great event going on. Check the Colorado Springs website to find out what is going on in town when you visit, but, if you can, here are my favorite events that happen in each season in Colorado Springs.
- Spring: Territory Days – Each Memorial Day Territory Days takes over Old Colorado City. They have almost 200 different booths, live music and so much more. Stop by for a gunfight re-enactment, watch Native American Dancers, or stroll through the various local craft vendor booths. Entrance is free, so what’s stopping you?
- Summer: Renaissance Festival – The Colorado Rennaissance Festival is my absolute favorite event each year. It is open for eight weekends each summer and is a sight to see. It is located about 30 minutes north of Colorado Springs in the small town of Larkspur. I make sure to attend the festival at least twice each summer and always look forward to next year. Beyond the endless shops with beautiful wares, the shows are outstanding. See comedy shows, watch jugglers and acrobats complete amazing feats, watch the jousting tournaments, see endangered cats perform, or take a ride on the back of an elephant. All of this and much much more is at the festival each summer.
- Fall: Emma Crawford Coffin Races – Remember when I told you that Manitou Springs has some amazing history? Well, the story of Emma Crawford is just another piece of the history of Manitou. Emma Crawford passed away in 1890 from tuberculosis. Emma’s dying wish was for her fiance to bury her on top of Red Mountain which her fiance honored. However, in the early 1900s, her casket was forced to be moved to the south side of the mountain when the railroad began to be built. After some harsh rain, Emma’s casket slid down the mountain and some young boys found her at the bottom of the mountain. Now Manitou Springs celebrates this crazy event each year with the annual Coffin Races in October. Where else can you see 70 teams in crazy costumes racing coffins down Mainstreet?
- Winter: The Classic Broadmoor Holiday Show – The Broadmoor is a luxury resort at the base of the Cheyenne Mountain. It was built in 1918 to be the “Grand Dame of the Rockies”. To this day, it is rated a 5-diamond resort and continues to own much of the Springs including Seven Falls and the Cog Railway. It also gave the city of Colorado Springs the gift of the only mountain zoo in America in the 1930s. Today, The Broadmoor is home to almost 800 rooms, 26 retail shops, 10 full-service restaurants, and 10 smaller cafes and lounges. It even has its own movie theater and bowling alley. As you can tell, I could go on and on about The Broadmoor forever, but let’s get to the actual event. Each winter, The Broadmoor hosts their own Holiday Show. Dinner begins at 7:00 and the entertainment begins at 8:00. Expect music, dancing, fun, and (above all else) a night you will never forget.
Another fun fact about Colorado, we love our beer. There are literally HUNDREDS of breweries in Colorado and almost 50 of them are located in the Springs. If you love beer, spend a day jumping from microbrewery to microbrewery, but even if beer isn’t your thing, there is one brewery that you should make sure is on your list of things to see in the Springs.
The Bristol Brewing Company was founded in 1994 and today their beer is available almost anywhere in the state. But that isn’t the cool part. The Bristol Brewery has a pub inside their facility. That’s not the cool part either. Their facility is an old elementary school built in 1916. Now, that’s the cool part! You can stroll through the old school and still see the children’s murals on the walls. Stop by the Principal’s Office for a mixed drink or bring your furry friend to the Bristol Patio to enjoy some of their newest (and most famous) types of beer. As a bonus, make sure you stop by the bathroom when you’re there (trust me, it’s worth it)!
Whew! There you go. You are now prepared to not only visit Colorado Springs but also to truly soak in every unique aspect of the area that you wish! If you want a cheat sheet for the area, click on the infographic I made for you below – each suggested activity is hyperlinked to its website!
Have fun planning your trip and make sure to enjoy yourself!
If you’re still hanging in here, I’ve got an extra surprise for you.
You know that Bishop Castle I mentioned at the bottom of my infographic? It is a very fun trip. You can climb to the very top of each tower (although it isn’t the safest and is at your own risk).
Some people even use the main room on the second floor for their wedding ceremonies! The owner/builder is currently working on adding an elevator so everyone can see this sight. And it will always be free to the public.
It really is something you should see if you don’t mind the trip. Here is a picture of the castle for you to get a better idea of the amazing feat of building this by hand.
Now, go enjoy yourself!