Earth : North America : United States of America : Rocky Mountains (United States of America) : Colorado
Colorado  is a western state in the Rocky Mountains region of the United States of America. The highest peaks of the the North American Rockies are here, (Mt. Elbert, 14,440 ft/4,4041 m), as well as a number of other natural marvels. The state also boasts the highest overall elevation in the continental United States and is home to many diverse ecosystems for its size.
There is no universally agreed-upon breakdown of regions in Colorado. You'll often hear natives speak of a very simple structure comprised of the Eastern Slope (meaning everything east of the crest of the Rockies), or the Western Slope (everything west of the range crest), and anomalous Denver or the "valley". The breakdown below is a bit more complex, partly for reasons of style and partly because the simple east/west/Denver formulation lumps areas together that are really very disparate. It's also roughly what's used by the Colorado Department of Tourism. If you are confused by some of the boundaries, simply consult a map of Colorado counties, as many of the regions follow county lines.
Composer Igor Stravinsky once rode a ski lift in Aspen in the summertime, while Prospector Alferd Packer dined on human flesh near Lake City. Inventor Nikola Tesla created artificial lightning hundreds of feet long in Colorado Springs, and Writer Oscar Wilde attended a fancy dinner party at the bottom of a Leadville silver mine. Outlaw Butch Cassidy robbed the bank in Telluride, while Lawman Doc Holliday and Showman Buffalo Bill were buried in Glenwood Springs and Denver, respectively. All are part of the quirky and sometimes colorful history of Colorado.
Around 15,000 years ago, Native Americans migrated to Colorado, a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers distributed on the plains as well as the western plateaus. The first agricultural communities appeared on the Eastern Plains approximately 5,000 years ago. Circa 600 AD, the Ancient Pueblo Peoples began building elaborate communities in Southwestern Colorado in the Mesa Verde area. Other Native American groups, including the Arapaho, Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, Shoshone and Utes have called Colorado home.
The Spanish were the first Europeans in the area. In 1541, Coronado led an expedition north through Colorado from Mexico in search of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, where the streets were supposed to be paved with gold.
In 1803, Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte sold the United States a vast tract of land known as the "Louisiana Purchase," an area which included Colorado. Lieutenant Zebulon Pike explored the recently purchased territory at President Thomas Jefferson's behest. Pike and his men "discovered" the 14,000 ft (4, 268 m) peak near Colorado Springs, which today bears his name.
From the 1820s through the 1840s, fur trappers and mountain men began harvesting highly-valued beaver and buffalo pelts for the Eastern U.S. and Europe. Trading posts were established for barter with the Native Americans, while trade routes sprang up between the United States and Mexico.
In 1858, gold was discovered at the mouth of Dry Creek in the present-day Denver suburb of Englewood, triggering the "Pike's Peak or Bust" gold rush of 1858-59. Approximately 50,000 people immigrated to Colorado in search of gold, creating the first large scale permanent settlements. Hard rock silver and gold mining towns were established throughout the territory.
A new town named Denver City was founded in honor of James W. Denver, governor of Kansas Territory.
In 1876, Colorado was admitted as the thirty-eighth state in the union. Colorado was called the "Centennial State" in honor of the one-hundredth anniversary of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
In 1912, Hot Sulphur Springs hosted a ski jumping tournament and invited the Denver press. From this humble beginning, Colorado's ski industry was born. A handful of early ski runs were built around the state over the next 20 years, with the Highland-Bavarian Corporation beginning a rudimentary development of Aspen. World War II and the arrival of the 10th Mountain Division to train near Minturn ushered in the mid-20th century explosion of Colorado ski resorts. Trained for high alpine combat in Italy, the alumni of the 10th Mountain Division returned to the U.S. after the war to build Aspen, Vail and Arapahoe Basin.
By the 1960s, Colorado was a popular global destination for alpine skiing, with travelers drawn to the state's sunny days and champagne snow.
Colorado is split down the middle north to south by the Rocky Mountains. To the east is a region of high prairie, dry and wide open. To the west are rugged mountains arranged in various groups or ranges. (Interestingly, the largest single range in the state, the San Juan Mountains of the southwestern quarter, aren't technically part of the Rockies.) Meandering through the mountains is an imaginary line called the Continental Divide. This marks the flow of precipitation. Rain falling on the west of the Divide makes its way to the Pacific Ocean. Rain on the east makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. What may be surprising to visitors, however, is that, despite stereotypes, comparatively little of the state is actually mountainous. Perhaps a third of it is covered by hills or mountains, and even less is actually home to the soaring, jagged peaks for which the state is known.
Colorado has 54 mountain peaks above 14,000 ft (4,267 m) of elevation. The highest peak, Mount Elbert, rises to 14,440 ft (4,401 m) above sea level making it the highest peak in the North American Rockies. Tourism is a major industry, with skiing/snowboarding, hiking/camping, hunting, mountaineering and fishing as large sources of income for the state economy.
Colorado's population was 4,301,261 in the 2000 census, and the state's population is growing, particularly in the large towns along the Front Range where the prairie and mountains meet. These towns include the capital, Denver, and Colorado Springs, Boulder, Longmont, Loveland and Fort Collins. Many of the residents of Colorado migrated from other states so being a "Colorado Native" is a point of pride with many people.
Those who've never been to Colorado might imagine a frigid, snowy states. However, Denver's 300 sunny days a year and overall mild temperatures are a point of pride among Coloradoans. Due to the Rocky Mountains which split the state in half, climate differs greatly from east to west, low to high. The weather changes rapidly and unpredictably, so be prepared for anything if you're traveling in most seasons. Colorado is also an exceptionally dry state, and has suffered through several recent droughts. Drink lots of waters and watch for dehydration.
Winter is generally cold, though the weather is drastically different depending on elevation. While the mountains are likely to experience frequent snow storms - guaranteeing lots of fresh powder for skiing - these become less and less frequent as one travels down on the Eastern slopes. Lower elevations to the east of the Rockies experience occasional snow storms and even huge blizzards, but low temperatures seldom last long, and the winter is frequently interrupted by warm days with temperatures in the 50s, 60s, or even higher. Bring warm snow clothes, but also a light jacket. While March is the snowiest month of the year, the warm days of spring are more frequent in this month, and even in the mountains it is not unusual for temperatures to rise to the 60s or above, making for some very interesting skiing.
Spring is generally brief and mild. Snow is not uncommon as late as May, even in lower elevation cities, and some ski resorts stay open as late as July. However, except during snow, the temperatures are warm and pleasant. Be prepared for rapid changes - its not unusual for there to be 80 degree temperatures during the day and snow in the evening.
Summer is perhaps Colorado's most predictable season. While some ski resorts may stay open until July, don't be deceived: the temperatures are warm, even in the mountains. While days in the 80s and 90s are frequent, higher temperatures are not unheard of. Fortunately, Colorado's low humidity means that even the hottest days don't pack the punch of heat in more humid regions. Summer does arrive later in the mountains, and some peaks have snow all year round. Still, even at the higher elevation, summer days tend to be warm, though nights are cooler. Afternoon thunderstorms are frequent starting in mid-July and continuing until about mid-September. Though very heavy, these are usually brief, lasting from as short as half an hour to two or three hours. Though they are a great relief from the dry days of earlier summer, lighting is dangerous and a huge risk factor for forest fires. These afternoon thunderstorms are especially severe in the eastern plain region of Colorado, and tornadoes also occur during this time. South Eastern Colorado has very desert-like summers, including flora and fauna, and shares many similarities to nearby New Mexico.
Fall is another relatively short season in Colorado. While daytime temperatures tend to stay warm, nighttime temperatures begin to drop starting in late August. Aspens, the primary native deciduous tree, changes colors in mid September. The first snow usually arrives sometime in October at lower elevations, though even earlier snows are not unheard of, and fairly common in the mountains.
While English is, of course, the main language of Colorado, Spanish is also widely spoken (20% of the population speaks it). There are large Latino populations in Denver, Pueblo and in the San Luis Valley.
All major airlines fly into Denver International Airport (code: DEN) as it is the major hub for the region, and in fact the ninth busiest airport in the world.
Here are some of the airports servicing Colorado:
For more information, see Wikitravel's article Rail travel in the United States.
If you want to travel the state, then you will need to rent a vehicle. Prices are the same as across the United States.
The state is roughly quarted by two major Interstates, the north-south running I-25 and the east-west running I-70. (I-76 also enters the state in the Northeast from Nebraska). Outside of the Front Range, the rest of the state is traversed by small highways and county roads.
The major cities of the greater Denver area (Denver, Aurora, Boulder, Lakewood, Littleton, Longmont, Broomfield) are linked by bus transportation using RTD. Service south to Castle Rock and Colorado Springs is provided by FREX. The cost is very reasonable and the busses run regular schedules.
Taxis and shuttle services are also available throughout the state.
Some of Colorado's most iconic natural beauty lies outside its national parks, and in its many national monuments, national forests and state parks. Other areas of federally protected scenic beauty in Colorado include: National Recreation Trails, National Recreation Areas, National Grasslands, National Wildlife Refuges and National Wilderness Areas. The Bureau of Land Management also has extensive public land holdings.
Archeological and geological points of interest abound throughout Colorado's national monument system.
National historic trails
Connecting countries, colonies and cultures, these trails were a key part of European settlement of the Western U.S.
National historic sites
Colorado's two national historic sites tell the story, for both good and ill, of European/U.S. relations with Native Americans.
National scenic trails
Solitude and amazing natural scenery await visitors to Colorado's version of the Appalachian Trail.
There are 11 national forests in Colorado. Here a few of note with famous landmarks.
Wilderness areas are hard to define in Colorado, with many of the state's most visited attractions administered by towns and cities. There are many places of cultural and historical significance, as well.
With 6,000 miles of streams and more than 2,000 lakes and reservoirs to choose from, you can fish for over 35 species of both warm- and cold-water fish. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy angling, high mountain stream fishing and ice fishing in Colorado. Don't forget to watch the seasons set by the state  and obtain your fishing license. Otherwise, you may be facing a stiff fine.
Colorado is one of the world's top destinations for alpine skiing, snowboarding, and other winter mountain sports. Home to 26 ski areas and resorts, Colorado offers the perfect location to take a family or solo or couples vacation to. From beginners to expert mountains, these resorts are open to anyone. Even for the non skiers, the resorts and ski towns offer shopping, spas, tubing and any multiple other fun attractions to enjoy. Many of these resorts are only 1-2 hours outside of Denver.
It's not hard to spot wildlife in Colorado. There is a diversity of wild animals maintained by the Colorado Division of Wildlife . Elk, mule deer, moose, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, antelope, brown bears, mountain lions and a smattering of bobcats range the national parks, forests and state parks. Migratory birds such as hummingbirds and the sandhill cranes return each year to their summer habitat. Look for "Wildlife Viewing Area" signs along the highways and interstates. Or simply venture into any wilderness area. You will need binoculars, a camera, as well as good luck and patience.
Festivals & events
Colorado is filled with a large variety of restaurants with different cuisines. You can find almost everything you would ever want to eat or drink. But what, exactly, is Colorado cuisine? There are several indigenous foods worth trying, sought out for their associations with this Rocky Mountain state.
First, there is the cliché Denver Omelette, an egg dish prepared with cheddar cheese, diced ham, onions, and green bell peppers. It probably originated on Western cattle drives, cooked up by cowboys, and most likely was not invented by a French gastronome as a "dénuer omelette," or a tasteless American omelette deprived of all class. Contrary to popular belief, you can get a Denver Omelette in Denver, but it will simply be one egg item out of many on the menu. This omelette doesn't inspire the hometown pride of, say, a Philly cheesesteak in Philadelphia.
Along with Pasadena, California, and Louisville, Kentucky, Denver is one of three cities that claim to have invented that quintessential American food, the cheeseburger. Made with American cheese layered on top of a patty of ground beef, cooked on a griddle or grill, and placed on a bun with the usual sides of pickles, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and condiments, the cheeseburger is a fast food classic. In 1935, Louis Ballast of the Humpty Dumpty Drive-In in Denver received a trademark on the term, "cheeseburger." So Denver was arguably not the first place of origin for the cheeseburger, but it's the official one.
Sometime during your stay, a giggling friend will attempt to get you to eat a plate of Rocky Mountain Oysters. When asked, even your waiter or waitress will be coy about giving a straight answer. Don't be fooled, however. There are no fresh water molluscs thriving at high altitude. These oysters are bull or sheep testicles, flour battered and pan fried.
Many chefs reference Colorado's pioneering past and work with fresh game. Quail, rabbit, elk, venison, moose and even rattlesnake are served, ranging from the kitchen tables of families that still hunt all the way to four star restaurants.
Three meats, however, have deep associations with Colorado: Buffalo, Colorado Rack of Lamb, and Fresh Water Trout.
More aptly described as "bison," buffaloes once roamed the Great Plains of the U.S. in the millions. Nearly hunted to extinction for their hides, buffalo have been making a quiet comeback on ranches as a heart-healthy alternative to other meats. It is lower in cholesterol than either chicken or beef. Buffalo is a red meat best served medium rare--cooked too long and it will toughen. A plethora of restaurants serve bison as steaks, hamburgers and jerky, and in pot roast, meat loaf, even tacos and spaghetti. If you have access to a grill during your stay, buy some ground bison at the supermarket and make your own buffalo burgers. (Just be sure to mix the meat with oatmeal and egg as a binding agent, since bison is so lean, it tends to fall apart).
One hundred years ago, Greek immigrants settled in Western Colorado, bringing with them a millennia-old sheep raising tradition. Many of these high mountain ranches have morphed into the state's ski resorts, but a handful remain. In summer time, young lambs are still grilled in open charcoal pits in the Greek fashion, while Colorado lamb is a much sought-after gourmet ingredient. Be sure to ask for all-natural lamb raised in Colorado with no growth stimulants or added hormones.
Hiding in pools in mountain streams are wild brown, speckled and rainbow trout. The rainbow is a fresh water cousin of the salmon. Catching these skittish fish in the outback of the Rockies is half the challenge, since they are extremely sensitive to vibrations and hide when something approaches the stream. But once caught, trout meat is very flavorful and clean, if prone to tiny, throat-sticking bones.
During the late summer months, be sure to try some of Colorado's best produce. Melons from Rocky Ford, sweet corn from Olathe, peaches from Palisade, cherries from Paonia and chili peppers from Anaheim will enhance any Colorado vacation.
Colorado and drinking are often linked. It dates back to the grizzled fur trapping, mountain man days of the 1840s, when some of the state's pioneers would hole up in Bent's Fort and drink themselves blind with earthen jugs of "trade whiskey' - a dubious combination of "red eye" whiskey, hot chili peppers, plug tobacco and gunpowder. (A gourmet recreation of the drink can still be sampled at The Fort Restaurant , in Morrison, Colorado).
Colorado is considered to be the microbrew capital of the United States. (Denver is sometimes referred to as the, "Napa Valley of Microbreweries"). The magazine "Modern Drunkard" is headquartered in Denver. Brewpubs are open in almost every town.
One of the most popular adult tourist activities in Colorado is the Brewery Tour circuit. From the megabrewer Coors in Golden, to the refined tastes of New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, the Front Range of Colorado offers many opportunities to see beer being made.
Denver also hosts the Great American Beer Festival  every Fall. This three day bacchanal celebrates micro, medium and mega brews from across the country with awards handed out to the judges picks for best brews.
There are also less celebrated, but equally worthy, meaderies and vineyards throughout the state. Colorado's nascent wine industry has exploded in the last 20 years. While there are now over 70 wineries in Colorado, ranging from the mountains to the plains, the communities of Grand Junction and Palisade on the Western Slope rightly label themselves as, Colorado's Wine Country.  The high desert farming town of Palisade witnessed the birth of the state's modern vineyards in the '70s and early '80s. Even today, a majority of the state's wine grapes are grown in this tiny Victorian town in the federally-designated Grand Valley American Viticultural Area. (AVA). Palisade also hosts the Colorado Mountain Winefest  every September at harvest time.
The earliest history of wine in Colorado, however, dates back to the nineteenth century. The first recorded wine production in Colorado was 1899. It was Colorado Governor George A. Crawford, the founder of Grand Junction in 1881, who first saw the Grand Valley’s potential for grape production. Crawford planted 60 acres of wine grapes and other fruit on Rapid Creek above Palisade.
Unfortunately, these early forays into viticulture ended with Prohibition in 1916. The General Assembly of Colorado enacted a statute and Colorado went "dry" four years before the passage of the 18th Amendment, which created national prohibition. Commercial winemaking ceased in Colorado and Palisade's grape vines were ripped out of the ground by authorities. It took over 70 years for the state's wine industry to reestablish itself.
Newer to the scene are Colorado's hard liquor and spirits distillers. A handful of artisan distillers such as Stranahan's in Denver and Peach Street Distillers in Palisade are creating bourbon, whiskey, gin and other flavored hard grained alcoholic beverages in limited batches.
One note of caution - some people find that their alcohol tolerance is lower at higher altitudes. Drink slowly until you acclimate.
Dehydration is a serious concern. The aridity of the air is deceptive--you will perspire and exhale moisture from your mouth and nose without even realizing it. If you're going to hike anywhere in Colorado, take plenty of water (at least one gallon per person, per day), decent nonslip boots or sneakers, as well as layers of clothing. Always hike with a waterproof jacket--more people die of hypothermia in Colorado in the summer simply by being caught unawares. Let people know where you are going and when you expect to get back.
Be careful and watch for lightning while hiking, especially in the high country. It's often best to hike in the early morning to avoid the possibility of hitting an afternoon thunderstorm.
The eastern plains region of Colorado is in tornado alley.
Tornadoes and severe thunderstorms with high winds and hail are not uncommon during the spring and summer months. Make sure you keep a radio on in the car. Should you hear the tornado sirens sounding, locate a suitable tornado shelter at once--do not stay outdoors to get a picture! Also, do not try to outrun the tornado in your car! You may wind up driving directly into the tornado's path.
Should the skies be cloudy, and the light take on a greenish-yellow cast, this is an indication of an imminent hail storm--again, seek shelter at once.
Keep in mind, these storms are spread over a wide area and many residents have never seen a tornado; however, Colorado residents do not hesitate to run to the basement/cellar if a tornado warning is announced. Refer to the Tornado safety article for analysis of the issues here.
Of the 25 species of snakes in Colorado, only two are venemous: the western rattlesnake, which lives almost everywhere, and the massasauga, which is limited to the grassy lands of the Eastern Plains. If you are afraid of snakes, head for the cool, highest elevations of the Rockies. Western rattlers can't live above 7,500 to 9,500 ft (2134 to 2743 m).
Rattlesnakes are more afraid of you than you are of them. If you hear a rattle, it's a warning. Freeze and look around for the snake. Move cautiously away from the snake once you locate it, even if it means cutting your hike short.
Do not try to kill or further antagonize the snake, as this may lead to additional bites.
If you are bitten, the good news is that you almost certainly will live through the painful experience. Remain as calm as possible. Rattlesnake venom is essentially digestive enzymes, and will break down tissue around the bite. Try not to move much (which spreads the venom) unless you must do so. Painful swelling of lymph nodes in the groin or armpit usually occurs within one hour if the bite is on the leg or arm. Call emergency medical services (911) and/or a poison control center. There is antivenin available for use against all native pit vipers in the US.
Colorado is bordered by seven other states, and is a great launching pad for any tour of the "Old West." Many domestic and international tourists use Denver as a gateway city for for their Western visits.
Other nearby destinations include: