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Do All the Things in Colorado Springs

High in the Rockies, Colorado Springs is truly a choose-your-own-adventure vacation. What you'll find depends entirely on which season you visit this rugged, awe-inspiring town. No matter when you go, one thing's for sure: sporting excellence lives here in the home of the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. But there's plenty of relaxation and downtime to be found amongst the peaks and pines that make Colorado Springs such a stunning place.

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01Get to know the geography

Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA downtown skyline and mountains at dusk. Sean Pavone / Getty Images

Colorado's got some of the nation's most loved vacation spots, like Vail and Aspen, but they're just a tiny part of what makes the region so incomparable. For a central travel experience, Colorado Springs is where you want to be; it's just over an hour's drive from Denver and about 40 minutes north of picturesque Pueblo.

Colorado Springs is growing but still feels like a smaller city, thanks to the natural setting. Depending on the direction you head, the surrounding landscapes vary: drive east for the high plains, head south for the high deserts, or west for some of the world's most celebrated mountain vistas.

Colorado Springs has a "semi-arid Steppe climate," getting under 20 inches of rain a year and a whole lot of sunshine — about 243 days annually. Snow is often short-lived. The unique geography and dependable weather here are why folks love to play outside, whether they're a local, an Olympian in training, or just a visitor escaping the grind for a few days. You might want to push yourself to try all the adventures, but go easy: Colorado Springs has an elevation of 6,035.

Visitors should also beware of lightning. A geographical feature called the Palmer Divide is responsible for the incredible amount of blinding flashes seen from June to August in El Paso County. It's among the most active lightning regions in the United States, and lightning deaths per capita are consistently high. In fact, the monsoon-related lightning season is so legendary that Nikola Tesla built his largest Tesla Coil ever in Colorado Springs to capitalize on the thin, highly conductive Rocky Mountain air. Today, the Pioneer Museum houses the few materials that remain of Tesla's time here.

Forked cloud-to-air lightning shoots out the side of a supercell thunderstorm. Cultura Exclusive/Jason Persoff Stormdoctor / Getty Images
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02Go for gold: Olympic City, USA

Paralympian and former U.S. Army Officer Melissa Stockwell works on strength during a training session on May 27, 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Athletes across the globe are now training in isolation under strict policies in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

Over 10,000 athletes per year train in and around Colorado Springs. Now, there's another place to get the buzz of Olympic gold and glory, thanks to the new U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum. It celebrates the entire Olympic training experience and gives visitors a little taste of what "reaching for gold" really means.

Interactive training scenarios for several sports — including sled hockey, the 30-meter dash, and archery — put you right into an athlete's experience. The whole grounds are accessible and inclusive, and exhibits are designed with state-of-the-art technologies to make this a museum visit unlike any other. Architecture lovers should enjoy it, too. The museum was one of only four American buildings to make Architectural Digest's list of 2020's most-anticipated builds. It's an inspiring and beautiful space worthy of a few dedicated hours.

For the original Olympian experience, take an eight-minute drive east of the museum to the Colorado Springs Olympic & Paralympic Training Center itself. It's at this 37-acre state-of-the-art facility that America's premier athletes learn to give their very best. A variety of tour options are available, including private athlete-guided visits for groups of 10 or more.

Acclimated to the altitude already? To test your inner Olympian, put on some sneakers and tackle the daunting Manitou Incline. It's only a mile, which makes it sound doable, but it's a vertical climb of 2,000 feet with 2,768 steps — so steep that descending the stairs is "strongly discouraged; instead, it's a four-mile hike back down.

Extreme nature trail with steep mountain incline for advance hikers. Arina P Habich / Shutterstock.com
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03Play in the Garden of the Gods

Rear View Of People Walking On Footpath By Rock Formation And Plants Against Sky At Colorado Springs Dave Faulkner / EyeEm / Getty Images

Much friendlier to hikers of all abilities is the most popular tourist destination in Colorado Springs, the Garden of the Gods. The rocky terrain has wowed people long before the Perkins family bequeathed 480 acres of parkland to the city in 1909. Just past Old Colorado City, on the outskirts of town, the famed park is now nearly 1,400 acres with over 15 miles of hiking trails, countless rock-climbing opportunities, mountain biking, horseback riding, and more.

There are multiple entry points, but the Visitor & Nature Center off N. 30th Street is recommended for first-timers. Here, you'll learn about the unique geography forming this red rock landscape. From there, choose your destination. Will it be the infamous Balanced Rock? Perhaps the Kissing Camels or Siamese Twins? If you want Barkley to stretch his legs, there's an off-leash dog park too, but leashes are required elsewhere in the park.

While visitor ratings put all the various attractions in the must-see category, it's the Central Gardens that remain most popular. They are walkable from the Visitor's Center, but there are plenty of other options for the more adventurous or those with mobility issues. Choose from Segways and Jeep-guided tours to e-bike rentals or tours. However you go, you'll soon find out why over 6 million people visit this park annually.

Road through the Garden of the Gods-Colorado Springs, ,Colorado William Reagan / Getty Images
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04The Royal Gorge Canyon and Bridge

Image of the bridge made from the bottom of the canyon m-kojot / Getty Images

This beloved Cañon City landmark isn't just a bridge; it's an experience. The Royal Gorge is the 10-mile canyon carved by the Arkansas River. Its nickname is Arkansas Grand Canyon, thanks to daunting cliffs as high as 1,200 feet over the river.

The bridge is among the highest over-water suspension bridges anywhere in the world — 1,053 feet high — but there's more to do than test your fear of heights. Summer is whitewater rafting time, with world-renowned class-IV rapids in the Gorge, but hiking draws visitors from around the globe, too. Mountain bikers love the 15 miles-plus of single-track trails, like the Canyon Rim path.

Royal Gorge, Colorado, tourists cross the royal gorge bridge in Colorado. Gary C. Tognoni / Shutterstock.com

If you're looking to do something special, consider the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, a stunning 24-mile journey in a dining train. Special occasion tours include murder mysteries, the Santa Express, Oktoberfest, and even Mother's Day brunches. The train runs March through December annually, with a variety of experiences for various budgets.

The Royal Gorge Canyon is just over an hour's drive southwest of Colorado Springs.

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05Get your Rocky Mountain high

Street winding down from Pikes Peak summit, Colorado emson / Getty Images

No visit to Colorado Springs is complete without a trip to Pike's Peak. This famous mountain has an incredible 19-mile highway to the summit, which rises a whopping 14,115 feet above sea level. The toll highway is worth the cost of admission and is open year-round, but it's known to close for nasty weather or heavy snow, so monitor conditions.

This is serious altitude. Take things slow and watch for signs that thin air is taking a toll, such as headaches. If you're visiting Colorado Springs for just a few days, leave high-altitude stuff like Pike's Peak for the end of your visit, when you're better acclimated. And don't forget backcountry safety, like being prepared for high-altitude colder temperatures or having at least half a tank of gas.

Cog Railroad on Pike's Peak, Colorado

Don't deny yourself a Summit House donut. High-altitude baking requires special skills and magical alchemy, resulting in a 14,000-foot donut that'll take your breath away. Low-altitude donuts will never be the same.

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06Enjoy a hot-air balloon ride

Colorful hot air balloons glide over Prospect Lake in Colorado Springs, CO, at the Colorado Balloon Classic; Cheyenne Mountain is in the background. cris stoddard / Getty Images

Get the bird's-eye view of this stunning landscape from the basket of a hot air balloon. For over 45 years, the September Labor Day Lift-Off hot air balloon festival has filled the sky with dozens of balloons. In 2021, nearly 80 balloons took to the skies for a magical display delighting around 185,000 spectators.

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07Explore WWII aviation

On the northwest corner of Colorado Springs Airport sits the National Museum of World War II Aviation. Here, you can see 28 fully restored aircraft up close, plus other interesting vehicles used by the Allies and some ongoing restoration projects. The collection also includes over 4,000 artifacts and documents from the war.

Parking is free, and you'll save some money if you pre-pay for your visit online. Tack on $5 extra a person, and you can get the guided tour.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning side view of open engine and propeller Lost_in_the_Midwest / Shutterstock.com
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08Wind down in the Old Town

Take a step into a simpler time with rustic brick buildings and tree-lined streets. The Old Colorado City Historic District is a small neighborhood with shops and restaurants, fit for spending a morning or afternoon. Browse a bit, have a bite, and then take a drive down the road to the Garden of the Gods.

If you're looking for a keepsake, the Colorado Creative Co-op is a collective of regional artists, offering varied creations from glassware to wood carving and oil paintings. For art of a whole other kind, check out the "sculptural theater" that is Michael Garman's Magic Town: 3,000 square feet of what's been called a "gritty Americana dollhouse" that's stoked visitors' imaginations for over 40 years.

Hungry? Guy Fieri approves of the Mountain Shadows Restaurant, and so do locals. It's the place to go when you're craving some country-fried steak or biscuits and gravy.

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09The Money Museum, and more

The American Numismatic Association's Edward C. Rochette Money Museum is home to America's largest money-related museum collection. From how money is made to the history of currency, some say this is one of the world's best museums about numismatics, aka the study of currencies!

It's in Arts Central, nestled between the Colorado Springs Center of Fine Arts, the Packard Hall of Music and Art, and the Edith Kinney Center. Plan well, and you can make a day of seeing great exhibits a short walk apart. With landscapes like these, it's no wonder art flourishes in Colorado Springs. History lovers have plenty of stimulating options, too, thanks to the more than 30 museums and historical organizations in town. Traveling with kids? Turn 'em loose in Play Street Museum and give yourself a breather.

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10Craft beer, if you're thirsty

With more than two dozen craft breweries in the area, you'll want to do some taproom research before you come to town. That Rocky Mountain glacial water makes excellent beer, so you can't really go wrong, but some crowd favorites include Red Leg by Garden of the Gods and Local Relic.

For the full brewpub meal, though, Cerberus Brewing Company is known for their dedication to tasty cooking and a comfortable space. In warmer months, chill out in Cape Cod chairs on the patio with a pint or two.

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11Seeking something quirkier?

Into out-of-the-ordinary? How about seeing the bizarre Bishop's Castle? A highly controversial structure, this one-man architectural show is a building like none other. Visits are free, though donations are encouraged. Those who've visited advise caution when exploring the building.

Jim Bishop's story begins when, as a teenager in 1959, he plunked a $450 down payment on a plot of land he dreamed would host a castle of his own design, built by his hands. That construction began in 1969 and continues 60 years on—those visitors who've made the journey give it raves.

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12Plan it all out

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Really, there's so much on offer in Colorado Springs that you'll want to crack your knuckles and do some research. It might feel like you need a month to even scratch the surface — and you definitely wouldn't run out of activities — but it's also definitely possible to spend just a few days exploring the finer points of this busy region. The hard part will be not over-scheduling yourself, but that's a great problem to have!

Where will your memory of a lifetime begin? Whether you're all about hitting every trail you can or mostly want to indulge in some great shopping and beverages, you sure won't be bored during your trip to Colorado Springs.

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