Colorado is a nature lover’s paradise, and Colorado Springs is the perfect base of exploration. Just over an hour from the Denver Airport, it’s easily accessible yet close to dozens of amazing trails, parks, and other nature based activities. I was lucky enough to stay here for six weeks and have put together some of my favorite outdoor adventures in Colorado Springs.
You don’t have to look far to find nature in Colorado Springs. Driving around, we passed elk, antelope and dozens of mule deer! Most of these we saw near Black Forest or Divide, but the deer are everywhere- even Main Street in Manitou Springs!
Nature Retreat Rental- Where to Stay
Colorado Springs offers plenty of lodging options, from budget to five star. However, for a true nature vacation, pick a country rental. We stayed in an amazing house in Black Forest, about 20 minutes from Colorado Springs. This was hands down the best rental I’ve ever stayed at! The amenities are on par with a hotel, plus it’s a nature retreat unto itself, without ever leaving the property.
Wildlife frequents the 10 acre lot, deer often grazing right outside the windows. And then there’s the view- sip your coffee on the back deck looking at Pikes Peak and the Rocky Mountains. The house itself is beautifully designed, and I can’t rave enough about the master bath tub- a relaxing soak, glass of wine in hand, watching the birds and deer out the window! (Side note, Salus makes awesome bath bombs in Manitou Springs!)
Working remotely enabled me to spend six weeks here, and I can vouch for the WiFi! With so many of us remote nowadays and exploring new places, this is a perfect getaway that’s still connected. I loved having Pikes Peak as my workday view. I was awed by its changing faces- lit purple by sunrise, red at dusk, wreathed in snow clouds, or bare on a sunny winter’s day. The drive to the top of Pikes Peak is one thing missing from my list of outdoor adventures, and I’m truly sorry. The Pikes Peak Cog Railway was closed, the tour operators wouldn’t take parties due to COVID, and I was too afraid to drive it myself!
Garden of the Gods
One of Colorado Springs’ best known attractions, Garden of the Gods is a must see! It was the first ‘tourist’ destination we visited in the Springs and left me amazed. The red rocks are so unlike the rest of the area, looking more like a desert destination in Arizona.
The park is actually free, although there are paid options at the Visitor Center (a theater, bike rentals etc.). The Visitor Center sits across the street from the park. It can get crowded, and during COVID times they are limiting the number of people inside at a time. We walked right in mid-morning, but by early afternoon there was a line down the sidewalk. If the Visitor Center parking lot is full, don’t panic, there are a number of other lots around the park. The park map shows the options.
The Bean Sprouts Café, inside the Visitor Center, is actually really good! I didn’t expect much for park concessions, but the café has a healthy focus and serves fresh, tasty food! Plus, they have an outdoor dining deck with great views of the park.
Be sure to check the park’s calendar for guided walks and more. They hold some interesting events! For example, in January, they held a Paint and Sip (hot chocolate) evening.
Red Rock Canyon Open Space
Red Rock Canyon Open Space is Garden of the God’s forgotten step sibling. The park has many similar rock formations, actually part of the same vein of red rocks as the Garden, but without any of the amenities. I visited on a Saturday afternoon, and I admit I was skeptical when I pulled up to a jam packed parking lot full of swirling dust clouds. There were people everywhere!
However, after a few minutes hike down the Mesa Trail I escaped the crowds and the dust storm! It was beautiful, just the sound of the wind. The trail offers great views of the canyons, and beyond, Garden of the Gods. The park is perhaps most well known for the Miners’ Stairs, cut into the red rock. They’re found on the Quarry Trail.
Ziplining off a Mountain
Just down the street from Red Rock Canyon sits Adventures Out West, in Manitou Springs. I spent a Saturday exploring alone, while Bobby was working, so I decided to try something a bit adventurous that I’d never done before- ziplining! The Rocky Mountains seemed like a pretty good place to experience it! There are a number of ziplines in the Colorado Springs area, but I was really happy with Adventures Out West.
They were very friendly, and took me as a last minute booking the same day. The two guides, Ty and Heidi, were helpful and funny. The tour begins at base camp, before you’re transported up a steep and bumpy road to the top. They estimate the tour to last an hour, but ours went 90 minutes, over 5 different ziplines. The canyon views are so beautiful, the height (and flying through the air at top speed!), didn’t even phase me.
Cave of the Winds
The cave entrance sits at the top of a mountain, making the drive up a bit thrilling! Book a Discovery Tour for a basic entry, or a Lantern Tour if you’re feeling brave. The lantern tour is lit only by- you guessed it- lanterns! Our tour guide teased us by shutting off all lighting, then turning on a single lantern. You’ve never felt true darkness until you’ve stood in a cave without any lights on!
Near the cave exit, a mass of bobby pins and other paraphernalia is piled along the wall. In the early 1900s, two unmarried women visited the cave and were told by leaving something they would find husbands. A year later, they returned with their spouses! Since then, it’s been a tradition for anyone looking to find love to leave a pin (although the horde has also accumulated other items).
Cave of the Winds Mountain Park has a host of activities, in addition to the cave itself. There’s a Challenge Course, dangling off the side of the cliff, a via ferrata course, and my favorite, the Terror-dactyl. This two-person ride drops into the canyon at over 100 miles an hour! I was so psyched to try it- only to discover I’m not big enough for the ride! I thought those days were past me… but Bobby was more than happy to pass on this adventure!
Manitou Cliff Dwellings
The Manitou Cliff Dwellings were actually built by the Anasazi near Mesa Verde, Colorado, so they are not original to Manitou Springs. In 1904, they were dismantled and transported to their current location. By 1907, they were reassembled and have since been a tourist attraction. They have a small museum with some Native American artifacts and history.
The dwellings are open for exploration, but they aren’t very big. We only spent about 30 minutes in total here. As such, the ticket prices seemed a bit high, but there is a $2 off coupon on their website. One benefit is the location, right by Manitou Springs. You could easily see the dwellings and then visit the Cave of the Winds or go ziplining at Adventures Out West in one day.
Falconry with the Broadmoor Outfitters
The falconry experience was one of the best things we did in Colorado! Both Bobby and I loved it, even though it was a surprise outing for him specifically. I was just along for him, but I am so happy I was! Broadmoor Outfitters offers both a beginner and intermediate level class, if you book both you receive a discount.
The class began at the falconry facility, where our instructor introduced us to a number of different raptors. My personal favorite? The amazing Layla, an Eurasian Eagle Owl. She has a wingspan of six feet and takes treats like a large dog! Afterwards, we were driven up Cheyanne Mountain where we flew a Harris hawk. Evidently, he liked me since he landed on my head! The session ended with a Lanner falcon, who didn’t seem to like the cold anymore than I did. It was an amazing experience to see these birds up close and learn so much about them. It shed an entirely new light, in my eyes, on raptors. They’re beautiful, smart and I’d even call them sweet.
If you only have time for one outing in Colorado Springs, I recommend the falconry experience!
Colorado Birding Trail
Speaking of birds, how about the Colorado Birding Trail? It’s a free resource listing hundreds of bird watching locations. Colorado is home to some incredible birds, and the Birding Trail lists sites by region, including what you’re most likely to see in a particular area. The Rocky Mountain region includes Colorado Springs. Sites vary from public parks to private ranch lands. Some have a small fee associated with them. Click on a trail to discover sites within it.
We saw so many birds during our extended visit- magpies, mountain bluebirds, Steller’s jays, dark-eyed juncos and more. Our house rental should be on the birding trail- every morning I woke to dozens of magpies in the backyard. In the afternoons, I’d often see falcons overhead too.
Paint Mines Interpretive Park
The Paint Mines Interpretive Park is the most under promoted, under visited site in the Colorado Springs area, yet I found it be one of the best, and my favorite free activity. It’s in Calhan, 30-45 minutes from Colorado Springs (or 20 from the house rental). The park derives its name from the Native American tradition of making dye from the colorful sandstone.
The park is home to multi-colored hoodoos and canyons, appearing out of an otherwise bland landscape. The main parking lot has a vault toilet, but that’s the only facility. The trail begins at the back of the parking lot, easy to find in my opinion, although a number of reviews say it’s hidden. The trail can be very windy, crossing the plains to the formations. It was so bad when I visited, my eyes were watering and I literally had to fight the wind to move forward! However, once you reach the canyons it dies down. Even if it doesn’t- it’s worth it!
The formations and colors are amazing! I figured the online photos were edited, but the Paint Mines really are that spectacular. I highly recommend a visit. I’m surprised it isn’t more of a tourist site- a visitor center or gift shop, something along the lines of Garden of the Gods.
Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center
Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center is a conservation facility, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). It’s home to over a dozen wolves, as well as a number of foxes and coyotes. Located in Divide, it’s a nice drive through the mountains via Ute Pass.
The center offers a variety of tours and interactive opportunities, but we just took the Standard Tour. It was very educational, and fun too. Hearing the wolves howl was surreal. When one started, they all joined in. I could just imagine hearing that in the wild.
The center gets high marks from me for their educational efforts and, of course, taking care of these beautiful animals. One of the foxes was actually a rescue from a fur farm! I admit though, I was a bit put off by their photography rules- no lenses greater than 70mm. The only reason for that- to upsell you on the $400 photography tour. On the flipside, though, this is one of the only places in the country you can get in the enclosure with the wolves!