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Garden of the Gods
Photograph: Shutterstock

The 20 best things to do in Colorado Springs

Ancient cliff dwellings and rhino feedings are just some of the best things to do in Colorado Springs this year

By Rebecca Treon and Julie Dugale
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Colorado Springs isn't just Denver's smaller sister-city to the South, it's a whole new place to explore with a storied history all its own. Old Colorado City, the original capital of the Colorado territory, has transformed over the past century. Its frontier-era Main Street has  swapped saloons for modern storefronts, and the city has grown around it – all with a gorgeous Rocky Mountain backdrop. Outdoorsy types will soak up the scenery, from spectacular waterfalls rushing down a box canyon and hiking an almost vertical cable car track to meandering through otherworldly red rock formations and wading into a babbling river full of rainbow trout.

But that's not all that draws visitors from around the globe. There are world-class museums, resorts, restaurants, and golf, too. Tourists can visit the U.S. Air Force Academy, train with Olympic athletes (or learn how they train), and even play penny arcade games. Its proximity to Denver makes it an easy day trip, too. The region has no shortage of ways to get acquainted with the Wild West and the frontier spirit that shapes the city’s character and heritage. So rustle up your inner cowboy and start exploring the best things to do in Colorado Springs. 

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Best things to do in Colorado Springs

Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Pikes Peak Cog Railway
Photograph: Courtesy of The Broadmoor

1. Pikes Peak

Reach the summit of Pikes Peak to see the view that inspired the “purple mountain majesties” lyric in “America The Beautiful" – and gaze out over the vastness of the country from more than 14,000 feet in elevation. The recently reopened (after a three-year renovation to the tune of $100 million) Pikes Peak Cog Railway will shuttle you to the top with a slew of scenic views along the way, where you can enjoy the brand-new visitor's center. Don’t even think about coming down the mountain without a world-famous fresh-baked high-altitude donut.

Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods
Photograph: Shutterstock

2. Garden of the Gods

The name isn’t an exaggeration. These towering sandstone rock formations, set dramatically against the backdrop of Pikes Peak, are a registered National Natural Landmark, and rise from the rolling green hills to kiss the sky like an otherworldly – dare we say godly – landscape. There are tons of ways to experience the grandeur of the spires and towers: hike the nature trails; rock climb; hop on a trolley ride. But if you want to catch the view from two wheels, consider renting an e-bike to help you zip over the considerable hills and twists. For views that most visitors never see, join an adventure e-bike tour for a little off-road guidance.

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3. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College

Renovated in 2007, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center features a robust permanent collection of Native American, Spanish Colonial, and American art highlighting the vibrant cultures of the Southwest. Temporary exhibits are compelling, too: Think works from the collection of Cheech Marin (the weed-enveloped actor has one of the largest collections of Chicano artworks in the world) and the masterworks of Eugen Atget and Ansel Adams. The complex also houses a theatre and the Bemis School of Art. There's also a sculpture garden and green space outside that makes a great picnic spot (and is the home of regular outdoor concerts).

Manitou Incline
Manitou Incline
Photograph: Shutterstock

4. Manitou Incline

This is not an easy-breezy jaunt, but it is worth the bragging rights if you make it to the top. The incline is actually an old cable car track built in 1907 to carry pipeline materials on Pikes Peak. For years, it was technically off-limits to the public; then, in 2013, officials re-opened it for hiking, and it quickly became a rite of passage. It’s just one mile long, but the climb averages a quad-busting 41-percent incline over 2,744 steps made from cable car ties. Tip: Don’t fake yourself out at the false summit; it looks like the top, but you’ll be about 300 steps short of glory.

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Air Force Academy Colorado Springs
Air Force Academy Colorado Springs
Photograph: Shutterstock

5. Air Force Academy

There are several ways to explore the U.S. Airforce Academy. Start at the Visitor Center, which chronicles cadet life and the Academy's legacy through its exhibits. There's a planetarium that offers free shows to the public (like the films typically shown at IMAX theaters) and there are also more than 23 miles of trails (many of which are paved) around the Academy grounds that are open for biking and hiking. One of its most popular attractions is the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Cadet Chapel. Built in 1963, the iconic interfaith landmark – with chapels for Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist worship– looms above the campus in a modern, 150-foot-high expanse of steel, glass and aluminum that gleams against the Rockies. Its 17 soaring spires are an awe-inspiring tribute to the skyward mission of the campus they anchor.

Cave of the Winds
Cave of the Winds
Photograph: Courtesy of Cave of the Winds

6. Cave of the Winds

Wind your way deep into the ancient (we’re talking a cool 500 million years old) grottos and passageways of the Manitou Grand Caverns – an expedition lit only by the handheld lanterns you’ll receive before you enter. Your guide will share ghost stories, folklore and history of the caves as you explore secret underground worlds with ethereal limestone formations and names like Fairy Bridal Chambers and Marble Hall. Not into eerie shadows? Take it down a notch with the Discovery Tour. Really want to get your hands dirty? The Caving 101 tour sends you into undeveloped parts of the caverns where you’ll crawl and scramble through rough dirt passageways and mud. 

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7. Seven Falls

Seven Falls, a series of waterfalls situated in a box canyon, is called "The Grandest Mile of Scenery in Colorado.” The 224 steps to reach the top rewards hikers with breathtaking views of the 181-foot falls (whose source is the Pikes Peak watershed), but there's more than one way to enjoy the scenery. Ten zip-lines, several rope suspension bridges and a 180-foot rappel form two separate courses that can be combined for a thrilling way to experience Seven Falls. There are a couple of trading post-style gift shops nestled at the base of the falls as well as Restaurant 1858, where you can dine inside the luxurious wood-paneled lodge or al fresco, listening to the thundering falls. 

Phantom Canyon Brewing Co.
Phantom Canyon Brewing Co.
Photograph: Courtesy of Phantom Canyon Brewing Co.

8. Phantom Canyon Brewing Co.

Colorado Springs is home to more than 20 breweries in a state known for its craft brewing scene. Phantom Canyon Brewing Co., opened in 1993, is the Springs' original brewpub. It's located in the historic Cheyenne Mountain building (with a stone sculpture of Chief Two Moons watching over it) and offers a selection of beers ranging in style: IPA, Hefewiezen, sour, pale ale, porter, red, and Beligian, created by a duo of brewers whose resumes are a greatest hits list of Colorado breweries (think: Wynkoop, Left Hand, and Oskar Blues). Phantom Canyon also offers a full menu of pub favorites, perfect for a refresher after summiting nearby Pikes Peak.

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Olympic Training Center
Olympic Training Center
Photograph: Shutterstock

9. Olympic Training Center

Eat lunch with an Olympian (maybe) at the Olympic Training Center. Elite athletes tend to train at high altitudes because the air is thinner, and this complex is the flagship training center and headquarters for the U.S. Olympic Committee, plus U.S. Swimming and Shooting, two international sports federations, and 15 other organizations. Translation: That’s a lot of svelte bodies and competitive personalities doing their thing. A VIP tour of the facility is the best way to get up close and personal, as it includes lunch in the athlete cafeteria. Who’s to say you won’t be passing the ketchup with the next Michael Phelps?

10. Black Bear Distillery

The spirits made at Black Bear Distillery are made by hand by a fifth-generation moonshiner in a historic log cabin outside of Colorado Springs (in Green Mountain Falls) – you can't get much more Colorado than that. They produce just three spirits: Irish-style whiskey, rum, and a 1889 rye vodka moonshine made from a 130-year-old family recipe. The spirits are made from local Colorado ingredients, like the heirloom corn they source from the Ute Nation. The tasting room is open daily from noon until 9pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

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 Manitou Cliff Dwellings | Manitou Springs, Colorado
 Manitou Cliff Dwellings | Manitou Springs, Colorado
Photograph: Shutterstock

11. Manitou Cliff Dwellings

It’s mind-boggling to think that people once carved out houses in the side of giant cliffs. And yet, we have proof – and you can walk through it. In the early 1900s, preservationists transported the ancient ruins of Anasazi cliff dwellings in the southwest corner of the state to Cliff Canyon in Manitou Springs, just outside Colorado Springs. Here, they painstakingly reconstructed them, using concrete mortar instead of adobe mud for preservation, to welcome visitors in for a glimpse of the past and protect the magnificent dwellings from looters and vandals. Keep your phone handy as you walk through so you can scroll through the self-guided tour.

Golden Bee
Golden Bee
Photograph: Courtesy of The Broadmoor

12. The Golden Bee

The Broadmoor boasts a 19th century British pub that was transported piece by piece from England to Colorado Springs (and was discovered in storage in 1960). The Golden Bee offers an extensive selection of British beers sold by the half-yard and traditional pub fare like fish and chips as well as regional specialities like a bison burger. There's a nightly singalong that's a riot: in addtion to ragtime classics, you can belt our classics like "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

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13. Manitou Springs Penny Arcade

Looking for something that's low on price but high on nostalgia? This old-school arcade takes up a whole block and is comprised of five rooms loaded with coin-operated arcade games, some of which date back to 1900. There are more than 400 vintage games, ranging in price from 1 cent to $1.50, including skee ball, multi-player mechanical horse racing, tons of pinball machines, little rides for the kids and even a fortune-telling Zoltar machine like in the 1980s Tom Hanks movie, Big. (Careful what you wish for!)

14. Colorado Jeep Tours

The terrain around Colorado Springs is varied, from pine trees and craggy peaks to sprawling mountain vistas and otherworldly red rock formations. One great way to explore it all is in a Jeep. Colorado Jeep Tours offers half- or full-day excursions through Royal Gorge, Gold Belt, or Red Canyon, where you can spot petroglyphs, dinosaur skeletons, gold mines, a one-room school house, and other points of interest. As you drive over hill and dale, your expert guide will dole out all sorts of interesting trivia.

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Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
Photograph: Courtesy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

15. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

At 6,714 feet above sea level, not only is Cheyenne Mountain Zoo the highest zoo in the country, it wins awards year after year for its innovative exhibits. Get up close and personal at feeding time by giving rhinos, elephants, and giraffes a snack; take the Mountaineer Sky Ride chairlift to the top of Cheyenne Mountain for a bird's eye view; or keep your feet (mostly) on the ground with a ride on the historic 1925 carousel. 

 

Helen Hunt Falls
Helen Hunt Falls
Photograph: Shutterstock

16. Helen Hunt Falls

On the southwest side of the city, this 35-foot waterfall (named for activist and writer Helen Hunt Jackson, a champion of Native American rights after the Civil War) is a picturesque way to end a four-mile creekside hike through Cheyenne Cañon. Take in the splash from below, or climb up to the bridge that crosses the falls for a birds’ eye view. Note: If you prefer your scenery without the sweat, you can drive up the canyon and park at the Helen Hunt Falls Visitor Center right at the base of the falls.

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17. Old Colorado City

Into art and crafts? Make time to gallery-hop in historic Old Colorado City. On the west side of town, this hotspot of shops, galleries and restaurants is a national historic district that oozes Old West charm and newfound vitality. Founded in 1859, it was the hub of early settlement in the region, and the first capital of the Colorado Territory. Today, the old brick buildings and quaint alleyways have undergone significant restoration efforts, paving the way for a cultural renaissance. More than 15 galleries line the streets, showcasing local and regional art in workshops and open-air studios where you can watch the magic happen.

Glen Eyrie Castle
Glen Eyrie Castle
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone

18. Glen Eyrie

Take high tea at the Glen Eyrie castle, where for nearly 150 years, visitors, guests and residents have been inspired by its quiet countryside grandeur. Originally built in 1871 by General William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs, the home was expanded over the years and today has 67 rooms (and 24 fireplaces). The castle is now owned by Christian ministry group the Navigators, and is open to the public for guided tours, conferences, overnights, and exquisite British-style teas in the Castle Music Room (2:30pm daily, plus 11:30am Friday through Sunday). And yes, that tea comes with sandwiches, cupcakes, scones and more.

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Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum
Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum
Photograph: Shutterstock

19. Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

Get a history lesson at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. Get the most out of your visit on one of the themed guided tours: Journey to Pikes Peak, Art & Architecture, Innovation & Imagination or The Story of Us. Or, sign up for the Downtown Walking Tour for a close-up look at how the bustling buildings and businesses on Tejon Street have changed over time.

Crystal Creek Reservoir
Crystal Creek Reservoir
Photograph: Shutterstock

20. Crystal Creek Reservoir

Hooking a Colorado trout at Crystal Creek Reservoir is practically a rite of passage if you’re any kind of angler—and Crystal Creek is stocked with 17,000 of ’em annually. Accessed via Pikes Peak Highway and boasting a terrific view of the peak itself, the reservoir is teeming with rainbow, brook and cutthroat trout snag-able from the shore, and lake or brown trout if you venture out in a (non-motorized) boat. The trail system around the reservoir offers a nice outlet for low-key hiking, and you can stock up on supplies at the bait and tackle shop at the trailhead. 

Feeling hungry?

Courtesy The Wobbly Olive

11 must-try restaurants in Colorado Springs

Restaurants

The chefs and restaurateurs in this Front Range hub are committed to pushing the foodie envelope farther and farther, even as they strive to preserve the dining traditions that anchor this picturesque urban oasis at the foot of the Rockies.

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