Trying to hit all 50 states before I turn 25 means that I have to cut some trips shorter than others, especially because I have a full-time job that I can’t leave whenever I want. In hitting all 50 states, I want to do more than just count them; I want to experience them. So in visiting Colorado, which became my 25th state (YAY!), I wanted to experience more of the state than just this one awesome city. So, my family and I only spent two days of our week-long adventure in Denver.
Posts about the other parts of our trip (Boulder, Colorado Springs, Cheyenne, WY) are coming soon!
Here’s what we did, and what I highly recommend you place at the top of your list if you only have a short amount of time to spend in Denver:
I NEVER recommend that you spend your time at a zoo if you have a short time in a city, and Denver is no exception – BUT, as someone who volunteers to protect elephants and loves most animals, I had to see why the Denver Zoo was rated so highly by so many conservationists and travelers alike.
In short, I get it. I get why it appeals to tourists because they have virtually every animal that anyone ever wants to see in a zoo and every exhibit is strategically organized so that the animals are almost always in close view. I get why it appeals to families because even if your kids don’t have the energy to go through a zoo that big, you can pick one area and see like 15 different exhibits, all with high excitement factors. I get why it appeals to conservationists because MOST of the exhibits appear to be better suited for wild animals than in most other zoos.
I tend to focus on elephants more than other animals because I’ve always loved them and I volunteer for The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennesee. So when we accidentally walked into the back half of the Denver Zoo’s elephant talk, I was immediately disappointed. At The Elephant Sanctuary, vets and specialists don’t even have physical contact with the elephants unless necessary, and there is always a large, heavy barrier between them. At the Denver Zoo, zookeepers were standing INSIDE the male elephant’s exhibit, within maybe 10 feet of the magnificent beast. Honestly, it doesn’t make too much of a difference than if they were outside since the only barrier appears to be a short plexiglass wall. If an elephant really wanted to break through there, he could. My guess is that they’re counting on the small body of water there to keep the bull from escaping, but it’s hardly easy to stop a male bull who really wants out.
The zookeeper giving the talk repeated a few times that they “only train natural behaviors.” Um, hello? If they were natural behaviors, you wouldn’t have to train them. I then watched the bull bow down on his knees and receive a treat for his actions. Sorry, that is not natural.
16th Street Mall & Downtown Denver
This is where we spent most of our time in Denver. It seems to encompass the city (minus the more outdoorsy part, which is pretty important and I’ll get to it). It’s made of a mile long stretch of blocks in downtown Denver which are closed to traffic (with the exception of the trolley that takes you to different stops along the mall). It is loaded with restaurants, shops, and street performers and it’s a great experience day or night. These are my favorite must-hits:
Tattered Cover Bookstore:
I’m placing this first because if you’re a book nerd like me or have any slight interest in cool book stores, you have to visit Tattered Cover in downtown Denver. They originated in Denver and only exist in Denver, with four separate downtown locations. If I had time and if my travel companions were more interested, I would’ve visited all four, but we only spent time in the 16th street mall location.
Tattered Cover is unique because even though there are only four locations and it is independently owned, the stores are quite large. You still feel like you’re in a small, indie bookstore, but you have thousands of books to sort through.
I walked away with a paperback copy of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy for just $10 as well as a few gifts for people back home. ^ LOOK AT HOW CUTE IT IS! ^
So apparently it’s a thing that you’re supposed to hug the Blue Bear? Whether you want to wrap your arms around its leg or not, it’s a 40-foot statue of a big, blue bear that looks as though it’s holding up the conference center. So if you have 20 minutes to kill one afternoon in Denver, head towards to conference center and you’ll find the Blue Bear.
As you may have heard, Denver is nicknamed the “Mile High City” because it is almost exactly a mile above sea level. If you want to be exactly a mile high, you can stand on the 13th step of the Capitol building downtown. It’s marked and everything, so you don’t have to count steps. Funnily enough, when we were there, a big anti-health care reform act protest was happening. They were friendly enough, just chanting things like “save health care” and waving around signs about pre-existing conditions. I wish I could’ve gotten better pictures of this 13th step thing, though.
On our first night, we ate at Rialto Cafe, which proved to be amazing. I had Steak & Frites, and it was one of the better choices I made on this trip. I 10/10 recommend it. It’s sliced grilled sirloin over a plate of crispy french fries which are covered in bacon, red wine demi, and chimichurri. It was special. My brother went with a simple burger and my parents both loved the bison meatloaf. The cafe itself appears a bit fancier than some of the other restaurants in the area, but they have an outdoor patio and you can still dress casually.
Crave Real Burgers:
Crave has four locations in northeastern Colorado, and one is in downtown Denver. It’s technically not on the 16th street mall, but it’s close and I highly recommend it for one of your Denver meals. They’ve won several awards and were featured on The Today Show for their whimsical and unique burgers. You can stay simple and get a “Not Your Mothers,” which is basically a typical swiss/mushroom/onion burger except really really good, or you can go a little weird and get the Flaming Tiki which includes grilled pineapple, fried jalapenos, avocado, and more (do yourself a favor and order it). Their shakes are equally as whimsical and delicious.
P.S., the freshly brewed (at Coors Field) Blue Moon they served me was the best Blue Moon I’ve ever tasted.
Blue Bonnet Mexican Resturant:
I live in Nashville, home of like a billion taco restaurants, but Blue Bonnet had some of the best Mexican food I’ve had in a long time. It’s just outside of downtown and a few miles from Little Man Ice Cream (see below), so it makes for a great night in downtown Denver. I had the Mexican hamburger – a delicacy I hadn’t experienced before and am now hoping to find again. It was messy, stuffed with ground beef, covered in cheese, and incredibly flavorful. Everyone loved their food; I’m not sure that you could go wrong on their menu. They’ve won awards for it and I understand why. Also, they give you plenty of tasty chips and large sodas, so it gets an A++ in my book.
Little Man Ice Cream:
Little Man is THAT ice cream place that has a line that stretches for blocks. The environment is fun & unique; it’s all outdoors and it’s perfect for a cold cone on a hot summer day. The flavors are fun, I tried banana pudding and enjoyed it. PRO TIP: You can save time by jumping in the shorter line (like a 20-minute wait instead of over an hour). The “express” line has fewer flavors to choose from but because of that it moves a lot faster, and you still get good ice cream. We took our ice cream and walked across the pedestrian bridge (that you can see from the shop) and around the cute little neighborhood across the road that eventually brings you back to the 16th street mall.
Red Rocks Park
Day 2 was our Red Rocks adventure, which is technically in the city of Morrison, closer to Golden, CO, but it’s only about a half hour drive from Denver so we’ll count it, since most of what we did on our week long “Denver” trip was outside the Denver city limits.
Red Rocks was indescribable. My pictures, any pictures, do not do it any justice. The same goes for any of the Rockies area and Colorado nature. One minute we were on the interstate, surrounded by beautiful mountains but still just on an interstate, and the next minute we were turning a corner and looking out at these beautiful, monstrous, natural red rock formations.
We parked at some random, tiny lot on the side of one of the mountains and started up a trail that winded through the red rocks. I tried to get good pictures, but nothing can depict what it’s like to stand so close to those beasts. Plus, turning around and seeing nothing but mountains all around you is an unforgettable experience. Especially if you’re like me and you’ve only ever lived in the beachy Northeast or the flat South. Denver as a city is pretty cool – it definitely has a culture. But most of that culture derives from living so close to these beauties. Red Rocks Park is a MUST for your Denver trip.
We also took a peek at Red Rocks Amphitheater – only the coolest music venue in the country. Our busy schedule for our trip did not allow us to see Red Rocks at night for a movie or concert, but I highly recommend that you do that if you can and then tell me all about it. During the day, the amphitheater is littered with fitness buffs running up and down the steps and tourists standing at the top to admire it and take pictures.
When you’re near Red Rocks Park, there’s also a dinosaur/fossil tour thing that you can do. It’s called Dinosaur Ridge, and you can either hike the three miles or take a bus tour to see fossils and learn about prehistoric Red Rocks history.
On a random note, Red Rocks is where I realized how big of a dog-friendly region Denver/Colorado is. I mean, at least one out of every five groups had a dog with them.
I wish I had more time in Denver itself, but the time I spent around it (in Boulder, Colorado Springs, and even Cheyenne, WY) was incredible as well. Blogs about those other places are coming soon.
I am happy with our choices for the short time we had there. So, if you have a limited amount of time in Denver, I highly recommend spending a good bit of time shopping and eating around the 16th Street Mall and going to Red Rocks.
*Reminder – Though I only spent two days in Denver, my week long vacation included time in Boulder and Colorado Springs as well as Cheyenne, Wyoming. Check back soon for posts about those places.*
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