Colorado Adventuring By Air, By Land and By Water
Friendly Colorado resort towns like Winter Park, Glenwood Springs and Snowmass Village offer a more intimate feel than some of their better-known cousins like Vail and Breckenridge – and at more reasonable prices.
Together, the three towns promise an assortment of unique warm-weather adventure activities geared toward appeasing speed-demons, water babies, bird wannabes, and cave dwellers alike.
Whether you prefer land-based, water-based, or air-based options, Colorado has the pursuit for you.
One if by land…
Naturally, many of Colorado’s prime land-centered activities involve its best-known attractions – mountains. To enjoy them to the fullest, you’ll need a high tolerance for varying altitudes, steep hills and plenty of thrills. Some make you sweat, some let you sit back and enjoy the ride, and some test your agility in ways you never imagined…
Toss skateboarding, snowboarding, mountain biking and a splash of adrenaline into a blender, mix well – and you’ll end up with the hot, up-and-coming sport of mountain boarding. Snowmass Village is one of the country’s top spots to experience the surprisingly easy-to-learn extreme sport of riding a board with knobby wheels down a mountain.
The slightly flexible board feels like a balance between a skateboard, where your feet rest freely, and a snowboard, where your feet are locked in. You slip your feet into stirrup-like contraptions that allow you to have the security of feeling attached to the board, but offer you the freedom to step out. A hand-held brake allows you to control your downhill speed.
My instructor started me off on what served as the bunny hill during the winter. Even though the incline was slight, I figured there was a decent chance I’d end up in the hospital by the afternoon.
But my instructor wasn’t about to give me any time to doubt myself. After he gave me a few quick pointers – and a full set of armor: elbow and knee pads, wrist guards, and a helmet – I was boarding down the hill without falling on the first try. The board was astonishingly easy to maneuver, especially considering I was flying over dirt and rocks.
Advanced riders bring their boards on the chairlifts to ride down the trails alongside the mountain bikers. Although I didn’t quite manage to get to that level on my first day, it definitely gives me motivation to go back.
Snowmass Village is home to the US Mountain Boarding Championships and is one of the few US destinations offering lessons for this growing sport.
Camp Snowmass (877/282-7736) offers adults a 3-hour private lesson for $230 or a 6-hour private lesson for $345. Lessons can be shared by up to three people. Children’s lessons are available starting at $55 for a half-day lesson.
The Glenwood Caverns and History Fairy Caves could be your answer, particularly if you’re brave enough to try the “Wild Tour” option – a challenging trip of slithering on your stomach and working your way through holes no taller than a DVD player sitting on its side.
Outfitted with a headlight-equipped helmet, padding, and gloves, Wild Tour participants descend into the Glenwood Caverns and Fairy Caves and soon face their first challenge – the tight White Rabbit hole, which requires spelunkers to draw on every bit of agility they possess. Crawling on your stomach, you’ll need to make the squeeze by extending one arm in front of you and pulling the rest of your body through. Luckily, tour guides let participants try out a similarly sized mock hole before entering the cave to make sure they’re comfortable with it.
You’ll press on to see halls and rooms covered in unique formations. The Z-turn offers a challenging maneuver and the Register Room has numerous loops to explore. Later, spelunkers slide down the Striptease section – named for its uncanny ability to catch and pull off items of clothing in the process. Trust me – it’s well-named. The Column Crawl and Meat Grinder squeezes dare you to remain composed while crawling on your elbows, sandwiched between rocks. The experience is certainly a measure of how participants maintain grace under pressure.
Bring a disposable camera with a flash and clothes you don’t necessarily plan on wearing again. The Wild Tour costs $50/person and is offered on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. If you’re looking for something milder, check out the regular Cave Tour for $10 or the Adventure Tour (which is less strenuous than the Wild Tour but more challenging than the Cave Tour) for $30.
As a roller coaster enthusiast, I’ve long wished for the freedom to control my ride. To know that I had the power to race faster on some curves and feel the track at a slower pace on others would be a dream come true. So when I heard that Winter Park Resort had the longest alpine slide in Colorado, I knew it would be a highlight of my trip.
To call Winter Park’s alpine slide a roller coaster, though, would be a misnomer. Perhaps a free-flying sled ride chock-full of adrenaline-bursting turns and the freedom to control your speed – and destiny – would be better. After riding a special chairlift up the mountain to the top of the ride, you look down at the 3,030 foot-long cement slide featuring 26 linked turns and grab a wheel-clad sled.
You sit down, knees up, feet planted against the sled, and launch yourself into a downhill thrill ride by pulling back as hard as you can on the lever. Your sled whips across curved cement turns like a luge, seemingly ready to toss you off course and directly onto the mountain, though some miracle of physics prevents this. You learn to trust the curves, trust the slide, and go full speed ahead.
If you’re a true speed demon, be sure not to get in line directly behind any drivers who look slow – if they decide to wimp out and ride the brakes, you’ll be stuck behind them. Instead, wait an extra 10 seconds longer than necessary to launch.
Rides are $12 each for adults/$10 for children and seniors, but you’re better off purchasing a day park pass for $49 which allows you unlimited rides on the slide and all of Winter Park’s other attractions.
Alpine Horseback Riding
It’s hard not to marvel at the mountains when you’re in Colorado. But I’m rarely content to check out scenery simply from a car window or from a fixed point on a mountain. I like my views to be constantly changing, varying in altitude and mixed in with a bit of adventure. I like them on horseback.
Horseback riding in Colorado offers the perfect combination of bonding with horses, climbing hundreds of feet in altitude without exhausting yourself, and experiencing the true feel of wide open spaces.
I opted to ride at the Cabin Creek Stables at Devil’s Thumb Ranch – one of the massive ranches near Winter Park – which offered a half-day option where riders could ascend hundreds of feet and traverse across trails catering to cross-country skiers in the winter.
Though I had fewer than a dozen horseback rides to my name, I was able to easily balance riding and guiding the horse with staring off into the scenery since our wrangler adjusted each ride to participants’ experience levels.
My horse, Bert, led me up rocky trails and past deer, marmots, hawks, chipmunks and other mountain creatures as we ascended more than 1,000 feet to a height of approximately 9,400 feet.
Cabin Creek Stables at Devil’s Thumb Ranch is 20 minutes from Winter Park in Tabernash
Lift chairs don’t even get a rest during the summer. After a demanding winter of carting skiers and snowboarders up the mountain, they’re put to work again each summer to shuttle another type of athlete – mountain bikers.
Mountain bikers have long enjoyed the thrill of downhill – the ultimate challenge of speeding down a mountain while navigating rocks, stones and other obstacles. Since they must pedal to the top on their own at most traditional biking locales, bikers can often only enjoy a few good downhill runs a day.
But at top Colorado mountain biking locations like Winter Park and Snowmass Village, riders can hook their bikes onto the mountain’s chairlift for a high-speed ride up the mountain. After being transferred to the top in record time, they can spend more of their day enjoying the adrenaline of the downhill instead of the exhaustion of the uphill.
And since bikers face the additional challenge of getting used to the altitude, the lifts allows them to avoid strenuous uphill riding until they’ve acclimated.
Of course, riders who prefer the traditional challenge of the uphill climb won’t be disappointed either. There are ample area trails in both Winter Park and Snowmass Village offering climbs to get your cardio pumping, combined with thrilling downhill sprints as a reward for reaching the top.
Often dubbed “Mountain Bike Capital USA,” Winter Park is home to the Winter Park Mountain Bike Race Series each summer. Snowmass Village hosts the NORBA Blast the Mass Mountain Bike Challenge each year and offers excellent trails enjoyed by pros and casual riders alike.
Winter Park Resort offers full-day bike rentals starting at $32.99 for a cross-country bike and $42.99 for a full suspension downhill bike. You can purchase a rental/lift ticket package for $50.99 and $60.99 respectively. Discounts are available for advance bookings. (800) 979-0332
In the town of Winter Park, Grand Sports offers full-day bike rentals for $50 for a full suspension, $24 for a front suspension, and $18 for a cruiser. Discounts are available for multi-day rentals and advance bookings.
In Snowmass Village, Four-Mountain Sports on the Snowmass Village Mall offers 4-, 8- and 24-hour rentals, ranging from $20.95 for a four-hour cruiser bike rental, $24.95 for a four-hour mountain bike rental, and $30.95 for a four-hour performance bike rental. (970) 923-2337
Two if by sea…
A face-full of genuine Colorado whitewater leaping up at you is a must for any summer trip. Whether your prefer to float down and soak up scenery, battle your way through Class III and IV rapids, or zip down on a custom-made plastic sledge, Colorado’s rivers are havens for those who like their adventures wet.
Glenwood Springs and Winter Park both feature nearby whitewater rafting options with rapids to appease rafters of all experience levels.
Glenwood Springs has Class III/IV rafting on the Colorado River, where rafters can shoot down the Shoshone rapids in the midst of the Glenwood Canyon.
Rock Gardens’ Double Wet and Wild is $59/person 800-958-6737
The Upper Colorado River trips tend to be Class II/III and are ideal for rafters looking for a float trip and ample time to gaze at the mountains. Kids and less experienced rafters will love this great introduction to rafting.
Clear Creek offers Class III and Class IV rapids that are more technical and require constant paddling. Adrenaline spikes lurk at every rapid and you’ll undoubtedly receive a great workout. Though there’s plenty of scenery, your focus will likely be on racing the rough rapids and using your paddling skills to effectively navigate your boat through the throes of whitewater.
Adventures in Whitewater, which specializes in smaller groups rather than huge busloads, runs both Colorado River and Clear Creek trips. Full-day Colorado River trips are $67 for adults/$52 for children, while half-day trips are $48/$38. Half-day Clear Creek trips are $45 (The minimum age is 13).
For those folks who want to bond with the rapids in an even more hands-on way, the sport of whitewater sledging fits the bill. Brought to Colorado by New Zealanders, where the sport already has a sizeable following, sledging is speeding down the rapids while holding onto a sturdy plastic sledge that’s a little shorter than a boogie board.
My river guides suited us up in a wetsuits, helmets, lifejackets, mitts, booties, and fins, then handed us each a sledge. We received a lesson on how to guide the sledge, kick correctly, avoid rocks, and fly through the rapids. The sledge offers protection from rocks and is remarkably easy to maneuver since you can tuck your elbows in, lean against the padding, and hold onto the metal grips.
We headed to the center of the river and allowed its steady pulse to carry us downstream, while the rapids leapt up to give us a refreshing splash in the face.
One guide led us down the river while the other stayed in back to make sure everyone stayed on course. We ducked under some of rapids when we felt particularly brave and emerged from them with the same sense of giddiness you feel after escaping from a huge ocean wave while boogie boarding.
River surfing on a sledge allows you to feel at one with the river in a way you’ll never get sitting on top of a raft. And since you’re the only one controlling the sledge, you feel a greater sense of responsibility – and power.
Aspen Seals runs both Class II/III and Class III/IV river sledging trips on the Roaring Fork River, a short distance from both Snowmass Village and Aspen. Trips begin at $90 and participants must be in good shape. (970) 618-4569
Release your inner bird by trying an even higher-altitude adventure – flying! Choose from soaring through the air attached to a chute, riding securely in a basket, or whooshing through the air on a zip line.
The notion of running off the side of a mountain does sound a bit absurd. But when it’s Aspen Mountain on a summer day and you’re attached to a parachute with promises of spectacular views of the valley, the deal is noticeably sweetened.
At Aspen Paragliding, tandem paragliding off a ski mountain is accessible to people of all ages – my group included a five-year-old boy and two women with grandkids – and no skills beyond a sense of adventure are required.
After driving to the launch point, you’ll get harnessed up, fitted with a helmet and attached to your tandem pilot. Together, you face the steep slope of the mountain and start jogging. Within a few steps, the forward momentum lifts you and the pilot into the air. You’ll launch from an altitude of 10,800 feet or 10,500 feet, depending on the time of day, and fly approximately 3,000 feet over the valley.
Aspen Mountain is behind you, the expansive valley is below you, and the wind whistles a song in your ear. Your pilot will read the thermals to maneuver you through the air, while you sit back in a built-in seat and enjoy the 360 degree view. If you’re up for it, your pilot can enhance the experience further with turns and whirls.
Once you feel confident, your guide may let you take the controls to feel the responsiveness of the glider as you soar over the valley. It’s sort of like skydiving after your chute has opened – but unlike skydiving, you can use thermals to extend your ride.
It’s going to be chillier in the air, so bring a wind-proof outer shell, sunglasses and closed-toed shoes. A camera, preferably with a video function, is a must since you’ll be free to take photos or videos. Aspen Paragliding’s location is easily accessibly from both Aspen and Snowmass Village.
$215 per flight (970) 925-7625
Hot Air Ballooning
Flying is its own reward. Flying tucked into the secure cocoon of a basket with open air surrounding you is better. But flying high above Snowmass Village and Aspen just after sunrise – now that’s perfection.
Home to the Snowmass Balloon Festival each September, Snowmass Village offers exemplary views and ballooning conditions that professional pilots compete in each year. Amateur fliers can enjoy the experience year-round by taking a hot air balloon ride with companies like Above It All Ballooning, who bring adventurers more than 1,000 feet off the ground for a true bird’s eye view of Snowmass Village and Aspen.
The experience begins on the ground as you watch the balloon being inflated. The heat permeates the air around you, building the participants’ excitement as they patiently wait for their turn to lift off.
We start flying low over the valley, viewing sprawling homes and trees just underneath us. Then the pilot aims higher and suddenly we’re the distance of several football fields off the ground, feeling like we’re in a Wonkavator shooting toward the sky.
Elk sprint across the mountains below, streams weave throughout the valley and each home appears even more magnificent than the last. Mt. Bailey, Capital Peak, Buttermilk Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Red Mountain Range, and Mt. Sopris stretch below us in a seemingly never-ending expanse.
Unlike a similar view from a plane, this one is live and unhurried and without any silly barriers like thick, dirty windows. Tucked safely in a basket, feeling a slight heat as the pilot fires up the balloon, the silence and serenity is perfect for people of all ages to enjoy the view.
Most flights last at least an hour and finish with a traditional champagne toast.
Above It All Balloon Co. Inc. (888) 927-9606
Snowmass Village – ZipFlyers Zip Line
Rocket through the air on Snowmass Village’s 1,000 foot-long zip line, located at the top of Burlingame lift on Snowmass Mountain. Once harnessed in and outfitted with gloves, you can choose to whiz down the mountain alone or alongside a friend. At the end of the journey, you’ll rappel yourself down to the mountain below.
Open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Glenwood Canyon Resort
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