Take a Northern Colorado Road Trip to experience a different side of Colorado Culture

May 23, 2024   2 Comments »

Sponsored Content: I worked with Visit Colorado to support this Northern Colorado trip, however, all opinions expressed here are mine. And the itinerary was determined by me based on things I like to do.

When you think of Colorado, you probably think of the mountains, skiing in the winter, and hiking in the summer. However, when you look closer at Colorado, you realize that she’s much more than that. She’s complex, and in my opinion, that’s what makes Colorado (or any destination) so great to visit; it surprises you.

I have no idea why I’ve decided to make Colorado a female – maybe it is because she’s unpredictable, or maybe I just like to think of the state as a place where badass, tough females live. Who knows…but I’m going with it.

This trip through Northern Colorado was full of surprises and new experiences. Not only did I do traditional hiking, but I also took on horseback riding, cattle penning, mountain biking, and kayaking! I examined Colorado’s art scene as well as its western culture and roots, and I ate…a lot. Who would think that in these small mountain towns and ranches, you can find such incredibly sophisticated food!

Northern Colorado 5-Day Road Trip

I’ve lived in Colorado for 3+ years. I moved here because I love the mountains, and they are my happy place. But what I didn’t know is that the state is much more rural (as in ranching and farming) than it is mountains. Yes – we have some impressive peaks, but outside of those peaks, there is a Western culture that I have yet to explore.

But first – a message from me…a real person…

This is not going to simply be a guide of where to go and stay, but I think that to really inspire people, you need to provide more than that; you need to provide a personality and connection. Therefore, this Northern Colorado Road Trip is about my experience traveling through these areas. I hope it inspires you to want to see these areas and brings to life the culture of this region as opposed to just being a guide that you can find anywhere on the internet.

Northwest road trip itinerary loveland
In the city of Loveland, Colorado

The Route Plan

I like to have a loose plan when I road trip. My goal was to go North and take a different way into the mountains than the typical (and often crowded) I-70 corridor. In addition, I was excited to experience a smaller town on the Front Range, Loveland. From Loveland, I could then head through Rocky Mountain National Park soaking up those magnificent high mountain peaks over to Grand Lake.

I had never stayed in Grand Lake before, so I was excited to learn more about the state’s largest natural lake and how the region served as the headwaters of the Colorado River.

Finally, my plan was to head to Steamboat Springs, a unique part of Northern Colorado that has somehow combined the western culture with the mountain culture.

My loose plan, however, was foiled when Colorado got a freak early September snowstorm that dumped 6 feet of snow at the high altitudes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Trailridge Road was closed, so it forced me to go all the way back south, skirting Denver, driving on I-70 for a bit, going over Berthoud Pass, through Winter Park, and up to Grand Lake! It was a minor change, and it was still a beautiful drive, but if you can, I would recommend going through the national park on Trailridge Road.

When I travel, I find the cheapest rental car rates at RentalCars.com. Check out their prices for a Colorado road trip!

Traveling in Colorado During COVID-19

I was traveling during COVID, however, our state has a mandate that masks must be worn in all indoor locations and I knew from my previous trips that all of the small Colorado towns were taking the mask mandate and social distancing very seriously. Therefore, I felt comfortable traveling during this time. Obviously, you need to do what works for you in this situation.

Read more about this trip and special tips in my article Boots, Bikes, Hikes, and Horses With Influencer Ottsworld on Colorado’s Official Visitor Site!

Northern Colorado Road Trip Map

Day 1: Loveland – A Front Range Town with a Lot of Heart and Art

Only a 45-minute drive from Denver, Loveland is a great Front Range town to use as a ‘jumping-off’ point to the mountains in the north! In addition, what’s not to love about a town that takes ‘love’ to the next level?

Named for William A.H. Loveland, president of the Colorado Central Railroad, Loveland grew quickly from a railroad stop into an agricultural hub for local farmers, and it now is an artistic hub. Maybe that’s why the best way I can describe the people there are westerners with an art problem.

Every single person I met in Loveland seemed to have a love of their city and a general love for life. I’m not really sure if the city attracts those types of people, or if the city just oozes love and people can’t help but embrace it.

What to Do in Loveland

The city certainly embraces its name – it is known as the nation’s ‘sweetheart city.’ It even has a – Valentine’s Day festival every February. They also have a couple of ‘love’ sculptures where you can ‘lock your love’ on the backside. It’s the first thing you should probably do as you enter the city from I-25: stop at the visitor center, buy a lock, engrave it, and go lock it to the sculpture! Since I’ve never been lucky in love, I chose to engrave the name of my recent foster kitten, Cassie, on my lock. Yes, this just solidifies that I have become a crazy cat lady during this pandemic.

Art with Heart

Similar to Scottsdale Arizona, in 1985 Loveland started funding the city’s public art collection by passing an Art in Public Places Ordinance designating 1% of all capital projects to buy and maintain art. It now has over 490 pieces of public art throughout the city!

bronze foundry loveland colorado
Photo from Art Castings Foundry

If you build it, they will come. Loveland has taken the strategy of ‘art attracts other artists’ – and it has worked. The town has a couple of foundries specializing in bringing sculpture artists’ ideas to life. I toured the Art Castings Foundry and was amazed at the complex process of how the sculptures are made. A process that includes wax, ceramic, sand, boiling vats of bronze metal, and then it’s welded all together like a puzzle!

I followed up the foundry tour with a trip to Benson Sculpture Garden, home to 170 pieces of sculpture. It’s impossible to look at these sculptures in the park and not be amazed after just seeing the long process of how they come to life! Plus, many of the pieces are ‘interactive’ which makes for great fun and Instagram pics!

wishbone sculpture loveland colorado

Check out these 22 unique things to do in Denver, Colorado from a local

A Hike with the Devil

I also headed to Devil’s Backbone open space on the western side of the city and was able to hike around this unique formation. The backbone is a two-mile strip of Dakota sandstone that rises from the rock and soil between the western mountains and plains. I’m not really sure how it got the ‘Devil’ designation; to me, it looked more like the backbone of a prehistoric dinosaur coming out of the ground! Regardless it was a beautiful area to hike in with its numerous trails! Just make sure you wear a hat as there are no trees in this area, and it can get hot!

Get a Taste of Ranch Life at Sylvan Dale Ranch

This is the lowest elevation ranch in Colorado which makes it really accessible to visitors who aren’t quite used to the altitude yet. It’s also the perfect introduction to the western culture of Colorado. Even though this is a full-service Dude Ranch (see more on that below), you can also just come out for the day and do horse rides.

western culture sylvan dale ranch

Where to Eat & Drink in Loveland:

Get a taste of the south in this Northern Colorado city at Betta Gumbo in Foundry Plaza. I felt as if I walked into New Orleans as the hostess gave me some colorful beads and started telling me about their 24 types of flavored moonshine!

Betta Gumbo serves New Orleans gumbo, shrimp & grits, fried pickles, hush puppies, corn pudding, and beignets; pure Southern dishes with heart! Chef Clay uses his old family recipes from Arkansas and seems to have a story about each one. In addition, I learned that he started a non-profit in 2020 to feed people in need since COVID-19 struck the community. He’s a cool guy oozing with good southern charm (and a slight southern drawl) and a love of his city. Just make sure you go hungry!

Where to Stay:

If you want to get a taste of Colorado ranching culture, then stay at Sylvan Dale Ranch. This family-run ranch since 1946 is nestled between the Big Thompson River Valley and Eagle Ridge.

As you enter the main lodge, you’ll see a family portrait above the big stone fireplace; I could just make out Susan (the current owner) on her parent’s lap when she was a little girl. I loved seeing the family history; it normally makes it all that more special to stay there.

I stayed in a little 2-person cabin by the river with a lovely porch and a wood-burning fireplace. You won’t find any TVs or Wi-Fi in the cabins; Sylvan Dale is meant to enjoy slowing down. With no screen distractions, I built up a roaring fire in my fireplace at night, proud of myself as I looked at the dancing flames.

I woke up, walked out on the porch, and zipped up my puffy vest, surprised by the chilly morning temperatures. Wild turkeys were walking around my cabin; I’m used to cars in the morning, not turkeys! The sounds of the river were trickling by, and I sat on the porch and had one of the calmest mornings I’d had in a while.

Explore Piney Lake – a side of Vail you’ve never seen before

sylvan dale ranch loveland colorado

Of course, in addition to simply staying in a cabin for the night (they call it the Bunk and Breakfast Package), I also did a horse ride for sunset, watched a cow penning demonstration, and completed the night with prime rib dinner at the ranch!

As I rode my horse, Buckaroo, up the ridge hoping he wasn’t going to live up to his name, all I could think about was that I felt like I was hours and hours away from Denver. However, I was only a short drive from Denver, but I was tucked away in this little slice of western heaven on the Front Range. The ranch is the perfect quick getaway from the city!

Whatever you do, don’t forget your cowboy hat.

Read about horseback riding in Steamboat Springs – a gateway to Western culture

Day 2: Grand Lake – Celebrating 100 Years and The Beginning of Fall

I was driving along, and suddenly, I saw it – a single aspen tree with golden leaves. A smile crept across my face; I had driven into Fall in Colorado. It’s one of the things I love about the state – fall colors happen as early as the first half of September at higher altitudes. As I went up in altitude heading towards Grand Lake, I was literally driving into fall.

I checked in at Grand Lake Lodge which was celebrating its 100th year of operation. Perched above the lake right before the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, it was the perfect location for views of the lake and the mountains. There’s even a hiking trail that starts at the cabins and leads right into the national park.

What to do in Grand Lake:

Hiking in Grand Lake

After my drive, I really needed to stretch my legs and had heard great things about Adam’s Falls, a short and popular hike. This normally heavily trafficked trail was only moderately busy at the end of the day, and the light was perfect to illuminate the fall-ish golden trees. It’s a super easy hike, less than a mile to the falls. And if you go beyond the falls, you can simply enjoy stepping away from other people and soaking in a little slice of the river for yourself.

In addition, there are a number of trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, which is right next door. Actually, the Adams Falls hike is technically in the park. And remember – you can hike right into the park from Grand Lake Lodge, too! Adam’s Falls Hike on All Trails

The Lake Perspective

If you are going to stay in Grand Lake, then you must get on the lake and get a different perspective of the landscapes around you. There are actually two lakes here – Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake. They are connected by a small section between them. I rented a kayak from Trailridge Marina in the morning and paddled out on the calm water of Shadow Mountain Lake. I suggest you book ahead as the kayak rentals get quite busy, especially on the weekends.

Grand Lake is the largest and deepest natural body of water in Colorado. Fed by the headwaters of the Colorado River and by snow melt coming off of the Continental Divide. There are bigger bodies of water, like Lake Granby right ‘next door’; however, those larger bodies of water are man-made reservoirs (from the Colorado River).

kayak grand lake colorado

I scanned the islands and shorelines for moose and enjoyed the golden aspens mixed into the landscape as I paddled along. But most of all, I stared at the snowy mountain peaks in the distance.

Where to Eat & Drink in Grand Lake:

grand lake lodge cocktail

Huntington House Tavern at the lodge is a must if you are looking for an elevated meal. Dinner is a prix fixe menu, and a reservation is recommended. I had their charcuterie plate complete with some honeycomb from their own on-site beehives. I paired that with the bar’s 100-year-old Manhattan cocktail. A drink celebrating its 100 years made with 100-proof bourbon. I finished the night off with their fillet mignon with fresh mushrooms – pure decadence in the little town of Grand Lake!

To experience the best whiskey bars in Denver – go to Whiskey Row in Arvada

There are of course a number of eating options in the town of Grand Lake too. But I was happy to stay put at the lodge and enjoy its beautiful location.

Where to Stay in Grand Lake:

With a spot on the National Register for Historic Places, Grand Lake Lodge is an institution in Grand Lake. Stay in one of their 70 cabins and enjoy the outdoor spaces around the property, like their viewing deck and pool, which I believe has the best pool view in all of Colorado!

Cabins are simple but newly remodeled – cozy and perfect – plus a porch to eat your breakfast-in-cabin at!

Check prices and availability for Grand Lake Lodge | Read reviews of Grand Lake Lodge on TripAdvisor | Search for other accommodations in Grand Lake

Day 3: Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway and Cowboy Goals

I must admit – lately, I’ve been geeking out about the Colorado River thanks to the audiobook I was listening to on this trip – Where the Water Goes – Life and Death Along the Colorado River. The Colorado River provides an immense amount of water to 7 states and flows all the way to Mexico (yet the water rarely makes it that far any longer). It’s referred to as the ‘lifeline to the Southwest’ and it also carved out the Grand Canyon.

Colorado River

A few Colorado River facts:

  • More than half of the Colorado River’s water comes from Colorado
  • In 7 states, the Colorado River has transformed 3.4 million acres of desert land into cities, farms, and recreational playgrounds.
  • From Colorado to California, the water flows through 33 reservoirs, 990 miles of pipes, 230 miles of tunnels, 188 pumping plants, 345 diversion dams, 50 power plants, and 14,590 miles of canals.

It is to the west what the Mississippi is to the East – and its history and modern-day usage are fascinating.

Today’s drive for me was all about the river. The Colorado Headwaters Scenic Byway runs from Grand Lake, where the river begins thanks to snow melting from the mountains through Granby, Hot Sulphur Springs, Byers Canyon, and Kremmling. The byway actually extends past Kremmling all the way to State Bridge on a gravel road.

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It follows the river most of the way and I took plenty of time to stop and take pictures and simply enjoy the different facets and personalities of the river. There were many fishermen/women out on the water, especially in Byers Canyon.

billboard steamboat

Read about taking on Colorado solo in a camper van – what it’s really like to road trip by yourself

At Kremmling, I turned North again and headed towards Steamboat Springs and Colorado’s western ranching culture. It was here that I started to see the ‘famous’ yellow and black signs dotting the roadside advertising for FM Light & Sons, a western wear shop in Steamboat. The signs are often called the ‘welcome mat’ to Yampa Valley. There are 32 signs to count, from Kremmling to Steamboat – a good road trip game if you are bored! However, I’m not sure how one could be bored with the mountain landscapes out your window to look at!

 northwest colorado road trip

What to Do on the Drive Today

Colorado Headwaters Scenic Byway

This is a fun driving day, so stop as often as you like and go dip your feet in the mighty Colorado River! You can also grab a pole and do some fishing along its banks, or stop in Hot Sulphur Springs for a soak.

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Try on a Cowboy Hat

Stop in at FM Light & Sons in Steamboat and step back into the Wild West. Try on cowboy hats and boots, write in their guest book, and pick out a big belt buckle! If you already have a cowboy hat, then bring it in to be cleaned or even re-shaped!

Fun Fact – The cowboy hat was actually invented in Colorado by John Stetson. He took the untanned hides of rabbit, muskrat, and coyote and through the art of felting, turned the hides into soft felt hats. He designed the wide-brimmed hat that provided cowboys with protection from the elements and is now the symbol of the American West.

Where to Eat & Drink:

I suggest you stop in Granby to get a delicious coffee from Rocky Mountain Roastery to keep you alert for your drive! Buy a bag of beans and take them with you!

Where to Stay:

After stopping at EH Light & Sons, I went further north out of Steamboat to stay at Vista Verde Ranch. This luxury dude ranch normally does week-long stays (they offer shorter stays in the winter months), but they agreed to let me stay for only a couple of nights and experience the ranch.

vista verde ranch colorado

I stayed in one of the log cabins that they describe as ‘rustic elegance.’ Each cabin has a hot tub on the porch and an incredible view of the valley and pasture where their 70+ horses graze.

Explore Southwest Colorado on a road trip that features mountains, dunes, and canyons

Day 4: Date a Horse at a Colorado Dude Ranch

Samuel looked at me and asked about my horse-riding experience. Then he turned and looked at a big whiteboard with horses’ names on it. Samuel didn’t say much at all – but he stared and stared at the board. I was curious about what was going through his head as he focused on the board. Finally, he picked up a dry-erase marker and wrote my name down in a square next to the name “Jake.” The match had been made – Jake and I were to be a team during my stay.

What to Do in the Steamboat Region

Visit a Colorado Dude Ranch

I used to think this was a bit kitschy to go to a dude ranch, however after visiting them in Colorado, I have come to learn that they are an essential piece of the Colorado experience. Visiting a dude ranch in Colorado creates a concept of what ranching is; it’s a way to understand a piece of American history. Hopefully, guests walk away saying “I get it; I get why people want this lifestyle and why they think the way they do.”

vista verde ranch steamboat colorado

Just like traveling around the world and experiencing and learning about cultures different than mine, that’s what a dude ranch experience is. You get it through meeting the ranch hands, riding horses, and sitting on a rocking chair on the porch.

I talked to Ben, the Ranch Manager, about why people should stop at a dude ranch in Colorado,

“I think it does change people, it slows them down. And slow doesn’t always mean stupid. It can mean well thought out. If people slow down enough you can re-evaluate things. You get to step back and get a bit quieter. That’s what places like this provide. Not just ear quiet – but soul quiet.”

Have a Date with a Horse

As part of the dude ranch experience, get ready to get on a horse! Vista Verde takes matching horses and riders really seriously. Even though I was a beginner, I was excited to take my skills to the next level and get beyond the simple head-to-tail trail ride.

“Consider it as a first date,” Ben explained, “get to know its personality.”

I loved this way of thinking of my horse as a team – a relationship. Every week a ranch horse has to adjust to a new rider and leader. That’s what makes these horses special. They will make adjustments for you, but you have to treat them like a team.

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Before we even got on our horses, we first walked around with them and ‘got to know them – a process I had never done before. But it made my horse Jake and I much more comfortable with each other.

I did three different ‘dates’ with Jake during my time at the ranch. I learned he was curious, strong but gentle, and he liked to eat grass. So, for my last ride with him, I brought him an apple – I’m pretty sure that sealed the deal: I had a horse boyfriend. That day we didn’t do the normal ride, instead, we worked on penning and moving cattle. Nothing will test your ability to lead/control a horse faster than trying to move cattle!

Horse riding at the ranch was a really incredible experience overall. I liken it to dogsledding. You can enjoy riding in a dog sled and think it’s great until you actually mush your own team of dogs…then you never want to go back to riding in the sled again. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to ever go back to the simple tail-to-nose riding again.

Other Activities at the Ranch

There were so many choices of things to do on the ranch it was overwhelming for someone like me who likes to try everything! I did take a mountain biking clinic, but there were also things like fly fishing, hiking, cooking classes, wine tasting, archery, yoga, dancing, and more.

Where to Stay, What to Eat & Drink:

Vista Verde Ranch is an all-inclusive experience; it includes ranch activities, food, drink, and even things like dancing! My cabin was certainly luxurious, but so was the main lodge with ceiling-to-floor windows and a fireplace that looked like it belonged in a medieval castle. They called the lodge ‘our living room’, and I certainly took advantage of it!

Since I visited during COVID-19 times, most meals were served outside on the patio; and they were often cooked outside too over a big grille. Chef Jonathon came out and talked to us each evening about the menu and wine. I couldn’t help but love his laid-back style. The food was exceptional; it could’ve been served in the fanciest of restaurants in Denver. They also had an extensive wine cellar and wine-tasting experiences.

My favorite meal was the duck with carrots. The Chef cooked up and utilized carrots in so many different ways; it was delicious – and so colorful!

horse riding in northwest colorado

Day 5: Steamboat Springs Biking, Hot Springs, and Laundry

It was time to experience Steamboat Springs, an unusual ski town that is more cowboy town than ski town if you ask me. The town has an adventurous outdoor spirit, as well as Western hospitality! The Yampa River flows right through town and there is a lovely walking/biking trail that runs along the river. A few other facts and numbers from this unusual mountain town:

  • 98 Olympians are from Steamboat
  • 150 Natural Mineral Springs
  • 50 miles of mountain bike terrain
  • 799 Area Ranches
  • Four local breweries and one distillery
  • 100+ restaurants

Three of my favorite outdoor/travel brands are based in Steamboat Springs: Big Agnes, Point6 Socks, and Chill Angel Sleepwear!

What to do in Steamboat Springs:

Mountain Biking – Even for a Beginner

With 50 miles of mountain biking trails, I was ready to take some of the skills I learned at Vista Verde and try them out on a beginner trail! You can rent bikes from Ski and Bike Kare in Steamboat. I had a great time getting used to the bike and the skills I learned on a nice, wide beginner trail. I’m still a bit nervous about the single trek, but the whole experience in Steamboat built up my confidence enough that I will definitely continue to learn and push myself more when I visit again!

If mountain biking isn’t your thing, you can still rent a bike and bike the Yampa River trail right in town, too!

It’s in the Town Name –You Gotta Visit the Hot Springs

After horseback riding, cow penning, and mountain biking – this sore body needed a break. There’s no better Colorado town for hot springs than Steamboat Springs…it’s in the name! The Heart Spring is an all-natural mineral hot spring pumping 220 gallons of 102-103-degree water out of the ground per minute! I went to the Old Town Hot Springs located right on Main Street. The pools have been there for over 100 years, first enjoyed by the Native American Ute Indians who settled the area and later the first homesteaders. Don’t miss the great old pictures up on the wall in reception!

old town hot springs

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What to Eat & Drink:

I had lots of local recommendations for restaurants, but I decided upon Laundry and their small plates of elevated comfort food. Opened in 2012, Laundry is located in an old commercial laundromat building from the 1920s. If you go to the back of the dining room, you will see old pictures of the laundromat and building.

The first thing I noticed was the big gallon jars of infused liquors lining the bar. Each had a piece of masking tape on it with the inside ingredients labeled. They all looked so good, it was hard to choose. However, the Pumpkin Spice Bourbon was wonderful for the season. They are known for their inventive cocktails, and I have a hard time just picking one out!

The food was delicious, local, and fresh. The beef brisket was served on freshly baked bread, and charred onion, with a special sauce and an egg on top. I also tried the house-made foie gras with homemade mustard and blackberry chutney. It was a bit of a splurge, but well worth it. After all, it was my last night of the trip! Make reservations – they have lots of outdoor seating but it does go fast.

food and drink in steamboat springs colorado

Where to Stay:

I stayed right in the heart of the town at the historic Hotel Bristol. It was a small, simple room, but the beauty of it was that it was right on Main Street and walkable to everything!

Check prices and availability for The Bristol Hotel | Read reviews of The Bristol Hotel on TripAdvisor | Search for other accommodations in Steamboat Springs

Day 5: Steamboat Springs Hiking

I wanted to squeeze one last activity into the final day of the trip before I headed home. After a hearty breakfast, I headed just slightly out of town to the Fish Creek Falls Area to do a little hiking.

After the hike, I pointed my car back toward Denver and took the 3-hour drive home through the mountains.

What to Do:

Uranium Mine Hike

I parked at Fish Creek Falls, but instead of doing the heavily trafficked falls trail, I took the advice of a local and walked a little way out of the parking lot and found the Uranium Mine Trail. This 3.2-mile out-and-back trail was a perfect morning hike. The first part was a climb up, but it leveled off, and I soon encountered a few aspen groves and shade. The leaves were just starting to change in the groves.

The trail leads to an old uranium mine that is now gated for safety. It was cool to look into the cave/mine, but if going at dawn or dusk be prepared to also be joined by a lot of bats who call the cave home now! The trail goes a little further past the mine and ends at the creek where I promptly took off my hiking shoes and soaked my feet in the cold mountain water.

uranium mine opening with rail tracks

Where to Eat & Drink:

Yampa Valley Kitchen is another farm-to-table offering in Steamboat that is known for its delicious, seasonally fresh breakfasts and brunch. They will provide fuel for whatever adventure you want to take on in Steamboat!

Just when you think you know Colorado, it’ll surprise you; that’s exactly what happened on this Northern Colorado 5-day road trip. I packed a lot into five days, but I feel like I understand Northern Colorado so much better now. And I even came away with a few new skills, a cowboy hat, and a new horse boyfriend! I hope you enjoyed seeing and experiencing this more complex side of Colorado outside of the I-70 corridor!

Read more about this trip and special tips in my article Boots, Bikes, Hikes, and Horses With Influencer Ottsworld on Colorado’s Official Visitor Site!

Want more Colo-Road trip ideas? Check out all of the great Colorado road trips for all kinds of travelers!

When I travel, I find the cheapest rental car rates at RentalCars.com. Check out their prices for a Colorado road trip!

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I was working for  Visit Colorado on this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.

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