As I mentioned in other recent articles, my family and I recently spent almost two weeks vacationing in various parts of Colorado. We mostly spent the time camping, with a few days staying in a cabin owned by a family friend.
As is usual on our family vacations, we were able to explore a wide variety of free and low cost activities, some of them good and some of them not so good. Here are twelve things we did on our vacation that I would describe as either “free” or “low cost” that we all enjoyed. I chose four from each of the three general areas that we stayed in during the trip.
One great money-saving tip for a Colorado trip: get a Safeway card. Safeway is the predominant grocery store chain in Colorado and they have, at least as of this writing, a very good customer loyalty program that’s extremely easy to sign up for (they literally just handed me one without any need to sign up, as the cashier pointed out that I would save about $6 with the card) and results in quite a few additional discounts. As most of our meals were prepared at campsites or at the cabin, we were able to use the Safeway card for quite a few discounts on groceries and other items. Of course, now we have a Safeway card that we will likely not use again as there are no Safeways in our area, but it definitely saved us money throughout Colorado. So, if you’re camping and need supplies and stop at a Safeway, don’t be afraid to take advantage of any Safeway Club deals they have and simply ask for a card when checking out because you’re new to the area.
Northern Colorado – Steamboat Springs Area
The first portion of our vacation involved staying in a cabin owned by a family friend with several extended family members near Steamboat Springs in northern Colorado. As such, almost all of our meals were just prepared at the cabin and many of our excursions were to natural landmarks near the cabin and near Steamboat Springs. Here are the highlights.
Steamboat Lake State Park cost $8 for a daily pass and offered access to a bunch of gorgeous hiking trails, including a challenging one to the top of Hahn’s Peak (~12,000 feet, which most of our family ascended) and many more of all kinds of difficult levels, a nice beach area, some great birdwatching, a bunch of geocaches… it’s just a really nice park to explore.
Movies on the Mountain is something we just missed due to other activities, but we saw it ongoing and it’s a pretty nice free way to end a day with your family. In Gondola Square in Steamboat Springs on Saturday evenings, they project a family-friendly movie and feed the audio through the park’s sound system. Just bring a blanket, kick back, and wind down after an active day with your family.
Fish Creek Falls and Uranium Mine is a small handful of gorgeous trails near Steamboat Springs that require a $5/car day use pass. Our family did a very flat and easy quarter mile paved walk to a wonderful view of the Fish Creek Falls, a hilly gravel-covered quarter mile walk down to the base of the Falls for another wonderful view, and a more challenging (I’d describe it as easy except for the several hundred foot elevation change) trail to an abandoned uranium mine with an amazing overlook of the area. We were just getting used to the elevation change at the time (going from the roughly 1,000 feet above sea level where we live to the 8,000 feet above sea level that these trails are on) and the incline of the uranium mine trail was a challenge, but I think it would have been much easier later in our vacation when we were more acclimated.
Yampa River Botanic Park is a free six acre botanical garden in Steamboat Springs that part of our family visited. It’s separated into about fifty smaller gardens, each with their own theme and focus represented by different plants and flowers, different arrangements, sculptures, and decorations. It’s a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours on a leisurely stroll through beautiful gardens.
Central Colorado – Colorado Springs Area
The middle portion of our vacation involved camping in a campground near Colorado Springs with my wife’s sister and her family. We visited the top of Pike’s Peak, which was enjoyable but doesn’t really qualify as “free” or “inexpensive,” so I’m excluding that part. Instead, here are four free and low cost things we found to do in the Colorado Springs area that we enjoyed.
Garden of the Gods is a gorgeous park owned by the city of Colorado Springs and completely free to visit. The park consists of walking trails that wind through a wide variety of natural red sandstone formations as well as a truly well done visitors center with maps, exhibits, and other information.
We spent a large portion of a day simply wandering the paths at Garden of the Gods and were actually chased away early by an incoming storm or else we likely would have spent at least another hour on the site. The natural rock formations are wonderful to explore. If you do one thing in Colorado Springs, this is it.
Red Rock Canyon Open Space is an open space near the Garden of the Gods that offers incredible views of the distinctive red rocks and hillsides in the area and amazing rock formations. I didn’t get to do this myself, but other members of my family did it and thoroughly enjoyed it. The views on the easy Contemplative Trail are incredible.
Penrose Heritage Museum is another wonderful free offering in the Colorado Springs area, one that I only got to taste briefly because we were running very late and it was about to close.
The museum features an enormous collection of artifacts of all kinds from the Pikes Peak area collected by the Penrose family over the years and bequeathed to a free-to-the-public museum. This includes a bunch of vintage cars that once raced to the top of Pikes Peak, materials from the construction of the Pikes Peak Highway, and many other exhibits that I would have loved to wander through for hours.
US Olympic and Paralympic Training Center is the most expensive item on this list, as tours cost $10 per person. However, I did want to mention it here because the center is completely self-funded through tours (and sponsorships) and doesn’t rely on public money and it made an enormous impact on my oldest son, who ranked it as perhaps the best thing he did on our entire trip and kept bringing it up afterwards.
The tour takes you through a very impressive athletic facility designed to help national team members in various sports perform well at their individual sports at upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games. Our tour was led by two-time Paralympian Tyler Carter and we spotted several Olympian and Paralympian athletes training, including watching Brittany Reinbolt (bobsledder) lifting weights (she’s amazingly strong) and an unidentified male gymnast doing casual backflips and leaps as part of his warmup, which caused my son to have a great deal of appreciation for the athleticism of gymnasts that he didn’t really have from watching it on television (he didn’t disdain gymnastics; it’s just not something that ever crossed his mind up to that point).
Southwest Colorado – Mesa Verde National Park
During the final portion of our vacation, our immediate family camped in Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. We largely stayed inside Mesa Verde during this portion of the trip, so what follows is focused entirely on what’s available inside of the park.
At Mesa Verde, much of the park is completely available with a park admission, which is $25 for a vehicle and is good for seven days, or with a National Parks pass, which normally costs $80 for an annual pass that is good at all national parks but there are various discounts available (including the wonderful Every Kid in a Park program, which gives a free year-long National Parks pass to the families of fourth graders, which we happened to miss out on this year because of age gaps between our children).
Mesa Verde is most well known for the cave dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people, constructed under amazing conditions between 800 and 1,200 years ago. You can see most of the dwellings in the park at a distance for free and some of the more worn-down ones up close for free; tours of some of the cave dwellings are available at a very reasonable price. I strongly encourage people to avoid the more expensive “package” tours sold outside of the park and instead sign up for the much less expensive individual tours of specific dwellings led by park rangers and sold within the park. These tours are kind of necessary because the better-preserved cliff dwellings are fragile and the rangers do a good job of keeping people from exploring the dwellings and doing things like chipping off bits of rock as a “souvenir” (which wouldn’t take too long to completely destroy the cliff dwellings).
What follows are our family’s four favorite things from the park, three of which were free upon entering the park and one of which is a low cost cave dwelling tour.
The Far View Sites are the ruins of several Ancestral Pueblo villages along a roughly 1.25 mile look trail that’s an easy walk. Our favorite part of this was the “Coyote Village” area, where you could actually walk through the ruins of an Ancestral Pueblo village at your own pace. The ruins here predate the cliff dwellings. This is a nice way to incorporate a nice walk through the terrain of the area with examination of Ancestral Pueblo ruins.
Sun Temple is perhaps the “mystery” of Mesa Verde and it generated a ton of conversation in our family. Sun Temple is a temple constructed sometime in the 1200s, late in the period of the Ancestral Pueblos, and it uses some very different architecture than the earlier villages and ceremonial structures. The building just looks different, even at a glance, as though people from other cultures may have come to the area and been involved in the design.
We spent a lot of time here, even though it was in the evening hours, and had a lot of conversations about what went on here. We had already learned why the Ancestral Pueblos left the area, likely as this was being constructed. Why? What role did this temple play? Why does it look so different than the other structures? There’s a lot to think about here beyond simply admiring the building.
Cliff Palace is an amazingly well-preserved cave dwelling that you can see pretty well from a distance, but you can tour directly with a park ranger at a cost of $5 per person. Our family of five did this tour and it was perhaps the highlight of our time at Mesa Verde.
The ranger led us down a series of stone steps and then up a ten foot sturdy ladder to the ruins. We spent an hour down there, with the ranger answering questions and explaining various features of the Palace. Afterwards, we exited the ruins by climbing three short ladders and going up another flight or two of stone stairs. The ruins are stunning and provide a wonderful example of the sophisticated architecture and planning of the Ancestral Pueblo people.
Knife’s Edge Trail and Prater Ridge Trail were two interconnected trails that my family and I hiked on the last day of our stay at Mesa Verde, near the Morefield Campground where we were camped. The Knife’s Edge Trail is an easy two mile one way hike that takes you out with some amazing views of the nearby Montezuma Valley. The Prater Ridge Trail is an easy-to-moderate hike with varying lengths (depending on which loops you take) that takes you up on top of a ridge and offers great views of various parts of the park.
Although this vacation was very long (thirteen days in all), it turned out to be a very inexpensive vacation, with a very low cost per day for our travels. There were several reasons for this.
First of all, our activities were loaded with low-cost and free options. We intentionally aimed for low-cost activities most of the time, aside from one or two specific things (Pike’s Peak was probably our only really expensive activity). The list above merely includes the low-cost activities that we really liked, but we did lots of things that were less memorable and enjoyable that were also low cost. For the most part, we went into the trip with the assumption that we could have a wonderful trip without opening our wallet for tourist activities constantly, and that was certainly borne out.
Second, we camped for most of the trip and stayed at a friend’s cabin for the rest. The cost of a campsite at a campground is low and it’s pretty easy to prepare your own food at a campground.
Third, most of our activities were very “picnic-able,” meaning that it made a lot of sense to just pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it in the area. Many of our lunches were picnic lunches, which meant that we ate a simple breakfast at the campsite or cabin, a picnic lunch, and dinner at the campsite or cabin most days. Our restaurant meals were very rare on the entire trip.
As I noted earlier, most of our food acquisition on this vacation was at Safeway, where we basically went in with a meal plan and a shopping list in hand.
The end result is that this was a thirteen day long summer vacation that really didn’t dent our wallets too badly.
If you’re considering a vacation in Colorado in the future, I hope you use some of these strategies and visit some of these locations for some low cost entertainment and a low cost overall trip. Good luck!