By Julie Bielenberg
Colorado is known for its color, skiing and endless hiking, but not necessarily its record-breaking attitude attractions. Sure, Colorado might have the most 14,000-foot peaks, but some of the state’s record-holding destinations are much more unique and obscure. This bucket list of top high-elevation destinations in the nation will impress, intrigue and inspire, and most certainly exhaust any recreational traveler or native Coloradan.
Just by starting anywhere in the state you have accomplished a record. Colorado has the highest mean altitude of any state. Did you happen to drive through the iconic Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel en route to a ski trip or summer getaway? If so, you’ve traveled the highest altitude vehicle tunnel in the world at 11,155 feet. Or, if you take an afternoon drive to see Rocky Mountain National Park, then chances are you’ve driven on the highest continuous paved highway in North America—Trail Ridge Road—reaching more than 12,000 feet.
An even easier drive to conquer a record is cruising Colfax Avenue from Golden through Aurora. This is the highest, longest-continuous street in America. And, just less than one hour from Colfax is the highest paved road in all of North America, Mt. Evans Road, which provides access to one of the iconic fourteeners, Mount Evans, near Idaho Springs. That’s five notches on the list and we just got started!
Is more high-mountain adventure on your agenda? Go straight for the riches as generations past and head to Leadville. As the highest incorporated city in North America, it wins oodles of altitude records and family-friendly destinations. Favorites include the highest elevation 9-hole golf course, Mt. Massive Golf Course, and the nation’s highest fish hatchery, and free to the public, the Leadville National Fish Hatchery. An extra bonus is the network of hiking and cross-country skiing trails accessed all from the steps of America’s second-oldest fish hatchery and home to a beautiful parquet décor. At 14,433 feet, Mt. Elbert is the also the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains and provides a beautiful backdrop for this Victorian town.
Another town with some record-breakers is Telluride. Although you will be arriving via wheels, check out the precarious landing strip of the highest elevation commercial airport in North America, the Telluride Regional Airport. Also, this charming town boasts the highest altitude and only free gondola public transportation of any likes in the entire country. And, if you happen to arrive in town at night, make note of the electric streetlights. These were the first in the world, making them the oldest and highest electric streetlights at elevation as well.
Located in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a gorge so massive, it holds the record of the deepest gorge for its width in all of North America, so certainly it’s the record holder at altitude as well. Remain in the area and cruise through the world’s largest and therefore highest-altitude flat top Mountain, Grand Mesa, stretching hundreds of square miles in the Grand Mesa National forest, and boasting more than 300 lakes.
Just outside Alamosa you’ll find the tallest sand dunes in North America. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve stretch close to 50,000 acres, with sand peaks topping out at 700 feet. Harsh winds of the San Luis Valley carry ancient ocean sediment into the area, depositing it short of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range.
If wildlife might be on the mind, visit one of the largest highest-altitude elk herds in America (only Utah’s is bigger). West Elk Wilderness offers awesome elk viewings.
If wildlife is still on the mind, then the Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists feel comfortable claiming that the state has the most Ptarmigans, or more commonly known, Pikas, at such a high elevation. This is because the little creatures (tinniest member of the rabbit and hare family) only live in very high alpine landscapes, and with Colorado’s extremely high-elevation mountain ranges, this delightfully busy little specie is fun for everyone to spot. The state recommends these passes with short hikes for best viewing of this records holder: Guanella Pass (from Georgetown to Grant), Trail Ridge Road and Hoosier Pass (from Fairplay to Frisco). Pikas don’t hibernate and are easy to spot.
Ride the rails for historic travel. Leave the car at the Durango Depot and ride along one of Colorado’s most scenic passes to the gorgeous high-mountain mining city of Silverton. Come winter or summer, book a ticket on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Open-air or enclosed and heated in winter if you choose, this 52-mile round-trip ride, often five-plus hours in duration, is the nation’s highest-altitude, longest-running, year-round steam railroad—both in terms of numerical distance and continuous years of operations.
Spanning 938 feet across the raging Arkansas River, the Royal Gorge Bridge is the highest in the United States.
If all these height-tacular adventures are getting your muscles fatigued, head to the healing waters of Pagosa Springs. Pagosa Hot Springs is the deepest hot springs in the world, making its elevation of 7,126 feet a record holder for altitude. If soaking is therapeutic, then don’t miss Glenwood Springs. The Glenwood Hot Springs is world-renown for its healing waters and holds the record of the largest high-altitude hot springs pool in the world. The two-city-block-long pool oozes with soothing springs, certainly a record to soak up.
Highest roller coaster
While in Glenwood Springs, knock another adventure off the bucket list and take a wild ride on the nation’s highest roller coaster located at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in Glenwood Springs. The Cliffhanger, at an elevation of 7,160 feet, rises 1,453 feet over the canyon below, offering thrills with the classic carnival scare of mystique and awe-inspiring drops.
Julie Bielenberg is a Denver-based writer.
Other high marks
- Highest dedicated outdoor wedding chapel: YMCA of the Rockies, 8,698 feet.
- Highest altitude post office in the world to receive more than 160,000 love letters a year: The Loveland Post Office, which rewards seekers of romance, love and healing each Valentine’s Day with a special stamp.
- America’s highest-elevation dude ranch: Elk Mountain Ranch, outside Buena Vista in Chaffee County.
- America’s highest and largest altitude peach orchards: Palisade.
- America’s highest mountaineering museum: The Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in Golden.
- World’s highest rodeo: The National Western Stock Show in Denver.
- America’s highest zoo: Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs.
- America’s highest roller skating rink: Snow Mountain Ranch just outside Winter Park.