For most family travelers, Colorado means Rocky Mountain ski resorts. Denverites and other Coloradans, however, know how much fun awaits in the summer months, and flock to the Roaring Fork Valley and other destinations for river and mountain experiences.
Why should they have all the fun? Fly into Denver, rent a car, and you too can enjoy a bonanza of white water rafting, river kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, ziplining over a river... Read about these and more, including affordable Aspen, family-friendly farm-to-table eateries, and a cool new trend in Colorado: free river parks where surfing waves have been engineered.
The Roaring Fork Valley includes Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs. Mount Sopris and the Roaring Fork River of course (which is a tributary of the Colorado River.)
White water rafting is exciting fun for teens, and even kids as young as six can get in on the act. Most white water rafting companies offer a range of experiences, from easy floats to challenging rapids. A Class I ride means "easy gentle moving water with small waves or obstacles", and families will typically choose Class I or II white water rafting trips.
Typically, guests team up in multi-person inflatable rafts with at least one guide per raft. Every crew member is expected to paddle as the guide instructs, and paddling is a big part of the fun.
Blazing Adventures is one of several companies that offer white water rafting in the Roaring Fork Valley. The minimum age can be as young as six for half-day trips on the lower, middle, or upper Roaring Fork River. Blazing Adventures also has a novelty trip for families: Pirate Rafting Trips for ages 5 and up. These trips include a treasure hunt as well.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary experiences for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.
River kayaks are sporty and fun: smaller, lighter and rudderless compared to sea kayaks, and they turn on a dime. Taking a lesson or two in Colorado is an opportunity to try something new, plus a super way to experience the mountain scenery.
Aspen Kayak Academy offers half-day, full day and multi-day lessons on the Roaring Fork River and the Colorado River, and multi-day expeditions as well. Beginners will start on flat-water lakes or in a Class 1 beginner zone in the Northstar Nature Preserve.
No experience is necessary to take a lesson that will include instruction in calm water plus a chance to try out your new skills. Ages 12 and up can participate, and the ability to swim is a prerequisite. Private and special kids' sessions may be available for younger kids. You can stay in Aspen and explore the area before or after your river kayaking experience.
Stand Up Paddleboarding
From Oahu to Florida, the trendy new thing to try on a family vacation these days is Stand Up Paddleboarding. Many people try this new watersport at the beach, but in Colorado, families can try stand up paddleboarding lessons in a river setting, with Aspen Kayak Academy. Kids age 12 and up can try (and ability to swim is a prerequisite.)
Vacationers who try SUP with Aspen Kayak Academy can take some pride in knowing that instructor Charlie MacArthur -- at the Aspen Kayak and SUP Academy-- pioneered stand up paddleboarding in Colorado; there's even a SUP river board named after him.
Have a look at Charlie stand up paddleboarding at the Whitewater River Park near Glenwood Springs. (Don't worry: beginners start in a nice calm area.) If you're looking for something different and cool to do with a teen, this could be it.
Zipline Across the Colorado River
Another way to experience a river in Colorado: ride a zip line 350 feet across the river at Glenwood Canyon Zipline Adventures, and then ride another zip line back again.
All you need is the nerve to step off the platform: no skills required, and kids are welcome. A minimum height of 48 inches is required, and all kids must be accompanied by a participating adult.
Glenwood Canyon Zipline Adventures also offers a rope course, good food you can enjoy overlooking the river, rafting outings, and cabins for rent.
Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park
Here's a cool new trend in Colorado: several towns have engineered artificial waves on their rivers, and created public river parks where locals and visitors can enjoy the whitewater. These artificial waves stay constant in their position on the river, and are a popular place for watersports normally found at the beach.
Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park is the first man-made feature on the Colorado River, and is a fun place for boogie boarding, surfing, stand up paddleboarding, and kayaking. Surfing in Colorado? Yes indeed. This whitewater park is even a venue for a Rocky Mountain Surf Festival.
Because the wave created at the park is constant, it's a great place to learn to surf-- not to mention that beginners don't need to exhaust themselves paddling out to catch a wave.
In the photo above, the river is high due to an extraordinary snow melt. At calmer times of the year, even young kids can enjoy boogie boarding in the man-made wave at this free river park.
Stand Up Paddleboard Surfing at the Whitewater River Park
Above, ace river surfer Charlie MacArthur shows how it's done: stand up paddle surfing at the man-made wave at the Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park. An extra-large snow pack boosted the wave's strength.
Charlie is a pioneer of SUP (stand up paddleboarding) on Colorado rivers. He's also an ideal teacher for beginners who want to learn stand up paddleboarding or river kayaking at the Aspen Kayak Academy.
Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park: Giant Canyon Swing
Glenwood Springs -- about 40 miles from Aspen -- is a town with a lot of fun for families -- in fact, it was named by USA Today and mapmaker Rand McNally as the "Most Fun Town in America" in 2011. Glenwood Springs is located between Aspen and Vail, and driving time from Denver is about 2.5 hours (157 miles.)
Visiting families will want to include the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park in their itinerary.
The original attraction here dates back over a hundred years: the Fairy Caves -- now part of the Glenwood Caverns -- drew Victorian visitors on day outings from Glenwood Springs as far back as the 1890's. (Glenwood Springs at that time was a busy destination thanks to its hot springs.)
Nowadays a family can enjoy a full day of fun at the Adventure Park on the top of Iron Mountain, starting with a ten-minute scenic gondola ride on the Iron Mountain Tramway. Attractions in the Adventure Park include an alpine coaster, a 4D Ride Theatre, bungee jumping, a zip ride, a climbing wall, and the seriously scary Giant Canyon Swing, above, which swings out 1300 feet above the Colorado River.
Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park: Alpine Coaster
This mountain coaster is a great ride for ages three and up at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park: riders race 3400 feet down the mountainside. Each car has brakes so the rider can control the speed.
Kids must be 8 years old and taller than 56" to ride the coaster alone, but younger kids can ride with an adult as long as the child is at least three years old.
Alpine coasters are a new type of attraction that's been popping up recently at ski resorts. Typically they're open year-round, as is the case at this Adventure Park. Visitors throughout the year can ride the mountain coaster and can also tour the caves and enjoy several other attractions even in winter time.
Glenwood Caverns and Historic Fairy Caves
This huge cave system was the original attraction that drew visitors to the top of Iron Mountain in Glenwood Springs over a century ago. Nowadays, the caves are part of the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, which also has attractions such as the Alpine Coaster and Giant Canyon Swing. Visitors to the Adventure Park should be sure to take the time -- and pay the modest extra ticket price-- to take a cave tour, the only way to venture into the tunnels in this underground world.
Parts of the caverns were open to the public as far back as 1895. Victorian-era travelers visiting Glenwood hot springs dressed up in their finest for a day outing to the Fairy Caves, ascending the mountain on horses or burros or in horse-drawn carriages.
The caves, however, closed during World War I, and stayed closed until 1999 when new owners began a modern era. Today the 800 feet area of the "Historic Fairy Caves" is a small part of Glenwood Caverns, which has 16,000 known feet. Glenwood Caverns has been named one of The 10 Great Places to Go Underground by the newspaper USA Today.
Glenwood Hot Springs Pool
Long before the era of the family car trips that bring most people to Glenwood Springs today, travellers came by train to soak in the town's famous mineral-rich hot springs.
Back in the 1880's, therapeutic bathing in mineral spas was a popular practice. Victorian-era explorers found these hot springs in 1860, and by 1888 the town of Glenwood Springs had the world’s largest hot springs pool: its long stretch can be seen behind the waterslide in the photo above. Presidents, aristocrats, and celebrities were among the guests who came to soak in the pool and stay in the deluxe Hotel Colorado. The poolside red sandstone bathhouse and lodge offered top amenities of the day, such as a ladies' parlor and Roman vapor baths.
Today the pool has a wading pool for kids and a giant water slide, and the original sandstone lodge (visible above, to the right of the pool) houses the Spa of the Rockies - a "spa" in the modern sense of massages and other treatments for health and pampering.
The large pool is open year-round, with a constant temperature of 90°-93° F. A smaller therapy pool averages about 104° F. Three-and-a-half million gallons of hot mineral water rise daily from the spring.
More Fun Things to Do in Glenwood Springs
Glenwood Springs is a magnet for families who live in Denver and Colorado's "Front Range" (the local term for the area of Colorado where most people live.)
So maybe these folk are onto something, and the rest of us could fly into Denver, rent a car, and get into the act? (Driving time from Denver is about 2.5 hours -- 157 miles.) The town of Glenwood Springs is affordable, has family fun, great scenery, and is a launch point for mountain and river fun in the area. Here's a recap of what families can enjoy:
- The Glenwood Hot Springs Pool and waterslide is the most prominent attraction in Glenwood Springs
- Minigolf is located just beside the pool
- The town's main streets have vintage buildings from its Victorian heyday, and are dotted with casual eateries and ice cream opportunities
- Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park has an alpine coaster, Giant Canyon Swing, the Glenwood Caverns and Historic Fairy Caves and more
- Glenwood Springs Whitewater River Park is a short drive from the main part of town
- Glenwood Canyon Zipline Adventures is nearby
- Several companies offer whitewater rafting on the Roaring Fork and the Colorado Rivers
- Biking is popular and families can do an easy bike trip without killer uphills
- Fly-fishing in this area is renowned
Guests at at the Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge get unlimited access to the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, just across the street. Minigolf is two minutes away, as is the walkway leading to the town's main streets.
Snowmass: Ice Age Mastodons and More
What a great tale: Snowmass Village, a winter ski resort, made headlines in October 2010 because of the inadvertent discovery of Ice Age mammoth bones -- a find which led to over 5000 fossils being unearthed, dating back 100,000 years.
The first fossil appeared when a bulldozer was excavating an area above Snowmass Village to create a reservoir. Work was halted temporarily and a fast-action excavation took place, literally shoveling and back-hoeing in order to remove the hundreds and then thousands of fossils from the site and deliver them to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science for study over a period of several years. Animals whose bones have been found include mammoths, mastodons, a giant sloth, giant bisons, insects, a salamander -- an entire ecosystem, essentially.
Eventually, Snowmass hopes to build a visitor attraction or museum that can display fossils from this massive find. Meanwhile, a small visitors center in Snowmass Village provides basic information about the dig, and provides a home for mascot "Snowy", above: "Snowy" being the name given to the juvenile mammoth whose bones were first found. ("Snowy" stuffed animals can already be bought.) Read more at the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery site.
More in Snowmass in Summer
Snowmass -- which is 14 miles driving distance from Aspen, though the two are referred to as the Aspen/Snowmass ski resort -- is basically a ski resort, and its "village" is of the type found at the base of ski lifts. Most shops and restaurants are open in summer, as is the Kids Adventure Center, and free outdoors concerts happen at the mountain base. The Snowmass Rodeo happens every week during summertime.
Most lodging at Snowmass is condominiums, but in 2009 the The Viceroy Snowmass opened and changed the accommodation scene with its luxury features, giant suites, and fine dining restaurants.
Biking (Flat!), Hiking, Hot Springs
Visitors to the Roaring Fork Valley in summer should be sure to take a hike in the stupendous mountain scenery. Hiking can be as easy as an hour jaunt on a trail that departs from Snowmass village and soon leads to stunning views (and vistas of alpine flowers, if the timing's right.)
Biking can be as challenging as any adventurer could wish; local skiers and boarders turn into mountain bikers or racers during the summer months. But lesser mortals have options too.
An excellent bike path -- the 42-mile Rio Grand Trail -- is easy if you pick the right section to ride. Rent bikes in Glenwood Springs and take a Bike Express Bus to Aspen or Woody Creek. (Each bus can accommodate multiple bikes.) The bike ride back to Glenwood Springs from Aspen is reportedly flat or downhill except for a bit of uphill to reach Woody Creek, and takes two to three hours, with opportunities to stop at restaurants along the way. The path is paved for 33 miles from Woody Creek to Glenwood Springs; from Aspen to Woody Creek, it's a soft surface dirt trail.
Hot Springs: visitors may see signs beside the road calling attention to nearby hot springs, and should know that clothing at such places may be optional. Families may prefer to visit the Avalanche Ranch, a picture-perfect rustic B&B that has built an attractive pool area around natural hot springs. This is a friendly family-run establishment with several options for overnight lodging.
Farm-To-Table Dining at an Affordable Price
Sounds almost too good to be true: a sophisticated menu, a family-friendly atmosphere, and an affordable price point.
Yet that's exactly what chef Mark Fischer has deliberately created in his Pullman Food and Drink restaurant in Glenwood Springs. (Try the butterscotch budino for dessert.)
Aspen Colorado in Summer (It Can be Affordable!)
The name "Aspen" is so synonymous with "rich", "famous", and "ski resort" that summer visitors may be happily surprised to find a welcoming, human-scale, and relaxed small town basking at the base of gorgeous mountain scenery.
No ostentatious resort palaces dominate the view: just stroll the quaint streets that date back to Aspen's origins as a mining town. The Hotel Jerome, above -- a RockResort-- is a fine embodiment of Aspen's historic ambiance: step inside its doors and be enveloped in full-blown Victorian-era decor.
Things to do in Aspen in summer include music concerts at the Benedict Music Tent, walking tours, and gondola rides. The Silver Queen gondola departs from the middle of town; ride 2.5 miles to the top for splendid views, free guided nature tours and disc (Frisbee) golf. Uniquely Aspen is a "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Tour", for those with a yen to see fantastically expensive homes.
With the right timing, visitors may find some surprisingly affordable places to stay in Aspen: the Hotel Aspen and sister property Molly Gibson Lodge have prices as low as $160/night during certain weeks, and that price includes a hearty breakfast (plus substantial "apres-ski" eats during ski season.) It's located a five-minute walk from the heart of town.
Visitors who make their home base in Aspen can do day-trips to all the activities featured in these pages. Also a nice surprise about Aspen: the number of canine hotel guests.
Roaring Fork River Valley: Visit Carbondale
The small town of Carbondaleis another good spot to use as a home base for activities in the Roaring Fork Valley area.
Carbondale is a "sweet spot" kind of place: nice small-town size, historic buildings to renovate, sophisticated touches and excellent restaurants. The photo above shows the entrance to the Resturant Six89, a farm-to-table restaurant with an excellent price point. Dine outside in the summer, and small kids can stretch their legs on the shady lawn. Meanwhile, a family favorite for breakfast and lunch is the patio at the Village Smithy Restaurant: don't miss the mile-high pies (for breakfast!)
Carbondale has many B&B's, but best bets for families will probably be the Comfort Inn & Suites, or the Days Inn which also offers suites.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodation and experiences for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.