Paul Blaney assesses the appeal of the American Rockies as a four-season destination
Comprising huge tracts of the states of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming, the American Rockies are breathtaking to behold.
Jaw-dropping scenery, soaring peaks, big skies, dense pine forests and shimmering lakes are a match for anything north of the Canadian border. The region’s several national parks are home to bears and buffalo, eagles and wolves, while lovers of American history will find themselves in cowboy country, getting a real taste of the Wild West.
The Rockies are best known in the UK (and America) as a winter sports destination. While it’s true that the region is home to some of North America’s top ski resorts, what’s often forgotten is the sheer variety of adventures to be enjoyed in the Rockies, whatever the weather or season. So here’s a handy season-by-season guide, an invitation to discover the varied wonders of the Great American West.
With the end of winter, the mile-high city of Denver comes to life. It’s far more than a gateway to the slopes. It’s a thriving, modern city with plenty to see and do.
A tour of the downtown might start with coffee and a stroll along the mile-long pedestrian promenade that is 16th Street Mall. Nearby Civic Center Park mixes flower gardens with Old West statues and museums.
The titanium peaks and shards of Denver Art Museum echo the mountain landscape of the Rockies, while inside, there’s an outstanding collection of Native American art.
After lunch, check out Tattered Cover, one of America’s best independent bookstores, then head for Rockmount Ranch Wear for snap-button shirts, Western hats and accessories. Finish the day with dinner and a nightcap in LoDo, the Lower Downtown district. Here, you’ll find a brew pub on every corner, rooftop bars and lots of live music.
Outside the city, wildlife lovers should keep their eyes peeled for bald eagles, moose, elk and the like. With 11 national parks and national monuments, and 42 state parks, nature is never far away in Colorado in the spring.
The best place to spot elk is Rocky Mountain National Park, while moose abound in State Forest State Park, and bald eagles at the Alamosa and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuges.
Cowboys, cowgirls and lovers of all things Western will discover a range of summer-time adventures. Summer is the height of the rodeo season as well as the best time to visit a family-friendly dude ranch.
Colorado has upwards of 30 such ranches, ranging from luxury, romantic, resort-style experiences to real hands-on facilities where you’ll be expected to hop in the saddle and help herd the cows.
It’s also worth recalling that not all the highlights of the Rockies are accessible by road. Sometimes it’s better to saddle up and hit the trail.
A range of horse riding outfitters offer day-rides as well as multi-day adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Weminuche Wilderness, and elsewhere.
Of course, there are others ways to explore than on the hoof. The region’s scenic highways and byways can be enjoyed from the saddle of a bike, or a motorbike. Its rivers can be kayaked, boated, tubed or fished for trout.
And the Rockies are home to some of the world’s most spectacular golf courses, including Aspen Glen in Colorado and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
For those who love camping or campervanning, summer is the season for sleeping under the stars. From May to October, the whole Mountain West turns into one big outdoor adventure playground.
With the end of the summer, the crowds recede, making September and October great times to visit the West’s magnificent national parks.
Yellowstone was America’s first and is still its largest national park. It rests atop a dormant volcano and is home to hot springs and geysers. Wildlife lovers come to Yellowstone for its herds of bison and elk, its wolves and grizzly bears, and the park’s Old Faithful Inn is renowned for its location and service – book well in advance.
Also in Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park, with its tranquil lakes and alpine terrain, is a magnet for hikers, boaters and lovers of nature.
Autumn also offers perfect conditions for hiking. The 500-mile Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango crosses the Rockies, running past towering peaks, through wildflower meadows and alongside rushing creeks.
Those who prefer a shorter hike will find plenty to choose from in the region’s state and national parks. Wildlife spotting opportunities abound for hikers. Just remember to pack plenty of water and sunscreen – higher altitude equals thinner atmosphere!
Winter in the Rockies is synonymous with outdoor recreation. Colorado has several of America’s best ski resorts, places such as Breckenridge, excellent for novice skiers/boarders, and Vail, where almost 200 trails will test even the most seasoned.
Elsewhere, Sun Valley, Idaho, is known for its fluffy powder and celebrity skiers, while a tubing hill extends the family appeal.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which boasts America's greatest continuous vertical rise, is not for beginners, or the faint-hearted.
But it’s not all about skiing – whatever fun you can imagine on the snow, you can try it here. That includes snowboarding, of course, but also snowmobiling, snow-shoeing, sledding, dog-sledding, snow-tubing and ice-skating.
Whatever your pleasure, you can pursue it in the Rockies, just don’t go thinking the fun ends when the snow melts.
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