Story by Linda DuVal. Sprawling at the foot of America’s Mountain — Pikes Peak — Colorado Springs celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2021 with many of its original values intact. Founded by a visionary entrepreneur and philanthropist, it was once known as “Little London” for its culture and lofty ambitions. Railroad magnate Gen. William Jackson Palmer helped transform it from a barren train stop on the prairie to a tree-laden town with wide streets and beautiful buildings.
Add to this the perfect climate, clean mountain air and views of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and you had a major draw for Easterners looking for a better life.
Today, it offers more than 55 area attractions, including extraordinary parks, museums, entertainment venues and a world-class zoo, that lure visitors from all over the world. Attractions range from the hokey to the magnificent – take your pick.
Garden of the Gods is a city park worthy of national recognition. Its stunning red sandstone eruptions, spires and hogbacks make a scenic setting for a leisurely (or not) stroll. Check at the visitors’ center for advice on hikes, rock climbing, wildlife encounters and free programs.
Don’t be surprised to be passed by a group of Olympic cyclists on their daily workout. The park is forever free and open to the public, and a registered National Natural Landmark.
The U.S. Air Force Academy, the youngest of the military service academies, resides on 18,500 acres, flanked by breathtaking mountain panoramas of the Front Range. It features signature mid-century modern architecture. Here, 4,000 cadets from across the United States get their education before becoming officers.
Casual visitors may drive through the grounds, visit the architecturally remarkable interdenominational chapel and stop at the museum to take a short nature hike. The academy is usually open to visitors, but that can change for various reasons, so check that status before you go.
The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum is housed in the beautifully preserved 1903 El Paso County Courthouse, where it displays both a permanent local history collection and fascinating rotating exhibits, plus monthly family activities.
But the real amazing museum piece is the building itself. This city landmark reflects a fascinating history against a backdrop of French and German renaissance architecture, complete with a bell tower.
The Penrose Heritage Museum, formerly the El Pomar Carriage House Museum, is located in The Broadmoor hotel complex. This under-visited attraction was started in 1941 by the hotel’s founder, Spencer Penrose.
It includes carriages and vintage cars that once carried local dignitaries and a few U.S. presidents, all dating from the early 20th century. A grand and permanent Pikes Peak Hill Climb exhibit is included in the 4,000-square-foot space.
The Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Museum in downtown Colorado Springs is home to more than 60 original and restored vintage and antique Indian, Harley-Davidson, Excelsior and other classic motorcycles.
Check out the authentic period photographs and a wide display of motorcycle memorabilia. Admission is free and you can get guided tours by appointment.
Celebrations! You might want to time your visit around one of the city’s long-standing free festivals, such as Territory Days, held in Old Colorado City on Memorial Day weekend, a wide array of fireworks displays on July 4th, or the world-famous hot air balloon festival.
The Labor Day Lift-Off has been ranked one of the top balloon festivals in the world by U.S. News & World Report magazine.
Also, every summer, there are the Rocky Mountain State Games, which draw thousands of athletes from all over the state to compete in everything from badminton to volleyball and a few strange sports in between.
Cheap things to do
For advice on how to plan a low-cost trip to Colorado Springs, there’s a video supplied by the city’s visitors center. Check it out.
Rock Ledge Ranch and Historic Site offers a look at farm life in the 19th century. This living history museum on 230 acres on the south edge of Garden of the Gods has interpreters in period clothing giving tours, demonstrations and hands-on learning activities for visitors.
A working blacksmith shop is a highlight, along with live farm animals. It celebrates many special events throughout the year, including a fall harvest festival. Tickets are $4 to $8 depending on age, for the 2½-hour “full ranch experience.”
Glen Eyrie, a castle and now conference center tucked into the foothills just north of the Garden of the Gods, was built by the city’s founder, Gen. William Jackson Palmer, as a home for his wife, Queen, and three daughters.
Now it offers 80-minute Castle tours (requires walking and navigating stairs) for $10 per person. For an additional fee, you also can book a tea.
The Scottish-style castle is surrounded by beautifully landscaped grounds and the entrance to a canyon hike that is somewhat challenging. The history of this place is romantic, tragic and ultimately fascinating.
The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is the flagship training center for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic programs. More than 15 member organizations, as well as two international sports federations and the Olympic committee headquarters are also located here.
The center provides housing, dining, training facilities, recreational facilities and other services for more than 500 athletes and coaches at one time on the complex.
Tours offered daily on the hour except Sundays, and admission $11 to $15, depending on age. Don’t be surprised to walk by your favorite athlete while on the tour.
The Western Museum of Mining & Industry brings Colorado’s mining history to life. The “Museum that Works” features more than 4,000 artifacts and machines in the 12,200-square-foot exhibit hall. Guided tours are included in your admission and depart at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily.
Highlights include fully operational steam engines, a working hoist, and a “widow maker” pneumatic drill. Admission is $6 to 12 depending on age, and include a free tour and gold panning experience (and you get to take home whatever you find).
The ProRodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy, educates the public about the sport of rodeo, its history and impact on Western American culture, and provides recognition to rodeo notables of the past and present.
It features selected art, a sculpture garden, and sometimes livestock. Admission is $5 to $10 depending on age.
The unusual May Natural History Museum is marked by a giant bug sculpture at its entrance. If that doesn’t scare you off, the museum’s contents might! The venue houses 7,000 insects from lush butterflies to gigantic spiders to evil-looking vampire bats. It houses the world’s largest private collection of tropical bugs. Admission $9 to $11.
Michael Garman Magic Town in Old Colorado City, is tucked away in the back of the late artist’s retail shop. Magic Town a 1/6 scale miniature city, complete with dozens of different scenes, hundreds of characters, and magical elements – like holograms, rooms that transform right before your eyes, and much more. The setting and characters are gritty and realistic, evocative of the 1930s. Admission $4 to $7.50.
The World Figure Skating Museum & Hall of Fame will let you explore the history of figure skating from ancient to modern times. It recognizes the sport’s most celebrated personalities and recreates skating’s most magical moments through films and photos. Also enjoy its incomparable collection of skating costumes. Admission is $3 to $5
Worth the price
No visit to Colorado Springs would be complete without ascending Pikes Peak, one way or another. You can drive up, bike up, or take a train, You can even walk (or run) up, as some do!
This 14,115-foot giant looms large over the landscape and can be seen throughout the region from almost any vantage point. The views from here inspired “America the Beautiful” and they may inspire you, too. Be sure to visit the spacious new Summit House, get one of their famous doughnuts, and stop by the little museum inside.
If you drive, the safe and scenic Pikes Peak Highway provides the opportunity to enjoy 19 miles of mountain terrain, with frequent pull-offs to get out and take photos. There are breathtaking views, four different Colorado life zones and unique animal sightings, like the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep or yellow-bellied marmots.
On clear days, they say you can see five states (Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Kansas) and even the curvature of the earth fading into the distance. Admission is $5 to $15 per person, depending on age, or $50 per carload (up to 7 passengers) and reservations are required in advance.
Racing fans won’t want to miss the Broadmoor Pikes Peak Hill Climb, also known as the Race to the Clouds. This invitational automobile race to the summit of 14,115-foot Pikes Peak – America’s Mountain. – is held on the last Sunday of June.
It is the second oldest automobile race in the world and considered to be the greatest challenge in motorsports for both man and machine with its 12-plus miles featuring 156 turns. It was founded in 1916 by entrepreneur Spencer Penrose, who built The Broadmoor hotel, and has grown into an international event attracting the best drivers and riders — and millions of viewers — from around the world.
To see it in person, you can get a camping permit for the night before. Race Day tickets start at $80 per person.
The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum is one of the newest and maybe best attractions in Colorado Springs. It is dedicated to “capturing and sharing the history of Team USA in the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as the hopes and dreams of future generations.”
It includes displays, interactive activities and unique exhibits. Special events draw former Olympians, who seem to like chatting with guests. Tickets are $19.95 to $24.95, with kids under 5 free. Check for special discount days.
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is the highest zoo in America. Ranked as one of the top zoos in the country by USA Today and 10 Best by TripAdvisor, it has many newly renovated and award-winning exhibits. It’s home to more than 30 species of endangered animals and has one of the most successful giraffe breeding programs anywhere (and you can hand-feed them).
The elaborate elephant exhibit is a must-see. The Mountaineer Sky Ride lets you oversee popular animal exhibits and offers expansive views of the city below.
Tickets are $10.75 to $24.75 depending on age and when you go. (The Sky Ride is extra.) Check their calendar for “value days” and you need to get tickets in advance for timed entry. Military discounts are available.
Dining and Lodging
Some local favorites include Panino’s, a pizza place with a unique folded pizza sandwich, the Mason Jar for homemade grub with a Southern flair, and a variety of Mexican eateries, from taquerias to sit-down ful-service restaurants.
Also try the Ivywild School, with its unique food stands, or Ute and Yeti, healthy grub served inside the City Rock climbing facility downtown. All are family-friendly and affordable.
Although the town offers most national fast-food chains and mid-priced chains, it also has a number of uniquely local restaurants.
If you want to splurge, try Marigold Café near Garden of the Gods for Broadmoor-quality food at much more reasonable prices. Other upscale restaurants include Caspian Café for Mediterranean fare, or the innovative cuisine of The Warehouse downtown.
Want to try some locally brews or distilled spirits.? The city boasts lots of brewpubs. Be sure to get your free Crafts & Drafts Passport. It’ll get you some buy-one-get-one -free drinks and other perks at local pubs.
Lodging ranges from tourist motels to high-end hotels to The Broadmoor, a world-class award-winning hotel, if you have the moolah.
Much more affordable digs include Kinship Landing downtown, a a hostel-style boutique hotel with bunk rooms and even camping options on the deck — yes, really.
The Hilton Garden Inn downtown is probably the most reasonable of the other downtown hotels. Springhill Suites are also downtown and somewhat affordable. Nearby Manitou Springs offers RV camping and budget motels.
There’s a wide array of lodging available. MHOTC has a partnership with aRes Travel that allows you to search for the best deals on hotel rooms.
Go here. Then, type in your location (in this case Colorado Springs, Colorado), along with check-in and check-out dates.
Getting there: From Denver, take Interstate 25 south approximately 72 miles. The visitors’ center is downtown has free parking. As to parking elsewhere downtown, there are several reasonable priced parking garages and once you are parked, you can ride a free shuttle up and down centrally located Tejon Street.
For more information about visiting Colorado Springs, including additional free attractions, discount coupons and more, go online to www.visitCOS.com.
“48 Hours” is a series of easy getaways within driving distance from Denver. Linda DuVal is an award-winning travel writer and former travel editor at the Colorado Springs Gazette.