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Best beaches for a warm-weather getaway

Best beaches for a warm-weather getaway


Colorado is famous for its sweeping mountain ranges, but you might be surprised to learn this landlocked state also boasts some incredible beaches. No, there’s no secret ocean portal; the only water you’re going to find here is fresh water. But the state still knows how to enjoy it, even without the salt.

Across the state, you’ll find sandy shores galore, from peaceful no-wake lakes to pristine alpine waters. A fun and unique way to explore Colorado is from top to bottom and back up again, stopping at bodies of water along the way. You’ll get your taste of nature, as well as a new view of Colorado.

This road trip is a full loop planned to cover 13 days, although you can make it shorter or longer, depending on your schedule. Combine some of the shorter drives into one, or stop and stay longer at your favorite destinations.

Horsetooth ReservoirHorsetooth Reservoir — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Alexander

Day 1: Horsetooth Reservoir to Boulder Reservoir

About 1 hour and 30 minutes, 60 miles via US 287

Start your trip by hitting up several different lakes in Northern Colorado. Start at Horsetooth Reservoir, six and a half miles of water surrounded by sprawling open space, just outside of Fort Collins. You can boat, fish, swim and relax on the swim beach.

Fort Collins to Boulder is a quick and easy drive down U.S. 287, so take time to stop in Loveland along the way. Make a short detour off the highway and take in the stunning scenery as you drive around Carter Lake. Stop and splash on the swim beach, take the boat for a spin and then have a picnic (you can get healthy sandwiches at the nearby Kofe House in downtown Berthoud).

If you want to stay longer in this area, the smaller, no-wake Flatirons Reservoir just west of Carter Lake is always less busy, but no less scenic. Plus, you can rent tipis not far from shore to camp in.

Finish the short drive to Boulder Reservoir, 700 acres with stunning mountain range views. Boulder Res offers one of the biggest sandy swim beaches in the state. You can also rent stand-up paddleboards here to take out on the water.

Stay the night on the water, too. Few people realize that you can go camping at Gross Reservoir in Boulder County. Unlike Boulder Res, you’re unlikely to see many people here. You’ll feel like you’re deep in nature, even though you’re just outside Boulder.

Chatfield State ParkChatfield State Park — Photo courtesy of E+ / milehightraveler

Day 2: Boulder Reservoir to Chatfield State Park

1 hour, 45 miles via CO 470 and 93

It’s a short drive from Boulder to Littleton, where you’ll find the dog-friendly Chatfield State Park. This park has it all. It’s close to the city yet it still has beautiful views. You can camp here all year in a tent or camper (this is one of the largest campgrounds in the state). And you can go boating, skiing, sailing, fishing, you name it. Bonus: Chatfield has a sprawling, sandy swim beach.

Craving more water? Bear Creek State Park in Lakewood is only 20 minutes from Chatfield. Bear Creek is massive, covering 2,600 acres, including swimming at the calm Big Soda Lake (plus archery, boating, camping, horseback riding, hiking and more). Look for the 400-foot swimming lane, if you want some exercise.

Although a trip like this lends itself to grilling and picnics, the best restaurant near Chatfield State park is Virgilio’s Pizzeria and Wine Bar, only 10 minutes away.

Lake Dillon, a high-altitude lake near BreckenridgeLake Dillon, a high-altitude lake near Breckenridge — Photo courtesy of Town of Frisco

Day 3: Chatfield State Park to Lake Dillon

1 hour and 15 minutes, 70 miles via Interstate 70

Head from the Denver-metro area up the mountain to Lake Dillon (also known as Dillon Reservoir), located in the quaint town of Frisco just outside of the popular ski town Breckenridge.

Lake Dillon is a stunning, high-elevation lake perched at 9,000 feet above sea level, where you can enjoy flat-water activities (such as sailing, stand-up paddleboarding, canoeing, fishing) under the backdrop of Colorado’s mountains. Not many towns at this altitude have an alpine lake that’s open for outdoor adventures.

Tip: If you really love to kayak, look into the Frisco Kayak Park on Ten Mile Creek.

Stay the night at the Frisco Inn on Galena, a bed and breakfast with an on-site spa. Dine at Tavern West on Main Street; request dinner with a view on the deck.

Day 4: Lake Dillon to Grand Lake

About 1 hour and 30 minutes, 80 miles via US 40 and CO 9

Today, visit Colorado’s largest and deepest natural body of water, aptly named Grand Lake. Not only is Grand Lake the largest (spanning more than 500 acres), it’s also high-altitude (about 8,300 feet) and it’s surrounded by the Rocky Mountain National Park on three sides.

Grand Lake’s sandy swim beach is ideally located right by the charming, historic downtown. You can also boat, sail and fish on these waters.

The best place to stay is in an Airbnb or other vacation rental, where you can book private cabins right on the lake. Wander down the boardwalk to find a bite to eat. The Sagebrush BBQ & Grill is a local favorite.

Day 5: Grand Lake to Turquoise Lake

About 2 hours 15 minutes, 115 miles via CO 9

You wouldn’t expect to find a lake in the highest incorporated city in North America, but Leadville’s got one. Turquoise Lake, named after the turquoise deposits miners discovered there in the 19th century, covers 1,800 acres of boating, fishing and even basking on the beach. Despite its altitude, Leadville can reach temperatures in the warm 80s during the summer.

The area has multiple campgrounds. Stay right on the lake at a campsite with water views or tucked in the forest. Venture into town to dine at the Legendary Silver Dollar Saloon in a historic building. Fun fact: “Doc” Holliday used to hang out here.

Blue Mesa ReservoirBlue Mesa Reservoir — Photo courtesy of iStock / equigini

Day 6: Turquoise Lake to Blue Mesa Reservoir

About 2 hours and 30 minutes, 135 miles via US 50

Whereas Grand Lake is the largest natural body of water, Blue Mesa Reservoir (manmade) is Colorado’s largest lake overall, covering 20 miles. Needless to say, there’s space here for everything, from boating to swimming. Blue Mesa, not far from the town of Gunnison, has multiple marinas: Elk Creek and Lake Fork. The main place to eat here is at Pappy’s Restaurant and Pub, which serves casual food like burgers and pizza.

Here’s where Blue Mesa really stands out: Stay in one of the Blue Mesa Adventure Camping Pods in the Elk Creek Campground. Camp literally on the water in small pods, powered by paddles. Think of it like a tiny cabin fused with a paddle board that you can sleep in.

Tacos Del Gnar in RidgwayTacos Del Gnar in Ridgway — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel

Day 7: Blue Mesa Reservoir to Ridgway Reservoir

About 1 hour and 15 minutes, 70 miles via US 50 and 550

This scenic drive will take you to the charming, small town of Ridgway, the heart of which is a stunning alpine reservoir in the San Juan Mountains. Ridgway Reservoir is five miles of water fun: water skiing, jet skiing, wakeboarding, sailboarding, paddle boarding and, of course, swimming. Take a dip in Ridgway State Park’s Dutch Charlie Swim Beach or in designated areas of the Dallas Creek Shoreline.

You can camp in Ridgway State Park. There are three different campgrounds, but the best place to stay is in a yurt. When in Ridgway, always eat at Tacos Del Gnar, a deliciously creative taco shop.

People stack rocks on the Dolores River beachPeople stack rocks on the Dolores River beach — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel

Day 8: Ridgway Reservoir to Dolores River

About 2 hours, 100 miles via CO 62 and 145

Not all beaches must be on lakes. Some of Colorado’s best beaches form on the sides of rivers. Head south to the small mountain town, Dolores, not far from Mesa Verde National Park. After you visit the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde (you won’t want to miss them), head up the canyon to Dolores and take some time to relax alongside the Dolores River.

Just off downtown, walking distance from the tasty Dolores River Brewery, there’s a tucked-away, sandy stretch of beach on the waterside.

Stay at nearby Willowtail Springs: artsy, upscale cabins on a private pond. Take the paddleboat out under the moonlight.

The hot springs spilling into the San Juan RiverThe hot springs spilling into the San Juan River — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel

Day 9: Dolores River to the San Juan River

About 2 hours, 100 miles via US 160

Pagosa Springs is a hot spot to indulge in Colorado’s natural hot springs, and as such, it’s also a favorite water destination. In addition to the hot springs resorts, make sure you visit the San Juan River. For two miles through town, people love to tube, whitewater raft and kayak down the river. You can also find little hot springs pools, swimming holes and beaches along the water.

Stay at The Springs Resort & Spa, home of the world’s deepest geothermal hot spring. Locals love Kip’s Grill for dinner.

Medano Creek at the Great Sand DunesMedano Creek at the Great Sand Dunes — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel

Day 10: San Juan River to Great Sand Dunes

About 2 hours, 100 miles via US 160

A scenic two-hour drive will take you to one of Colorado’s four national parks, the Great Sand Dunes National Park. While the towering dunes are the highlight here (this is home to the tallest sand dune in North America), Medano Creek slices through the park, creating unique beach-like conditions.

With sand as far (and high) as you can see, cool off in the shallow creek and have a picnic on the shores. The flow depends on the time of year. In May and early June, you can experience “surge flows,” with waves nearly two feet tall. As the weather warms up, the flow smooths out.

Build a sandcastle and then surf down the dunes on special boards. Between the sand-boarding and natural waves, this is as close as Colorado gets to an ocean. You can camp here, too. The sand dunes are open year-round.

Day 11: Great Sand Dunes to Lake Pueblo State Park

About 2 hours, 130 miles via US 160 and Interstate 25

As you loop back home, make a stop at a fishing paradise, Lake Pueblo in the Lake Pueblo State Park. This manmade lake controls the Arkansas River, to prevent flooding after a massive flood in the 1920s. Today, people can enjoy 4,600 acres of water and 60 miles of shore.

Get your beach fix at the sandy Rock Canyon Swim Beach during warmer weather. While you can’t swim in the other deeper parts of the reservoir, you are welcome to wade as deep as your feet can touch.

Go boating, sailing and fishing on the water, hike the nearby trails and camp overnight. Yes, this gorgeous lake offers hundreds of campsites year-round. You’ll probably want to stay more than just one day.

The rooftop pool at the HalcyonThe rooftop pool at the Halcyon — Photo courtesy of Aimee Heckel

Day 12: Lake Pueblo to Cherry Creek State Park

About 2 hours, 110 miles via Interstate 25

A two-hour drive north will bring you to Aurora, in the Denver-metro area, where you can bask on the good-sized swim beach at the Cherry Creek State Park. Find a sandy spot near a picnic table and enjoy Colorado’s sun with lunch on the beach. You can swim within the roped-off swimming area.

You can boat, fish and camp here, too. But after 12 days of roughing it, it’s worth a night at the stunning Halcyon hotel in Cherry Creek to refresh. To keep the water theme going, this luxurious hotel has a rooftop pool with jaw-dropping views across Denver and far beyond. It feels like a tropical paradise just outside of downtown Denver. Dine at the on-site, farm-fresh restaurant, Local Jones.

Betty Anne Markwardt walks on the sands at Union ReservoirBetty Anne Markwardt walks on the sands at Union Reservoir — Photo courtesy of Molly Plann

Day 13: Cherry Creek State Park to Horsetooth Reservoir

About 2 hours, 80 miles via Interstate 25

Close the loop by heading up the Interstate back to Horsetooth Reservoir. But add some adventure along the way by making one final detour: a quick drive into Longmont will bring you to Longmont’s Union Reservoir Nature Area. It’s totally worth the stop.

No-wake Union Reservoir is renowned for sculling and sailing, and it also has a fun dog beach. Best of all, this pristine lake has perfect views of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker.



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