Besides trains (and buses), Downtown Denver's historic Union Station houses four restaurants and a 112-room hotel.
  • Besides trains (and buses), Downtown Denver's historic Union Station houses four restaurants and a 112-room hotel.
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When you tell people you’re headed to Denver, they assume you have something green on the mind. Maybe it’s the emerald leaves of Boulder’s sprawling landscape, or perhaps it’s a plant of the recently legalized variety.

I headed to Denver because I needed some fresh mountain air. And I wasn’t about to turn down a glass of craft brew, if I’m being honest. I knew very little about the city before I departed, but most of my friends who’ve spent time there are avid hikers.

Could I have a great time in the Mile High City when my idea of a strenuous trek is navigating the labyrinth that is Horton Plaza? Turns out, I had nothing to worry about.

Full disclosure: my adventure in Denver didn’t exactly have an auspicious start. After a long, hot, traffic-riddled drive from San Diego to LAX, I did something stupid. I failed to notice that my iPad had fallen, logo side up, onto the passenger-side floorboard. And there it would remain for the next three days. Realizing my mistake (five minutes before the plane boarded – when else?), I had two choices: spend my weekend praying to the Apple gods to protect my tablet, or let it go and be fully present on my Colorado getaway. I chose the latter, which was an exercise in personal growth all its own. Other lessons I would soon learn? For starters, Denver does a bang-up job of protecting massive amounts of natural landscape.

My friend and I woke up on our first day in Denver with a loose itinerary in mind, which is the best thing we could have done. Denver will constantly surprise you with a new opportunity to get off the beaten path or check out an indie shop; trust me, you don’t want to schedule yourself down to the minute.

Taking in the scenery at Red Rocks Amphitheater, a half-hour drive from downtown.

Day 1: Red Rocks and Beer Creek Lake

Our first stop: Red Rocks Park & Amphitheater. An odd destination for a traveler who doesn’t quite understand the appeal of hiking? Probably. And an even stranger one for someone who is petrified of heights (have I quivered upon reaching the third rung of a ladder? I plead the fifth). Still, I arrived at Red Rocks excited to explore. And here’s the good news: With a bottle of water and some tennis shoes, there is plenty to explore here even if you aren’t ready to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail or similar any time soon.

We walked around on some beginner trails, sat on a lovely deck behind the gift shop looking out at Colorado’s bounty, and enjoyed an awesome lunch at the restaurant.

From our perch at Red Rocks we saw a distant lake. Without anywhere to be except out and about, we hopped in our rental car and set out in its general direction. Within minutes, what had once been a spot of water dotting the distant terrain emerged as Bear Creek Lake Park.

You could spend an entire day here, and if we’d been in town for longer than a weekend I would have. Take off your shoes and let the lake lap at your ankles – you can thank me later when you forget what stress is for a few blissful moments. Drive farther into the park, and you’re met with trails, more lakefront, and a serene place called Pelican Point. Bring a picnic. The place is deserted, even though I can’t imagine why all Coloradans aren’t flocking here every chance they get.

After an evening of downtown shopping and craft beer back at the hotel, we rested up for day 2.

Denver Botanic Gardens.

Day 2: Botanic Gardens, Boulder and LoHi

First on the agenda: Denver Botanic Gardens. It was crowded, but we found plenty of chances to explore in quiet exhibits. It would be easy to find space for solitude here, under a gazebo, journal in hand. The best news: If you have a membership at another botanic garden, including the San Diego Botanic Garden, you and a guest can get in for free.

From the gardens we set off for Boulder. I loved the beauty of the San Diego State campus, both during my undergraduate studies and my years as a graduate student. But the University of Colorado Boulder gives SDSU alums a run for our money.

Our lunch spot? The Bohemian Biergarten in downtown Boulder for Bavarian pretzels and liters of beer. I’ve been putting myself through the paces on Duolingo to learn German for fun, but didn’t have to break out my limited vocab. A good thing, given that gender pronouns and farm animals are the only things I’ve memorized.

A few minutes and confusing GPS directions later, we found our way to Eldorado Canyon State Park. While folks were turning up in hardcore hiking attire, we were once again reassured that that a state park is not thine enemy if you’re trying to relax. We were able to drive ourselves mid-way up the mountain and then hike some easy trails. We spent most of our time with our feet in a creek as a waterfall crashed over shiny gray stones nearby.

After a quick respite at our hotel and a late dinner at Jezebel’s Southern Bistro in LoHi (don’t sleep on the gluten-free fried chicken), our time in Denver was at its end. Of course, when returning home to San Diego, the pill's pretty easy to swallow.

Planning your own Colorado trip? Don’t let the stereotypes fool you. Even if you're allergic to ski slopes and averse to narrow mountain trails, you can still have the time of your life in the Mile High City.

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