5 free things to do in northern Colorado

March 4th, 2020

Looking for something to do in northern Colorado that won’t break the bank? Pick one of these great places to visit and take a day to explore the rich history and beauty of northern Colorado.

Ron Stewart Preserve at Rabbit Mountain

A view from Rabbit Mountain of the valley below.
A view from Rabbit Mountain. Photo: Boulder County.

Located on the edge of the foothills west of Longmont, Rabbit Mountain was the ideal winter home for Arapaho tribes. Its history also entails unsuccessful gold claims, and unique and complicated water conservation efforts. Since 2016, the mountain has included the Ron Stewart Preserve, which provides a place for nature to thrive.

Enter the Ron Stewart Preserve off N. 55th Street, north of Colorado Highway 66. Look for the covered picnic area and parking. From there, you have three hiking options for easy to moderate trails, including the moderate 2-mile Eagle Wind Trail loop (163 feet elevation change going clockwise). Grab your wildflower field guide – this trail is abundant with new life in the spring months.

There’s also the Little Thompson Overlook Trail (1.5 miles with 354 feet elevation change) and the Indian Mesa Trail (2.2 miles with 287 feet elevation change). The overlook trail provides a great view of the area’s topography.

All three trails offer great views, and if you decide you want to get up early and miss the crowds altogether, this area is splendid for viewing spectacular sunrises.

Along the trails you’ll see native Colorado plant life and birds — maybe even a golden eagle. Like many of Colorado’s “foothills” trails, there is a risk of running into rattlesnakes. Always stay on the paths and be mindful of your step. In wetter months, make sure to wear appropriate footwear; the trails can get muddy and slick.

Motorized bikes are not permitted, but horses, bicycles, hikers and dogs on leashes are welcome.

Island Grove Park, the gateway to the Poudre River Trail

poudre river with fall colors
The River Bluffs Open Space area at the Poudre River along the trail. Photo: Larimer County.

The Cache la Poudre River is the lifeblood of the northern Colorado region, exploring the Poudre River Trail is a great way to experience its beauty, wildlife and history.

When completed, the trail will stretch more than 40 miles. Currently, it has three sections.

Island Grove Park in Greeley is the gateway to the trail. Its name comes from the original stand of cottonwood trees that grew along the river and once used as a burial site by Arapaho, Cheyenne and Sioux tribes. It’s now home to the city’s famous Greeley Stampede.

If you start at Island Grove Park and head west, you can take the trail 21 miles to River Bluffs Open Space trailhead, near County Road 32 E and South County Road 3 (beside Ptarmigan Golf Course, just east of Interstate 25 and the Windsor exit).

The second stretch is a 1-mile section in Timnath. There is also an approximate 15-mile section in Fort Collins which runs from the CSU Environmental Learning Center off Ziegler Road northwest along the river to the small town of Bellvue, on the edge of the foothills.

There are many places to access the sections, whether for fishing, cycling, walking, bird-watching or picnicking. The trails are paved and have restrooms and picnicking spots and there are many designated natural areas along this trail that might inspire you to return for another day’s adventure.

Historical and recreational attractions can be found along the way. For instance, a new whitewater park opened in the fall 2019 in Fort Collins at Colorado Highway 287.

whitewater park along the poudre trail is one of the free things to do in northern Colorado.
City of Fort Collins Whitewater Park, completed in October 2019, is along the Poudre Trail at Colorado Highway 287. Photo: Grant Smith/City of Fort Collins.

Benson Sculpture Garden

As you meander through Benson Sculpture Garden in Loveland, you may dwell on the freedom of youth, curiosity of life, and nature in its most primal state.

There are 170 permanent sculptures situated throughout the park, which is attractive and captivating for visitors of any age. Benson Sculpture Garden has held the No. 1 spot for Loveland attractions on TripAdvisor for many years, according to Kristi Elyce, executive director of the Loveland High Plains Arts Council.

Pavilion and sculpture of girl balancing on a ball at Benson Scupture Garden, one of several great free things to do in northern Colorado.
Looking for free things to do in northern Colorado? Bring your lunch and spend time on the benches or in the pavilion during your visit to Benson Sculpture Garden in Loveland. Photo: Loveland High Plains Arts Council.

“The pieces are stable, they can be touched and felt. You can walk around them, and they’re very interactive,” Elyce said.

Bring your lunch and spend time on benches or in the pavilion. Groups of 10 or more can also set up a tour (call several weeks in advance) with a volunteer artist who will walk you through the park, providing interesting information about the sculptures. Children can visit the “children’s park” within the garden as well.

sculpture of old man carrying bucket of potatoes at a park.
One of the sculptures at the Benson Sculpture Garden in Loveland, a great free thing to do in northern Colorado. Photo: Craig Van Wechel.

“And don’t overlook the new pieces of the park on the other side of 29th Street,” Elyce said.

Altogether, the art is valued at over $5 million. Each piece was purchased through the fundraising efforts of the Loveland High Plains Arts Council and its annual event.

The park at 2908 Aspen Drive is free and open year-round, except for the second weekend in August during the annual “Sculpture in the Park” show and sale. Proceeds from the show supported expansion of the garden and the art within. The event is now one of the largest outdoor sculpture shows in the country, with sales totaling more than $1 million.

The Benson Sculpture Garden was founded in 1985. The property was part of the Benson family homestead, in the late 1800s. In 1971, Robert and Ralph Benson donated a portion of the farm to the City of Loveland.

Stroll through Old Town Fort Collins

Arial view of a full Fort Collins Old Time Square during live music event, which is a free thing to do in northern Colorado during the summer months.
Old Town Square hosts many free events, including Bohemian Nights Presents Thursday Night Live in the summer months. Photo: Bohemian Nights.

In 1984, forward thinking by the city of Fort Collins began to turn the city’s historic downtown into what it is today.

Fort Collins almost always has something going on in Old Town Square, whether it be Santa’s Workshop or ice skating in the winter, or free Thursday night music in the summer.

Old town with a ghost sign on the side of one building.
One of the free things to do in northern Colorado is to stroll Old Town in Fort Collins using a self-guided Historic Walking Tour guide created by the Poudre Landmarks Foundation. This “ghost sign” is among the tours. Photo: Grant Smith/City of Fort Collins.

Check out the First Friday Art Walk or take a self-guided Historic Walking Tour, created by the Poudre Landmarks Foundation, to learn more about the area. See ghost signs left from the 1950s, or one of the earliest (1881) big-box stores. Learn about the Fort Collins trolley, which still runs in the summertime on Mountain Avenue between City Park and Old Town, and much, much more.

Free two-hour parking is available on the street from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and several parking structures in the area charge $1 per hour, with the first hour free. Parking in those structures is also free on Sundays and City holidays.

Tour the Swetsville Zoo

propane tanks painted as eggs with a metal creature coming out of one.
One of the Swetsville Zoo’s youngest animal. A visit to the Swetsville is a great option if you’re looking for free things to do in northern Colorado. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
girl reaches up to play with massive chimes at the Swetsville Zoo, a free thing to do in northern Colorado.
A little girl plays with the chimes at the Swetsville Zoo, which is full of about 160 different “zoo” creations by Bill Swets. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

The “zoo’’ is a roadside area with whimsical animal sculptures, a “funky farm” with a “motley crew” who “don’t make noises, and they don’t run. They don’t eat anything. They’re just for fun,” writes author Kerry Davis in his book: The Swetsville Zoo: Kerry Tales.

In 1985, Bill Swets, a farmer who worked the property that’s been in his family since 1942, created his first zoo animal – a shovel-beaked bird with a bicycle-frame body. He put it in his front yard and started adding to the collection. Then people began stopping by to see his creations. Over the years, he added more creatures, and more people stopped by. The collection now surpasses 160.

The area along the Cache la Poudre River, once considered rural, is now adjacent to the bustle of traffic along Harmony Road and surrounded by Walmart, Costco and Starbucks.

The zoo doesn’t charge but donations are encouraged. Walk along the paths and see space creatures and dinosaurs, two-headed dragons and tin golfers. There’s a musical stop that kids and adults can enjoy. Consider seeing Swets’ creations sooner than later because the property is for sale.

Swets creation of a fisherman with a pole and fish at the Swetsville zoo, a great free thing to do in northern Colorado.
The Swetsville Zoo is off of Harmony Road just east of Interstate 25. Put it on your list of free things to do in northern Colorado – but donations are welcome. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.