Fun, free things to do in Colorado

Nov. 9, 2023
A photo of Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods is spectacular and one of the must-see free attractions in Colorado Springs. Photo by Rick DuVal.

By Linda Duval, Katie Kerwin McCrimmon and Kati Blocker

Are you looking for fun, free things to do in Colorado? Would you enjoy spending more time outdoors and less time shopping or on screens during every season of the year? Or do you need new ideas for cultural institutions you can visit?

We’ve got you covered with fresh ideas for fun, free adventures in various parts of the Centennial State.

Fun, free things to do in Colorado Springs

People come from all over the world to visit Colorado Springs. For people who call Colorado home, you have no excuse! Get out and enjoy the many attractions in the Pikes Peak region. Best of all, some of them are free. Here are five terrific outings to consider:

Garden of the Gods

This city park is worthy of national recognition, with its stunning red sandstone formations – eruptions, spires and hogbacks – that make a scenic setting for a leisurely (or not) stroll. Stand at a certain point and you’ll see Pikes Peak framed between the Kissing Camels. Stunning, especially when there’s snow on the mountain.

Check out the informative and entertaining visitors’ center for advice on hikes, rock climbing, wildlife encounters and free programs. Ranger-guided talks and wellness walks are among the many offerings. Don’t be surprised to encounter a group of Olympic cyclists spinning by for a daily workout.  Plan to do some walking.

And be aware that wildlife believe the park is theirs. Don’t hike alone, always carry water and please don’t pick the wildflowers.

Plan your visit and learn about current programs. 

U.S. Air Force Academy

This national landmark military institution is open to casual visitors. Drive through the grounds. Visit the architecturally remarkable interdenominational chapel. (Although, right now, it is closed for renovations.)

Stop at the 31,000-sqare-foot visitor’s center and museum to see the exhibits, and maybe even take a short nature hike. Occasionally, the planetarium is open to the public for some stargazing.

Learn more about hours and public access.

Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

Housed in the beautifully preserved 1903 El Paso County Courthouse, the museum has both a permanent local history collection and fascinating rotating exhibits, which range from art to local cultural icons. The museum also hosts family fun events and sponsors many downtown events, such as the Festival of Lights parade each holiday season. History lectures and other events are posted monthly on its website.

The building is a museum piece in itself. Take time to enjoy the extravagant architecture of another era, including pillars and a vast marble staircase. Learn about hours, events and exhibits.

Penrose Heritage Museum

Formerly the El Pomar Carriage House Museum, it is located in The Broadmoor Hotel complex, next to the underground parking garage. This under-visited attraction was started in 1941 by the hotel’s founder, Spencer Penrose, and includes carriages, coaches, wagons and cars that carried local dignitaries and a few U.S. presidents, all dating from the early 20th century.

A permanent Pikes Peak Hill Climb exhibit has been added and features unique cars from the internationally famous race, plus an easy-to-follow set of plaques detailing its sometimes scary history.

Take a step back in time at this fun museum.

Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College

This 100-year-old institution features everything from high-end Western art to ultra-contemporary exhibits. The lovely art deco building includes a seamless addition with extensive galleries. OK, it’s not free most of the time. But there are free days, and you should take advantage of them. Plan your visit to the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College and learn about free days.

Fun, free things to do in Boulder

A view of the Flatirons in Boulder with a pink sky. If you're looking for fun free things to do in Boulder, Chautauqua Park is a great place.
Chautauqua Park in Boulder is a beautiful spot to enjoy a hike. Boulder’s distinctive Flatirons jut up in the background. Photo: Getty Images.

When you arrive in Boulder, the view is breathtaking and distinctive. You’ll see the steep, angled rock formations, known as the Flatirons, jutting from the foothills into the sky, and the craggy Indian Peaks towering over them in the distance to the west.

Boulder’s natural beauty is one of its claims to fame. So, too, are its world-class athletes who love to train in this high-altitude mecca. They also famously indulge in healthy food and drinks, so Boulder has given rise to health-based businesses like the Celestial Seasons Tea Company.

Boulder is also an academic incubator with the flagship campus of the University of Colorado. Some of the nation’s top scientists also are headquartered here at national labs. Enjoy these five free things to do in Boulder and you’ll soon get a feel for Boulder’s unique beauty and personality.

Stroll or run the Boulder Creek Path

The Boulder Creek Path is a great place to walk or run.
The Boulder Creek Path is a great place to relax, walk or go for a run. Photo: University of Colorado Boulder.

Want to work out with those famous Boulder athletes? Check out the beautiful Boulder Creek Path. The future Olympians may run faster than most, but people of all ages and abilities can enjoy the paved path that runs about 5.5 miles from Boulder Canyon on the west to the Stazio ball fields on the east.

A great spot along the Boulder Creek Path any time of year is Eben G. Fine Park. In the summer, the park is full of people who are picnicking, wading in the creek and tubing when the water levels are safe. During other seasons, it’s a peaceful place to enjoy natural beauty.

Fine was a Boulder businessman and booster for the city, who used to be known as “Mr. Boulder.” Now, whether you’re walking your dog, tubing, walking or running along the creek, you can thank Fine for helping make Boulder one of the nation’s most beautiful cities.

Go for a bike ride at Valmont Bike Park

Here is information from the City of Boulder: “Valmont Bike Park is a 42-acre, natural surface cycling terrain park offering diverse amenities for several riding styles and abilities.

The park is free and open daily from dawn to dusk as weather and trail conditions allow. For updates, see the Valmont Bike Park Facebook page or the X, formerly known as Twitter, feed.

Please respect Valmont Bike Park closures due to weather. People who enter the park will cause damage to the trails.”

Hike in Chautauqua Park

The Boulder area was originally home to indigenous people from the Southern Arapahoe tribe.

Newcomers seeking gold settled the area, and as Boulder developed, early leaders wanted to set aside open space, while promoting the Chautauqua movement, which focused on art, preservation, education and enlightenment.

Hiking in Chautauqua Park in Boulder.
Chautauqua Park is a beautiful place to hike any time of the year. Photo: University of Colorado Boulder.

Way back in 1898, Colorado Chautauqua was born and Boulder residents agreed to spend public funds to create Boulder’s stunning Chautauqua Park.

Colorado Chautauqua is one of the few remaining institutions of its type in the U.S. It features a learning center, the Chautauqua Dining Hall, cottages and a public park with great hiking trails.

Stop at the ranger cottage and pick up a hiking map along with advice. A fun loop takes you up the Bluebell Road to Woods Quarry, then you can return via the Enchanted Mesa.

The hiking options at Chautauqua are endless. So, too, are the crowds. Boulder now has a free shuttle system. Parking here can be a big challenge, so you would be wise to consider using the shuttle. Chautauqua is also a great place to hike with your dogs.

Visit the National Center for Atmospheric Research, also known as NCAR Mesa Lab

The National Center for Atmospheric Research or NCAR sits on a beautiful bluff in Boulder.
Boulder’s National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is a beautiful building designed by famed architect, I.M. Pei. The location is also spectacular. Photo: NCAR.

The scientists at NCAR study all things atmospheric and that includes weather, water, climate and air quality. But you don’t have to be a science nerd to enjoy a visit to NCAR. The location, which hugs Boulder’s foothills, is spectacular and famed architect, I.M. Pei, designed the concrete and limestone building. Visitors are free to hike around NCAR as well.

NCAR’s Visitor Center is open 363 days a year, with tours available. But, you can also explore on your own on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (NCAR is closed for maintenance two days a year, so check online or call in advance to make your plans.) Download the NCAR app to enjoy self-guided tours. Address: 1850 Table Mesa Drive, Boulder.

Visit Old Main at the University of Colorado campus. Learn about astronauts and see a moon rock

Stroll around the beautiful University of Colorado campus and you’ll quickly understand why CU is such a popular choice for students from Colorado, elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world. The popularity of CU Buffs and Deion Sanders has only made Boulder even more popular for visits. A fun place to check out (in addition to catching a Buffs football game) is Old Main.

Old Main at the University of Colorado in Boulder with the snow-dusted Flatirons in the background
Old Main at the University of Colorado’s flagship campus in Boulder, with the snow-dusted Flatirons in the background. Photo: University of Colorado Boulder.

Stop in Old Main, the original building on campus, and visit the CU Heritage Center on the third floor for free.

There, you’ll find an exhibit that celebrates astronauts who attended CU. There’s a replica of Jack Swigert, a CU alum who flew on the Apollo 13 mission. (The original statue of Swigert is on display at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.) The Heritage Center also boasts a moon rock on loan from NASA. It’s from a different Apollo mission.

Address: 1600 Pleasant Street, Boulder. Heritage Center hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except during CU holidays. Free admission.

Fun, free things to do in northern Colorado

Looking for great activities in Fort Collins, Loveland, Greeley and other areas of 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.

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 of 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 178 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 is 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 the 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, or just stroll throughout the 22-block faces of downtown lit by an impressive display of low-energy, sustainable LED holiday lights from early November through Valentine’s Day.

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.