We’re near the top of a Class 4 rapid called Cardiac Corner when the giant yellow raft in which I’m riding bucks gently, dipping me like a dance partner into the Poudre River.
Lucky for me, I’m out adventuring with four members of the University of Michigan track team. Before I can holler “stop the music,” one of them grabs the shoulder straps of my life vest and hoists me into the bouncing rubber raft, just in time for me to grab a paddle and start stabbing waves.
We make it through the rest of the stretch of churning water –– one of two Class 4 and more than half a dozen Class 3 rapids we face that day –– cleanly. And then I can’t wipe the smile off my face.
Every summer, weary from the heat, droves of Texans pack up their hiking boots and a sweatshirt or two and head to the mountains of Colorado. Most aim for the usual hotspots to get their fix of chilly mornings, aspen-shaded trails and alpine lakes.
In search of adventure
I’ve come to Colorado in search of adventure, too, but I’ve found it in less touristy Fort Collins. Besides rafting, I’ve got five days of hiking, cycling, swimming and exploring on my agenda, just as soon as I dry off from the river.
“It was my pleasure to pull you out,” Aurora Rynda, one of the track stars, tells me by email the day after my excursion with A Wanderlust Adventure, a whitewater rafting company based in nearby Bellvue. “I’d do it any day. It was an amazing experience and very fun.”
The four athletes had met up in Denver, where one of them had recently started a new job. “We all go to the University of Michigan and run track, so white water rafting isn’t up our alley,” Rynda says. “But we had so much fun together and it was one of the best ways to explore the mountains, other thank hiking.”
Before my trip ends, I’ve hiked to Arthur’s Rock, a steep 3.4-mile round trip trail that serves up sweeping views of the lake below. I’ve swum a mile across Horsetooth Reservoir and back in the early morning sunshine. And I’ve logged more than 50 miles on a gravel bike, participating in the annual Foco Fondo gravel bike event put on each July by local pro racers Zack and Whitney Allison. (Read more about that in this sidebar.)
I first visited Fort Collins, a beer-and-bike crazy town located an hour’s drive north of Denver, in 2016. It’s a charming place. Downtown FoCo, as the locals call it, inspired Disneyland’s Main Street USA. Besides a collection of restored turn-of-the-century storefronts, restaurants and pedestrian plazas, it’s filled with sculptures, fountains and colorful murals. The League of American Cyclists’ named it a platinum-level Bicycle Friendly Community, and paved trails and bike lanes crisscross its center, making it easy to pedal just about anywhere you want to go.
Plenty of beer on tap
I, of course, want to go to the breweries, and Fort Collins has a lot of them. Known as the Craft Beer Capital of Colorado, 25 facilities churn out everything from sours and hoppy IPAs to German lagers and pale ales. New Belgium is one of the most famous and offers daily tours along with food trailers and picnic grounds just outside its doors. But don’t stop there.
One off-the-beaten-path brewery you shouldn’t miss is Purpose Brewing, founded by former New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert and his wife Frezi. Peter is widely credited with bringing sour beers to America, and you can always find a couple of them on the rotating menu. The brewery specializes in small experimental batches that change weekly. Some of the most memorable have included Floof, a lager crafted with two types of French hops, and Street Taco, inspired by Mexican food. You have to get them while they’re on tap, because you’ll probably never see them again.
“People still talk about the Street Taco. It knocked a lot of people’s socks off,” says taproom manager Kyle Boerger, who moved to Fort Collins from Austin, where he worked at now-defunct Skull Mechanix Brewing. “Really, keeping people guessing is our main purpose.”
I also dropped by Funkwerks, where I sipped a refreshing Belgian-style saison ale at a picnic table outside and watched as a pair of adorable puppies wrestled under the neighboring table. (During my 2016 visit, I sampled beer at Equinox, Odell Brewing Co., and the Jessup Farm Barrel House, too. All good.)
Stop to smell the flowers
This year my explorations took me to other highlights, including the Annual Flower Trial Gardens at Colorado State University, where you can ogle more than 1,000 different cultivated varieties of flowers. It’s free to visit the gardens, which bloom May through October in billowy beds of pink, orange, yellow and purple geraniums, dahlias, begonias, impatiens, lantana and more. University horticulturists work with seed companies to develop varieties that thrive in Rocky Mountain region, but the public can vote on their favorites, too.
While you’re on campus, zip across Remington Street to check out the giant Campbell’s tomato soup can. The red and white can, which stands taller than me, was created under the instruction of Andy Warhol back when the campus was hosting an exhibit of the artist’s work. He signed it in 1981 during a visit.
Plan some time to stroll through Old Town, where you can buy artisan chocolate at Nuance or enjoy a scoop from Walrus Ice Cream, which serves 29 flavors every day (including one “joke flavor,” such as backyard barbecue.)
I’m pretty sure you’ll go home worn out and blissed out like I did, happy you discovered a corner of Colorado that hasn’t gotten as much attention as the rest of many Texans’ favorite summer escapes.
If You Go
Catch a direct flight to Denver on Frontier, United or Southwest Airlines. Fort Collins is 60 miles north of Denver.
At the Elizabeth Hotel, every room comes with its own record player, and you can borrow vinyl records or check out an instrument from the lending library. Plus, it’s right in Old Town.
Book a rafting trip with A Wanderlust Adventure in Bellvue, 15 minutes from Old Town; stop by the CSU Annual Flower Trial Garden at 1401 Remington St.; tour Morning Fresh Dairy farm in nearby Bellvue, where Noosa yogurt is made, rent a standup paddleboard at What’s SUP, which has three locations at nearby Horsetooth Reservoir; and visit a brewery or two –– Fort Collins Brew Cruise offers guided bike tours.
Eat & Drink
You’ll find lots to choose from in Old Town, but don’t miss The Regional, 130 S. Mason Street, for raw oysters, salmon, and the fried mushroom sandwich; Little Bird Bakeshop, 11 Old Town Square, for quiche and pastries; Austin’s American Grill, 100 W. Mountain Ave., for rotisserie chicken; Silver Grill Cafe, 28 Walnut St., for giant cinnamon rolls; and Walrus Ice Cream for 29 flavors of frozen decadence.
Visitors can learn the fascinating history of endangered black-footed ferrets and see a live pair at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, 408 Mason Ct. A population of the wiry little animals was re-introduced at nearby Soapstone Prairie Natural Area.