Summertime in Colorado: 4 spots ripe for family fun

By: Mauri Elbel
August, 2021

Each year when the mountains of Colorado are blanketed in powdery white fluff, we start planning our family ski trip. My inner Texan thermostat keeps me keen on spring skiing, when you’re likely to experience a magical snow day or two punctuating a week of bluebird skies and Colorado temps that warm above freezing. But here’s a little secret I discovered last summer and reconfirmed again with my family just last month: once the snow melts away, summertime in Colorado is the coolest season to take a trip. 

Bike easy, intermediate or advanced terrain at Copper Mountain. Courtesy of Copper Mountain

Right about the time we’re all melting in Texas, Colorado cooks up an intoxicating mix of brisk mornings, sunny 70-degree afternoons and cool evenings. Snowmelt creates continual waterfalls that can be seen cascading down cliffsides and along forested hikes, and rushing rivers gurgle past pine-shaded trails. Once-white slopes sprout a vibrant green coat peppered with colorful wildflowers –– indigo-hued Silvery Lupines, red-orange Indian Paintbrushes, golden yellow sunflowers and Colorado Blue Columbines. And Colorado ski resorts pivot from a long season of ski and snowboard operations to offer a slew of summertime mountain activities geared to all ages and interests. Here are four Colorado spots we visited last month that are bursting with summertime fun for the whole family. The best part? The fun stays on tap through September.  

Copper Mountain  

This laid-back ski resort nestled in the heart of the Colorado Rockies just 75 miles west of Denver will always hold a special place in my heart. The first family ski trip I ever took as a kid was to Copper Mountain, and I was fortunate enough to experience the thrill of skiing with our own three kids here a quartercentury later. But it just takes one trip to discover that summers at this unpretentious resort are every bit as magical as the winters.  

RELATED: When the Snow Melts and the Winter Crowds Leave, These Colorado Spots are the Coolest 

We arrived on a Friday afternoon, plopped ourselves down on a field of soft green grass in Center Village and sipped cold Colorado craft beers in the sunshine as a band played on the outdoor stage. Our kids ping-ponged between frolicking with a playful puppy, playing croquet on the adjacent lawn and starting an impromptu soccer game with some kids visiting from Denver for the weekend.  

Copper’s slew of summertime fun spans golf, mountain biking and an encyclopedic listing of family-friendly resort activities and events that will go on daily through Sept. 26. Thrill seekers can test their limits downhill mountain biking –– there are bike hauls on both Woodward Express and American Eagle, so you can take a scenic lift up the mountain and cruise down on easy, intermediate or advanced terrain (an unlimited mountain bike haul summer pass is $349a one-day pass is $49). If getting around on foot is more your speed, soak in the fresh mountain air and breathtaking views on a scenic chairlift ride ($15 for the day) and pick a pretty trail to hike back down. 

Getting ready to catch some thrills on Copper Mountain’s Rocky Mountain Coaster. Photo by Travis Albrecht

We spent the weekend checking out every summer activity on offer (buy an activity day pass for $79 per person, or a family day pass for $249). Our favorites included zooming down the 5,800-foot-long Rocky Mountain Coaster, testing our speed on the Go Kart track, soaking each other on the bumper boats, braving the zip line and watching the kids burn energy on the Woodward WreckTangle obstacle course and Quad Power Jump.  After you’ve gotten your fill of adrenaline for the day, Copper makes it pretty easy to relax with live music events sprinkled throughout the resort on the weekends and Saturday night mountainside movies.  

Catch some air on Copper Mountain’s Quad Power Jump. Photo by Mauri Elbel

 

Frisco  

Just seven miles from Copper Mountain (and positioned within 30 minutes of a half-dozen major Colorado ski resorts), nearby Frisco deserves a summertime stop. Known as “the Main Street of the Rockies,” this quaint and quirky mountain town nestled in the heart of Colorado’s Summit County is steeped in small town charm and surrounded by Arapaho National Forest. The town’s storybook Main Street, bookended by the 10,000-foot Mount Royal and the Frisco Bay Marina, is fringed with dozens of locally-owned restaurants and shops  and Frisco’s Pedestrian Promenade offers several colorful blocks of open-air shopping and dining.  

Frisco’s Pedestrian Promenade offers several colorful blocks of open-air shopping and dining. Photo by Mauri Elbel

Breakfast or brunch at Butterhorn Bakery & Cafe is a must  we feasted on huevos rancheros and the Eggs Butterhorn, a savory dish of poached eggs on a freshly baked croissant with Canadian bacon and fresh avocado. Our kids dug into plates of Eggy Bread, a sweet, summery twist on French toast made with battered and grilled homemade cinnamon fruit bread piled high with fresh berries and nuts. If you visit Frisco during dinner time, take a seat on the sunny patio at The Uptown on Main. We’ve eaten here twice, and our favorites include the fresh P.E.I. mussels topped with frites (ask for truffle fries), the arugula salad with house-roasted beets, sweet potatoes, pistachios and goat cheese, and Uptown’s famous melt-in-your-mouth turkey pot pie. 

Our kids love the locally owned, long-standing Stork & Bear Co. and Around the World Toys filled with toys and adorable outfits. For a sweet treat, we like to pop into Foote’s Rest Sweet Shoppe, housed in the historic building that was once Frisco’s Post Office, for homemade fudge and ice cream –– on both Fridays we were in Frisco, there was live music outside which prompted us to let our kids dip into their candy bags while we ordered a cold drink from the bar.  

If you’re up for a family-friendly hike, trek the out and back trail of Rainbow Lake, which has a trailhead off Second Avenue from Main Street, or let little legs wander the recently launched half-mile Story Walk, an outdoor path featuring The Little Mountain Mermaid children’s book posted in segments along the path. For more mountain fun, head to Frisco Adventure Park or take a free self-guided tour back in time at Frisco Historic Park & Museumwww.townoffrisco.com 

Winter Park 

Somewhere between our third and fourth consecutive hair-whipping races down Colorado’s longest Alpine Slide at Winter Park Resort, I knew our kids had found their favorite thrill of the summer. The best part about racing down the 3,000 feet of smooth track snaking down the slopes? You know it won’t be your last ride –– Winter Park Resort’s unlimited activities day pass ($59 in advance for 5 and up$10 in advance for 4 and up) gets you unlimited use of the Alpine Slide, gondola, putting course, climbing wall and ropes courses, which are skewed to little ones.   

Winter Park Resort’s unlimited activities day pass gets you repeat runs down the thrilling Alpine Slide. By Mauri Elbel

But Winter Park Resort, nestled along Colorado’s Continental Divide, offers a little something for everyone this time of year. Whether you’re soaking in the views of the 13,397-foot Parry Peak and Continental Divide on a scenic chairlift ride, relishing the cool mountain air on a hike through the resort’s vast unspoiled terrain or stepping out of your comfort zone and embarking on an adrenaline-filled adventure like I did last month, summers here hold a little something special for everyone.  

It wasn’t until visiting Winter Park in the summertime that I discovered its reputation as Colorado’s Mountain Biking Capital. Trestle Bike Park, located at Winter Park Resort, offers more than 40 miles of gravity-fed trails. Take it from me (someone whose previous cycling experience consists of the paved Veloway and the stationary Peloton), if you decide to give downhill mountain biking a whirl, it’s best to take your first spin with an experienced guide. When I tested out the sport with my oldest son and his best friend, we booked a lesson with Jake Ingram, who has been coaching with Trestle Bike School for the past four summers. 

“We’re going to teach you a great foundation,” says Ingram, who races at the elite level and happens to be the 2021 Southern Enduro Tour Pro Champion. “We’re going to give you some key things you need to know to stay safe on the bike –– big things like position and balance on the bike, operations of the controls, how your brakes work, how your shifters work.” 

First time downhill mountain biking at Trestle Bike Park, located at Winter Park Resort. Photo by Jake Ingram

But another big benefit to riding with a guide is not having to worry about navigation. Biking with my 13-year-old son and his friend, the last thing I wanted to do was take a wrong turn and end up on a trail that was too advanced.  

“When you come out with a bike school guide, we guide you around the mountain, you don’t have to wait in any lift lines and there’s no looking at maps –– we take you on the cool stuff, the flowy stuff, the stuff we know that is going to jive with your group,” says Ingram, who placed Top 10 in the Pro Enduro Race at the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships that took place at Winter Park Resort last month. “In the end, our ultimate goal at bike school is for you to have fun, be safe and to learn something.”   

After Ingram taught me and the two much more fearless (and faster) boys along with me the basics down at the base, he took us up the mountain for three solid hours of riding down green and blue trails. By the end, my arms and shoulders were burning, but we all learned how to keep our pedals level, lean into the berms, find the smooth grooves on the singletracks and build up speed on the pump tracks.   

If you’re not ready to test out the downhill mountain biking experience up at the resort, there are more than 600 miles of mountain biking trails for all skill levels that can be found throughout Winter Park and neighboring Fraser. For the second summer in a row, we rented bikes for the entire family from Epic Mountain Sports, owned by Katherine Mowrey, a Texan native who has called Winter Park her happy place for decades. Bike rentals come with helmets and there are even tag-a-long bike trailer options for little kids not ready to pedal their own bikes.  

“The nice thing about Winter Park is that all of the national forest comes down into town so there’s so much biking that’s really easily accessible, and the whole community has such a passion for biking,” Mowrey says. “We have a really long winter and everyone skis hard, but when the trails dry out, everybody hits the bike trails here.”  

Pedal along the scenic Fraser River Trail in Winter Park for an easier, smoother ride. Photo by Travis Albrecht

We loved pedaling along the family-friendly Fraser River Trail, a scenic and super smooth 5-mile paved and dirt trail that runs along the picturesque Fraser River, weaves through shaded forests and flowery meadows and slices through the town of Winter Park, where you can stop off for lunch at dozens of restaurants or stop to let the kids run around on the playground.  

RELATED: Colorado’s Calling –– Take a Summer Trip to this Cool State Now 

Rocky Mountain National Park 

Rocky Mountain National Park –– one of the highest national parks in the country with elevations ranging between 7,860 feet to 14,259 feet –– is less than an hour from Winter Park, making it an easy day trip. 

However, because RNMP is operating under a timed-entry permit system through Oct. 11, you need to plan ahead. Reservations to enter the park go on sale the first of each month for the following month and you can reserve your spot online –– we had to reserve a time slot for our mid-July trip on June 1. Because our son is in fourth grade, we got into the park for free –– all fourthgrade students and their families are eligible for a free annual pass to get access to hundreds of parks, lands and waters through the Every Kid Outdoors program. 

If reservations aren’t available, you can bypass the reservation system and book a guided hike through Winter Park Resort, located just 40 miles from the west entrance of the park. There are several options to choose from and packages include a RMNP day pass, vehicle entrance fee, a light snack and guided service from a local outdoor enthusiast.  

Rocky Mountain National Park’s Holzwarth Historic Site is a level 1-mile roundtrip trail featuring sweeping views of the Kawuneeche Valley and a shallow section of the Colorado River. Photo by Mauri Elbel

If you have little ones in tow, explore the Holzwarth Historic Site, which is a level 1-mile roundtrip trail featuring sweeping views of the Kawuneeche Valley, a shallow section of the Colorado River that’s just 10 miles from its headwaters upstream in the Never Summer Mountains and along the western slopes of the Continental Divide, and cabins built in the 1900s that you can glimpse inside.  

For kids a little older, trek the uncrowded 4-mile roundtrip Ute Trail that begins further down from the Ute Crossing Trailhead and features panoramic views through the alpine tundra, otherworldly rock formations, and, on the afternoon we hiked, a plethora of talking marmots that scampered between the rocks and exchanged adorable chirping conversations with each other.  

A herd of elk graze in the summertime at Rocky Mountain National Park. By Mauri Elbel

Want to sight-see from the car? Take a slow and scenic drive along Old Fall River Road, an unpaved, switchback-riddled 11-mile one-way road where we got intimate sights of elk, stopped off at the wild and rushing Chasm Falls and found spectacular overlook views that took our breath away. Just remember you’re not in a hurry –– there are no guard rails and the speed limit is 15 miles per hour.  

But, like much of what you’ll find during summertime in Colorado, it’s an experience to be savored and enjoyed. 

If You Go Copper Mountain

Getting there:

Copper Mountain is located 75 miles –– about a 2-hour drive –– west of Denver and about 20 miles or 30 minutes east of Vail. We flew direct into Denver International Airport (DIA), but Eagle County Airport (EGE) is another option.

Stay:

We stayed at Element 29 –– Copper Mountain’s newest and only hotel, which opened in March and is located at the base of Center Village. Complete with a bar, two outdoor hot tubs and a fitness center, the clean-lined hotel rooms are great for families –– both king and double queen rooms sleep 6. Unlike most mountainside lodging, there isn’t a kitchenette, so you can swap cooking time for dining out at the various restaurants and villages sprinkled throughout the resort. Check out Copper Mountain’s Stay and Play summer deals to save big on summer lodging and activity passes.

Eat and Drink:

When hunger strikes, there’s no need to leave the resort –– you’ll find plenty of refuel options at your fingertips. Get a jumpstart to the day at Toast & Co. with healthy breakfast bowls and barista-made coffee. Dine alfresco for lunch on hearty burgers and fresh salads at Downhill Dukes (the restaurant’s namesake is the four-legged legend known as Duke). For dinner, take a seat on the patio of Ten Mile Tavern, where you can listen to live music and sip a cold Colorado draft while indulging in casual comfort food like the tomato and bacon grilled cheese with sweet tomato jam and aged smoked gouda.

If You Go Winter Park

Getting there:

It’s a 90-mile drive from Denver International Airport to Winter Park Resort, which is the closest major ski resort to Denver.

Stay:

You’ll find a plethora of Winter Park lodging options, like Zephyr Mountain Lodge that’s just 110 feet from the gondola and offers one-, two- and three-bedroom fully equipped condos perfect for families with kids. Save on summer lodging with these deals and packages 

 

Eat and Drink:

At Winter Park Resort, refuel with comfort food and BBQ specialties made with meats smoked in-house daily at Doc’s Roadhouse, which also boasts a full bar serving craft beers and whiskey flights. Have happy hour amid panoramic mountain views at nearly 11,000 feet above sea level at Sunspot Mountaintop Lodge on Friday and Saturday evenings through the end of summer. Dine at Lime, sitting at the village base, where you’ll find big-as-your-face fresh-squeezed margaritas and authentic Mexican dishes like al pastor street tacos and roasted Anaheim chile rellenos. In town, stop off for casual pub fare and in-house brews at The Peak, Mexican-meets-Japanese seafood dishes at Pepe Osaka’s, or indulge in a fine dining experience at Deno’s Mountain Bistro

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