Hiking and exploring, from caves to lakes.
Distance: 87 miles
Driving Time: 1.5 hours
Reminiscent of a town from a bygone era, Manitou Springs nestles in a box canyon at the foot of towering Pikes Peak. Named after the area's natural mineral springs, the city's vibe is wild, Wild West and its architecture recalls the age of the gold rush. Visitors can still sip from the bubbling waters—a fitting restorative after a day spent trekking around the rugged landscape. Nearby Colorado Springs, which is 15 minutes away, also offers outdoor adventures. Whether it's ascending the pink granite flanks of Pikes Peak, admiring the bizarrely proportioned sandstone formations at the Garden of the Gods, or wandering through the caves set inside the canyon, there's much to keep travelers occupied.
From Denver, skip congested I-25 and head south on Highway 85; the road leads drivers out of the city quickly and has views of the foothills and mountains ahead. At Sedalia, take the windswept Highway 67, which runs along the South Platte River. Pikes Peak is visible on clear days after mile-marker 86. For a short break, exit at Bridge Crossing Campground, located a few miles north of the small town of Deckers. The river's glassy surface and a sheer rock wall grace the picturesque spot, which is also an excellent place for fly fishing. Once you reach Woodland Park, hang a left on Highway 24 and drive the remaining 13.5 miles to Manitou Springs. Return to Denver on I-25—the most direct route.
Where to Eat
Trained by Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud, chef Bertrand Bouquin dishes up sophisticated brasserie cuisine at the tony restaurant Summit (19 Lake Circle, Colorado Springs; 719/577-5896; dinner for two $80). Located in the Broadmoor Resort, the space features a plush Adam D. Tihany-designed dining room with leather banquettes and woodland hues. The influence of the French masters is evident in Bouquin's cooking. A case in point is the sprightly monkfish osso buco, cleverly prepared like coq au vin. Dessert is an elaborate affair: Consider the goat cheese panna cotta, served with a kind of fruity carpaccio—a kaleidoscope of paper-thin orange and grapefruit shavings. Or order the vanilla ice cream; its sweetness is unexpectedly undercut with a swirl of balsamic vinegar.
Although it's a bit touristy, the Cave of the Winds (Cave of the Winds Rd., Manitou Springs; 719/685-5444; www.caveofthewinds.com; tours from $18), perched on a cliff above Manitou Springs, is worth a visit. Staff members guide small groups of aspiring spelunkers through a series of dank chambers while pointing out geological phenomena and relaying folklore. The 90-minute Lantern Tour ($22) is more physically demanding than the standard one; guests spend a fair amount of time exploring the caverns on their hands and knees, using handheld lanterns to light the passages.
Find the Divine on a Bike
Hop on a bike—many businesses around town rent them—to explore the labyrinthine roads winding through the Garden of the Gods (1805 N. 30th St., Colorado Springs; 719/634-6666; www.gardenofgods.com). This national park has miles of hundred-foot-tall rust-colored rocks, carved by wind and inclement weather over thousands of years; the spiky formations also offer unusual shade for bikers.
Scale a Mountaintop
More than 14,000 feet above sea level, Pikes Peak (719/385-7325; www.pikespeakcolorado.com) inspired Katharine Lee Bates to pen "America the Beautiful" in 1893. It heads up the eastern end of the Rocky Mountains and affords views that stretch hundreds of miles over the Great Plains. People can travel the 19 miles to the summit by foot, rail, or car; be warned that it's cold up there—40 degrees at the warmest—so bring an extra layer of clothing. If you drive, pull off the road at the six-mile point at the North Slope Recreational Area, which has three pristine alpine lakes as well as hiking trails that wend in and out of the rocky shoreline and the surrounding forest.
For a good hike, step onto the Columbine Trail in North Cheyenne Cañon Park (2120 S. Cheyenne Cañon Rd., Colorado Springs; 719/578-6146). The path starts out by gently following a murmuring creek, but becomes challenging when it turns into switchbacks that deliver you out of the granite canyon. Morning excursions are best, since the south-facing trail soaks up the sun all day.
Located at the base of Pikes Peak, the 55-room Cliff House (306 Cañon Ave., Manitou Springs; 888/212-7000; www.thecliffhouse.com; doubles from $199) conjures up a fantasy world in which you nearly expect to be asked to present a calling card to a butler holding a silver tray. Book one of the 17 rooms inspired by various personalities who have stayed at the hotel. The Clark Gable suite, with its red and gold fabrics, leopard-print wallpaper, and movie-still posters, is a standout option, as is the Buffalo Bill, where guests sleep beneath a faux tepee, complete with an opening that looks out on the blue sky.