Nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, Denver, Colorado, offers a captivating blend of natural beauty, urban charm, and a vibrant cultural scene that beckons adventure seekers from all corners of the world. Known as the "Mile-High City" due to its elevation of exactly one mile above sea level, Denver serves as the perfect gateway to a myriad of free, thrilling experiences in the great outdoors. From majestic mountain landscapes to artistic expressions that captivate the soul, this city has something for every kind of explorer.
So, lace up your hiking boots, grab your camera, and get ready for a journey into the enchanting world of Southwest adventure with our guide to the best free things to do in Denver, Colorado. Whether you're a nature enthusiast, an art aficionado, or simply a curious traveler, Denver has a treasure trove of unforgettable moments waiting for you, all without breaking the bank.
Denver's Free Cultural Experiences
Museums and Art Galleries
Denver boasts a vibrant arts and culture scene with numerous free museums and art galleries that cater to all interests. Here are some of the top ones, along with their collections and visiting hours:
1. Denver Art Museum:
- Collection: The Denver Art Museum, or DAM, houses an extensive collection of over 70,000 works of art from various cultures around the world. You can explore everything from American Indian art to contemporary pieces, Asian art, and European masterpieces.
- Visiting Hours: DAM offers free admission to its general collection on the first Saturday of every month. On these days, the museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm.
2. Clyfford Still Museum:
- Collection: Dedicated solely to the works of abstract expressionist painter Clyfford Still, this museum showcases over 3,000 artworks by the artist. It provides an intimate look at the life and art of this influential figure.
- Visiting Hours: The Clyfford Still Museum offers free admission every Friday from 5 pm to 8 pm. Regular hours are also available for a fee.
3. Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA):
- Collection: MCA Denver focuses on contemporary art and hosts rotating exhibitions of works by both emerging and established artists. You'll find a diverse range of art forms, from painting and sculpture to multimedia installations.
- Visiting Hours: MCA Denver offers free admission on the first Saturday of each month. They are open from 10 am to 5 pm on these days.
4. Colorado History Museum:
- Collection: This museum delves into Colorado's rich history, from its indigenous peoples and pioneers to more recent events. The exhibits include artifacts, photographs, and interactive displays.
- Visiting Hours: The Colorado History Museum offers free admission to the public on the first Saturday of each month. The museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm on these days.
5. Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art:
- Collection: This museum features a unique blend of fine art and decorative art, showcasing works from the 19th and 20th centuries. The extensive collection includes paintings, sculptures, and art glass.
- Visiting Hours: The Kirkland Museum offers free admission on the first Saturday of each month from 10 am to 5 pm. Regular hours are also available.
These free museums and art galleries in Denver provide an excellent opportunity to explore diverse collections, learn about the city's history, and appreciate contemporary art without spending a dime. Be sure to check their websites for any updates to hours and admission policies before planning your visit.
Cultural Festivals and Events
Denver's cultural diversity shines through a variety of annual festivals and events that offer free entry and provide a window into the city's vibrant community. Here are some noteworthy cultural celebrations and experiences:
1. Denver Chalk Art Festival:
- Event: This annual festival, typically held in June, transforms Larimer Square into an open-air art gallery. Talented artists create stunning chalk murals on the streets, showcasing their creativity and skill.
- Details: The event is free to attend and offers visitors the opportunity to watch the artistic process unfold in real-time. You can also enjoy live music and food vendors while exploring the colorful chalk creations.
2. Cinco de Mayo Festival:
- Event: Celebrated in early May, the Cinco de Mayo Festival in Denver is a vibrant and lively celebration of Mexican culture. It features live music, traditional dances, authentic cuisine, and a colorful parade.
- Details: The festival is open to the public and is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in Mexican traditions. It's held in Civic Center Park and is an event not to be missed.
3. Denver Arts Festival:
- Event: This art festival takes place over Memorial Day weekend and showcases a wide range of local and national artists. It's an excellent opportunity to appreciate and purchase art in various forms, from painting to sculpture and jewelry.
- Details: Entry to the Denver Arts Festival is free, making it an ideal destination for art enthusiasts. The festival also offers a creative environment for kids, live music, and food options.
4. Dragon Boat Festival:
- Event: The Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, held annually in July, celebrates Asian culture. It features dragon boat races, traditional performances, martial arts demonstrations, and a wide array of Asian cuisine.
- Details: Entry to the festival is free, and it's a fantastic way to explore the rich and diverse traditions of Asian communities in Denver.
5. Denver Greek Festival:
- Event: Every June, the Denver Greek Festival welcomes visitors to savor Greek food, music, dance, and traditions. It's a lively and delicious event that offers a taste of Greece in the Mile-High City.
- Details: Admission is free, and you can experience the flavors, music, and dances of Greece while exploring the festival's many cultural exhibits.
6. City Park Jazz:
- Event: City Park Jazz is a free, summer-long concert series held in Denver's City Park. It features a diverse lineup of musical acts, ranging from jazz to blues and world music.
- Details: The open-air concerts take place on Sundays during the summer, making it a great way to enjoy live music in a beautiful outdoor setting.
These cultural events and festivals in Denver provide a fantastic opportunity to celebrate diversity, appreciate art, and experience the city's rich cultural tapestry without spending a dime on admission. Be sure to check the event websites for specific dates and details, as schedules may change from year to year.
Enjoying Denver's Natural Beauty for Free
Parks and Green Spaces
Denver is renowned for its commitment to green spaces and outdoor recreation. Here are some free parks and green spaces in the city, along with details about their amenities and recreational opportunities:
1. City Park:
- Amenities: City Park is one of Denver's largest urban parks and features two lakes, walking paths, a boathouse, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. The park is also home to the historic City Park Pavilion and a playground.
- Recreational Opportunities: Visitors can enjoy picnics, paddleboating, jogging, and playing various sports. It's a great place for birdwatching and relaxing in a tranquil environment.
2. Cheesman Park:
- Amenities: Cheesman Park is known for its historic pavilion and lush, open green space. It's a lovely place for a leisurely stroll or a picnic.
- Recreational Opportunities: The park is ideal for sunbathing, reading a book, or practicing yoga. The historic Cheesman Pavilion often hosts events and performances.
3. Washington Park (Wash Park):
- Amenities: Washington Park, or Wash Park, has two large lakes, flower gardens, and jogging paths. It also features a boat house, tennis courts, and a playground.
- Recreational Opportunities: Visitors can go paddle-boating, play tennis, jog, or simply relax by the lakes. The park is a favorite among locals for outdoor activities.
4. Sloan's Lake Park:
- Amenities: Sloan's Lake is Denver's largest body of water, and the park around it offers walking and biking paths, picnic areas, and beautiful views of the city skyline.
- Recreational Opportunities: The lake itself is great for fishing, paddle boarding, and kayaking. The park is also popular for running, biking, and picnicking.
5. Confluence Park:
- Amenities: Confluence Park is where Cherry Creek and the South Platte River meet. It features a riverfront plaza, pedestrian bridges, and water features.
- Recreational Opportunities: The park is an urban hub for kayaking, paddleboarding, and tubing on the river. It's also a starting point for the Cherry Creek Bike Trail.
6. High Line Canal Trail:
- Amenities: This 71-mile-long trail weaves through various neighborhoods, offering a serene natural escape. It's suitable for walking, jogging, and cycling.
- Recreational Opportunities: The High Line Canal Trail provides a scenic route for long walks or bike rides, connecting several parks and green spaces along the way.
7. Bear Creek Park:
- Amenities: Located in Lakewood, just outside Denver, Bear Creek Park boasts a beautiful natural setting with hiking trails, picnic areas, and a stream.
- Recreational Opportunities: Visitors can go hiking, birdwatching, and enjoy the beauty of Colorado's outdoors in this tranquil park.
These parks and green spaces in Denver offer a diverse range of outdoor activities and opportunities for relaxation, making them perfect for nature enthusiasts, families, and anyone looking to enjoy the city's natural beauty without spending a dime.
Denver's Breathtaking Views
Denver's unique location at the base of the Rocky Mountains provides plenty of opportunities for breathtaking views of the city and its surroundings. Here are some of the best spots to capture stunning panoramic photographs and enjoy the city's scenery:
1. Lookout Mountain:
- Location: Golden, just west of Denver.
- Details: Lookout Mountain offers a commanding view of the Denver skyline and the plains to the east. The highlight is the iconic Lookout Mountain Park, where you can visit the grave of the famous Buffalo Bill Cody.
- Photography Tip: Capture Denver's skyscrapers with the sweeping plains in the background, especially during sunrise or sunset.
2. Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre:
- Location: Morrison, southwest of Denver.
- Details: Known for its stunning natural amphitheater, Red Rocks Park provides panoramic views of the city and the red sandstone formations. It's also a world-famous music venue.
- Photography Tip: Time your visit for early morning or late afternoon to capture the amphitheater and the distant city under golden sunlight.
3. Mount Evans Scenic Byway:
- Location: West of Denver, accessible by a scenic drive.
- Details: The Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the highest paved road in North America. As you ascend, you'll witness a dramatic transformation from the foothills to subalpine and alpine landscapes, with incredible views of the city and plains below.
- Photography Tip: Stop at various viewpoints along the drive for stunning, high-altitude shots.
4. Genesee Park:
- Location: Just off I-70, west of Denver.
- Details: Genesee Park offers a mix of mountain and city views. Its bison herd is a unique attraction, and there are several vantage points within the park.
- Photography Tip: Head to Genesee's bison overlook or one of the scenic pull-offs to capture the mountainous backdrop with Denver in the foreground.
5. Skyline Park:
- Location: In downtown Denver.
- Details: Skyline Park is an urban green space with a pedestrian promenade. It provides a different perspective, with skyscrapers and the city's hustle and bustle as the backdrop.
- Photography Tip: Capture the city's modern skyline and the juxtaposition of nature and urban life.
6. Mount Falcon Park:
- Location: Morrison, west of Denver.
- Details: This park offers a network of hiking trails and ruins of a historic castle. The views extend to Denver, the plains, and even the Continental Divide on clear days.
- Photography Tip: Hike to the Castle Trail overlook for a great view of the city and the Red Rocks area.
7. Green Mountain:
- Location: Lakewood, just west of Denver.
- Details: Green Mountain Park has a network of trails leading to the summit, where you can enjoy panoramic views of Denver and the surrounding foothills.
- Photography Tip: Capture the city, the Front Range, and the vast open space from the summit.
These spots in and around Denver offer a diverse range of vistas, each with its own unique charm. Whether you're an avid photographer or just looking for a memorable view, these vantage points will provide you with some of the most stunning panoramic scenes the city has to offer.
Historic and Architectural Gems
Denver's historic neighborhoods are a treasure trove of architectural beauty and cultural significance, offering visitors a chance to step back in time and explore the city's rich heritage. Here, we introduce some of the free historic neighborhoods in Denver, highlighting their unique features and cultural importance:
1. Larimer Square:
- Architectural Beauty: Larimer Square is Denver's oldest block and showcases beautifully preserved 19th-century architecture. Its charming, red-brick buildings now house boutiques, restaurants, and galleries.
- Cultural Significance: This area played a pivotal role in Denver's early history as a gathering place for pioneers and gold seekers. It's a testament to the city's Wild West heritage and entrepreneurial spirit.
2. Five Points:
- Architectural Beauty: Five Points is known for its historic homes and commercial buildings that reflect a mix of architectural styles, from Victorian to Art Deco.
- Cultural Significance: Often referred to as the "Harlem of the West," Five Points was a hub of African-American culture and jazz during the mid-20th century. Today, it preserves that heritage while also welcoming a diverse community.
3. Capitol Hill:
- Architectural Beauty: Capitol Hill boasts a range of architectural styles, from grand mansions to classic Denver squares. It's an area where Victorian and Gothic Revival homes stand alongside modern high-rises.
- Cultural Significance: The neighborhood is named for the Colorado State Capitol, which is a prominent feature. Capitol Hill has long been a cultural and political center in Denver, with a history of activism and progressive movements.
4. Highland (LoHi):
- Architectural Beauty: Highland features a mix of historic and modern architecture, including Victorian homes and sleek contemporary developments.
- Cultural Significance: This neighborhood bridges the old and the new, offering a vibrant arts scene, diverse cuisine, and a connection to Denver's roots as a thriving immigrant community.
- Architectural Beauty: Auraria is home to the oldest and most diverse collection of historic buildings in Denver. It features structures like the Tivoli Brewery and St. Cajetan's Church.
- Cultural Significance: Auraria preserves the area's history as the original home of three separate settlements: Denver City, Auraria, and Highland. It's now the campus of the Metropolitan State University of Denver and serves as a living history lesson.
6. Curtis Park:
- Architectural Beauty: Curtis Park is characterized by its well-preserved Victorian homes, reflecting the elegance of the late 19th century.
- Cultural Significance: The neighborhood has seen waves of development and revitalization over the years, representing the resilience of the community in preserving its history.
Exploring these historic neighborhoods in Denver is like taking a journey through time. Each has its unique character, architectural charm, and cultural significance, making them not only free to explore but also a testament to Denver's evolving story and vibrant heritage.
Denver boasts several iconic architectural landmarks that are not only free to access but also hold significant historical and architectural value. Here are some of the most notable ones:
1. Colorado State Capitol:
- Historical and Architectural Value: The Colorado State Capitol, designed by Elijah E. Myers, is a masterpiece of neoclassical architecture. Its gleaming gold dome, covered in 200 ounces of 24-karat gold leaf, is an iconic symbol of the city. Visitors can tour the building, admire the stunning interior, and even stand on the exact spot that marks the Mile-High City.
2. Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception:
- Historical and Architectural Value: This grand cathedral, built in the French Gothic style, is a testament to the city's faith and craftsmanship. The interior is adorned with intricate stained glass windows and ornate decorations. The cathedral is not only a spiritual center but also a work of art.
3. Union Station:
- Historical and Architectural Value: Denver Union Station is a masterpiece of Beaux-Arts architecture. Its historic significance lies in its role as a transportation hub that connected the city to the rest of the country. The station's revitalization in recent years has transformed it into a vibrant urban center with restaurants, bars, and shops.
4. Molly Brown House Museum:
- Historical and Architectural Value: The Molly Brown House, also known as the "Unsinkable Molly Brown" of Titanic fame, is a stunning example of Victorian architecture. It's an ode to the opulence of the early 20th century and offers insights into the life of this remarkable Denverite.
5. Byers-Evans House Museum:
- Historical and Architectural Value: This historic house museum in the heart of Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood showcases a fine example of Italianate architecture. Visitors can explore the well-preserved interior, which transports them back to the early 20th century.
6. Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum:
- Historical and Architectural Value: Housed in a former Air Force hangar at Lowry Air Force Base, this museum features a unique blend of aviation and architectural history. The hangar itself is an impressive structure, and the museum preserves the legacy of flight in the region.
7. The Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank:
- Historical and Architectural Value: While the architecture of the Federal Reserve Bank is not a major draw, the Money Museum inside is worth a visit. It provides insights into the history of currency, banking, and the role of the Federal Reserve in the United States' financial system.
8. Clyfford Still Museum Plaza:
- Historical and Architectural Value: The museum itself is a stunning architectural work, but even if you don't go inside, the plaza is a quiet, contemplative space designed with a sense of modernist simplicity. It's a stark contrast to the nearby Denver Art Museum's architecture, and it's free to enjoy.
These architectural landmarks in Denver offer a blend of history, art, and cultural significance. The free tours are not only visually captivating but also provide a deeper understanding of Denver's evolution as a city and its role in American history.
Outdoor Adventures and Recreation
Hiking and Trails
Denver and its surrounding areas offer a plethora of free hiking trails and outdoor activities for nature enthusiasts. Here are some recommendations, along with tips for a safe and enjoyable outdoor experience:
1. Red Rocks Park:
- Hiking Trail: The Trading Post Trail in Red Rocks Park is an easy, 1.4-mile loop that winds through the iconic red sandstone formations and offers stunning views of the Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
- Tips: Stay hydrated, wear comfortable shoes, and be mindful of weather conditions. The park can get crowded, so try to visit during non-peak hours for a quieter experience.
2. Bear Creek Lake Park:
- Hiking Trails: Bear Creek Lake Park has several trails, including the Owl Trail, Coyote Trail, and Pelican Trail, which provide a variety of distances and terrain for hikers of all levels.
- Tips: Bring insect repellent, especially during the warmer months, and keep an eye out for wildlife. Leash your pets and adhere to trail etiquette.
3. Cherry Creek State Park:
- Hiking and Biking Trails: The park offers an extensive trail system with both paved and unpaved paths. The Cherry Creek Trail is a popular choice for hiking and cycling.
- Tips: Be prepared for changeable weather conditions and bring sunscreen. The park also offers opportunities for picnicking, birdwatching, and water sports.
4. Mount Galbraith Park:
- Hiking Trail: The Mount Galbraith Loop is a moderate 4.1-mile hike with fantastic views of the surrounding area and an up-close look at the rugged Colorado landscape.
- Tips: Wear sturdy hiking shoes, as the trail can be rocky. Take plenty of water, and watch out for rattlesnakes in warm weather.
5. Matthews/Winters Park:
- Hiking Trail: The Red Rocks Trail within Matthews/Winters Park offers a 6.7-mile loop with breathtaking views of the Front Range, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and Denver.
- Tips: Plan your hike early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the heat. Watch for trail markers and stay on designated paths.
6. Jefferson County Open Space Parks:
- Hiking Trails: The Jefferson County Open Space system provides access to a range of free hiking trails, including Apex Park, Mount Falcon Park, and White Ranch Park, each with diverse terrain and scenic beauty.
- Tips: Be aware of park regulations, and carry the essentials like water, snacks, and a map. Trails can vary from easy to challenging.
7. Clear Creek Greenway:
- Recreational Activities: The Clear Creek Greenway offers a picturesque paved path along Clear Creek, providing opportunities for biking, jogging, and leisurely walks.
- Tips: Keep an eye on trail signs and share the path with other users. Be sure to follow the rules for responsible use.
When exploring Denver's hiking trails and outdoor activities, remember to prioritize safety. Always let someone know your plans, carry essential supplies, and be mindful of local regulations. Additionally, respect the environment, stay on designated trails, and leave no trace to preserve the natural beauty of the area for future generations.
Biking and Cycling
Denver is a bike-friendly city with numerous opportunities for free biking and cycling. Here are some recommendations for biking and cycling in Denver, including information on bike rental options and scenic routes:
Free Biking Opportunities:
1. Cherry Creek Bike Trail: The Cherry Creek Trail is a scenic, 42-mile paved path that runs from downtown Denver to Cherry Creek Reservoir. It's a popular route for cyclists, offering beautiful views of the city and surrounding green spaces.
2. South Platte River Trail: This trail runs along the South Platte River and is a part of the larger 40-mile South Platte River Trail system. It's great for cycling and provides access to Confluence Park and various neighborhoods in Denver.
3. Clear Creek Greenway: The Clear Creek Greenway offers a paved path along Clear Creek, making it ideal for cycling. The trail provides a relaxing ride, and it connects to the South Platte River Trail.
Bike Rental Options:
1. Denver B-cycle: Denver B-cycle is a bike-sharing program that provides convenient access to bicycles. It's a great option for short rides around the city. You can rent bikes from various stations and return them at any B-cycle station.
2. Scooter and Bike-Share Apps: Denver also has several scooter and bike-sharing apps, like Lime, Bird, and Lyft, which offer electric scooters and bikes for rent. These are perfect for quick, point-to-point trips.
3. Local Bike Shops: Many local bike shops in Denver offer bike rentals. This can be a good option if you're looking for higher-quality bikes for longer rides or mountain biking in the nearby foothills.
Scenic Biking Routes:
1. Cherry Creek Reservoir Loop: The Cherry Creek Reservoir Loop is a 9-mile ride that takes you around the picturesque reservoir, offering water views and opportunities for picnicking.
2. Washington Park: Washington Park (Wash Park) has a 2.6-mile loop road with dedicated bike lanes. It's a popular destination for cycling and offers lovely views of the park's lakes and gardens.
3. High Line Canal Trail: This 71-mile-long trail provides a serene and scenic route for cyclists. You can explore sections of the trail that pass through parks, open spaces, and historic neighborhoods.
4. Bear Creek Trail: Located just outside Denver in Lakewood, the Bear Creek Trail offers a picturesque ride along Bear Creek. The 8.6-mile path is great for cyclists of all levels.
5. Golden to Lookout Mountain: For a more challenging ride, you can start in Golden and cycle up Lookout Mountain. The reward is panoramic views of the city, the plains, and the mountains.
When biking and cycling in Denver, remember to follow safety guidelines, wear helmets, and respect traffic rules. Many of these routes are shared with pedestrians, so be courteous and alert. Denver's diverse terrain and scenic routes make it a fantastic city for cycling enthusiasts of all levels.
Family-Friendly and Kid-Approved Activities
Free Family Attractions
Denver offers a range of free family-friendly attractions and activities:
1. Denver's City Parks: Enjoy outdoor fun, picnics, and playgrounds in beautiful city parks like City Park, Washington Park, and Confluence Park.
2. Red Rocks Amphitheatre: Explore the stunning natural amphitheater and take a hike through the nearby Red Rocks Park. Admission to Colorado Music Hall is free unless there's a ticketed event.
3. Civic Center Park: A great place for family outings with its fountains, open spaces, and special events like outdoor movies and food truck gatherings.
4. Downtown Aquarium: While the aquarium itself is ticketed, you can visit the surrounding entertainment and dining complex without an admission fee.
5. Majestic View Nature Center: Discover nature and wildlife exhibits, trails, and interactive displays in this free educational center.
6. Public Art Tours: Denver is renowned for its public art, and taking a self-guided tour is a fun, free way to explore the city's artistic side.
7. Cherry Creek Shopping District: While shopping isn't free, exploring the Cherry Creek shopping district offers a pleasant stroll and people-watching experience.
8. Union Station: Visit the historic Denver Union Station, where you can enjoy its bustling atmosphere and explore shops and restaurants.
In Denver, family fun doesn't have to come with a price tag. From the great outdoors to cultural experiences, the city offers an array of free attractions and activities that will create lasting memories for your family. So, pack your bags and explore the Mile-High City with your loved ones without breaking the bank. Denver's free family adventures await!