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The geographic heart of Colorado lies between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Western Plains: rugged land once traversed by ranch cowboys and Native Americans. Outdoor enthusiasts and nature-lovers flock to Aspen and Vail for skiing, Pike's Peak in Colorado Springs for mountain-climbing and Breckenridge for hiking, all just a scenic drive from cosmopolitan Denver.

Four national parks and wilderness areas preserve the state’s natural beauty. With 355 miles of trails and abundant wildlife, Rocky Mount National Park and Estes Park draw visitors throughout the year. Travelers can spend the day photographing wildflower meadows, unwinding by an alpine lake or observing lumbering elk in the forest.

At Mesa Verde National Park, many come to explore the 700-year-old homes of the Ancestral Puebloans; these ancient, mountainous cliff dwellings rise hundreds of feet above ground. A stop at Great Sand Dunes National Park is a must. There, visitors can sled down the tallest sand dunes in North America—more than 700 feet high—or swim in Medano Creek. At Gunnison National Park, hikers navigate Black Canyon, a winding river maze with jagged rock cliffs and trails.

Denver, the state capital, began as a gold rush town in 1858. Now the largest metro area in the state, the city is home to more than 2.7 million diverse residents. Catch a major league baseball game, peruse trendy shops and restaurants in LoDo (short for lower downtown) or study exhibits at the Denver Art Museum. And all this is set against astounding views of the distant snow-capped Rocky Mountains.

About an hour north of Denver, the college town of Boulder rests against the Flatirons. Bike rugged trail paths, hit the nearby slopes on Eldora Mountain or take in the art and restaurant scene. A few hours west, avid skiers and snowboarders vacation in Vail, a powerhouse single-mountain ski resort. In the affluent village of Aspen—a historic mining town—enjoy the best of Colorado skiing with a panoramic vantage of Maroon Bells Mountains. Shop boutiques or savor a meal at one of the notable restaurants. Be sure to visit Glenwood Springs, an hour outside of Aspen, and soak in the hot mineral pools.