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Denver

denver zooThe first U.S. zoo to incorporate natural-inspired habitats instead of cages, the Denver Zoo is a historic treasure set in Denver's City Park. Most of the enclosures you'll see look the same as those built in the early 20th century. Plan ahead and take advantage of the zoo's many special exhibits, feedings and events, which vary seasonally. You can find a full list of happenings at www.DenverZoo.org. The Denver Zoo is one of the area's most visited attractions, so expect crowds on most weekends when the weather is nice.

The Denver Museum of Science and Nature is a paradise for fun-seeking families. There are parents, strollers, teens and tots wandering the place's wide hallways, absorbing wisdom about all things science. Youngsters love the big and entertaining exhibits, which include tons of giant dinosaur skeletons, a re-creation of a spooky-looking Martian canyon and real Egyptian mummies. If those things sound interesting to you, a mature adult, don't be afraid to unleash your inner kid and spend an afternoon taking photos in front of a massive T-Rex skull or watching an IMAX film about endangered species. Since the museum is located within walking distance of the Denver Zoo in City Park (the largest park in the Mile-High City), visiting both is a convenient (and outright fun) way to spend a day.

"Lush" isn't a word one would necessarily ascribe to Denver, a dry, high city that has less water vapor in the air than most U.S. towns. But spend some time in the enormous greenhouse at the Denver Botanic Gardens on York Street and you'll find yourself instantly transported to a dewy tropical climate, where the air is thick with moisture, and plants of every shape, size and color crowd closely in beautiful gardens. You'll feel your skin warm under the greenhouse's magnified sun rays as you walk among tropical flowers, waterfalls and orange trees (no matter what season it is). If you've come to Denver in the winter and want a break from the cool weather, a visit to the Botanic Gardens' greenhouse is a fantastic idea.

Five campsites and roughly 359 scenic mountain trails lure nature lovers from all over the world to Rocky Mountain National Park. More than 100 lakes reflect blue sky and snowcapped mountain peaks in the gorgeous park, and wildlife like black bears, cougars and big horn sheep can be spotted. For mountain climbers, the park is pure bliss -- there are at least 60 mountains within park borders that top elevations of 12,000 feet. Rocky Mountain National Park is less than a two-hour drive from Denver.

Portland, Oregon, has Powell's City of Books. San Francisco has City Lights. The Tattered Cover Bookstore is Denver's answer to the well-known independent book shop, where community book clubs gather and the friendly staff provides personalized service. Stop by one of Tattered Cover's three Denver locations to pick up a new read or grab a cup of coffee and a bite to eat in the cafe. Check the store's Web site, www.TatteredCover.com, for a schedule of events such as book signings or author readings.

The Colorado State Capitol building is the storied site where elected officials govern the great Centennial State -- but it's also Denver's number-one spot for touristy photos. Thousands of visitors climb the building's west steps to pose for snapshots while standing exactly one mile above sea level (the step that marks the mile spot is labeled). During the week, free tours are available of the State Capitol building, but it's closed on Saturdays and Sundays.

The Byers-Evans House Museum is a gorgeous Victorian mansion that's open for tours. The beautifully maintained house offers an alluring glimpse into the early 20th century. Rooms are outfitted in period furnishings from 1912 through 1924. The mansion, which is preserved by the Colorado Historical Society, also houses an art gallery featuring works from local artists.

The Denver Art Museum, also known as the DAM, is renowned for its collection of Native American art, featuring not only local pieces but works of art from dozens of tribes across North America. Additionally, major collections of 20th-century art, Asian art, African art, photography and other works are on display in the museum. DAM's modern and contemporary exhibit is a particularly exciting one; "Linda," a life-size polyvinyl sculpture of a sleeping woman by John DeAndrea, is one of the museum's most popular pieces. "Linda" isn't always on display (the polyvinyl creation is sensitive to light), so call the museum to check.

Curvy roads and sheer mountain drops delight (and sometimes terrify) travelers who drive the Mount Evans Scenic Byway. From Denver, it's roughly a two-hour drive to the byway, a destination we recommend only for those who are comfortable with heights. The 28-mile-long Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the highest paved road in the country, reaching a staggering elevation of 14,264 feet. The views are tremendous. And you might spot a big horn sheep or a mountain goat while you're up there.

red rocks ampitheatreA 20-minute drive from Denver to Morrison, Colorado, will get you to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where open-air concerts take place in the navel of a giant geologically formed mass of sandstone. You can buy concert tickets at www.RedRocksOnline.com -- but if you're not interested in attending a performance, a quick drive to the Amphitheatre is nevertheless a worthwhile trip. Hiking, biking and horseback riding trails snake through the surrounding lands, there are plenty of perfect picnic spots, and there's a visitor center with a restaurant that's open daily.

A Hair-Raising Dog Sledding Adventure in Colorado

You know you're really in the Wild West when you find yourself face to face with a group of American bison. Grab your camera and head to the Buffalo Herd Nature Preserve (take exit 254 from I-70, about 20 miles west of Denver), where the descendants of the United States' last wild buffalo herd roam in their natural habitat.

Denver isn't exactly a ski resort town -- the nearest slopes are 67 miles from the city. But that doesn't mean Denver's not an excellent base for a Rocky Mountain ski trip! For a unique winter city escape with a side of snowy slopes, take a day trip from Denver to one of several surrounding resorts. You'll have to be in the car for a few hours, but the drive through Colorado's scenic mountain terrain is simply stunning. Winter Park, Copper Mountain Resort and Breckenridge are some area resorts that are about a two-hour drive from Denver's city center.

Take a 20-minute trip to Golden, Colorado, a Denver suburb, to explore the world's largest single-site brewery -- Coors Brewery. Here, free tours are on offer, as well as -- you guessed it -- complimentary samples of just-made beer. Visitors of the legal drinking age are welcome to relax in the designated "fresh beer room" with a post-tour brewsky. Guests must be at least 18 years of age to partake in the free brewery tour. Don't forget to bring your ID.

National Park Vacations

Buffalo Bill's final resting place is located in Golden, Colorado, where the Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave pays homage to one of the most iconic figures of the American Wild West. The museum features exhibits on the life of Bill (with plenty of hands-on displays to keep kids entertained), and there's also a gift shop and a cafe on site. The Lookout Mountain Nature Center, a great spot for hiking, is adjacent to the museum.

The Celestial Seasonings factory, located in Boulder, is heaven on earth for tea devotees. Take a free 45-minute tour of the place, the "Tour of Tea," to learn about tea history, and observe how tea is made and packaged. As every good factory tour should, Celestial Seasonings gives an abundance of free samples to visitors.
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