AAA Travel Tips / Fun in Fort Collins, Colorado

Fun in Fort Collins, Colorado

AAA/Jennifer Broome
By Jennifer Broome , Travel Journalist and TV Personality
August 03, 2022
Fort Collins is a craft beer city, college town and a place overflowing with outdoor adventure from biking to bouldering. With the vibrant culinary scene, colorful murals and live music in bustling Old Town, it’s a place where adventure meets art. Lace up your hiking shoes for this three-day itinerary in this Northern Colorado city.
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Day 1: Arthur’s Rock and Arts

My first stop in Fort Collins was an early morning jaunt up to a rock outcropping with a view.
Arthur’s Rock in Lory State Park is a wonderful hike for families and is dog friendly (must be on a leash). My friend Mindy and I enjoyed the wildflowers along the trail, which is pretty tame until the scramble up stone stairs near the top. The hike is 1.7 miles each way with an elevation gain of about 1,100 feet. The view of Horsetooth Reservoir from an elevation of 6,780 feet is outstanding. After soaking it in, we headed down Fireline Trail to make it a loop hike instead of out-and-back. One of the few people we saw on this trail was a local who said, “This is the secret trail.” That “secret” was crowd free, and we enjoyed a great view of the reservoir for a good portion of the hike down. Lory State Park has 26 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. If you’re a mountain biker, the Corral Mountain Bike Park is a must. If you have a canoe, kayak or raft, you can hand-launch your vessel in North Eltuck Bay for some water fun.
Having worked up an appetite, we ventured over to Jessup Farm Artisan Village for lunch. Once the farmstead of early settlers, this artisan village is a delightful gathering place in the Bucking Horse Community. The Farmhouse is in a building over 130 years old. It’s a toss-up between the house buttermilk biscuits and goat cheese caprese toast to start your meal at this causal eatery specializing in elevated country cuisine. If you have a hankering for Italian, everything is made from scratch at Cacciatore at Heller’s Kitchen. It’s “delizioso!” If you have room, pop into Bindle Coffee for a coffee slushee or sparkling matcha lemonade paired with one of their freshly baked goodies.
My next stop was Riverbend Ponds Natural Area for a leisurely stroll. Seven former gravel mine ponds have been turned into a beautiful wetlands area along the Cache la Poudre River. This urban oasis is great for walking, fishing and birding. As I looped around the ponds on the flat trails, I saw herons and American white pelicans. Yes, there are pelicans in Colorado, and this is one of the best places to see them.
Keeping a flora and water theme going, my next stop was The Gardens on Spring Creek. With over 300 North American butterflies, the Butterfly House is a big draw at the botanic gardens spanning 12 acres. My favorite was the Bird House Village. Upcycling materials like scrap wood and tree stumps, artists created nine unusual bird house sculptures in an art installation running through February 2023.
Needing an afternoon pick-me-up, I did the short drive over to The Fox Den, the first zero waste café in Fort Collins. Since they serve drinks exclusively in reusable jars and mugs, I took my travel mug in for an iced coffee. They also have a wall of sanitized mugs available for in-house drinks. I splurged on a cookie while drooling over the PB&J panini I saw another patron devouring and made a mental note to get one of those on my next visit.
It was late afternoon when I checked into The Elizabeth Hotel, Autograph Collection, in Old Town. With record players in every room, the hotel plays into Fort Collins’ lively music scene. If you want to strum a guitar or banjo, you can check one out from their music lending library. After settling in, I noshed on a blue cheese and blood orange salad in The Emporium: An American Brasserie. As I dined, the vibrant ambiance transported me to a Parisian market. One of the swankiest spots in Fort Collins is the rooftop at The Elizabeth. I made my way up to the Sunset Lounge for a nightcap and swayed to live jazz music as the sun went down.
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Day 2: Exploring and Eating

I grabbed a zucchini walnut muffin and latte as soon as Little Bird Bakeshop opened, then drove 26 miles north of Fort Collins to explore the expansive grasslands of Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. The nature preserve is 28 square miles of grazing meadows for the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd, a habitat for endangered black-footed ferrets and home to the Lindenmeier Archaeological Site. I was hoping to see bison, which are descendants of the Yellowstone National Park herd. Their pasture is 1,000 acres, and from the road, I could see them in the distance. I started with an easy quarter-of-a-mile walk on a paved path to Lindenmeier Overlook. As I looked out across the valley below, I imagined the archaeologists in the 1930s excavating an Ice Age Native American site considered one of the most important archaeological finds in the Western hemisphere.
It was very windy, so I opted for a shorter hike and did the 3-mile Towhee Loop. I didn’t see any ferrets and wasn’t expecting to since they’re nocturnal, but I did see some mule deer and lots of birds. Soapstone Prairie also has trails for cyclists and equestrians, but no dogs are allowed in the pristine shortgrass prairie.
Post hike, I headed back to Fort Collins for a late breakfast at Ginger and Baker. Housed in a historic mill, it’s a coffee shop, restaurant and gift shop. I scarfed down my garden skillet packed with veggies and ordered a slice of Earlene’s strawberry pie to go. It’s Ginger’s mom’s recipe, and I knew it would hit the spot after my next hike at Red Mountain Open Space 25 miles north of Fort Collins. There are over 15 miles of multi-use trails where you can wander through millions of years of geological history. I went for a close to 3.7-mile loop hike on fairly flat terrain connecting Sinking Sun, Big Hole Wash and Bent Rock Trails. I started with incredible views of the rugged and remote landscape then marveled at the exposed geological layers from uplift, folding and erosion while hiking along the 0.6-mile canyon section of Bent Rock Trail.
I met my friend Katie for a late lunch at Union Bar & Soda Fountain which has an ambiance that’s a cool twist on the old-fashioned diner and soda fountain concept. I was done driving for the day, and since we were sitting out on the patio, I ordered the sun kissed sangria, one of their “patio pleasers.” For a non-alcoholic option, go for one of their sparkling sodas or a shake. My sangria paired nicely with their Olympus Bowl, one of their specialties.
Union is less than a half mile from New Belgium Brewing Co. I’m not a big beer drinker, but there are a plethora of breweries in Fort Collins. You can easily make a day of craft beer tastings. Fort Collins was a “dry” town until 1969 and now produces 70% of Colorado’s craft beer and has more microbreweries than anywhere else in the state. After doing the New Belgium tour that ends with a fun slide, I wandered around Old Town on the 30-minute self-guided Downtown Public Art Tour. Along with colorful murals and painted ads of long-gone businesses on historic buildings, there are over 100 whimsically painted pianos. I even caught a couple of folks tickling the ivories on the Pianos About Town.
I popped in and out of shops like The Spotted Frenchie in A&J Antique Mall, Old Firehouse Books, Tula Boutique and Ivy Boutique before doing a chocolate tasting. Fort Collins might be known for beer tastings at craft breweries, but I couldn’t pass up the chance for a tasting at an artisan chocolate shop specializing in single-origin bars. It was an eye-opening and mouthwatering experience learning how different chocolate can taste depending on where the cacao is from and how the percentage impacts sweetness and flavor intensity.
In a mood to keep tasting the finer things, I walked over to the Welsh Rabbit for “Hoppy Hour.” I sat out on the patio of this cozy bistro noshing on a smoked beet salad and bruschetta before retreating early to my room at The Elizabeth.
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Day 3: An Iconic Hike

Fort Collin’s most iconic hike is to Horsetooth Rock. Settlers in the area thought it looked like a horse’s tooth. According to legend, the powerful Chief Maunamoka killed an evil giant and Horsetooth Rock is the giant’s heart. It’s a must-hike for me whenever I’m in Fort Collins, and I’ve done it multiple times. Get to the trailhead early as parking can be hard to get by 9 a.m. on weekends. This moderately challenging hike is a 5-mile round trip and traverses a meadow then climbs up through the forest with a rock scramble at the top. The views from the Colorado Plains to Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park are outstanding. Afterward, I chowed down on a veggie burger and sweet potato waffle fries at The Canyon Grill. This popular roadside biker bar features live music on weekends. It’s a fun spot to relax after a big hike or other adventure.
Three days give you just a taste of everything Fort Collins has to offer. If you have more time, go for a moment of quiet at the Drala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes and visit The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, considered one of North America’s best examples of sacred Buddhist architecture. Take a drive along the Cache La Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway for a chance to see Colorado’s state mammal, the bighorn sheep, precariously perched on the rocky cliffs of the breathtaking canyon as you follow the Poudre River to Cameron Pass to take in the expansive views of North Park before returning to Fort Collins.

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