Vacations can quickly get expensive, especially if you stick to the generic tourist attractions. If you are like me and want to experience the best of Colorado Springs without having to spend a dime, then here are 10 free ideas that can make an awesome Colorado Springs vacation.
Paint Mines Interpretive Park
Paint Mines is an interpretive and geological park. Paint mines forms a canyon of colorful clay deposits. This is an extremely popular spot for picture taking. You are not in the mountains, but the rainbow formations create tiny overhangs and caves that are fun to explore and make for great profile pictures.
The rainbow-colored clay formations are about an hour drive north east of Colorado Springs. They are very easily accessible. There are three parking lots where the middle parking lot brings you to an overlook of the paint mines. The trails are highly trafficked and very well maintained. The park is scattered with clay deposits, but the largest one is less than a mile hike from either parking lot. There is barely any elevation gain or loss on the trail which makes it perfect for people of all ages and difficulty level.
These clay formations come from a combination of clay and oxidized iron which helps create the natural rainbow colors. We are not the only ones that have recognized the beauty of the paint mines. Evidence shows the paint mines have been used for at least the last 10,000 years which makes this a gold mine for geological surveying. The paint mines served two main purposes to Indians. The colorful deposits made an ideal place to collect clay to make paint out of, hence the name “Paint Mines.” The other use of the canyon was hunting. The wild buffalo were herded and trapped by the canyon walls in the paint mine and surrounding area which made the bison easily huntable.
- Easily accessible
- More information
Red Rock Formations in Colorado Springs
The front range, especially Colorado Springs, is famous for its red rock formations. The red sandstone can be found in Colorado Springs all the way up to Denver with the red rock amphitheater. Colorado Springs, by far, has the best red rock formations along the front range.
Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods has towering red rock formation at over 300 feet tall. The park lets you walk the perimeter of the massive sandstone formations as well as get up close to the balanced rock and Siamese twins formations. The breath-taking formations sit right at the base of the Front Range Mountains. Pikes Peak, a 14,000+ foot mountain, is easily visible from the formations making for great views and pictures.
Garden of the Gods contains heavily trafficked and very well-maintained trails. Some of the trails are even paved. More specifically, the trails from the main parking lot to the main formations. All other trails are dirt but very well kept. The park even has paved roads that zig zag their way through. All of the trails are extremely easy and no more than a couple miles, but if you are on a time crunch the views from the car window are just as good.
The Garden of the Gods is also a great place to go climbing, horse back riding, and running. Now, with the goal of this trip being free we will just stick to hiking. Honestly, if you just stick to hiking you are not missing out on any mind-blowing experiences.
The great thing about the park is that it was donated to the city under a couple conditions. The main two conditions were that it would be open at no cost 24/7 and that not more structures were to be built on the land.
- Easily accessible
Red Rock Canyon Open Space
The Red Rock Canyon is a continuation of the Garden of the Gods, hence why it is just down the road. It is an open space with red rock walls, great views of Pikes Peak, easy hiking trails, and small ponds. The Red Rock Canyon Open Space gives a different feel compared to Garden of the Gods. At Garden of the Gods, you are coming up on large red rock formations where as in the Red Rock Canyon you are surrounded and immersed in the red rocks.
The trails at Red Rock Canyon Open Space are easily accessible and very well maintained. There are dozens of miles of trails, making it impossible to accomplish in one day. Each trail is just as good as the next, so my advice is to go and just explore! Because the open space is at the base of the front range, there is minimal elevation gain which makes these trails accomplishable by just about anyone.
There are lots of other activities to do at the red rocks besides hiking. Horseback riding, climbing, and biking are just some of the other activities you can do at the open space. There are almost 100 different climbs to do in the canyon as well as great mountain biking trails. The park is so popular for mountain biking that there are terrain parks by the main parking lot.
- Easily accessible
Manitou Springs is a little mountain town nestled right at the base of the Pikes Peak region. The more hippy style city gives a noticeable contrast to that of its conservative neighbor, Colorado Springs. The town is right across from Garden of the Gods and Red Rock Canyon Open Space. It is great for window shopping, food, and exploring.
- Free parking
- Free downtown shuttle
The small towns location and winding roads make it a fun place to just explore. There are plenty of quirky shops to check out with some “unique” things. The food and brewery in Manitou Springs is pretty good, but you also pay for it. While you are downtown make sure to check if there are any events going on at Memorial Park near the free parking. The events at the park are unique and fun including wine tastings, art displays from local artists, “the great fruit cake toss,” and plenty of other events.
Usually, towns with names that end in springs have a hot springs somewhere. Unfortunately, Manitou Springs does not have a hot spring. On the bright side, the springs water is naturally carbonated mineral water with its own unique taste. The spring water rises from deep underground aquifers and is free to collect and drink. There are 8 different decorative water fountains around the city that provide free mineral water. It is well worth a try. Locals will come to fill up gallons of water to bring home and plenty of people fill up their camel backs on the way to the incline.
Manitou Springs Parking
Parking is FREE! This would not be a free vacation guide without free parking. Free parking is located at 10 old man’s trail and Memorial Park. It is near downtown, but there is also a free shuttle for those that do not feel like walking. Just beware that the free parking can fill up because of the Barr trail and incline popularity.
Manitou Springs Incline
The incline is a-mile-long trail with a half mile elevation gain. It is an old cog rail track that has been converted into a hiking trail. The trail is more sought out for the accomplishment of finishing rather than the views. I try to do the incline once a week to stay in shape. Although the summit gives good view of the springs. Just be careful if you are not acclimated to the altitude. Altitude sickness and dehydration can set in very quickly. Also be courteous of others on the way up and down. Some locals get annoyed by tourists over crowding the trail and ignoring etiquette.
Barr trail is the trail up to Pikes Peak. It is a 13-mile one way trail to the summit. It is not recommended for unacclimated users and not the best use of time when there are other attractions to explore. But feel free to wander a couple miles up the trail to get the feel of what it is like to summit a 14er.
United States Air Force Academy
Come experience the beautiful campus that is the Air Force Academy. The Academy land starts at 6,400’ and makes its way all the way up to 9,000+ feet. There are plenty of things to see at the academy. Of which include: Falcon stadium, the chapel, B-52 display, and multiple overlooks. Getting on base requires documentation and can be limited at times. Make sure to check to check their website for information.
North Cheyenne Canyon Park
North Cheyenne Canyon Park is a great spot for hikes and water falls. Just note that the waterfalls are the most exciting during the spring and tend to dry up towards winter when the snow melt is less. The views from some of the summits are great for observing the front range mountains and Colorado Springs.
The canyon road is gold camp road and is an old railroad bed. The railroad used to bring gold mined from cripple creek to the springs for processing. Because of the windy mountain road, there are plenty of tunnels and good views from the road. Do not worry though, the road is very easily accessible. Even though parts are a dirt road it is drivable by low clearance 2WD vehicles.
The hikes themselves range from easy to difficult. If you are the relaxed, easy hiking type then there are great trails for you. Go to Hellen Hunt falls along with the visitor center for a super easy hike. If you are feeling adventurous keep going past Hellen Hunt Falls for more views and water falls. Your next stop should be Mt. Cutler. It is an incredibly easy mountain to summit with great views of Colorado Springs. The trail round trip is only a couple miles. If that was easy, then give Mt. Muscoco a try. They both share the same trailhead. For the more advanced hikers, give Mt. Rosa a try. The trail goes through St. Mary’s falls. St Mary’s Falls has some scrambling opportunities and gives great views of the city from a waterfall up 8,000 feet. Continuing past the waterfall you will reach Mt. Rosa. One of the higher peaks in the Pikes Peak region. You will have great views of Cheyenne Mountain, Almagre Mountains, and Pikes Peak. The trail is well maintained but can be challenging. It is not too difficult though as there is a half marathon to the summit every year.
There are plenty more activities to do in the park. If you have a mountain bike or climbing gear the park is a great place to explore what the front range has to offer.
Check out our full guide to make the most of your time at the park.
Pikes Peak from Crags Trail
Pikes Peak is a must visit if you are in Colorado Springs. Unfortunately, Barr trail is a long hike for a vacation and the toll road to the summit charges per person. Lucky for us there is a way to experience Pike’s Peak without paying! On the west slope of Pike’s Peak there is crags trail that is 14.5 miles round trip to the summit with a 4,400’ elevation gain. It is still a difficult trail like Barr trail, but it does not have the length that Barr trail has. Plus, even if you only decide to go up to Devil’s Playground (10 miles round trip) there are still amazing views making it well worth it. I recommend giving the trail a try even if you do not make it to the summit. What ever you do make sure you start early and give yourself ample time.
The trail is somewhat accessible. It is a little bit of a drive from the springs requiring you to take 24 through Ute pass. Once on the west slope you will need to take a dirt road to the trail head. Even though it is a dirt road it can still be travelled by low clearance 2WD vehicles. Just note that the parking lot is closed in the winter requiring a longer hike and the road may get snowed in. The trail may also require micro spikes and snowshoes in the winter.
National Park Free Days
Colorado has more national parks than you can visit in a trip, and there are multiple that make great day trips from Colorado Springs. If you plan your trip just right, you can get to a national park on one of their designated free days. There are also other ways to get in for free such as being active duty, being a veteran, or getting there as the attendant is on a bathroom break.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
The great sand dunes are about two and a half hours south west of Colorado Springs so make sure to get an early start. The Great Sand Dunes National Park is best visited in the summer. There are beautiful alpine lakes, exciting mountain passes, exciting sand boarding, world class star gazing, camping, and of course sand dune hiking.
The sand dune hiking can be as difficult or as easy as you want. Just remember climbing 700+ foot sand dunes are like mixing a stair stepper with walking on the beach. It can get intense. The beauty of the dune field with no marked trails is you go as far as you want and make it as challenging as you want. If a stair master in sand is not your cup of tea, you don’t need to hike them to enjoy them. The parking lot brings you right to the dune field where in the spring snow melt creates a small water park.
On the cheap, star gazing is another great activity in the sand dunes. The high altitude, dry air, and lack of light pollution got the sand dunes certified as an international dark sky park. It is one of the best places in the U.S. to star gaze and allows you to observe nocturnal wildlife unique to the sand dunes.
The sand dunes are best hiked during the summer because they can become frozen and snow covered. During the winter Medano Pass and the campgrounds are closed. If you do decide to stop by in the winter make sure to stop by Zapata Falls.
Zapata Falls is a free water fall just south of the sand dune entrance. A couple miles up a rocky dirt road is a campground and waterfall. I find the water fall to be the best during the winter. In the winter when the river is frozen you can navigate in the cave and canyon walls to get to the stunning ice wall. In the summer it is a little difficult to see the fall itself, but regardless it is an easy and enjoyable stop.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument
The national monument is one of the richest and most diverse fossil deposits in the world. The large fossil deposits paint an image of prehistoric Colorado with 14-foot-wide redwood trees, ancient insect, and prehistoric animals.
This destination is more on the informational and educational side, even though there are over 14 miles of hiking trails. The national monument makes it an interesting place to understand the history of Colorado and North America.