Boulder, Colorado

Our trip to Colorado was highly anticipated and particularly special because

  • Hiking is one of my favorite activities and I had been drying for a hiking trip out West for quite some time, especially because it is something I hadn’t had the chance to share with Alex
  • My brother is currently living in Boulder
  • I got to celebrate my 28th birthday!

Before I go into the details of our trip and my recommendations, here is our trip itinerary:

Day 1: Brewery tours in Fort Collins Lunch at Mountain Cafe, Tastings and tours at Fort Collins Brewery, O’Dells, New Belgium, Dinner at Oskar Blues 

Day 2: Brainard Lake Recreation AreaHike at Isabelle Lake and Glacier (9 miles), Nap, Dinner at Mountain Sun, Walk around Pearl Street and trip to Sprouts

Day 3: July 4 Waterfall hike in RMNPHike at Wild Basin to Ouzel Falls (5.5 miles), Drive to Flagstaff Mountain, Independence Day BBQ and fireworks at CU

Day 4: BirthdayStanley Hotel, Drive Old Fall River Road and hike from the ranger station, Hike Lilly Lake (1.5 miles), Dinner at Riffs Urban Fare, Walk and shopping on Pearl Street

We booked an early flight on the way there and with the benefit of the time change, we arrived into Denver at 11am. My brother picked us up at the airport and we immediately drove to Fort Collins for a day of brewery tours. We had a blast sampling many different beers and each tour was unique. The rest of the trip, we followed a general schedule every day of: morning hike, drive, dinner, and then relax. My brother is in grad school in Boulder, so he had plenty of favorite places to show us.  It was a perfect trip and I was ecstatic to finally get my hiking fix!

Restaurants

Our first stop after arriving in Colorado was at Mountain Cafe in Fort Collins. It was a very simple diner, but don’t let the lack of decor fool you! The food was delicious and satisfying and the menu had a lot of variety. Alex had a chili burger, my brother ordered the chicken fried steak, and I opted for a simple grilled cheese. We all loved our meals and it was nice to sit on the back patio and enjoy our lunch in the beautiful weather!

Dinner the first night was at Oskar Blues in Longmont, Colorado. After touring several breweries, we met my friend Laura who lives nearby. For some reason, I didn’t realize that Oskar Blues brews some of my favorite beers like Mama’s Little Yella Pils and Dale’s Pale Ale.  When I realized how many more beers they offered, I was excited to try even more! Deviant Dale’s was one of my favorites. Also, although known for beers, the menu at Oskar Blues is not to be overlooked. Everything was amazing. I had the pork sandwich with baked macaroni and cheese and it was a winner! I am salivating just remembering how delicious it was! Try to hit the Oskar Blues brewery in Longmont if you can. Unfortunately, we missed the last tour of the day, and did not have a chance to go back later in the week. And if you aren’t in Longmont, Oskar Blues has another location in Lyons.

Dinner on night 2 was back in Boulder at Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery, one of my brother’s favorite spots. It is such an eclectic little place, with funky wall art, good food, and friendly service. Mountain Sun has an interesting co-op type of system where all employees do all jobs and tips are pooled. There aren’t any TVs because Mountain Sun encourages talking and exchanging ideas with people (how Colorado of them). Those people could even be strangers as the restaurant encourages tacking on to tables. In any case, we really enjoyed the beers that are brewed onsite, and I ordered a veggie sandwich and salad. I was really in the mood for something light and healthy, and the vegetables Mountain Sun used were fresh and perfect. Anyone going to Boulder should definitely make a stop at Mountain Sun!

Mountain Sun Brewery
Mountain Sun Brewery

Our next dinner was cooked at home, but I mention it because the food we bought was incredible. We went to Sprouts, a local farmer’s market grocery store (similar to your Whole Foods, Fresh Markets, and Earth Fares, but definitely more affordable). We bought sausages, burgers, and asparagus to grill for Independence Day, along with sweet potato fries and O’Dells beer. I wanted to mention Sprouts because if you are traveling in Colorado (or any of the other states that have it) and you want to cook your own food, you can count on quality and fresh ingredients at Sprouts. Sprouts also has an amazing bulk aisle which was perfect for hiking snacks. I am still trying to figure out the recipe to one of their trail mixes!

Finally, we had my birthday dinner at Riff’s Urban Fare on Pearl Street in Boulder. There are so many great restaurants in Boulder that I was having a hard time choosing what I wanted for my birthday dinner, but Alex helped me decide on Riff’s. Initially, we were tempted by the very European window and outdoor seating. When I read the menu, I was sold. We ordered mussels soaked with chorizo and fennel and “the best bread” which was paired with the best white bean dip I have ever had. The flavors were complex and bright and we finished it in no time. For our main courses, I had the cedar plank salmon with mushrooms. My salmon was cooked perfectly and I enjoyed the variety of mushrooms accompanying the meal. Alex had shrimp and grits, which were prepared very differently than we are used to in the South, but were fantastic. I asked the server what kind of grits they used and apparently they are rice grits, which are cut much thicker than the grits we are used to. They almost seemed more like a risotto in texture. In any case, the entire meal was one of the best I’ve had in recent memory, and it was made even better by the fact that we got to sit near an open window (I love that!)

Birthday dinner at Riff's
Birthday dinner at Riff’s, window seating preferred!

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When we got home, I had birthday cupcakes waiting for me from Tee & Cakes. The cupcakes were moist and had just the right amount of frosting for my preference. Alex, my brother, and I shared various flavors including red velvet, chocolate chip, white, carrot cake, and chocolate bacon. My favorite was definitely the chocolate chip, but they were all wonderful. I also had a cake pop from Tee & Cakes, in the cookies and cream flavor, which may have been my favorite of all!

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Breweries

Overall, we sampled beer from five different breweries and did tours at two. I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite, but New Belgium gave a pretty stellar tour.

Our first brewery stop was at Fort Collins Brewery. FCB only does tours on Saturdays and since we arrived on a Tuesday, we just sat in the tasting room with flights. Alex and I shared the seasonal flight which had 5 beers. The server wasn’t very chatty, but that was fine. We just talked amongst ourselves as we tasted the beers. Fort Collins Brewery is distributed in Florida, so I was familiar with some of their more popular beers, like Rocky Mountain IPA and Hoptitude. It was nice to try some seasonal beers that I cannot get back home!

Fort Collins Brewery
Fort Collins Brewery

The second brewery we went to was O’Dell Brewing Company. O’Dells is very popular in Colorado so you have to get there fairly early to go on the tour. They only sell the tickets 30 minutes ahead of time, so we got there and had flights and beers while waiting to buy our tickets for the tour and while waiting for the tour to begin. O’Dells has a huge tap room with many beers on tap and they have several different flights to choose from. Alex and I each got a different flight so we could maximize our beer tasting with 12 different beers. We then bought our favorite beers to take with us on the tour. Although the facility is rather small, the tour was fantastic! Our tour guide was very informative and clearly very enthusiastic about beer. She explained to us that O’Dells encourages their employees to try their hands a brewing, so they can make a 5 barrel brew after a certain amount of time working there, similar to Harpoon’s 100 Barrel Series, which we learned about in Boston. We also learned that O’Dells is undergoing a major expansion project, so I hope we can go back sometime to see the new facilities. They look amazing! I think we jumped on the Colorado obsession with O’Dells because Alex and I ended up buying a case of it to drink during our trip. My favorite was the St. Lupulin seasonal pale ale.

O'Dells Brewery
O’Dells Brewery
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My brother and I at O’Dells
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Alex and I at O’Dells

Our next stop was at New Belgium Brewery. It is a very popular place and you actually have to book reservations for your tour several weeks in advance. Fortunately, since my brother is a savvy little local, he did that for us! I was really excited about New Belgium because I have been a fan of Fat Tire since college and I had heard great things about the tour. New Belgium recently started distributing in Florida, so I am really excited about that! We arrived early for the New Belgium tour and hung around in the tap room, where they have fun activities like a postcard station and social media corner. We wrote several postcards to friends and family back home before our tour was called. We had the same tour guide my brother had the last two times he had been on the tour and she actually recognized him and called him out for going on the tour so many times! She was absolutely fantastic: very funny and so informative. You can tell the employees at New Belgium love the beer and love their jobs. They are all very passionate about New Belgium, and the feeling is contagious. It seems like such a fun place to work. The company does employee incentives like free bikes and trips to Belgium after working for a certain amount of time, and they have a rock climbing wall. Also, the tour does not skimp on samples; I think we had six! The facilities are huge, so you get to see a lot of the brewing process at a larger craft brewery. It’s very interesting, especially compared with a smaller operation like O’Dells. This tour is not to be missed and if you live in Colorado, keep an eye on their local events!

New Belgium Brewery
New Belgium Brewery
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Employees get a bike on their 1 year anniversary of working at Fat Tire!
Pouring like a pro
Pouring like a pro
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SPOILER ALERT: you get to go down this slide at the end of the tour!

And of course, we also went to Oskar Blues and Mountain Sun, as I talked about above. If you are doing brewery tours, I would go to those, as well!

Hikes

Our first hike was a nearly 9 mile hike to Isabelle Glacier. We ignored the warnings about getting altitude sickness from the change from sea level to 12,000 feet on our first day (we were fine!) and decided to do this strenuous hike on our first full day in Colorado. This hike is NOT for beginners. I have hiked quite a bit in my life, but living in Florida which is practically flat means that I was a little out of practice. Even though I work out all the time, it was still tough. I was very glad we did it the first day because I was pretty tired by the time we finished. If you can handle it, Isabelle Lake and Glacier is one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever been on. It has everything: forest, lakes, rocks, snow, and glaciers. There is a great description of the hike here, but a few things to note are that the best time to do the hike is in mid-July to August, you should plan on setting out on this hike by 6 or 7 am, and bring snacks and water because it’s a long and strenuous hike. Depending on the snow, you may want spikes or a walking stick, but at the very least, good hiking boots. Since there was snow a lot later this year, the trail was pretty solidly covered in snow for us, and some areas were very difficult to navigate. My brother had done the hike the previous year and said there was barely any snow then. Another thing to note is that the trailhead parking was closed, so we actually had to park at a different trailhead, which added an additional 2 mile round trip to our hike (more info here). In any case, the trail is incredible, and you should definitely add it to your agenda! If you want something less strenuous, you could always stop at the lake and have a picnic. Below are several photos to give you a taste of this beautiful hike! Wildlife spottings: several marmots!

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Before setting out to Isabelle Glacier
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Panorama of the gorgeous scenery
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Isabelle Lake
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My brother hiking the trail

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So much snow!

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Isabelle Lake

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The glacial lake

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At the glacial lake before heading back to the trailhead

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Our second hike was to Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls. Although this hike was significantly shorter and easier (only 5.4 miles), it still had a large elevation change (from 8,500′ – 9,366′), so if you are sensitive to elevation, beware of that. I absolutely loved this hike because there were several waterfalls. It was very cool, especially near the falls, and very peaceful. The trail takes you by the Lower and Upper Copeland Falls before seeing the Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls. If you have more time, you can go on to Ouzel Lake or Bluebird Lake. We stopped at Ouzel Falls and spent some time scrambling up to the top of the falls to feel the refreshing spray before stopping to have lunch at the bottom of the falls. There, the trail gets pretty busy because it’s popular, so I would recommend starting this one a little earlier. My only complaint on this hike is that it is also used as a horse trail, so we had to watch our feet for dung, even though we never saw any horses. Wildlife spottings: Golden-mantled ground squirrels

Copeland Falls
Copeland Falls
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Copeland Falls
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A Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels…they are very persuasive beggars, but do not feed them!
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Calypso Cascades
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Ouzel Falls from below
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Ouzel Falls with Kyle
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Alex and I at Ouzel Falls

Our last hike was at Lily Lake. It was raining all day, but I was determined to have a birthday hike, so we picked this one because it was short just in case the weather turned too bad. This hike is only a mile with no elevation change, so it is perfect if you are short on time or with kids. It is also handicap accessible. It was a very pretty hike and has a few connecting trails, but we didn’t take any because of the weather. Here is a picture of the pretty view though:

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There was also a short trail near the Alpine Visitor Center at the peak of Old Fall River Road. We hiked up a steep, but short incline (with stairs) to see the amazing views. It is worth the short trip to see the vistas, especially on a clear day. You can see Wyoming! We were fortunately able to do it just before a big storm rolled in, so this is another one to get out early for!

Other daytime activities 

There is plenty to do in and around Boulder and what we did barely scratched the surface of the options, but I will mention some of the things we did.

One day we drove into Gold Hill, an old mining town outside of Boulder. It is a quaint little town that makes you feel like you stepped back in time. We stopped at the Gold Hill General Store (you can’t miss it!) and got delicious homemade pie and cookies. I’m not a soda drinker, but if you are, they have flavored bottled sodas. It’s a cute little stop on the way back into Boulder if you are coming back from RMNP.

General Store in Gold Hill
General Store in Gold Hill

If you aren’t into hiking, or you just need a break to rest your legs, there are also several beautiful drives you can take. We drove up Flagstaff Mountain to see expansive views of Boulder. There is one interesting pulloff near the top with several pictorials of what the valley looked like at different times before and during its settlement. It is also possible to hike up the mountain, but we opted to do the drive.

View of Boulder from Flagstaff Mountain
View of Boulder from Flagstaff Mountain

The other drive we did was up Old Fall River Road in RMNP. It is only open a small portion of the year (it opened 2 days before we visited), so make sure you call the National Park Service before going. Also, I recommend only driving up the Old Fall River Road if you have a 4 wheel drive. The dirt road might be hard to navigate otherwise with all of the switchbacks. If you cannot take Old Fall River Road for some reason, you can still reach the summit by driving up Trail Ridge Road, which is paved. When we arrived at the peak, we spent some time in the Alpine Visitor Center museum and in the gift shop before hiking the short trail to the top of the mountain. We also hiked a short trail on the way down from the peak on Trail Ridge Road (if you are driving up Trail Ridge Road, it is on your left just before reaching the visitor center), but had to turn back when a storm came in.

Stopping at some falls on Old Fall River Road
Stopping at some falls on Old Fall River Road
Alpine Visitor Center
Alpine Visitor Center

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At the peak
At the peak

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Another stop worth mentioning is the Chapel on the Rock at the base of Mt. Meeker. We basically stumbled upon it while driving out of the park after leaving the Lily Lake trail. It is a beautiful little stone church at the base of the mountain and the caretaker has very interesting stories about the history. Pope John Paul II visited, and apparently some of the windows and statues inside are from Germany and Italy.

Chapel on the Rock
Chapel on the Rock
Inside the Chapel on the Rock
Inside the Chapel on the Rock

If you are a horror movie buff (I am 100% NOT one), you may be interested in stopping at The Stanley Hotel, made famous by the movie The Shining. Although this location was not where the movie was filmed, it is where the TV show was filmed, and this is where Stephen King stayed when he wrote the novel. We didn’t go inside, but apparently there are tours and museums if you are interested. I preferred to take pictures from the exterior and not go into the haunted mansion!

If you are in Boulder, you will probably want to drive through the CU campus to see its interesting architecture. Just outside of the campus are several eclectic coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and boutiques. We drove through the campus to see where my brother went to school and also visited to watch 4th of July fireworks in the stadium. We got to see the mascot, Ralphie, and a great fireworks show!

CU Boulder stadium
CU Boulder stadium
Happy Independence Day!
Happy Independence Day!
4th of July fireworks
4th of July fireworks

Finally, when in Boulder, you will undoubtedly spend time on Pearl Street downtown. We walked around it a few times, browsing shops, eating at various restaurants, and stopping for ice cream and gelato. There are many street performers and you will likely run into CU students asking you to sign various petitions. It is a great experience, especially if there is a street festival going on, and it is a great way to get a feel for the local Boulder culture.

Walking around on Pearl Street
Walking around on Pearl Street

One of my favorite shops was Gold Mine Vintage. Although I didn’t buy anything, I enjoyed browsing the racks of carefully handpicked vintage clothing. Some were truly vintage, while other items were more vintage-inspired. The tags are clearly marked with the era and brands. There are several other art stores, boutiques, and gift shops with something for everyone!

If you are going to Boulder soon, let me know! And if you have any favorites we should do if we go back, please comment!

RECAP: 

Eat:
Mountain Cafe, 226 West Mountain Avenue, Fort Collins, Colorado 80524
Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids and Solids, 1555 S Hover Rd, Longmont, Colorado 80501
Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery, 1535 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado 80302
Sprouts, locations in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah
Riff’s, 1115 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado 80304
Tee & Cakes, 1932 14th Street, Boulder, Colorado 80302

Drink:
Fort Collins Brewery, 1020 E Lincoln Ave, Fort Collins, Colorado 80524
O’Dell Brewing Company, 800 East Lincoln Ave, Fort Collins, Colorado 80524
New Belgium Brewery, 500 Linden Street, Fort Collins, Colorado 80524
Oskar Blues Brewery, 1800 Pike Rd, Unit B, Longmont, Colorado 80501
Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery, 1535 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado 80302

Hike:
Isabelle Glacier
Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls
Lilly Lake
Flagstaff Mountain
Alpine Visitor Center (Old Fall River Road and Trail Ridge Road)

Visit:
Pearl Street, The pedestrian area, or “Pearl Street Mall” is between 11th Street and 15th Street in Boulder.
Rocky Mountain National Park, From Denver and the east, take U.S. 34 from Loveland, CO or U.S. 36 from Boulder through Estes Park, Colorado. From west or south, take Interstate 70 to U.S. 40 between Georgetown and Idaho Springs, then to U.S. 34 in Granby, Colorado through Grand Lake, Colorado.
Stanley Hotel, 333 Wonderview Avenue, Estes Park, Colorado 80517
Old Fall River Road, Call the National Park Service in Rocky Mountain National Park for directions
Flagstaff Mountain, Flagstaff Rd. in junction with Flagstaff Summit Rd, Boulder, Colorado 80302

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