Friday morning at 7:30 AM, the Crawford hotel, downtown Denver. I am in the epicenter of the city; the elegant hotel forms part of the recent redevelopment of the historic Union Station terminal, at one time the main railway hub for the Colorado capital. I’m waiting for the elevator to take me down for breakfast in one of the 1914 Beaux-Arts building’s many buzzing cafés and restaurants.
Because of the hotel’s unrivaled location, and the hour, I fully expect the doors to open to a fellow business traveler, or maybe a jet-lagged tourist. I do not, however, expect to see a young couple in full, color-coordinated ski gear, complete with skis, poles, boots, gloves, goggles, helmets and Go Pro cameras.
They look like they’ve stepped off a ski lift in Switzerland’s upmarket Gstaad – not into an urban US elevator. They tell me a waiting minibus will be whisking them and some friends off to the Loveland Ski Area, almost 60 miles and about an hour and a half west of the Mile High City in the glorious Rocky Mountains.
If it was a weekend during the regular ski season, they wouldn’t even need the luxury of a private shuttle – they could take the newly relaunched ski train direct from Union Station to another popular Denver ski destination, Winter Park, a couple of hours away.
In many ways, my “ski lift” experience is emblematic of a city that is thrillingly active and wholly surprising. The US Bureau of Statistics ranked Denver as the fastest-growing major city in the US in 2015, and, everywhere you look, it has the feel of a boom town – the cityscape is dominated by cranes and new tower blocks.
The metropolitan area is now home to more than three million people; it’s claimed by Rich Grant and Irene Rawlings in their book 100 Things To Do In Denver Before You Die that “the Mile-High City is growing on average by a thousand new residents a week.”
It’s certainly true that every Millennial you meet seems to be from somewhere else, attracted to Denver by the three “Ms”: money (well, job opportunities – the unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the country); mountains (as well as first-class skiing, the Rockies offer superb hiking, biking, climbing, kayaking and rafting); and marijuana (in 2005 it became the first major US city to legalize cannabis, leading to a mini-boom in weed cultivation, medical use and tourism).
Dubbed the “Wall Street of the West” in the early 20th century owing to the rise of a small financial district along 17th Street, Denver has always had a strong business culture. Major companies in the area include Molson Coors, Lockheed Martin and United. Its geographical location has also made it a focus for the telecommunications industry; it’s possible to communicate with both North American coasts, South America, Europe and Asia all in the same business day.
Denver International airport, with its landmark multiple-peaked roof canopy – said to echo both Native American teepees and the Rockies – is now the sixth-busiest in the US, with more than 58 million passengers in 2016. Since April last year, it also has a direct rail link to Union Station; the journey takes 37 minutes and costs $9 each way.
Art of the City
That kind of accessibility, and the fact that Denver is a relatively compact walking city claiming a remarkable 300 days of sunshine a year, makes it perfect for extending your trip across a weekend. The weather can be changeable and, at exactly one mile above sea level, you need to protect yourself from the sun’s intensity. Yet Denver is an extremely easy place to enjoy. There is even a free electric shuttle bus along the 16th Street Mall, a mile-long pedestrian promenade designed by architect IM Pei, now fronted mostly by tacky general stores and tourist shops.
Near the southern end of the mall is the Golden Triangle Museum District. Attractions here range from the Denver Art Museum (10:00 AM – 5:00 PM Tues-Sun, 8:00 PM Fri; $13; denverartmuseum.org), with its eye-catching Daniel Libeskind extension, to a museum dedicated to the expansive paintings of Clyfford Still (10:00 AM – 5:00 PM Tues-Sun, 8:00 PM Fri; $10; clyffordstillmuseum.org), one of the Abstract Expressionist movement’s most influential, if relatively unknown, artists.
The district even has its own Art hotel (thearthotel.com), opened in 2015, which displays a private collection of contemporary works by the likes of Sol LeWitt and Tracey Emin in its dramatic public spaces and 165 rooms.
If you prefer your culture live then Denver also delivers. It has the one of the largest performing arts complexes in the US, with ten venues housing everything from theatre to Broadway shows and a symphony orchestra (denvercenter.org). The 76,000-seat Sports Authority Field at Mile High is home to 2016 Super Bowl champions, the Broncos, although tickets are hard to come by – every Sunday home game since 1970 has sold out.
The city also boasts two legendary music venues along East Colfax Avenue (part of the longest commercial street in the US) – the Bluebird and Ogden theatres, both concert halls that are symbolic of Denver’s eclectic music scene.
Lodo or Lohi?
Head to LoDo (Lower Downtown Denver) to explore regenerating and newly hip historic neighborhoods with a range of worthwhile diversions – the excellent Tattered Cover bookshop (tatteredcover.com), the sumptuous Art Deco Cruise Room bar at Denver’s oldest hotel, the Oxford (theoxfordhotel.com) and the bounty of cool bars and restaurants to be found along Larimer Square. Don’t miss Wynkoop, the “brewpub” that sparked Denver’s justly famous craft beer and microbrewing scene (wynkoop.com) There is also LoHi (Lower Highlands), just across the South Platte River, worth a visit just to check out the Williams and Graham “speakeasy” alone – its wood-paneled backroom bar is hidden behind a tiny “bookshop.” Another way to check out Denver is to jog or cycle – there are 85 miles of paved trails around the city.
And then there is always shopping. As well as more than 160 upmarket stores at Cherry Creek Shopping Centre, three miles southeast of the city center, there is one downtown flagship store that is not to be missed: Rockmount Ranch Wear (rockmount.com). The Western outfitters that introduced the snap-button cowboy shirt to the world – and to Elvis, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and Eric Clapton – was founded in 1946 by “Papa” Jack Weil, a businessman who worked until the ripe old age of 107.
Weil is said to have coined the phrase: “The West is not a place, it’s a state of mind.” Denver today may be a hip, forward-thinking city, but it’s still very much connected to that history and belief. It’s a state of mind that, even for a weekend, is well worth entering.
For more information on Denver, including the Mile-High Culture Pass to various attractions ($30 for three days), see visitdenver.org, colorado.com
Denver’s Great Outdoors
It’s only when you leave the city that you realize the sprawling metropolitan area is but a speck in the monumental landscape: to the west is the soaring backdrop of the magnificent Rocky Mountains, while to the east lies the big skies and slow, flat, endless slide of the Great Plains. Here are three ways to get a whole new perspective on the Mile-High City:
Rent a car and head about half an hour west to the naturally formed Red Rocks Amphitheatre (open 7:00 AM – 7:00 PM April-Oct, 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM Nov-March; free; redrocksonline.com), the striking 9,000-seat location of U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky concert video. Tens of thousands come here every year to work out, hike, visit the museum, or simply to relive meaningful musical moments. The long view back to the city and airport is beyond extraordinary.
On the way, drive the twisting, climbing Lariat Loop road to the Buffalo Bill Museum (9:00 AM – 5:00 PM daily May-Oct, Tues-Sun Nov-April; $5; buffalobill.org). Well-presented galleries tell the story of the army scout, buffalo hunter, cowboy showman and western pioneer. His grave is nearby on Lookout Mountain. The Colorado Sightseer provides half-day tours to both of the above ($50; coloradosightseer.com).
For the ultimate Colorado outdoor adventure, head to the spectacular Rocky Mountain National Park, located 70 miles northwest of Denver. The vast 415-square-mile park has countless peaks, alpine lakes, deep glacial valleys, pine forests, 350 miles of trails. The park fairly teams with wildlife such as eagles, elk and even moose. It’s like Switzerland – on a very good day. Aspire offers scenic day-trips ($115; aspire-tours.com).