On short notice, my husband Kai and I decided to visit my folks out in Fort Collins, Colorado. We make the trip out west once to twice a year, because besides our family, it’s one of our favorite places to visit. Colorado is one of those states with countless destinations–some of the best being the most remote–but what I appreciate about a short notice visit to Fort Collins coming from New York is the ease, affordability, comfort and beauty. Home to Colorado State University, it has the character of a hip college town, while being moments away from the outdoors. And if that’s not enough, Coloradans are some of the nicest and down to earth people. It’s hard to not feel right at home.
We left on a Monday from my office in the city before rush hour. Our flight from JFK to Denver was an easy 4 ½ hours. (There are tons of direct flights from NYC to Denver and it’s very affordable, around $300 round trip.) Once we arrived, the drive from the airport to Fort Collins was just under an hour and a half. My family picks us up, but I recommend renting a car to get the most out of your visit. Car rentals are plentiful and inexpensive at the airport.
Day One: The first day, I am always taken aback by how beautiful Colorado is. The climate is so dry, the air is so clean and the landscape is so vast. We started our day with coffee on the patio over looking Horsetooth Reservoir, chatting and catching up with my parents and playing with their dog. Around lunchtime, Kai and I decided to go into Old Town, the historic downtown district, quintessentially tree-lined with local businesses, shops, restaurants and bars.
Over the years more and more quality independent shops and restaurants have opened along downtown South College and its side arteries. As a designer, I’m always seeking little gems for inspiration and chatting with shop owners about their recommendations. My first stop was Blue Harvest Apparel, a lifestyle boutique with an Urban Outfitters vibe meets Colorado aesthetic. Next was Sunday Supply, modern and sophisticated with a rustic Colorado tone. This apparel and home boutique is on par with what you would find in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side.
At the recommendation of the ladies at Blue Harvest, Kai and I ate lunch at La Luz, a classy-meets-college taco and burrito joint. For a mere $30, we ordered a burrito, fish tacos, a beer and a margarita; big portions and pretty darn tasty.
Fort Collins is known for being entirely accessible by bike. In the downtown square, the Fort Collins Bike Library is where you can rent bikes for nominal fee or entirely for free! The library was sadly closed while we were visiting because of construction in the square, but has since reopened.
Along with shops, lunch and hunting for bikes, we wanted to check out some good overnight options for Escape Brooklyn readers. We stopped into the Armstrong, a historic boutique hotel in the heart of Old Town. Restored to its original 1920s charm, each room is modern and uniquely designed and in the basement of the hotel is a speakeasy!
After spending the afternoon in Old Town, we headed back to my parents’ place. Kai opted for a nap, while I opted for a hike. Since the family house is located right next to Lory State Park, we pretty casually hike cross-country. For a more specific route, I recommend taking a trail in Lory State Park; from the road entrance it’s a couple miles drive to the park entrance. There is a $7 fee per car and you can pick up maps, talk to a ranger, find a trail for your skill level and interest–whether you want to take a short hike by foot, mountain bike, backcountry camp or simply picnic, there’s something for everyone. If you opt for hiking or biking, no matter distance, bring a hat and lots of water. The Colorado sun and altitude is intense.
Day Two: I spent the day exploring with my dad, who is an avid traveller, with an irreverent character that would prefer to never drive the same road twice, if it were possible. We started the day with coffees and a gigantic cinnamon bun at Vern’s Place, a local landmark diner, one of those authentic places with history, that as travelers we search for.
Next we headed to historic Bingham Hill cemetery, which is beyond “off the beaten path.” (We actually drove past it a couple times because we missed the entrance.) There are over 300 gravesites, some unmarked or with tiny stones, dating back to Colorado pioneers from the 1860s to present day. It’s a beautiful and quiet place.
Our afternoon ended with a short hike along Horsetooth Reservoir. We started at the Skyline Point and walked to the Soldier Canyon Dam and turned back around. Hiking around the entire reservoir in a loop is not possible, therefore important to be mindful what ever distance you choose to walk–you have to walk back!
We again checked out overnight options for Escape Brooklyn readers, searching out the cabins and an airstream at the reservoir. They’re great for groups or those interested in low maintenance camping.
Day three: Whenever we’re in town, we always hit up Jax, a locally owned megastore for outdoor enthusiasts. It carries clothing, gear, accessories, equipment, and an impressive army surplus supply. If you forget or need any gear, I guarantee you will find it here.
Next to Jax, in the parking lot of Auto Zone is what is known as “the taco truck next to Jax.” I grabbed a quick snack, a shredded beef taco with just a little lime, cabbage and cilantro on a corn tortilla for $2. I’m a snob about authentic Mexican food–I lived in Northern Mexico as a kid–and this is the real deal. It brought back memories of going to taco stands in remote villages in Mexico with my dad on our father-daughter road trips in the 80s and 90s.
We headed back to Old Town so I could stop by Topo Designs, the Colorado-based outdoor apparel and accessory label. Somewhat similar to New York’s Best Made, I’ve been a long follower of Topo. I love seeing when great product design companies outside New York and LA thrive, and when I found out they opened another retail shop in Fort Collins, it was a must see. It did not disappoint.
Following another lunch recommendation, we ate at Choice City, deli and butcher, the Fort Collins’ version of Katz’s. It is very popular, and we were lucky we got there before the lunch rush line, which when we left led outside the door. We had an exceptional Buffalo Ruben, a Philly Cheese Steak, two sides and two drinks for under $30.
To round out the day, we visited New Belgium Brewery for a tour, which apparently books up over three months in advance! (click for more info on Brewery Tours) We definitely didn’t make a reservation, but it was easy get in; fortunately for us, some people that booked didn’t show up. The tour is about two hours long, and we had a super friendly and bubbly guide/bartender serving tastings. We toured the entire process from the raw material phase, all the way to the bottling production line.
Day four: Our last day was spent at my family’s cabin, where my parents are in the early stages of starting a non-profit benefiting veterans. The property is on a sizable amount of pristine mountain land outside Fort Collins, and will be open for veterans’ recreational rehabilitation. They hope to help our brave veterans by immersing them in the quiet surrounding, providing a place for gathering and healing. Portions of the land will be handicap accessible. They built a beautiful cabin entirely from hand-milled lumber, which came from less than 30 miles from the site, to become a clubhouse. Every time we visit, we leave inspired and proud of the work they are doing here.
On our way up to the cabin, we stopped at Mishawaka for lunch, which is a bar, diner, amphitheater and concert venue, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, on the edge of the Poudre River. It’s one of those places that would seem “off the beaten path” given its remoteness, but with its impressive concert roster, it’s actually quite popular. We sat a table with window view of the Poudre where every 15 minutes or so, a group of kayakers and rafters would float by.
Back at my family’s land, we spent the rest of the day hiking to the peak of the mountain and back. It was our last evening here, so to make the most of it we set up a campfire, roasted hot dogs on sticks, made s’mores, drank wine, listened to the radio, told stories, laughed, and watched the sunset. The next morning, we headed back to New York City, then finally home to Beacon.