Visit This Budget-Friendly Western US City For A Nature Lovers Vacation

When it comes to budget-friendly destinations, Colorado Springs stands out as a top choice. Just a little over an hour south of Denver International Airport, the city is surrounded by stunning landscapes and offers a ton of affordable outdoor adventures. From camping and hiking in the Rocky Mountains to exploring the Garden of the Gods, there is no shortage of natural wonders to experience in this charming city.

At an elevation of just over 6,000 feet, Colorado Springs enjoys about 250 days of sunshine each year, making it a perfect outdoorsy destination. Many hikes and activities around the city are easily accessible to all individuals and suitable for all fitness levels. Colorado Springs isn't just about hiking and camping, though. The city also has unique attractions for outdoor fanatics, history buffs, and anyone looking to escape into nature that won't break the bank.

The Springs also offers a variety of budget-friendly accommodations and dining options. From $12 per night tent camping to $45 per night hotels and lodges, there are ample accommodations and amenities to choose from. Mountain Metropolitan Transit (MTT) offers The Zeb, a free downtown shuttle service in Colorado Springs, making navigating the city fairly easy without a car. For rides just outside the downtown area, MTT one-way rides are $1.75, and day passes are $4. The city also has miles of bike lanes and a budget-friendly bike share program that provides rides for $1 plus $0.25 per minute or a day pass for $30.

Tour Garden of the Gods

No visit to Colorado Springs is complete without exploring the breathtaking beauty of the Garden of the Gods Park. This natural wonder boasts towering sandstone rock formations against a backdrop of snow-capped Pikes Peak. With its free admission, the park provides endless opportunities for hiking, rock climbing, and photography. And with bus service to multiple stops on Garden of the Gods Road, it's accessible for all visitors.

Garden of the Gods covers 1,367 acres and boasts an extensive network of 21 miles of scenic trails. Hiking is the most popular and wallet-friendly activity here, with easy-to-moderate trails that offer unforgettable views of red rock formations and the surrounding mountain landscape. But it's not just the jagged landscapes and hiking trails that make Garden of the Gods a must-visit destination. It has a rich history and cultural significance to the Native American Ute tribe, who considered the area sacred and used it for spiritual ceremonies.

For those interested in learning more about the history of the Ute Tribe and the park's geology, there are 45- to 60-minute daily nature walks led by knowledgeable volunteers. Visitors can sign up for guided walks for just $5. The park also offers guided mountain and e-bike tours at a reasonable rate. Mountain bikes start at $20 per hour, while e-bikes are $35 per hour. Even though there's a two-hour minimum, it's a great way to experience Garden of the Gods in a shorter time frame.

Climb the Manitou Incline

A mere 6 miles from downtown Colorado Springs, the Manitou Incline is an iconic trail known as one of Colorado's most challenging and exhilarating activities. A free shuttle runs from downtown Colorado Springs to the trailhead, making it easily accessible for visitors without a car. The incline requires a reservation, but hikers can reserve a spot for free online. While the incline itself is free, consider supporting the maintenance efforts with a small donation.

The incline is a steep, mile-long trek of over 2,700 steps that were once part of an old railway track. Today, it's become a favorite among locals and tourists alike for its intense workout and stunning views at the top. This strenuous hike gains over 2,000 feet in elevation in just 1 mile, most of which is at a 45% grade. Don't underestimate this hike; it can take up to two hours or more to complete and will test your endurance and strength.

The panoramic views of Colorado Springs from the top are well worth the effort, but hikers should be prepared for a challenging and potentially dangerous climb. Quality hiking gear is a must for the incline, including proper hiking shoes, plenty of water, and sunscreen. It's also recommended to go with a partner or group, as the incline can be physically demanding, and help may be needed in case of an emergency. There are three bailout routes if hikers need to turn back along the way.

Visit the May Natural History Museum

If you're a nature lover but not necessarily a fan of strenuous hikes, the May Natural History Museum is the perfect place to visit in Colorado Springs. The museum is just 10 miles south of the city but not along the free shuttle or bus routes. Visitors navigating the city by car can take Highway 115 South to Rock Creek Canyon Road. You'll know you're there when you see the Statue of Herkimer, a 16-foot-long replica of the world's largest beetle.

May Natural History Museum, a privately-owned museum, boasts one of North America's largest collections of tropical insects, with over 7,000 species on display. Even better, admission to the May Natural History Museum is just $12 for adults and $9 for children. The museum has exhibits showcasing thousands of preserved insects, including a tarantula display featuring many of the species that migrate annually across the southern portion of the state.

Because the May Natural History Museum has showcased insect collections since 1947, the museum is a must-visit for entomology enthusiasts. The museum's founder, John May, collected insects since the 1920s; and because of this, there are multiple species in the collections that are extinct today. The exhibits are carefully curated and provide an educational experience for visitors of all ages, and the museum even has a picnic area on the grounds.

Hike Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon Open Space is a great spot for locals and visitors alike. The canyon is accessible by bus from Colorado Springs or just a short 10-minute drive from downtown. With its free admission and a network of trails suitable for all skill levels, Red Rock Canyon is perfect for hiking, biking, and rock climbing. The vibrant red rock formations and lush vegetation create a peaceful retreat for nature lovers.

Once a quarry site, Red Rock Canyon has been transformed into a vast open space spanning 1,474 acres and features 11 trails with varying lengths, difficulties, and elevations. The quarry walls have been transformed into a popular rock climbing destination, with routes suitable for beginners and experienced climbers who are looking to venture into outdoor climbing. Annual permits for climbing in the area are free, so remember to register before you go.

When it comes to hiking, one of the most popular hikes is the 3.3-mile Mesa Trail to Red Rock Canyon Loop. The trip offers scenic views of the canyon, city, and surrounding mountains. This trail is dog-friendly, so bring your furry companions (on a leash) along for the adventure. For a bit more of a challenge, take the Red Rock Rim Trail to the Palmer and Greenlee Trails for a 5.4-mile loop around the area. 

Colorado's famous Pikes Peak

This budget-friendly adventure is for the more experienced hiker, with its steep inclines and high elevation. Pikes Peak is located just outside of Colorado Springs and offers magnificent views at 14,115 feet above sea level. And, honestly, no trip to Colorado Springs is complete without conquering a "14er". The Pikes Peak Highway offers a scenic drive for those not interested in hiking, with multiple viewpoints along the 19 miles of mountain road. 

Pikes Peak is last on the list for a good reason. Altitude sickness can cause trouble for even the most experienced hikers; so if you're visiting from out of town, spend a few days on other activities to allow your body to acclimate to the higher elevation. Once you're ready, the admission fee for Pikes Peak is $15 for adults and $5 for children up to 15 years old, but the city's website has a convenient $2 off coupon for online purchases. 

Opt for the Barr Trail, a challenging hike that takes you to the summit. The 26-mile roundtrip hike takes you through various terrains from wooded areas to rocky paths and up 7,500 feet in elevation, so be sure to check the trail conditions and prepare for changing weather. If you want to avoid the 6-10 hour Barr Trail hike, the Pikes Peak Cog Railway is a quicker option, at about three hours. The railway offers a unique perspective but is a less cost-effective option than hiking, at $58.50 for adults.