Exploring the wilds of the Rocky Mountains is a quintessential Colorado activity — especially in the summer. Yet sometimes a day out in the sunshine calls for something more predictable and less strenuous, such as strolling the floral-lined pathways of a botanic garden. While the wonders of the Denver Botanic Garden downtown and at Chatfield are well-known, they are far from the only gardens worth a visit. This summer, spend a morning or an afternoon exploring one or more of these other special gardens.
One advantage to visiting a botanic garden — particularly if you are with young children — is that you can count on there being a restroom, the likelihood of a bench for snack time or a rest, and possibly a paved path for pushing a stroller (an asset that’s also handy for anyone using a walker or wheelchair). And, unlike when you come across a blooming plant on a hiking trail, in these gardens you’ll find signs telling you the name of the plant and where it thrives. There’s opportunity for both exercise and education.
Yampa River Botanic Park, Steamboat Springs
“People are often surprised there is a botanic gardens in Steamboat,” said Jennifer MacNeil, executive director of the Yampa River Botanic Gardens. “With only 59 frost-free days per year, it takes a tough plant to survive the conditions here.” The 6-acre plot along the Yampa River contains 60 garden areas with specialty themes or concepts. Each year, some of the gardens are renovated and for this year’s 25th anniversary, the Hummingbird and Butterfly Garden was redone with 1,700 new plants and bulbs.
Regular events include Music on the Green each Wednesday morning featuring local musicians, the Fairy Garden House Contest in June, yoga classes, PikNik Theatre performances of Shakespeare’s works, and family storytime on Friday mornings. For a grown-ups night out, attend the 2nd Annual Passport Through the Botanic Park on June 25 in which food and wine are paired with learning opportunities about the plants. For example, a garden that showcases plants that also grow well in Patagonia will feature Chilean food and wine.
New this year is a Serenity Walk, a self-guided mindfulness path that includes a brochure of “thought prompts” for your stroll. The garden is only open in summer. Admission is free, and donations are accepted.
Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, Vail
Alpine basically means mountains and the higher you go, the harder it is for plants to thrive. The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens — the highest botanical garden in North America at 8,200 feet — showcases high-altitude bloomers in its Alpine Plants of the World and Rocky Mountain Ecosystems mini gardens.
There are guided tours, self-guided tours, and private tours (in winter there are snowshoe tours) through the trees, over bridges, up stairways, and around a creek. The Children’s Garden includes vegetables growing in summer and daily scavenger hunts designed to maximize a sense of adventure. Open year-round. Admission is free, but a $5 donation is requested.
Gardens on Spring Creek, Fort Collins
Fort Collins is known for the Colorado State University campus Annual Flower Trial Gardens and arboretum. Off-campus, though, you’ll find the Gardens on Spring Creek with 18 acres of pathways and plantings to explore. The gardens were expanded significantly in 2019 to create six themed gardens and a butterfly house. Entry to the butterfly house is included with admission to the gardens, but you need to reserve an entry time to see the caterpillars and the colorful butterflies and moths that flutter inside this warm habitat.
Check out the Undaunted Garden, created by famed garden designer and local resident Lauren Springer, who is known for her bestselling book “The Undaunted Garden: Planting for Weather-Resilient Beauty.” This 3-acre garden features the largest outdoor collection of cold-hardy cacti in the United States. Springer is a staff horticulturist at the gardens.
Other highlights here are the Prairie and Foothills gardens, both showing off blooming plants that thrive in this part of the state. There are concerts during the summer for those who are seeking entertainment amid the plantings. Open year-round. Entry is $8-11 for nonmembers.
Montrose Botanic Gardens, Montrose
This garden is like a mini version of the Denver Botanic Gardens in some ways. There are smaller themed gardens, including a children’s garden, an amphitheater, a variety of sculptures are on display, and there are seasonal events such as holiday lights. Be sure to check out the Crevice Garden, which features plants that take root in rock crevices. Open year-round. Free admission but donations are accepted.
Western Colorado Botanical Gardens, Grand Junction
When you think of the Western Slope you might think of vineyards, orchards and dramatic sandstone plateaus, but probably not lush rosebushes nor a tropical rainforest. The Western Colorado Botanical Gardens features tropical rainforest, Japanese and vintage rose gardens and a butterfly house. Open year-round. Admission is $4-$5.
Durango Botanic Gardens, Durango
Given its proximity to the library, it makes sense that the Durango Botanic Gardens is adding a Literary Garden this year. Labels will explain the connection of the plants to different literature genres and, eventually, a book or poem to complement it. Kids might be thrilled to visit the library or see and hear the train rumble by on nearby tracks, in addition to running around on the garden pathways. Highlights here include a miniature tree garden, a wind garden, and an elevation grass collection. Open year-round. Admission is free.
The Denver Botanic Gardens maintains the highest cultivated garden in the United States on Mount Goliath, just off the road to the summit of Mount Evans. Here you’ll find the Dos Chappell Nature Center and the M. Walter Pesman Trail — 3 miles roundtrip between 11,540 and 12,100 feet. No, this isn’t that relaxing amble through the roses that other gardens offer, but a chance to see wildflowers, bristlecone pines and other plants that survive at high altitude. This garden is inaccessible when the road is closed. Admission is free.
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