Idaho Springs may not be Aspen or Vail, but it is a small town with lots of history, eating, shopping, and outdoor sports that will give you a taste of Colorado’s beautiful mountains just a half hour or so from Denver. Perfect for a half-day trip or for an entire weekend, Idaho Springs – population 2,000 – packs in lots for students, their friends, and their families to do in a small area.
The town sits 7,543 feet above sea level, over 2,000 feet higher than Denver at 5,280 feet, but the higher elevation makes it just that bit cooler to really enjoy in the summer. Idaho Springs means “Gem of the Mountains.” It comes from the word “Edauhoe” in the Arapahoe Indian Language. The town was established after gold was found there in 1859. It has a gold mining legacy that lingers today.
What to Do First
Take the first exit into Idaho Springs, and you will come across many of the city’s main attractions immediately. Your first stop, though, should be the Heritage Museum and Visitor Center at 2060 Miner Street (303-567-4382, http://www.historicidahosprings.com/).
It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. between September and May, and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. June through August. Here, you’ll find pamphlets about all of the area and city attractions, and you can also visit a small historical museum that gives insight into Idaho Springs’ story. Brochures about horseback riding, white water rafting, a steam train you can ride and the local Phoenix Mine are all available at the Heritage Visitor Center.
The Visitor Center also offers a self-guided tour book that you can purchase for $5 as well as guided tours for groups of at least five people. The price for adults is $10, and children under 6 are free. Call ahead to make an appointment.
Some Idaho Springs Attractions
The Argo Gold Mine and Mill (2350 Riverside Drive, 303-567-2421, http://www.historicargotours.com/) is an important stop on your trip to Idaho Springs. Pan for gold you can keep, and tour an old gold mine. The mine is open from open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., weather permitting. The last tour is at 4:30 p.m. Ticket prices are: adults – $16, children 6-12 years old – $8, and children under 6 years old are free.
Another popular spot to visit is the Indian Hot Springs (302 Soda Creek Road, 303-567-1303, http://www.indianhotsprings.com/). The land around the hot springs was bought in 1863, and it is the perfect place to experience what used to be known as the “healing waters” tourist craze of the mid to late 1800s. Indian Hot Springs offers therapeutic hot mineral waters as well as a spa.
The Underhill Museum at 1416 Miner St. is the former home of Dr. James Underhill, the first person in Colorado to earn his doctorate degree in geology. Dr. Underhill first came to Idaho Springs in 1897. He was a land surveyor and mining engineer, and his home is now open to the public for tours. His wife’s garden and courtyard are particularly beautiful. Contact the Heritage Museum and Visitor Center for information on hours and ticket prices.
If you’re up for some adventure, contact Clear Creek Rafting (800-353-9901, 303-567-1000, http://www.clearcreekrafting.com/) to go splashing down Clear Creek in Idaho Springs. Bring some clothes and shoes to get wet in, and get ready to have some white water fun.
For visitors who want some backcountry, unpaved road fun, the Oh-My-God Road – also known as Virginia Canyon Road on the east end of town – is the best part of the trip to Idaho Springs. Wind your way up through an old Victorian Era neighborhood to a road that becomes all dirt.
You’ll zig-zag your way on a one-lane road – with turn-outs to avoid cars coming from the other direction – at a speed of 20 to 30 miles per hour to see some of the most breathtaking scenery in Colorado. If you follow the signs, you will end up in Central City, another historic mining city with a gambling flair, about an hour or less away. Watch out, though. There are no guard rails on this road!
Where to Eat and Drink
Head downtown when you’re ready to eat, drink, shop and experience small town America at its finest. Shops, boutiques, fudge/candy/ice cream stores, antique stores and more line the main street of Idaho Springs’ quaint downtown.
Check out BeauJo’s pizza, a Colorado pizza staple, at 1517 Miner Street (303-567-4376, http://www.beaujos.com). You can draw on a napkin and add to the thousands of other napkin drawings from other visitors that line the walls in addition to enjoying some fantastic pizza.
The Buffalo Restaurant and Bar (1617 Miner St., 303-567-2729) offers a wide selection of vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisine, as well as plenty of buffalo meat for sale, if you’re willing to try it. Other places to relax and eat include The Vintage Moose Tavern at 123 16th Avenue and the Tommyknocker Brewery at 1401 Miner Street (303- 567-2688, http://www.tommyknocker.com).
Note that a tommyknocker is a myth. Tommyknockers are the spirits of miners who died in mine accidents. They can help miners find ore, but they can also be mischievous. Sometimes they knock on the walls of caves to warn miners there is about to be a cave-in.
Idaho Springs offers something for everyone. Whether you enjoy spas, eating and shopping, history, horseback riding or whitewater rafting, this small town will keep you entertained and smiling. You can get a taste of gold mine fever, the beautiful mountains and what American small towns are like just by driving 30 minutes west from Denver.
If you’re going to be in the area for a while, you might visit the website of Clear Creek County, Colorado (http://clearcreekcounty.org/) to learn more about other cities and activities in the area. In particular, you can learn all about the possibilities to participate in outdoor sports like hiking, mountain biking, camping, and white water rafting.