There's the majestic outdoor setting (a 100-foot waterfall, 300foot red rock formations, and a 14,000-foot peak); there's also an impressive range of indoor attractions, from hilarious vaudeville dinner theater to a training center for Olympic athletes.
On our most recent trip there, my husband, Paul, our kids, Jared, age 11, Kyle, 9, and Paisley, 5, and I explored old favorites and new places. As always, the rugged beauty and sheer fun (and sometimes the altitude!) took our breath away.
FRIDAY: Air Force and Olympics
Our first stop is the United States Air Force Academy, which trains future Air Force officers. We enjoy touring the campus, but the biggest thrill comes when we drive to the Thunderbird Airmanship Overlook.
Fans of anything that flies, my boys crane their necks to watch small planes tow gliders high above us and then release them, leaving cadets in the cockpits to pilot them back to the ground (free; 719-333-2025; www.usafa.af.mil).
For lunch we hit Wade's Cafe. It may be the middle of the day, but we still go for the yummy French toast and blueberry-topped pancakes (entres from $5, kids' menu from $3; 719-596- 8122).
The Edward C. Rochette Money Museum, which explores the art, science, and history of money, is our next stop. My kids are hooked right away by the free coins available in a bowl by the front entrance. They choose one each, and so with a Japanese yen and a Mexican peso in hand, we troop inside to view more money than any of us has ever seen.
We study each display, from gold pieces to coin presses, picking up tidbits of American history along the way. Kyle marvels at beautifully drawn bills from the late 1800s. "It's art on money," he says. "It's amazing!" ($5 for adults, free for kids 12 and under; 800-367-9723; money.org).
We tear ourselves away from the Money Museum to visit the U.S. Olympic Complex. Hundreds of top athletes train here in sports such as gymnastics, wrestling, shooting and swimming. A short film at the visitors' center rekindles in us the awe and pride we felt during the last Olympics, and our tour guide keeps it going as she shows us the campus, even pointing out a few Olympians. Despite learning that the athletes train up to six hours a day, Jared, our armchair athlete, still fantasizes about becoming a top competitor. "It would be sweet to train here," he says (free tours; 888-659-8687; teamusa.org).
At dinnertime we can't pass up Fargo's Pizza. The pizza is perfectly cheesy, but it's the delightful Victorianera ambience we like the most. We find a table upstairs and enjoy pizzas and delicious carrot cake to the distinctive accompaniment of the player piano (pizzas from $5.25; 719-473-5540; fargospizza.com).
SATURDAY: Pikes Peak and Garden of the Gods
We wake to a rainy morning, but the weather can't dampen our spirits as we make our way to the Pikes Peak Cog Railway in nearby Manitou Springs.
Through rocky canyons and past ponderosa pine-covered hillsides, the train climbs for an hour and 15 minutes while the conductor entertains us with the railroad's history and points out landmarks.
Two-thirds of the way up, we emerge from the clouds to a stunning, sunny sky. When we reach the 14,110-foot summit, we take in the "purple mountain majesties" that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write "America the Beautiful" after her trip up Pikes Peak in 1893.
Then we pop inside the Summit House for hot chocolate and doughnuts, which Jared dubs "the best ever" ($32.50 for adults, $18 for kids ages 3 to 12; 719-685-5401; cograilway.com).
Back in town, we break for lunch at The Loop and get our fill of Mexican fare: chips, salsa and chicken burritos (entrees from $5.95, kids' menu from $4.25; 719-685-9344; theloopatmanitou.com).
It's time now for some exercise at Garden of the Gods, a park of towering red sandstone. We set off down the paved Perkins Central Garden Trail, which passes the Kissing Camels and Sentinel Rock formations, before we check out the visitors' center, where the riveting movie How Did Those Red Rocks Get There? ($5 for adults, $2.50 for kids) explains the geological history of the Garden.
The boys chatter on about plate tectonics and the replica of the rare Theiophytalia kerri dinosaur fossil found here in 1878 (free; 719-634-6666; gardenofgods.com).
Dinner is a family-style meal of oven-fried chicken at the Iron Springs Melodrama Dinner Theater. Happily full, we take our seats in the theater for an old-fashioned play. We're enthralled from the start, booing the mustachioed villain, applauding the brave hero, and oohing over the pretty heroine. The night ends (long past our bedtimes) with an olio a collection of short vaudeville skits and an actor-led group sing-along. The smiles never leave the kids' faces (dinner and show $29.50 for adults, $16.50 for kids 12 and under; 719-685-5104; pikes-peak.com).
SUNDAY: Waterfalls and Giraffes
When we wake to a clear blue sky on our last day, we know it's the perfect time for a trip to Seven Falls, a seven-tiered waterfall at the end of a box canyon. After viewing the falls from the observation deck, we climb the 224 steps beside the falls for a closer look. Kyle runs up and down the stairs, while Paisley giggles as she tosses fish food to rainbow trout in a pool at the bottom of the falls ($9 for adults, $5.50 for kids ages 6 to 15; 719-632-0752;sevenfalls.com).
Before we left home, we had decided to go geocaching at Cheyenne Mountain State Park.
Geocaching is a high-tech scavenger hunt; participants leave small treasures in outdoor locations, then register the coordinates at such websites as geocaching.com. Armed with our GPS unit and maps, we hit the trails.
"I found one!"
Jared shouts, then, "I found another one!"
Paisley takes a treasure from each box and puts in one of the small toys we have on hand just for the occasion ($6 for a daily vehicle parkpass; 719-576-2016; parks.state.co.us/ parks/cheyennemountain).
We picnic on sandwiches before venturing to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. First, we try the Mountaineer Sky Ride. "This is awesome!" Paisley says as the chairlift carries us above the tigers for a sweeping view of Colorado Springs. Afterward, we make a beeline for the giraffes, who eat crackers right from the children's hands ($14.25 for adults, $7.25 for kids ages 3 to 11; Sky Ride $5 for adults, $4 for kids ages 3 to 11; 719-633-9925; cmzoo.org).
Our weekend draws to a close at the Mason Jar with chicken-fried steak and root beer (served in Mason jars, of course). We debate which parts of our trip should take top honors, but all agree we have had an unforgettable weekend once again (sandwiches from $6.89, kids' menu from $4.19; 719-632-4820; masonjarcolorado.com).
WHERE TO STAY
We like Quality Inn & Suites at Garden of the Gods, near downtown Colorado Springs, for its easy access to everything on our itinerary (doubles from $80; 719-593-9119; qualityinnandsuitescs.com).
The Rodeway Inn at the CastAways in Manitou Springs has many Victorian-style rooms, plus a pirate-themed restaurant (doubles from $89; 877-586-3300; castawaysinn.com).
El Colorado Lodge, located at the foot of Pikes Peak, offers adobe cabins and outdoor games such as tetherball and horseshoes (four-person cabins from $75; 800-782-2246; elcolorado.net).