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Gone are the days when the ‘Mile High City’ was just a sleepy Old West-flavoured gateway to the world-class skiing of Colorado. Denver has grown-up immensely over the last two decades and is now one of America’s most dynamic, desirable urban centres, boasting everything from vibrant nightlife, extensive shopping and exceptional cuisine to full array of professional sports franchises. Nonetheless, its location at the divide of the Great Plains and the Rockies still makes it very attractive to outdoor lovers. As such, those looking to make the best of a trip here should opt for a rental car if they want to reach prime spots for hiking, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, camping, rock climbing and the like.
Who to Book With
Virtually every major car hire firm with US operations has rental locations in and around the city of Denver. Air passengers can find National Car Rental, Enterprise, Hertz, Budget, Dollar, Thrifty, Avis, Advantage, Alamo, Payless and others at Denver International Airport. However, those already in town will find much more convenient branches from nearly all the same firms in close vicinity to North Broadway in the downtown area. Additionally, Budget, Hertz, Avis and Enterprise branches can be found near the Denver Technological Center and throughout the Front Range suburbs. All vehicles should be booked online in advance to secure the best rates.
Best time to go
Denver sees the most visitors during two separate peaks; from December to April, when the ski industry is in full swing; and again in the surprisingly toasty months of July and August, when summer visitors head here to visit the region’s national parks and similar outdoor destinations. Car hire prices can increase dramatically during these times, particularly over Christmas and New Year when the local holiday rush, combined with skiers, compounds demand. Make sure you book in advance to ensure a good rate.
Need to Know Essentials
The following documents need to be brought to the rental counter in Denver when collecting your hire car:
- A valid driving license (International Driving Permit may be required for some nationalities – check with your rental firm in advance)
- A valid passport (non-US residents only)
- The credit card used to make the booking
- Your booking number
As with most locations in the vast, spacious western region of the United States, Denver is a very car-friendly city. Motorists here enjoy wide roadways, easy navigation and plenty of free parking nearly everywhere, with the exception of the downtown area. Petrol is fairly cheap too.
However, growing pains have increased traffic congestion on the Front Range in recent years and delays can be substantial for peak-hour trips, especially during heavy weather days in wintertime, although these occur far less frequently than most expect. If you’re transiting across town, bypass the centre via the E-470 tollway to avoid the majority of congestion (although you’ll trade great city and mountain views for a very bland route on the plains).
Most importantly, if you’re headed into the high country, be prepared for hazardous weather any time of year, as Colorado is notorious for its changeable weather conditions. In winter, reduced visibility, icy roadways and steep grades frequently overwhelm visiting motorists, so proceed with extreme caution. Always check local advisories before setting out; snow chains and/or a 4WD are often required for trips over the Loveland Pass (to Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort) and the Berthoud Pass (to Winter Park Resort) in the winter and spring.
Denver’s public transport system has improved vastly over the last decade or so and is fairly useful for many in-town visitors. However, tourists are strongly advised to opt for a rental car if they want to experience the best of the region, as many of the top attractions are otherwise inaccessible. See below for some brief information on how to get around the Mile High City.
Denver’s RTD Light Rail network has opened several new lines in recent years, providing a service to the southern and western suburbs as well as to most major landmarks in the city centre, notably Invesco Field at Mile High, Auraria Campus, the Convention Center, the Pepsi Center and the 16th Street Mall. All routes converge at the southern area of downtown just west of Capital hill, and the system is fairly fast and generally reliable. Trains run nearly 24 hours, although intervals can last in excess of 90 minute between 2:00 and 05:00 in the morning.
Taxis aren’t used as frequently in Denver as in America’s larger cities. In fact, their primary purpose here seems to be for a safe ride home from a night out drinking, which becomes annoyingly evident by the extreme difficulty of getting one after midnight on weekends. Nonetheless, they are available, although you’ll almost always need to arrange it by phone unless you’re staying at a major hotel downtown. Yellow Cab and Metro Taxi are the two largest firms.
The RTD public bus network is fairly extensive and serves the entire Denver Metro Area, as well as some outlying locations, notably the university city of Boulder. The RTD central Market Street Station hub is situated next to the popular 16th Street Mall in Denver’s downtown area. From here, you can easily walk to the Greyhound station on 20th Street for coach services to points across the US. Alternately, ride the convenient RTD Skyride bus for an express service directly to Denver International Airport.
With such a wide range of nearby natural attractions, the relatively low cost of petrol in Colorado and the ease of access to rental cars, journeys out of Denver proper are simply a must for any visit here. It may be difficult to know where to begin, so we’ve listed a few popular destinations below to get you started.
Rocky Mountain National Park - In summer, you’re highly advised to cruise up to the stunning sights of Trail Ridge Road in Colorado’s renowned Rocky Mountain National Park. This high altitude classic American destination offers excellent views of the 14,000ft Long’s Peak and the surrounding alpine valleys from above the timberline. If you’re there in late spring or early summer, be sure to check to beforehand that the road is open, as it’s likely that it won’t be until almost July if the previous winter was particularly snowy.
Red Rocks Park - Another regional favourite, set on the edge of the foothills just west of town. Here, you can hike through a nice network of trails amid – you guessed it – a massive collection of red boulders resting on one of the continent’s biggest geological divides. In the summer, the 9,500-seat Red Rocks Amphitheater hosts concerts in one of the world’s most unique natural settings. The city lights of Denver behind the stage are especially enchanting. This venue is known for having inspired all sorts of artists through the years, from Jimi Hendrix to the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
Loveland Ski Area - Skiers and Snowboarders have a massive array of great resorts and back country terrain to choose from within a two-hour drive of Denver. That being said, the Loveland Ski Area is a favourite among seasoned locals thanks to the thinner crowds, more terrain variety and its close proximity just over hour from downtown Denver. Check conditions before setting out, however, as this resort is particularly exposed. You’ll probably want to opt for something like Winter Park or Copper Mountain if the forecast is predicting gusty weather.