Insider’s Guide to Colorado Museums
Do we have museums in Denver and the Pikes Peak Region? The answer is a resounding yes. If you guessed that we have regionally themed museums featuring rodeo cowboys, mining, dinosaurs, and local history, you’d be right on the money. We also have a few surprises for you, including a gleaming hangar filled with restored World War II aircraft, a brothel, a mysterious castle, and more. We don’t expect you to visit them all, but we can guarantee that every one on our list is well worth your time and the entrance fee!
DENVER METRO AREA
Denver Art Museum
100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, Denver
Dating from 1893, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) conjoins two architectural masterpieces. The 1971 fortress-like Gio Ponti building is linked by a covered walkway to Daniel Libeskind’s 2006 Hamilton Building. Its 20 sloping planes are covered in 230,000 square feet of titanium shingles; no plane is parallel or perpendicular to another. Needless to say, it is a vast deconstructivist sculpture posing as an art museum.
And then there’s the art. In 2019, the DAM is creating and hosting the most comprehensive U.S. exhibition of Claude Monet’s paintings in two decades. The exhibition, according to the museum, will “focus on the celebrated French impressionist artist’s enduring relationship with nature and his response to the varied and distinct places in which he worked.”
Denver Museum of Nature & Science
2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver
This expansive municipal natural history museum has everything. Its 716,000-square-foot building houses more than 1 million objects, including natural history and anthropological materials, as well as archival and library resources. Eight themed permanent exhibitions include dinosaurs, dioramas, gems, minerals and meteorites, Egyptian mummies, North American Indian cultures, the evolution of life on Earth, the human body and, summing everything up, the universe and our place within it.
The museum is an independent nonprofit with approximately 350 full-time and part-time staff, more than 1,800 volunteers, and almost 2 million annual visitors. As English literature giant Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” The same might be said of this resplendent museum.
Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities
6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada
The seeds of the Arvada Center were planted in 1972, when sixth-grade students from Secrest Elementary School presented a pageant called Look Back With Pride, created by Arvada teacher Lois Lindstrom to honor the city’s rich history. A few months later, Lindstrom founded the
Arvada Historical Society and worked with the City Council to create a cultural center, which opened its doors in 1976.
Today’s much-expanded Arvada Center is one of Denver metro area’s most significant cultural players, offering multiple theaters, a spacious amphitheater, a history museum, and generously sized galleries.
The opening show for 2019 was a juried display of Colorado artists, aptly named Art of the State. The exhibition drew 1,555 entries from 566 Colorado artists working in all media. Jurors then selected 154 pieces by 135 artists. Covering 10,000 square feet of gallery space, this showcase is considered an “immense celebration of Colorado art.”
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College
30 W. Dale St., Colorado Springs
The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (FAC) at Collorado College is in its third incarnation. Originating as the Broadmoor Art Academy in 1919, it morphed into the FAC in 1936 with the construction of the dazzling southwestern modernist building designed by influential architect John Gaw Meem. Finally, the FAC merged with neighboring Colorado College in 2016, thus forming an enriching alliance for both institutions.
This year, the FAC is celebrating its 100th anniversary in grand style, with multiple events and exhibitions. On display through December 2019, the exhibit O Beautiful! Shifting landscapes of the Pikes Peak Region features historic, modern, and contemporary artists who lived and worked in the region.
National Museum of World War II Aviation
755 Aviation Way, Colorado Springs
Located on a 20-acre site on the Northwest side of the Colorado Springs Airport, you’ll find an amazing, ever-changing array of historic aircraft. Expect to see a fully operational B-25 bomber, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and many others, as well as fascinating historic displays.
The museum’s aircraft are displayed along with a selection of aircraft on loan from private collections around the country to tell the full story behind American advancements in aviation technology during the war.
Another hangar on the site is occupied by WestPac Restorations, a privately owned aircraft restoration facility and one of the premier restorers of WWII-vintage aircraft. Tours of the facility are occasionally available, featuring both restorations in progress and fully operational WWII aircraft.
Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum
215 S. Tejon St., Colorado Springs
Appropriately housed in the magnificent spare-no-expense 1903 City Hall, the city-owned museum is much richer than its name suggests. It houses more than 80,000 photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century, five nationally-significant manuscript collections, along with an object collection of 45,000 items, including art, textiles, and the largest public collection of Van Briggle Art Pottery.
Situated in the center of Alamo Square Park, the museum building is a delightful Victorian confection of every architectural style imaginable. The sumptuous interior and ornate exterior recall the gold-fueled prosperity of Colorado Springs at the turn of the 19th century — it’s more like a gilded-age mansion than a prosaic county courthouse. Saved by determined citizens from the wrecker’s ball in the early 1970s, this municipal treasure is free and open to the public.
ProRodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy
101 Pro Rodeo Drive, Colorado Springs
Founded in 1979, the ProRodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy seeks to enlighten visitors on the impact of rodeo in Western American culture. Humans, horses and bulls are among the hundreds of inductees, reflecting the long and complex history of rodeo.
The Hall of Fame has multiple galleries with captivating exhibits, including one that displays saddles, chaps, ropes, boots, clothing, and artifacts tracing the history of rodeo. If you’re there between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you can check out our favorite living exhibit: retired rodeo bucking horses. They’re good-tempered athletes that enjoy visitors — no autographs, though…
The Sangre de Cristo Arts Center
210 N. Santa Fe Ave., Pueblo
The Sangre de Cristo Arts Center (SDC) in Pueblo opened its doors in 1972. It started small, with an annual budget of about $100,000 and a staff of three. Fast forward to present day — southern Colorado’s leading arts facility is now comprised of a growing three-building complex that includes a theater, multiple galleries, and the separate Buell Children’s Museum.
In its seven galleries, the SDC hosts 24 new annual exhibitions. We’re particularly looking forward to Luster: Realism and Hyperrealism in Contemporary Automobile & Motorcycle Painting, which will be on display in the Hoag Gallery from June through September 2019.
On the first Friday of the month, head for the SDC and participate in tours of the downtown Pueblo Creative Corridor.
419 W. 14th St., Pueblo
The Rosemount is one of the best-preserved Victorian mansions in America. Built in 1893 for Pueblo entrepreneur John Thatcher, it remained a private residence for 75 years.
Thatcher loaded a wagon with merchandise in 1864 in Denver, and made his way to Pueblo. Business flourished and, by the 1880s, Pueblo was Colorado’s largest and most prosperous city, home to steel mills, breweries, smelters, and a railway hub with a vast rail yard.
Thatcher’s 37-room, 24,000-square-foot home was constructed of rose-colored rhyolite quarried near Castle Rock. The interior features carved roses in the elaborate woodwork, 10 fireplaces, Tiffany windows and lights, and 26 original Oriental rugs. Designed by New York architect Henry Hudson Holly, the house encapsulates the tastes of wealthy Americans in the late 19th century.
Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience
44895 W. US-50, Cañon City
A multigenerational Cañon City family, long fascinated by the extraordinary paleontology of the Lower Arkansas Valley, created the expansive Royal Gorge Dinosaur Experience in 2016. Built and operated by the father-son team of David and Zach Reynolds, the museum is simultaneously informative, educational, and interactive.
The museum’s 16,200 square-foot building houses a world-class collection of interactive displays, full-scale dinosaur fossil casts, and real dinosaur fossils. Also on the menu: guided tours, skinned animatronic dinosaur exhibits, and a multistory ropes course.
“Our goal,” said Zach Taylor, “is to ensure that our visitors leave knowing a lot more about Colorado’s paleontological history and carry memories of a great time spent learning, discovering and having fun with their friends and families.”
Royal Gorge Route Railroad
330 Royal Gorge Blvd., Cañon City
Strictly speaking, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad isn’t a museum at all. It’s a heritage railroad that carries passengers on a two-hour scenic train ride through the Royal Gorge along the route of the former Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.
The ride is immersive and unforgettable; you board a sparkling vintage train and enjoy rail travel as it was in the 40s and 50s. Think of it as a museum on rails, a particularly delightful one that serves fine food and drink as well as spectacular scenery. A tip: if you’re in coach, head out early and get a view seat!
The Cripple Creek District Museum
510 Bennett Dr., Cripple Creek
The museum has a cluster of five historic structures, including the 1894 Colorado Trading & Transfer Company building, the 1895 Midland Terminal Depot, the 1900 Assay Office, and two small 1890s homes later moved to the site.
Together, they offer a sense of life in the world’s greatest gold camp, when the Midland operated 10 passenger trains daily and the brawling city had a population of more than 20,000. But the mines ran out in the early 1900s and Cripple Creek essentially became a ghost town.
Enter Blevins Davis, a flamboyant Colorado Springs resident who founded the museum in 1953. Ironically, Davis’s life replicated Cripple Creek’s early history; he unexpectedly inherited a fortune in 1948, and blew it all by 1958. But that’s life, as the gamblers, scammers, swindlers, speculators, miners, and dance hall girls well understood.
Old Homestead House Museum
353 Myers Ave., Cripple Creek
The Homestead House was once the most famous brothel in Cripple Creek. Owned and operated by Pearl DeVere, it was a private club catering to the overnight millionaires who had struck it rich in this improbable boomtown.
In contrast to the typical wages for a miner — $3 a day was viewed as a respectable pay — DeVere wisely set her room price at $250 a night. Despite its present-day aura of gold rush glamor, it was a difficult life. DeVere died of a morphine overdose in 1897, and is buried beneath a heart-shaped marble gravestone in Cripple Creek’s Mount Pisgah Cemetery. Today, the Homestead House has been “lovingly restored with velvet bedspreads and handmade furniture.”
Cripple Creek Heritage and Information Center
9283 CO-67, Cripple Creek
Perched on a knoll a few hundred feet above Cripple Creek, the Heritage Museum is a convenient first stop for visitors. You can enjoy interactive exhibits, focusing on a dozen different subjects including gold mining techniques, gems and minerals, railroads, and Colorado wildlife. A wall of west-facing windows offers panoramic views of the city and the usually snow-capped mountains of the Sawatch and Sangre de Cristo ranges.
If you’re traveling with Fido, the museum also has enclosed dog runs for both large and small mutts, allowing you to browse the museum at leisure.
Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center
201 S. Fairview St., Woodland Park
Dinosaur museums are extraordinarily popular, especially for families traveling with children. As all parents know, dinosaur-mania primarily affects kids from five to their midteens. Once infected with this agreeable disease, it never quite goes away, although it may lie dormant during the storms of adolescence.
Founded by Mike Triebold, a dinosaur-obsessed kid turned paleontologist, the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center is cleverly designed to appeal to all ages. There’s high-level earth science for adults to enjoy and pretend to understand, as well kid-friendly, highly touchable exhibits.
Mike’s company, Triebold Paleontology, created the casts and exhibits at the 20,000 square foot museum, which also includes a well-stocked gift shop.
9 Capitol Hill Ave., Manitou Springs
Jean-Baptiste Francolon, a French Catholic priest, built Miramont Castle as a home in 1895. It’s a wonderful late-Victorian mishmash of architectural styles. Its four levels are perched on a steep hill, with a grand front entrance on the ground level. The 14,000-square-foot house museum includes eight-sided rooms, a 16-sided room, a solarium, arched doors and, thanks to its hillside location, oddly-shaped rooms throughout.
An underground tunnel to the neighboring Montcalm Sanitarium once connected to the house. There were also rumored to be other secret tunnels, hidden compartments, and escape routes incorporated in the structure. And, as you’d expect, the castle is widely believed to be haunted.
In any case it’s a spectacular place, a full-on manifestation of the airy creativity that still animates Manitou Springs.