Colorado holds the distinction of being a state of great contrast in its dramatic beauty. From the eastern part of the state where you see nothing but flat land for miles, it's a quick journey to the dramatic Rockies and a long, windy trip to the mesas and canyons on the state's western edge. At an average elevation of 6,800 feet above sea level, Colorado ranks highest among all U.S. states.
Rocky Mountain Altitude
When Coloradans talk about the Rocky Mountain high, they mean it literally. Within the range that cuts through the central 40 percent of the state, defining its population centers in the foothills, 54 peaks soar more than 14,000 feet into the air. This includes Pikes Peak at 14,117 feet, which features a rail route for tourists to the top, and Mount Evans, which peaks at 14,260 feet and bears the highest paved road in the country. Rocky Mountain National Park isn't for visitors who have trouble with high altitudes. Even if you're not ascending 14,000-foot peaks, you're traveling on roads and trails between 7,800 feet to more than 12,000 feet. Altitude sickness can strike up to a fifth of visitors at 8,000 feet and the odds increase the higher you climb.
Flat, But Not Level
Covering approximately 40 percent of the eastern portion of the state, the Great Plains appear to be flat grassland but are gently angling up toward the foothills. That means from the eastern border of the state, where the elevation hovers around 3,350 to 4,000 feet, the plains gradually climb more than 200 miles to a height of between 5,000 and 6,000 feet. Though a vast, dry region of few cities, the Colorado plains do have tourist draws. The Comanche National Grassland in the southeast corner of the state is a living history museum with ancient rock art, dinosaur tracks, the old Santa Fe Trail and abandoned homesteads of 19th century settlers.
The western end of Colorado, sandwiched between the red rock arches and canyon lands of Utah and Colorado's Rocky Mountains, is a plateau region home to dramatic mesas that sometimes hit 10,000 feet in elevation. These are interspersed with canyons carved by many generations of snow runoff. The Grand Mesa Scenic Byway climbs the 500-square-mile flat-topped mountain, which peaks at 11,237 feet. Mesa Verde National Park in the southwestern corner of the state blends archaeological treasure with signature landforms including ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings nestled into the rock formations, and remains of a tower and temple atop the mesa.
Big-Name Rivers and Alpine Lakes
Colorado is a dry state: just 371 square miles of the state are covered with water. Yet the Rockies and their immense snow runoff make the state the origin of major rivers including the Rio Grande, the Platte, the Colorado and the Arkansas. The Arkansas River, a mecca for kayakers and whitewater rafting as well as camping and even gold panning, contains the site of the lowest elevation in the state at 3,315 feet where it crosses the state border with Kansas. And even though Colorado's lakes aren't large in area, they do rank among the big dogs in terms of the highest lakes in the world. Little Echo Lake, accessible only by hiking a mile-long trail near James Peak, measures 11,185 feet above sea level, while the five Brainard Lakes in the Roosevelt National Forest can be reached by car during the summer months and sit at 10,360 feet.