Fall Family Fun in Fort Collins, Colorado

My husband graduated from Colorado State University in Fort Collins (eons ago), but we hadn’t spent any significant time in the college town before last weekend. To be honest, if we’re heading to the “big city,” we usually drive to Denver for museums, restaurants and shopping. But we found Fort Collins a great place to explore for the weekend, especially under gorgeous autumn skies. Hiking, biking and plenty of dining options make Fort Collins a great place to visit with school-age children. A new family-friendly museum set to open next month now adds to the allure, for sure; in fact, I’d recommend a stop in Fort Collins for families passing through on a road trip, mountain dwellers who would like an urban fix or Denver families looking for something different to do this winter.

Here are the highlights from our family weekend in Fort Collins:

Love this sign in the museum elevator.

Fort Collins Museum of Discovery: This brand-new museum opens to the public November 10, but my family and I were lucky enough to preview it last week.  Though the museum was still a construction site, and not all of the exhibits were installed yet, it was so easy for me to visualize that this engaging, interactive place is going to be a huge hit with families. The former Fort Collins Museum (dedicated to history of the area) and the Discovery Science Center merged to form this new museum inside 47,000 square feet of new construction. Exhibits focus on both history of Fort Collins and Colorado, as well as science; it’s an unusual blend, but it works.

There’s a focus on music, with areas where kids (I suggest age 6 and up) and adults can jam alone or with each other on a variety of instruments; the historic instruments (glass harmonica, anyone?) are really cool, and my son was enthralled with the $15,000 Sonic Chair, where you  sit and select music from and iPad and feel it vibrate through your whole body.

My son lifts a piano. Physics fun!

Sitting in a giant iPad speaker, listening to tunes.

Bad hair day inside the Tornado Chamber.

Beyond the “Music & Sound Lab,” six other themed areas feature a variety of exhibits, including live animals found in local wilderness areas; a cast of a 42-foot plesiosaur, which was a prehistoric creature that used to roam Colorado’s waters;  a replica of a beet shack and interactive harvest; and even a tornado simulator. Plus, the 85-seat digital dome theater is a large-format, 360-degree space that will show films that will complete surround the viewer (similar to a planetarium, but the theater could show, say, a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon).

The museum was built with environmentally friendly practices, including solar panels on the roof and lots of reclaimed materials in use as well (check out the bowling alley lanes on the walls in the entrance). In fact, the museum is aiming for LEED Platinum certification within a year of its opening.

With reasonable entrance fees ($9.50 adults, $7 students, $6 ages 3-12), I think the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery is a must-visit on a family trip to Fort Collins.

Hiking Horsetooth Mountain: The hiking trails at Horsetooth Mountain Open Space are vast and varied. The network is 29 miles in total, and many trails are open to hikers as well as mountain bikes and horses. We opted for a five-mile round-trip up to Horsetooth Rock (from a distance it does look like a horse’s tooth), and found the trails not too crowded and moderately difficult for our 10- and 12-year-olds. As we ascended, we had a great bird’s-eye view of the city and parts of Horsetooth Reservoir. I highly recommend is easily accessible hiking area for a slice of nature not too far from town; the easy 2.25-mile round trip to Horsetooth Falls would be great, I think, for young elementary-age children.

Moderate trail at Horsetooth Mountain Open Space.

A boy and his burger. Happy.

Coopersmith’s Pub: I’ve long been a fan of microbrewery restaurants for family dining. Picky palates of all ages can typically find good food at a brew pub, and Mom and Dad get to drink good beer to boot! Coopersmith’s is a longtime establishment in Fort Collins (my husband remembers drinking there when the restaurant was “just” a bar, and about 1/6 of the current size. We dined on yummy Stout Beer Bread, the Pub Burger, Crab & Shrimp Enchiladas, a pesto pizza and cheese & artichoke dip. No one left hungry! Note, the restaurant does not take reservations, but if you call up to 30 minutes before you arrive to the popular spot, you can put your name on the wait list. Or, the restaurant’s next door “Poolside” area with a slightly different menu. It’s often less crowded.

Yummy herbed butter and cheese spreads with warm bread at Jay’s Bistro.

Jay’s Bistro: My husband and I lucked into a date night during our stint in Fort Collins. We stayed at the Fort Collins Marriott (about a 10-minute drive from downtown/Old Town), and were booked on the Concierge Level, where guests of that floor enjoyed free appetizers and non-alcoholic drinks on Sunday nights. When my kids saw the plentiful spread of roast-beef sliders, cheese and crackers, hummus and veggies, they opted to stay at in the Concierge Club for dinner! My husband drove downtown to Jay’s Bistro, another longtime eatery in Fort Collins. It was a great place for a “date night,” (though I think my tweens definitely could have found something yummy on the menu). I liked the sophisticated decor and atmosphere, as well as the warm bread and herbed spreads that started our meal. The crab cakes and the chile relleno got thumbs’ up from both of us, as well.

Swetsville Zoo: When I first heard of the Swetsville Zoo I thought it was a petting zoo. Oh, no. It’s more than 160 animal sculptures that Bill Swets (thus, the name) built from car parts, machinery and scrap metal on display around his property, just outside Fort Collins in Tinmath (exit 265 off I-25). Admission is free, and if you’re heading south on the interstate and have a few minutes, I think this spot is worth a visit. The creative sculptures are quite inventive!

Gone fishin’ at the Swetsville Zoo.

This guy reminds me of the Disney Channel’s robot, Rolie Polie Olie.

Ack, a giant beetle! (Get it?)

Fort Collins Bike Library: We didn’t have time to borrow bikes from the free lending library in town, but it’s definitely on our list the next time we visit Fort Collins in warm weather (for this season, it’s open through mid-November). For a $150 credit-card deposit — only charged if you don’t return the bike, you can rent cruisers, 8-speed adult bikes, kids’ bikes, tag-a-longs, tandem bikes and even cargo bikes — stick your groceries or a child in the front bucket!

Make a reservation online, or just stop by the convenient Old Town Square location. Rent for as little as one hour, all day or up to a week. I think this is a brilliant way for visitors to experience the bike-friendly nature of Fort Collins.

Cargo bike in action.

Thanks to the Fort Collins Convention and Visitors Bureau for hosting my family’s stay.

One Response to “Fall Family Fun in Fort Collins, Colorado”

  1. 1

    Aww, I love Colorado! It’s so beautiful out there. The sculptures at Swetsville Zoo look awesome! I’ll have to check ’em out in person next time I’m there.

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