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Fort Collins is packed with food, drink and outdoorsy day-cation options

Northern exposure

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Gardens at Spring Creek - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Gardens at Spring Creek
Northern Colorado’s a different beast. Dryness pervades Colorado Springs, and the stretch of I-25 between it and Denver can be best described as prairie. But far enough north, the land gets quieter — and much greener. Farms abut the highway, and the traffic mellows out as the smell of exhaust gives way to manure. There’s a palpable peace, if rural living’s your thing.

Two hours north of the Springs, Fort Collins lies in the rolling hills, the last major city before the Wyoming border. It’s just close enough for a day trip, but far enough to feel distant, both from the Springs and bustling Denver. Over Memorial Day weekend, we drove up see what’s new and destination-worthy. Here’s what we found:

Get outside

Power to the pedal! - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Power to the pedal!
The Gardens at Spring Creek (2145 Centre Ave.) are Fort Collins’ botanical gardens, and our visit lines up just wrong with a hail storm that’s ravaged many of the plants. But while they weren’t at their sturdy spring best, we’re still impressed by sculptures large and small that the space plays home to. We dig also the Garden of Eatin’, dedicated to edible plants — cool in and of itself, but more impressive, the produce that comes off of them gets donated to the Food Bank for Larimer County. There’s also a massive outdoor demonstration kitchen, where they’ll hold cooking classes starting in August. It’s an especially good spot for those with young ones. The Children’s Garden area shows off raised beds planted by kids, as well as scarecrows and a pump-operated water feature. Another 5 acres of gardens now under construction and set to open in the fall will include a stage with a half-acre lawn for seating, plus more native and local-condition-friendly plants.

Try also: Swetsville Zoo (4801 E. Harmony Road, 970/484-9509), a quirky and delightful sculpture garden. Horsetooth Reservoir County Park (4200 W. County Road 38E), a go-to for a light hike, popular with locals and tourists alike. Twin Silo Park (5552-5564 Ziegler Road), opened in November 2017, features plenty of open space, community gardens and a huge shaded play area for kids, including a two-story enclosed slide made from old grain silos.

Grab a bite

The Fox and The Crow - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • The Fox and The Crow
On a friend’s recommendation, we stop by The Fox and The Crow (2601 S. Lemay Ave., #9), a cheesemonger and bistro. The quaint little shop sports massive cheese and meat refrigerators, ideal for curating a charcuterie picnic if that’s your speed. And the spot offers a range of custom-curated meat and/or cheese boards for dining in, as well as a bistro menu with sandwiches and other bites. We try a slice of French ham and Gruyere quiche with a bowl of daily-special tomato bisque. The former’s as light as we’ve ever had without sacrificing flavor. The latter’s just fine, decorated with cream, latte-art style. We also try a glorious ploughman’s lunch, a board with pâté, cheddar, goat cheese, blue cheese, green salad, crostini, marcona almonds, candied mixed nuts and shelled pistachios. It’s enough for two, with myriad combinations. They also offer five taps of beer, a cider, and four taps of wine. Check online for classes and pairings starting in August — they’re sold out for the 2017/18 season.

Try also: The Welsh Rabbit (200B Walnut St.), a small plates-centric French-style bistro with cheese and meat platters and, for the adventurous, crickets. For a more casual dining option, try Music City Hot Chicken (111 W. Prospect Road C), a spot specializing in fried chicken and beer, offering different flavors and spice levels, as well as specials like a fried softshell crab sandwich.

Have a cocktail

Elevation 5003 - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Elevation 5003
Fort Collins has seven distilleries to choose from, but we opt for Elevation 5003 (2601 S. Lemay Ave., #8) for two reasons. First, they’re next door to The Fox and The Crow. Second, we’re told that it’s the craft cocktails as much as the spirits that sets them apart. We start by sampling the house-infused fig vodka, a mighty figgy spirit that’s smooth but not overly sweet. Noting that the cocktails run $8 or $9 each, we add a Kirb Stomps, an intriguing mojito cousin featuring signature Lunarshine corn whiskey with honey, white balsamic, ginger, mint and soda. The Telenovela, made with Narrow Road vodka, turmeric, lime, passion fruit and cilantro, sips mega-fresh and fruity. And the Earl Grey martini’s tea-infused Timber Ridge gin, lavender syrup, lemon and egg white mix comes over dry and very floral, with a lavender bud garnish’s floral nose pushing against balancing creaminess and citrus. They also offer a fine falernum, a Caribbean spice-infused liqueur.

Try also: CopperMuse Distillery (244 N. College Ave., #105), located in happenin’ downtown FoCo, offers food and cocktails made with its rums, vodkas, infusions and liqueurs. Whiskey drinkers should hit Feisty Spirits Distillery (1708 E. Lincoln Ave., #1) for bourbons, brandies and flavored spirits. All three spots are on the Colorado Spirits Trail — see coloradospiritstrail.com for more on that.

Pour a pint

Horse & Dragon Brewing Company - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Horse & Dragon Brewing Company
It wouldn’t be a tour guide to Colorado without beer, and Fort Collins has stellar breweries to spare. Those who’ve taken tours at big-name New Belgium and Odell Brewing Companies — free, but online reservations are required for both — may want to relax with a local pint somewhere smaller. Beer fans may already be familiar with Horse & Dragon Brewing Company (124 Racquette Drive) as a few taprooms in the Springs have offered their wares. Founded in 2014 by Tim and Carol Cochran and former Odell brewer/Colorado State University adjunct professor Linsey Cornish, the spot serves a range of killer brews. We’ve seen Sad Panda coffee stout on tap around town, and the complex brew’s a delight, a lovely dessert beer with vanilla notes. But on our first visit to the brewery, our favorite’s the Maracuyá IPA, brewed with name-granting passionfruit. There’s a hop bitterness and citrus aroma that plays perfectly with the tart but not overpowering fruit; it’s a fine beer especially for spring or summer.

Try also: Three Four Beer Co. (829 S. Shields St.) is Cornish’s new digs since leaving H&D in 2017; this three-barrel brewery also serves a selection of beers from around the country. Purpose Brewing and Cellars (4025 S. Mason St., Unit C) was founded by former New Belgium brewmaster Peter Bouckaert and former 1933 Brewing brewer Zach Wilson, specializing in barrel-aged sours and complex fruit/herb/spice beers; their $40 cellar experience tour includes six tasters and a cheese plate from The Welsh Rabbit.

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