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Low-budget fun in the Mile High City

Denver and the Rocky Mountains are tailor-made for frugal vacations. Scenic campsites, decent fishing, hunting, rock climbing, rafting and hiking are all within an hour's drive.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Denver and the Rocky Mountains are tailor-made for frugal vacations. Scenic campsites, decent fishing, hunting, rock climbing, rafting and hiking are all within an hour's drive. And depending on the time of year, you can find free skiing, hotel rooms at deeply discounted prices, and breaks on meals at the Mile High City's finest dining establishments.

Getting around
City buses run between Denver International Airport and downtown for $10 each way, $18 roundtrip, with discounts for senior citizens and students up to the 12th grade. Generally, bus fare around town is $2 per trip, and day passes are $6.

Downtown, you can easily get by with a little stamina, good walking shoes and a free shuttle that runs up and down the 16th Street Mall from the gold-domed state Capitol to Union Station in the hip Lower Downtown neighborhood known as LoDo. (There's also free Wi-Fi along the mall, if you need to look up any of this online.)

Dozens of miles of bike trails lace Denver and run to its suburbs in the foothills and plains. The city is working to have 500 loaner bicycles for visitors at no charge, starting at a few dozen bike stations around downtown, this summer.

Free fun
Parks: Denver has more than 200 parks, rivers and trail areas, public golf courses and recreation centers. In July, Sloan Lake northwest of downtown hosts an annual Colorado Dragon Boat Festival: Teams of paddlers from across the nation race to the beat of drums in celebration of a centuries-old Chinese tradition.

State capitol: Climb to the gold-covered dome for a 360-degree view of Denver and the Rocky Mountains to the west. Or head outside to the west steps, where a brass cap marks the spot that's exactly one mile above sea level. Reservations are advised.

U.S. Mint: Tours of the U.S. Mint are offered free from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, excluding federal holidays. Reservations are required.

: True, adult general-admission tickets are usually $10 for Colorado residents or $13 for everyone else. But on the first Saturday of every month, they're free. The museum's titanium-paneled addition designed by architect Daniel Libeskind is a work of art itself, jutting across 13th Avenue.

Ruby Hill Rail Yard: Weather permitting, the Denver Parks and Recreation Department has been erecting rails in Ruby Hill Park for snowboarders and skiers to practice their tricks for free on what was traditionally a neighborhood sled hill.

Cheap entertainment
If you're visiting after baseball season starts in April, get a cheap seat at Coors Field to watch the Colorado Rockies. "Rockpile" tickets in center field are just $4 apiece, unless you're age 12 and younger or age 55 and older, in which case you can get one for $1.

After the game, visit the nearby El Chapultepec jazz club. The seats are weathered, space around the bar gets crowded, and the food is best left for after you're well on the way to a hangover, but entry is free. There is a one-drink-per-set minimum, but once the bar is humming, who's counting? El Chapultepec, 1962 Market St., 303-295-9126.

Food and drink
Carts along the 16th Street Mall offer fare like hot dogs, paninis, burritos and barbecue.

McCormick's Fish House & Bar, 1659 Wazee St., attached to The Oxford Hotel downtown, has a happy hour every day from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. (and another happy hour later at night) with items like a half-pound cheeseburger and fries for $1.95. Even ahi burgers are less than $5. And here's a special many locals don't know: If there's fresh snow hitting the ground, you can get an Irish coffee for $1.

, 3131 Walnut St., offers Pabst Blue Ribbon for 50 cents after 9 p.m. Wednesdays.

During Denver Restaurant Week, Feb. 21-27, you can find meals for two at fine-dining spots like Mizuna, Vesta Dipping Grill and Elway's for $52.80, a nod to the city's elevation at 5,280 feet above sea level. Tax and gratuity are extra. This year, nearly 200 restaurants are participating.

Where to stay
Generally, rooms are cheaper farther from the downtown core. But avoid the hostels. Splurge on a hotel.

If you happen to be in town in the weeks before Christmas, December can be slow for convention business, so several Denver hotels in recent years have signed on to offer rates of $52.80 during the early winter holidays. This is your cue to call The Oxford Hotel, a historic, luxury hotel in the heart of downtown where rooms can regularly go for four times as much. You'll have to ask for the special price specifically, not just for the hotel's best offer.

Side trips
Red Rocks Park in the foothills west of Denver is dominated by slabs of sandstone jutting into the air. Red Rocks Amphitheatre, built with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, is one of the best places to see a concert under the stars. Almost every year there is a free Easter sunrise service.

Self-guided visits to Dinosaur Ridge in Morrison and the fossils embedded there are free. Dinosaur tracks and dinosaurs like the stegosaurus have been found in the Dino Ridge area.

Try a free tour of the MillerCoors brewery in nearby Golden. No tours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or major holidays though, 866-812-2337.

Celestial Seasonings in Boulder also offers free tours for tea fans.

If you thought the architecture of the Denver Art Museum was unusual, check out the precise lines of the Air Force Academy's Cadet Chapel north of Colorado Springs.

Pikes Peak, whose summit overlooking Colorado Springs tops 14,000 feet, inspired the lyrics for "America the Beautiful." An 8.9-mile cog railway takes visitors to the top; the round trip takes about three hours.

Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs is free. The unusually thin, tall red rock formations will draw you in for a closer look.

Itching to ski somewhere other than Ruby Hill? Hit the grocery store first. Single-day lift tickets can cost up to $97 depending on the resort, but you can often get them much cheaper at King Soopers or Safeway grocery stores in the Denver area. While you're there, pick up food so you don't have to buy from the resort cafeteria. Some sporting goods shops also sell discounted lift tickets, so check when you're picking out rental gear.