Red Rocks Concert Experience: Make the Most of It

We were Red Rocks newbies when we went to see two nights of The String Cheese Incident. If you’re planning to go to this iconic outdoor amphitheater, we’ve got some advice for you.

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Tickets at Red Rocks

First of all, the place only holds about 7500 people, so be sure to get tickets in advance. We saw a lot of people in the parking lots “needing a miracle,” and most were disappointed. Second, we had a little mishap with the ticket app on my phone. It’s up to you, but you may want to spend the extra money to get printed tickets. (See our “Getting Ready…” article for details on that.)

The Region

Red Rocks is just outside of Denver, so be sure to go in a day or two early and check out the Denver scene. We got a hotel room near the 16th Street Mall where there’s lots of nightlife. It’s also close to the Colorado capitol building, the Denver Art Museum, Civic Center Park, the Denver Public Library, and more.

Colorado Capitol Building
Colorado Capitol Building
Denver Art Museum
Denver Art Museum
Denver Public Library Tower

As I was taking a picture of the library tower, a lady came up and suggested that we go inside. The views from the tower are good and they have an art collection. We did, and it was pretty cool. The views are good, but the windows needed cleaning. 🙂 The art collection was interesting and you can’t beat the price: free!

We also found free copies of a magazine called Westword, which gives information about nightlife and other cultural activities around Denver. This issue had a cool feature about Kyle Hollingsworth, keyboardist for The String Cheese Incident. He’s a homebrewer who helped a local brewery formulate a recipe for SCIPA (String Cheese IPA), which will begin distribution in the fall.

Denver Nightlife

While walking around, we noticed a Hard Rock Cafe. The sign said “Live music, no cover,” which is promising, but none of the employees knew who the band was that night. I finally got a name, but they couldn’t tell me what style of music they played. We finally stumbled across a place called “Live @ Jack’s” that had a jazz band playing during happy hour (no cover), so we decided to go there for dinner, drinks, and entertainment.

DOTSERO at Live @ Jack's
DOTSERO at Live @ Jack’s

DOTSERO is the Live @ Jack’s house band, and they were incredible! All the musicians were great, but the bass player was outstanding. He did a solo that incorporated several different styles of bass playing, and during the rest of the show he laid down a groove that makes you want to move! Check this out:

The club offered happy hour deals on food and drinks, so we had a nice meal, a few craft beers, and great music for a low price. By the time the band finished, we were filled up and tired of sitting, so we just walked around the 16th Street Mall and did some people-watching before heading back to the hotel.

On to Red Rocks!

Leaving Denver, Heading to Red Rocks
Leaving Denver, Heading to Red Rocks

It’s a short drive from Denver to Red Rocks, with a nice view of the Rocky Mountains. We got to the Origin Hotel, the official hotel of Red Rocks, earlier than check-in time, so I asked the guy at the desk about sightseeing in the area. He gave me directions to several places. We picked one and headed there, but along the way, we got sidetracked and ended up at the top of Lookout Mountain, which has a nature center and a few other tourist areas. The view at the top of the mountain is spectacular!

View from the top of Lookout Mountain near Red Rocks
View from the top of Lookout Mountain
(The pics don’t do it justice.)

The road we took to go up the mountain wasn’t all that scenic or challenging, but going back down the other side … well, let’s just say that it was hard to watch the road while driving. On the other hand, the road was winding and steep, so my grip on the steering wheel was very tight. And my travel companion made sure I kept my eyes on the road!

Driving down Lookout Mountain
Driving down Lookout Mountain
(At least there’s a guard rail!)

Within a few miles of Red Rocks and the Origin Hotel, there are several touristy things to do, as well as hiking trails, scenic overlooks, and parks. Ask a local if you’re looking for something specific or, if you’re like us, just drive around and when you see a sign for something that looks interesting, check it out.

Origin Hotel

Origin Hotel at Red Rocks
Origin Hotel

The Origin Hotel is located just a few miles from the Red Rocks Park and concert venue. It’s a little pricey, especially on the weekends, but it’s nice to be close to the show. The room was clean and spacious and the view was even better.

The view from our room, including the gas station whose name makes everyone giggle.

The hotel has a bar, restaurant, and patio. Across the street, there’s a brewpub and a bar & grill. We ate at the bar & grill one night and the hotel the other night; both meals were excellent and reasonably priced. The bar & grill is a family operation; we met the owner, his daughter, and his son-in-law, who were all working there at the time. Nice people.

If you want to save some money, consider camping instead of a hotel. Just be aware that there are bears in the area. (We like to camp but we’ve never camped in bear country, and after reading the warnings about bear boxes and stuff, we decided to splurge on the hotel.)

On to the Show!

To avoid traffic hassles, we decided to buy tickets to the shuttle that takes you to the show and back to the hotel.

The shuttle to Red Rocks
Inside the shuttle to Red Rocks

The shuttle seemed like a good idea when we made our plans, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t do it again. It’s $25/person, and the drop off/pick up site is at the farthest spot in the parking lot, leaving you with a long uphill climb to reach the venue. The bus leaves the hotel an hour before the gates open and departs from the venue 30 minutes after the show ends, so you’ll need to high-tail it back after the show or you’ll be left behind. If you’re going to buy band merchandise, do it before the show or between sets; don’t miss the bus because you were standing in line!

If we go back to Red Rocks again, I’ll just drive from the hotel to the show. I’m not one to get wasted at concerts – I like to remember my good times – so the drive isn’t a big deal to me. But if you’re inclined to overindulge, then do yourself (and everyone else) a favor and take the shuttle! (The venue also has a Lyft option but from what we heard, it’s not well organized.)

Red Rocks Park

Red Rocks is in the mountains and if you see a show there, expect some climbing. The only way to minimize that is to go really early, park in the upper lot, and get seats in the far back. Of course, in a place that only holds 7500 people, the last row still has a good view of the stage and an even better view of the valley below.

View from the back row at Red Rocks
The view from the back row isn’t bad

Normally, the shuttle drops you off at the lower south lot, but on our first day out, there were thunderstorms in the area so the driver took us to the top. (We still had to go to the lower south lot for pick-up later.) Luckily we only had a few sprinkles that night; most of the storm went north of us.

Speaking of weather, be prepared for pretty much anything in season. The mountains create a microclimate that makes weather prediction difficult, so dress in layers and bring a light raincoat or poncho, just in case.

Go for the Day!

Red Rocks is more than an amphitheater – it’s a park, museum, and hiking area. We went back on our second day there and checked out the park and museum. We didn’t do a lot of hiking since we wanted to conserve energy for the show (walking and dancing). The museum includes exhibits about the geology and geography of the region as well as a wing dedicated to the artists who’ve played Red Rocks.

The geology of Red Rocks
Science!
The Grateful Dead holds the record for most Red Rocks performances
File this under “Bands I Wish I’d Seen at Red Rocks”
Drive-thru tunnel at Red Rocks
Drive-thru tunnel
Valley view from Red Rocks
Valley view from the Red Rocks walkway

There’s a picnic area too; you can bring your own food or buy something at the restaurant. The restaurant is only open from 10:30 AM to 2:30 PM for the general public, but concert-goers (with tickets) can go there for dinner on the day of the show. If you’re planning to drive to the show, we recommend that you go for the day, park in an upper lot, and eat at the restaurant.

The Red Rocks Concert Experience

We’ve always wanted to visit the Rocky Mountains but what drew us to the area was to see a show at the iconic amphitheater. I have to say, it was everything I’d hoped for. The atmosphere was laid back, the employees were friendly, the fans were exuberant, and the scenery was gorgeous. Many times during the shows, I looked up and spun around for a full 360-degree view, just taking it all in. I think the location inspires the artists, too; they know the history of the place and it must bring out the best in their performances. (See our first night and second night articles for our reviews of the shows themselves.)

String Cheese Incident at Red Rocks
String Cheese Incident performing an inspired set at Red Rocks

Leaving the Area

With both shows behind us, the morning after was a bit of a downer, knowing that the fun was mostly done and we had about sixteen hours of windshield time ahead of us. Since we planned to drive it in two days, we decided to do some sightseeing along the way. Some friends recommended Estes Park, a resort town about two hours north of Denver on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, so we headed that direction. Along the way, we stopped at a scenic overlook and saw this:

Estes Park scenic overlook
Estes Park scenic overlook

The town has a visitor center with an information booth. They offer free shuttles around town, leaving the visitor center every 30 minutes. We rode two different shuttles and caught some nice scenery along the routes – a great way to get an hour of sightseeing at no cost! On one route, we saw the Estes Park Aerial Tramway going up a mountain. (File this under “Things Lisa will never do.”)

Estes Park Aerial Tramway
Image credit: visitestespark.com

After leaving Estes Park, we had the choice of going back the way we came or going north towards Cheyenne, WY to get on I-80. We opted for the road we hadn’t yet traveled: US-34 East to I-25 north. If you’re looking for the fastest route, this isn’t it, but if you’re looking for great views and a fun drive, we highly recommend it! That section of US-34 is a long and winding road, with each curve followed by yet another spectacular view. Much of the road follows a river and there are several pull-off areas along the way. I’m not an overly emotional guy, but there were times along the drive when I felt a lump in my throat, just from the scenery. Lisa took tons of pictures and a few videos so I could focus on driving, but even behind the wheel, it’s impossible not to be moved by the views.

Driving thru the Rocky Mountains
The view from behind the windshield.
Driving thru the Rocky Mountains
Another windshield view

Here we are at one of those scenic pull-offs:

scenic pull-off in the Rocky Mountains
I travel with beauty, but the background ain’t bad either, huh?

Get the Full Red Rocks Experience

It’s great to see a show at Red Rocks, but if you’re making the trip, you might as well enhance the experience while you’re there. There’s lots of culture in Denver and absolutely gorgeous scenery in the surrounding areas. Hopefully, this gives you a few ideas about what to do while you’re in the Red Rocks area.

Please leave a comment and tell us about your Red Rocks experience!

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