Last year’s holiday season felt, at times, like an alternate-universe version of itself, the lack of COVID-19 vaccines and in-person gatherings creating an unfamiliar quiet.
This year offers no shortage of challenges outside of the holidays. But at least there’s a refreshed slate of holiday lighting displays, parades and tree lightings — family-friendly and largely outdoors — to help us get back in a festive mood.
With few exceptions, they’re timed, ticketed and governed by vax-or-mask COVID-19 mandates — an important detail with Colorado hospital beds at a premium in metro area counties. Most events do not offer on-site ticket sales, and many are likely to sell out in the coming week or two. Check each event’s website before attending, and bring masks just to be safe.
Here are 10 of the biggest metro-area holiday lighting displays, with an interactive map at extras.denverpost.com/holiday-lights. Most public tree lightings are free. Admission to the rest varies by location; see links for details.
Downtown Denver Grand Illumination
Downtown Denver’s Union Station is once again the center of the citywide Grand Illumination, with an appearance from Santa, the Miracle Bar pop-up, classic holiday tunes from the Denver Dolls and, naturally, the lighting of the historic Union Station and its 40-foot-tall, 7,000-light outdoor tree. That event kicks off a chain reaction of architectural icons lighting up in Skyline Park, along the 16th Street Mall, in Civic Center and elsewhere downtown.
Also this year: the Merry & Bright Lights show, which runs 5-10 p.m. daily Nov. 16-Dec. 27 with “interactive visual imagery created by local Denver artists projected across the station’s historic façade,” according to organizers. Visits with Santa are free, first-come and available starting at 4 p.m. on Sundays through Dec. 19. Nick Express skip-the-line tickets are $50 per family, which includes a keepsake ornament; advanced online purchase is required.
Blossoms of Light
Where: Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St., DenverWhen: 4:30-9 p.m., Nov. 19-Jan. 8, 2022 (closed Christmas)Price: $18-$21 for adults; children 2 and under are freeContact: 720-865-3500 or botanicgardens.org
New this year at one of the city’s most popular holiday lighting extravaganzas: The O’Fallon Perennial Walk is showcasing a “200-foot-long, 17-foot-tall tunnel of animated lights, right at the start of the path,” according to organizers. Returning: the treats and warm drinks that make Blossoms of Light more than just a leisurely, Instagram-friendly stroll through the Gardens’ densely populated York Street grounds. Drinks and food will be available for purchase at the Hive Garden Bistro.
Note: Tickets to Blossom of Light are NOT available on-site and must be bought online in advance. Many dates are already sold out.
9News Parade of Lights
Where: Denver City and County Building, 1437 Bannock St., DenverWhen: 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4Price: Free along the route (see below). Standing-room tickets at the staging area are $40 for adults (over 13) and $30 for kids ages 2-12 in advance; 2 and under free.Contact: downtowndenver.com/9news-parade-of-lights
After sidelining its namesake pageant last year, the 9News Parade of Lights will bring miles of floats (40 in all), colorful characters such as Santa and Major Waddles, giant balloons, marching bands and twinkling lights to downtown streets. Spots along the route fill up quickly due to the fact that they’re free. The parade will also be simulcast on 9News starting at 6 p.m. Dress for the weather!
The 2-mile route starts at Denver City & County Building, at 14th Avenue and Bannock Street. It then travels up Tremont Street to 17th Street where it goes northwest for several blocks before turning onto Arapahoe Street, organizers said. The parade then loops back on 15th Street to Glenarm.
Denver Zoo Lights
Where: Denver Zoo, 2300 Steele St., DenverWhen: 5-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 5-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Members-only through Dec.3; opens to the public Saturday, Dec. 4-Jan. 2, 2022Price: $25 for adults and seniors; $15 for children ages 3-11; free for kids 2 and underContact: 720-337-1400 or denverzoo.org
Last year’s timed-ticket Zoo Lights was a welcome break from hibernation, and this year’s more robust version brings back the live ice carving, seasonal craft cocktails and treats, and nighttime animal viewing (interactive experiences are available).
Many weekend dates are sold out, and the rest of them will be soon. Prepare for scant parking and lines. Once you’ve started exploring the 80-acre display, which features around 2 million lights, snap a pic or three in front of zoo’s signature animal light sculptures or (as is my family’s favorite) take a spin on the vintage carousel.
A Hudson Christmas
Where: Hudson Gardens & Event Center, 6115 S. Santa Fe Drive, LittletonWhen: 5-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 26-Dec. 31; closed Dec. 6-8 and 13-15Price: $15-$20 (adults), $12-$17 for kids 4-12, free for children 3 and under. Tickets can be dated, or bought for general admission to be redeemed on your date and time of choice.Contact: hudsongardens.org
Hudson Gardens is this year “turning up the dazzlemeter,” as organizers put it, with “even more towering trees draped in thousands of colorful lights.” That includes a grove of dancing Christmas trees, a multicolored forest inhabited by giant snowmen, the holiday light tunnel, and glowing reindeer (eat your heart out, Meow Wolf Denver). The 2021 event will not feature the usual Santa visits, but cider and cocoa, souvenirs and more will be on hand.
Luminova at Elitch Gardens
Where: Elitch Gardens Theme and Water Park, 2000 Elitch Circle, DenverWhen: 5-10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 26-Jan. 2, 2022Price: $25-$30 before feesContact: 303-595-4386 or elitchgardens.com/luminova
Denver’s historic Elitch Gardens jumps into the holiday-lights game with Luminova, a big-budget display that features more than 3 million lights, a 65-foot-tall Christmas tree, a 25-foot-tall snowman (that never melts, of course), a 200-foot-long candy cane tunnel, giant ornaments, a wall of lights, rides on limited Elitch Gardens attractions, train rides for the kids, Santa and his elves, and more. Your kids are going to freak.
Olde Golden Candlelight Walk
Where: 809 15th St., GoldenWhen: 6:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 3; parade on Dec. 11Where: Washington Avenue, from 15th Street in front of Foothills Art Center to 10th StreetPrice: Free (candles available for $1)Contact: 303-279-2282 or visitgolden.com
If you’d like a taste of a more traditional holiday kickoff, try Golden’s Candlelight Walk on Dec. 3, which invites candleholders to stroll the 45,000 lights along Washington Avenue at 6:30 p.m. and sing carols. Golden’s Holiday Parade also returns, “condensed from three weekends to one major parade,” at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 11, organizers said. It’s set to feature marching bands, floats, dog-pulled carts, horses, Victorian carolers, antique cars, elves, Buffalo Bill, the Grinch, fire trucks, and Santa, “waving merrily.”
Trail of Lights at Chatfield Farms
Where: Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield Farms, 8500 Deer Creek Canyon Road, LittletonWhen: 5-8:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 26-Jan. 2, 2022 (closed Christmas)Price: $15 for adults and kids; $13 for kids ages 3-15; free for 2 and underContact: 720-865-3500 or botanicgardens.org
Renaming the event from Santa’s Village (which first appeared in 2019) to the original Trail of Lights, the Chatfield location of Denver Botanic Gardens is getting into the seasonal spirit with its outdoorsy version of a lighting display.
Walk just under a mile to see the illuminated cottonwoods, box elders and pine trees that wind through Green Farm, Crossroads, Deer Creek Discovery Children’s Play Area and 1880s Hildebrand Ranch homestead. (There is the option of a shorter path.) There’s also music in a children’s play area, “singing” Christmas trees, a pair of three-sided light tunnels, and seasonal food and drink. Debuts Friday, Nov. 26, but many times and dates are already sold out.
Where: Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park, 801 S. Yarrow St., LakewoodWhen: Through Jan. 2, 2022Price: $8-$25, with food and drink for purchaseContact: 303-987-7850 or denvercenter.org/tickets-events/camp-christmas
Holiday programming is surely trending toward the immersive, art-and-entertainment experiences embodied by Meow Wolf. But Denver interactive-art pioneer Lonnie Hanzon’s Camp Christmas is a selfie-heaven all its own, having grown from an indoor romp in Aurora to a 6-acre, mostly outdoor fever-dream in Lakewood, and opened to acclaim on Nov. 18.
This year’s expanded version features a kiddie carousel, audio tours, themed cocktails, Santa pic tickets and more. Despite that, the curation is as self-aware and savvy as ever, heaping gobs of music, lights and old-school decorations on surreal, interactive features.
Where: Chapungu Sculpture Park at Centerra, 5971 Sky Pond Drive, LovelandWhen: 5-9 p.m. nightly through Jan. 2, 2022Price: Free, with food and drink for purchaseContact: 970-667-3882 or visitlovelandco.org/winterwonderlights
This impressive display, just east of the Promenade Shops retail center at Highway 34 and Interstate 25, is free and open to the public most nights, with timed shows repeating every half-hour. Live performances will take place on Dec. 4 and 11 and require tickets for admission, with music and dance performances each half hour.
Free or paid, visitors are encouraged to bring and donate canned food to benefit the Food Bank for Larimer County. The event this year features 80,000 string lights, LED snowflakes, illuminated African stone sculptures, a 20-foot LED mappable Christmas tree and more. The paid versions feature a 26-foot inflatable Santa Haus with Santa and Mrs. Claus, a Princess Party (Dec. 4), a live reindeer visit (Dec. 4), pyrotechnics, and a fresh doughnut shack (Dec. 11 only).