Colorado is made for outdoorsy travelers and adventurous souls. Snowcapped mountains, rushing rivers and dramatic canyons create a rugged yet stunning landscape worth exploring. Meanwhile, cities like Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs provide a taste of culture. While you might think of the state primarily as a ski destination, there are plenty of fun things to do in Colorado during every season. Spring brings perfect weather for hiking in one of the state’s four national parks, and summer means you can cool off in a variety of pristine lakes. Plus, there are numerous annual festivals, breweries and historic mining towns that will make Colorado stand out. The state offers so much in the way of activity, it can be difficult to decide how to spend your time. Read on to see the top things to do in Colorado. (Note: Some tours and excursions may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions and parking reservation requirements. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Hike in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park draws millions of people every year who come to explore its varied trails and stunning views. The park features dramatic peaks, as well as 147 pristine lakes and plenty of wildlife. Its 355 miles of trails appeal to hikers of all experience levels. Visitors recommend the park’s flat lake trails, such as Lily Lake Loop, the Sprague Lake trail and the Lake Irene trail, for beginners. Intermediate climbers may enjoy the 4.1-mile Emerald Lake trail, which requires about 745 feet of elevation gain, or the 9.8-mile Sky Pond out-and-back route via the Glacier Gorge trail for views of snowcapped peaks. Many experienced hikers set out to complete Longs Peak: This trail is a 14-er (a peak that exceeds 14,000 feet) with a nearly 5,000-foot elevation gain reserved for ambitious and very skilled hikers willing to wake up early and pack tons of supplies. A short but also intense trail in the Longs Peak area is Chasm Lake. This route is about 8.5 miles round trip and brings climbers past meadows, streams and scenic mountains. Rocky Mountain National Park is located near the quaint town of Estes Park, which features an array of dining and lodging options. Entry to the park costs $25 per car.
The Mile High City is full of educational museums, trendy restaurants, historical sites and top-notch views, making it one of the best spots in Colorado. For a taste of culture, most visitors recommend stopping at the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and the Denver Botanic Gardens. If you’re visiting with children, the Denver Zoo is a great place to spend the day, as is the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. There are also plenty of unique tour offerings, including brewery outings and graffiti tours, to help you experience as much of the city as possible. For a low-budget activity, you can also plan a picnic in City Park, which offers views of the surrounding mountains and lots of space for the kids to run around. When night comes, stroll through Larimer Square to find breweries and bars. Some top-rated breweries include Great Divide Brewing Company and Ratio Beerworks. The Five Points area is also an excellent place to explore in the evening thanks to its vibrant nightlife scene, live musical performances and noteworthy street art. Colorado’s capital city offers plenty of lodging options as well, from upscale hotels like the Four Seasons Hotel Denver to more budget-friendly options.
Surf at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
While you won’t find any traditional surfing experiences in landlocked Colorado, that doesn’t mean you can’t try your hand at the sport. Enter: Sand surfing. Armed with a sandboard, comfortable clothes and a bit of courage, visitors can surf down the massive dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Keep in mind, there are no board rental facilities within the park; instead, you’ll have to rent from a shop in the nearby San Luis Valley. Oasis Store, located 4 miles from the entrance, is the closest rental store option. The best boards to get are made specifically for sand — you’ll have trouble sliding using snow sleds and snowboards. From the main parking area, sand surfers can walk a little more than a half-mile to reach some decent-sized dunes. Those looking for larger slopes can choose to walk a bit farther, as surfing is allowed anywhere on the dunes aside from vegetated areas. Those who would rather sit than stand should opt for sand sledding instead. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is open all day every day; it costs $25 per vehicle to enter the park, and you do not need a reservation to visit. There are also plenty of other activities you can do within the park, including hiking and swimming in Medano Creek.
Garden of the Gods
There are plenty of ways to explore the towering rock formations in Garden of the Gods, located about 5 miles northwest of downtown Colorado Springs. Of course, hiking is a great way to exercise while also soaking in the great views. Some highly recommended hiking routes include the easy Perkins Central Garden Trail and the moderate Palmer Trail. Jeep tours are another way to explore Garden of the Gods: Visitors can take a 90-minute narrated Jeep tour to Balanced Rock and hear about the history of the park, embark on a 90-minute outing to Glen Eyrie’s Queens Canyon and enjoy a scenic overlook, or ride to waterfalls, tunnels and other picturesque areas on a two-hour-long excursion. There are also Segway tours available in the park, as well as trolley tours, which are cheaper and less intense than the Jeep adventures but still offer plenty of incredible scenery for travelers to admire. Those looking for a bit more exercise can opt for bike tours or solo bike trips (e-bike and mountain bike rentals are available in the park).
Boulder sits less than 27 miles northwest of Denver, and many visitors appreciate its charming, small-town vibe. The Pearl Street Mall is the main attraction here, as the alfresco shopping area is lined with a plethora of boutiques and cafes. You’ll probably see your fair share of street performers as well. Plus, with the University of Colorado Boulder in close proximity, there are plenty of trendy restaurants and nightlife options. Past visitors recommend Lucile’s Creole Cafe for breakfast, Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant for a memorable lunch and Frasca Food and Wine for an upscale Italian dinner. If you’re visiting on a Wednesday or Saturday, be sure to check out the Boulder Farmers Market, as it’s considered by many to be one of the best in the country. Adjacent to the farmers market, you’ll find the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and Central Park — an expansive green space featuring a picnic area, a playground and access to bicycle routes. Past visitors suggest saving time to walk around the UC Boulder campus, which is home to Fiske Planetarium and the Museum of Natural History. For convenient lodging options near downtown, book a stay at the St Julien Hotel & Spa or Hotel Boulderado.
Conquer the Flatirons
If you do find yourself in the Boulder area, hiking the Flatirons is a must. These giant sandstone peaks are intertwined with miles of hiking trails, and there are routes for hikers of all skill levels. The Flatirons are numbered one through five. The First and Second Flatiron Trail (a 2.7-mile loop) is strenuous but offers rewarding views of the city and surrounding area. The Second and Third Flatiron Trail (2.2 miles) is also intermediate to difficult, according to past hikers, but the trail impresses travelers with its natural beauty. Those seeking an easier hike with beautiful views can opt for the McClintock Trail or the Enchanted Mesa Trail. Climbers will revel in the chance to scale the rocks — the First and Third Flatirons offer popular climbing routes. There are also guided climbs in this area if you need some guidance to maneuver these famous rock climbing areas. Most hikes begin at the Chautauqua Trailhead; the trailhead also offers an expansive park area perfect for relaxing and admiring the Flatirons if you’re not in the mood to climb or hike. The Chautauqua Trailhead is just south of the downtown Boulder area, so you can fuel up in the city after.
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Mesa Verde National Park
It’s not too often that scenic hiking areas are also steeped in history, but Mesa Verde certainly has both. This national park consists of an array of preserved cliff dwellings originally built by the people of Pueblo centuries ago. The Ancestral Puebloans lived and worked in these cliffside quarters for years until finally abandoning them in 1300. Now, the remnants of this ancient civilization draw thousands of visitors to the southwest corner of Colorado each year. During your visit, make time to see Cliff Palace — one of the largest and best preserved dwellings in the park. The palace features 150 rooms that you can see by maneuvering uneven paths and climbing a few ladders on your guided tour. There are also plenty of hiking trails in the surrounding area. A visitor-favorite path is the moderate Point Lookout Trail (2.2 miles out and back), which boasts sweeping views of the park. The Petroglyph Point Trail (a 2.4-mile loop) is also popular, as you can admire the petroglyphs drawn on the canyon walls.
Explore the Ghost Towns
Colorado is full of abandoned towns, many left empty from mining struggles in the early 1900s. Nowadays, travelers can visit what remains of these ghost towns and get a firsthand look at the unique history of Colorado’s people. St. Elmo, one of the state’s most popular ghost towns, is located about 80 miles southeast of Aspen and approximately 110 miles west of Colorado Springs. Here, travelers can explore a saloon, a jail and about 40 other preserved buildings that were abandoned in the 1920s. Many say a visit to St. Elmo is a great way to learn about the state’s silver and gold miners, and several suggest buying souvenirs from the still-operating general store (open seasonally). If you’re staying in Aspen, you can also make the trip to Independence Ghost Town, where you’ll find empty stables, an old general store and remains of cabins. Located at 11,000 feet, this town sees tons of snow each year and is therefore only accessible in the summer months. Visitors can either wander around solo or take a formal tour guided by members of the Aspen Historical Society. (A docent is typically available on-site between mid-June and early September.) Past visitors said they enjoyed hiking around the abandoned buildings and getting a taste of the town’s history from the informative signs.
Ski in Aspen
Millions of visitors travel to this town in central Colorado each year for its ideal ski conditions and massive slopes. Aspen Snowmass is one of the country’s largest ski resorts and one of Aspen’s most popular attractions. The resort offers multiple chairlifts and 150 miles of trails, making it a prime ski destination for intermediate and advanced skiers. There are also some trails for beginners, as well as many opportunities for lessons; past visitors lauded the helpful instructors at this mountain resort. If Aspen Snowmass is too overwhelming, opt to ski the 44 trails at Buttermilk or the 76 trails at Aspen Mountain. Even if you’re not a fan of skiing, the après-ski scene makes Aspen worth a visit. You’ll find skiers flocking to the town’s lounges, taverns and upscale eateries after a day on the slopes. There are several award-winning hotels in the area — such as The Little Nell and Hotel Jerome, Auberge Resorts Collection — where guests can stay close to the slopes, making for an extra easy ski day.
Catch a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre
A trip to Red Rocks Amphitheatre will take any concert experience to the next level. The bleacher-style seats are built into a cliff and are surrounded on three sides by towering sandstone structures. Visitors rave about the venue’s acoustics, saying it’s one of the best and most unique places to witness a live performance. Concerts are usually scheduled between April and November, and you can check out the event schedule to see when your favorite artist is performing. Even if you can’t make it for a show, Red Rocks is still a great place to visit during the day. There are several hiking trails around the concert area, including the easy Trading Post Trail (1.4 miles) and the intermediate Red Rocks and Morrison Slide trails (3 miles). Plus, from high up in the stands, you’ll get panoramic views of the surrounding area. On some summer nights, the venue even presents drive-in movie events. Be sure to make time to wander through the Red Rocks Hall of Fame to see the famous artists who have taken the stage here. The Colorado Music Hall of Fame is also located at the venue, which is conveniently situated about 15 miles southwest of Denver.
Relax in the hot springs of Glenwood Springs
The small town of Glenwood Springs is situated along the Colorado River and surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. The mineral waters, for which the town is famous, come from the nearby Yampah spring, which naturally heats to about 122 degrees. In town, there are three main areas for visitors to enjoy the hot springs. Glenwood Hot Springs Resort is home to the world’s largest hot springs pool, big enough for visitors to swim laps in the 92-degree water. The venue is kid-friendly and doesn’t require reservations. Another option is Iron Mountain Hot Springs, which offers a quieter atmosphere, 16 soaking pools connected by heated walkways and rain showers to ensure visitors can cool off when necessary. Keep in mind, reservations are required and weekend access often sells out, so make sure to book a time slot in advance. The Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves is another thermal attraction in Glenwood Springs, and it’s one of the only vapor caves on the continent. This underground area naturally releases therapeutic steam, which visitors can enjoy by descending into the caves and lounging on the benches. Temperatures inside the caves can reach 112 degrees, and visitors can break up their sessions with time in the nearby cooling room or cold water tubs. Reservations for the caves are helpful but not required. There is also a spa area here where you can book body treatments like facials and massages.
Go whitewater rafting
The Arkansas River — which starts in central Colorado and runs all the way to Arkansas — features 100 miles of fast-flowing water, perfect for adventurous rafters. Though it might seem intimidating, there are plenty of easy routes for first-time rafters or those looking for a relaxing excursion. Lower Browns Canyon offers a few mild rapids with enough time in between to enjoy the mountain scenery. Similarly, a trip to Little Gore Canyon is sure to be leisurely and may appeal to families with younger children. Meanwhile, the Royal Gorge trip is reserved for adrenaline junkies looking for steep drops, big splashes and constant rapids. The Pine Creek route, which originates near the Granite Gorge, is another strenuous option for advanced rafters. There are raft tour stations operated by a variety of tour companies located all along the river. So, no matter where you’re staying in Colorado, you won’t be too far from a rafting opportunity. Depending on which company you choose, there are single-day or multiday rafting trip options available. Check out U.S. News’ roundup of the best whitewater rafting tours in Colorado to plan your trip.
Drive the Trail Ridge Road
If you make the trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, don’t miss the chance to drive the Trail Ridge Road. At more than 12,000 feet, Trail Ridge gives a whole new meaning to “taking the high road.” It spans nearly 50 miles and runs from Estes Park in the east to Grand Lake in the west. It’s known for being the highest continuous paved road in the country. The road is well maintained, according to visitors, but that doesn’t mean it’s not frightening: The twisting turns and dramatic drops may make your stomach churn. However, most people say the sweeping views, breathtaking mountains and probable wildlife sightings are worth the potential height-induced anxiety. Drivers will enjoy the opportunity to get out of the car and admire the views at the many designated pull-over areas along the road. You should give yourself around five hours to complete the drive, but feel free to take extra time to soak in the views. The road is only open from May to October because of its dangerous winter weather conditions; even in summer, weather is unpredictable, so pay close attention to weather warnings before beginning your drive. Because the road is located within Rocky Mountain National Park, expect to pay $25 per car to enter.
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A mining village that flourished in the late 1800s, this southwestern Colorado town maintains its Wild West charm to this day. The main street is lined with quaint stores and restaurants, which are set against the dramatic backdrop of the San Juan Mountains. You won’t see many fast food restaurants or chain stores here, but you will find plenty of outdoor activities. The town offers noteworthy skiing options at Telluride Ski Resort, which has almost all the frills of Aspen and Vail but typically with fewer crowds. The free gondola is also a great activity, as it’ll bring you on a scenic ride to the mountains. While there are numerous winter adventures to be had, the spring, summer and fall months are what make this town stand out. Telluride has a thriving arts district and is a hot spot for festivals. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Telluride Jazz Festival and the Telluride Film Festival are some of the most popular events, but the town hosts many others throughout the year as well. Visitors enjoy Telluride for its small-town atmosphere and history, with some saying they felt like locals by the end of their trip.
Grand Lake is one of the best spots in Colorado for swimming, fishing, boating and soaking up some sun. This massive lake — the largest natural body of water in the state — is located less than 3 miles southeast of the Grand Lake entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and about 100 miles northwest of Denver. On the sandy shores of the lake, you’ll find plenty of kids playing, adults sunbathing and maybe even a moose or two testing the waters. Visitors say the area is well maintained, and they appreciate the designated picnic spots. Not to mention, the jaw-dropping view of the surrounding mountains reflecting off the lake is sure to take your beach day to the next level. The lake offers a marina where visitors can opt to rent motorboats or kayaks to explore the water. There’s even the Grand Lake Yacht Club. The small town around the water — also called Grand Lake — offers several cafes, restaurants, shops and museums to enjoy during your visit. If you venture to Grand Lake in winter, there will still be plenty of activities to keep you busy. Ice fishing and ice hockey are both popular things to do once the lake freezes over.
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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
This national park packs plenty of scenery into a small area. Dark, jagged peaks slice into the earth, creating dramatic canyons and breathtaking views. Although it measures less than 50 square miles, visitors enjoy the park’s intimate atmosphere and appreciate the lack of crowds. Black Canyon of the Gunnison doesn’t have as many hiking opportunities as other parks due to the steep nature of the canyon. For this reason, many visitors say driving is the best way to take in the views. The park is small enough that if you’re driving, you can see it all in a day. When arriving to the park, you can choose to explore either the North Rim or the South Rim. The North Rim offers three trails and six overlook areas but is overall less developed than its counterpart. Many visitors prefer the South Rim for its five short nature walking areas and 12 overlooks. Enter at the South Rim Visitor Center, where you’ll pay $30, then start your road trip. Ideally, try to stop at all the overlooks, but if you’re short on time, make sure you at least see Gunnison Point, Chasm View and Painted Wall (the highest cliff in Colorado).
Ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Take a train back in time on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Construction on this historic railroad began in the 1880s and, once completed in 1882, the railroad brought tons of gold and silver from the mountains to the towns. People also used this train to travel between towns, and they quickly realized the scenery along the way was nothing short of stunning. The railroad winds through the San Juan Mountains and chugs up Cascade Canyon — a visitor-favorite view. The train from Durango to Silverton takes less than four hours; passengers can explore Silverton for two hours before returning for the train ride back. The train, which is now a National Historic Landmark, departs from Durango en route to the quaint mining town of Silverton twice daily. You’ll have to reserve tickets in advance online or by calling. There are coach, deluxe, first-class and open-air seats to select from. You can choose to ride the steam train, the diesel train or the faster Cascade Canyon Express.
Estes Park Aerial Tramway
If you want to soak in some mountain views without embarking on a strenuous hike, look no further than the Estes Park Aerial Tramway. This family-owned tram has carried passengers to the top of Prospect Mountain since 1955. Passengers board at the base of the mountain in Estes Park and spend five minutes soaring 8,700 feet to the mountaintop, all the while enjoying panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains. There are plenty of trails to explore once you reach the top, as well as a coffee shop and a gift shop. However, many folks travel on the tram simply to have a picnic with a view before starting their descent (which many say is even better than the ascent). Ten people can fit in the tram at a time; there is a fee to ride, and there are group rates available. You cannot make a reservation to ride, and tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis. To avoid crowds, consider riding the tram in the early morning or late afternoon; these are also the best times to visit for clear skies and good photo-ops. The tram operates from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. every day during summer (May through September).
Visit Colorado’s wine country
Most people associate Colorado with craft beer and countless breweries. However, many are shocked to learn that Colorado also produces its fair share of wine. Its “wine country” is located in the western edge of the state near the city of Grand Junction, where the mountain air mingles with the Colorado River water to create an ideal wine-making climate. There are wineries and tasting rooms galore in Grand Junction and nearby Palisade. According to recent visitors, some of the top options include Maison la Belle Vie Winery, Hermosa Vineyards and Two Rivers Winery. Oenophiles will appreciate the chance to sample everything from riesling to cabernet sauvignon at these locations. Plus, the wines are sure to taste even better with stunning mountain views in the background. Some visitors recommend touring Colorado’s wine country on an e-bike for an extra dose of fun. There are also limousines, shuttles and taxi bike services to transport you to each wine-filled destination. When it comes time to rest, turn down at one of the best hotels in Grand Junction, most of which are conveniently located near the bars and restaurants of Main Street.
The Colorado State Fair
If you enjoy live music, farm animals, carnival rides and fried food, make sure your visit to Colorado coincides with the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo. The family-friendly annual fair takes place from around the end of August through early September, and it typically draws about half a million attendees. You can expect to witness traditional rodeos, as well as live performances by nationally recognized artists. Additionally, car lovers will enjoy watching derbies and monster truck showings. The first fair of its kind was held in 1872 to celebrate the history and agricultural influences of Pueblo — a city located 45 miles southeast of Colorado Springs. Today, the fair is still held on the city’s 100-plus acres of fairground. If you’re looking to spend the night, consider booking a hotel in downtown Pueblo. There is no flat rate to enter the fair, but you will need to purchase individual tickets to attend the various events — such as the concerts or rodeos. You can buy tickets online in advance.
Summit Pikes Peak
Pikes Peak rises more than 14,000 feet in the sky, towering over its neighboring peaks in the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. This majestic mountain, located approximately 30 miles west of Colorado Springs, has inspired many stories and songs, including “America the Beautiful.” You can ascend the mountain in a number of ways. Driving is the easiest way to summit, and it takes just three or four hours. There are plenty of places to pull over and admire the views on the way up. Another popular way to reach the top is via The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway. The railway offers breathtaking views (the altitude may literally take your breath away) as it sweeps passengers up the mountain in a ride that lasts a little more than an hour. At the top, passengers can soak in the scenery for about 40 minutes before boarding the train down. You can purchase tickets for this round-trip ride online in advance. The last way up the mountain is on foot. Only the most skilled hikers and bikers should attempt to scale Pikes Peak via the Barr Trail. If you decide to try this trek, be sure to come prepared with plenty of nourishment for the possible eight- to 14-hour journey. The grueling 13.5-mile hike to the summit will be worth it once you make it to the top and witness incredible views of Colorado Springs and the surrounding area.
While this Colorado town is famous for its excellent ski offerings, Vail is also a great place to kick back and spend your time getting pampered. During the day, shop (or window shop) for genuine leather at Kemo Sabe, browse original clothing designs at Axel’s or take a relaxing stroll through the meticulously landscaped Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. Afternoon wine tastings at 4 Eagle Ranch or Root & Flower will make your day extra indulgent. When evening comes, splurge on upscale Japanese cuisine at Matsuhisa or contemporary American favorites at Sweet Basil. Luxurious accommodation options also abound in Vail. If you’re looking for top-notch spa offerings, book a stay at the European-inspired Sonnenalp Hotel. The on-site spa offers massages, body treatments, scrubs, hydrofacials, indoor and outdoor whirlpools, and even an oxygen bar, if the altitude gets to you. If you’d rather relax in the comfort of your own guest room, consider staying at the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Vail, where accommodations may feature spacious living room areas, cozy furniture and gas fireplaces alongside mountain views.
Dinosaur National Monument
Children and adults alike are sure to be amazed by the preserved fossils and natural wonders at Dinosaur National Monument, which straddles the Colorado-Utah border. This rugged landscape full of mountains, canyons and rivers was once inhabited by dinosaurs, and visitors can now see remnants of their existence in the rocks. The on-site Quarry Exhibit Hall is a hit among youngsters, as it displays about 1,500 bones that once belonged to different types of dinosaurs. Murals bring the area to life, and hands-on fossil exhibits make learning fun. Visitors can admire petroglyphs that were drawn by members of the Fremont Indian Tribe hundreds of years ago and feature images of humans and animals, as well as more abstract subjects. Outside of the museum areas, there is plenty of outdoor fun to be had. Hiking trails stretch from the visitor centers out to viewpoints that overlook the unique desert landscape. Some popular routes include the 3-mile Sound of Silence trail and the short 1.2-mile Fossil Discovery trail; off-trail hiking is allowed in the protected area as well. Cycling is also a great way to see the national monument, as is horseback riding. Entrance to Dinosaur National Monument costs $25 per vehicle. Past visitors warned that the monument in northwestern Colorado is a bit removed from other attractions — it’s more than 80 miles west of Steamboat Springs — but they said it was worth the trip.
Denver Arts Week
Each November, artists, filmmakers, performers and more flock to Denver to showcase their creative projects. Entire neighborhoods, such as the RiNo Art District, are transformed into alfresco art museums during this week as artists paint colorful murals on storefronts and walls. Not to mention, one of Denver Art Week’s most noteworthy events is the Denver Film Festival, which showcases critically acclaimed films and features a star-studded red carpet event. The city also hosts hundreds of different events throughout the week. These events take place in both Denver’s small galleries and its massive performing arts theaters. Many museums, including the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, showcase art-related events as well. One of the most popular nighttime events is Night Lights Denver, which features rotating art exhibits projected onto the side of a building (and luckily, this event occurs throughout the year, not just during Denver Arts Week). This is a great time to experience the capital city’s rich cultural scene, as you’ll find discounted tickets and deals on art-related activities. You’ll also find special hotel rates at select properties if you visit during this event.
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