The museum has taken extensive measures to provide a safe and contactless environment for visitors, including timed ticketing and minute-by-minute attendance caps in each gallery. The museum, café and shop are cash-free and contactless-card-enabled (Visa only). Masks are optional for visitors fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Check the website for the latest protocols.
Most museums would reprimand a visitor for running, but not the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum in downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado. I'm encouraged not just to run but to sprint down a 25-meter track in an attempt to catch a life-size version of 1936 Olympian Jesse Owens virtually racing on a screen next to me. I crouch down behind the starting line and burst up and forward at the sound of the starter gun. By the time I've taken my first steps, my competition is nearly at the finish line. In true Olympic style, I don't give up, even though I've been left in the dust.
Far more than a collection of memorabilia, this 60,000-square-foot facility, which opened last July, takes you on a journey alongside world-class athletes as they go from training to competition to the medal podium. A fitting addition to Olympic City, home to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee as well as the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, the museum bills itself as one of the world's most interactive and accessible museums. The experience lives up to the hype.
Channel your inner athlete on a virtual slalom ski course, holding poles and navigating turns on a screen in front of you, or try your hand at archery, shooting arrows at an LED target. Your scores, along with photos, videos and other highlights of your visit, will be stored in a Digital Locker that you can access by using your smartphone to scan the RFID (radio frequency identification) chip on your visitor badge.
This keepsake badge is the way the museum personalizes every visit. Upon arrival, you note whether you have special needs because of a disability and name your favorite sports. The RFID technology then helps accommodate those preferences when you approach an exhibit — for example, by providing more detailed audio interpretation if you're visually impaired. I got more content about gymnastics and soccer, my two favorite Olympic sports.
The museum, an eye-catching structure covered on the outside with nearly 9,000 gleaming diamond-shaped panels, doesn't celebrate just winners. You'll also experience Olympians’ heartbreaks through the years, and exhibits honoring the spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Twelve galleries — one rotating and the remainder permanent — follow a narrative arc that begins with the history of the Games, then moves into athlete training and preparation, interactive competitive experiences and the awards ceremonies.
Throughout the museum, you'll see more than 260 artifacts, including gymnast Shannon Miller's signature white scrunchie, one of sprinter Michael Johnson's golden running spikes, Paralympian John Register's prosthetic leg and running shoe, and the wooden Kastle skis Billy Kidd used in 1964 to become the first American to win a medal in Alpine skiing.
State-of-art-technology enhances the artifacts and memorabilia, offering visitors the opportunity to view videos and listen to audio in every gallery.
It's easy to breeze through the atrium, but take time to pause at the oversized kiosks loaded with bios of all 154 inductees to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame, including boxer Muhammad Ali and para skier Candace Cable.
From the atrium, take the elevator to the top floor to begin your journey down through three levels of exhibit halls. Gentle-grade, extra-wide ramps form a continuous path, making the experience exceptionally wheelchair-friendly.
The first exhibit hall you'll encounter chronicles the original Olympics, at Olympia in ancient Greece, and is complemented by a collection of Olympic torches in all shapes and sizes from the modern Games as well as an interactive exhibit detailing each torch relay. It's impossible to watch them all, but don't miss the 1992 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony in Barcelona, where Spanish Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo Liñan lit the Olympic cauldron with a flaming arrow.
The 360-degree multimedia experience in the Parade of Nations Gallery will likely give you goosebumps, since it simulates entering a stadium to the sound of a cheering crowd during the Opening Ceremony. Conversations with more than 70 Olympians and Paralympians, including figure skater Peggy Fleming and ice hockey goalie Jim Craig, helped shape the programming for this true-to-life experience.
Continue on to the World Watches Gallery. Here, the Ask an Athlete interactive exhibit lets you get personal with Team USA standouts, whose answers to hours of interview questions were recorded so that museum visitors could take part in virtual Q&As with them. Among other things, I learned that cross-country skier Kikkan Randall's favorite song is “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice, and that Paralympian hoopster Matt Scott has a weakness for pepperoni pizza.
Special exhibit: The museum's current rotating exhibit (no end date set), on the first floor, showcases nearly 90 works by LeRoy Neiman, the official Olympic Games painter from 1972 to 2010. After enjoying his brightly hued portraits of decathlete Bruce Jenner and track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, I stood in front of a kiosk, selected my sport of choice (Alpine skiing), and a computer program “Neimanized” an image of me to resemble an Olympic skier in action.
A wall lined with more than 150 Olympic medals awarded to athletes over the years leads to the exit, but before you go, be sure to view the 10-minute, NBC-produced film called To Take Part. Dozens of athletes, including track star Allyson Felix and swimming great Michael Phelps, discuss their passion for competition. The film is the perfect conclusion to the tour, capturing the emotional highs and lows of the Games, including skier Lindsey Vonn's tearful Olympic farewell in 2018.
Director's tip: Don't miss the Miracle on Ice scoreboard featuring the 4-3 final score of the U.S. men's ice hockey team's major upset of the powerhouse Soviet Union team at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The win gave the team a ticket to the finals, where they beat Finland to win gold. The scoreboard is tucked away in the Chapman Events Space between the Summer and Winter Games galleries.
Plan Your Trip
Location: 200 South Sierra Madre Street, Colorado Springs, Colorado
Getting there: The museum is located in downtown Colorado Springs. The city's airport, a 15-minute drive away, has nonstop flights from eight major U.S. cities, including Houston, Los Angeles and Phoenix. Even more flights serve Denver's airport, 88 miles north. A privately operated parking lot across the street from the museum costs $15 per day, or you can opt for metered parking along South Sierra Madre Street.
Hours: Sunday and Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, noon to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (general admission). On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, groups visit by appointment. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Admission: $24.95 for adults; $19.95 for adults 65 and older
Food and beverage: The museum's Flame Café serves pizzas, salads, sandwiches and milkshakes. It also has some of the best views of nearby Pikes Peak.
Best time to visit: The museum is busiest on the weekends and in the mornings, so to avoid the crowds, visit after lunchtime on a weekday.
Best season to visit: Summer and fall, to take advantage of all the incredible outdoor activities in the surrounding area.
Accessibility: RFID (radio frequency identification) technology provides museum visitors with a customizable experience suitable to their mobility levels. Exhibits feature universal and inclusive design features, including accessible media, audio descriptions, tactility, open captioning and American Sign Language. Ramps throughout the museum make for easy wheelchair accessibility, and they're extra wide to accommodate two wheelchairs side by side. Wheelchairs, scooters and walkers are available at no charge (first come, first served).
With sporting competitions still top of mind, be sure to visit another local museum that celebrates two very different kind of athletes.
The ProRodeo Hall of Fame and Museum of the American Cowboy: Head to Colorado Springs’ west side, just off Interstate 25, to the world's only museum dedicated exclusively to the sport of rodeo. The facility includes permanent collections tracing the sport's roots for 100-plus years as well as rotating exhibits on such topics as the art of rodeo posters. The Hall of Champions, its main attraction, honors inductees ranging from rodeo clowns to famed bucking broncos.
Local Athletic Experiences
Channel your inner Olympian and train like an athlete on these area hikes.
Garden of the Gods: Twenty-one miles of trails lace this National Natural Landmark on Colorado Springs’ west side. The most accessible hike: Perkins Central Garden Trail, in the heart of the park. The paved, 1.5-mile round-trip path, with just a 30-foot incline, loops around the park's most distinctive rock formations.
Manitou Incline: Olympians and avid hikers alike test their mettle on this heart-pounding 2,768-step climb in the small town of Manitou Springs, a 20-minute drive west of downtown Colorado Springs. The strenuous ascent gains nearly 2,000 feet of elevation in less than a mile. Free online reservations are required to hike the Incline.
Pikes Peak: You'll want to train ahead of time to tackle the 14,115-foot summit of this famous peak directly west of Colorado Springs. Two trails take ambitious hikers to the top. The 26-mile round-trip Barr Trail, the more challenging route, gains 7,400 vertical feet. The 13.6-mile round-trip Crags Trail has less elevation gain but still delivers jaw-dropping views. Want to go to the summit but don't want to hike? Drive to it on a winding 19-mile highway or take a seasonal cog railway. A new visitor center on the summit debuts this summer with rest areas and walkways fully accessible to those of all ages and abilities.
Where to Stay
Splurge: You can't beat the Garden of the Gods Resort and Club's location, a five-minute drive from the entrance to Garden of the Gods park. The hotel's 116 rooms, suites, cottages and casitas all have views of the park's dramatic red-rock cliffs set against Pikes Peak. Staff can arrange walking or e-bike tours of the park followed by massages and herbal steam-room sessions in the resort's spa. Rooms from $299.
Save: Downtown newcomer Kinship Landing caters to visiting and local adventurers with first-floor gear lockers, bike-tuning workshops and a ground-floor Discovery Area, where staff can help arrange guided activities such as backcountry skiing or mountain biking. There are 41 rooms, with options for every budget, including a camp deck where you can literally pitch your own tent to a suite with a fireplace and soaking tub. From $19 per person for a BYO tent camping setup to $230 for a king suite with a mountain view.
Where to Dine
These two downtown restaurants don't disappoint.
Splurge: For breathtaking views, dine at The Peppertree, a Colorado Springs institution with an enviable hilltop location. Try the house specialty, the pepper steak, a center-cut filet flamed tableside with French brandy. Ask your server to suggest a wine pairing from the restaurant's impressively extensive cellar.
Save: The globetrotting menu at Streetcar520, housed in an old streetcar warehouse, features such eclectic dishes as bao buns, southern fried chicken and sriracha-spiked falafel. Inventive cocktails impress, too. Locals love the happy hour, with its 50 percent-off appetizers and $4 pints of beer.
Jen Murphy writes the Wall Street Journal's “What's Your Workout” and “Anatomy of a Workout” columns and is the author of The Yoga Man(ual).