Until a few years ago, I had seen exactly none of these attractions. I grew up in Colorado, and I figured I could visit them whenever I felt like it. But then something happened that propelled me on a month-long quest to visit all the top tourist destinations in the state. That something was penny smashing.

Penny-smashing machines have been a staple of tourist spots since they were first introduced at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Insert two quarters and one penny, turn a crank and out pops an elongated penny with a design pressed into it.

A while back, a relative gave me one of these penny souvenirs from a trip out of state. Intrigued, I went online to see if there were any penny machines in Colorado that I could visit. I discovered Pennycollector.com, where enthusiasts cataloged more than 80 locations with machines across the state, many of the sites having multiple machines with up to four designs each.

I saw this long list of penny machines as a challenge: I had to go to them all. My wife and I soon set out in our car, loaded with an absurd amount of pennies and quarters, determined to visit every machine within a day’s drive of our Denver home. In the course of this mad scavenger hunt, we inadvertently saw all the cool places we’d never found the time to see.

The Penny Quest

Our first destination was Colorado Springs, which has nearly 100 penny designs within a 15-mile radius. We admired the soaring cadet chapel at the Air Force Academy, then smashed eight pennies at the visitor center, including one penny with a picture of the chapel. We got another 13 pennies after feeding giraffes at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, including a penny with giraffes on it. We nabbed another four while checking out the exhibits at the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum, including a penny with a shiny copper portrait of Zebulon Pike.

But those were relatively easy to get. Our mission would not be complete until we had mutilated U.S. currency at the summit of one of America’s iconic mountains, the place that inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write the lyrics to “America the Beautiful”: Pikes Peak.

While driving to the top of Pikes Peak is a much easier way to summit a 14er than, say, actually climbing one, the high-altitude switchbacks aren’t for the faint of heart. The most severe hairpin turns get guardrails, but much of the road has nothing but a horrifying vertical plunge just a few feet off the shoulder. There are two penny machines at gift shops on the way up, and a couple of designs read “Real Men Don’t Need Guardrails” and “Real Women Don’t Need Guardrails.” That sentiment helped steel our resolve as we continued our cruise skyward.

Risking a quick glance away from the road, I saw a ring of awesome, jagged peaks arcing more than 180 degrees around me, and it might have been an optical illusion, but I felt like I was looking down at them. We were relieved when we made it to the summit.

As advertised in “America the Beautiful,” the view included spacious skies and amber waves of grain, though the mountains seemed more blue than purple. Maybe we came at the wrong time of day. Also at the top is the Summit House, which sells every kind of souvenir you could want, but the only ones we were after were the eight designs at the two penny machines – particularly the ones that said “Pikes Peak Summit.” After all, what was the point of coming all this way if we couldn’t prove, in penny form, that we were there?

As we got back to level ground to complete our penny tour of the Colorado Springs area, we just had to smash a penny at the American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum – there’s something satisfying about squishing money at a place devoted to its preservation.

Jay Beeton, who manages the museum, showed me the room full of U.S. gold coins, including his favorite, the 1907 high-relief double eagle that was commissioned at the personal request of President Theodore Roosevelt. But the museum highlight might be the 1913 Liberty head nickel, which is one of only five made by a rogue mint employee. It’s worth about $2.5 million more than its 5-cent face value.

At the Money Museum, I met employee Kendra Johnson, who has collected smashed pennies since she was 5. She hadn’t met any coin collectors who shared her hobby until she attended a recent numismatic convention, where she discovered she wasn’t alone. She also discovered that true aficionados don’t call them smashed pennies. “They were like, ‘Oh no, those are called elongates – you’re an elongate collector,’ ” Johnson said. 

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On our way back to Denver, we stopped to see the stupefying red sandstone walls and spires of Garden of the Gods, while also checking out the visitor center’s two penny machines. During the summer, there are easily 200 to 300 people a day smashing pennies there, said Bett Brown, who has worked at the gift shop for five years. “It’s the most popular thing in our entire store,” Brown said, adding that she hears the sound of the penny machines’ cranking gears in her dreams.

In our backyard

Back in Denver, our penny quest brought us to two animal attractions we had always wanted to visit: the Downtown Aquarium and the Butterfly Pavilion. The aquarium has three machines, two of which are right next to the stingray petting zoo. “Don’t stingrays … you know, sting?” we asked. Yes, the helpful stingray attendant told us, but their stingers are like fingernails that can be clipped without hurting the animals.

You can’t, however, pet the sharks or the tigers. The aquarium’s Sumatran tigers inhabit a special indoor jungle and, on Tiger Tuesdays, they put on swimming demonstrations. As thrilling as those carnivores are to behold, the most exciting thing might have been the mermaids, who swim amongst the less dangerous fish. After swimming around for a while, the mermaids surface to talk to curious kids. Once, a little boy asked a mermaid what her favorite sea creature was, said operations manager Allison Harper, and when the aquatic lady said the sea turtle was her favorite, the boy fished through his pocket to retrieve the sea turtle penny he’d just smashed and gave it to her as a token of his affection.

The Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster is easy to find – just look for the building with the 12-foot praying mantis statue out front. Though the museum is dedicated to all invertebrates, the tropical butterfly room steals the show. You traipse through a giant greenhouse with 300 plant species – including coffee, guava, ginger and pineapple plants – as more than a thousand vibrantly colored butterflies and moths from all over the world flutter about.

The best part of the visit was when we went to the Crawl-A-See-Em and got to hold Rosie the Chilean rose hair tarantula. (There are actually more than 70 Rosies, who work shifts of a few hours every week and a half, or so.) After Rosie completed her tickly traverse of my hand, I returned her to her minder and walked over to the nearby penny machine to squash an “I Held Rosie” penny.

Paradise on Elkhorn

We spent a few weeks getting all the pennies near Denver, in the course of which we paid our first visit to the Coors brewery, Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Buffalo Bill’s grave. Once we’d seen everything in the metro area, we were ready for our excursion to Estes Park’s Elkhorn Avenue, the crown jewel of penny smashing in Colorado.

Estes Park sits in a wide valley with epic mountain views in every direction. It’s the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and home to Colorado Life Magazine, but first you have to drive down Elkhorn Avenue, which seems to have more gift shops than there are in the rest of the state combined. No fewer than seven of these shops have penny machines, and from our conversations with the shopkeepers, it was clear we were hardly the first to come here specifically to smash pennies.

The machine at The Hiking Hut sometimes hauls in enough quarters to pay the store’s utility bill, owner Michele Riedesel said. Down the street at Indian Village Trading Post, Brooke Garrett has seen some high rollers come in to use the machine there. “I had one gentleman bring in $40 worth of quarters and his grandson and used him to press all $40 worth,” Garrett said. “He brought his manual labor, and he was hitting all the machines in town.”

Brittany Moe, who works at a shop aptly named The Copper Penny, once met a man who came in and asked for two rolls of pennies and a roll of quarters. As he smashed away at The Copper Penny’s machine, he told her he is a full-time tourist who travels the world, going only to places with penny machines. He had already squished his way across Japan and Europe. After hearing these and similar stories of penny tourists in Estes Park, I began to suspect my clever travel idea wasn’t as unique as I’d thought it was. I did a little research and found a number of Coloradans who far surpass my devotion to the hobby. 

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Lynn Hunkins from Colorado Springs has been smashing pennies for years, as well as trading them with likeminded people she’s met online. Her collection now exceeds 10,000 pennies, most of which are neatly filed in three-ring binders.

When friends visit Hunkins in Colorado Springs, she often takes them on “squishin’ missions” to all the local machines as way to see the sights. Penny smashing also is a great way to make friends with collectors from coast to coast. In the wake of last year’s Waldo Canyon fire, people from across the country sent her pennies to show their support.

Hunkins has penny smashing down to a science. She wants shiny pennies, but she also wants pennies made before 1982 – that’s when penny composition went from solid copper to predominantly zinc with a copper shell. Her solution is to go to her local coin shop and track down uncirculated rolls of pre-1982 pennies.

There’s one nightmare shared by devoted penny smashers, Hunkins said. You’re smashing away at a machine when a little kid comes up and wants to use it. You graciously let him smash his penny, but he jams the machine. “You drive 400 miles for this one machine and it’s broken – you’re almost in tears,” she said. This has happened to her in Estes Park and Albuquerque, but she was able to get those pennies later.

“I pick where my next vacation is because of pennies,” Hunkins said. “The places where there are machines are places you want to go to anyway.”

And that’s the truth. My wife and I are currently planning our summer vacation, which we hope will be a road trip to southwest Colorado. Mesa Verde National Park’s main attraction might be its awe-inspiring ancient cliff dwellings, but it also has three penny machines I’ve been dying to visit.


Our Top 13 Penny-Smashing Attractions

THESE ARE A FEW of our favorite penny-smashing destinations in Denver and along the Front Range, but you can find dozens more at pennycollector.com to help you plan your own penny road trip.


1. Pikes Peak Summit House

Pikes Peak Highway, Cascade

You might go to Pikes Peak for the view (and the pennies), but while you’re there, be sure to try the special donuts made at 14,110 feet above sea level.


2. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

4250 Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Rd, Colorado Springs

Smash pennies at four machines, then feed giraffe food (which bears an uncanny resemblance to rye crisps) to the adorable giraffes.


3. Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center

1805 N. 30th St., Colorado Springs

If Martians built castles, they would look exactly like the incredible red rock formations you see while you smash Garden of the Gods pennies.


4. Denver Art Museum

100 W. 14th Ave., Denver

The museum buildings are works of art in their own right, and you can take home likenesses of them in penny form.


5. Downtown Aquarium

700 Water St., Denver

You can talk to a mermaid, pet a stingray and see sharks and swimming tigers – and, if you’re so inclined, have a cold one at the aquarium’s bar. 

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6. Forney Museum of Transportation

4303 Brighton Boulevard, Denver

Check out the classic cars and trains, as well as exhibits from Denver’s old wax museum, including Gen. George A. Custer and Colorado cannibal Alfred Packer.


7. Lakeside Amusement Park

4601 Sheridan Boulevard, Denver

You can ride the rollercoasters or just enjoy a lazy day in the amusement park that’s been a Denver institution since 1908.


8. The Gold Mine

230 W. Elkhorn Ave., Estes Park

The shops of Elkhorn Avenue specialize in pennies with bears on them, and no design is cuter than the bear cub at The Gold Mine.


9. Buffalo Bill’s Grave, Pahaska Tepee Gift Shop

987 Lookout Mountain Rd., Golden

Bag some pennies in the gift shop, experience the Buffalo Bill museum and catch a spectacular view of Denver from the top of Lookout Mountain.


10. Coors Brewery

13th and Ford streets, Golden

There are a lot of breweries to tour in Colorado, but this is the biggest and probably the only one where you can smash pennies.


11. Cave of the Winds

100 Cave of the Winds Rd., Manitou Springs

The penny machine is near the gift shop, though it would be neat if it were actually inside the vast cave system.


12. Georgetown Loop Railroad

Interstate 70, Exit 226, Silver Plume

Ride the steam locomotive from Georgetown to Silver Plume, with an optional tour of a historic silver mine along the way.


13. Butterfly Pavilion

6252 W. 104th Ave., Westminster

Walk among tropical butterflies, hold Rosie the tarantula and then create an “I Held Rosie” penny. 

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