CASTLE ROCK, Colo. — You don't have to drive all the way into the mountains to find a Colorado town that fully embraces the holiday spirit.

Castle Rock, just 30 miles south of Denver, celebrates the season with activities every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and charming lit streets that make it seem like you're much farther off the beaten path.

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The town itself has 265 acres of parks, 44 miles of trails, a historic downtown and the largest open-air outlet mall in Colorado.

It's also nationally considered a great place to live. Castle Rock was named as one of Money Magazine’s Top Places to Live in 2011, 2012 and 2014; one of American City and County’s Best Small Cities in 2017; and one of NerdWallet’s Top Places for Jobs and Families in 2013.

And while Castle Rock has long been considered a small Western town, its population has exploded over the past several years.

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This story is part of our weekly 9Neighborhoods series. Each week we explore what makes a different town or neighborhood around the state unique. Join us Friday afternoon for a photo tour of Castle Rock during the holiday season on Instagram.

The History of Castle Rock

The first settlers of the East Plum Creek Valley arrived in the 1870s.

They came because rhyolite, a volcanic rock used for building stone, was discovered in a butte near Plum Creek. A volcano had erupted in the Mount Princeton area about 36.7 million years ago, covering what would eventually become Castle Rock in a cloud of volcanic material.

One of those original homesteaders, Jeremiah Gould, owned about 160 acres of land just south of the prominent rock the area was known and recognized for.

Panoramic view of buildings in Castle Rock (Douglas County), Colorado. Shows frame houses and fences, a wooden bridge over probably East Plum Creek, and the Douglas County Courthouse with a domed cupola and round windows.

At the time, the community consisted of primary prospectors, quarry workers and the few shacks they lived in.

Recognizing its potential, in 1874 he donated the majority of his land to be known as the new town of Castle Rock, named after the Rock towering over the community.

Less than a year later, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway began running through town, helping to ship rhyolite to surrounding towns and bringing supplies to the expanding town.

View of Denver & Rio Grande Railroad engine 4-6-0 number 1006 with passenger train heading south from station at Castle Rock, Colorado; Engine Class T-31, made by Baldwin in 1902, renumbered in 1908 to engine number 756, dismantled in March, 1926

The Season of the Star

Castle Rock calls Christmastime in the city the "Season of the Star." This is because the celebrations officially kick off with the annual Starlighting ceremony held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

The tradition dates back to 1936.

Castle Rock Christmas 8_1544137732849.png.jpg
The city operates free carriage rides during the holiday season.

For the past 82 years, nearly the entire community gathers at the base of the Rock and watch as the star lights the night sky, beginning the holiday season.

The celebration also includes music, hot chocolate, vendor booths, a visit from Santa Claus and a fireworks show from the top of the Rock to end the event.

Castle Rock is also hosting holiday-themed events over the next two weekends:

Storytellers and S'mores

Saturday, Dec. 8, 5 - 7 p.m.

Kids can listen to Santa and his friends read holiday stories during this cozy event in Festival Park. There will also be hot chocolate, fire pits and all the fixings to make s'mores. Castle Rock's historic trolley will also be running from the park and through downtown. The event is free.

Reindeer Games

Friday, Dec. 14, 3 - 6 p.m.

Philip S. Miller Park will be transformed into a winter-themed wonderland for this family-friendly holiday festival. Let the kids get their energy out at a winter-themed obstacle course, which they will get a cute elf for finishing. They can also tell Santa Clause their last-minute Christmas wishes and even meet some of his live reindeer. During the festival, a Winter Express train will also be taking passengers on a one-mile ride along the trails through the park.

The city also operates free carriage rides from Festival Park through the lights of downtown Castle Rock. The rides are offered from 5 - 8 p.m. every Friday and Saturday night between Nov. 23 and Dec. 22.

Shopping, sipping and skating

Even outside of the "Season of the Star" events, Castle Rock has a special small-town holiday feel through the season.

Downtown Castle Rock has a variety of local boutique and antique stores to find unique gifts. And several of them host special shopping events during the holiday season.

Castle Rock Christmas 10_1544137733105.png.jpg
A look at some of the holiday decorations in downtown Castle Rock

The Barn, Castle Rock's oldest antique and specialty store, is hosting a Holiday Girls Night on Friday, Dec. 7 from 5 - 9 p.m. There will be free wine and hors-d'oeuvres, a free gift for shoppers and gift card drawings throughout the event.

The Emporium next door is hosting a Girls Night on Dec. 7 as well. They will have appetizers, desserts, drinks, games and sales. Their event will be from 4 - 8 p.m.

The town also operates a community ice skating rink through the winter.

Rink at the Rock is a covered, outdoor skating rink in downtown Castle Rock It's generally open Thursdays - Sundays for open skating for $8. Skate rentals are also available for $4.The rink will be open until Feb. 18, 2019.