Colorado has more than 200 specialty license plates. Here’s what they mean and how to get one

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4min 41sec
May Ortega/CPR News
Chris Hochmuth, who manages license plate inventory for Colorado’s Department of Revenue, holds various license plates in his hands in front of the Colorado State Capitol.

Colorado is turning 150 years old in 2026, and to celebrate, the state will get a new specialty license plate for drivers to choose from. And what’s more, the public can vote on the design starting Wednesday.

The state already has a lot of different license plates. And Michael Downing of Lakewood reached out to CPR News to find out more about the existing options for drivers who want to add some flair to their ride.

“I would like to know why there are so many of them,” Downing said. “And I would like to know about all of the different plates.”

We’ve all seen Colorado’s default license plate. It has a green background with white, snowy mountains. Very on brand.

But there are a lot of specialty plates, too. Like the nature-conscious “Protect Our Rivers” plate that Downing has on not one, but two of his cars.

“It’s blue and white. And in the middle there’s a picture of a river and maybe a couple trees,” he said. “It’s a really nice picture.”

And it’s the perfect plate for Downing, because he works in water management and he cares a lot about Colorado’s water sources.

But getting such a plate isn’t as simple as checking a box on a form. He clicked over to the State Department of Revenue’s website — where they manage license plates. There, he found that he had to take a couple of extra steps for the plate he wanted.

“That requires a minimum donation to Colorado Trout Unlimited,” he explained. 

Downing had to make a donation of at least $25 directly to the nonprofit, which works to protect and restore fish habitats.

“And they give you a certificate and then you can take that to the DMV and redeem it for your license plate,” he said.

One hundred percent of his donation went to Colorado Trout Unlimited. He also paid $50 in state fees, separate from the donation.

Going through this process made Downing wonder about all the other plates that are available and what you have to do to get them.

There's a huge variety in plate designs.

First, let’s get something straight: We’re talking specifically about “group special license plates” that have unique designs on them. That’s different from personalized plates, also known as vanity plates, which have custom characters on them. You can have both, but for this story, we’re just talking about different designs. And it turns out, Colorado has created more than 200 to choose from.

"I really like the American Indian Scholar plate, the [Support the] Horse plate, the Rocky Mountain National Park plate,” said Chris Hochmuth, who manages license plate inventory for Colorado’s Department of Revenue. 

There’s one for breast cancer awareness. Another for organ donations. And there are plates for all of Colorado’s professional sports teams. 

Do you really like bees? One of the newest options depicts a bee sitting on a colorful flower. It’s called Support Pollinators, and it has become very popular, very quickly. 

“It’s been out just a little over six months, and they’re getting a pretty good following,” Hochmuth said.

How big of a following, you ask? Nearly 850 have been purchased since July. 

If you’re interested in showing your love for the pollinators, you first have to donate at least $25 to the People and Pollinators Action Network. That’s a nonprofit that helps with environmental policy, sustainable agriculture, and habitat management for insects and people.

Most of these designs benefit a cause or an organization. Are you a Colorado Rockies baseball fan? Make a donation of $52.80 to the team’s charitable foundation, then a purple plate with the Rockies logo over some icy mountains is yours.

Some plates are more exclusive, like the ones that are only available if you’ve served in the armed forces, or if you’ve attended certain Colorado universities.

What’s the state’s most popular plate? Think about your time on the road, and take a guess.

Another thing Downing wanted to know is which of these dozens of plates is the most popular. If you’re the type of person who often takes note of people’s license plates, no judgment here. And that habit may give you an idea of which is the most coveted plate in Colorado.

“The Columbine plate currently has 80,787, and it is on the top,” Hochmuth said.

This plate honors the victims and survivors of the attack at Columbine High School in 1999. It has a blue sky, a lavender stripe on the bottom, with the state flower — a Columbine — in the center. Below the flower it reads, “Respect Life.”

The second most-popular plate is the Wildlife Sporting design, with a flopping trout in the center, at 33,000.

And third place is a very tight race between the Breast Cancer Awareness plate and the Pioneer plate, which signifies that your family was among the first to settle in Colorado. The latter has the third most registrations to date. 

And here’s an interesting, if unsurprising, fact: After the Colorado Avalanche won another National Hockey League championship last summer, the team’s plate got more popular.

“At the end of June, which is when the Stanley Cup was, there were 3,900 Avalanche plates,” Hochmuth said. “And as of the end of December there were 4,600.”

But this is Broncos Country, and Denver’s football team far and away has the most popular sports plate with almost 18,000. The Avalanche is the second-most popular, then the Rockies are third with 3,200. And the Nuggets have about 200. Again, each team has a foundation that benefits when you get their plates.

You, too, can create a specialty plate. But you’ll have to hop some hurdles.

So what if you have your own idea? Well first, you need to collect 3,000 signatures. Then your proposal goes through the legislative process. If enough state lawmakers vote to approve it, then your plate can adorn bumpers all across the state.

“The 3,000 signatures is what usually trips most people up,” Hochmuth said. “But the folks that are serious about it, especially two years ago with the pollinator plate and the firefighter plate. They managed to get it done and pound a bill through the general assembly, and it was awesome.”

And come August, Colorado drivers will have one more option for a specialty plate. But first, it’s up to the public to decide what the sesquicentennial plate’s design will be. Voting closes on Feb. 15.

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