The high peaks and passes of the Colorado mountains are studded with gold – not so much the gold that drew prospectors here in the nineteenth century, but a glittering variety of mountain resort towns to be treasured for their historic and contemporary charms, often their restful thermal springs, and always their variety of summer and winter activities.
Here are six of our favorites. All are within easy reach of Denver and other major cities; all boast an excellent range of places to stay, eat and be entertained; and all place you on the threshold of the Great Out There. So step out, get hiking or biking, fishing or boating, jeeping or climbing, skiing or boarding – and unwind at day’s end with the soothing waters, soothing music and scrumptious food and drink of the Rockies’ prettiest and friendliest small towns…
Located in southwest Colorado within the Gunnison National Forest and the Elk Mountain Range, Crested Butte is a place that combines genuine small-town charm with a broad range of summer and winter activities. Originally settled in the 1880s as a mining supply camp, Crested Butte has seen the swing of pick-axe give way to the kick of crampon and twirl of kayak paddle, and can now claim to be one of the most fully-featured vacation destinations in the Rockies.
Come summer there are rich climbing opportunities, guided or non-guided, in Taylor Canyon, Cement Creek and the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park. Why not try whitewater rafting or kayaking in the class II-IV rapids? Or bombing down the extensive mountain bike trails? If you’re looking for something a little more sedate, the Mount Crested Butte region has endless choices for hiking in alpine meadows and forests – few places on Earth can match the Rockies for their panoply of summer wildflowers. Or you can fish in crystal clear rivers, streams and lakes.
Voted best steeps, best snow and best groomed corduroy in Colorado, Crested Butte Mountain Resort offers over a thousand acres of ski and board slopes suiting all from beginners to experts. Fourteen chairlifts carry you to the next run as swiftly as possible, and there are half-pipes and terrain runs to please the funkiest freestyler.
In the heart of San Miguel County lies the charming town of Telluride. Nestling in a dramatic box canyon, it offers a blend of nineteenth century charm and world-class cultural events which have earned it the moniker ‘City of Festivals’. Come to the outdoor amphitheater in June to see acts from across the nation perform at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. And pop into the Telluride Historical Museum to learn of the area’s history, from mining to slope-shredding.
World-class skiing is available by road or by gondola to Mountain Village and Telluride Ski & Golf Resort. This is the highest concentration of 13,000 and 14,000 peaks in America, with slopes for all. Ute Park and The Meadows will get beginners off to a gentle start, See Forever and Prospect Bowl will keep intermediates happy, and The Plunge, Revelation Bowl and Gold Hill offer plenty of challenges for the serious shredder.
Fodor’s ranked Telluride in the nation’s top ten for foodies – 221 South Oak offers top-class New American cuisine with Deep South, Calypso, Californian and Creole flavors; Brown Dog Pizza offers terrific, you guessed it, pizza in a sports bar atmosphere; and Allred’s, at the top of the gondola, combines a marvelously eclectic menu with the best views in Telluride
Set at the head of a valley and surrounded by 13,000 foot peaks, the intimate community of Ouray has managed the transition from the mining boom days to the present because it offers so many opportunities for rest and recreation. Thermal springs feed the town pool, where people come from near and far to soak those aching bones in its healing waters. It is said that the Ute Indian Chief Ouray, after whom the town is named, held religious ceremonies at these sacred waters. The town is also surrounded by spectacular waterfalls, and a popular excursion is to hike up to Box Canyon Falls to view the almost 300 foot cascade.
Ouray dubs itself the Jeeping Capital of the World, and it seems as if every inhabitant owns a four-wheel drive, as the rugged surrounding heights offer unlimited mountain roads to traverse. Bring along your own 4×4 or rent locally, and head out into the vast network of trails, graded from 1 (easiest) to 5 (use extreme caution); but whatever the difficulty, all the trails offer a spectacular variety of views, from ghost towns and abandoned mines to alpine woods and tundra studded with beautiful wildflowers.
After a rugged day’s driving, and a soak in the pool, it’s time to refuel. The Outlaw Restaurant cooks up great rib-eye steaks; the Bon Ton offers a range of quality Italian and modern Continental dishes; and Mouses Chocolates and Coffee does exactly what is says on the sign.
Salida sits squarely in the heart of Colorado, about 3 hours from Denver and 2 hours from Colorado Springs. As with so many CO mountain towns it was gold that first brought settlers here, but farming and ranching made Salida a lasting community. The Arkansas River flows through the downtown, which hosts the annual FibArk (First in Boating on the Arkansas) Festival each summer. The river is a great place to try rafting and kayaking; and the town’s watery diversions extend to the local geothermal springs, which are now housed in a public pool.
The mountains around Salida boast over a dozen 14,000 foot peaks, and the area provides as wide a range of outdoor activities as you could find anywhere. Go hiking and camping amid beautiful alpine meadows with stunning mountain views. Get chalked up for a range of rock climbing routes suitable for beginners to experts. Try archery, golf, mountain biking, or take the kids to the brand new Captain Zipline Aerial Adventure Park, with its endless combinations of catwalks, ropes, ladders and flying elements – there are even several Via Ferrata routes, ‘iron highways’ hammered into otherwise unscalable faces.
For food, Ploughboy inc. is a blend of daily farmer’s market and deli, with a delicious range of local produce, and the ever-popular Sweetie’s Sandwich Shop offers a tempting range of hot and cold sandwiches, and salads.
In 1874 six gold prospectors became trapped in a blizzard in the appropriately bleak-sounding Slumgullion Pass, and Alfred Packer, Lake City’s most infamous resident, was subsequently jailed for killing and eating his five companions. After his release from jail he allegedly became a vegetarian. Thankfully the eating opportunities have improved since, and now Lake City boasts such excellent eateries as the Restless Spirits Saloon, the Lake City Bakery and the San Juan Soda Company.
Lake City is your gateway to the San Juans, and here you can enjoy hiking, camping, boating, mountain biking, horseback riding and fishing. There are also historic and mine tours, hunting, rafting and mini-golf. When the white stuff arrives, check out the Lake City Ski Hill: opened in 1966, it’s a friendly boutique resort, with four runs served by one life, and prides itself on value (at time of writing it quotes that a family of four can ski here for as little as $44 a day).
The surrounding Hindsdale County offers up a glorious array of natural wonders, from the blue waters of Lake San Cristobal, with fishing, rafting and kayaking; to spectacular cascades at North Clear Creek Falls, Whitmore Falls and Nellie Creek Falls; and the four public wilderness areas Uncompaghre, La Garita, Weminuche and Powderhorn.
As with so many of Colorado’s most appealing mountain towns, Steamboat Springs has wonderful geothermal waters. Fur trappers visiting the area in the late nineteenth century thought that the churning sound made by the springs resembled a steamboat coming down the Yampa River.
Summer delights include a scenic hike to Fish Creek Falls, or a variety of hiking and mountain biking routes through the surrounding forests and parks. And don’t be surprised to find the sky filled with giants – for Steamboat Springs is a famous hot-air ballooning hub, hosting the Hot Air Balloon Rodeo each summer – book a basket for the best Colorado mountain views money can buy. In the summer evenings stroll down to the Strings Music Festival, or to the hundred year old rodeo.
Steamboat Springs has produced more Winter Olympians than any other US town (88 and counting), so head out to Steamboat Ski Resort and Howelsen Hill to discover why. Champagne snow is one reason – the Pacific rain fronts are partially stripped of their moisture over the Mojave Desert, before climbing into the Rockies, cooling, and dumping the most perfectly dry, flaky snow. Off-piste heaven. With nearly 3000 acres of skiable terrain for all levels, Steamboat Ski Resort will get you wondering if you might just be able to qualify for the next Olympics…
Estes Park is the eastern entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Lake Estes offers blissful boating opportunities, and the surrounding peaks are prime targets for rock and ice climbers. Early morning is a gorgeous time to explore the Park’s crystal-clear lakes, rolling alpine meadows and forests, and to sample the summer wildflowers and wildlife. There is also a good range of horse-riding and mountain-biking trails.
Estes Park itself is a bustling retail centre, with over 200 outlets, and a restaurant scene and event calendar rivalling those of much larger cities. The century-old Stanley Hotel overlooks the town, and its white pillared, old-world grandeur is not to be missed – if you are staying elsewhere, be sure to pop in to its fine restaurant and whiskey bar. Elkhorn Avenue is the town’s thriving main thoroughfare, but take a scenic riverside walk along the Big Thompston if you fancy a breather from the bargain-hunting crowds.
For food, the unassuming-looking Baba’s Burgers and Gyros serves excellent burgers and Greek fries; The Egg and I serves one of the best breakfast menus in the Rockies; and Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Tap House is the place to go if you like your beef and pork slow-cooked, juicy and dressed with a range of homemade sauces to your own personal taste.