Head to the Centennial State for sweet ski towns and artsy villages galore.
Known for legendary skiing thanks to its location at the base of the magnificent Tenmile Range, Breck (as locals call it) also boasts more than 250 structures dating back to the Gold Rush days. These whimsically painted buildings, part of the National Historic Register, make a guided tour through the gorgeous downtown a must. Outdoorsy types might want to leave time for a trek up nearby Quandary Peak, one of Colorado’s 58 mountains that measure 14,000 feet or taller.
The highest town in the U.S., Leadville sits at a soaring 10,152 feet, doubling Denver’s elevation and earning it the nickname «The Two-Mile High City.» With a preserved silver-mining district reaching 20 square miles and more than 70 square blocks of buildings dating back to the 1880s, it also offers plenty of historic fun. There’s wilder adventure afoot, too, with 100 miles of groomed winter trails in the area for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and more; in the summer The Arkansas River serves up stellar fishing.
Dubbed «The Wildflower Capital of Colorado,» Crested Butte celebrates pretty posies with its beloved Wildflower Festival each July, including hikes, garden tours, and photography classes. Skiing, of course, is king here come winter, but in the warmer months 750 miles of mountain biking trails make traveling on two wheels tempting. Meanwhile, campers can pitch their tents in the nearby Gunnison National Forest with primitive to full-service amenities.
Quirky Lyons, just 20 miles away from Rocky Mountain National Park, offers laid-back coffee houses, cool bars, and a smattering of excellent restaurants where live music is often on the menu. There’s an artist community here, which means good galleries, and tubing in the summer on the North St. Vrain C
reek that winds through town. Don’t miss staying at WeeCasa, a tiny home hotel that’s one of the country’s most unique—and adorable—places to lay your head.
Sitting snug in Brush Creek Valley surrounded by 3,000 acres of mountain terrain, Snowmass Village is home to the monumental Snowmass Ski Area, the second-largest in Colorado. But even after the powder melts, this little town settled by ranchers more than a century ago still provides plenty of diversions, from whitewater rafting to weekly rodeos.
The funkily named Fruita is home to Dinosaur Hill and The Trail Through Time at Rabbit Valley, both of which feature fossils of the long-gone critters, as well as the Museum of Western Colorado: Dinosaur Journey, where visitors can check out skeletons, robotic dinosaurs, and scientists preparing bones for display in a real laboratory.
A bit bigger than many of the towns on this list, if not quite the size of Fruita, Rifle still exudes plenty of bucolic splendor. Hunters come looking for game like elk, pheasant, and moose in the surrounding White River National Forest and the Grand Mesa area, while spelunkers love to explore the limestone caves at Rifle Falls State Park (pictured), also known for its soaring 80-foot triple waterfall. If you’d like to get on top of the rock rather than within it, the park serves up world-famous climbing, too.
Looking for off-the-wall? Ned’s Frozen Dead Guy Days, held each March, is a festival celebrating a Norwegian fellow who was cryogenically preserved outside of town following his death in the ’80s. Shoppers will want to peruse Ned’s fantastic independent emporiums, kids will love the restored carousel from 1910, and music fans won’t want to miss The Caribou Room, where national acts like the Rebirth Brass Band play.
Whether you want to make a trek or take a dip, Salida is the place. A dozen of Colorado’s «14ers» (mountain peaks exceeding 14,000 feet) encircle the town, and the Arkansas River runs right through it, providing kayaking, rafting, and tubing enthusiasts a good time all summer long. The waterway is saluted during the FibArk (First in Boating on the Arkansas) festival and there’s a hot springs pool in town, too. Meanwhile, art aficionados flock to Salida’s 20-some galleries and studios.
Like Salida, Ridgway is all about the arts, with galleries and studios, plus an historic theater and plenty of cool events like full moon art excursions. The Orvis Hot Springs are close by, offering steamy pools situated in natural settings. A true taste of the fabled American West, Ridgway gained fame when True Grit was filmed here in the late ’60s; today, visitors can sign up for a walking tour centered around the John Wayne classic.
For anyone looking to expand their horizons, wee Crestone has evolved over the years from a tiny mining town into a place for spiritual seekers. Tibetan centers, a Hindu temple, a Zen center (pictured), and a Carmelite monastery are all located within the community, along with art galleries and some of the finest massage therapists in the state. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, with its opportunity to sled the tallest sand dunes in North America, is just an hour away.
Serious sun, soaking and skiing await in Pagosa Springs, tucked away at the foot of the Continental Divide. One of the sunnier spots in Colorado, the town is graced by three inns catering to weary and stressed guests with sublime hot springs: The Springs Resort & Spa, Healing Waters Resort, and Overlook Spa. Meanwhile, Wolf Creek Ski area, just a few minutes away, snags the most snow in the state, more than 450 inches a year.
Tiny Creede couldn’t get any bigger even if it wanted to—the town is perched in what was once a volcanic caldera, with sheer cliffs rising up around it. On Main Street, picturesque storefronts from the 1890s house shops, inns, and restaurants, and for history buffs there are two fine institutions: the Creede Historical Museum and the Underground Mining Museum. Anglers will find fish aplenty thanks to the town’s locale at the headwaters of the Rio Grande and San Juan rivers.
Ensconced smack dab among some of the richest archeological sites in the country, Dolores is a must-stop for anyone curious about this country’s original people. Mesa Verde National Park, with thousands of archeological sites, including 600 well-preserved cliff dwellings that housed Ancestral Puebloans, is just 20 minutes away. Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, which contains an even higher density of artifacts, and the Anasazi Heritage Center, a museum dedicated to the lives of the people who lived in the area 1,400 years ago, are nearly within walking distance of the town.
La Junta, stashed away amongst the ranches and farmland of the lovely Arkansas River Valley, sits at the intersection of what was once the celebrated Santa Fe Trail and the Trappers Trail. Colorful characters have long inhabited the area—famed frontiersman Kit Carson hunted there, as did the Arapaho and Cheyenne people. Nowadays, visitors peruse the farm markets, take in a cattle auction, or keep an eye out for dinosaur tracks and ancient Native American petroglyphs and pictographs in the magnificent Comanche National Grassland.