Colorado Getaways 2020: Small Towns, Big Adventures
Editor’s Note: This article was written based on the author’s experiences prior to the pandemic. Some of the lodgings, restaurants, and activities described in this article may be limited today. If you visit, please follow local, state, and federal safety protocols and social distancing practices to keep yourself and others protected.
Small towns in Colorado aren’t sleepy spots. In fact, they’re charming, historic, unique, and big on adventure. Having logged thousands of miles road-tripping across the state, three of my favorites are Buena Vista, Carbondale, and Telluride. Here’s why.
Buena Vista (meaning “good view”), sitting at the base of the Collegiate Peaks along the Arkansas River, is often dubbed the whitewater rafting capital of the U.S. A couple of friends and I came here for a weekend getaway, well before the COVID-19 pandemic started.
We rented paddleboards for the afternoon from CKS, and headed to Cottonwood Lake, about 20 minutes from town, where the calm water of the small, scenic lake was perfect for a couple of hours of paddling. It’s also a great spot to fish or kayak.
On the way back into town, we stopped at Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy to get some of their award-winning goat cheese. They offer farm and milking tours, and I squealed while playing with a couple of baby goats. They were so cute!
We stayed in the Victorian-style home known as the Blue Tower in South Main. For a boutique hotel experience on the Arkansas River, stay at the Surf Hotel & Chateau. If you want something a little more budget-friendly, use your AAA discount at the AAA Three Diamond-designated Best Western Vista Inn. It’s only a couple minutes from the historic downtown and has a great view of Mount Princeton.
After settling in, we took a late-afternoon stroll admiring the architecture, while doing a little retail therapy. We also tested our climbing skills in the boulder park and walked along the river, watching kayakers and paddleboarders ride the rapids at the Buena Vista Whitewater Park.
By now we were getting hungry, so for dinner we sat on the patio at the AAA-approved Eddyline Restaurant, Brewery, and Taproom. I’m a huge fan of their seasonal quinoa dishes. While we were eating, live music filled the air. Across the street, The Beach South Main features free summer concerts on Friday evenings, where you can sway to the beat on your blanket, tap your toes from your lawn chair, or dance in the grass as the sun sets.
The next morning, we headed out for a guided whitewater rafting trip down the Arkansas River with Arkansas Valley Adventures. As we traveled through Browns Canyon National Monument, the journey went from the calmness of floating through the Milk Run to the adrenaline rush of tackling Class III rapids in the staircase section’s seven rapids, capped off with the exhilaration of riding the Zoom Flume.
Other adventure activities include doing the Via Ferrata of ziplines, scaling cliffs, and a 40-foot rappel, or you can spend your day hiking to the summit of one of the Collegiate Peaks—home of the highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks in the U.S. Mt. Princeton is the most popular, and as with any Colorado 14er, get an early start so that you summit by 10 a.m. to beat the almost daily summer storms. Afterward, soak your tired muscles at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs or Cottonwood Hot Springs.
The next morning, I took advantage of the quiet Sunday and crossed the bridge to hike the Barbara Whipple Trail System. The views of Buena Vista and the Collegiates are worth working up a sweat, and you’ll likely run into locals while hiking or biking.
Afterward, I took a drive up to St. Elmo, one of Colorado’s best-preserved ghost towns. As I wandered around, I imagined what life must have been like in this 1880s mining town, once home to about 2,000 people.
For a late lunch back in Buena Vista, I grabbed a veggie sandwich at Sorelle Delicatessen and enjoyed a picnic by the Arkansas River. Before heading out of town, stop by Stedman’s Soda, Sweets, and Treats—the homemade fudge is worth the wait.
About halfway between Glenwood Springs and Aspen on Highway 82 is Carbondale, where adventurous meets artsy. This small mountain town is also gaining a reputation as a culinary hotspot along the Colorado Creative Corridor.
Before checking into my hotel, I decided to stretch my road trip legs with a quick hike up to Mushroom Rock in the Red Hill Recreation Area—a locals’ favorite trail system. This less-than-2-mile round-trip hike is family- and dog-friendly and has a great view of the Crystal and Roaring Fork Valleys.
About a mile off of Main Street is the AAA-approved Comfort Inn and Suites. I’ve stayed here several times, but for this trip I wanted a more unique stay. The Distillery Inn is the only inn in the world housed in a working distillery. I stayed in the Moonlight Suite, one of five rooms decked out in mountain chic décor, with over-the-top touches, including a personalized mini bar and martini bar. The boutique inn is also dog- and electric car-friendly.
Living the “Lucky Life” in the Moonlight Suite at the Distillery Inn in Carbondale. © Jennifer Broome
In the mood for a creative cocktail, and since I didn’t have to drive anywhere, I bellied up to the Inn’s Marble Bar and ordered a Marble-rita made with their gingercello and vodka. While sipping my cocktail, I learned the unique bar top was cut from a 9-ton block from the nearby town of Marble.
Afterward, I strolled through Carbondale’s Creative District, popping in and out of the numerous galleries along Main Street, and enjoyed public art installations scattered throughout town. For dinner, I was craving Asian food and headed over to the AAA Three Diamond-designated Phat Thai—a Carbondale institution. I reveled in the fete of flavors as I dined on Tom Yum Gung soup and Phat Thai with shrimp and tofu, their spin on a traditional Pad Thai. Another option is the Homestead Bar and Grill, which offers al fresco dining and great views of Mt. Sopris. It’s less than a mile from the Distillery Inn, so you can easy walk or ride a bike to and from dinner.
The next morning, I did the 40-minute drive to Marble, known for its slabs from the Yule Marble Quarry used in the Lincoln Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here, my buddy and I had a picnic breakfast by the Crystal River before exploring the tiny town. We hiked for about four miles on the dirt road to the iconic Crystal Mill, which was constructed in 1893, and sits perched on a rock outcropping along the Crystal River.
Named after the quartz in the area, Crystal City was founded in 1881 by silver prospectors. It’s often referred to as a ghost town, but in summer there are some seasonal residents and a general store operating in the mining-era buildings. We hiked part of the way back until a teenager offered us a ride on his UTV. He told us that his ancestors were some of the early miners in the area. Cruising the 4x4 terrain to Crystal Mill in the White River National Forest is a popular activity. You can rent two-person ATVs, or side-by-side UTVs with RPS ATV Rentals in Marble. I recommend making reservations in advance.
When we got back to Marble, we were really hungry. We sat outside on the deck at Slow Groovin’ BBQ, and chowed down on their oversized portions of hillbilly nachos, fried okra, and barbeque. Somehow, we even saved a little room to split the “Old Guy Pie”—their rotating homemade desert.
By this time, a soak in the hot springs sounded heavenly. So, on the way back to Carbondale, we stopped by Avalanche Ranch. They have three pools ranging from 88 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and day visitors are allowed with a reservation (although, at the time of this writing, they are closed for day visits). As the steam rose from the cascading pools, I could feel my tired muscles thanking me.
I slowed down for a moment and started Sunday with a yoga class at True Nature Healing Arts, then meditated in the Zen garden, did a moving meditation in the Peace Garden’s labyrinth, and walked barefoot on the reflexology path. My rumbling tummy interrupted my Zen state, so I walked over to the AAA-approved Village Smithy Restaurant and devoured their huevos rancheros. This fueled my mountain biking adventure on the Prince Creek Trails. My favorite was the Monte Carlo trail, named after an actual car you can ride over, as I did, or pedal around.
I couldn’t visit Carbondale and not cast a line in the Roaring Fork, a Gold Medal river. Crystal Fly Shop took me on a guided fly-fishing outing, and within a few minutes I had my first catch, and kissed my brown trout. This was the perfect ending to my weekend in Carbondale.
I always feel like I’ve been transported to the Alps whenever I drive into the box canyon that’s home to Telluride. But it makes sense, since Colorado’s San Juan Mountains are known as the American Alps. Designated as a National Historic Landmark District in 1964, Telluride, with its Victorian-era homes, historic buildings, and clapboard storefronts, is the perfect place for me to combine mining history with outdoor adventure.
I arrived late in the afternoon and settled into my comfortable, oversized room at the AAA Three Diamond-designated The Hotel Telluride, then walked over to the AAA Four Diamond-designated New Sheridan Hotel and sipped a cocktail on the rooftop, while watching the sun dip behind the San Juans before dinner.
I’m a “go big or go home” kind of adventurer, so if you’re like me, I suggest booking The Hotel Telluride’s “Crack a Coors on Wilson Peak” package, offered July 13 to Sept. 17, 2020. Waking up at 3 a.m., we headed to the Rock of Ages Trailhead in Elk Creek Basin, where our guide Karl, from San Juan Outdoor Adventures, led us on the 10-mile round-trip hike. At the 14,017-foot summit, I cracked open a Coors beer. Why? Because Wilson Peak is the mountain on the label.
The next day, I took off on a guided 4WD tour with Telluride Outside to one of the highest ghost towns in North America: Tomboy Ghost Town. I bounced around and laughed as we maneuvered the bumpy and winding Tomboy Road over Imogene Pass. Along the way we saw some old miners’ cabins and made a stop at the “Social Tunnel,” where in the late 1800s and early 1900s, lonely miners would meet up with the single ladies of Telluride. We stopped at Savage Basin, a glacial cirque at 11,509 feet, to explore the old mining town, which, in its heyday, was home to 1,000 year-round residents. The surprise bonus was seeing blankets of wildflowers.
I spent the rest of the afternoon on a self-guided historic walking tour of Telluride, seeing historical sites like Butch Cassidy’s first successful bank robbery. For some retail therapy, I headed into my favorite Telluride boutique, CashmereRED, as well as Black Bear Trading Company, Hook, and the Toggery—a few of my other usual shops.
For dinner, I took the free gondola up to the AAA Three Diamond-designated Allred’s Restaurant. As I savored every morsel of my crab cake, I watched the pink and purple hues of alpenglow blanket the box canyon at sunset. Other great dining options include these additional AAA Three Diamond-designated restaurants: the upscale New Sheridan Chophouse; the 221 South Oak St. Bistro, owned by Bravo’s Top Chef Season 10’s competitor Eliza Gavin; or Rustico Ristorante, wonderful Italian food in an intimate setting. For pizza, though, my favorite is the AAA-approved Brown Dog Pizza.San
The next morning, I walked in the cool morning air to the AAA-approved The Butcher & the Baker to fuel up with a breakfast sandwich for my cycling adventure with Bootdoctors. I’m a novice mountain biker and the half-day Galloping Goose bike tour was perfect for me—it’s also great for families. The Galloping Goose Trail was part of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad in the late 1800s to mid-1900s. We started at 10,200 feet on Lizard Head Pass and rode mainly downhill along part of the historic train route, passing a train trestle, Trout Lake, waterfalls, and the ultra-scenic Ophir Valley.
Afterwards, I grabbed a gourmet taco to go at Taco Del Gnar and drove about 15 minutes on Colorado’s San Juan Skyway Scenic and Historic Byway to Trout Lake. I enjoyed a picnic lunch then spent a couple of hours paddleboarding on the calm water. If you don’t have a paddleboard, you can rent one from Bootdoctors.
Soaking in the sunshine, while taking in the picturesque scenery was the perfect way to relax and dream of my next road trip filled with big adventures in more of Colorado’s small towns.
EnCompass is streaming on Denver7
Learn more about the Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy in Buena Vista, where you can taste a wide range of delicious craft cheeses and play with baby goats Plus, learn what makes whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River special—all on the Denver7 streaming app. Just search “Denver7” on your Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV or Android TV to download the app, and then scroll to the “Discover Colorado” section.