7 Colorado Mountain Towns to Hit Before Summer’s Over
Trust us: Even the ski towns are better in summer.
There’s one state that’s perfect any time of year: good ol’ Colorado. The Centennial State’s many, many mountain towns offer ideal getaways—not just for ski bums come winter, but also for summer babies looking to indulge in high-elevation adventures and small town vibes. With wildflower-strewn hikes, ghost towns, festivals, and some of the best brews and foods in the state, these Rocky Mountain escapes are brimming with summer personalities that you’ll want to get to know intimately before the snow begins to fall.
Hot springs and an even hotter culinary scene
With working ranches and lasso-toters on horseback punctuating the streets, Steamboat Springs still sports some Old Western charm—and that’s not just during August’s Pro Rodeo Series. Saddle up on two wheels and head to Colorado’s oldest running ski area at Howelsen Hill, a treasure trove of mountain bike trails for all skill levels teeming with colorful wildflowers and views on views. Reward your slog up Emerald Mountain with a cold brew and the Rockies’ best wood-fired pizza at Mountain Tap Brewery, or head downhill to Storm Peak Brewing Company on the outskirts of town for Steamboat’s best suds. As the name implies, Steamboat Springs is also home to a collection of natural hot springs—the best of which is Strawberry Park, a rustic oasis of bubbling mineral pools and small cabins (you’ll just need a reservation due to the pandemic). The most rewarding way to experience them is by going there on foot via Hot Springs Trail, a gentle, three-mile hike from Mad Creek Trailhead (look for FS Trail #1169).
Steamboat’s culinary scene has really come into its own in recent years, an explosion perhaps best experienced during the annual Steamboat Food & Wine Festival. But good eats are available year-round: Try drug store-turned-saddlery-turned restaurant Harwigs, which has been around since 1886 and boasts the most expansive wine cellar in town. Dive into the best breakfast (and breakfast cocktails) ever at Yampa Valley Kitchen, make time for a multi-course French extravaganza at Sauvage, or grab a locally sourced app from Aurum, Steamboat’s buzziest and most scenic riverside deck. It’s also worth a short drive to visit what is arguably the hippest food collective in the world, the Hayden Granary. As for lodging, the majority of hotels are located at the base of Steamboat Resort. Among them, The Ptarmigan Inn is a standout for its location near the gondola, cozy vibe, heated outdoor pool, and rooftop happy hour.
A laid-back cousin to Colorado’s luxe resort towns
Although it feels like a trek from Denver, the picturesque views along Highway 285 are just a preview of what you can expect in Crested Butte. The oddly-shaped namesake butte (and ski resort) juts out boldly from the landscape, and the mining-era town lies less than 3 miles away, emanating a much more laid-back vibe than other resort towns on the I-70 corridor. Outdoor adventure meets botanic rainbows wherever you go in CB, which is perhaps Colorado’s wildflower capital. Experienced mountain bikers can take in hours of floral-scented pedaling on the 401 Trail, which takes you above treeline on a narrow single-track over scree fields and through a ghost town aptly named Gothic. Oh Be Joyful Falls—whose Class V whitewater route offers 25-foot drops—resemble a massive staircase of running water and are best viewed from the Oh Be Joyful hiking trail.
Meanwhile, things stay colorful with food and festivals in town. While CB lacks the multitude of fine dining options you’ll find in resort towns, you can get an amazing cup of coffee at Camp 4, colorful farm-to-table breakfasts at Sunflower, and surprisingly fresh sushi at Lil’s. The annual Crested Butte Arts Festival brings unusual hand-made jewelry, paintings, sculptures, and clothing by Colorado artists to the streets of downtown. Characters of all sorts come out of the woodwork for the Artumn Festival at the end of September, which coincides with Vinotok, a kooky harvest celebration in which hundreds of partiers convene around a giant bonfire and burn the Grump (a figure made of sticks and other natural materials), smoke high-grade bud, and don homemade flower halos and creepy costumes. It’s a modern Pagan throwdown that makes you feel as if you’ve landed on the pages of Where the Wild Things Are.
Go ghost-hunting in America’s second-highest city
Sitting at nearly 10,200 feet (that’s nearly twice the elevation of Denver), Leadville offers an authentic taste of the Old West with historic haunts dating back to the silver rush—many of them rumored to actually be haunted. That includes Baby Doe’s Cabin near the Matchless Mine, named for the widow of Horace Tabor, who—before leaving his wife alone and penniless to freeze to death in the shack next to his formerly booming mine—was one of the richest men in the west. Tourists who sit in the rocking chair here sometimes spring to their feet after getting the eerie sensation of sitting on someone’s lap. Another of Tabor’s artifacts, The Silver Dollar Saloon, still features its original bar mirror made of diamond dust, as well as 1879 swinging wood doors that lead to the back of the restaurant, where people claim to have seen the ghosts of Horace and Baby Doe cuddling in a corner.
Surrounded by the Sawatch Mountains—including the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains, 14,440-foot Mt. Elbert—Leadville is the stomping ground for near-superhuman athletes. They flock here each summer for the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race and the Leadville 100 Trail Run. With a 30-hour time limit, the course climbs and descends more than 15,000 vertical feet, and usually only half the field crosses the finish line. Just thinking about it will make you drool for super authentic Mexican food at Casa Blanca or wood-fired pizza at hole-in-the-wall High Mountain Pies. If you’re here for a few days and want to pick up what is every Colorado local’s most treasured clothing item, make an appointment at Melanzana, home of the world’s most comfortable fleece hoodie, sewn right before your eyes.
All of the mountain views with none of the winter crowds
While Colorado’s most celebrity-filled resort town is indeed worth a ski trip, it’s also buzzing with activity, more relaxed vibes, and arguably greater beauty in the dry months. Now that live music has returned to Colorado’s high country, there is no more hip or intimate venue than The Belly Up, which, in spite of its coziness, brings in a steady stream of internationally renowned A-list acts. For a classy, creative, five-star dining splurge (or an overnight stay), the iconic Little Nell cannot be beat, nor can a fresh bite and inspired glass of wine at Victoria’s Espresso. Upscale Mexican and CBD-laced cocktails can be found at La Chola, surprisingly fresh sushi at Kenichi, and hearty, lumberjack-inspired breakfasts or messy plates of ribs at The Hickory House.
As for the outdoors, one of the most stunning sights you’ll ever behold is the Maroon Bells amid late summer and fall colors—and that’s no secret, so make your shuttle reservation early. Up the road, Snowmass is now home to one of the nation’s greatest downhill bike parks and, along with its sister property right in the heart of Aspen, one of the hippest yet most affordable hotels in the region, The Limelight. You can also pedal all the way to Glenwood Springs more than 40 miles away on the smooth surface that was once a Rio Grande railway line. Summer events reach a blistering climax with the Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) music extravaganza over Labor Day weekend, which strays far from the jazz genre with headliners like Kings of Leon and Stevie Nicks.
Hiking and history at the base of Colorado’s most famous peak
Situated at the foot of 14,000-foot Pikes Peak, Manitou Springs is basically nearby Colorado Springs' little hippy sister. The town’s most frequented outdoor offering is The Manitou Incline, a set of 2,744 steps that include the remains of an old railway. The exhilarating (not to mention free with reservations!) hike takes you more than 2,000 vertical feet up in under a mile, the final few hundred steps so steep that it becomes more like a climb.
Afterward, head down into the expanse of Manitou’s many knickknack shops, where you’ll find one of Colorado’s most underpublicized gems: a historic penny arcade full of electronic ducks and bunnies with menacing faces, vintage pinball games, and skeeball. And speaking of history, back in the 1800s the site that is now Manitou Brewing once served as a burro livery—the place to rent a burro to go to the top of Pikes Peak. Now it’s home to the best suds around, none of which are canned or sold outside of the brewery, so you’d better have an extra pint while you’re there (and maybe some homemade hummus). You’ll also want to go for a sip of the alleged healing waters from the springs in Manitou. The fountains are located around downtown and according to local lore, a small taste elicits magical healing powers. Don’t take too big a swig, though—the sulfur-tinged liquid tastes like a deviled egg that’s been under a sofa since 2012.
This wintertime classic gets even better in the off-season
Originally built to be a ski resort in 1962, this swanky resort town is hardly under-the-radar—but many people don’t realize that Colorado’s most sprawling ski area is even better in the off-season. In summer, the Vail Valley teems with greenery and wildflowers, accommodation becomes considerably more affordable, and the passersby are much less fur-endowed. If you want to cut costs on lodging while staying in one of the town’s original and most iconic buildings, Gasthof Gramshammer (aka Pepi’s) is the place. Pulsating with authentic European charm, what the 38 rooms in the Austrian chalet lack in central AC they make up for in location, location, location. Newer local paragons include the insanely popular Vail outpost by world famous Japanese restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa; Vail Brewing Co., home of some of the tastiest beers in the Rockies; and Bol, great for bowling but even better for food, with an eclectic menu of seasonally fresh pizzas, burgers, and creative cocktails.
Spend your mornings lulling on the rocks of the gurgling Gore Creek with a latte from Yeti’s Grind and do all of your people watching (and food and art shopping) on Sundays at the Vail Farmers Market & Art Show. To get some fresh air, head directly up the green slopes of the ski area on Berry Picker Trail, which weaves through lush pine forests full of—you guessed it—berries, which are for wildlife consumption only but still look beautiful. And for evening entertainment, hit up Hot Summer Nights, a free concert series every Tuesday evening at the mountainside, acoustics-rich Gerald Ford Amphitheater.
Down craft beer and discover ancient cave dwellings
With no shortage of amazing scenery, craft beer, adventures, and straight-up cool factor, Durango is well worth the trip down toward the New Mexico border. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a college town—home to the small but select Fort Lewis College—and doesn’t get the same overwhelming stream of summertime tourists as resort towns off of Interstate 70. Durango’s very Western downtown has swapped out most of its historic saloons for craft beer pubs, but you can still find swinging doors and 10-gallon hats if you look hard enough. The spacious Steamworks Brewing has great fish tacos and barrel-aged sours that hit the sweet (and sour) spot at happy hour, while bicycle-themed Carver Brewing boasts an imperial stout that truly reaches its potential when paired with a homemade cast iron chocolate chip cookie.
Don’t forget to venture a few miles out of town for even more excitement. Check out the cave dwellings of the ancestral Pueblo people built into the rock at Mesa Verde National Park, paddle the majestic Animas River from put-in areas north of town, or hike to some of the San Juan Mountains’ most scenic gems like Cascade Creek waterfall near Purgatory Resort.