These Colorful Towns Are a Gateway to Colorado’s Most Trippy National Park

It's like 'Mad Max' meets 'Gilmore Girls'.

There’s nothing like the smell of dankly fresh mountain air with a waft of pine and musty earth. That alone is reason enough to go to Colorado. But the reasons add up. Maybe you’re looking for high-altitude adventure. Maybe the tallest sand mountains in North America have piqued your interest. Maybe you want to sandboard in a Mad-Max-like terrain at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Whatever calls you to the southern area of Colorado, there’s a cluster of cute villages in the region where you can cozy up to the small town charm. Flanked by a spread of 14,000-foot-tall mountains (aka 14ers), the towns of Buena Vista, Salida, and Del Norte all offer wild west settings; hiking, ziplining, horseback riding, rafting, or rock climbing adventures; and sit within a short drive to the national park.

Just over two hours from Denver, the three towns also deliver on art, music, and tasty eats. You’ll find wood-fired pizzas, dressed-up burgers, and made-in-Colorado craft brews. You really could take your pick of either Buena Vista, Salida, or Del Norte for your hotel base camp, and then make easy day trips to explore either of the other two towns. And with airstreams, a music-festival-adjacent hotel, and outdoor-centric motor lodges with fire pits, you’re sure to be pleased as pie with whichever you pick.

Here’s where to stay and what to do in Southern Colorado so you can visit national parks, adventure in the outdoors, and unwind in town.

white water rafting
Now This is Colorado

Find rushing rivers or calm hot springs in Buena Vista

Set along the famed Arkansas River, Buena Vista—or “BV” if you’re in the know—is often referred to as the white water rafting capital of Colorado. Families and beginners head to the relatively calm Browns Canyon National Monument, while Pine Creek offers more advanced rafting runs with drops over boulders and steep pour overs.

Whatever your poison, you might want to slow things down afterwards with more relaxing waters. Rest your weary muscles inside one of the five pools at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, whose warm temperatures (ranging from 97-108°F) are known for their healing, mineral-rich properties. You can also wade in the creek’s “hot spots” or drop inside the onsite spa for a deep tissue massage using a native hemp-derived Colorado CBD cream.

downtown Salida
Photo by Scott Peterson

Go from ziplining to art galleries in Salida

About twenty five minutes from BV is Salida, a former railroad depot town and an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. For dangling ziplines, scaling cliffs, and challenge courses (think swinging bridges and tightropes), the adventure park Captain Zipline has you covered.

Looking for less adrenaline? Across the river, you’ll discover the Arkansas Trails with easy and short loop options, while advanced hikers hit the North Backbone and Sweet Dreams trails. You can also stroll the mellow Arkansas River Walk, a paved stretch with several resting spots.

And if you’re the type who wants the most chill of chill, you’ll find a concentration of local art galleries spread along downtown’s Victorian-style buildings, including Four Winds and Indian Paintbrush Studios.

mountain biker
Photo courtesy of Big River Collective

Rock climb and cycle in Del Norte

In the San Luis Valley, Del Norte has an old-timey Western vibe—but this is Colorado, so you’ll get plenty of adventure, too. Penitente Canyon is known for its 300-plus technical rock climbing routes and surreal volcanic landscapes. Cycling enthusiasts relish pedaling on the newly unveiled Rio Grande and Del Norte Trails. The Stone Quarry route grants 3,000-foot elevations and Middle Frisco is a six-plus-mile, one-way trail passing through aspen groves and ending at Frisco Lake.

After your climb or ride, head to the cavernous emporium of the General Specific Store. Here you can score the local 4-11 from the store’s enthusiastic proprietor, Corey Hubbardhas. Or just browse the taxidermy, mid-century furniture, art books, and other curious curiosities.

purple dunes
NAN ZHONG/Moment/Getty Images

Go sandboarding and stargazing in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Welcome to the land of 5 billion cubic meters of sand spanning over 30 miles and reaching 750-feet high. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is really the star activity in this area no matter which town you choose to stay in. The otherworldly landscapes here are surrounded by the mysterious Sangre de Cristo Mountains and have the highest mountains of sand in North America.

While there’s plenty to do here (like camping, climbing, or horseback riding), try sandboarding—a singular surfing-meets-snowboarding-meets-skateboarding experience that lets you coast down a mountain of sand. Just like it sounds, all you need is a board and a bit of balance as you strap your feet in and slide down a mound of softly packed powder. Get geared up from these local outfits.

At night, stargazers and sky aficionados descend on the land for a variety of astronomy programs. Your only job is to look up as thousands of stars brighten up the terrain.

burger and beer cans
The Buena Viking

Eat breakfast burritos, apple cider bacon, and wings, paired with so many beers

Lines form early at The Blend in Buena Vista, where iced coffee, smoothies, acai bowls, and breakfast burritos line the menu. Just down the street, Buena Viking fires up an elevated Blue Sky burger with local beef, melted blue cheese crumbles, apple cider bacon, and an airy brioche bun. Here, vegetarians can nosh on a seared portobello burger with garlic aioli and avocado (and don’t miss the crisp cheddar tots). On the same stretch, the Lariat is a restaurant/bar/music venue set in a renovated building from 1885. In addition to libations and comfort fare like wings and corn dog bites, the stage is set for live “mountain made” music.

If you find yourself in Salida any morning, roll by Bunny and Clyde's Corner Cafe and Market for hearty breakfast burritos or biscuits and gravy. The chic Howl Mercantile & Coffee whips up warm cups of joe alongside practical camping supplies and boho wares. You can also couple your short stacks with handmade German Italian sausage at the Patio Pancake Palace. For microbrews and thin, wood-fired pizza, the laid-back Amicas is a solid choice, and afterwards, head to the rustic Wood’s High Mountain Distillery for a made-on-the-premises whiskey flight.

Del Norte also gets in on the food action. Beloved for its sourdough breads, Raisin' Rye also bakes gooey chocolate chip cookies and fresh-milled cinnamon rolls made with coconut sugar and a dab of cream. Across the street, Simple Foods Market stocks organic produce and made-to-order sandwiches. For wood-fired pies and stuffed calzones, Three Barrel Brewing doubles as a fun local spot pouring sours, IPAs, lagers, and a nutty Burnt Toast brown ale with a mildly sweet coffee aroma. The recently-renovated, Victorian-vibed dining room of the 20-room Windsor Hotel serves fresh pastas and local meats—and there’s also a seasonal backyard food truck with burgers and po’boys.

chairs around table
Amigo Motor Lodge

Dream up rustic dreams

At the Surf Hotel and Chateau in Buena Vista, 42 rooms are decked with macrame artwork and New Orleans-style balconies, alongside several quaint stone cottages. Outside, a pristine trail backs up along the Arkansas River, giving you front row action to white water rafting. You can also visit the “lawn” for one of the hotel’s rotating music festivals while the wood-hued eatery Wesley & Rose offers on-tap suds, tasty handmade pizzas, and a house-smoked brisket with a tart cherry BBQ sauce.

In Salida, drop your bags at the 1950s retro-flared Amigo Motor Lodge. Amigo has Southwestern-styled rooms and artfully curated decor, such as hanging swings around a central fireplace, as well as other outdoor, tent-like swings. You can also opt for the dog-friendly, retro Airstream trailers, with access to fire pits and a communal hot tub.

Over in Del Norte, you’ll find many similarly styled and thoughtful touches at the Mellow Moon. This unfussy, 10-room boutique hotel is set in a 1940s motor lodge and calls itself “eco-chic,” using organic linens and eschewing harsh chemicals or single-use plastics. There’s also an on-site coffee truck and bike shop offering fat bikes, cruisers, and mountain bikes.

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Kate Donnelly is a NYC-based writer who covers food, booze and travel. Follow her on Instagram.