When we think of Colorado, some of the first images that come to mind are tucked away little towns lined with cottages backed up against an evergreen forest and mountain-filled background. While this isn’t the case for all of Colorado, it certainly is a reality in this part of the Rocky Mountains.
Whether you’re planning a road trip through Colorado or want to explore a new part of this beautiful state, this list of mountain towns won’t disappoint.
To provide more information on Colorado’s picturesque towns, I’ve taken out a few of the well-known ski towns such as Breckenridge, Aspen/Snowmass Village, and Steamboat Springs. Don’t get me wrong, these are fantastic locations to visit. You’ve probably read all about them, though.
Ok, let’s dive into the list. Here’s 10 of Colorado’s best less-traveled mountain towns:
World-renowned for its ice climbing park, Ouray has a little bit for everyone to explore. With several hot springs resorts and lodges to choose from, relaxation here is just as easy as getting outside.
Deep in the San Juan Mountains of the Rockies, Ouray is a recreation sanctuary. Fly fishing, rafting, and paddle boarding are all popular activities on the Uncompahgre River. While biking, rock climbing, canyoneering, horseback riding, and plenty more are a great way to spend the day on land. Even when the snow comes, Ouray is a winter wonderland.
Downtown Ouray is filled with great food, craft brews, distilleries, and boutique shops. Jeep trails, or OHV riding, is very popular on the old mining roads that take you along cliffs and into canyons. The San Juan Skyway is a scenic (paved) drive that is a must-do while in Ouray.
Every winter, ice climbers make their pilgrimage to Ouray’s ice park. This park is an artificially made icy wonder just minutes away from town.
More info: ouraycolorado.com
2. Grand Lake
Grand Lake is home to the largest natural lake in Colorado and is surrounded by Rocky Mountain National Park.
With Rocky Mountain National Park close by, you have access to some of the less-traveled trails in the park. The trails on this side of the park are often used for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing by recreators in the snowy months as well.
Grand Lake itself offers ample opportunity for boating. Stillwater Campground is right on Grand Lake, offering lake access from camp. There are 129 campsites here! What’s more impressive is that I have been turned away from this campground because every site was taken. So, avoiding holiday and summer weekends is suggested if you’re looking for some peace and quiet.
Willow Creek Reservoir Campground is another campground with water access, even though it is not on Grand Lake. Willow Creek Reservoir is a no-way lake, making this spot a bit more serine to camp on. Elk Creek Campground is a much smaller campground that is just west of town, not on the lake.
Camping at Elk Creek is the best for enjoying all that Grand Lake has to offer, while keeping a distance from the campground crowds.
More info: visitgrandcounty.com
3. Crested Butte
Now, I know I said I would stay away from big ski resort-mountain towns, but Crested Butte is its own beautiful beast. In southwestern Colorado, this little town is a true mountain town gem.
Even as a busy ski resort, it has held strong to its rustic and small-town roots. The town has been able to concentrate all the ski-tourism traffic right at the slopes. I mean, the lodges are all within walking distance of the slopes… It’s the dream come true for skiers and boarders! If there’s enough snow on the ground, you can put your skis on right outside the door.
The town is nestled into a small valley with high peaks in every direction. Crested Butte is known for the colorful wildflowers in the Spring and sweeping reds and yellows of Aspen groves in the Fall.
Aside from skiing, Crested Butte offers a slew of recreation activities such as kayaking, mountain biking, hiking/backpacking, horseback riding, and fishing in the Summer; and snowshoeing, ice skating, sleigh rides and cross-country skiing in the Winter.
More info: visitcrestedbutte.com
4. Estes Park
Home to Rocky Mountain National Park’s main park and the hotel that inspired Steven King’s The Shining, Estes Park is a tourism paradise.
The downtown eateries provide enough options for even the pickiest eaters. The Stanley Hotel is rumored to have been inspiration for one of Steven King’s most popular movies, The Shining. You can enjoy ghost tours, fancy libations, world-class dinner, and lodging (if you dare) in this eerie attraction.
If you’ve made it out of the Stanley, take some time to enjoy the great outdoors on any one of the dozens of hiking or backpacking trails in the area. Lumpy Ridge and Jurassic Park are popular rock-climbing locations outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. Rafting, mountain biking, and snowshoeing are also popular outdoor activities in Estes Park.
Wildlife is abundant in this part of the Rockies, and elk or black bears are often spotted enjoying a stroll downtown. Enjoy your own stroll down Estes Park’s Riverwalk. Downtown is where you can find art galleries and even watch the magic of glassblowing at Patterson Glassworks Studio.
More info: visitestespark.com
5. Pagosa Springs
Pagosa Springs lies at the base of the Continental Divide and is surrounded by San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests.
Pagosa Springs is a quaint sanctuary where you can enjoy playing in the San Juan River by day, then bathe and unwind at the hot spring lodges in town. Wolf Creek Ski area is nearby for wintertime fun. Boasting 450+ inches of snowfall every year, Wolf Creek might just win your heart over.
Downtown, you will find great food and an impressive variety too. You will even get to enjoy the local food trucks during the warmer months.
Laying between Durango and Alamosa, Pagosa Springs is the perfect overnight stop for road trippers. Treat yourself with a dip in the hot springs, or with brews from the award-winning Pagosa Brewing Company.
More info:: visitpagosasprings.com
The Rocky Mountains meet Desert here in Palisade, and the result is as beautiful as it is bountiful. Views are unparalleled with forested mountain peaks to the East, and red-rock desert vistas to the West.
The Wine Capital of Colorado is also famous for its “Palisade Peaches” that are sold at farmer’s markets throughout the state. All the produce here is worth its fame. I make a yearly pilgrimage to the rustic farmer’s markets in Palisade to stock up on tomatoes, peaches, apricots, and some of the best pickles I have ever had.
Farther into the Western Slope Desert, you can reach Grand Junction and Fruita. Hiking and backpacking trails in this tri-city area are abundant since there is so much public land available.
This part of southwestern Colorado features world-renowned mountain bike trails. Palisade is right along a slow section of the Colorado River; overnight canoe or raft trips are a very popular activity here as well. Grand Mesa National Forest is home to the largest flat top mountain in the world.
More info: visitpalisade.com
7. Buena Vista
Buena Vista’s name is synonymous with the Collegiate Peaks string of 14’ers in Colorado. Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area has the highest concentration of 14’ers in any county in Colorado. So, needless to say, this is a hiking and backpacking destination.
Buena Vista is 80% public lands! The majority of that being San Isabel Forest, in which Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area lies within, and Gunnison National Forest.
Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the state, Buena Vista offers memorable fly fishing on the Arkansas River. The Arkansas River has the distinction of Gold Medal Water, meaning that a minimum of 12 “quality trout” (14 inches or larger) can be produced per acre. The river provides ample white-water rafting and kayaking for water goers.
More info: buenavistacolorado.com
8. Glenwood Springs
Referred to as “the Land of Water,” Glenwood Springs offers rafting on the Colorado River, bathing in hot springs, and hiking to waterfalls.
The steamy hot springs that flow through this area have carved elaborate cave systems through the mountains here, and you can enjoy the Yampah Vapor Caves just as the Ute Indians did generations ago.
While Glenwood Springs might be a mountain town, some might call it a mountain Disney Land. There is so much for everyone to enjoy! From downtown hangs, to hiking to hanging lake!
The Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park that features roller coasters and swings above the trees offers full-on fun for the family or a great alternative office getaway. Arial Adventures, rock climbing, rafting trips, fly fishing, golf, and even escape rooms!
More info: visitglenwood.com
Salida is a mountain town that has kept its small town feel but continues to provide big-time fun.
The Upper Arkansas River provides some of that Gold Medal Water mentioned before (See Buena Vista), and white water rafting and kayaking. Mountain biking and hiking are popular on-land activities.
Salida has a very active and prominent art scene. The town was included in the guidebook, America’s 100 Best Small Art Towns.
Monarch ski resort is a short drive away, making Salida the perfect spot to spend your ski trip nights with local downtown food, and some hot springs soaking at Mt. Princeton Resort and Spa. The town offers a number of lodging opportunities between resorts, cabin rentals, camping, chain hotels, and Bed and Breakfasts.
More info: salida.com
10. Manitou Springs
“Not just another mountain town,” says the Manitou Springs website, and I couldn’t agree more. In the shadow of Pikes Peak, and with Colorado Springs and Garden of the Gods in sight, Manitou Springs is a great place to spend the day… or two!
Pronounced Man-it-too, the name of this town has an equally unique history. Of course, when the French settled into this area, they called it “Villa La Font,” meaning “Fountain Village.” It was then acknowledged that this area (and the entire Pikes Peak region) has been utilized by many Native Americans for years before the French settled here.
The Algonquin word, “Manitou” means “spirit.” Native Americans believed the carbonation in the many mineral water springs in the town was the breath of a great spirit, giving the town its fitting name.
The mineral springs here might be the reason this area ever became a town, but today, Manitou Springs has built its own incredible community. A community of local artists, eateries, and boutiques with a hippie vibe. Walking around downtown, I have seen everything from talking parrots to magic performers.
Manitou’s downtown does not just feature shopping and eating; there is one of the coolest Penny Arcade’s I have ever seen. With hundreds of games, most being old and rare, make sure to come prepared with a bag of change!
Right from town, you can take the famous Cog Railway up to the summit of Pikes Peak and enjoy the summit shop’s world-famous doughnuts! For those more ambitious, the Pikes Peak summit trail, Barr Trail, also begins in town.
More info: manitousprings.org
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Daniell is a certified outdoor climbing guide with professional experience climbing throughout Colorado’s Western Slope region. She is based out of Fort Collins, CO and enjoys trail running, desert climbing and overnight canoe trips.