10 Best Colorado Towns for a Summer Vacation, According to a Local
Ticking off a list of things you "must do" in any one place is so pre-pandemic. Today's travel is all about feeling better — feeling better about you, the planet, and everyone on it — and there's no better place to start this new kind of adventure travel than in my home state of Colorado.
When my friends are planning a trip to Colorado, these are the towns I recommend they visit. It's a list of real places, not products, with real people living in real communities. Connect three or four of these fantastic stops together and spend a week kicking around The Centennial State or hit every single one and never leave. Trust me when I tell you, a visit to Colorado can turn into a lifetime of adventure. It happened to me.
My beloved first home in Colorado, Snowmass Village is a stunning hamlet in the Elk Mountains. While it has the feel of a wilderness retreat, Snowmass Village is only nine miles to nearby Aspen, where you can access just about anything, like Italian couture. But to be honest, Snowmass Village stands firmly in its own identity. Once you're in Snowmass Village there's no reason to leave. This town has gorgeous peaks, great restaurants, Anderson Ranch Arts Center, a new Base Village, live music, festivals, and some of the most spectacular backcountry trails in the world. Don't miss the free guided hikes with naturalists from Aspen Center for Environmental Studies through the fields and wildflowers.
Palisade is a small town in western Colorado where rich agricultural history meets the energy of an emerging outdoor destination. Known for its small vineyards, downtown Palisade recently made headlines when Matthew Chasseur, one of Colorado's best young chefs, opened Pêche Restaurant, drawing people from throughout the region. On top of that, Palisade is an emerging mountain biking destination. The Palisade Plunge, one of the longest singletrack downhill mountain bike trails in the U.S., starts at the top of Colorado's Grand Mesa and descends into the town of Palisade. The Plunge opens this summer after a decade's worth of planning, construction, and multi-million-dollar investment.
Telluride may already be well known among Coloradophiles, and at the height of the summer season it can be crowded, but if you time it right (early or late summer) you'll quickly discover what makes this community one of the best in the state. Telluride has a Western mining town vibe with a little leftover hippy tossed in. Its box canyon and Bridal Veil falls are both beautiful and humbling, historic downtown locally run, and the summer music festival scene here cannot be duplicated. There's nothing like floating down the San Miguel River in an innertube on a hot summer afternoon or setting up a chair for a bluegrass concert in Town Park.
Remember that old Smucker's tagline, "With a name like…" well, with a name like Dinosaur, there better be some dinosaurs! Luckily, this remote community of ranchers in northwestern Colorado does not disappoint in the dino category. Home to the Dinosaur National Monument, stand in awe of prehistoric animals who once roamed the earth at the Quarry Exhibit Hall. Here you will stand face to face with approximately 1,500 exposed dinosaur fossil remains of a variety of extinct giants including the mighty Allosaurus and Stegosaurus (Colorado's official state fossil).
This beautiful mountain lake town offers a laidback vibe, fantastic outdoor activities, and access to the western entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. If you're looking for a guide to the 415 square miles of park, try Kaiyote Snow, a self-taught naturalist, award-winning photographer, and artist and former instructor for the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. She and her company, Kaiyote Tours, lead visitors on hiking and over-night backpacking trips in the summer to learn about birding and wildlife in RMNP.
Chances are, if you are flying to Colorado, you are coming into Denver International Airport, so why not check out our capital city? Over the last two decades, Denver has grown immensely, attracting young people from all over the world to its vibrant culture and "work hard, play hard" ethos. Yes, it has easy access to the mountains and to nearby Red Rocks, but Denver also has deep roots in arts and culture. The Denver Art Museum celebrates its 50th birthday this year, and soon the arts and entertainment group, MeowWolf, will open a new immersive arts experience in Denver, creating and supporting art across a variety of media, including architecture, sculpture, narrative writing, and performance.
Now here's one of those towns that not everyone visiting Colorado may know, but will easily fall in love with when they arrive. The name of this town in Central Colorado says it all (come on, it's basic Spanish, folks). Buena Vista is known for its beautiful mountain views, excellent rafting, kayaking and SUPing on the Arkansas River, camping, fly-fishing, and of course, the Mount Princeton Hot Springs. BV is also loved for its year-round 4x4ing, with Jeeps and ATVs accessing a network of excellent off-road trails and passes.
Connect with Colorado's ancient heritage in Mancos, located adjacent to Mesa Verde National Park, which recently became the 100th International Dark Sky Park. For a small town of less than 1,5000 people, its community is full of fantastic coffee shops, cafes, a cidery, breweries, local retailers, and restaurants — my picks are Olio for dinner and Absolute Bakery for breakfast. Beyond the national park, join Native American guides from Four Corners Guides for a bikepacking adventure in Ute Mountain Tribal Park. Together you'll discover pristine 1,000-year-old Ancient Puebloan ruins, cliff dwellings, pottery, and learn about the Ancient people of this unique area.
Home to Colorado State University, Fort Collins is an eclectic and welcoming conglomerate of college kids, ranchers, tech entrepreneurs, and families, all in one vibrant community. The town is connected by more than 285 miles of bike trails and lanes and its historic downtown was the inspiration for Disneyland's Main Street USA. Fort Collins is also home to the Colorado Shoe School where you can design and create your own custom shoes from repurposed leather destined for the landfill and recycled sole material from bike tires and discarded tennis balls.
Leadville stakes its claim as North America's "highest" incorporated city at slightly more than 10,000 feet. It's only recently that Leadville's renaissance has taken shape with many of its historic buildings undergoing renovations. But even with a facelift, Leadville has not lost its scrappy, hard-fought spirit that made it one of the silver mining boomtowns of the 19th century. With access to a number of 14,000-foot peaks, hikers in Leadville can also hop on both the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail from town. After a day outdoors, head to Two Mile Brewing, Leadville's newest brewpub, serving brews like Leadville Lager and Camp Hale Pale Ale.