The breathtaking Rocky Mountains, commonly referred to as the Rockies, form the biggest mountain range in North America. They stretch over 3,000 miles in a straight line towards New Mexico and begin in the northernmost region of western Canada. The Rockies formed around 80 million years ago during the Laramide orogeny, and humans began inhabiting the mountain range at the end of the last ice age. Today, several beautiful mountain towns at the base of the Rockies are beloved by residents and tourists alike. However, not all of these towns receive the same amount of love. These are the most overlooked towns in the Rocky Mountains, and why visitors should book a trip to one (or all!) of them.
Durango is the most populous town in La Plata County, Colorado. This stunning mountain town boasts just over 19,000 residents, according to the last census. Durango’s claim to fame is the railroad that connects it to Silverton, which was once voted the number one scenic railroad in the country by USA Today.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offers the opportunity to relive the Golden Age of trains. The Silverton Round Trip excursion sees the train depart from the Durango Depot, after which it chugs upwards into the Rockies. This route provides unmatched views of the San Juan National Forest and the Animas River.
The Cascade Canyon Express trip lasts five hours and takes the same route as the Silverton excursion. However, this route stops at Cascade Canyon, which lies at the halfway mark between Durango and Silverton. For those who want to explore further, visit Mesa Verde National Park, where the remnants of the ancestral home of the Pueblo people still stand. If tourists visit Durango and decide to spend the night, the historic Strater Hotel offers more than just a room. The hotel is a living museum and one of the most iconic hotels in the Western US.
Despite being known as the “Heart of the Rockies,” the town of Salida is often overlooked in favor of Estes Park and Telluride. Salida is home to the largest indoor hot springs facility in the US and also offers world-class rafting and kayaking activities in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. The town also offers prime fishing spots along the Arkansas River. The stretch of the river flowing in and around Salida has around 5,000 trout per mile!
Salida’s historic downtown area houses artisans that create several forms of art, including photography, sculpture, pottery, architecture, fiber arts, and a whole lot more. For the adventurous at heart, there are several zipline and aerial adventure parks where riders can fly above the desert and mountains, taking in the gorgeous view of the landscape below, which includes cliffs, rivers, and wildlife. Those who want to feel the earth move beneath their feet can take to the many hiking trails on a mountain bike.
Grand Lake, Colorado
Grand Lake lies two miles away from the western entrance of the Rocky Mountain National Park. The town sits on the shores of a beautiful lake, also called Grand Lake, which is the biggest natural body of water in Colorado. The lake is great for fishing and sailing and also offers many other water activities. The lake provides magnificent views of the Rocky Mountains and wildlife is abundant on and around its shores. There is a sandy beach at Grand Lake that is great for people-watching. Those who want to get their feet wet can paddleboard or row in the waters off the beach area.
Grand Lake incorporates a historical boardwalk where visitors can shop and dine in over 60 stores and restaurants. In the summer, folks can hike up the stunning trails or go mountain biking. During winter, snowmobiling is all the rage.
Rangely sits on the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway, which is a “prehistoric highway” that runs through canyons and passes dinosaur fossil quarries and museums. This rural town sits at an elevation of 5,298′ in Rio Blanco County and boasts the Rangely Outdoor Museum, which preserves historical buildings and displays the town’s history. It is also the location of The Tank Center for Sonic Arts—an empty water tank that doubles as a concert venue.
The Canyon Pintado National Historic District is the place to be for those who want to learn more about the pictographs and petroglyphs left behind by the Fremont and Ute people. In addition, the Kenney Reservoir lies five miles east of Rangely and offers fishing, boating, cliff-diving, swimming, and kayaking.
Manitou Springs, Colorado
Manitou Springs is the definition of quaint American town and features art galleries, restaurants on the creek, and free concerts. The town is the home of Manitou Springs’ Carnivale, which is a great alternative to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It is also the place with the highest railway in the US.
Hikers enjoy the Manitou Incline which rises above the town as it ascends on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains. There is also the Manitou Springs Zipline tour which zips people across the Front Range. Tourists who have been to Manitou Springs describe it as having an Old West feel, while others enjoyed the artsy vibe left over from the “hippie era.” Manitou Springs opens up towards the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center where visitors can enjoy geological rarities and marvel in awe at the sandstone rock formations.
Canon City, Colorado
Canon City squats between the Front Range and Wet Mountains, north of a portion of the San Isabel National Forest. It straddles the Arkansas River, making it easy for tourists to go whitewater rafting and sightseeing. Many activities await nature lovers here, including the Skyline Drive, the Royal Gorge railroad, and its infamous suspension bridge, as well as the Royal Rush Skycoaster.
Between Salida and Canon City, the Arkansas Headwaters State Park offers multiple campgrounds, while the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park also offers established campgrounds. Canon City also has many bicycle trails for those who want to experience plants and wildlife up close.
Fernie, British Columbia
During winter, Fernie is any skier’s dream destination. On the outskirts of the town are steep slopes that offer thrilling ski rides once the town gets snowed in. More than 140 slopes receive around 32 feet of snow every year. In the town itself, there are several old buildings to admire, some of which have been standing since the early 1900s. No visit to Fernie is complete without a stop at the Beanpod Chocolate, Coffee, and Gelato where chocolate is still made the old-fashioned way.
Fernie also offers the Fairy Creek Falls, which is accessible via a 2.8-mile hike from Fernie Visitor Information. When the weather turns cold, the magical falls freeze over, and during summer, the cascades are great for cooling down on a hot day. The town is truly a paradise for those who love the outdoors, with the Cottonwood Trail offering a glimpse into the history of ancient black cottonwood trees, some of which are four hundred years old. There is also the Elk River, where visitors can go kayaking or rafting, and afterward enjoy a picnic on the riverbanks as they watch wildlife go by.
Taos, New Mexico
The town of Taos in New Mexico sits on the edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains which are the southernmost subrange of the Rockies. Taos lies one mile from Taos Pueblo which is the only Native American community that has the distinction of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a National Historic Landmark. The homes in Taos Pueblo are still occupied today.
In addition to this wonderful landmark, Taos itself offers hot-air ballooning, hiking, and river rafting. There are several places to go fishing and downhill skiing, as well as many art galleries and museums. Just northwest of Taos is the Rio Grande Gorge which was formed millions of years ago. An intricately designed bridge spans the gorge along Route 64, and there is a nine-mile hiking trail along the rim of the gorge.
Crowsnest Pass, Alberta
The municipality of Crowsnest Pass formed when five municipalities amalgamated in 1979. The town lies adjacent to the Crowsnest mountain pass in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.
Crowsnest may be small, but the town is big on tourist activities. There are world-class fly fishing spots here, and premier golf courses to enjoy. Those who love delving into historical events can visit the site of Canada’s deadliest mining disasters. Visitors who are after a view to remember can scale Turtle Mountain to take in the surrounding vistas. Chinook Lake offers paddle boarding and boating, while the Crowsnest Museum depicts the cultural history of the town.
Wallace, Idaho shines with natural beauty which includes huckleberry bushes and pine trees. Not to mention the surrounding Bitterroot Mountains which are a subrange of the Rockies. Wallace is one of only four towns in the US listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places. Sierra Silver Mine Tours provides a trolley that takes visitors around the town on an educational journey. The company also allows visitors to explore a real silver mine.
Speaking of mines, the Pulaski Tunnel Trail runs towards an overlook where the Nicholson mine is seen. The trail got its name from a fireman, Ed Pulaski, who saved 39 men during a firestorm. For those who want a unique adventure, there is the “center of the universe” which is a manhole in the middle of Bank and Sixth Streets that has attracted some attention since 2004. There is also the Wallace Stairs that provide not only a cardio workout, but unforgettable views of the mountain landscape.
West Glacier, Montana
West Glacier lies at the west entrance to Glacier National Park and is part of Flathead County, Montana. The park is filled with evergreen forests and sparkling lakes, which makes it a haven for tourists and hikers. The park is also home to the Ptarmigan Tunnel, built in 1930 to allow horse riders an encompassing view of the surrounding natural beauty of the area.
There is a lot of wildlife in the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail area, including mule deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and even grizzlies. West Glacier is the place you will find the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which passes valleys, waterfalls, mountains, and glaciers. This road leads to Trail of the Cedars, a hiking trail that offers views of 80-foot tall cedar trees in the distance.
If prospective-visitors are craving some mountain air and taking scenic vacations, they will find themselves enamored with the natural beauty of these small towns in the Rockies. Any one of these towns has something to offer every tourist! Book a trip to one or all of them and experience the best of what mountain life has to offer.