Aerial view of Ouray, Colorado.

6 Underappreciated Towns To Visit In Colorado

A geographic wonderland with mountains, mesas, and semi-arid grasslands, Colorado is one of the top destinations for outdoor adventurers. Needing a base, they choose from myriad towns and cities tucked in the state's spectacular terrain, but some get picked more than others. For reasons ranging from remoteness to quirkiness to sitting in the shadow of big cities, the following Colorado communities are overlooked gems that need to be mined in 2024.


Ouray, Colorado, in fall
Ouray, Colorado, in fall.

While Ouray may not be underrated by Coloradans, this 7,800-foot community is overshadowed by Aspen and Telluride in the pantheon of American mountain towns. A possible reason for such an oversight is Ouray's lack of skiing. To us, however, Ouray's replacement of skiing with a far quirkier alpine sport makes it much more interesting. As the "ice climbing capital of the world,” it boasts the world's first and largest humanmade public ice climbing range, Ouray Ice Park, which is even more impressive when contrasted with its 900ish-person population. Thus, few people have year-round access to Ouray's outdoor recreation, which comprises not just ice climbing but rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, and off-roading. And, although Ouray does not prioritize skiing, it has one of America's only free tow rope ski hills.

After hitting the rocks, trails, slopes, and frozen waterfalls, adventurers can verify the city's other nickname, "Switzerland of America," by touring its historic European-style downtown and relaxing at its mountainside villas. Box Canyon Lodge, Twin Peaks Lodge, and Wiesbaden Spa & Lodgings have outdoor hot springs for maximum scenic relaxation.


The Arkansas River flowing through Salida, Colorado
The Arkansas River flowing through Salida, Colorado.

Like Ouray, Salida is known (if known at all) for an esoteric and extreme outdoor sport. This 5,600ish-person community is the headquarters of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, a 148-mile portion of the Arkansas River perfect for whitewater rafting. Servicing the Salida section are multiple whitewater rafting companies, a whitewater rafting park, and "America's oldest and boldest whitewater festival." Going into its 76th year, the FIBArk Whitewater Festival is set to run from June 13 to 16, 2024, and features everything from raft races to foot races to live music to a raft rodeo to SUP boxing to a dog fetching competition. There is also a vendor village, so you can snag food, drinks, gifts, and sights within "Colorado's largest historic district." For a closer look at Salida's historic "haunts," book with Steve's Original Salida Walking Tours. Themes include Ghost & Murder; Outlaws, Whores & History; and Haunted Pub Crawl.


The Paonia Historic Park in Paonia, Colorado
The Paonia Historic Park in Paonia, Colorado. Editorial credit: Victoria Ditkovsky /

Paonia is as pretty as a flower, which is appropriate since it was named for the peony roots with which Samuel Wade settled the town in the 1880s. Peonies still grow in the area, as do peaches, nectarines, cherries, blackberries, raspberries, grapes, apples, plums, apricots, and even pumpkins, making Paonia one of the unlikeliest oases in the Colorado mountains.

After eating freshly grown fruit and drinking freshly fermented wine more than 5,600 feet above sea level, tourists can traipse through town and stop at scenic shops like Paonia Bread Works and Paonia Purple while the Rockies titillate from the horizon. Paonia's unique nature and culture culminate in Paonia Cherry Days, a fruitful fair that takes place in July and is considered Colorado's longest-running community festival.

Crested Butte

The charming town of Crested Butte, Colorado
The charming town of Crested Butte, Colorado.

Since it is imperative to mention an overlooked ski town in the top skiing state, we must go with Crested Butte, which has been nicknamed "Colorado's Last Great Ski Town." This means it has yet to be overrun with tourists and newbies to the degree that Aspen and Vail have. According to the 2020 Census, Crested Butte has just 1,639 residents and yet some of the best slopes in Colorado courtesy of Crested Butte Mountain Resort on the namesake 12,000-plus-foot peak. In addition to its height, CB's remoteness and difficulty help keep newbs at bay. What is not difficult about Crested Butte is its downtown, which is easy to enjoy thanks to charming shops and eateries housed in historic buildings. These include The Secret Stash (in the 1937 Colorado Supply Company Store) and Dragonfly Anglers (in the 1927 Western Hotel). Alas, hidden gems cannot stay hidden forever, so get in before those quaint haunts get turned into sprawling resorts.


Aerial view of Trinidad, Colorado
Aerial view of Trinidad, Colorado.

Over 3,000 miles from the best-known Trinidad, Colorado's Trinidad has an opposite climate but similar charm. This small, historic community (it was supposedly named for the daughter of an early Mexican settler, Trinidad Baca) sits near the New Mexico border and at the confluence of forested mountains and high desert. On its mountainous side are Trinidad Lake State Park, a 2,700ish-acre park containing an 800ish-acre lake; Fishers Peak State Park, which covers more than 19,000 acres and is Colorado's second-newest state park (if you consider Sweetwater Lake a state park); and Spanish Peaks State Wildlife Area, a 6,450-acre preserve for camping, fishing, and hunting. On its semi-arid side is the Comanche National Grassland, a sister of the Cimarron National Grassland, spanning nearly 450,000 acres and featuring the Picket Wire Canyonlands and their 1,900-plus dinosaur tracks. Despite its arid surroundings, Trinidad is approximately 6,000 feet above sea level and gets quite a bit of snow. Go to Trinidad and toboggan.


The picturesque mountain town of Nederland, Colorado.
The picturesque mountain town of Nederland, Colorado.

The pebble to Boulder, Nederland, is a 1,500ish-person town 16 miles west of Colorado's 12th-largest city. It is easy to miss such a tiny town in such an expansive region, especially since it is overshadowed not only by Boulder but by dense nature preserves like the Indian Peaks Wilderness, Rocky Mountain National Park, Roosevelt National Forest, and James Peak Wilderness. But once you find Nederland, you might never want to leave. Among its fantastical features are the Nederland Mining Museum, Very Nice Brewing Company, Barker Meadow Reservoir, and Carousel of Happiness, the last of which is a restored 1910 carousel with a variety of hand-carved animal mounts. But even the curious carousel pales in comparison to Frozen Dead Guy Days, which is a multi-day festival honoring an actual frozen dead guy, Bredo Morstøl, who was long stored on dry ice in the Tuff Shed Cryogenic Mausoleum. However, after decades of deceased debauchery, he and the festival were moved from Nederland to Estes Park in 2023.

Colorado is one of the most appreciated states for outdoor recreation, but that does not mean all of its towns get the same love. Ouray, Salida, Paonia, Crested Butte, Trinidad, and Nederland are often overlooked despite (or because of) their world-class ice climbing, whitewater rafting, fruit growing, skiing, sightseeing, and coffin racing, respectively. Do not miss what so many Colorado vacationers are missing.

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