The Rocky Mountains soar from New Mexico all the way up to Northern Canada. En route, there are over 100 separate ranges that fall under the colloquial banner "Rockies." Also spread across this spectacular landscape are tons of cool mountain towns. Places where the spirits are as high as the terrain, outdoor recreation is a way of life, and the scenery knocks your socks off. Being in the mountains has a similar appeal to heading to the beach. It's an opportunity to strike up a new habit, and engage with life from a fresh perspective. Only instead of lethargic sunbathing, the call of adventure seems to bellow louder. These eight small towns are the pinnacle of Rocky Mountain goodness to check out this summer.
The scrappy and inspiring Colorado community of Leadville is the highest incorporated city in North America (10,152 feet-above-sea-level). This two-mile-high, Victorian-era, former gold and silver mining town will leave summer tourists breathless from a combination of the altitude, the stunning juggernaut peaks of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive (two of the tallest in the state), and the rest of the Mosquito and Sawatch mountain ranges standing by, plus the full calendar of endurance races. As beautiful and initially prosperous as Leadville was, after the mines closed, hard times fell on the town – but those hard times forged hard people. In recent decades, the Leadville Race Series has attracted wave upon wave of trail runners and mountain bikers looking to test themselves on the trying terrain, as well as casual tourists who want to soak up the good vibes, and peruse the town's Wild West history.
The spiky peaks of the Rocky Mountain subrange known as the Sawtooth Mountains sprout towards the sun around Stanley, Idaho. Nestled in the scenic Sawtooth Valley, this tiny western town is well-worth a summer excursion. The crisp, unadulterated air refreshes the soul, and the fun-loving community welcomes visitors with a variety of events. Explore a fraction of the 700 miles of trails and 300 mountain lakes spread across the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area for a taste of The Gem State's frontier, or cast a line in the bountiful and aptly-named Salmon River, for a taste of, well, you know! And then get ready to boogie at the Ace of Diamond Boulevard Thursday night dances, or Redfish Lake Lodge's Sunday evening front lawn concerts.
World famous Banff is the meeting point, the home base, the social center of Canada's first National Park. At only 2.5 square miles, this tiny municipality packs in a tremendous amount of energy, largely attributed to the enormous influx of year-round tourism. Over 4-million annual visitors come to glimpse the apex of Western Canada scenery by taking a ride up the Banff Gondola and exploring the boardwalk atop Sulphur Mountain, shuffling along the impossibly pretty Johnston Canyon trail amongst hoards of enthusiastic brethren, kicking back on the shore of the Bow River, casually watching the sun say hello to the rotund peaks, venturing deeper into the wilderness to wander amongst bears and moose, or simply appreciating the scores of awe-struck visitors from all over the world as they converge on the pedestrian-friendly Banff Avenue.
Canmore is another classic Alberta mountain town that sits just outside the Banff National Park boundary. It is protected by the "Four Corner" mountains, while the photogenic "Three Sisters" peaks stand proudly to the South. Other than Squamish, you would be hard-pressed to find a more physically-active town in the entire country – especially in the summer. Many of its 15,590 residents can be spotted performing one mountain sport or the other, before or after a day's work at one of the many athletic, adventure, and hospitality-centered businesses. Aside from scooting up the road to Banff, visitors to Canmore are also well-positioned to explore three stunning provincial parks to the South, including Spray Valley, Elbow-Sheep Wildland, and Peter Lougheed. Canmore does not quite have the global acclaim of its neighbor, but it packs all of the same natural appeal, and is expanding with new breweries, coffee shops, restaurants and hostels in a way that Banff is prohibited from.
Taos, New Mexico
This unique desert community in North-Central New Mexico hangs out in a branch range of the Rockies known as the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. While Taos has its share of outdoor recreation options, it is the aesthetic and cultural side that shines bright in the summer. Taos has a pulsating artist scene that spans across galleries, music venues, and traditional outlets. In fact, the UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Historic Landmark known as Taos Pueblo is the best place in town to witness history, culture, and authentic indigenous art all at once. This Native American dwelling has been continuously utilized for over 1,000 years by the Pueblo (or Red Willow) people. As an added bonus, stay to watch the late-evening sunset splash fiery tones across the sky above Taos Pueblo, while the mountains look on. Other unique structures that are a must-see include the San Francisco de Asis Church, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the Taos Plaza, and the eccentric Taos Earthships.
It is tough to choose between the high-altitude mining towns of Leadville and Telluride. So don't! Both are impossibly beautiful and have distinct sides to explore, past and present; winter and summer. Telluride is swarmed by fourteeners (mountain lingo for 14,000 feet peaks), speckled by Victorian-era homes and historic buildings, and flush with tourists looking to visit the 365-foot Bridal Veil Falls, ride the free gondola up to Mountain Village, or cruise around downtown, which is a designated National Historic Landmark. Off-roading is another popular way to explore the rugged terrain, if you have a worthy 4x4 vehicle. Bounce your way to a lookout point and wait for the dazzling night sky to explode in a way long-since forgotten by city-slickers. Otherwise, Telluride has a great shopping, culinary, and artistic scene, as well as annual yoga and film festivals (July and September, respectively).
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Just South of the idyllic Grand Teton National Park (and within shouting distance of Yellowstone National Park), Jackson Hole is an awesome, unpretentious mountain town. Though an undeniable winter wonderland (complete with three ski hills), this Western Wyoming community is no less appealing in the fair-weather season. Still in touch with its logging, ranching, and fur-trading roots, Jackson Hole has enthusiastically beefed up its tourism industry, without the over-the-top fanfare of some more opulent mountain resorts. Average Janes and Joes can enjoy the hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting this wild area proudly offers, as well as the bumping downtown entertainment sector. And as with Telluride, not to be missed is the aerial tram that brings people of all ages and abilities high into the alpine for the view of a lifetime.
The Rockies create classic folk songs, big adventures, and down-to-earth folks. Visiting a cool town somewhere across the many states and provinces that this revered range covers, promises to deliver an epic summer vacation. These eight spots will give you something to aim for, but the thing about the mountains is, once you reach that coveted peak, other intriguing summits beckon you further. The same can be said of small mountain towns.