For travelers exploring the stunning scenic vistas and abundant wildlife of the Rocky Mountains, the quaint small towns of Colorado exude a peaceful presence. The ambiance they craft is born from a love for the natural wilderness and a deep respect for a diverse historical heritage. The mountain mystique these communities provide can be a place for solace and serenity, away from the grinding demands of everyday city strife. Whether your idea of relaxation is waiting for a fish to rise from an icy-cold stream, hiking through a sun-kissed pine forest, or skiing down the fresh powder of an alpine resort, be prepared to discover the quaintness and joy of pure mountain living.
Telluride is an all-season mountain resort town set in a lush valley of the San Juan Mountains. The town began as a silver and gold mining town in the late 1800s, bringing instant wealth to many of the town's first residents. Telluride has one of the best historic districts in the Rockies, with many examples of Victorian/Western influences, like the recently restored Sheridan Opera House built in 1913. (The entire town is a National Historic Landmark District).
Begin your adventure at the Telluride Historical Museum, with its many artifacts and displays highlighting the town's "gold rush" days. Walk down the town's main street to enjoy the mix of shops, galleries, and restaurants (perfect for a relaxing afternoon). During the warmer summer, outdoor adventurers will find more than 30 hiking trails nearby, like Ajax Peak, Bear Creek Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. Be sure to ride the free gondola to Mountain Village for breathtaking vistas. During the winter, Telluride transforms into a winter paradise that will delight snowbirds with ample skiing, snowboarding, and wildlife viewing opportunities.
Estes Park (population 5,799) is a popular community along the Big Thompson River and serves as the eastern gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park. The community sits at an elevation of 7,522 feet and is named after its founding father, Joel Estes, who began the town in 1859. The town's peaceful tranquility permeates every corner, with an array of outdoor activities and abundant wildlife roaming the area.
The 140-room historic Stanley Hotel overlooks the city, enjoying notoriety as the location for Stephen King's "The Shining." (Originally, the hotel was a health retreat for upper-class Easterners). In addition, the Estes Park Museum is very informative for those interested in local history. Be sure to hike along the many trails in the Rocky Mountain National Park or drive through the Park with its numerous overlooks and postcard-like vistas.
Silverton is a quaint hamlet sitting in the Animas River Valley, basking in the shadow of several tall mountain peaks. The town is popular with tourists who ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The train travels 45 miles over the rugged wilderness, ushering riders past snow-fed streams cascading down the rocky mountainside. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark District filled with reminders of the Wild West.
Feel your boots clomp along rustic boardwalks as you browse the many shops and historic sites. Enjoy a stay at the Historic Grand Imperial Hotel (a Victorian icon labeled the "Crown Jewel of Silverton"). During the summer months, Silverton serves as the gateway location for experienced adventurers wanting to explore Colorado's backcountry. Many of the peaks in the area are "thirteeners," including Storm Peak at 13,487 feet. The Silverton Mountain Ski Area provides plenty of skiing and snowboarding activities in the winter.
Breckenridge is a popular skiing destination at the base of the Rocky Mountains' Tenmile Range. During the winter, the town of 5,581 enjoys a thriving tourist base with many alpine activities, but there is also a vibrant history and arts scene worth discovering. Family-friendly activities include a stop at the Breckenridge History Museum, highlighting the local history. Tours of the historic district also run most days from the welcome center. The Country Boy Mine is an outstanding attraction where visitors build memories as they pan for gold like the prospectors of the late 1800s. Tap into the expertise of local fishing guides for the best place to cast a line for trout fishing. If an exhilarating white-water raft or horseback ride is more your style, plenty of venues are available.
Leadville is a former silver mining town located at 10,158 feet near the headwaters of the Arkansas River. In its day, the town was the second largest in the state (right behind Denver), serving as a haven for prospectors and miners seeking their fortunes. Today, the community has a rich history with many well-preserved buildings designated as historical sites, including the Tabor Grand Hotel, St. George's Church, and the Healy House.
The National Mining Hall of Fame celebrates the legacy of the local mines with fascinating displays. As you walk through Matchless Mine and Cabin, see huge specimens of gold nuggets and learn about the grit early miners needed to survive the harsh conditions. Be sure to walk the Mineral Belt Recreational Trail (an 11.6-mile biking/hiking path around Leadville linking several historic sites). This rustic town is surrounded by three wilderness areas that hikers and campers frequent regularly, and Turquoise Lake offers some of the best trout fishing anywhere in Colorado.
Vail (population 4,735) is an ultra-popular ski destination and home to Colorado's most extensive ski mountain (Vail Mountain). While the town is best known as a magical snowy retreat catering to the influx of tourists every winter, the village comes alive throughout the year. Vail hosts several festivals annually, including the Vail Film Festival, Taste of Vail Art Festival, and Vail Resort Snow Days, to name a few.
Vail sits in the White River National Forest, captivating hikers with trails meandering through dense pine fir groves intermingled with rocky outcroppings overlooking the valley. Do not miss the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, zipline at Game Creek Aerial Adventure, or take one of two gondolas to capture the eagle-eyed views from the mountaintop.
Glenwood Springs is a small town known for its therapeutic natural hot springs. The town's location on the Western slope made it a haven for lawlessness and violence during its heyday. (The town was known as "Defiance" because most of its townsfolk consisted primarily of gamblers, outlaws, and trappers who cared little about law and order). Today, a vibrant tourist community flocks to Glenwood Springs to experience the many outdoor recreational activities in the area.
Families will get a thrill swinging off a 1,200-foot mountain at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park or hiking up the rigorous Hanging Lake Trail (The steep, rugged 1.2-mile backcountry hike requires a permit, and though it is challenging, it rewards adventurers with a glimpse into an ecological paradise). The downtown district has several blocks of shops and restaurants to explore, but let the spa-like treatment at the Iron Mountain Hot Springs melt away the day's aches. History buffs will love the Glenwood Historical Society and Frontier Museum, including the exhibits detailing the famous gunslinger and gambler Doc Holiday, who died in Glenwood Springs in 1887.
Creede is a historic mining town with a vibrant arts culture, fascinating boutiques, and a rich heritage as one of the last silver mines in Colorado. The town features several festivals throughout the year, including the Taste of Creede Arts Festival in May, Donkey Dash in June, Woodcarvers Rendezvous in July, and a Chocolate Festival in November. Be sure to visit the Creede Repertory Theatre for a professional stage production or dine at Kip's Grill.
The Underground Mining Museum is worth exploring, just north of the town. In addition, the Creede Historical Museum is in the Old Denver and Rio Grande train depot and depicts the early days when miners risked their lives for a chance at striking it rich. The Silver Thread Scenic and Historic Byway runs through Creede and is one of the prettiest drives in the fall to see the changing aspen foliage.
Ouray is a remarkable resort town that enjoys its designation as the "Switzerland of the US." The steep mountain peaks above the hamlet offer plenty of outdoor adventure, including hiking, rafting, and ice-climbing (during the winter). The town is famous for the rejuvenating hot springs that help visitors to soak away their troubles. Explore the historic downtown district, a historic landmark with its Victorian architecture and excellent mix of shops and galleries.
Several museums keep the region's rich heritage alive by telling the stories of the early residents. The Ouray Historical Museum and The Ouray Alchemist Museum are exciting places to tour, with fascinating displays of early settler life. Families will enjoy the Bachelor Syracuse Mine Tour, where you can try panning for gold dust or hike up to Cascade Falls for gorgeous scenic views.
The small towns of Colorado enjoy the peaceful tranquility of mountain living for both visitors and residents. Their quaint charm rivals any region in the US, with numerous outdoor opportunities and a rich historical heritage. Whether hiking through a golden-hued aspen grove, watching an elk nibble on mountain flowers, or exploring an old mine for a sense of early life, these small towns will both mesmerize and delight the senses. No doubt, the treasures they offer will have you returning often just for the deep connection to the wilderness they provide.