Where’s the best place to go in Colorado in the summer? That depends on what you're looking for. Fifty years ago, when the winter recreation industry was in its infancy, this state's mountain towns were a scruffy assemblage of cranks and A-frame cabins. Now ski havens such as Telluride, Aspen and Vail are world-famous, and over the past decade summer recreation in the pointylands has boomed as well, leading to more options and activities than ever before.
There’s a downside to this development, though. The well-known Colorado locales, even formerly isolated locations such as Steamboat Springs and Crested Butte, have promoted the summer-fun-machine model so extensively that now a) big crowds funnel into these places between Memorial and Labor Day and b) if you manage to squeeze your way in, too, you must watch your wallet while still trying to have fun.
So here are some alternatives. These often overlooked gems are perfect starting points for explorations of some mighty pretty country, and unique and charming in themselves. Most offer the same kinds of rugged outdoor adventure the big boys do, but at considerably lower rates – and you won’t have to wait in line.
5) Glenwood Springs/Carbondale
This positively urbane locale sits at the west end of Glenwood Canyon, after a stretch of highway that's one of the modern marvels of engineering. If you like a steep hike, the trail to the fairy-tale beauty of Hanging Lake is ten miles east of town. If you like train travel, you can take Amtrak from Denver right into the heart of Glenwood Springs. For soakers, Glenwood boasts the world’s largest hot springs pool, and the funky little Yampah Hot Springs is right next door – with the brand-new Iron Mountain Hot Springs slated to open this summer. The beautiful and extensive Glenwood Caverns reopened in 1999 after eighty years, and is the centerpiece of a rapidly expanding family-fun park. The healthy cultural scene here and in nearby Carbondale (“Where Hippies and Ranchers Come Together”) led to Glenwood being named the most vibrant small-town arts environment in America. (And Book Train is one of the best little bookstores in the mountains.)
Due to its extreme isolation, Silverton comes the closest of any of these choices to being just as it was fifty years ago, and you don't want to miss the chance to have a beer and a shot at 9,300 feet — but do it sitting down. Slverton is also the northern terminus of the famous, often-filmed narrow-gauge railroad from Durango, and whether you ride the rails or drive or bike (bike!?!), the Animas River valley is one of the most scenic in the country. Durango is a bit spiffier than it once was, but it still has some scruffy charm and is a great jumping-off point for exploring Mesa Verde, the Canyons of the Ancients and Four Corners – that sparsely inhabited southwest corner of the state that is its most starkly beautiful. Durango also programs a vibrant calendar of old-time events all summer – a top-notch classical Music in the Mountains series, Fiesta Days in late July, the True West Railfest and Rodeo in mid-August, and an awesome Labor Day motorcycle rally.
A tiny town tucked into the folds of the Sangre de Cristo range, Crestone almost winked out of existence before becoming a world spiritual center, of all things. It boasts the greatest concentration of religious institutions in North America, including a Carmelite hermitage, a Zen monastery, seven Tibetan Buddhist retreats, a Wiccan center, three ashrams and a plethora of obscure/up-and-coming soul disciplines as well – some of which accept guests. Crestone is an hour from the Great Sand Dunes, and close to historical sites such as Fort Garland and the Zapata Ranch. (Okay, in Colorado close is a relative term.) There’s also the Alligator and Reptile Rescue Park in nearby Mosca, a town that also sports a handy “UFO viewing platform” (the valley has one of the highest reported rates of UFO sightings in the world) and Joyful Journey, a relatively new hot springs where you can stay in a cozy yurt. Don’t miss the Crestone Music Festival August 7 through August 9 (a stop for Dylan for many years) and the 26th annual Energy Fair (think renewable) August 23 and 24. And hey, Crestone has a much cooler Free Box than Telluride.
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2) Grand Lake
A cute little gingerbread-house kind of town, Grand Lake’s big selling point is Grand Lake itself, with fishing, boating, swimming, sailing, kayaking and yachting (yes, yachting – Regatta Week is August 1-8). Grand Lake has the biggest Fourth of July fireworks display in the state, and the profusion of gift shops, old-time photo galleries and saloons, sweet stands, mini-golf courses and the like make it a great place for ironic purchases and postmodern, hipster tourism. Grand Lake even has the Rocky Mountain Rep, offering full-blown musical theater productions all summer. Grand Lake sits at the western portal to Rocky Mountain National Park as well, which makes it the end of a pleasant day-long trip starting in Estes Park!
The archetypical Colorado mountain town, Ouray is crammed into a picturesque gorge, boasts many fine hot springs, and triples in population during the summer. It has plenty of typical touristy goodness on its own, but Ouray is also a fifty-mile roundabout drive from Telluride. (If you want to run, it’s only seventeen miles up and over the 13,000-foot Imogene Pass – there's even a race along the route ever year.) This makes it an affordable base camp for exploring the San Juan Mountains. Chief among Ouray's summer pleasures are its unbeatable set of four-wheel-drive trails, many of which meander far above timberline to the sites of old mining camps, most covered with colorful wildflowers now and perfectly preserved in the dry air, so clear that on some summer days the sky looks purple. A trip to Ouray is a trip back in time to a Colorado that, here and there, still shines forth.