Summer is here, and with it comes the mob of visitors heading to the hills for a glimpse of the purple mountain majesties.
Tourists and locals alike flock to our Rocky Mountains for wildflower peeping and mountain hiking, but there is one problem with all this joy: Everyone visits the same towns. While there is certainly nothing wrong with internationally renowned communities like Breckenridge or Vail, Colorado is chock-full of under-the-radar mountain hamlets just begging to be visited. Time to start exploring!
Snug against the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains sits the community of Crestone (population 55), a veritable outdoor mecca that doubles as a spiritual magnet. This former mining community takes its name from a crop of 14,000-foot peaks known as the Crestones — Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle — so mountain enthusiasts are practically guaranteed a good time.
But, recreationalists who want a little less strenuous recreation still have plenty of activities to choose from. Crestone is less than one hour north of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. And, it’s arguably one of the holiest meccas in the country with more than two dozen spiritual retreat centers including the Crestone Mountain Zen Center and the newly established Miyo Samten Ling.
- Must-do hike: South Zapata Lake Trail
- Best stop for food: Visit the Crestone Brewing Company for a beer or head into the Mystic Rose Café for quality vegetarian fare.
If you haven’t heard of Cedaredge, you’re not alone. Dubbed the “Gateway to the Grand Mesa,” this small town (population 2,412) is most often associated with apples since more than a dozen varieties are grown in the region.
But there is more to Cedaredge than fruit. Situated minutes from the top of the Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world, visitors can explore more than 500 square miles of hiking, biking, fishing and paddling. That’s plenty of space for you to wander in nature and enjoy personal solitude. And there are nearly 300 trout-filled lakes in the Grand Mesa National Forest system.
Tip: Rent your stand-up paddleboards and e-bikes from newcomer Altitude Outdoor Adventures.
- Must-do hike: Crag Crest Loop
- Best stop for food: Snag a cuppa joe at The Coffee Barn before heading up to the Grand Mesa for a day of play. For dinner, head into the Lost Mesa Grill for a burger and fries and grab a bottle of wine from the Apple Shed.
It doesn’t take long to realize Redstone isn’t like other mountain communities. After all, where else do you drive by a line of coke ovens (once used to burn impurities from coal) and historic hotels on the way into town? But, Redstone’s accolades don’t end there.
Tucked up against the banks of the Crystal River and surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Elk Range, this hamlet (population 130) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places thanks to the historic district that still boasts the original community buildings. But, it isn’t just for history buffs; outdoor lovers will be thrilled, too.
Not only does the Crystal highlight world-class fly-fishing, but the surrounding hills offer hiking, camping and mountain biking galore. And visitors can mosey down the road to visit two hot springs: the free-yet-primitive Penny Hot Springs and the well-equipped Avalanche Hot Springs.
- Must-do hike: Avalanche Creek Trail
- Best stop for food: Head into Propaganda Pie for delicious Detroit-style pizza.
Coined the “Gateway to the San Juans,” Ridgway is perhaps the only town on this list to appear in a film: It was the main filming location for the 1969 John Wayne western “True Grit.”
These days, Ridgway (population 992) is more than just a Western mining town. Less than an hour north of Telluride and settled beneath the watchful stare of Mount Sneffels (14,158 feet), this bustling community is filled with outdoorsy folks who have a strong affinity for sunshine and fresh air.
Hiking, biking, paddling and camping abound in the surrounding San Juan Mountains and nearby Ridgway State Park, but it all has an authentic vibe that isn’t found in the glitzy crowds to the south. If star gazing is your thing, here’s an added perk: The International Dark-Sky Association tapped Ridgway with an official Dark Sky Community designation in 2020.
- Must-do hike: Dallas Trail
- Best stop for food: Grab an early brunch in the old barber shop now known as Provisions. When you’re done hiking, munch on a locally-sourced burger at Eatery 66.
If you’re looking for scenic beauty and absolutely no crowds in south-central Colorado, Lake City is your spot. Not only is it the only town in the entirety of Hinsdale County, but it’s literally surrounded by mountains. Ninety-six percent of the county is public lands, making Lake City the most remote mountain community on this list. But, it’s certainly not lacking in charm.
There are zero stoplights, commercial chain stores or even elevators in Lake City (none of the buildings has more than two stories). And the surrounding hillsides — and 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks — are rife with places to camp, bike, hunt and hike.
Off-roading is also popular here. If that’s your jam, take a look at the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway that connects Lake City with Ouray and Silverton.
- Must-do hike: Uncompahgre Peak (14,309 feet) via the South Ridge
- Best stop for food: Dig into catfish and a beer at Southern Vittles. Or, for something a little more upscale, try Climb Elevated Eatery.
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