These covert destinations boast thrilling adventure and endless entertainment without the crowds or clout of bigger mountain towns
When it comes to packing the bikes, boots, boats and other outdoor tools for Colorado road trips, chances are most of us fall prey to the charms of the big guys; the Vails, Winter Parks, Fruitas and Salidas that rightfully have earned distinction among adventure revelers. But in a big state with lots of nooks and crannies, what about veering to parts unknown—those little gems and one-horse towns where the outdoors is inescapably in your face (and with less people)? Hold that thought and check out these quintessential Colorado escapes that still hover somewhere south of mainstream.
- Elevation: 6,181 feet
- Population: 6,489
- Miles from Denver: 250
The Vibe: A mellow free-thinker’s town populated by New West types, adventurous, independent professionals and a growing number of second-home owners. Carbondale is a friendly, unpretentious town free of the glitter of its up-valley Aspen neighbor.
Local Knowledge: Spring Gulch Nordic Trail System, near town, is a little-known gem with fantastic rolling terrain for classic and skate skiers. And the town’s signature backdrop, Mount Sopris, happens to possess the longest continuous vertical rise in Colorado.
Sporting Pursuits: With Mount Sopris towering 6,783 feet above Main St., it’s a given that self-propelled exploits are at Carbondale’s doorstep. The town not only rubs shoulders with the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and at least 50 nearby designated trails in White River National Forest, but it also claims four major rivers, the Colorado, Crystal, Roaring Fork and Frying Pan, all within a 10-minute drive.
Mountain bikers can crank out a rousing 30-miler on the Hay Park Trail. The loop connects a combo of dirt roads, double- and single-track from the Thomas Lakes Trailhead to Basalt, skirting the base of Mount Sopris. This advanced ride is worth 3,200 feet of elevation gain and explores stately aspen groves with so many jaw-dropping views of 14ers, such as Capitol Peak, you’ll be making more stops than a school bus. Your reward for all the uphill chugging is a long descent that spits you out on Capital Creek Road.
Bipedal enthusiasts should take a stab at summiting 12,953-foot Mount Sopris for incredible panoramas of the Roaring Fork Valley, area 14ers and the surrounding Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Many summiteers opt for an overnighter to rest, explore and absorb the scenery during the seven-mile (one-way), 4,253-foot summit bid. The Mount Sopris Trail begins at the Thomas Lakes Trailhead before heading up the east ridge to Thomas Lakes and the chilly option of a quick swim. Following the ridge puts you on some loose scree, where you’ll make like a mountain goat to connect with the main summit ridge before crossing the half-mile saddle to the west peak of Mount Sopris.
And all that water surrounding Carbondale? The Roaring Fork and Frying Pan are designated Gold Medal Waters, meaning there’s trout up to 26 inches in these parts. Guided boat trips on the Roaring Fork from town along the 14-mile stretch into Glenwood Springs will likely net you fat browns and rainbows. Or you can simply wade fish any of the 2 public miles of access in Carbondale. For paddlers, Carbondale’s pretty much a do-it-yourself affair unless you go up or down valley to reputable rafting and kayaking outfitters such as Blazing Adventures Aspen. There are plenty of play holes nearby, including the Roaring Fork’s Class II-III Cemetery (Don’t worry, just a reference to the nearby cemetery). If you’re a confident expert, the Crystal River’s infamous Meatgrinder, a Class V+ monster near Redstone, is waiting.
Eat & Sleep: Village Smithy (villagesmithy.com), a “Carbondale legend,” has the best hearty meals in town, such as the chili-laden Santiago Skillet breakfast. The just-opened Roaring Fork Beer Company (roaringforkbeerco.com) offers seasonal beers year-round—my current pick is their Slaughterhouse Lager—and tasting rooms with views of Mount Sopris. With its riverside location on the Roaring Fork and killer views of Mount Sopris, Carbondale Comfort Inn & Suites (carbondale.com/comfort-inn) recalibrates the notion of what a national lodging chain can be.