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3 Off-the-Radar Adventure Towns in Colorado

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Everyone knows about Telluride and Aspen, Breckenridge and Vail, Steamboat Springs and Boulder. These towns have (rightfully) earned reputations as awesome outdoor towns and resort getaways. But there are a number of other, somewhat lesser-known gems that exist in Colorado that are of equal or higher value to most adventure-minded folks. Deep in the heart of Colorado’s outback mountains, things get a bit grittier; and while there may be a decrease in fancy hotels and five-star restaurants, there is certainly a rise in remote nature, with secluded camping and incredible adventure. Here are three Colorado adventure towns you’ll want to have on your radar.

1. Salida

Browns Canyon National Monument, near Salida, CO
Browns Canyon National Monument, near Salida, CO
Bureau of Land Management

Why It’s Great : This relatively undiscovered town, centered in the middle of Colorado, is known as the “Heart of the Rockies.” Just two hours from Colorado Springs and three hours from Denver, this hospitable and welcoming town is the perfect Western retreat.

With more than a dozen 14,000-foot (“14er”) mountains peaks, Salida surpasses all other regions of Colorado in terms of high altitude mountain destinations. An outdoor paradise, Salida is a non-resort, affordable haven, with year-round activities, such as kayaking, hiking, skiing, ziplining, camping, biking, and fishing.

In addition to its majestic mountains, Salida is home to a historic downtown, with century-old brick buildings, fine dining, upscale art galleries, and quaint cafes. In fact, it has been rated among America’s 100 Best Small Art Towns.

Nearby are natural hot springs at Mt. Princeton Resort and Spa, ghost towns and mining camps, extensive bike trail systems, and the Arkansas River, which is an incredible fishing destination.

What To Do : Booking a trip through Dvorak Expeditions is a must. There are diverse river options, including the Colorado, Dolores, and San Miguel, to name a few. Among these selections is a two-day overnight trip that takes you through class II and III rapids and into the famous Little Gore Canyon. Perfect for families and beginners, this short trip is exciting, yet introductory, and features a mix of hiking and whitewater rafting.

If you’re interested in renting a bike, head over to Absolute Bikes, an award-winning bike shop located in the heart of historic downtown Salida. Here you’ll find a great selection of maps, rental bikes, guided tour options, parts and accessories. Nearby are some of the state’s best mountain biking trails, including Monarch Crest Trail, the Colorado Trail, and Rainbow Trail. Because the shop is located on the river and directly next door to River’s Edge Restaurant, it has everything you need close by: coffee, beer, bathrooms, grub, and a cool body of water to swim in post-ride.

Where To Eat : With the motto “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Pancakes”, you know you’re in for a world-class breakfast at The Patio Pancake Place. Located 7,000 feet above sea level, in the Upper Arkansas River Valley, this award-winning breakfast stop is renowned for its stunning views and even better pancakes. Ironically, there is no patio. However, there are crazy good food options, such as the Cheesecake Pancake or the Banana Split Pancake.

For dinner, consider Amica’s Pizza & Microbrewery, which provides some of the area’s best wood-fired pizzas, calzones, and Panini sandwiches, in addition to locally-brewed beers ranging in flavor and style. After a long day outdoors, there’s not much better than a hearty pizza and a cold, refreshing brew.

Where To Stay : Just off County Road 162 is a set of 15 campsites in Iron City, two miles east of historic St. Elmo. Whether you’re traveling from Buena Vista or Salida, turn onto 162 and drive 16 miles to 292. Turn right onto 292, with the campground located just a half mile away.

You can always camp near Monarch Pass and close to O’Haver Lake, with 28 campsites located on the lake, just 14 miles away from Salida. From the US 50 and 285 intersection, you’ll head South on 285 for approximately five miles, before turning right onto Country Road 200. On this Marshall Pass Road, you’ll drive just four miles.

Angel of Shavano offers 20 wooded campsites, with facilities idea for family and group camping. This particular campground is perfect for those interested in the area’s rich mining history, with nearby off-road trails to explore the mining ruins. This campground is located on North Fork Road, just 15 miles outside of Salida.

East of Salida are camping areas nearby and on Hayden Creek. Coaldale offers 10 heavily wooded campsites, on the banks of Hayden Creek. Take US 5- from Salida for about 20 miles, turn right onto Hayden Creek Road and head just another three miles to camp. Hayden Creek offers 11 campsites at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just passed Cutty’s Resort and Coaldale Campground.

Lastly, Parry Peaks—one of five campgrounds in the Twin Lakes Recreation Area—provides the best creek-side camping on the Lake Creek. Immediately off of State Route 82, there are spacious woodland sites, propped among pine trees.

2. Buena Vista

The Arkansas River near Buena Vista, CO
The Arkansas River near Buena Vista, CO
David

Why It’s Great : Just thirty minutes away from Salida is the lovely town of Buena Vista. Spanish for “good view”, this town is nestled at the base of the Continental Divide. Rafting, fishing, hiking and biking are just a handful of adventurous options on offer. And with an incredibly friendly community, the town can instantly feel like home.

Not only is it a great family vacation spot, but Buena Vista hosts more than ten 14er mountains, including Princeton and Yale. Whether you’re an experienced 14er hiker or a beginner, there are countless opportunities to journey high and deep into the nearby mountains.

What To Do : Hiking the 14er, Mt. Yale, is a wonderful warm-up for more strenuous 14er hikes. With incredible views of the neighboring Collegiate Peaks, and a mostly straightforward walkup, Mt. Yale is a good option for those interested in climbing 14ers with little high altitude experience under their belt. Resting on the Continental Divide and Sawatch Range, Mt. Yale is the eighth highest mountain in the area; and the Sawatch itself hosts fifteen 14ers—the most of any other Colorado mountain range. The attainable hike does however include elevation gains of 4,000 feet, so it’s of course important to be prepared.

Biking in Buena Vista is another great activity. The historic mining and railroad sites of Buena Vista make for fascinating and lovely excursions via varied modes of transportation, especially by mountain bike. Starting at the Buena Vista riverside parking lot, you can cross a small bridge over the Arkansas River and start your climb along the Whipple Trail. This smooth singletrack will take you to a fork, heading uphill, in which you’ll cross Fire Road 304. The terrain becomes rolling, with bits of rock and a handful of sandy sections. When you return to Fire Road, you’ll go south and slightly uphill for approximately three miles into another parking lot. From here, you can extend the loop, by taking the Midland Bike Trail Out and Back, or you can head directly into Gentleman’s Tail Trail, a winding and relatively rocky path.

Like Salida, Buena Vista is also considered a capital of whitewater rafting in the United States. Because the Arkansas River is adjacent to town, and new expansions of the South Main River Park have been added, the links of whitewater rafting here are the longest in the country. Along these waters are also excellent fly-fishing spots.

Where To Eat : Making a trip to Eddyline Restaurant at South Main for dinner is a must. With green chili cheese fries, arugula salads, quinoa dishes, wood-fired pizzas, pork chops, ribs, seafood and burgers, it’s a well-rounded menu to say the least.

Evergreen Café is a delightful breakfast and lunch spot, with freshly baked, natural breads and a diverse menu that uses local and seasonal produce. All meats are hormone and antibiotic free, coffee is locally roasted, and the walls are decorated with regional artists’ work.

Where To Stay : Please see camping ideas under Salida or Leadville, as Buena Vista is centrally located between the two, and camping in either direction is extremely accessible.

3. Leadville

Mt. Elbert, Colorado's highest point, as seen from historic downtown Leadville
Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest point, as seen from historic downtown Leadville
Ken Lund

Why It’s Great : Just another forty minutes north from Buena Vista is Leadville. (If you want to see all three of these places, driving north to south or vice versa only takes about an hour and fifteen minutes.) Visiting Leadville is like traveling back in time. With more than 50 buildings that date back to the 1870s, a rich mining history, and over 70-square blocks of Victorian homes, this quaint town is an icon of “small-town American West”.

In Leadville, you’ll notice the paved Mineral Belt Trail, which offers year-round, safe recreation for bikers, runners, and skiers. Just 20 miles away is the historic Twin Lakes area, allowing world-class fishing, a variety of scenic trails and remarkable vistas. Additionally, Leadville is in close proximity to Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak.

What To Do : Hike a 14er! Not only is Colorado home to some of America’s favorite tall mountains, but several of the 14ers here are fairly easy to complete. Even Colorado’s tallest peak, Mt. Elbert, has several non-technical trail options. Most popular is the Mount Elbert Trail, a well maintained path that offers summit hikers their best chance to top out. Slightly more challenging and less utilized is the Black Cloud Trail, another non-technical route that ascends via the southeast ridge.

Another nearby 14er option—by which we mean they nearly share the same trailhead—is to hike Mt. Massive, the third highest peak in the continental US. Mt. Massive is more of an endurance walk, rather than a “climb”. But, if you’re not quite ready for a 14er, consider hiking Hope Pass, a great introduction to high altitude hiking. The hike up to Hope Pass explores pine forests, alpine meadows, and eventually breaks treeline, where magnificent views of the northern Sawatch Range await.

In addition to amazing hiking, Leadville has a wide assortment of other activities for you to enjoy. The Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad takes you on a spectacular two and a half hour trip through the Rocky Mountains, allowing mesmerizing views over Colorado’s two highest peaks and passing by fields of colorful wildflowers and aspen groves.

If you’re visiting during wintertime, be sure to head to Ski Cooper, a pristine and affordable family-friendly ski area. Much different than Colorado’s busy ski resorts, Cooper doesn’t include lift lines, high-rise condos, or outrageous prices. Unlike alternative ski destinations, Cooper provides an authentic ski experience, smiling faces, and excellent food and drinks. The laid-back atmosphere and soft all-natural snow terrain is perfect for first timers, as well as those who are intimidated by touristy crowds and/ or massive mountains.

Where To Eat : Be sure to check out City on a Hill Coffee & Espresso, the nation’s highest elevated coffee business. This small roasting company produces an amazing cup of joe with an equally incredible view.

Quincy’s Steak offers a great steak for under $10! And for dessert, be sure to check out Cookies with Altitude, a delectable bakery with countless treats, deli items, soups, coffee, and smoothies!

Where To Stay : While in Leadville, be sure to camp at the Twin Lakes. With lovely views of the Twin Lakes Reservoir, this campground offers spacious opportunity for tents and RV camping. Located near Buena Vista, the campground attracts a number of hikers and backpackers looking to explore nearby nature trails in the Mount Massive Wilderness. Not only is the campground lovely, but it provides various activities, such as fishing, boating, swimming, and of course, hiking. Situated among ponderosa pines and sage, high in the mountains, the site sits between Mt. Elbert Forebay and the Twin Lakes.

**Know Before You Go* : When traveling in Colorado, be sure to bring plenty of clothing layers, rain gear, sunscreen, and loads of water. Alpine sun can burn skin quickly; dehydration occurs more rapidly in higher elevations than lower heights; and unexpected thunderstorms are a normalcy. If you plan to hike some of the area’s notorious 14ers, be sure to leave information with locals and don’t rely on your cell phone for service.

Originally written by RootsRated for Rock/Creek.

Featured image provided by Dawson Wheeler