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Just about everyone is familiar with Colorado’s big cities like Denver and Colorado Springs, but the state is home to many small, charming towns that are worth planning a visit around. Or, if you live in the Front Range area, make for some memorable day trips. Many of them are former mining towns with rich histories to explore, and all make a great base for enjoying a wealth of outdoor adventure from hiking to skiing.
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Silverton is a tiny town surrounded by the soaring peaks of the Rockies that is often visited by taking a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railwood from Durango, an 1800s steam train, but it’s worth spending a couple of nights or more here. Located on the southern side of the San Juan Mountains, it makes a great base for enjoying outdoor activities in every season, including skiing at the Kendall Mountain Ski Area and Recreation Center. The streets are lined with historic buildings that house saloons, restaurants, shops, and hotels, while the famous Million Dollar Highway leading to Ouray can be accessed from here for a day trip – it truly boasts million-dollar views as one of the country’s most scenic drives.
One of Colorado’s most picturesque destinations, Victor is practically a ghost town with only a few hundred residents living here on the west side of Pikes Peak. It was home to a population of over 20,000 during the peak of its gold rush days around the turn of the 20th-century, and it doesn’t look much different today with many homes and buildings from the era still standing. While Cripple Creek, just a short drive away, is a booming tourist town with casinos, here it feels like you’ve traveled back in time. The 1899 Victor Hotel with its gorgeous Victorian-style lobby and authentic birdcage elevator is still open and worth a peek even if you don’t stay, while the Lowell Thomas Museum is a great place to learn about the town’s history and the world-famous adventurer and writer who grew up in this high elevation mountain town.
Located at the eastern end of the San Juan Mountains in what was once a volcanic caldera, Creede boasts a stunning setting wedged between sheer cliffs. That’s limited its ability to grow beyond the downtown area which includes historic buildings dating to the 1890s housing shops, restaurants, hotels, the Underground Mining Museum, and Creede Historical Museum. A wealth of recreational opportunities can be enjoyed nearby, including hiking, climbing, biking, rafting, kayaking, and four-wheeling, all while surrounded by breathtaking scenery.
The quirkiest town in Colorado, Nederland is also one of its most charming. It’s nestled in the Rockies just west of Boulder and has a hippie vibe with lots of unique shops for buying crystals, gems, and the like, along with plenty of eateries for organic dining and a number of venues that host live music. In the summer you’ll find scenic trails for hiking and biking, and lakes and streams for fishing. In the winter, skiing is popular at Eldora Mountain nearby. If you’re here around the time spring arrives, you can witness the world-famous “Frozen Dead Guy Days” festival that celebrates a Norwegian immigrant whose dead body is still frozen in a town Tuff Shed.
Crested Butte is a small isolated town that offers the beauty and world-class skiing of Aspen without the crowds. Located about 30 miles north of Gunnison in the heart of the Rockies, during the warmer months visitors can enjoy epic hikes and mountain bike rides on trails that wind through wildflower-filled meadows. Kayaking and rafting are possible too, with everything from lazy float trips to Class V kayak runs on three different rivers, the Gunnison, Taylor, and East rivers, with the Taylor renowned for its brown and rainbow trout fishing.
Just a short drive from Denver and you can be in this town that feels like it’s worlds away. A gateway to the Rockies, it draws many to soak in the therapeutic mineral pools at Indian Hot Springs which includes private outdoor Jacuzzis, a day spa, and a geothermal swimming pool. Before or after, enjoy its mining heritage that can be seen in the well-preserved buildings along Miner Street. When hunger pangs hit, head to the original Beau Jo’s, considered to make the best pizza in the state.
While many visit Central City to gamble, with plenty of casinos to spend your cash in, this former gold mining camp is jam-packed with Wild West history. The scenic drive along Central City Parkway to reach it follows a high mountain pass making it worth the visit alone. The Central City Opera houses one of the longest continually operating theater companies in Colorado offering performances throughout the year while the best treks can be enjoyed right in town with the steep hills providing a great workout while doing some sightseeing of both natural and manmade beauty.
The highest incorporated city in the U.S. at an elevation of 10,152 feet, Leadville is surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks while its 70 square blocks have been designated as a National Historic Landmark District of Victorian Architecture. Most of the buildings date between 1880 and 1905. It has a rich and intriguing history that includes former residents like the “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” with both museums and mines to explore while a wealth of outdoor adventure can be enjoyed nearby. Ski Cooper is just a 20-minute drive away and offers affordable lift tickets without the long lines.
A Victorian-era silver mining community now better known as North America’s most beautiful ski town, Telluride is tucked into a box canyon in the San Juan Mountains looking like it should be in Switzerland. It was the world’s first city to have electric street lights although it’s yet to have one stoplight and still retains the feel of bygone days. Victorian storefronts and frontier-era facades adorn the compact downtown area where you’ll find hip bars, casual eateries, fine-dining restaurants, and unique shops. Telluride Ski Resort sits just above town practically spilling into it, and there are many trails to hike or mountain bike.
Sandwiched between Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak, Manitou Springs has an especially charming downtown area with its Historic District filled with beautifully restored buildings. Today they house gem shops, art galleries, unique boutiques, bookstores, and quite a few New Age-style retailers. It’s best known for its eight different mineral hot springs, fabulous for a soak after a day of outdoor adventure and exploring.
The small, remote town of Lake City is the only town in Hinsdale County, surrounded by public land, making it ideal for those who want to get away from it all and enjoy outdoor activities. San Cristobal Lake is nearby for fishing and it freezes over in the winter for ice skating while the San Juan Mountains provide picturesque hikes and bike rides during the warmer months. There’s a well-preserved historic downtown too, designated as a National Historic District, and you can learn more about it and the state’s only cannibal at the Hinsdale County Museum.
A Victorian mining town that sits high in the Rockies only a little over an hour west of Denver, Georgetown has a fun downtown with lots of historic buildings that house shops and eateries, although its most popular attraction is the Georgetown Loop Historic Mining and Railroad Park. Visitors can hop on the train for a 75-minute ride to Silver Plume, over tracks that rise 640 feet passing through the Rockies. The Hamill House and Hotel de Paris Museum are a must for visitors who want to learn more about the town’s past.
Nestled in the Front Range foothills just a 45-minute drive from Denver, Evergreen’s historic downtown offers lots of charm and character while Bear Creek runs through the center. There are art galleries, boutiques, bars, cafes, and restaurants, some of which offer creekside dining outdoors. Evergreen Lake is the epicenter of activities offering everything from fishing and kayaking to winter ice skating.
Fairplay is the main hub in Park County, perhaps best known as the inspiration for South Park. Its open-air museum, South Park City, is the site of relocated historic structures that were moved here to recreate the early days of the Colorado Gold Rush. In addition to history, enjoy its vibrant arts scene and spectacular scenery with a backdrop of the Mosquito Mountain Range.
The small Western Slope farming community of Palisade has lots to love. Fruit farming still plays a vital role in the town’s economy, with dozens of fresh fruit stands and storefronts in town. Plus, as it’s located in the heart of Colorado Wine Country, it’s a great spot for wine enthusiasts who will find plenty of wineries to explore along the scenic Palisade Fruit and Wine Byway. Plum Creek Cellars is one of the most highly acclaimed in the state, offering tours and an elegant tasting room with antique furnishings, fine art, and Oriental rugs for sampling its fine wines, exclusively made from grapes grown in Colorado.