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10 Colorado Small Towns to Explore in Winter

While they may be petite in population, Colorado’s small towns ooze with character and offer activities and attractions that beg travelers to venture beyond the typical tourist trail. Consider adding one of these charmers to your next winter itinerary.

 

Ski Joring and Crystal Carnival Week­end in Leadville
Ski Joring and Crystal Carnival Week­end in Leadville
Margaritas at Camp Robber in Montrose
Margaritas at Camp Robber in Montrose
Ceramics at Carbondale Clay Center
Ceramics at Carbondale Clay Center

Leadville

North American’s highest incorporated city at 10,152 feet, Leadville’s past as a lawless mining boomtown reveals itself in a National Landmark District with more than 70 square blocks lined with Victorian buildings.

Party: March’s Ski Joring and Crystal Carnival Week­end brings ski joring, a sport where a skier is pulled by a horse and attempts jumps on a snow-packed course, to historic Harrison Avenue. Other activities include the Backcountry Film Festival and Nordic paintball biathlon (think: paintball on cross-country skis).

Drink Up: Quench your thirst with a beer or moon­shine cocktail at Periodic Brewing, America’s highest craft brewery, where you can also spoil your palate with a bowl of beer-cheddar soup and a Colorado bison brat.

Explore: More than 100 miles of groomed, multiuse trails crisscross Lake County, perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to wintry vistas of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive — both fourteeners (peaks more than 14,000 feet tall). 

Ridgway

Flanked by the rugged peaks of the San Juan Mountains and Cimarron Range, Ridgway is a mountain enclave that got its start as an 1800s railroad hub. 

Soothe: Orvis Hot Springs’ eight pools and ponds boast water naturally heated between 65 and 112 degrees year-round — beck­oning travelers to alleviate sore muscles and watch their stresses fade into a cloud of sweet steam.

Dig In: The True Grit Cafe pays homage to the 1968 Western “True Grit” starring John Wayne, filmed in Ridgway and nearby Ouray. Order the hand-cut chicken fried steak, tenderized seven times and breaded to order (Fun fact: They fry up more than 5,000 a year!).

Stroll: There’s a multitude of galleries and artist workshops to investigate in Ridgway’s Certified Creative District (one of the state’s 23), like Mountain Girl Gallery, featuring locally made ceramics, metalwork and more, and Cimarron Glass, a working glass forge.

La Junta

Travelers venturing west on the Santa Fe Trail, a 19th-century transportation route from Missouri to New Mexico, found respite at this jewel on Colorado’s southeastern plains.

Turn Back Time: The Koshare Museum began as a Boy Scout troop’s project in the 1930s and evolved into a fine collection of American Indian artifacts. Appreciate the kiva room’s self-supported log ceiling (the world’s largest), made up of 627 logs and weighing more than 40 tons. 

Dig In: When it comes to comforting breakfast eats, Copper Kitchen is the real deal. Pop in for the big-as-your-face cinnamon rolls, biscuits and gravy, or breakfast burritos buried in their house pork green chili.

Explore: Comanche National Grasslands’ Picket Wire Canyonlands has more than 1,300 dino footprints — evidence that giant lizard-like creatures lived there in herds more than 150 million years ago. You can also access the Comanche Grasslands portion of the Colorado Birding Trail, a great place for viewing several species of hawks in winter.

Nederland 

Laid-back Nederland, just 17 miles from Boulder, is known as the gateway to outdoor pursuits in the James Peak and Indian Peaks wilderness areas and skiing at Eldora Mountain Resort

Party: Frozen Dead Guy Days in March salutes a Norwegian man who was cryogenically frozen after his death in 1989 — and remains that way in a storage shed near town. The zany fest boasts hijinks like costumed coffin races and frozen T-shirt and brain-freeze contests. 

Dig In: Melt-in-your-mouth brisket and pulled pork (and barbecued tofu for non-carnivorous types), a killer beer selection and a sunny patio make James Peak Brewery & Smoke­house a worthy stop after a day of winter exploits in the neighboring wilds.

Turn Back Time: The Carousel of Happiness is a restored 1910 merry-go-round with 56 hand-carved animals that rotate to the tunes of a 1913 Wurlitzer band organ. Bonus: You can ride the retro delight for only $1. 

Fruita

This Western Slope town’s arid climate supports milder winter temperatures — mean­ing you can bundle up for mountain biking, hiking and even camping year-round.

Turn Back Time: Get lost in the prehistoric past at Dinosaur Journey Museum, where you can experience a simulated earthquake, feel dwarfed next to robotic displays of dinos that once ruled the area and examine a working paleontology lab.

Explore: Gravity-defying boulders, spires and red-rock canyons define the landscape at Colorado National Monument. Score awesome views of 450-foot Independence Monument, the geologic wonderland’s tallest freestanding formation, on the easy 1-mile Otto’s Trail, and pitch a tent at Saddlehorn Campground. 

Ride: Fruita’s world-renowned mountain-biking trails are surrounded by sandstone mesas and weave through desert topography. Choose from hundreds of miles of trails that can often be ridden 12 months of the year, includ­ing the famed Kokopelli and 18 Road networks.

Buena Vista

Nestled at the foot of the Continental Divide adjacent to more than 10 fourteeners, Buena Vista truly lives up to its name — meaning “good view” in Spanish. 

Drink Up: Jailhouse Craft Beer Bar, located in an 1880s jailhouse on Main Street, has 10 taps featuring a rotating selection of beers from Colorado and beyond and small bites like house-pickled veggies and hard-boiled eggs (an old-time bar snack).

Explore: On an intimate backcountry excursion with Monarch Dog Sled Rides, a guide will teach you all about mushing, how to harness a dog and introduce you to a dozen new furry friends, who’ll gladly take you for a ride through pine-scented woodlands in exchange for back massages.

Soothe: While a stay at Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa’s lodge or cabins in the Collegiate Peaks range gains you access to its rustic mineral pools, several of their cabins have their very own hot-springs pool for private soaking bliss.

Crestone

Known as the Shambala of the Rockies — “Shambala” refers to a mythical kingdom north of Tibet where inhabitants enjoyed health, harmony and well-being — Crestone is known for its many spiritual healing centers. 

Soothe: Up your om through intensive multi-day meditation programs, Dharma talks and study groups at Crestone Mountain Zen Center, a Zen Buddhist monastic practice and retreat center in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 

Stroll: Check out an eclectic mix of wood­work, sculpture, wall art, jewelry and other works at Crestone Artisans Gallery, a testament to Crestone’s reputation as both a spiritual and artistic haven.

Dig In: Crestone Brewing Co. is an eating and drinking joint committed to supporting Colorado farms and their communities. Pair the Highway 17 Amber Ale with the local beef or yak burger and grab some of their house-fermented kombucha to-go.

Carbondale

Snuggled between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, quaint Carbondale is an agriculturally rooted hamlet that’s currently experiencing an artistic renaissance.

Stroll: More than 200 artists and makers call the area home. See their work at Roadside Gallery, Carbondale Clay Center and plenty of other galleries and shops in the Carbondale Creative District.

Learn: Find out which moon phases are best for planting in a biodynamic astronomy workshop or how to make your own yogurt in a culturing dairy class at Sustainable Settings, a nonprofit that offers classes at their ranch throughout the year.

Dig In: Mosey over to historic downtown Carbon-dale to satisfy your appetite with made-from-scratch tacos, tortas and ceviche at Señor Taco Show, or to get your caffeine fix at Bonfire Coffee, known for their craft-roasted coffees and talented baristas.

Montrose 

Montrose’s close proximity to iconic natural landscapes like Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area earns it serious adventure-town cred.

Explore: If ice climbing is your jam, look no further than Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, where the gorge’s sheer walls resemble a frozen fairytale-like fortress in the winter. Experienced (and brave) climbers can ascend epic routes like aptly named Gandalf’s Beard.

Dig In: Recount your epic snowmobiling adventures in the surrounding Gunnison National Forest over dishes like beer-battered chili rellenos, bone-in Colorado-raised ribeye and chicken-fried chicken at Camp Robber.

Stroll: The nostalgic finds at the antique shops on Montrose’s Main Street bring a smile to all kinds of treasure hunters, whether you’re seeking a Victorian porcelain doll, 18th-century candelabra or hand-painted ceramic chicken for your collection (no judgment).

Creede

Silver-mining history and some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet are just a few perks of visiting Creede, tucked within a former volcanic caldera among the ragged peaks of the San Juans.

Turn Back Time: Find out how the hunt for precious metals shaped the community’s history (it was established in 1890 when a silver vein was discovered in the area by Indiana prospector Nicholas Creede) at the Creede Underground Mining Museum

Party: Creede Cabin Fever Days in mid-February celebrates the joys of the frosty season with ice sculptures, ice skating, a curling tournament, special art exhibits, live music at different venues, a special winter show at the award-winning Creede Reperatory Theater and more.

Dig In: Follow the locals to Arp’s for brunch, lunch or dinner. Past favorites on the diverse menu include salmon with fried avocado, chicken and waffles, and spinach and mushroom enchiladas with jalapeño vodka sauce.

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