8 Small Towns in Colorado for Outdoor Enthusiasts

Posted by
Kristen Arendt
September 14, 2021
Updated May 04, 2022

Small Towns in Colorado You Don’t Want to Miss
Photo: Jacob Boomsma / Shutterstock

Colorado is known for some of the country’s cutest small towns, often tucked in remote and scenic corners of the Rocky Mountains.

If you know where to look, these small towns can offer a more relaxing vibe than Colorado’s touristy ski towns or booming Front Range destinations. And, sure, you aren’t going to have as many amenities or activities to choose from if you opt for a stay in these little towns — but they can make a great basecamp for exploring their surrounding areas.

Since they all have less than 1,000 full-time residents, you probably won’t have to wait too long for your morning coffee. So if you’re looking for laid-back vibes and want to get off the beaten track, these eight Colorado small towns ooze the kind of small-town western charm you won’t find in the sprawling metropolises.

Related Read: 10 Best Hikes in Colorado for Getting Out into Nature

1. Creede

Creede Colorado
Photo: Michael Kaercher / Shutterstock

In the heart of the San Juan Mountains along the Rio Grande River in southwestern Colorado, the historic mining town of Creede offers a great mix of everything from outdoor adventures to history and art. On Main Street, you can find dining, shopping, and art galleries. In the summer, see a show at the Creede Repertory Theater or take a stroll along the river.

The Underground Mining Museum offers tours for those interested in learning more about the silver mining boom of the late 1800s. Rockhounds and adventurous kids (and adults) will love heading to the Last Chance Mine for a trip underground into a historic silver mine.

Additionally, Creed offers a fabulous jumping-off point for some of the more spectacular outdoor adventures in the San Juans. During your stay, you can fly fish on the Rio Grande, bag San Luis Peak at an elevation of 14,014 feet, explore the trails of Wheeler Geologic Area, photograph North Clear Creek Falls, or take a scenic drive along the Silver Thread Scenic Byway. And those are just some of the most popular adventures in the area — you can find plenty more to explore if you bring along a good map and your sense of adventure.

Related Read: 12 Best Places to Visit in Colorado for Unforgettable Adventures

2. Marble

marble colorado
Photo: Peter Kunasz / Shutterstock

The remote town of Marble is at the end of a dead-end canyon on the headwaters of the Crystal River in the Elk Mountain Range. The town is perhaps best known for the iconic Crystal Mill at the old Crystal mining townsite. The historic mill, built in 1892, is one of the most photographed sites in the state and is a photographer’s dream, especially in the fall when the aspens turn golden. But the tiny burb of Marble has a lot more to offer than this one, admittedly jaw-dropping, site.

The town of Marble proper, which has no cell service or gas stations (fill your tank in Carbondale), is named for an actual marble quarry, and you’ll spot plenty of quirky white marble statues throughout the town. You can also head to the 25-acre Marble Mill Site Park to see the remnants of the historic marble mill.

This Colorado small town is ripe for outdoor adventure, too. Rent a SUP for a peaceful paddle on Beaver Lake, take a stroll under the aspens, or book a horseback ride for a quiet afternoon on the trails. If you’re looking for hunting or fishing, the area has lots to offer. Adrenaline junkies can book a Jeep tour up Crystal River along the rough and narrow 4×4 roads of the Lead King Basin or journey up Schofield Pass to hike and bike in the heart of the spectacular Elk Mountains.

Related Read: 9 Best Resorts in Colorado for Rocky Mountain R&R

3. Grand Lake

Grand Lake colorado
Photo: Markel Echaburu Bilbao / Shutterstock

On the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and known as the “western gateway” to the park, the small Colorado town of Grand Lake does seem some tourism traffic, but not nearly the same numbers as Estes Park.

This lakeside town has a host of great activities for any season. If a summer on the water is your idea of bliss, rent a boat or pack your kayak to get out on Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake, or Lake Granby. In the winter, head out nordic skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or ice fishing.

The town itself boasts breathtaking scenery from Main Street overlooking Grand Lake, with the rugged mountains of the Continental Divide and the distinctive hump of Mt. Baldy as the lake backdrop. The downtown area has over 60 shops, restaurants, and galleries to explore if you’re looking for a leisurely day on the town. In the evening, catch a show at the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theater.

Though much of the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park was burned by the East Troublesome Fire in 2020, the town of Grand Lake was spared, and the trails and park infrastructure are in process of being repaired and reopened. If you want to steer clear of the burn scar, heading south or west from Grand Lake will get you to  other outstanding opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and camping either on national forest land or in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Related Read: 10 Gorgeous Cabin Rentals in Grand Lake, Colorado

4. Fairplay

FairPlay colorado
Photo: Kit Leong / Shutterstock

The next time you’re driving Highway 285 across South Park, consider slowing your roll for a stop at the small town of Fairplay. This quaint and slightly rugged old West town is full of the Colorado small-town charm and character you won’t necessarily find at the ritzy Colorado ski towns. Established shortly after gold was discovered in the area in 1859, Fairplay boasts both an interesting history and a stunning location.

The town’s biggest event of the year, Burro Days, is highlighted by the “Get Yur Ass Up the Pass” race, where participants do indeed run with a burro to the top of Mosquito Pass and back. You’ll find that Fairplay still has a good bit of “Wild West” charm, as well as locals who don’t take themselves too seriously. Other fun events to check out include the free summer concert series and the South Park Arts Celebration.

In terms of outdoor recreation, Fairplay is rimmed by the Mosquito Range, which has outstanding hiking, biking, skiing, snowboarding, camping, and off-roading. South Park is also nicknamed the “Fly-Fishing Capital of Colorado,” so anglers will want to set a line in the meandering rivers of the picturesque high-altitude plain.

Related Read: 10 Unique Places to Stay in Colorado

5. Del Norte

Del Norte Colorado

Located on the western edge of the San Luis Valley, the town of Del Norte is a scenic spot with big mountain views and outstanding access to some of the more stunning and remote spots in southern Colorado. The town itself was once a mining town and a stage stop, and that history is reflected in the architecture and feel of its downtown. History buffs will love staying at the Windsor Hotel and stopping by the Rio Grande County Museum for a deeper dive into the area’s past.

The town is by the Rio Grande, where you can enjoy a day fishing, paddling, or tubing. You can head out for a hike at the nearby trails of Lookout Mountain Park or dive deeper into the San Juans for a more remote adventure.

In the winter, Wolf Creek Ski Area is just under an hour’s drive away. For adrenaline junkies, Penitente Canyon offers some outstanding rock climbing with over 300 routes as well as trails for mountain biking — and you can rent bikes in town. This Colorado small town is a great basecamp if you want the perks of a Rocky Mountain retreat without the crowds.

6. Westcliffe

Westcliffe colorado
Photo: Shutterstock

Another under-the-radar mountain town, the small town of Westcliffe, established in 1887, is on the high plain between the Sangre de Cristos and the Wet Mountains. If you take a drive on the Frontier Pathways Byway from Pueblo, you’ll end up in this mountain ‘burb. That drive is much more relaxing than sitting in traffic on I-70.

Known for its dark skies, Westcliffe (and the adjoining small Colorado town of Silver Cliff) is one of only 31 dark sky communities around the world. It’s one of only five in Colorado. For a full-blown astronomical experience, you can book a trip to the Smokey Jack Observatory, or simply crane your neck back on a clear night.

But don’t scoff at the daytime views, as the Wet Mountain Valley is rimmed by stunning peaks. Hiking, biking, camping, backpacking, and horseback riding are the main draws here. And for a totally unique roadside attraction, head 28 miles out of town to visit the fantastical Bishop Castle.

7. Ouray

Ouray Colorado
Photo: Jay Krishnan / Shutterstock

With nicknames like the “Switzerland of America” and the “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Colorado,” you might think that the small Colorado town of Ouray is making some mighty big claims. But this mountain town lives up to its promises – and then some. Whether you’re in the market for outdoor adventure, fine dining, fun shopping, or hot-spring soaking, Ouray’s got a plenty to fit your vacation to-do list.

In a beautiful canyon along the Uncompahgre River and on the Million Dollar Highway, Ouray has loads of entertainment downtown with everything from art galleries to breweries and historic buildings — the entire Main Street is a National Historic District. And don’t forget to pack your swimsuit for a dip into the town’s popular Ouray Hot Springs Pool.

For outdoorsy adventures, you don’t have to look far. Take a hike to one of the area’s picturesque waterfalls or pick any one of the trails in the San Juans. Off-road enthusiasts can enjoy a Jeep tour or ATV excursion up Engineer Pass, and if you visit in the winter, time your trip to the Ouray Ice Festival for an extra treat. Whether you pack your ice axes or just go to spectate, it’s a one-of-a-kind cold-weather spectacle you won’t want to miss. You can also take ice climbing clinics with local outfitters.

Related Read: 10 Classic Mountain Cabins in Ouray, Colorado

8. Hot Sulphur Springs

Hot Sulphur Springs colorado

Hot Sulphur Springs is the kind of deceptively small Colorado town that many people pass through without a second glance. Halfway between Granby and Kremmling (both small towns in their own right), Hot Sulphur Springs is a bit off the beaten path — and that’s a very good thing.

The town is best known for its eponymous hot springs, which are the primary attraction. The Hot Sulphur Springs Resort and Spa offers a slightly upscale experience as well as lodging and massages. From town, you can take a stroll along the Colorado River or take a drive into nearby Arapahoe National Forest for hiking and mountain biking in the summer or snowshoeing, skiing, and snowmobiling in the winter. If downhill turns are more your style, Granby Ranch and Winter Park ski resorts are a short drive up the road.

Other area activities include taking a scenic drive through Byers Canyon, hunting or fishing at the Hot Sulphur Springs State Wildlife Area, or stopping by the Pioneer Village Museum. Though you won’t find a ton of options for dining or overnight accommodations, if you’re looking for a laid-back escape to a small Colorado town in the mountains, Hot Sulphur Springs will give you the space to slow down, kick back, and really enjoy those wide-open spaces.

Related Read: 9 Natural Hot Springs in Colorado for Soaking Away Your Troubles

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