Friday, September 17, 2021

To see fall colors, skip the tourist trap and head to these small Colorado towns instead

Coloradans know we are approaching one of the best times of year to get out in the mountains. And also one of the shortest. Since early September, we’ve been watching the leaf changing forecast like hawks expect to hit the road for a day drive or weekend trip during the Colorado gold rush—on the aspen trees. And while summer and winter seem to be the hardest times to find travel reservations—for hotels, restaurants, you name it—in our beloved mountain towns, fall is no joke.

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In an effort to spread the love of our fair state to the better-known Aspens and Vail, we’ve compiled a handful of small mountain town destinations that are lovely this season or any, and charming when it comes to sightseeing. There is a place to stay and sit for eating and drinking. Here are five to watch this fall. And if you want even more, check out our fellow small town summer guide. Another favorite is Colorado Mountain Hamlet? Feel free to write to us or leave it in the comments.

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Josie Sexton, The Denver Post

A soup and salad luncheon at True Nature Healing Arts in Carbondale on September 11, 2017.


Your final stop on a road trip between Glenwood Springs and Aspen just might be the destination (arguably, should be). Carbondale is a Colorado Creative District with arts and culture, craft breweries and distilleries, trails and restaurants to boot. Perched beneath the towering Mount Sopris, the city’s main street is a picturesque stretch to stroll through after your leaf-peeping drive or hike.

See: Drive south towards Redstone and Marble to see Aspen Leaves. For serious hikers, off-roaders, and photographers, a visit to Crystal Mill is a must, especially in the fall.

Crystal Mill, September 23, 2015.

Louis Traub, Outdoor Project

Photo of Crystal Mill on September 23, 2015.

Live: Because a simple hotel won’t work, make a reservation at the Distillery Inn. Its five rooms have the added bonus of being located above the Marble Distilling Company, a female-led spirits house specializing in vodka, liqueur (try Moonlight Expresso), as well as whiskey and bourbon.

Eat: There are plenty of quality eateries to discover in Carbondale, but our favorite to experience is True Nature’s Healing Arts’ Cafe, where you can grab fresh, organic snacks or meals while enjoying the surrounding gardens (and checking out the center Make sure to have several Kalyan Prasad).

To see fall colors, skip the tourist trap and head to these small Colorado towns instead

Josie Sexton, The Denver Post

Downtown Paonia featured on October 13, 2020. (Josie Sexton, The Denver Post)


If you’re driving on CO-133 south from Carbondale, Paonia is a (beautiful) hop down the road. This is your early fall destination for all kinds of agri-tourism – wine, fruit, flowers, even cheese. And its quaint downtown feels miles away (in a good way) from more built-up mountain towns.

Aspen trees surround a teepee...

Josie Sexton, The Denver Post

Aspen trees surround the teepee at an Airbnb in Paonia.

See: Watch aspen leaves while driving through North Fork Canyon and head down to Black Canyon of Gunnison, just 24 miles south.

Live: This is the land of vineyard guest rooms and tucked-away B&Bs. Families or small groups should check out the historic Stuart Mesa School Home, which has been transformed into an idyllic country retreat.

Food and Drink: Grab a picnic table spot outside Big B’s Garden & Cafe for dinner and then visit Chrysalis, a farmhouse brewery and passion project from Big B’s cider-creator Sean Larson.

8-year-old George Webster has a...

Kelsey Brunner, The Denver Post

George Webster, 86, holds a photo of himself in Leadville on Wednesday, July 10, 2019, competing in the skijoring down Harrison Avenue in 1994.


At over 10,000 feet, Leadville gets the coveted title of tallest city in Colorado (no, not that high). Its Old West downtown is home to curiosities and treasures, from the Melezana outdoor apparel store to the 1879 Tabor Opera House. And you’ll find plenty of aspen along the drive from I-70, and much more as you head past town and continue onto Turquoise and Twin Lakes, especially for camping.

See: Ditch the car and hop on the Leadville Railroad for a 2 1/2-hour train journey through the San Isabel Forest, which features plenty of aspen groves.

Live: From an 1880s train depot turned hotel and venue to Freight, the rail theme continues. Onsite are 13 updated cabins, as well as a bar and more to discover (including the history behind “the ladies of the cabin”).

Eat: Head to Buchi Café Cubano for a Cuban coffee, breakfast and lunch enjoyed panini-pressed sandwiches on the patio.

nice view

On your way past Leadville (or earlier, depending on your route), you’ll want to spend some time in Buena Vista for its riverside setting, walkable downtown, and host of hot springs. We chose this small village (population 2,855) for its prime location and because it is almost half the size of the nearby – though equally sweet – Salida.

See: Use Biwi as a jumping-off point to visit nearby hot springs like Cottonwood, Mount Princeton, Antero, and more. If you’re heading south to the hot springs, consider taking a scenic detour through St. Elmo’s Ghost Town.

Live: Watch local enthusiasts or catch yourself a wave outside the Surf Hotel, which brings in a cool French chateau vibe to a little ol’ bev-nee. The hotel has rooms with balconies overlooking the river and small house chalets for more privacy.

To drink: New this year, The Cellar on Railroad is a wine and tapas bar right off Main Street. Go for shareable plates, charcuterie boards, and wine specials Wednesday through Friday nights.

To see fall colors, skip the tourist trap and head to these small Colorado towns instead
Aspen Leaves turns onto Red Mountain Creek along Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton on October 5, 2019. (Josie Sexton, The Denver Post)


Finally, for the most intrepid travellers, we suggest Silverton, which is smack in the middle of the Million Dollar Highway between beautiful neighboring destinations Ore and Durango. But this particular city is even more special for its relative isolation and nail-biting mountain drive. And if you can take your eyes off the road, Aspen is brimming along US 550 each fall.

Inside the lobby bar...

Josie Sexton, The Denver Post

Inside the lobby bar of The Wyman Hotel on October 5, 2019.

See: More experienced hikers should try the Ice Lakes Basin Trail which was closed this summer due to fire damage and is set to reopen on September 15 (double-check before you leave). Those looking for more leisurely leaf-peeping can pull over to the Ironton Ghost Town or elsewhere to walk along the 550 with views.

Live: The Wyman Hotel is a beautiful restoration of the 1902 Wyman Building, which was originally built as a trading, lodge, and banquet hall. Kids will love a comfy king-top bunk room with twin twin beds. The lovely lobby bar serves wine and beer and lends cards and games.

Food and Drink: Go where the locals are for pints and pies at Avalanche Brewing Company, where you can order Oktoberfest this season and pair it with Super Hawaiian or Meathead Pie.

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To see fall colors, skip the tourist trap and head to these small Colorado towns instead
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