20 Of The Best (And Most Underrrated) Small Towns In Colorado, According To Someone Who Grew Up There

·6 min read

Most people come to Colorado to see the mountains, then never leave Denver — which is near (but not in) the mountains. The truth is that the state's most beautiful sights are found outside the big city in tiny towns you've probably never heard of.

Mountains in the fall

It may require you to rent a car, but I promise you, leaving the city will be well worth the effort. It's in the state's tiny towns that you'll get that authentic Colorado feel (and can enjoy the mountains you've heard so much about).

Important note: Many of these towns are experiencing housing shortages, which are pushing prices up and locals out. Be mindful of where you book your lodging (short-term rentals are a big part of the problem), and don't be shocked if places are short staffed — that housing crisis is leading to a labor shortage.

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1.Salida

Colorful buildings in small town downtown

Best for: Hiking 14,000-foot mountains (14ers)

Salida has a river running through it (the Arkansas River), a super-cute downtown, and local hot springs, but the real draw is its proximity to the Sawatch Range, a mountain range that houses 8 of the 20 highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains.

From your home base in Salida, you can summit Mount Shavano and the neighboring Tabeguache Peak, then reward yourself with baked goods at Little Red Hen Bakery or pizza and beer from Moonlight Pizza and Brewpub.

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2.Steamboat Springs

Ski town with fireworks at night

Best for: Skiing

In the winter, die-hard skiers head to Steamboat Springs, a small Colorado town that merges its Old West heritage with its world-class ski persona. The ski resort traverses six peaks, offering what feels like endless cruiser, tree, and bump skiing.

After a long day on the hill, soak in the therapeutic Strawberry Park Hot Springs, or grab a stiff drink at The Laundry.

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3.Carbondale

4.Pagosa Springs

5.Fruita

Person mountain biking in a desert area

Best for: Mountain biking

Fruita is the land of mountain biking trails (and dinosaurs — but you'll have to research that one for yourself). Thanks to the town's somewhat temperate weather, you can typically bike into the early winter months and early spring. When you're done hitting the trails on 18 Road, Kokopelli, or Rabbit Valley, grab a bike-themed 'za and beer at Hot Tomato Pizza.

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6.Nederland

7.Grand Lake

8.Estes Park

Elk with antlers near a cabin

Best for: Wildlife spotting

On the other side of Rocky Mountain National Park, you'll find Estes Park, a tiny town that's just 70 miles from Denver. Because the town is surrounded by protected wilderness (thanks to Rocky Mountain National Park and Roosevelt National Forest), it's a great place for hiking, camping, backpacking, and wildlife spotting. It's not uncommon to spot herds of elk or bears in this part of Colorado.

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9.Gunnison

The landscape of Gunnison, Colorado

Best for: Fishing

You'll find Colorado's largest body of water, Blue Mesa Reservoir, just outside the town of Gunnison, but it isn't just lake fishing here — you can also drop a line in the Gunnison River or the Taylor River, among others.

If fishing isn't your thing, try kayaking in the town's whitewater park, or swing by the Gunnison Valley Observatory and take in the clear, night skies.

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10.Crestone

Man lights an offering

Best for: A spiritual awakening

It doesn't matter what your religion is — it's likely represented in the tiny town of Crestone, which sits at the base of the towering Sangre de Cristo Range. In this hippy, spiritually driven destination, you'll find a Hindu temple, a Zen center, a Carmelite monastery, several Tibetan centers, and a UFO watchtower down the road.

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11.Silverton

A train passes by a river in the mountains

Best for: A remote, historic feel

Silverton is at least an hour's drive from a major grocery store or hospital — and that's exactly what this town's residents love about it. You can either come from the neighboring town of Ouray via the Million Dollar Highway (one of the most beautiful yet most dangerous roads), come over another mountain pass from the town of Durango, or hop aboard the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (a must).

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12.Leadville

13.Crested Butte

Wildflowers in the foreground with mountains in the distance

Best for: Wildflowers

The real question is what can't you do in Crested Butte. In the winter, you'll find great downhill skiing, Nordic skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing, while the summer months boast over 750 miles of mountain bike trails, endless hiking, and whitewater rafting and kayaking.

But what makes this small Colorado town stand out (other than it's obvious luck to have it all) are its wildflowers. It's considered to be the "wildflower capital of Colorado" and even has an annual festival to celebrate the blooms.

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14.Frisco

Clock on main street with mountains in the background

Best for: Water sports

Chances are you've heard of Breckenridge — but have you heard of Frisco, the ski town's chill, laid-back neighbor? Frisco has what some might call a perfect location — it is seven minutes from the closest ski resort, under two hours from Denver, and right atop the Dillon Reservoir (a great place to get out on the water).

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15.Paonia

Box of organic apples

Best for: Farm-to-table fare

There's nothing like harvest season in Paonia, where you'll find farm stands selling bushels of cherries, peaches, and apples all over town. Of course there's more to the town than food — the arts community is thriving, and Paonia State Park is nearby — but Colorado's banana belt is the place to be (and eat) when summer hits.

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16.Snowmass Village

17.Ouray

Small town in the mountains

Best for: Climbing ice and rock

There's a reason why this little mountain town is nicknamed "The Switzerland of America" — it sits in a box canyon surrounded by mountains. The views are out of control year-round, but in the winter, people come for the Ouray Ice Festival (a renowned ice-climbing event) and in the summer, it's all about rock climbing, hiking, and 4x4ing.

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18.Lake City

19.Glenwood Springs

Waterslide in the mountains to a pool

Best for: Hot springs right off the highway

It's all about water in Glenwood Springs. The Colorado River runs through the town, and there are natural hot springs bubbling up from the earth. You can join a rafting trip down the river and then wrap up your day with a soak in the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, which is considered to be the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool. And thanks to the town's central location right off a major interstate, getting to the town is a piece of cake.

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20.Durango

What's your favorite small town in Colorado? Share in the comments!