Pass up Apsen for a Colorado roadtrip packed with suprises


Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge and Telluride: The bougie resort towns of Colorado do one thing well — gouge the rich. But the Rocky Mountains aren’t just for wealthy tourists in goose down jackets and fuzzy boots. There’s an entirely different side of Colorado in the offing, one that bursts with fall colors and desert sunsets, a Colorado that remains shockingly reasonable from humble Colorado Springs to rustic Cortez.

Even towns that have clearly been discovered by tourists, like Glenwood Springs and Pagosa Springs, are pleasant and navigable.

Once full of bargains, now spendier, Denver may suffer from vacation inflation, but is still where most people kick off a trip through Colorado and it’s still worth staying in. Boutique hotels like the Clayton Hotel & Members Club, the Crawford Hotel and the Thompson Denver are all excellent.

Colorado’s best restaurants — from the dynamic Vietnamese at Sap Sua to the sumptuous South American at Mister Oso to the classic Italian fare at Tavernetta and Bar Dough — and its best cocktail bars, like Death & CoCitizen Rail and Chez Roc — are all here. 

Check-in to chic boutiques like Kinship Landing. Kinship Landing

From the capitol, Colorado is best explored via a clockwise loop of a road trip, the next stop Colorado Springs, whose sluggish downtown and crush of outlying big-box stores might fool travelers into speeding on through. But park for a night at Kinship Landing — a modern-meets-mountain boutique hotel — if for no other reason than to wander out into the desert in search of the Paint Mines Interpretive Park, a magical oasis of multicolored hoodoos and sandstone-capped spires. Stopping for a craft beer and some solid pub grub at Phantom Canyon Brewing Co.

The next morning, take a ride on the Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway, the easiest way to summit a one of Colorado’s many “14ers” (or 14,000-plus-foot peaks), before a hike or mountain bike ride on the labyrinth of trails of Cheyenne Canyon. 

Next up are the twin towns of Salida and Buena Vista, which are among Colorado’s most charming. In the summer, whitewater fans flock to the dozens of operators ferrying paddlers down this bouncy stretch of the Arkansas River. In the shoulder seasons, this is a place to soak weary bones at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, to dine on duck confit poutine and goat cheese gnocchi at the Surf Hotel, and to hike or bike along the stunning singletrack of the Monarch Crest Trail, which features surreal views of fall colors. 

Out of the mountains and into the arid San Luis Valley lies Alamosa and an edgy, Wild West vibe that might intimidate the fuzzy boots crowd. But this is a must stop, especially if you can land a couple of nights at the Frontier Drive Inn, where well-appointed yurts offer the perfect haven to sift through the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, clamber around the rugged Penitente Canyon and grab a beer at the San Luis Valley Brewing Company before retreating back to the verdant lawn at Frontier, which provides fresh popcorn and chairs, while broadcasting outdoor movies on a massive screen. 

Steep yourself in the views at the old-school cool Springs Resort in Pagosa. Visit Pagosa Springs

Pagosa Springs is a welcome return to Colorado’s mountain scenery and its balming hot springs. The Springs Resort is old-school but upgrades are in the works, and the healing waters are divine, split into nicely maintained pools overlooking the San Juan River.

Nearby Turkey Springs is a gorgeous place to mountain bike and hike, roaming cattle notwithstanding, and the elk burger at Riff Raff Brewing Co. is as good as an elk burger can be. 

Durango might be Colorado’s best kept secret. From the historic and beautifully furnished suites at Leland House, it’s a short walk to a delicious collection of food trucks and world-class coffee at Lola’s Place before a jaunt through a historic downtown that hits all the right notes, with vibrant shops hawking outdoor gear and home goods.

There’s ample eateries, but the only restaurant with a ghost story from a cowboy shootout is El Moro. A few miles from town sits what is arguably the state’s best hot springs, an eden of carefully manicured pools at the Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa, where the thermal waters are natural but infused with something called “nanometer and micrometer oxygen bubbles.” And the trails further into the San Juan mountains are spectacular, especially when the aspens are aglow. 

Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa’s thermal waters are infused with “nanometer and micrometer oxygen bubbles.” Courtesy of Visit Durango

Cortez is back in the high desert, and while it’s a bit of a podunk town, there’s a mountain biking network here called Phil’s World that’s worth whatever amount of time it might take anyone to get here. There’s also an authentic working farm with luxury lodging just up the road at Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch. Be sure to buy some of the ranch’s very own grass-fed lamb and stop at Hovenweep National Monument, on the way out. 

From Cortez, the obvious route back to Denver would cut through the mountains en route to touristy Telluride. Stay west instead, and head to Naturita’s CampV, a Burning Man-style collection of hip cabins and tiny homes under a night sky loaded with stars.

There’s not much in the way of good dining around here, save for a food truck in nearby Nucla called Saucy Mama’s, which does excellent pizza and pasta. 

Vanlifers at Camp Eddy. Visit Grand Junction

The drive then skirts the Uncompahgre National Forest and the dramatic canyons of the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, north to Grand Junction, a town rich with scenery that rivals anywhere in the world, and a chic glamping style resort called Camp Eddy that makes a perfect basecamp. Take the winding road between Grand Junction and Fruita that runs through the Colorado National Monument. Spend an entire day exploring the flowing singletrack trails of Fruita’s 18 Road.

There’s so much to do around here that’s free that a rugged Razr tour of Rattlesnake Arches will be a worthwhile splurge, plunging down a road few vehicles can traverse to hike the world’s second-highest number of natural arches. For dinner, the inventive fare of Taco Party — crispy cauliflower, twice-fried yam, rockfish tempura! — is can’t-miss. 

Finally comes the last stop of the road trip, Glenwood Springs, named by Outside Magazine in 2023 as one of the 15 “Happiest Places to Live in the US,” thanks in no small way to the abundance of tranquilizing therapeutic waters, like at Iron Mountain Hot Springs, right in the city. The Roaring Fork Valley is crawling with sweet trails, and even the crowded Hanging Lake hike is smartly managed with a permitting system.

All in that’s nearly 1,000 miles and a minimum 18 hour drive that could be broken down into a two week vacation that costs less than a weekend in Aspen.

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