Coloradans know we’re approaching one of the best times of year to get out into the mountains. And also one of the shortest times. Starting early September, we’re watching the leaf changing forecast like hawks, hoping to hit the road for a day drive or weekend tour during the peak Colorado gold rush — on the aspen trees, that is. 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, either.
In an effort to spread the love from the better-known Aspens and Vails of our fair state, we’ve compiled a handful of smaller mountain town destinations that are just as lovely this season or any, and just as charming when it comes to sights, stays and places to sit for a bite and a drink. Here are five to check out this fall. And if you want more still, check out our companion small-town summer guide. Have another favorite Colorado mountain hamlet? Feel free to write to us or leave it in the comments.
A soup and salad lunch at True Nature Healing Arts in Carbondale, on Sept. 11, 2017.
Your last stop between Glenwood Springs and Aspen on a road trip could be (arguably, should be) the destination itself. Carbondale is a Colorado Creative District with arts and culture, craft breweries and distilleries, trails and restaurants to boot. Set under towering Mount Sopris, the town’s Main Street is a picturesque stretch for strolling after your leaf-peeping drive or hike.
See: Drive south toward Redstone and Marble to see the aspen leaves. For serious hikers, off-roaders and photographers, a visit to the Crystal Mill is a must, especially in fall.
Crystal Mill pictured on Sept. 23, 2015.
Stay: Because a simple hotel won’t do, make a reservation at The Distillery Inn. Its five rooms have the added bonus of being located above Marble Distilling Co., a women-led spirits house specializing in vodka, liqueurs (try the Moonlight Expresso), as well as whiskey and bourbon.
Eat: There are so many quality eateries to discover in Carbondale, but our favorite for the experience is the cafe at True Nature Healing Arts, where you can have fresh, organic snacks or meals while enjoying the surrounding gardens (and be sure to check out the center’s many wellness offerings).
Downtown Paonia pictured on Oct. 13, 2020. (Josie Sexton, The Denver Post)
If you’re driving CO-133 south from Carbondale, Paonia is just a (scenic) hop down the road. It’s your early fall destination for agro-tourism of all kinds — wine, fruits, flowers, even cheese. And its quaint downtown feels miles away (in a good way) from the more built-up mountain towns.
Aspen trees surround a teepee at an Airbnb in Paonia.
See: Peep the aspen leaves while driving through the North Fork Valley and on down to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, just 24 miles south.
Stay: This is the land of vineyard-side guest rooms and tucked-away B&Bs. Families or small groups should check out the historic Stuart Mesa School house, which has been transformed into an idyllic country retreat.
Eat and drink: Grab a picnic table spot outside of Big B’s orchard and cafe for dinner and then head head over to Chrysalis, a farmhouse brewery and passion project from longtime Big B’s cider-maker Shawn Larson.
George Webster, 86, holds out a photograph of himself competing in Skijoring in 1994 down Harrison Avenue, pictured, in Leadville on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
At just over 10,000 feet in elevation, Leadville gets the coveted title of highest city in Colorado (no, not that kind of high). Its Old West downtown is home to curiosities and treasures, from the cultish Melanzana outdoor apparel store to the 1879 Tabor Opera House. And you’ll find plenty of aspen along the drive from I-70, and plenty more as you head past downtown and continue on to 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, featuring plenty of aspen groves.
Stay: Continue the rail theme at Freight, an 1880s train depot turned hotel and event venue. There are 13 updated cabins onsite, as well as a bar and so much more to discover (including the history behind the “women of the cabins”).
Eat: Head to Buchi Cafe Cubano for Cuban coffee, breakfast and lunch panini-pressed sandwiches enjoyed on the patio.
A view from across the Arkansas River of the Surf Hotel in Buena Vista.
On past Leadville (or before it, depending on your route), you’ll want to spend some time in Buena Vista for its riverside setting, walkable downtown and proximity to a host of hot springs. We picked this little hamlet (population 2,855) for its prime location and because its about half the size of nearby — though just as sweet — Salida.
See: Use BV as a jumping-off point to visit nearby hot springs such as Cottonwood, Mt. Princeton, Antero and more. If you’re heading south for hot springs, consider a scenic detour through St. Elmo ghost town.
Stay: Watch local enthusiasts or catch a wave yourself outside the Surf Hotel, which brings a cool French chateau vibe to little ol’ Bew-nie. The hotel features rooms with balconies overlooking the river as well as tiny house chalets for more privacy.
Drink: New this year, The Cellar on Railroad is a wine and tapas bar just off Main Street. Go for shareable plates, charcuterie boards and wine specials Wednesday through Friday nights.
Finally, for the most intrepid travelers, we suggest Silverton, which is smack in the middle of the Million Dollar Highway between lovely neighboring destinations Ouray and Durango. But this particular town is all the more special for its relative isolation and nail-biting mountain drive. And the aspen are aglow each fall along U.S. 550, if you can take your eyes off the road.
Inside the lobby bar of The Wyman Hotel on Oct. 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 Sept. 15 (double-check before you go). Those looking for more leisurely leaf-peeping can pull off at the Ironton ghost town or elsewhere along 550 for a walk with views.
Stay: The Wyman Hotel is a beautiful restoration of the 1902 Wyman Building, originally built as a mercantile, lodge and banquet hall. Kids will love the bunk room with two twin beds lofted over a comfy king. The pretty lobby bar serves wine and beer and lends out cards and games.
Eat and drink: Go where the locals are for pints and pies at Avalanche Brewing Company, where you can order an Oktoberfest this season and pair it with Super Hawaiian or Meathead pies.
This content was originally published here.