Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, as seen from the town of Silverton

These Southwestern Mountain Towns Show a Quieter Side of Colorado — With Hot Springs, Hiking, and Boutique Hotels

Colorado is an outdoor paradise, but escaping the crowds can be a challenge. Here's how to plan the perfect road trip through Southwest Colorado, which is less-visited, but just as spectacular.

When it comes to mountain playgrounds, Colorado has an embarrassment of riches. Boulder, a college town with seemingly endless hiking and biking trails and a burgeoning dining scene, was the one that lured me away from New York City six years ago. It seemed like I had only just begun to explore my adopted state's best-known outdoor destinations, like Aspen and Breckenridge — then, with the onset of COVID, every other urbanite had the same idea.

So last July, when the pandemic surge had slowed, I set out on a weeklong road trip to explore southwestern Colorado, a corner of the state that still feels off the beaten path. It's home to historic train towns like Del Norte and Silverton, which once linked mining centers to vital trade routes. After the mines dried up, the wild stretches of river near these remote outposts began to attract rugged outdoorsy types and, more recently, young entrepreneurs with pioneering spirits. Now some of the latter have opened chic hotels and hip art and music venues to complement the region's natural beauty. I couldn't wait to dive in.

Two photos from Colorado, one showing a sign indicating distance to other cities, and one showing people in a river
From left: Signage outside Durango’s Nugget Mountain Bar; the whitewater park in Buena Vista. Rebecca Stumpf

Buena Vista

From Boulder, I zipped down Highway 285 and reached Buena Vista in just over two hours. Surrounded by the Collegiate Peaks, some of the tallest mountains in the Rockies, this riverside town has been shaped by centuries of boom and bust. In the 1880s, it was an unruly railroad depot, with 68 saloons and dozens of brothels and dance halls. Its residents — desperados, gamblers, and frustrated prospectors — earned it a reputation as one of the most lawless places in the West. By the 1920s, Buena Vista's lettuce-farming industry had become so lucrative that the town held an annual harvest celebration marked by rodeos and airplane stunts. The town's good fortune continued until the Wall Street crash and recession of the 1980s, which devastated the place.

Reggae drifted from a section of river where dozens of kayakers and paddleboarders were navigating rapids, and a band was setting up on an adjacent lawn lined with food trucks. If it hadn't been for the alpine backdrop, I would have sworn I was in Austin, Texas.

Forty years later, when Jed Selby rolled in, nearly every storefront was boarded up. But the pro kayaker, then 24, saw opportunity just east of town in the rolling Arkansas River, one of the largest tributaries of the Mississippi. He didn't see the town as another skiing and climbing mecca, like Vail or Crested Butte. For Buena Vista, he envisioned a future based on a free public whitewater park — a section of riverbed with artificial features to create waves and chutes for paddlers, surfers, and tubers.

When I arrived it was mid-afternoon, and a dry summer heat had settled in the air. Reggae drifted from a section of river where dozens of kayakers and paddleboarders were navigating rapids, and a band was setting up on an adjacent lawn lined with food trucks. If it hadn't been for the alpine backdrop, I would have sworn I was in Austin, Texas.

"Surf's up," Selby yelled as he waved me over and shoved a paddle into my hand. "Welcome to my little stretch of paradise."

Nugget Mountain Bar, in Colorado
Nugget Mountain Bar. Rebecca Stumpf

I grew up surfing ocean waves on the Jersey Shore, but quickly learned that the niche sport of river surfing is completely different. Geared up in a wet suit, life jacket, neoprene boots, and a helmet, I paddled into the water on a sturdy inflatable board. Once I felt it catch the man-made wave, I popped to my feet. My ride lasted for as long as I could maintain my balance–in this case, just a few seconds. Then Selby took a turn, effortlessly spinning 360s in the wave.

When various locals described Selby to me as the de facto mayor of Buena Vista, I wasn't expecting a guy with X Games athleticism and a passion for jam bands like Phish. As it turned out, he's also a student of urban planning with a head for business. As we chatted over craft beers in town that evening, he told me that the neighborhood now known as South Main was all a landfill fated for time-share development until he and his sister, Kate Urban, bought the 42-acre parcel and transformed it. "When I moved here, there was a prison and a retirement community," Selby told me. "This town had no young people, no nightlife. I saw a blank slate."

The mixed-use area now blends Craftsman-style bungalows and Victorian homes with small businesses like Eddyline Brewing and cult burger spot Buena Viking (entrées $10–$18), all of which have easy access to a network of trails and two free bouldering parks. The development's success has made it a case study in how outdoor recreation can revive the economies of rural mountain towns.

Scenes from Buena Vista, Coloado, including beer at a brewery and a hotel facade
From left: Draft beers at Eddyline Brewery, in Buena Vista; the Surf Hotel, in Buena Vista. Rebecca Stumpf

Today, Selby also has two boutique hotels in Buena Vista. The 20-room, French-countryside-inspired Surf Chateau (doubles from $300) opened in 2014, and the 42-room, Scandi-minimalist Surf Hotel (doubles from $300) launched in 2018. Both are buzzing with hip urbanites. Surf Hotel has a cocktail bar in the lobby; the Ivy Ballroom, a music venue; and a summer concert series in the town square.

Once in my second-floor room at the Surf Hotel, I ordered room service so I could nosh on a pizza — Canadian bacon and goat cheese — while watching a concert from the balcony. From my perch, it was easy to spot Selby, rocking Tevas and a tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirt in the front row.

Salida

Thirty minutes by car from Buena Vista, Salida has emerged as another hub for outdoor adventures. Paddlers, kayakers, and river surfers from all over come to prove themselves at its whitewater park, which includes a river slalom.

The downtown area, Colorado's largest historic district, channels a sporty-meets-artsy vibe. Victorian-era buildings are decorated with colorful murals, and the main drag is lined with cycle shops, running stores, and art galleries. After settling into my hotel, the apartment-style Manhattan (doubles from $225), I popped into Howl Mercantile & Coffee, where a selection of outdoor essentials (axes, hiking packs, camping blankets) and handmade crafts (porcelain pins and bandanas printed with imagery from Old West posters) perfectly captured the Salida vibe.

Two photos from Salida, Colorado, one showing plants in a lounge at a hotel, and one showing a barista making coffee
From left: The sunroom of Amigo Motor Lodge, in Salida; a barista at work at Howl Mercantile & Coffee, in Salida. Rebecca Stumpf

Over the next two days, I watched kayakers and hiked the nearby Hunt Lake Trail, a seven-mile out-and-back that sits just below the Continental Divide. A few steep sections left my quads sore, but the terrain was mellow enough to allow me to savor sights like the remains of a mine shaft tucked in to a cliffside. After the hike, I ate at the Fritz (entrées $10–$30), a gastropub with dishes like duck confit and house-made pâté.

Little Red Hen Bakery gave me a reason to wake early the following day. This local institution mills its own flour and opens at 6 a.m. to sell whole-wheat cinnamon rolls slathered in icing and breakfast bagels made with eggs and chiles from nearby farms. I chased both with strong coffee from local roaster Mountain Phoenix before getting back on the road.

Jessica Lovelace, owner of the Mellow Moon Lodge, in Del Norte
Jessica Lovelace, owner of the Mellow Moon Lodge, in Del Norte. Rebecca Stumpf

Del Norte

I drove south on Highway 285 into the San Luis Valley. It's hard to believe that the rural communities along the road were, in the 1880s, once prosperous boomtowns on the old Santa Fe Trail. In recent decades, this ranching and farming region has become one of the most impoverished in the state. For miles, I was the sole car whizzing past wheat fields and grazing cows. The solitude and scenery were so meditative I turned off my Taylor Swift road-trip mix to just soak it all in.

Previously, there wasn't much reason to visit Del Norte, the one-stoplight town longtime locals would jokingly refer as Dead Norte, but now a renaissance is under way — thanks to newcomers like Corey Hubbard and her husband, Ryan Methfessel. When COVID derailed the Florida residents' plans to relocate to Greece, they embarked on a road trip west and fell for Del Norte's high alpine desert landscape and self-reliant community.

They bought an antiques shop on the main drag and reinvented it as the General Specific Store, a highly curated collection of art and curiosities. Hubbard, with her Audrey Hepburn bob and taste for vintage fashion, told me customers are often shocked to learn that she lives in the rural community, and I'll admit I was, too.

Two photos for the Wyman Hotel in Silverton, Colorado, showing the owners, and a family guest room
From left: Haley Morgan and Shane Fuhrman, owners of the Wyman Hotel, in Silverton; a family room at the Wyman. Rebecca Stumpf

Hubbard and Methfessel aren't the only recent additions bringing a new vitality to the town. Two other spots that caught my eye were Raisin' Rye, a sourdough-focused micro bakery, and Mellow Moon Lodge (doubles from $120), a restored 1940s motor lodge. Jessica Lovelace, the owner, greeted me at check-in. Burned out from a career designing for brands like New Balance, she purchased the run-down property on a whim back in 2017, while visiting her husband's family in the area. Since then, 10 rooms have been updated with organic bed linens and retro design touches like flamingo-print pillows. Her husband, Sam Bricker, a filmmaker, opened a cycle shop in the hotel to cater to the mountain bikers who come to ride the area's extensive single-track network.

Lovelace grabbed two cruisers from the shop and invited me on a tour of Del Norte. "Everyone thought I was a city girl when I arrived, but this town is bigger than the one in Washington where I grew up," she said as we pedaled down Grand Avenue. We stopped for pints of citrusy Sipster Hazy IPA at Three Barrel Brewing before parking in front of the Windsor (doubles from $183), a 20-room brick hotel with a plain façade that stretches nearly half a block.

Silverton once drew prospectors for the gold and silver in its hills, part of the jagged San Juan mountain range.

One of the oldest hotels in the state, the Windsor was destined to be condemned in the 1990s, but two local philanthropists stepped in to save the building. These days, it's become a social nexus again, thanks to a new food truck and entertainment such as film screenings in the courtyard. "This is our community anchor," Lovelace said.

We were joined by a handful of her friends, including Hubbard, Methfessel, and Adam Gildar, a Denver art gallery owner and program director at the Frontier Drive-In, an old theater in the neighboring town of Center that's being reimagined as an art venue. We feasted on po'boys from the food truck, and when Hubbard told me the hotel bar made a mean Corpse Reviver cocktail, we ordered a round.

Two photos from Colorado, one showing guests in a hot springs tub, and another showing snacks and cocktails at a bar
From left: Taking a soak at Durango Hot Springs Resort & Spa; bacon-wrapped dates, grilled tuna, and olives at the Fritz, in Salida. Rebecca Stumpf

"No one ends up here by accident," Lovelace explained. "There are longtime Hispanic and ranching families from the boom years and new artisans coming to the area. What we all have in common is gumption and idealism."

After a second round of Corpse Revivers, we headed across the street to Hubbard's General Specific Store. She led us upstairs to a ballroom with high tin ceilings and original wallpaper peeling off the walls, where she has begun hosting community events such as art shows, readings, and potlucks. "I see myself as a social entrepreneur, creating spaces for human connection and conversation," she told me. We talked late into the night, and I came away feeling inspired by the group's small-town camaraderie. By the time I left town the next day, I was convinced I should move to Del Norte too.

Durango

I skipped breakfast the following morning, knowing my 2½-hour drive along U.S. 160 would end at James Ranch (entrées $10–$15). The farm, just off Highway 550 in Durango, is proof that change in the region isn't just bringing in new blood. It's also convincing a younger generation of locals to stick around and invest in their communities.

When Dave and Kay James bought their cattle ranch in 1961, they never imagined their children would return home as adults to get involved in the business — or that their beef would become pilgrimage-worthy. Cynthia James Stewart put James Ranch on the food lover's map a decade ago when she started selling grass-fed beef burgers made by her brother, Dan James, from a cart on site. In 2019, the family opened a proper restaurant, the Grill, as well as a market that sells the farm's organic produce, eggs, and cheese. I grabbed a table on the terrace and devoured a juicy burger topped with cremini mushrooms, caramelized onions, and rosemary aioli.

Colorful storefronts in the town of Silverton, Colorado
Shops on Greene Street in Silverton. Rebecca Stumpf

Another local stepping up the Durango experience is Kevin Wright, who opened the Nugget Mountain Bar (cabins from $250) in 2018. Located about 40 minutes outside of town, the ski-bum watering hole — set within a historic cabin — has a loyal following for its lineup of live music on the patio. "So many bars cater to tourists with fancy cocktails and high prices," Wright told me when I stopped in. "I wanted this to be a community bar." In 2020, he built two neighboring tiny homes — Kerouac Cabin and Hemingway's Hideout. Outfitted with hot tubs, fireplaces, and books by their respective muses, they provide a cozy base for skiers and hikers.

This part of Colorado is known for its hot springs, which the native Ute people called miracle waters. For centuries, the pools were used for healing ceremonies. There are dozens in the area, but Wright clued me in to his favorite, the newly renovated Durango Hot Springs Resort & Spa. Originally called Trimble Hot Springs, the property has lived many lives — it was a gambling hall in the 1930s, I learned, and became a dude ranch in the 40s. It's now a mountain oasis with 22 mineral pools, six soaking tubs, a 25-meter saltwater pool, and a spa — the antidote my trail-weary muscles needed before facing the drive to Silverton the next day.

Silverton

A mini Telluride — minus the polish and celebrities — Silverton is only 23 miles from the Nugget's cabins, where I spent the night, but the drive along Highway 550 is riddled with hairpin turns and drop-offs that call for slow, careful driving.

The town once drew prospectors for the gold and silver in its hills, part of the jagged San Juan mountain range. Today, its attractions are wildflower-carpeted meadows, high alpine lakes, and the coal-fired Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which shuttles tourists, rather than precious metals, between its two namesake towns.

Though Silverton is going through a transformation, the town remains true to its Wild West past, with just one paved road and plenty of old-fashioned B&Bs and mercantile stores. The 2019 debut of the Wyman (doubles from $260), a 15-room boutique hotel decorated in pastels and jewel tones, delivered a dose of modern-day style and has attracted a different type of traveler.

Lake Molas, Colorado
Paddleboarding at Molas Lake, outside Silverton. Rebecca Stumpf

Owner Haley Morgan, who moved to the area from Brooklyn with her ski-obsessed partner, Shane Fuhrman, loved how undiscovered it felt. "You can hike in summer and not see a soul on the trails," she told me. Morgan has been instrumental in helping the Silverton Creative District become the town's new draw: she regularly hosts receptions for visiting artists at her hotel.

Veering off the dusty main street, I popped into shops like Quiet Bear Art, a studio and gallery space shared by jeweler Carol Wilkins and blacksmith Ken Webb. I spotted him transforming a bike chain into a heart sculpture in his adjacent workshop.

Related: This Lesser-known Colorado Town Is Called the 'Little Switzerland of America' for Its Skiing and Natural Beauty

Silverton's nightlife options are either old-school saloons or the low-key lobby bar of the Wyman. I chose the latter for its natural wines and charismatic bartender, Mikie Beatty. As he poured me a taste of Macerato Catarratto, an orange wine from Sicily, he told me he had recently moved to the town from Los Angeles.

A rainbow over the mountains in Colorado, as seen from a car window
A stretch of highway between Salida and Buena Vista. Rebecca Stumpf

Reading the "how did you end up here" look on my face, he said, "I was drawn to Silverton's sense of possibility." How ironic, I thought: that sense of potential was what drew miners and prospectors to southwestern Colorado all those years ago. Now it's up to a new wave of pioneers to capitalize on it.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Striking Gold.

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