10 Best Colorado Towns for a Summer Vacation, According to a Local

"A visit to Colorado can turn into a lifetime of adventure. It happened to me."

Ticking off a list of things you "must do" in any one place is so passé. Today's travel is all about feeling better — feeling better about you, the planet, and everyone on it — and there's no better place to start this new kind of adventure travel than in my home state of Colorado.

When my friends are planning summer vacations in Colorado, these are the charming small towns I recommend they visit. It's a list of real places, not products, with real people living in real communities. Connect three or four of these fantastic stops together and spend a week kicking around The Centennial State or hit every single one and never leave. Trust me when I tell you, a visit to Colorado in the summer can turn into a lifetime of adventure. It happened to me.

Snowmass Village

A ski gondola sits idle for the summer in Snowmass, Colorado
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My beloved first home in Colorado, Snowmass Village is a stunning hamlet in the Elk Mountains. While it has the feel of a wilderness retreat, Snowmass Village is only nine miles to nearby Aspen, where you can access just about anything, from Italian designer boutiques to high-end Japanese restaurants. But to be honest, Snowmass Village stands firmly in its own identity. Once you're in Snowmass Village there's no reason to leave. This town has gorgeous peaks, great restaurants, Anderson Ranch Arts Center, the family-oriented Base Village, live music, festivals, and some of the most spectacular backcountry trails in the world. Don't miss the free guided hikes with naturalists from Aspen Center for Environmental Studies through the fields and wildflowers.

Palisade

The view of Mount Garfield and the Little Bookcliffs range in Palisade, Colorado
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Palisade is a small town in western Colorado where rich agricultural history meets the energy of an emerging destination. Once mainly known for its surrounding small vineyards and farms, downtown Palisade is now home to several boutiques, bakeries, and restaurants including Pêche, a farm-to-table eatery helmed by one of Colorado's best young chefs, Matthew Chasseur (formerly the chef at Alinea in Chicago). On top of that, Palisade is an emerging mountain biking destination. The Palisade Plunge, one of the longest singletrack downhill mountain bike trails in the U.S., starts at the top of Colorado's Grand Mesa and descends into the town of Palisade. The Plunge opened in 2021 after a decade's worth of planning, construction, and multi-million-dollar investment.

Telluride

Telluride may already be well known among Coloradophiles, and at the height of the summer season it can be crowded, but if you time it right (early or late summer) you'll quickly discover what makes this community one of the best in the state. Telluride has a Western mining town vibe with a little leftover hippy tossed in. Its box canyon and Bridal Veil falls are both beautiful and humbling, its historic downtown is full of locally-owned shops instead of chain stores, and its summer music festival scene cannot be duplicated. There's nothing like floating down the San Miguel River in an innertube on a hot summer afternoon or setting up a chair for a bluegrass concert in Town Park.

Dinosaur

The Yampa And Green Rivers Through Dinosaur National Monument
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This remote community of ranchers in northwestern Colorado gets its name from the nearby Dinosaur National Monument, a 200,000-acre natural preserve on the border between Utah and Colorado. One of the town's greatest assets is its proximity to the park, where you'll find dinosaur fossils, rock art, and a network of hiking and biking trails all within less than a 30-minute drive away. The Utah side of the park has all the dinosaur bones (most of them are located at the Quarry Exhibit Hall in Jensen, Utah) but the Colorado side offers the more impressive canyon and river views. After breakfast on Brontosaurus Boulevard (Dinosaur's main road), head two miles east to the Canyon Visitor Center, where most of the hiking trails start. Other draws in the area include whitewater rafting, stargazing within the International Dark Sky Park, and taking a scenic drive along Harpers Corner Road, which boasts views of the Green and Yampa rivers.

Grand Lake

This beautiful mountain lake town offers a laidback vibe, fantastic outdoor activities, and access to the western entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. If you're looking for a guide to the 415 square miles of park, try Kaiyote Snow, a self-taught naturalist, award-winning photographer, and artist and former instructor for the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. She and her company Kaiyote Tours lead visitors on hiking and overnight backpacking trips in the summer to learn about birding and wildlife in RMNP.

Denver

Denver Downtown Skyline from City Park
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Chances are, if you are flying to Colorado, you are coming into Denver International Airport, so why not check out our capital city? Over the last two decades, Denver has grown immensely, attracting young people from all over the world to its vibrant culture and "work hard, play hard" ethos. Yes, it has easy access to the mountains and to nearby Red Rocks, but Denver also has deep roots in the arts. The Denver Art Museum has been a cultural hub for more than 50 years, while contemporary immersive art experiences like Convergence Station invite visitors to explore installations, rooms, and portals by local creatives.

Buena Vista

Hiking in the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness, in Buena Vista, Colorado
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Now here's one of those towns that not everyone visiting Colorado may know, but will easily fall in love with when they arrive. The name of this town in Central Colorado says it all (come on, it's basic Spanish, folks). Buena Vista is known for its beautiful mountain views, excellent rafting, kayaking and SUPing on the Arkansas River, camping, fly-fishing, and of course, the Mount Princeton Hot Springs. BV is also loved for its year-round 4x4ing, with Jeeps and ATVs accessing a network of excellent off-road trails and passes.

Mancos

Balcony House, a ruin of the Anasazi in Mesa Verde National Park, in Mancos, Colorado
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Connect with Colorado's ancient heritage in Mancos, located adjacent to Mesa Verde National Park, which became an International Dark Sky Park in 2021. For a small town of less than 1,500 people, its community is full of fantastic coffee shops, cafes, a cidery, breweries, local retailers, and restaurants — I recommend heading to Absolute Bakery for breakfast. Beyond the national park, join Native American guides from Four Corners Guides for a bikepacking adventure in Ute Mountain Tribal Park. Together you'll discover pristine 1,000-year-old Ancestral Puebloan ruins, cliff dwellings, pottery, and learn about the communities of this unique area.

Fort Collins

A look at Old Town in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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Home to Colorado State University, Fort Collins is an eclectic and welcoming conglomerate of college kids, ranchers, tech entrepreneurs, and families, all in one vibrant community. The town is connected by more than 285 miles of bike trails and lanes and its historic downtown was the inspiration for Disneyland's Main Street USA. Fort Collins is also close to the Colorado Shoe School where you can design and create your own custom shoes from repurposed leather destined for the landfill and recycled sole material from bike tires and discarded tennis balls.

Leadville

Woman resting in hammock at forest in Leadville, Colorado,
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Leadville stakes its claim as North America's highest incorporated city at slightly more than 10,000 feet above sea level. It's only recently that Leadville's renaissance has taken shape with many of its historic buildings undergoing renovations. But even with a facelift, Leadville has not lost its scrappy, hard-fought spirit that made it one of the silver mining boomtowns of the 19th century. With access to a number of 14,000-foot peaks, hikers in Leadville can also hop on both the Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide Trail from town. After a day outdoors, head to Two Mile Brewing, one of Leadville's most popular brewpubs, which serves craft beers like Leadville Lager and Camp Hale Pale Ale.

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