Photo by Ian Edquist
Photo by Titanium8996/Shutterstock
A hike up Mushroom Rock outside of Carbondale gets visitors a great view of Mount Sopris.
This Colorado charmer packs in plenty of appeal—restaurants, galleries, museums, hot springs, and spas—all with lodging priced at a fraction of the cost of an Aspen-based vacation.
Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.
Carbondale is located only 30 miles west of Aspen but feels a world apart. Once viewed as a sleepy bedroom community for staffers of Aspen’s glammy ski resorts, the charming western town has come into its own in recent years.
Nestled at the foot of Mount Sopris, deep in the Rockies, Carbondale is home to nearly 7,000 residents. It’s a curious mix, too, with generations of ranchers, potato farmers, and coal miners who were joined by free-wheeling hippies in the 1970s. That merging spawned a motley but creative populace interested in everything from organic farming and solar energy to music, art, and food.
The Carbondale of today is packed with restaurants and galleries; slightly farther afield are hot springs and world-class art museums. If you’re turned off by the see-and-be-seen peacockery and astronomical pricing of Aspen, it’s high time you got to know its chiller, more down-to-earth sister.
Carbondale is one of the stops along the year-old Colorado Creative Corridor, a 331-mile route linking five artsy small towns. Each has been designated by the state as a “creative district,” so it makes sense to start your exploration in the galleries. Carbondale Clay Center has been getting locals fired up about pottery since 1997; R2 Gallery at the Launchpad showcases pieces by multimedia artists hailing from the broader Roaring Fork Valley. The 15,000-square-foot Powers Art Center is a must-see for fans of Jasper Johns’s works on paper and Takashi Nakazato’s ceramics. If you aren’t familiar with either artist’s work, go anyway: The Hiroshi Nanamori–designed architecture, complete with a reflecting pool set against knockout mountains, is worth the trip.
Although many visitors flock to the trio of natural, tiered hot springs at Avalanche Ranch in nearby Redstone or the clothing-optional Penny Hot Springs, accessible via Highway 133, a less crowded and more rewarding option is spending a languorous morning at True Nature Healing Arts. Carbondale’s new chakra-aligning, spirit-healing retreat and meditation center features a state-of-the-art ceremonial kiva, five-element peace garden, outdoor labyrinth and reflexology path, an Ayurvedic-leaning kitchen and tea lounge, and what might be the best-curated spa boutique in America. Even the antique decor—sourced from India, Morocco, and Bali—is a breath of fresh air.
Behind the soul escape are co-owners Eaden and Deva Shantay. The couple has pumped an enormous amount of energy and resources into growing True Nature. Its event calendar is stacked with both in-person and virtual offerings of yoga classes, meditations, and workshops.
In the summer, Carbondale is a draw for fly fishing, white-water rafting, and adrenaline-pumping Jeep tours. Hiking Mushroom Rock is a sure-fire way to catch sweeping views of Mount Sopris and the Crystal and Roaring Fork Valleys. The Red Hill Recreation Area offers myriad mountain biking trails, if that’s more your thing.
For spectators, a Thursday night in summer at the Wild West Rodeo is always a grand ol’ time. Families of all stripes turn out to watch white-knuckle bull riding, calf roping, steer wrangling, and mutton busting. It’s a slice of Roaring Fork life you won’t find anywhere else.
In winter, skiing is the sport of choice, and convenient public buses between Carbondale and Aspen make commuting to the resorts a cinch. When in service, the Carbondale Circulator is free and can drop you off at the station you need to get the Aspen bus.
At breakfast, try a take-out of simple duck eggs or toast with milk and honey from Silo, a locavore-minded café hidden in a nondescript office park. Good coffee, too. For something more filling, dig into a Santiago Skillet (hashbrowns, eggs, black beans, chicken, corn, and green chiles) from the Village Smithy. Stop by the pop-up Landmark Café at the Way Home to see what regional ingredients are currently inspiring the chef.
Spacious and welcoming, Bonfire Coffee is the best spot to refuel. And for dinner, there is no shortage of tempting options, from Austrian forager Andreas Fischbacher’s rustic Italian home-cooking at Allegria (offering pickup and delivery) to fresh sashimi or rich curries from Izakaya, a more casual offshoot of Aspen’s glitzy Kenichi.
Refined cocktails await at Marble Distilling Company, a nearly five-year-old distillery that makes its small-batch spirits (vodka, gin, whiskey, and various liqueurs) with Colorado-grown grains and spring water from the Crystal River. Or pick up some Slaughterhouse lagers from Batch, the two-year-old taproom from the beloved Roaring Fork Beer Company, to close out the night.
On Wednesdays from June to September, drop by the Carbondale Farmers Market from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to browse locally thrown “mountain mugs” by G Clay, tumbled rocks by RKO Designs, and infused Colorado honey from Roaring Fork Spice Company.
Gallery has a sweet little gift shop, good for scouting jewelry, candles, and books, while the aforementioned spa boutique at True Nature takes the top prize for its well-edited selection of indie-cool perfumes, incense, and healing crystals. Lastly, don’t miss the nature-worshipping goodies at Osmia Organics. Black clay and pumpkin facial soaps and nourishing lip balms infused with Colorado-grown lavender make ideal gifts for the folks back home (and yourself).
The family-run Cedar Ridge Ranch is a 20-year-old working organic farm and horse-training facility on the outskirts of Carbondale. Just out of range of most cell phone carriers, the bucolic property offers a variety of glamping options, including a king-size yurt, plus a menagerie of animals to coo over (heritage pigs and cows among them). Sign up for a farm tour, morning yoga with the alpacas, or a fiber felting class in CRR’s three-year-old studio space—options you can discuss over sundowners with cheerful equestrian champ Merrill Johnson and her genial, ranch-owning parents, Pam and Randy.
For those looking to book an Airbnb, Carbondale’s offerings are much more affordable compared to Aspen, which can cost five or even seven times more on average for a three-day trip in the winter months. The Way Home books two handsome suites for overnight stays; between the cozy designer textiles and Aesop bath products, you may never want to leave. And the Distillery Inn is uniquely located inside Marble Distilling’s working distillery, where five luxury suites (and a commitment to contactless hospitality) are available in downtown Carbondale.
This story was originally published on November 18, 2019; it was updated on July 7, 2020, with current information.
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