This Weeklong Colorado Road Trip Winds Through Lesser-Known Natural Wonders and Charming Small Towns

Who doesn’t love artistic havens, high-altitude wines, and a remote national park?

Dillon Pinnacles rising above a reservoir

On a fishing trip at the Blue Mesa Reservoir, the excursion comes paired with wow-factor views of the Dillon Pinnacles.

Photo by Anton Follin/Shutterstock

You’ve skied in Telluride, rafted the Animas River, and spotted bighorn sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park. What’s left on the Colorado bucket list? Plenty, it turns out.

This road trip itinerary traces a good chunk of the Colorado Creative Corridor, a 331-mile, state-designated route linking five charmingly artistic small towns, or “creative districts.” (Three of them—Salida, Crested Butte, and Paonia—pop up on this driving tour.) The staggering landscapes are reason enough to embark on the journey; insider tours of outsider art studios, salmon fishing on Colorado’s largest reservoir, and top-rate food trucks seal the deal.

This ultimate, seven-day, more than 400-mile-long Colorado road trip begins at Denver International Airport (DEN) and ends at Montrose Regional Airport (MTJ). Should you have vacation days to spare, tack on a few extra nights in Denver, which is always a fun time.

Artwork of red, yellow, and blue square and circle at Denver’s the Art, A Hotel

Denver’s the Art, A Hotel comes loaded with original artwork and offers walking-distance proximity to museums like the Denver Art Museum.

Photo by Nico Schinco

Day one: Denver

From gourmet hot dogs to pan-Latin dim sum, Denver’s food scene is both creative and delicious. Get pillowy, hot-out-of-the-oven pita and lamb ragù hummus from Safta, the Israeli restaurant from James Beard–winning chef Alon Shaya, followed by a puckeringly tart pint of Heathen Reign at heavy metal-themed beer bar Trve. (The house-brewed golden ale is made with Colorado chokecherries.)

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox‘s Victorian brownstone of once housed a brothel and peep show. Today it’s a jumpin’ live music venue spanning diverse genres (perhaps alternative hip-hop one day, and dueling pianos the next), while the globally diverse restaurant menu includes dishes like a tasty arepas benedict, making for quite the brunch show.

For a different kind of art experience, book tickets for a laser-light show at the International Church of Cannabis, a Lutheran congregation turned house of Elevationist worship. (For those who are unfamiliar with this religious niche, Elevationists find spiritual enlightenment through the mind-expanding properties of cannabis.) The church features a trippy Kenny Scharf mural outside and a psychedelic dreamcoat interior by street artist Okuda San Miguel. No cannabis consumption is permitted during public hours, but the well-polished production is a mind-bender even when fully sober.

In a rush? You can always fly into Denver early, eat a quick lunch at Chook Charcoal Chicken (the roasted bird with piri piri sauce is divine), and hop right on Highway 285 headed southwest. This is the main artery to your first official road trip stop: Buena Vista, 2.5 hours from Denver.

Where to stay

The Art, A Hotel is one of the best Colorado hotels to book, and not just because it’s walking distance to the Denver Art Museum, Clyfford Still Museum, and Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. As the stay’s name suggests, the property has quite the art collection, including a 22,000-piece LED-light installation by Leo Villareal, a bronze sculpture by Kiki Smith, and a massive tapestry by Edward Ruscha.

The riverfront Surf Hotel viewed from the water

In small-town Buena Vista, the riverfront Surf Hotel offers front-row seats to Colorado-style adventure seekers.

Courtesy of the Surf Hotel

Day two: Denver to Buena Vista

  • Approximate distance: 125 miles

For a small town (2,806 residents), Buena Vista promises big adventure, natty accommodations, and some excellent shopping. Head out and explore South Main—a winsome mixed-used neighborhood, developed atop a former landfill. The houses showcase a diversity of architectural styles: woodsy cabin, gingerbread Victorian, craftsman bungalow. There is a free boulder garden where you can try your hand at rock climbing and a clutch of artist-owned galleries.

Take advantage of the outdoor adventure opportunities here and join River Runners, B.V.’s best-reputed adventure outfitter, for a three-hour rafting trip through Browns Canyon National Monument. Don’t let the names of the Arkansas River’s rapids—Pinball, Zoom Flume, Widowmaker—intimidate you. These class II and III torrents are entertaining for beginner and intermediate paddlers alike. For even grander views, drive through the scenic San Isabel National Forest up to Cottonwood Pass, a paved road to the Continental Divide (elevation: 12,126 feet). The panoramic sweep from the newly reopened summit is spectacular.

Back in B.V., chase a burger topped with blue cheese crumbles and apple cider bacon from the stationary Buena Viking food truck with a barrel-aged cocktail flight from Deerhammer, the distillery next door. After lunch, hit up shops on East Main Street: Rock, Paper, Scissors stocks bohemian textiles, vintage barware, and hand-printed stationery; fair-trade emporium the Village is good for Indian garlands and temple bells; and Sundog Colorado dazzles with a motherlode of vintage turquoise jewelry.

Where to stay

Leave your bags at the Surf Hotel, whose riverfront guest rooms feature gleaming white subway tile and macramé tapestries.

Exterior of former 19th-century prison, the Jailhouse bar is an atmospheric spot to unwind in Buena Vista.

A former 19th-century prison, the Jailhouse bar is an atmospheric spot to unwind in Buena Vista.

Courtesy of the Jailhouse

Day three: Buena Vista to Salida

  • Approximate distance: 25 miles

Order a French farmhouse brew at the Jailhouse in Buena Vista, an 1800s lockup turned craft beer bar—and then roll down to Salida, B.V.’s sister city to the south and the state’s first certified “creative district.” Go slow and enjoy the view: The half-hour drive follows the Collegiate Peaks Byway, which boasts the highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado.

True to its designation, Salida is saturated with artisan galleries. Shop for functional dishware thrown by Mark Rittman at the Maverick Potter, then bounce over to Howl Mercantile and Coffee to scout the New Age-y stained glass and ceramic wall hangings. Plunder the racks of heritage Woolrich and L.L. Bean at vintage clothing store Ruby Blues before moseying over to Salida Whitewater Park, where you can watch local surfers and kayakers wipe out on the man-made wave features built along the Arkansas River.

Where to stay

To get a jump-start on your next destination, stay a night at the Amigo Motor Lodge in Salida. The 1950s motel has been renovated to hashtagging perfection with cactus welcome mats, Malin+Goetz toiletries, and Airstream trailers.

About 90 minutes west of Salida, the Blue Mesa Reservoir beckons with excellent fishing and scenic landscapes.

About 90 minutes west of Salida, the Blue Mesa Reservoir beckons with excellent fishing and scenic landscapes.

Photo by Bernadette Heath/Shutterstock

Day four: Salida to Gunnison, Crested Butte, and Gothic

  • Approximate distance: 150 miles

Big day of adventure ahead—start with a filling breakfast from High Rockies Cuisine, a food truck stationed near Salida Whitewater Park. (Its whole-wheat breakfast sandwich with egg, cheese, spinach, and Scanga bacon is just the ticket).

Up next: the Lake Fork Marina at Blue Mesa Reservoir, about 90 minutes west of Salida, where you’d do well to meet seasoned fishing guide Kyle Jones of Gunnison Sports Outfitters. New to the sport? No problem. With the help of sophisticated radar, Jones will guide you to the densest schools of Kokanee salmon in the Cebolla Basin and teach you the fine art of jigging (in which you bob your rod up and down to attract fish). A half-day fishing trip includes gear and a packed lunch on the boat; the jaw-dropping views of the Dillon Pinnacles, unique breccia rock spires that tower over Blue Mesa, are also thrown in.

Post-fishing, take an hour to poke around Gunnison, 25 miles east of the reservoir. Traders Rendezvous houses an unrivaled collection of antlers and exotic taxidermy. Rooted Apothecary is an herbalist’s dream, trading in “wildcrafted” lotions, potions, and holistic medicines made with plants foraged in the Gunnison Valley. Pick up a nitro cold brew from Tributary Coffee Roasters and continue on to Crested Butte, a mountain town about 30 miles north on CO-135.

Though it’s home to less than 2,000 full-time residents, the streets of Crested Butte are buzzing with pedestrians. The once-scrappy mining town has experienced a meteoric rise over the past few decades—first came the mountain bikers and extreme skiers; now A-listers like James Cameron own homes here. Admire the mining-era storefronts and Victorian homes lining historic Elk Avenue while browsing artisan chocolate bars and Rwandan sweetgrass coasters at Scout’s General Store and sniffing the handmade small-batch soaps, lotions, and sunblock at the Colorado Real Soap Company.

For visitors wanting good eats, Sunflower delivers imaginative farm-to-table fare like roasted poblano and tomatillo soup with shaved gouda and fried cilantro. Pop into Montanya Distillers to tour the Portuguese copper pot stills and learn why founder Karen Hoskin is a leader in high-altitude craft rum. (Tip: Try the Maharaja, a cocktail made with Montanya Oro rum, fresh ginger, lime, and cardamom.)

After Crested Butte, drive to Gothic, the ghost town home of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL)—and little else. A professor at Western Colorado College founded the RMBL in the abandoned mining town back in 1928, with the intention of studying the area’s richly diverse ecosystems. More than 9,000 field biologists have made the pilgrimage to study here since. In the summer (when the roads are reliably passable), guests can take a geobotany van tour, observe a “Tuesday Talk” with a visiting scientist, or simply snack on Nutella doughnuts from the RMBL’s Coffee Lab while taking in the majestic views.

If you feel compelled to take a hike, consider Gothic’s Copper Creek Trailhead, a moderately difficult 12-mile route in and back with a 2,431-foot elevation gain and a vast array of wildflowers in July and August. Alternatively, tackle the shorter (and more heavily trafficked) hike from Gothic to Judd Falls. It takes one to two hours and passes a bounty of painterly flora.

Where to stay

Check in for a two-night stay in one of three luxurious rooms at the Public House Lofts in Crested Butte. Though it’s tempting to raid the organic minibar or take a two-hour steam-room shower, remember that there’s plenty to explore in town.

Rocky walls of canyon at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Discover one of the narrowest and deepest canyons on the continent at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Photo by Craig Zerbe/Shutterstock

Days six and seven: Crested Butte to Crawford and Paonia

  • Approximate distance: 150 miles

After a final night in Crested Butte, it’s up and at ’em once again! After downing a hefty Scotty sandwich (a bagel with two fried eggs, pepper jack cheese, sausage, and a latke) from Butte Bagels, head out for Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It’s two hours from Crested Butte to the town of Crawford (the best access point to the park’s North Rim entrance) but goes fast thanks to the enchanting scenery along the West Elk Loop scenic byway.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the narrowest and deepest canyons in North America and also one of the country’s least-visited national parks, drawing 308,962 visitors last year. Follow the 15-mile North Rim Road to six of the canyon’s most picturesque overlooks—and hang onto your sunglasses; some of the drops are dizzyingly vertical.

Before skipping town, drop by North Rim Glass Studio in Crawford to see glassblowing couple Jared and Nicole Davis at work in their studio, and then shop their hand-blown wares in the showroom next door.

Two glassblowers working at the North Rim Glass Studio in Crawford

Arts and artisans abound in this part of Colorado, like these glassblowers working hard at their craft at the North Rim Glass Studio in Crawford.

Courtesy of North Rim Glass Studio

From Crawford, it’s another 25 minutes to the town of Paonia. An essential first stop is Horse Cow 57, the warehouse studio of eccentric chrome sculpture artist Sean Guerrero. Pop into his studio and ask for pricing if something catches your eye: Guerrero’s smaller scrap-metal sculptures are more affordable than you might think.

Is it time for a drink? There are a dozen wineries in the West Elks American Viticultural Area, which spans the North Fork Valley and the towns of Paonia, Crawford, and Hotchkiss. Pull up to Stone Cottage Cellars to sample a merlot whose grapes were grown in the highest-altitude vineyard in the Northern Hemisphere. At Azura Cellars and Gallery, sip a riesling while browsing the sculptural works of artists Ty and Helen Gillespie. Designed like a dreamy Tuscan villa, with expansive mountain views and fragrant lavender rustling in the breeze, the grounds are a sight (and scent) to behold.

Also notable: the 2017-opened Storm Cellar, founded by two sommeliers from Denver. If you’re in a hurry, Big B’s Delicious Orchards in Hotchkiss sells bottles from West Elks’s best wineries, plus its own hard cider.

In the late afternoon, visit the 5.5-acre Western Culture Farmstead in Paonia to meet Suanne and Dave Miller and their Saanen and Nubian goats. Dave walks guests through the milking process while Suanne leads cheese tastings in the creamery.

Your final meal in Paonia should be cooked by Ed Vaughn. He runs the kitchen at Nido, a restaurant blending progressive Mexican and Asian flavors. (To wit: a smoked miso jalapeño grit cake with crispy carnitas pork, “ham jam,” and roasted radish aioli.) Belly full, you’re set for the hour-long drive to Montrose Regional Airport, the closest sizeable airport (located in the small city of Montrose), where you can grab a connecting flight home.

Where to stay

Located in the center of Paonia, Bross Hotel Bed & Breakfast has been in operation since 1906. The 10-room property offers modern amenities like wireless 5G internet and an outdoor hot tub while still offering the feel (think rocking chairs and a large yard) of a traditional B&B.

What to bring

Layers! And lots of ’em. On this road trip, you’re likely to experience some big jumps in elevation. If you plan on hiking, bring bug spray, sturdy boots, and a reusable water bottle. Because Colorado is blessed with an abundance of hot springs, it’s also advisable to pack a swimsuit—or make a side trip to the clothing-optional Orvis Hot Springs in Ridgway, 80 minutes south of Crawford.

Additional tips

  • The high altitude in Colorado can wipe a traveler out. Take it easy your first few days and drink plenty of water to ease the adjustment.
  • There are many high and winding roads in the Rockies; getting from point A to point B often takes longer than you think. Note that on a steep, single-lane path, the vehicle traveling downhill must yield to the vehicle traveling uphill.
  • Fishing licenses are required on the Blue Mesa Reservoir (order one in advance online).

This article originally appeared online in October 2019; it was updated on September 29, 2023, to include current information.

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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