The quaint, rural parts of Colorado easily dispel the myth that bigger is always better. In the state’s smaller towns, you’ll be welcomed by warm hospitality, legendary history, unparalleled scenery—and definitely some of our most interesting attractions.

Alamosa

Located in the windswept San Luis Valley, Alamosa is a small college town with a great brewpub and plenty of amenities to make it the perfect launch pad for exploring southeastern Colorado. Local can’t-miss sights include Great Sand Dunes National Park, home of the largest sand dunes in North America; the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, a series of expansive wetlands that host thousands of migrating sandhill cranes each spring; the Fort Garland Museum; and a UFO Watchtower that attracts visitors from around the world—and perhaps a little farther…

Cañon City

Pronounced “Canyon” City, this town of 16,000 is tucked into an embayment between the Rocky Mountains and the Royal Gorge—a stunning 1,250-foot-deep chasm carved by the Arkansas River that is the area’s main attraction. Other spots to hit include The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey, a “divine” place to sample a few wines; dinosaur tracks; a museum located in Colorado’s first jail; and a small downtown filled with quaint restaurants and boutiques selling everything from sparkling minerals to handcrafted soaps.

mural on side of building in Canon City

A colorful mural in Cañon City. Photo © Terri Cook and Lon Abbott.

Crested Butte

Best known for its world-class skiing, Colorado’s “last great ski town” is also one of the state’s best places to view wildflowers. The Crested Butte Wildflower Festival in mid-July celebrates the stunning displays of lupine, fireweed, blue flax, and lavender-and-white columbine that carpet the surrounding valleys. The historic downtown is also a great place to shop local boutiques or dig into a hearty meal.

Lake City

One canyon west of Ouray but a world apart is the tiny community of Lake City, population 375. The only town in the Lower 48’s most remote county, Lake City has no chain stores, no stop lights, and no traffic—except for the occasional “wildlife jam.” What it does have are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, hundreds of miles of off-road and hiking trails, and a quaint downtown with mining-era buildings that commemorate Lake City’s boom-and-bust history.

hikers atop the peak of Mount Elbert

Leadville makes a great base for those planning to hike up Mount Elbert. Photo © poendl/123rf.

Leadville

Leadville, Colorado’s “two-mile-high” town, is America’s highest incorporated city, where colorful characters like Molly Brown and Horace and “Baby Doe” Tabor once struck it rich in the district’s high-elevation silver mines. The town’s mining heritage is reflected in its old saloons and historic architecture, including a Victorian schoolhouse that now hosts the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s also a great base for hiking up Colorado’s highest peak, 14,439-foot Mount Elbert.

Ouray

Nestled deep in a box canyon in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, the “Switzerland of America” has something for everyone—gushing waterfalls, demanding ice and rock climbs, scenic hikes, and jeep tours to Yankee Boy Basin, a gorgeous alpine valley known for its vibrant wildflowers. But Ouray’s best-known attraction is its recently renovated hot springs pool—the perfect spot to soak away the sore muscles earned from a fun-filled day of exploring.

Corner view of The Beaumont Hotel

The Beaumont Hotel in the center of Ouray. Photo © Terri Cook and Lon Abbott.

Paonia

Colorado’s largest concentration of organic and sustainable growers is found in petite Paonia, a mecca of fresh farm-to-table food nestled in the fertile North Fork Valley. In addition to the Old River Trading Post, the heart of the Paonia’s tight-knit, earth-friendly community, this town of 1,400 boasts several excellent restaurants, including the Living Farm Café, as well as some of North America’s highest wineries, including the family-run Stone Cottage Cellars and Azura Cellars & Gallery.