Rocky Mountain Highs: The 10 Coolest Mountain Towns to Visit this Summer | ccklpl.com

Rocky Mountain Highs: The 10 Coolest Mountain Towns to Visit this Summer

I neither ski nor snowboard, but I am enamored with mountain towns in the Rockies. The giddy bacchanalia of storied ski towns like Park City and Taos. The colorful outlaw lore of former mining camps like Durango and Glenwood Springs. The white-capped peaks, cerulean skies, and towering ponderosa pines in Pagosa Springs and Torrey. There’s dazzling natural splendor and also cultural gold in them thar mountains.

Tales of notorious gunslingers, gamblers, and pugilists—men like Butch Cassidy, Doc Holliday, and Jack Dempsey—still echo through streets and saloons in these high-altitude hamlets. Beneath the glitz of resorts and the kitsch of tourist traps, you’ll find the purest expression of the spirit of the Wild West: boundless freedom, unbridled optimism, and rugged individualism. 

I prefer the summer for exploring the Rockies; crowds are thinner, but restaurants and shops remain open. With glorious weather, summertime is ideal for hiking, horseback riding, and dining and drinking al fresco. If you have a few days—or better yet, a week or two—you can make one hell of a road trip driving between these towns. Byways through the Rockies, which seem to defy, if not the laws of physics, at least the limits of engineering, are among the most beautiful in North America. 

So crank up that John Denver playlist—or perhaps a little Grateful Dead or Yonder Mountain String Band to suit the mood—pack plenty of water for the altitude, and bask in the heavenly highs of the Rocky Mountains. 

Durango, Colorado

Rocky Mountains

A town as cool as its name, Durango boasts all the delights of a chic ski town—fabulous dining, hip coffee shops, dazzling scenery—without any of the pretentiousness. While modern Durango is serene enough for honeymooners and retirees, the small city in the San Juan Mountains was once a rough-and-tumble mining camp. 

Rip shots of whiskey with the local home team of ski bums and roughnecks at El Rancho Tavern, the type of washed-in-the-blood saloon immortalized in country-western ballads. Jack Dempsey, son of a Colorado miner and arguably the greatest heavyweight in the annals of American boxing, once fought in the Tavern, swaggering through the door with his famous boast: “I can’t dance, and I can’t sing, but I can lick any man in this bar.” In gratitude for the broken barstools and jaws, the Roadhouse honors the Manassa Mauler with a mural. El Moro Tavern, next door to El Rancho Tavern, serves delectable burgers, steaks, and pasta.

With its vintage neon sign blazing red and green against starry skies, The Rochester Hotel, a resplendent yet laid-back guesthouse, is a Durango landmark. Hardwood floors, tiled bathrooms, and sumptuous mattresses grace each room, and an outdoor patio invites guests to sit by a firepit with a cocktail or Colorado brew. 


Park City, Utah

Rocky Mountains

Utah might connote convoluted blue laws, buttoned-up holy rollers, and regional cuisine limited to jello cakes and funeral potatoes; however, Park City, an exuberant ski town 45 minutes east of Salt Lake City, shatters those stereotypes. 

Whiskey aficionados could spend a blissful weekend sampling the barreled treasures of High West, one of America’s most celebrated whiskey makers. The flagship distillery, in nearby Wanship, treats guests to distillery tours and pours of rare batches like Yippee Ki-Yay and A Midwinter’s Night Dram. The notorious No Name Saloon, ground zero for Prada-clad snow bunnies, bachelorettes, and thirsty ski instructors, boasts an admirable selection of High West pours and Colorado suds. Pair a nip of bourbon with No Name’s famous bison burger. 

Park City attracts a glitzy clientele and has burgeoned into a bastion of ambitious chefs. Book a table at Handle for Lucullan feasts of aged steaks, fried chicken, and local charcuterie—scrumptious viands complemented with choice wines and craft cocktails. As the evening picks up steam, two-step your way up the street to The Spur, a live-music bar where the draughts are cold and the stage is hot with rock ‘n’ roll cover bands. Hangovers are virile at 7,000 feet, but the strong coffee at Atticus Bookstore Cafe will have you feeling right as rain after a big night in Park City. 


Taos, New Mexico

Rocky Mountains

New Mexico, as the license plates remind you, is the Land of Enchantment. And among all the mesmerizing, high desert settlements, Taos is the most enchanting of all. Human settlement in Taos stretches back millennia, and the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO Heritage Site, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the Americas. The pueblo, a beehive of closely packed abode structures rising out of the desert, is an excellent place to purchase magnificent turquoise jewelry. 

Plates bejeweled with red and green chili; carnitas wrapped in blue corn tortillas; frito pies and fluffy sopapillas: fiery, soulful cuisine is one of New Mexico’s great gifts to humankind. Rancho’s Plaza Grill serves up smothered enchiladas and chilaquiles spicy enough to raise the dead—the kind of down-home fare enjoyed at New Mexican weddings. Martyrs Steakhouse adds a gourmet twist to New Mexican cuisine, amalgamating Christmas chili and blue corn with steakhouse mainstays like porterhouses and NY strips. For caffeinated fuel to spend a morning perusing Taos’ mural-adorned streets, make a pit stop at The Coffee 

Apothecary. Wake up to the crisp desert air inside a colorfully painted trailer at Hotel Luna Mystica. Each trailer is uniquely decorated and retrofitted with kitchenettes, art, and comfortable beds.  


Grand Junction, Colorado

Rocky Mountains

Set among the Bookcliff Mountains—long, flat mesas abutting the horizon like cosmic library shelves—Grand Junction is a picturesque small town four hours west of Denver. But don’t let the relaxed rhythms fool you, Grand Junction throbs with culinary, cultural, and musical elan. 

Grab a cappuccino from Kiln Coffee, and spend the morning strolling downtown Grand Junction, a compact area bustling with street performers, outdoor dining, and record shops. Snag a gourmet picnic lunch from The Hog and The Hen and drive to Colorado National Monument, an otherworldly landscape of canyons, mesas, and desert. Hiking Colorado National Monument, a kaleidoscope of red, brown, and gray rock, might be the closest experience an earthling can have to exploring the surface of Mars. You can drive “the world’s crookedest road” through the park or stop at roadside trailheads to marvel at the scenery on foot. 

Highlands Distillery crafts gin with Rocky Mountain botanicals and fresh lavender grown on the property. Tipple cocktails in the yurt or by the fire pits on their back patio, and if you get peckish, order the Detroit-style pizza—tasty enough to give Buddy’s or Ace’s a run for their money. The menu at Bin 707 Foodbar is a gourmet tour de force of the bounty of the Rockies—boards piled with charcuterie and cheese, plates of elk tartare, and of course, mouth-watering Colorado lamb. 


Escalante, Utah

Rocky Mountains

With boulders stacked up like Jenga towers, impossibly narrow slot canyons, and rock spires as delicate as Safavid minarets, Southern Utah, a plateau of soft sandstone sculpted over eons by water and wind, looks like the playpen of the gods. Towns are few and far between in these parts, and the sprawling hectares of high desert are one of the most thinly populated pockets of the Lower Forty-Eight. 

The small town of Escalante beckons you to turn your phone off, savor a good book, and marvel at the handiwork of the supreme artist, Mother Nature. Get your glamping on at Ofland Escalante, a resort marrying rustic charm with refined luxury. With views of the jagged mountains and starry skies as vivid as an absinth-inspired Van Gogh painting, Ofland is tailor-made for lovebirds and outdoor enthusiasts—or lonesome writers. 

Ask the concierge at Ofland to book a guided hike through Peekaboo and Spooky slot canyons. If you’re unfamiliar with slot canyons, imagine the geological equivalent of a stick of butter scored lengthwise with a thin knife. Bryce Canyon National Park, a canyon littered with hoodoos, thin rock towers, is about an hour by car from Escalante.


Torrey, Utah

Rocky Mountains

From Escalante, traverse Highway 12 through the undulating expanses of Utah’s badlands to Torrey, a town in the shadow of Capitol Reef National Park. Torrey is a small town where everyone knows everyone and hospitality is treated as an inviolable code.

Part art installation and part boutique hotel, Skyview Hotel is a comfy basecamp for exploring the lithologic wonders of Capitol Reef National Park and Meeks Mesa. Deluxe rooms come with outdoor jacuzzis looking out on the mesas—red stone colossi rimmed with wind-carved colonnades as ornate as the façade of a Tamil temple. 

From Sonoran-style taco trucks and all-American burger shacks to white tablecloth dining, Torrey holds its own for memorable eats. Utah does down-home classics like burgers, shakes, and fries with aplomb, and Capitol Burger’s smash burgers, garnished with green chilies, pulled pork, and onion rings, are comfort fare par excellence. After working up a voracious appetite hiking through Capitol Reef National Park, chow down on elk steaks washed down with fine wine at Hunt and Gather. Hardy apple varietals like Kingston black thrive in Utah’s climate, and Etta Place Cidery, named in honor of Butch Cassidy’s wife, attracts cider connoisseurs from across the West. 


Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Pagosa Springs

Four hours by car from Albuquerque and five hours from Denver, Pagosa Springs, a town in the heart of the arid San Juan Mountains, is challenging to reach. But isolation brings perks like scarce tourists, small-town charm, and uncrowded access to some of the West’s best hot springs. 

For thousands of years, the Ute and Pueblo peoples treasured Pagosa’s steamy, mineral-infused waters for rejuvenation and healing. Pagosa’s hot springs still draw wellness seekers from far and wide. Watch the sunset over the Pagosa River while soaking in natural jacuzzis at the Springs Resort. The outdoor complex, reminiscent of Japanese onsen, has pools of varying temperatures, and after a dip in the hot waters, leap into the river for an adrenaline-spiking cold plunge. Regular passes for Springs Resort are $20. 

After a relaxing soak, you’ll crave nothing save deep, dark slumber. The Pagosa River Domes, a mile down the road from Springs Resort, are a series of geodesic domes lining the banks of the Pagosa River. The domes have all the accommodations of a respectable hotel room—even kitchenettes and king-sized mattresses—and the gentle lulling of the river will knock you out quicker than a heroic dosage of melatonin. If a night on the town beckons, pull up to Riff Raff Brewing, a tap house heated by Pagosa’s geothermal grid, or Pagosa Bar, the local favorite for cheap draughts, rounds of darts, and barstool flapdoodle.


Ouray, Colorado

Ouray

The Matterhorn-like peaks of the San Juan Mountains around Ouray lend this pocket of Colorado the epithet of “The Switzerland of America.” The analogy extends beyond the beauty of the mountains, too. Ouray is one of the quaintest and coziest little towns in the Rockies. 

Start the day with an espresso elixir and breakfast burrito at Kami’s Sami, a buzzy grocer and cafe on Main Street. Later in the morning, lace up your boots and hike Box Cañon, an easy trail culminating in views of roaring waterfalls pouring down a slot canyon. If you’re not shy about public nudity, drive out to nearby Orvis Hot Springs, a clothing-optional retreat framed by the San Juan Mountains. The outdoor spa houses several pools—the tiny and ripping hot “lobster pot” is a highlight—each pumped with medicinal geothermal water. Guests also schvitz in a dry sauna or test their mental fortitude in an outdoor cold plunge. 

A relic from Ouray’s 19th-century mining boom, The Western Hotel, founded in 1891, matches luxury with historical cachet. Saddle up to the lobby bar, one of the most beautiful saloons in the West, to sample an admirable selection of Colorado draughts and expertly mixed cocktails. The restaurant, adorned with a wood-fired oven and open kitchen, serves hearty cowboy chow with an epicurean twist—think wood-fired steaks, racks of lamb, and cornbread drizzled in local honey. 


Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Glenwood Springs

At the turn of the 20th century, Glenwood Springs was a notorious outlaw town, a frontier outpost awash with bordellos, gambling dens, and saloons peppered with bullet holes—no country for old men. Nowadays, the picturesque railroad town thrives off tourism from its geothermal baths, world-class breweries, and Old West charm. 

The Hotel Colorado, an elegant belle overlooking Glenwood Springs’ oceanic geothermal pools, was a favorite retreat of Theodore Roosevelt during his sojourns in the Rockies. The enormous auberge, reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, treats guests to mountain views, sumptuous suites, and a lively lobby bar. The final resting place of Doc Holliday, the philosophical gambler and desperado immortalized in the movie Tombstone, is on a bluff overlooking Glenwood Springs, a quick 30-minute hike from downtown.

Colorado is an undisputed heavy-hitter on the American craft beer landscape, and Casey Brewery, recently rated the best new brewery in the nation, is an exemplar of Rocky Mountain brewcraft. From rich stouts to oneirically light pilsners, every pour at Casey is superb, but the sours, brewed with locally grown berries and stone fruit, are standouts. 


El Paso, Texas

El Paso

Wait a second, El Paso in a list of mountain towns in the Rockies? The West Texas metropolis brings to mind tumbleweed-strewn deserts, Cormac McCarthy cowboy sagas, and mariachi-enlivened canteens…but ski slopes and flannel shirts? C’mon, man. Well, just hold your horses and hear me out, pardner. El Paso sits at almost 4,000 feet above sea level, and the city lies at the base of the Franklin Mountains, the southern extremity of the Rockies. We conclude our Rocky Mountain journey in El Paso because it is here where the Great Granite Spine of North America finally dissolves into the desert. Plus, El Paso is just such a cool freakin’ town. 

The city where the culinary traditions of the Texas plains and the Chihuahuan desert mingle—a delectable salsa seasoned with influences from Germany and Eastern Europe—El Paso is one of the most fascinating places to eat in the U.S. As in any good border city, you’ll find glorious tacos, elote, and tortas on every street corner, but Taconeta’s carnitas and BBQ brisket, smoked meat wrapped in pillowy tortillas, are delicious enough to inspire impromptu serenades of Cielito Lindo. Order a lager from Deadbeach Brewery, an El Paso institution, to wash down the tacos and banish the heat. 

Burn off the calories from eating your merry way through El Paso with a hike through the Franklin Mountains State Park. The rugged mountains house a surprisingly rich ecosystem—wild agaves, lizards, and mule deer are common sights—and hikers gaze out from summits across the Rio Grande into Mexico. After a trek, treat yourself to dinner at Ambar in the Plaza Hotel. The restaurant offers gourmet tequila tastings and spectacular food—imagine an El Paso abuelita armed with an advanced degree from the Culinary Institute of America.

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