A Guide to Colorado’s Underrated Adventure Towns (2024)

Table of Contents
Durango Silverton Ouray References

Colorado has been a home for me since 2017.

That first summer in the Centennial State introduced me to a life steeped in exploration. I started long-distance trail running. I wandered into sand dunes. I got lost at Staunton State Park (it’s not even that big). I got into over-the-campfire cuisine near Buena Vista (always get a large when ordering margaritas at Casa Sanchez). I learned not to jump into the reservoirs the hard way (we’re drinking that). I found jazz music in Vail. I devoured, slurped and drowned my plates in more green chili than I’m comfortable to say. I car-camped in a town where a real frozen dead guy is a festival centerpiece. I got really crunchy with it and started racking up 14ers and would tell my friends I’m on “Do Not Disturb” from 4 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturdays. The Rockies wouldn’t stop calling me. And here I thought we were supposed to pick up!

Now I live in Brooklyn, New York. I don’t know exactly how that happened, but it did. Despite spending a majority of my time here, I can’t stop coming back to my first love: Colorado. A long-distance affair has ensued. The more I come back, the more I discover. I now know to check @i70things, even if I’m not getting on the highway. I have access to a burro now. Most importantly, I finally encountered and deeply immersed myself in the adventure capital of the U.S.: the Western Slope.

The Western Slope of Colorado features three buoyant — but largely underrated and underacknowledged — towns that are adventure ports for outdoor enthusiasts: Durango, Silverton and Ouray.

These towns are packed with activities year-round. They’re incredibly scenic, and filled with some of the sweetest, most inviting people — and welcoming bars where said people congregate — you’ll encounter on this side of the Mississippi. They’re gold nuggets when it comes to adventure, eats and hospitality. In the Western Slope, you’ll experience firsthand the essential core of how to “do Colorado right.” I know I did. My experience in the Western Slope gave me a much-needed reprieve from our increasingly digitized existence. From biking around town and onto trails, to discovering relaxing spas, no matter how “outdoorsy” you are on a scale of Lil Dicky to Jay-Z, this part of Colorado has something for you. Here’s how best to explore a region that is the wild west in all its splendor.

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Durango

From Denver, where you’ll likely fly into, I implore you to get in a car instead of hopping on another short flight to Durango. You tap into a zen-like focus when you start over the dusty, red-hued landscapes of Morrison. By the time you get to the southwestern realm (about a six-hour drive), which is home to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, you’ll find that the jaunt through the mountains was a much-needed meditative warmup. As you wind along the coiled path that is U.S. 160, the San Juan Mountains reintroduce themselves. The high mountain pass does have a notorious reputation for car crashes, mud slides and rock falls, so make sure to take it easy on those turns.

After a record-breaking winter in this region, I chased the sweetest form of nirvana catching spring slush at Purgatory, the local mountain resort in Durango. The days on the mountain kept getting extended, even through May, and I had chairlift chats about the historically boisterous winter celebrations called Snowdown. I caught up with friends at Outdoor Pursuits who waxed poetic about catching the iconic train to Silverton so that they can ski tour, snow camp the Weminuche Wilderness and ride 4,000 feet down off Kendall Peak into town and snag the train back home. I realized there was still enough snow enveloping this mountain city to indulge in all four seasons in one spell. First I’d start off with thawing out. Spring is here, summer’s coming and here in Durango you encounter Colorado in its fullness.

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This time of year, Durango offers world-class mountain biking galore. The two-wheel culture here is strong; it’s home of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, where riders race the railroad train to Silverton. I on the other hand found myself suffering going up Factory Trails, the switchbacks that lead to the bike park at Fort Lewis College. Adjacent to those trails are the Sky Steps, where I sprinted like Rocky up 500 steps to a lookout that offers majestic mountain views and the town under it all. Try to beat the sunrise — it’s worth it.

The city has over 300 miles of trails in a network maintained by the folks at Durango Trails and the community at large. My very first time mountain biking, my friend Keiran Eagen from a team called Segment 28 put me through the loop. As a leader of that group, he’s used to developing some of the best racers in all of the Mountain West; little did I know he’d keep that same energy with me. After a short track ride we made our way to Horse Gulch, where it felt as if I’d been taken out on a desert trek in search of water and supplies. In this trail system you can escape the comfort and security of civilization. It’s just you, the high desert sun and the path you decide to take. As we dropped in past the meadow, it flipped into a high-octane ride, Keiran up front, me screaming in the back, the wind picking up the heavy film of tears developing under my sunglasses. We caught air. I slid out on turns, got smacked by juniper shrubs, pricked by the sagebrush, pinyon pines and everything in between. It’s sublime.

Once you tackle your own trail — high- or low-octane, up to you — it’s time for some beers.

Post-Ride Brew: Always shoot for local draft if possible. Lola’s Place has all that you can ask for on a sweet, sunny day. There’s outdoor seating, food trucks (opt for the smothered burrito at Cuevas Tacos, thank me later), plenty of beer options on tap and co*cktails that will make your 72-foot walk back to the Rochester Hotel (highly recommended) feel like the moving walkway at Denver International Airport.

Happy Hour: The Rochester, a cozy boutique hotel in the center of everything, is enchanting enough that you’ll opt to stay in for happy hour at their lobby bar. The staff is composed of artists, historians and Floridians, so there’s a lot of stories to be had. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the first drink is on them if you stay here.

Evening Soak: Durango Hot Springs Resort & Spa. You’ve heard of geothermal mineral water, sure. You’ve even probably seen Japanese-style cedar soaking tubs. All that is incredible. But the real game-changer here is Durango Hot Springs’ AquaGen system that adds “nanobubbles” to their water. This not only improves the water quality but it absorbs into your skin giving you more oxygen straight to your bloodstream. It’s literally repairing your skin, nourishing your brain and heart, and revitalizing your muscles and nervous system. It’s unreal.

Dinner: Large plates, pasta and prawns, green curry mafaldine, and if you’re into pork then the harissa-roasted ribs — all incredible mains at El Moro Spirits & Tavern. Word on the street is that in 1906 an old-time Western shootout occurred right where you can chow down on some Scotch eggs and Korean fried cauliflower.

If you’re in the mood for an open-air dinner, you can’t go wrong by taking a 15-minute drive north to James Ranch. The “table on the farm” restaurant introduces people to a very intimate gustatory concept. As you eat on a picnic table, you’re tasting the ingredients that have been produced on the 400-acre ranch all around you. The regenerative farming methods used here are derived from South African agricultural practices, which promote biodiversity, protect the soil and simply produce flavors that smack that much harder. I ordered the butternut squash patty veggie burger, extra cheesy, and I swear I saw stars during the day.

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Silverton

About 48 miles north of Durango is one of my favorite colorful pockets of escape, Silverton. The town itself is a National Historic Landmark, and when you’re there you can’t help but feel a part of living history. As an entrance to the Alpine Loop, during the winter, Silverton is a haven for those seeking backcountry paradise. (If you’re interested, just make sure to have the proper backcountry and avalanche education and training.) Events like Splitfest, a splitboarding gathering in the spring, show just how central extreme thrills are to the community. Whenever I’m touring, my philosophy is to always have a guide that’s local or at least has a longer and deeper comprehension of the area we’ll be gallivanting up.

My first time doing an extensive splitboarding tour was with Mountain Trip (big up to my guide and homie, Jesse Yon). I felt securely equipped going up Commodore to Red Mountain Pass and across Red Mountain Number 3 in a spell of two days. In this region, you’ll find people in snowcats, sledding, ice climbing, ice fishing and Jeeping. It’s been that kind of winter here. You’ll stumble into serene mountain huts which you can rent out, such as Opus or Thelma. Just prepare for a bit of a hike. There’s a ton of snow still so get your snowshoes in order, even come July. For those that are already anticipating a need to escape the heat, the crisp, cool air in Silverton is the perfect remedy. There’s also a magnificent art collective in town, so as you loaf about town after a day of adventuring, keep an eye out for vibrant displays and creations on buildings and in shops. The Silverton Arts Festival is a sweet gem to experience in August.

Fuel-Up Breakfast: Here in Silverton, breakfast is the most critical meal of the day. You need the juice, no matter what your day looks like. Coffee Bear supplies the whole town with morning fuel, and for me it hit the spot every time. My combo is the squared up veggie burrito with a vanilla chai. I’m prone to random acts of absurdity by nature, so I like to take a few sips of my milky tea and then plunge the end of my burrito into it before taking a bite. I’d advise you not to knock it till you try it.

After-Adventure Drinks: I typically drink where I’m staying because it’s the most convenient. Staying at the Wyman (look into the bunk-bed situation, if inclined), there’s a consortium of bottles shelved and waiting to be crafted into your drink of choice. (I find myself keen on Boulevardiers lately.)

While in Silverton one of my favorite post-adventure activities is popping into Silverton Grocery straight from the mountains in full gear and grabbing a six-pack of Melvin Killer Bees American Blonde Ale. Not only do they make for great shower beers, but the team out of Jackson, Wyoming is all about community engagement. They proactively link up with local organizers, charities and other groups to put together events as part of a larger philanthropic mission. I’m always going to cheers to that.

Extra Eats: You don’t always have to eat out when traveling. That’s why I love staying at places like the Wyman, where I can use the kitchenette to make some cajun mac and cheese with honey peppered chicken, stovetop gratin dauphinois, or some freshly caught blackened lemon-ginger trout with garlic herb rice, spinach and coconut yams. Or if you really can’t be bothered to cook, go over to Avalanche Brewing for some lemon pepper mountain wings and local brews.

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Ouray

On the Million Dollar Highway going 25 miles north of Silverton, placing you alongside the scenic byway, towering waterfalls, jagged canyons and crumbling cliffs, you’ll meander to the epicenter of “the Adventure Capital of America,” Ouray (pronounced yur-ay). I stayed at the Western, a reimagined and revitalized Wild West-era hotel, and was greeted by freshly baked, cinnamon-dusted, anise-flavored biscochitos. Upon entering my second-level balcony suite, I was entranced by the design: a gas fireplace sits in the middle of a private sitting area where you can jot down those late-night thoughts; a fully furnished kitchenette (we established how I feel about those) means you’re not beholden to restaurants; and stunning views of the mountains and the Box Cañon sign, which sparks up at night, are the cherry on top. The Western Hotel is an incomparable stay that reflects the rich history and wild culture of the town, and the innovative spirit of all that it’s becoming.

In Ouray, there’s no end to the activities you can partake in. From horseback riding and hunting, to fishing, kayaking and rafting, to motorbiking and four-wheelers, there are so many ways to immerse yourself in the natural environment. Despite it being shoulder season (when shop owners and townspeople tend to take a vacation out of town before the summer) when I got into town, I still found it buzzing with life, with people everywhere soaking in the warmth that had just arrived.

Chef-Driven Cuisine and Local Favorites: At the top of Ouray Brewery, I noticed people enjoying their way under the narrow rock walls by Box Cañon Falls. Others finished off their runs along Perimeter Trail by going into Colorado Boy for Southwest-style brick-oven pizza. Personally, I found myself at Thai Chili twice in a span of 18 hours at one point. It’s that good; try the thai fried rice with a side of panang curry sauce. Ouray is the type of town where if you’re sitting alone, people will come up to spark a conversation about where they’re from, how gorgeous the weather is, if you’ve indulged in the Japanese aesthetics at Orvis Hot Springs, and if you’d like to join them for a few games of pool at Silver Eagle Saloon. The people light up in hopes of sharing with you the place they get to call home.

No matter your vibe, Ouray has your type of dining aesthetic. In search of a cozy, saloon-style refuge? The Outlaw restaurant has you covered. In pursuit of more intimate, globally-inspired, fashionably-procured American cuisine? You can’t go wrong at the Brickhouse. I’m not a homebody by any means, but the Western where I was staying just happened to have all those components, from ambiance to exceptional dishes, packed in-house. The Chef’s Counter is a full epicurean journey for your palette and senses, consisting of out-of-this-world homestead creations from the visionary chef, sometimes architect and incredibly insightful historian Nicolaus Weber and his talented crew. You’ll find yourself smothered in delight between bites of bone-in “dino bone” short rib in mole and marrow glace, root vegetable bravas, and grilled rapini and artichoke coated in charred green-onion aioli. For me, many laughs were shared and stories traded of our various pathways in life that now connected us. The hearth illuminated our faces just like the old cowboys of the late 1800s, except we had Calvados apple brandy daiquiris being produced by our in-saloon chemist and food-to-drink matchmaker, Jerrod Olson. (Kindly ask him to hit some notes on the piano while you’re at it.)

Hot Springs and History: The next morning started off a bit sluggish, but nothing a Canadien Caeser can’t cure if you find yourself in a similar or worse state. I opted to do some laps in the pool at the Ouray Hot Springs. I also toured Main Street, taking in its history as a mining town, the stories each building holds from Bon Ton, an 1889 Italian restaurant underneath the St. Elmo Hotel, to the Smithsonian-ranked Ouray County Museum. The genuine spirit of camaraderie flows through each establishment along the strip, and more than a few people shared stories about recent encounters with local rancher and designer, Ralph Lauren.

Unmatched Climbing: Ouray is a world-class destination for ascending and traversing up walls and exposed cliffs. The Ouray Via Ferrata features a number of routes of steel cabling that climbers attach to as they go across the “iron path.” (Unfortunately, due to scheduling, I didn’t get a chance to experience either of the routes that Ouray is known for.) On my last day on the Western Slope, I met up with former mayor of Ophir (still the mayor in my eyes), and current director and owner of Mountain Trip, Todd Rutledge, as well as one of the greatest long-distance climbers and guides (ice, alpine, sport, trad, you name it) in North America, Spencer Purvis. We climbed Rotary Park, where I finally got to learn how to belay. I couldn’t help but smile through the whole experience. Even when I reached stalemates as I climbed up and my fingers went numb, I remembered a quote my mountain biking guide Keiran Eagen relayed to me: “Never forget the feeling.” As I climbed, my attempts molded into acts of learning. To learn is to discover while exposing yourself as a novice. It’s a feeling I hope more of us can embrace.

In navigating through the Western Slope, I discovered what these towns and the people have to offer is nothing short of extraordinary. They offered parts of themselves, and there’s nothing underrated about that.

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A Guide to Colorado’s Underrated Adventure Towns (2024)

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