4 Colorado Ski Towns That Are Even Better in the Summer
Ski towns might be built around winter sports, but they can be a blast come summer, too. Chairlifts shuttle mountain bikers and hikers to swooping trails and breathtaking vistas. Snow melts, coaxing wildflowers to bloom. Rivers swell, beckoning anglers, kayakers, and rafters. The days are long and warm, the nights welcomingly cool (and the beers even more so). Bars and restaurants that are stuffy with sweaty skiers in winter open their doors and revelers spill out into the sun. There’s a reason why so many ski town transplants say, “I came for the winters and stayed for the summers.” The following Colorado ski towns—Telluride, Crested Butte, Aspen, and Steamboat Springs—are four of our favorites.
Beware of Crowds: If you’re looking to enjoy summer in a ski town, a) you’re in the right place, and b) you’re not alone. Many ski towns are actually busier in summer, and holidays and festival weekends can feel stiflingly claustrophobic. Whenever possible, we recommend hitting up ski towns midweek for a more authentic experience and less crowded restaurants, hotels, trails, and campsites. Of course, festivals like Telluride Bluegrass (pictured above) are a riot, and it’s no surprise why so many make the pilgrimage.
Telluride is far from everything—it’s around six hours from both Denver and Salt Lake City— but that doesn’t keep the flocks of festival-goers from descending upon the idyllic ski town. Seriously—there’s a festival almost every weekend of summer, ranging from staples like film and music festivals to rather esoteric options like the mushroom festival. The Telluride Bluegrass Festival is the crown jewel of festival season—it’s been happening for nearly 50 years, with both major acts and up-and-coming pickers taking to a stage set against a jaw-dropping backdrop of spiny San Juan peaks. It always sells out far in advance, so keep an eye out for tickets if you want to attend next summer. The former silver mining settlement is also home to unreal fly fishing, several waterfall hikes, and the unparalleled views via the Via Ferrata.
Spend a night or two in the Madeline. A scenic gondola ride from downtown, the plush ski-in, ski-out hotel is situated in Mountain Village, where free activities and concerts abound. When hunger hits, Tacos Del Gnar is unbeatable. After a night on the town, grab a late-night slice at Brown Dog Pizza. Free camping is unfortunately tricky in Telluride, though you can certainly find something if you’ve got time to roam and a vehicle with decent clearance. For paid options, check out Town Park and Sunshine campgrounds. If you’ve got a hankering for live music that just can’t wait, look out for the Telluride Blues and Brews fest in September or, for your bluegrass fix, Rocky Grass in Lyons, CO at the end of July.
Crested Butte is as close to fantasyland as it gets: with both European mountain town vibes and a distinctly western feel to downtown, this ski town is downright paradisiacal. CB, as it’s lovingly known, is an epicenter for mountain biking. In fact, it’s in the history books alongside Marin, CA, as one of the birthplaces of the sport. Newbies and experts alike can rent bikes at Big Al’s Bicycle Heaven before taking to the local trails. Downhill specialists can snag a chairlift at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, where banking beginner trails and experts only rock gardens are conveniently marked with classic ski hill designations: green circle, blue square, black diamond, and double back diamond. Hikers can also take to the slopes—we recommend hiking up to the Umbrella Bar for a frosty beer and a leisurely lunch.
Back in town, there’s one lodging option that’s 11 steps above the rest. Scarp Ridge Lodge, operated by Eleven Experience, runs as steep as the sheer cliffs that flank Mount Crested Butte, but we reckon it’s worth every penny. The boutique hotel is steps away from the main drag, but it feels a world away once you’re inside. The service is impeccable, plus there’s an open bar—complete with suds from Irwin Brewing Co.—and cushy rooms named for the mountains you can see from their windows. Oh—and there’s also an indoor saltwater pool, a rooftop copper hot tub that offers what’s arguably the best view in town, and daily breakfast spreads fit for a Colorado king. If Scarp Ridge is too exorbitant, you can get a (slightly) more affordable taste for the high life at the Public House Lofts. The Lofts are perched above the Public House, CB’s newest music venue and restaurant, and each room is tastefully themed around a famous concert venue. Eleven also offers stellar guides for every summer activity you can imagine—from stand-up paddle boarding and fly fishing to rock climbing and mountain biking. Pro tip: book activities with Eleven’s in-house guiding company Irwin Guides if you aren’t staying at one of their properties but still want to take advantage of their local knowledge. If you’re interested in fishing but don’t require a guide, stop by Dragonfly Anglers in town to pick up some flies and get the inside scoop on how the rivers are working.
Camping is plentiful in Crested Butte. Paid campgrounds can be found at Oh Be Joyful, Gothic, and Cement Creek, although there are plenty of dispersed options too if you know where to look. Wherever you camp, please be sure to treat the wilderness with respect and leave no trace. For grub, Teocalli Tamale is a classic, cheap post-adventure option, with mouthwatering, baby-sized burritos made to order (try the Teocalli Thai Chicken—it’s our favorite). Marchitelli’s Gourmet Noodle is a bit more upscale, serving simple yet scrumptious Italian food. Local tip: Sit at the bar and order cocktails from the bartender—he’s a wizard with a martini shaker.
Aspen has a reputation for being a must-visit destination for ultra-wealthy socialites—but the fact of the matter is that it’s also well-loved by dirtbag ski bums, too. One thing is for sure: Aspen is rich in natural beauty. The stunning Maroon Bells—just a short drive or road bike ride from town—are the most photographed peaks in North America. Then you have Aspen Snowmass, a mountain biker’s dreamworld, replete with enough criss-crossing single track to explore all summer long. Downhillers can hitch a ride on the lifts and bomb down feature-laden lines en-route to a cold brew at the base. Rafting—particularly after a big snow year like this one—brings class IV water within reach. Those who are less interested in adrenaline sports can go for a relaxing float on the Roaring Fork, fly fish in the valley’s many celebrated rivers, or hike through aspen groves.
The Limelight Hotel has that goldilocks “just right” balance between luxurious and relaxed; they don’t care if you check in drenched in mud after an epic mountain bike ride—in fact, they encourage it. A well-designed outdoor pool and included breakfast smorgasbord make the Limelight worth the spend, while the location—just across the street from a popular park—means you can abandon your car and explore picturesque downtown Aspen on foot. Make sure to stroll over to Meat & Cheese for a bite—as the name suggests, they specialize in charcuterie and fine cheese plates, though the pricing is surprisingly unpretentious. Don’t feel like venturing far from home? The Limelight’s in-house pizza restaurant has a reasonable happy hour if delicious thin-crust pizzas, cold beer, and live music are more your speed. Campers should check out Difficult Campground—close to town, it fills up quickly. If that’s booked up, you can keep cruising up Independence Pass for dispersed camping options.
Compared to the rest of the “ski towns” on our list, Steamboat is more of a ski city—not that that’s a bad thing. The town is big enough that it always feels like there’s something to do, and it doesn’t get quite as claustrophobic as smaller ski towns during busy weekends. The mountains that surround Steamboat are also much less assertive—they look more like the rolling hills of Wyoming than the precipitous Colorado Rockies, and the vibe is almost more suited to cowboys than ski bums. Where else can you hit the rodeo every Friday and Saturday night of summer? And then there’s the Yampa River—the only free-flowing river in Colorado—which winds through the heart of town. Come summer, it’s a natural waterpark. Fly fishermen hook into trophy-size trout, while families rent tubes and standup paddleboards and float down mellow stretches. Kayakers, boogie boarders, and surfers try their luck on a river wave which is located just next to the library.
No surprise here: hot springs are worth scheduling into your itinerary—provided the summer heat isn’t too intense. The Old Town Hot Springs are located just in town, and with water slides, a lap pool, rock climbing wall, and gym, it’s a great place to go to grab a workout, cool off, or just hang with the family. Strawberry Park is a bit further away, but they’re well worth the drive (Keep in mind, these hot springs are 18+ and clothing-optional after dark).
The Gondola Square Condos are fairly generic albeit agreeable ski resort accommodations. If you’re looking to mountain bike Steamboat’s downhill trails, they’re right at the base of the resort and a solid option. For beers and burgers, head to O’Neils and snag a table on the patio. Salt & Lime offers up succulent Mexican food—be sure to try the lamb and bison tacos for a Colorado twist on a south-of-the-border classic. Camping isn’t particularly easy in Steamboat—there’s a KOA in town, but beyond that expect to drive. One of the closest options is up Buffalo Pass, where both paid campgrounds and dispersed camping are available. If you’re traveling in July, be sure to check out the annual hot air balloon festival.