Culture / Travel

The Definitive Ranking of Colorado’s Mountain Towns — Summer Edition

From Aspen to Breckenridge to Steamboat Springs, They're Not All Created Equal

BY // 07.27.20

BASALT, Colo. — Escaping to the Colorado mountains to avoid the summer heat is a time honored Texas tradition (and non-Texas tradition for that matter). Yet, not all mountain towns are created equal.

An extensive jaunt through the Colorado mountains this summer proved that. While the cool refreshing temps are constant and face masking is largely respected (a sharp contrast from what we experienced in Colorado Springs), there is a marked difference between the experiences of staying in the towns. Which town you pick — from hoity-toity Aspen to tourist crazed Breckenridge to low-key Steamboat Springs — as your base will go a long way towards determining what type of vacation you have.

After all, you’re unlikely to stay and play in eight different Colorado mountain towns in the span of a few weeks as I did for this story. This is a Texan’s guide to the Best Colorado Mountain Towns for summer, ranked from worst to first.

Breckenridge

If you love big crowds, a staff with a sticker’s sense of rules and steady gondola rides, Breckenridge is the mountain town for you. As the closest mountain resort town to Denver (sorry Silverhtorne, you don’t have enough bells and whistles), Breckenridge is often packed. It even was on the July Monday we visited.

There are some good hotels, including the Grand Colorado on Peak 8, which has a cool raised deck pool that overlooks the little mountain village and activity area.

The free gondola is also a nice bonus, especially considering how Colorado mountain towns charge for a ride. Breckenridge does not make for a bad quick summer escape, but you can do better.

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Caveat: If you have a BMX bike obsessed kid, the bike and skateboard park in nearby Frisco might change everything. It’s one of the best in the country.

Snowmass

It’s close to Aspen and often half as expensive, but Snowmass feels galaxies removed from Aspen’s real charm and atmosphere. Snowmass Village left me cold.

The restaurants are not great (especially compared to Aspen, Vail or Beaver Creek), the gondola is crazy expensive unless you stay there for a long time and get a season pass and the hotels are good but nothing extraordinary.

If you’re dead set on being as close to Aspen as possible without paying Aspen prices, Snowmass could be for you.

Steamboat Springs

One of Steamboat’s advantages is that it’s a real town rather than just a village created to cater to tourists. This is a more laid-back Colorado mountain scene, one largely geared to families.

Steamboat Springs boasts both an alpine slide (really control it yourself) and an alpine coaster that races down 6,280 feet of track, making it the longest coaster in North America. Both are reasonably (enough) priced by alpine slide standards. The mountain top even includes a sand area by the creek that little kids love.

Steamboat Springs is ultra walkable and family friendly.

There are also charming restaurants like the Back Door Grill (a great hamburger spot with plenty of outdoor seating) and the Ore House at Pine Grove (steaks in a rustic old barn space).

Steamboat’s downtown is also conveniently walkable and the whitewater rafting and mountain biking options are plentiful.

Steamboat Springs also benefits from a very reasonable hotel scene with a number of family friendly chains. You can get a two queen bed suite, complete with a kitchenette, at a very clean Homewood Suites for $150 or less a night even on busy summer weekends.

Inside Tip

Don’t miss Fish Creek Falls, a great natural attraction that’s practically right in town. This spot is even easy for a 7-year-old to hike to from the parking lot. And scrambling onto the rocks to take photos closer to the falls than you could imagine is liable to be one of the most memorable parts of your trip.

Vail

Vail is the kind of place that can leave you torn. It’s arguably the most commercial village in the mountains. Packed full of stores, it can remind you of a mall. And that’s not a compliment. Yet, there is also no denying Vail’s conveniences. There are tons of spots to eat, including a decent French bakery. And its striking Sunbird Park playground in the middle of the village may be the best playground in the Colorado mountains with its cocoon-like slide retreats.

Still, what really lifts Vail over Snowmass, Breckenridge and the like is that it’s home to Osaki, the best sushi restaurant in the Colorado mountains and likely the entire state (sorry Matsuhisa). Its chef, Takeshi Osaki, worked as a chef at Aspen’s Nobu Matsuhisa, but he does things differently.

Osaki is a small space (you’ll need reservations) where it is more about fresh fish than a showy scene. It’s almost reason enough t0 make Vail your home base on its own.

Glenwood Springs

Glenwood Springs is 41 miles from Aspen, but a world away. This town may have most unique summer attractions in the Colorado mountains. These include the Glenwood Hot Springs a mammoth public mineral bath pool that dates back to 1888, and Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, a real amusement park on top of a mountain with a $59 admissions price that makes the Colorado mountains’ many alpine coasters look like complete ripoffs by comparison.

Better yet, Glenwood Springs boasts one of the more charming, authentic downtowns in the Colorado mountains. There is a full-fledged restaurant row and a walkable bar scene. Added bonus? There’s also the only Target you’ll see till Denver.

Beaver Creek

The top three of this list belong to be in a category of their own. And Beaver Creek is closer to being No. 1 than No. 4. This is a magical mountain retreat with the best high (but not completely ridiculously) priced hotel in the Colorado mountains (Park Hyatt Beaver Creek), a very cool mountaintop hiking and biking scene, very good restaurants (try Hooked for seafood) and great programming.

Beaver Creek has events in its square almost every day during the summer. These include live music (yes, even in these coronavirus times), giveaways for kids, corn hole and more. The Western-themed Gold Dust Festival every Thursday is particularly fun.

It is easy to get lost in your vacation at Beaver Creek — and almost forget the outside world.

Aspen

Yes, Aspen can be pretentious. Yes, it’s sometimes too sceney. And sure, it can grow super crowded with more Texas plates than The Galleria mall parking garage. But it’s also full of wonder. It is a real village rather than some contrived mountain resort. Its scenery is spectacular. The breath of the shopping and restaurant scene is pretty much unmatched.

There are reasons to avoid Aspen. Driving or biking by the airport with its endless rows of gleaming private jets can be both compelling and intimidating.

But if you come right down to it — if money was no object — we’d all probably choose to stay in Aspen in the summer.

Aspen’s private jet scene is something else.

Inside Tip

If you’re craving some barbecue on your mountain retreat, hit Hickory House on West Main Street. Just off the main restaurant and shopping center of Aspen, Hickory House is a much more laid-back spot. No one is posing or trying to make an impression.

More importantly, its ribs are mighty good (go ahead and skip the brisket). We ran into several Texans during two trips here who say they stop in every time they’re in town.

Basalt

Basalt winning best Colorado mountain town over spots like Aspen and Vail may seem like a bigger upset than Rocky over Ivan Drago back in the day. But this town of with a population of 4100 needs to make no apologies. It earns the No. 1 spot with aplomb.

Located essentially halfway between Aspen and Glenwood Springs in lower elevation spot in the valley (it’s “only” 6,611 elevation), Basalt essentially offers the best of all mountain worlds as a base camp. The fishing is spectacular. The hiking can be both scenic and challenging. The hotels are more reasonable than Aspen by miles (Element Basalt is a great pick —especially with its weekly rates — even if it’s not close to perfect).

But maybe the best thing about Basalt is how its charming town center makes for the perfect Colorado mountain base. You can walk to a Whole Foods, a half dozen unique restaurants, a few interesting bars, a City Market (Colorado’s version of Kroger), a charming bookstore and mountain biking and adventures stores.

Basalt puts any Colorado mountain adventure within easy reach. It’s a worthy champ.

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