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Mountain Vacation Towns of the West

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Even once you’re retired, you’ll still probably go on vacation from time to time. What is a vacation but a change of scenery and routine from everyday living? And you still need that stimulation and respite occasionally, even when you are no longer working at a full-time career.

Everybody has their own idea of the perfect vacation setting: For some it’s a relaxing beach on a tropical island. For others it’s staying in a major city with live entertainment and upscale dining. For some it’s overseas travel with exotic museums or historical attractions. For others it’s the inspiration and allure of the mountains.

Count me in the latter camp: The high places have always offered me that unique combination of recreation, challenge, solitude, and beauty that feels like a true respite from the everyday world. Even now, though we live in the high desert mountain town of Santa Fe, I still feel drawn to other, similar places in the American west….

This past summer and fall, in a series of trips, sometimes camping, sometimes staying in short-term rentals, sometimes in the company of my wife or friends, and sometimes alone, I visited another set of memorable mountain towns. Each one I had visited before, generally many years previous, but I was curious to explore further and discover how they had changed.

Whether you’re already retired, or just planning a getaway from the work routine, perhaps in my wanderings you’ll discover your next great mountain vacation….

Crested Butte, Colorado

Crested Butte is best known as a remote ski town. But we discovered it one summer ten years ago for spectacular hiking and mountain biking, and have been going back ever since. Yes, there is a ski area on the mountain, but for us it’s the small, well-preserved mining town high in one of Colorado’s most beautiful valleys that is the true gem. And the broad, relatively shallow valley is perfect for moderate hiking and mountain biking. Yet, for all the recreation opportunities, Crested Butte still feels like a well-rounded community, with a range of activities, and year-round locals who love it as home.

I write about Crested Butte with some trepidation: It’s our favorite mountain place in the entire U.S., and we’d hate to see it spoiled. The charm lies in the incomparable natural setting, and a relatively low degree of development and traffic, while still featuring all the amenities. If you do make the trek, enjoy the unmatched beauty, the summer wildflowers, the fall colors, the towering peaks, and the incredible network of hiking and biking (and xc skiing) trails right from town, as well as the hospitality and good eats. And help us take care of this great place: It would be a tragedy if the magic ever disappeared.

Estes Park, Colorado

Estes Park is likely the most well-known of the half-dozen mountain towns featured here. A primary gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and the location of the park’s headquarters, millions of people pass through the town every summer. The setting is truly astounding, ringed by some of the highest peaks in the Rockies. But, lying at the intersection of several highways, and home to one of the most-visited national parks, the town bustles with activity: lodging, eateries, entertainment, and services.

Unfortunately, despite several visits over a span of 35 years, the town of Estes Park itself has never grabbed me. I’m afraid the frenetic tourist business exceeds my threshold for a relaxing vacation in nature. I prefer to camp in the park. But that’s just me. The town’s amenities are many and the surroundings are unmatched.

For hikers there are the classic high peaks including Hallett, Flattop, and Longs Peak — the highest in Colorado. For shorter hikes, there are a series of easily-accessible but still pristine alpine lakes. For rock climbers there is the alluring Lumpy Ridge, as well as technical routes on the high peaks. And if you simply want to enjoy the scenery from the comfort of your vehicle, there is the hair-raising and spectacular Trail Ridge Road, one of the highest paved roads in the country, rising to over 12,000 feet, crossing the Rockies from Estes Park to Grand Lake.

Manitou Springs, Colorado

Manitou Springs, immediately west of Colorado Springs at the base of Pikes Peak, is the alter ego of its companion city. Founded as a health resort, the town is smaller, greener, and more casual than its larger counterpart. If you’re looking for a small-town feel in Colorado’s front range, but with big-city amenities nearby, Manitou Springs could be for you. The downtown continues to feature free natural mineral springs, as well as a quaint collection of shops, restaurants, and a scattering of inns and B&B’s.

For more dining options, visit bustling nearby Old Colorado City, between Manitou and Colorado Springs. Other nearby natural attractions include the Cave of the Winds and Garden of the Gods. Then there is the majestic Pikes Peak — one of the most prominent fourteeners in Colorado. You can hike to the summit from Manitou Springs on the Barr Trail in 13 miles, encompassing an astounding 8,000 ft. elevation gain. Or you can take the cog railroad — the highest in North America. Or, you can drive to the top on a 19-mile toll road. Lastly, if you don’t have time for Pikes Peak but want an intense cardio workout, check out the Manitou Incline: A hiking trail using a reclaimed narrow gauge railway bed, it rises over 2,000 feet in less than one mile!

Madrid, New Mexico

Madrid is about a half-hour southwest of Santa Fe in the Ortiz mountains. It’s the smallest town covered in this article, but is another gem. Madrid is tucked into a small canyon on the Turquoise Trail — a National Scenic Byway — the old “back road” between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The reclaimed mining town offers a smattering of distinctive restaurants, a number of art galleries, a few B&B’s, nice coffee and chocolate shops, and a general store.

Madrid makes for a great overnight getaway if you’re in the area on the way to larger destinations to the north or south. You probably won’t need more than a morning or afternoon to “do” the town, but other nearby attractions include driving or hiking the back side of the beautiful Sandia range to the Sandia Crest, exploring the even smaller and more historic town of Los Cerrillos, and of course visiting the cultural mecca of nearby Santa Fe. If you have time to linger near Madrid, Cerrillos Hills State Park offers natural beauty, and the dirt Waldo Canyon road between Los Cerrillos and I-25 offers a bit of adventure and close-up views of natural New Mexico scenery.

Mammoth Lakes, California

Mammoth Lakes is home to the enormous Mammoth mountain ski complex — offering one of the longest ski seasons in North America. Yet Mammoth Lakes manages to be more than a ski town. The peerless location high in the eastern Sierra, means that extensive hiking and biking opportunities abound. Above town lie a series of spectacular sub-alpine lakes starting with Lake Mary, offering camping and hiking opportunities. The ski area also operates as a massive lift-assisted mountain bike park in the summer. And further west, past the ski area, lies Devil’s Postpile National Monument, the Minarets, and the rest of the Sierras.

The relatively remote setting — the closest major city, Reno, is three hours away — could be a positive or a negative, depending on your perspective. It would be hard to pick a better base of operations than Mammoth Lakes for exploring the east side of the Sierras. The relatively high elevation — over 7,800 feet — guarantees cool temperatures in the summer and easy access to snow in the winter. To the north, less than an hour, lies June Lake, Mono Lake, and Yosemite National Park via the Tuolumne Meadows entrance. To the southeast is Bishop, and the Owens Valley.

But I’d keep Mammoth Lakes as a vacation destination only: Aside from the remoteness, the town has been in and out of bankruptcy, and the real estate market has had more than its share of booms and busts.

Telluride, Colorado

Telluride enjoys one of the more rugged and remote locations in the west — surrounded on three sides by towering mountain walls, at almost 9,000 feet in a box canyon on the western slope of the Rockies. The once rough-cut silver mining town has been transformed by modern wealth and technology into a luxurious destination for jet-setters and adventure-seekers. It’s a ski town, yes, but it also offers challenging hiking, some mountain biking, and extensive rock climbing and mountaineering. So you can enjoy the mountains here on foot, by bike, jeep, or a free gondola linking Telluride and its sister town Mountain Village, nearly 1,000 feet higher at the base of the ski area.

And if that’s too much excitement, or you just need a rest day, you can stroll the lovely riverside trail through town, dine at a number of fine establishments, or indulge in numerous shopping boutiques. Telluride is also known for its extensive summer festival schedule, including legendary bluegrass music and film events.

If you enjoy rugged scenery and good living, Telluride could be a fit. But beware the price tag. (As one indicator, median home values according to Trulia are an astounding $900K.) If you’re just looking for a rustic vacation in the mountains, then there are certainly cheaper and less pretentious alternatives. But the multi-hued San Juan mountains are breathtakingly unique here, and Telluride remains a must-visit for true fans of spectacular mountain scenery.

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