Vail and Beaver Creek are unquestionably stunning when they are spilling over in green foliage and wildflowers, but there is more to soaking it all up than hiking, biking, and summer hauls up and down the chairlifts. For something a little different—hidden lakes and raft trips—you need only head west. In fact, you scarcely need to leave resort grounds to get a taste of Old West history and New West action.
Don’t get too caught up in the view upon entering Glenwood Canyon ... or if you do, hopefully you’re on the river or on your bike rather than behind the wheel. Thanks to millions of years of natural carving by what we now know as the Colorado River, the 16-mile canyon features jagged walls of crimson granite, dark green pine trees, and the tumbling turquoise and white of the river itself, rendering it a prime place to truly comprehend why we call our state “colorful Colorado.”
Spa of the Rockies
First discovered by the ancient Ute Indians and revered for their healing, mineral-rich waters, the Glenwood Hot Springs have treated trail-weary souls for millennia. Today, the Spa of the Rockies is the first choice for anyone in need of some aquatherapy. Treatments here include lengthy honey steam wraps, facials, and cinnamon-laced body lotions—just a few reasons why the resort has found itself among SpaFinder’s top 10 thermal spring spas in the world last few years. hotspringspool.com, 970-947-2955
Yampah Spa Vapor Caves
Like Glenwood Hot Springs, Yampah was originally discovered by the Utes and was used for centuries for the healing powers of its natural steam—including by Wild West protagonist Doc Holliday, who spent the last weeks of his life here. The sulfur-rich springs and caves didn’t work for his tuberculosis, however, and his body is buried in an unknown location somewhere around town. yampahspa.com, 970-945-0667
If the Colorado River is not up to your adrenaline needs this summer, soaring above it on a cable with Glenwood Canyon Zipline Adventures is bound to put your stomach in your throat. glenwoodcanyonzipline.com, 888-494-7386
You have to do a bit of work to attain the ultimate eye candy in the canyon. Arguably the most popular hike in Colorado—and for good reason—the rocky, hourlong trek up to Hanging Lake is rewarded with a postcard-pretty scene, complete with a waterfall tumbling into an aquamarine pool set beneath an amphitheater of cliff walls.
Glenwood Canyon Recreational Trail
The beauty of biking through Glenwood Canyon is that it’s probably the flattest ride to be found in the mountains. And of course, the head-cranking scenery just keeps coming. But take note: the trail is often closed in the spring when the Colorado River gets surly with snowmelt.
Don’t let the Pullman’s bronze pig centerpiece lead you to believe the place is solely a meat joint, and don’t let the lemon-garnished water deter you if you’re grubbed out in hiking clothes. The downtown Glenwood eatery, in spite of its fancy, creative menu, is an indulgent yet deliciously casual dining stop. For a gourmet lunch, all sandwiches are $14 or less (including a grilled cheese made with shredded short ribs), and the salads and pasta dishes are all fresh flavor masterpieces. thepullmangws.com, 970-230-9234
In rather stark contrast to Vail and Beaver Creek’s Euro-inspired resort grandeur, Leadville is a stroll down saloon lane: the entire main street dates back to the silver-mining days of the 1800s. At the time, Leadville was the richest city in North America. Today charms here are a bit more rustic, but at around 10,200 feet Leadville still can claim the title of the country’s highest town. If that’s not enough elevation gain for you, the surrounding Sawatch Mountains boast several of Colorado’s renowned 14,000-foot peaks.
Mineral Belt Trail
If climbing a fourteener still sounds like a bit too much on the lungs (even with the elevated head start), this 11.6-mile paved recreational path offers a surprisingly relaxed bicycling option (rare in this hill-rich town) past old mining ruins, wildflowers, and pine forests. (For those hankering to bag a fourteener, Mount Sherman is considered one of the shortest and easiest journeys. Still, get an early start and bring rain gear, good shoes, and plenty of water.) mineralbelttrail.com
One of the most stunning places to see Colorado wildflowers, Shrine Pass between Vail and Frisco produces a high-wattage display of columbines, Indian paintbrush, and alpine daisies amid green meadows and secret-feeling glades. Look for peak blooms in early to mid-July. In August, the area is a popular draw for mushroom hunters, while cyclists flock to the winding roads anytime the weather is dry.
Hands down, the most entertaining time to take a trip to Leadville is during the first weekend in August, when the town relives its rich mining history with roaming burros and bandits. While the bandits are just actors, the burros are very real and compete in a series of zany races down Main Street. A quirky parade, a gun show, and a motorcycle rodeo round out the madcap fun. leadvilleboomdays.com
Grill Bar & Café
Of the many authentic south-of-the-border offerings in Leadville, this slightly gringo-ified standby is the most fun. The margaritas do not disappoint—and at this elevation, they’re truly dizzying. For a unique twist on the same ol’ burrito, the Grill offers most of its spicy dinner options in warm, homemade sopaipillas, so you might want to plan an extra hike the next day to counterbalance overindulgences. grillbarcafe.com, 719-486-9930
Quincy’s is best known for one thing—beef. And it does beef exceptionally well. The only main entree from Sunday through Thursday is filet mignon, while on Friday and Saturday you can sink your teeth into either prime rib or slow-roasted sirloin. Not to be exclusive, Quincy’s also makes vegetarian lasagna for the herbivores and mac-and-cheese for the kids. quincystavern.com, 719-486-9765
Leadville's one and only brewery stakes its claim as being the world's highest spot for craft beers at an elevation of 10,156 feet. Cozy up with a board game in any one of the rooms in the funky, structural staple off of the central main street (Harrison Ave.), and you've got your afternoon made. periodicbrewing.com, 720-316-8144
No summer in Colorado is complete without at least a few nights spent roughing it in the outdoors. Lucky for us, “roughing it” around the Vail Valley means soaking up snow-crusted alpine views, high mountain lakes, and some of the best live music the state has to offer. And naturally, when you’re ready to come inside, rewards for such sacrifices can come in the form a little gourmet cuisine.
Sylvan Lake State Park
Not many Vail visitors make it this far off the beaten path, though it’s only about 45 minutes away. A picturesque place to pitch a tent, Sylvan Lake offers 44 campsites set at the end of winding, craggy granite canyon. Relatively posh outdoor overnighters can also stay in cabins and yurts right on the lake. The glassy water just begs visitors here to dip a paddle, and canoes, sea kayaks, and paddleboats are conveniently available to rent—just remember that swimming is not allowed. Rainbow trout are plentiful, however, so bring your fishing pole. cpw.state.co.us/placestogo/parks/SylvanLake
The new State Bridge has literally risen from the ashes to offer one of the most distinctive camping experiences in the state. Rebuilt and revamped after a fire destroyed the storied riverside concert venue and wooden cabins in 2007, the outdoor amphitheater (and camping area) set on a bend in the Colorado River is once again the place to gather under the stars for live music from noted acts such as the Dixie Chicks, Peter Rowan, and Leftover Salmon. On any summer day, you can find crowds gathering for beach volleyball matches while stand-up paddleboarders drift through the canyon as if the river were a moving walkway. statebridge.com, 970-653-4444
The Wild Life
The Colorado and the Arkansas—two of the West’s mightiest rivers—flow just downvalley from Vail, making our town as big a playground for river rats as it is for powder hounds. In addition to possessing breathtaking natural beauty, both rivers are subject to dam releases, ensuring that the world-class rapids here tumble even during summers after low-snowpack winters like the one we just had (sigh). There’s no need to get wet, though, to immerse yourself in the great outdoors. Less than an hour from town, you’ll find happy trails, unspoiled spots, and down-home ranches that offer just the right slice of Old West romance.
Most float trips bring just a couple of seconds of heart-pumping rapids—those thrilling moments when the paddles are up and everyone is laughing and screaming. But the Colorado’s Gore Canyon comes chock-full of Class 4 and 5 rapids, all but guaranteeing that paddlers are sprayed from start to finish. And don’t worry about this summer’s paltry snowmelt, either: in Gore Canyon, lower water levels are actually a good thing. “In a normal snow year, the water is too high there,” explains rafting guide Mike Reid. “But in a release season, it comes into that lower range for a longer period of time. The rapids are world-class. When the guests get done, they are so stoked.” Timberline Tours: timberlinetours.com, 800-831-1414 Lakota Guides: lakotaguides.com, 970-845-7238 Nova Guides: novaguides.com, 719-486-2656 Colorado River Runs: coloradoriverruns.com, 800-826-1081
The closest ranch to Vail, Piney River Ranch (just 10 miles away) lies right at a high alpine lake that is one of the most breathtaking scenes you’ll ever set eyes on. Cabins, tepees, and yurts are available for prolonged stays—and you’re going to want to stay awhile. Lakeside diversions include canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and easy access to high mountain trails. To complete the Old West flavor, BBQ gets served from Piney’s on-site smoker. pineyriverranch.com, 303-905-4439
Accessible from the Beaver Creek base area, the approximately six-mile (round-trip) trek along the Beaver Lake Trail climbs better than 1,500 feet into a world of alpine splendor that includes tranquil meadows, wildflower displays, and high mountain lakes. In the East Vail area, the Bighorn Trail is a signature high-country hike, climbing to nearly 11,000 feet en route to an old hunters’ cabin and blown-open mountain panoramas. Another favorite is the Berry Picker Trail on Vail Mountain, site of the popular summer La Sportive Berry Picker Trail Run and the storied Minnie’s Deck area above Lionshead.