Ranking Colorado’s top 25 mountain towns — with a twist

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Colorado is world-renowned for its ski towns. And often times that casts a shadow on the other beautiful small cities and towns in our state’s mountains that don’t operate chair lifts.

With the snow slowly melting and summer swiftly approaching, we thought now would be the ideal time to pay tribute to the very best of those places. And we wanted to give you a chance to weigh in on the matter.

Below is a list of what we feel are the top 25 non-resort-based small cities and towns in the state.

As is the case with any set of rankings, there will be cause for debate. Such was the case with CitiesJournal.com list of the “Top 12 Small Cities in Colorado” that inspired our variation on the theme.

In an attempt to make our list a little more impartial, we issued these five parameters to limit the amount of cities eligible for our top 25 ranking. Those parameters are as follows: Each small city or town must …

  • have a population of over 1,000 and under 17,000 as of the 2010 census
  • be fully located west of I-25
  • be in a mountainous region
  • be over 17 miles from the nearest major ski area
  • be over 17 miles from the nearest major city of over 17,000
  • be over 17 miles from each other city on the list. (Qualifier: In the event that two small cities or towns were within 17 miles of each other, we went with the more populous of the two.)

For the record, it was with great pains that we limited our own rankings to towns above 1,000, especially considering many of our favorite mountain towns fall into that category (see: Hotchkiss, Silverton, Lake City, Empire, Victor and Rye — just to name a few).

However, given the large number of such towns — there are over 100 of them in the state — and tricky gray areas about which of them are actual towns, unincorporated communities or census-designated places (see: Bailey, Pine, Colorado City, etc.) we felt it prudent to avoid that slippery slope.

Without further ado, you can find our rankings below. Further down, you can rank your own top 10 out of the 25 selected or you can enter one of your own favorite small cities or towns you think should have made the list. As you add cities and towns, we’ll make an attempt to include them as options in the poll — unless they’re ski towns.

Below the poll, you can weigh in on the rankings debate on our Facebook page.

  1. Glenwood Springs (Population: 9,614)
    Though it’s renowned for owning the world’s largest mineral hot springs, Glenwood Springs is more than a relaxation stop. It was named “Most Fun Town in America” by USA Today thanks to its rich history, downtown events, unique theme park, caverns, waterfalls and outdoor sports.
  2. Durango (16,887)
    Having slowly gained population each year since 2003, it may no longer be that appropriate to call Durango a “small city.” The area has an airport, a four-year university, a river running through its still-quaint downtown and is a veritable ground zero for outdoors enthusiasts.
  3. Estes Park (5,858)
    The gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park has long been a favorite in-state getaway for big city-dwellers. And given the city’s preponderance of events, including Autumn Gold, Elk Fest and the Stanley Film Festival tribute to horror movies, there are plenty of reasons to visit.
  4. Ouray (1,000)
    Enclosed on three sides by the steep cliffs of the San Juan Mountains, Ouray is a true hidden gem. And with a population of exactly 1,000, it just makes the cut for this list. The town dubs itself the “Switzerland of America,” and it seems appropriate, given the town’s longstanding buildings are as pristine as their surroundings.
  5. Gunnison (5,854)
    Though its infamous for bitter-cold winters, Gunnison has culture thanks to Western State Colorado University and ruggedness thanks to the Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado’s largest, along with Hartman Rocks Recreation Area, home to some of the state’s best hunting and mountain biking.
  6. Granby (1,864)
    When it comes to chances to cool off, perhaps no other small city or town on this list provides a better opportunity than Granby. Located within a 15 miles radius of Lake Granby, Grand Lake, Shadow Mountain Lake and Willow Creek Reservoir, water sports enthusiasts are spoiled for choice.
  7. Buena Vista (2,617)
    Flanked on one side by the Collegiate Peaks and the Arkansas River on the other, Buena Vista is aptly named. If your neck gets stiff from the 360-degree views, you can soak it at either Cottonwood or Mount Princeton hot springs, both of which offer top notch facilities.
  8. Salida (5,236)
    Salida has a blue collar feel due to its railroad roots. Since the railroad left, the town has made an effort to creatively re-purpose some woebegone facilities, especially along the Arkansas River, where restaurants, art galleries, theaters and an even an event center now stand.
  9. Leadville (2,602)
    Once a bustling city of over 40,000 during Colorado’s Silver Boom in the 1800s, what Leadville has lost in population it has gained in compelling history and Victorian architecture, typified by places like the Tabor Opera House.
  10. Pagosa Springs (1,727)
    Dropping 5,000 vertical feet, the drive down Wolf Creek Pass to Pagosa Springs is breathtaking. The hot springs and outdoor activities in the Weminuche Wilderness, the state’s largest, have led many to purchase a Pagosa getaway, as 60% of private property is owned by nonresidents.
  11. Meeker (2,475)
    Meeker still has sheep and cattle drives that run right through town. Those looking to avoid the “traffic,” including summer residents Jon Winkelrie, the former president of Goldman Sachs, and comedian Daniel Tosh, can easily retreat to the one-of-a-kind Flat Tops Wilderness Area nearby.
  12. Paonia (1,451)
    Paonia may be one of the most unique mountain towns in Colorado. Not only is it temperate enough to house orchards and vineyards, it is also socially diverse enough to host festivals on both ends of the spectrum, including an annual BMW motorcycle rally and the 1992 Rainbow Gathering.
  13. Alamosa (8,780)
    Many won’t consider Alamosa a mountainous community. But those who have seen the towering Sand Dunes, one of the state’s most unique treasures, might beg to differ. With a regional airport, a four year school in Adams State and the Rio Grande River nearby, Alamosa has become a hub of activity in southern Colorado.
  14. Cortez (8,482)
    Once considered not much more than a last stop before Four Corners, Cortez is now a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and historians. The Mesa Verde ruins still fascinate, and outdoor companies like Osprey have migrated to the town hiding in the shadow of the San Juan Mountains.
  15. Nederland (1,445)
    Home to the world-renowned “Frozen Dead Guy Days” festival, which celebrates a Norwegian immigrant whose dead body is still frozen in one of the town’s Tuff Sheds, Nederland may be Colorado’s quirkiest town. It’s also a favorite camping spot for many Front Rangers.
  16. Idaho Springs (1,717)
    Most Front Range residents know Idaho Springs as their gateway to the Rocky Mountains. With a great restaurants row, including the original Beau Jo’s, a brewery and a recently-renovated hot springs lodge, it has become as much a destination as it has a cherished pit stop.
  17. Cañon City (16,400)
    Home to the Royal Gorge, the highest bridge in the U.S., and a whopping 13 prisons or penitentiaries, Cañon City has always attracted an interesting breed. And all its residents seem to enjoy the city’s expansive parks system as well as water sports on the Arkansas River.
  18. Monte Vista (4,444)
    Monte Vista is one of the bird-watching capitals of the world. In fact, thousands of sandhill cranes descend on the area each year as part of their pilgrimage back north for the summer. Attendees of the town’s Crane Festival are also treated to a historic downtown that seems to pride itself on its preservation efforts.
  19. Basalt (3,857)
    Nestled between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, Basalt, like Salida, has also developed a blue collar reputation. But it has also developed a great public transport system to serve that population, one of the state’s best distilleries and restaurants that would make Denver foodies salivate.
  20. Palmer Lake (2,420)
    Host to one of the state’s first Chautauqua Assemblies and a massive hillside Christmas star, the Palmer Lake welcome sign’s boast is simple: “Almost Heaven.” Others appear to agree, as the town has seen a spike in population thanks to its perch four miles west of I-25 between Castle Rock and Colorado Springs.
  21. Rifle (9,172)
    Sitting just beneath the Roan Plateau, the area in and around Rifle is beloved by hunters, anglers, hikers and rock climbers. It’s also the site of the one of the fiercest fights between oil and gas companies and environmentalists.
  22. Gypsum (6,477)
    Not only is Gypsum home to one of the few commercial airports along the I-70 corridor, it also owns something no other city on this list has: a Costco. While the area is home to big city comforts and innovation, including a power plant that turns beetle-kill wood into energy, it also offers chances to escape via ample fishing and golfing.
  23. Cripple Creek (1,189)
    Located near the base of Pike’s Peak and steeped in history, Cripple Creek is bursting with relics from the site of the largest gold strike in U.S. history, including a narrow-gauge sightseeing train and the Cripple Creek Heritage Center, a $2.5 million mining museum.
  24. Delta (8,915)
    Though it’s a short distance from the bigger cities of Grand Junction and Montrose, Delta is very much its own entity. And considering it’s surrounded by two rivers and three national conservation areas, it’s a unique entity, at that.
  25. Kremmling (1,444)
    A retired Cobra Attack Helicopter perched above the town’s Veterans Memorial greets all who enter Kremmling. It’s the new photogenic spot in a quintessential Western town made famous by an award-winning photo essay that appeared in a 1948 issue of LIFE magazine.

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