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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50 comments

      • Anonymous

        Totally agree. Glenwood Spring has Sunligh ski resort right in outside of town. Atleast Purgatory is probably within the mileage they set for this list. So although i feel Durango is a resort town maybe no according to these rules

    • Will C. Holden

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write, Mike. You raise a valid critique. Here’s a brief explanation of why we chose to include Glenwood and Durango…

      If you’ll notice in the six parameters laid out, we said MAJOR ski areas. We’re talking about the 15 biggest ski areas in the state, the towns around which would either not exist or at least look quite a bit different without the large, on-site ski area. In particular, we’re talking about Vail, Aspen, Telluride, Steamboat Springs, Winter Park, Breckenridge, etc. Sure, Sunlight and Purgatory are close to Glenwood and Durango, respectively, but those ski areas aren’t in the big 15, and neither small city is really known for either of those ski areas. Glenwood would still likely exist unchanged without Sunlight ski area because of the city’s favorable position at the confluence of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers as well as the hot springs in the area. Durango would still likely exist unchanged without Purgatory ski area because it’s the most inhabitable area in the Animas River Valley — as evidenced by the Mesa Verde ruins, which date back 1,500 years, and the establishment of the the Durango-La Plata County airport to serve the areas growing population.

      Plus, a good deal of locals and visitors alike in both Glenwood and Durango end up choosing to ski at bigger resorts. That’s especially true in Glenwood, where a lot of folks make the hour-long trek to Snowmass, Aspen and Buttermilk, and holds true to a degree for Durango, considering Telluride, Silverton and Wolf Creek are all within a couple hours of the city limits.

      Hopefully that helps answer address your issue. Thanks again for reading and for taking the time to weigh in on the debate, Mike. That’s half the fun with a story like this!

      • Mike

        You are right Will, the discussion is half of the fun. I needed to make room for Cedaredge and Westcliffe, and is decided to pick on the big boys! Keep up the fun stories. Colorado is full of beautiful places.

  • unknown

    Basalt Rocks!!!! In the shadow of Aspen, Basalt is often overlooked, but it’s a great town. Music on Wednesdays in the summer, gold medal fly fishing year round, reudi reservoir just up the hill. 5 fantastic ski resorts within a 1/2 hour to 45 minute drive, great bike trails, and non of the pretentiousness of Aspen

  • Todd Lowther

    Don’t know why Georgetown wasn’t included. Not a ski town and pretty far down the road from Loveland Basin.

    • Will C. Holden

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write, Todd. You raise a very valid critique. In fact, I made a big push to include both Georgetown and Silver Plume. I love downtown Georgetown, the Lebanon Mine tour and I think the historic railroad loop between both towns is a must-see, especially when the colors are changing in the fall.

      Alas, both Georgetown and Silver Plume are within 13 miles of Loveland Ski Area, one of the 15 major ski areas in the state. Considering we spelled out in the parameters that small cities and towns needed to be at least 17 miles from such ski areas, my push for both towns fell flat.

      Hopefully that helps answer address your question. Thanks again for reading and for taking the time to weigh in on the debate, Todd. That’s half the fun with a story like this!

  • Anonymous

    I just happy to be a native and have all of these great places to visit pretty much anytime I want to ;D I like all of these and more. I Love My Colorado!

  • Charity

    Ouray is a beautiful small city. I am glad it ranked in top 25.This is my home city and love it. I still may visit whenever for my parents and other family still live there.

  • Jacdaw

    How is Ned on tjis list? Don’t get me wrong, it’s an awesome little mountain town. But the Eldora Ski Area is right there. It’s totally a ski destination.

    • Will C. Holden

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write, Jacdaw! You raise a valid question. Here’s a brief explanation of why we chose to include Nederland…

      If you’ll notice in the six parameters laid out above, we said MAJOR ski areas. We’re talking about the 15 biggest ski areas in the state, the towns around which would either not exist or at least look quite a bit different without the large, on-site ski area. In particular, we’re talking about Vail, Aspen, Telluride, Steamboat Springs, Winter Park, Breckenridge, etc. Eldora’s not even one of the 20 biggest ski areas in the state.

      And sure, Nederland is less than 5 miles from Eldora. But considering a great deal of Eldora’s patrons and employees live in Boulder, and can easily make the 20-mile trek to and from the mountain when they go to work or ski, Nederland doesn’t have the same ski-focused sort of feel as a small city or town that’s right at the base of a ski area or is the only populous area within a 20-mile radius of a ski area.

      Hopefully that helps answer address your question. Thanks again for reading and for taking the time to weigh in on the debate. That’s half the fun with a story like this.

  • Carol

    I am so glad to see Leadville get a nod. It is one of the most unique places in CO. If you want to visit a piece of the real old west, Leadville is your place. Leadville is chuck full of fascinating history, beautiful scenery , great affordable restaurants and friendly people. Boom Days in the beginning of August in the beginning of August is super fun.

  • Anonymous

    I’d have to add Carbondale to the list. With Mount Sopris in the background, it is simply beautiful. I also think Montrose deserves to be on the list. It’s a really nice town and close to so many awesome places and has all the amenities to make for comfortable living.

    • Will C. Holden

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write! You raise two cities/towns that I made strong pushes for. If I lived in Carbondale, I’d eat breakfast at the Village Smithy every morning and I’d make a stop at Rhonda Black’s liquor mart in the Catherine Store every afternoon — it may have the best wine selection in the state. And well, Montrose has the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Need I say more?

      But alas, both Carbondale and Montrose failed at least one parameter of our list. Carbondale is within 17 miles of Glenwood, and if you take a look at the one qualifier spelled out in those parameters, if two otherwise-qualified cities/towns were that close, we went with the more populous city. Therefore, Glenwood made the list in lieu of Carbondale. When it comes to Montrose, that city had a population of 19,132 as of the 2010 Census, which was above the 17,000 limit that we set in our parameters. That’s why my push for both cities/towns fell flat.

      That being said, we did at least try to make an effort to pay tribute to both areas of Colorado by including Basalt and Delta on the list, both of which satisfied all of the spelled-out parameters.

      Hopefully that helps answer address your question. Thanks again for reading and for taking the time to weigh in on the debate. That’s half the fun with a story like this!

  • Anonymous

    Idaho Springs is where the gold discovery was made which started the gold rush in Colorado – then a part of the Kansas Territory

  • mike

    Pagosa Springs has a lot more to offer than what was listed, Deepest hot springs in the world, Wolf Creek for the best snow in Colorado, over 70% of our county is forest or wilderness and offers a lifetime of fishing, camping, hiking, horseback riding, ATV’s, SNowmobiles, etc… Great Red Rider Count Fair, Music Fest, Hot air balloons and over 320 days of sun shine a year and even with all the snow on Wolf Creek the weather here in the valley is great, the kind of winter days that you guys want to be outside in. And then you have the people, I can find no better place on earth for quality people!!

  • amy cassidy

    Dear Mr. Holden – is it possible you haven’t heard of Eagle, Colorado? We are the home of the Colorado High Cycling League State Championship Mountain Bike Championships, which take place on our new Haymaker trail, on which the town spent $60,000 and partnered with the landowner to construct. We have over 100 miles of multi-use singletrack trails and are just 30 minutes west of Vail on the Eagle River. Our year-round schedule of events includes the Eagle Wild Mushroom and Wine Weekend, Eagle YogaFest, the wildly popular Eagle Outside Festival and Firebird 40 MTB race, Eagle County Fair & Rodeo, the CO HS Cycling League State MTB Championships and many, many others.
    We were recognized by the Colorado High School Cycling League as their Outstanding Partner of the year and our mayor, Yuri Kostick, was recognized by the National Interscholastic Cycling League as the QBP Community Impact award winner. We were also the Bike Town Showdown winner last fall. Recreation and quality of life are the number one priorities in our small community. Perhaps you chose to list Gypsum (an excellent choice!) because their population is larger? However, leaving a community like Eagle off your list is in my opinion a big mistake!

    • Will C. Holden

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to write, Amy! Eagle was indeed on our initial board when we started this list. I’ve been on that Haymaker Trail, and you’re right, it’s certainly worthy of mention. But alas, Gypsum made the list in lieu of Eagle because the towns are less than 17 miles apart, and because Gypsum was the more populous area — by about 40 people. If you look in the story above at the one qualifier, it explains how we treated situations in which two or more towns were closer than 17 miles apart. In those situations, we went with the more populous small city/town.

      One of the biggest reasons we established the parameters was for instances such as this one; so that we could pick one town to represent a community that has several small towns in it. We thought for the most part, the largest towns in such areas would provide the best representation of the region. That being said, I think you can put forth a very strong argument that perhaps in this case, Eagle does represent the pocket of Eagle Valley between Glenwood and Vail better than Gypsum. But alas, our hands were a bit tied by our parameters in this instance.

      Hopefully that helps answer address your question. Thanks again for reading and for taking the time to weigh in on the debate. That’s half the fun with a list like this!

      • amy cassidy

        Thanks Will – that’s what I suspected. Anytime you’d like to come up and ride Haymaker or any of our other trails just give me a shout! – Amy

    • Will C. Holden

      Indeed it was, Madeline! I actually have several friends who grew up in Monument, and my fiancé spent some time interning at Prairie Winds Elementary School. It’s a beautiful area, to be sure, even if it does seem to get an uncanny amount of snow dumped on it in the winter.

      Interestingly enough, the location of Prairie Winds Elementary School is what ultimately kept Monument off the list. In fact, I think it happened to be the only town that came up in our discussion that failed the parameter of being located FULLY west of I-25. About half of Monument is located east of I-25, so we ultimately had to leave it off the list. However, we did want to see the Tri-Lakes area get some representation on the list because, like you, we think it is home to some of the best and most-easily-accessible small towns in the greater Front Range area. And therefore, we made a real effort to make sure Palmer Lake made the cut!

      Hopefully that answers your question, Madeline. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to weigh in on this debate. As I’ve told prior members of our audience, that’s half the fun with a list like this!

  • Anonymous

    ummmmm almost all of the cities or towns listed had some type of resort (natural or man-made)… Did they change the definition of ‘resort’

  • Hannah

    Delta born and breed! Love my small town and never want to leave! Ive been to so many big towns and always enjoy coming home to my tiny town where my heart it :)

  • Anonymous

    Love Idaho Springs, Close to Denver and the Foothills, but really a mountain town. Great rafting, zip-lining, hiking, eating and shopping. Thanks for the article – we are so lucky to have all of these places to visit!

  • Zen

    Well for one cities like Cortez, Canon City, Rifle, Gypsum, Delta and Meeker aren’t “mountain” towns at all. And second, both Glenwood (Sunlight) and Nederland (Eldora) are both within 17 miles of a pretty decent ski resort (Eldora especially, which serves Boulder County). Finally it’s sad that Woodland Park … which hosts one of the state’s great mountain views … didn’t make your list at all.

  • Anonymous

    Meeker is full of history and beautiful wide open spaces! If you have not made the trip I would recommend it at least once. Fishing, Hunting, OHV/ATV trails, historical sights, wildlife, great food & People just to name a few. http://meekerchamber.com/

  • Frank

    While happy to have made the list, was it necessary to end the description paragraph for Rifle with “It’s also the site of one of the fiercest fights between oil and gas companies and environmentalists”. That could be said about a half dozen places in the state. Why not mention Rifle Falls or Rifle Creek Golf Course? And yes, Rifle is a mountain town, over a mile high and nestled among some of the most majestic peaks in the state.

  • Anonymous

    Meeker can’t be beat for a wonderful place to be. My daughter & her friend just visited & didn’t want to venture anywhere else. They hiked Jensen Trail twice, went up river to the glorious Flat Tops Wilderness, did several Geocaching adventures & just enjoyed watching the beautiful White River flow by. Sand hill cranes, pelicans, hummingbirds, elk, Marmots, etc. all were sighted. The historical significance of the area was another plus they enjoyed.

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