Colorado family summer hike vacation - best homebase?
April 18, 2021 5:04 PM   Subscribe

We are planning a (vaccinated) hiking trip to Colorado this summer but don't know where to look for a homebase. Too many choices! (Details inside.)

We are looking for a good place to rent a condo in Colorado in August to access great day hiking, activities like horseback riding and maybe rafting or kayaking. We've never been to the Rockies and want to maximize our exposure to the mountains and incredible hikes. (We are strong day hikers, but no technical stuff.). We are pretty city-oriented, though, and we like the option to go into "town" some nights for a nice dinner and stuff like that, though we don't want to stay in the middle of the town. As an example, we've had success in the past staying ~10 miles outside of Jackson Hole, WY and hiking in the Tetons and Yellowstone parks -- we can drive into town for dinner and to walk around, but the crowds in Jackson get old quick.

We've never been to Colorado and we don't have a good sense of the pros and cons of staying closer to the Rocky Mountain National Park versus the further-away (from Denver) ski towns like Crested Butte or Aspen. Estes Park seems like the most obvious choice, though
part of me thinks the ~4.5 hour drive from DIA to Crested Butte might make it nicely quieter, but I'm just guessing. Crested Butte looks amazing, too, and there are some good prior AskMe threads. We would likely fly into DIA and rent a car, though I could explore flights to the smaller airports if that made sense.

Bottom line question: what spot has the best mix of incredible hiking and scenery and a nice town for a few dinners and is not totally overrun with crowds? This is probably not a realistic set of criteria, so what spot comes closest?
posted by Mid to Travel & Transportation around Colorado (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Consider the Summit county - Frisco area.
posted by lathrop at 7:15 PM on April 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Crested Butte looks amazing, too

It is. That said, I think a better home base for the area would be Gunnison. It’s nice and central to a lot of options, including CB. If you head up to CB, don’t miss going up to RMBL.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:21 PM on April 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

You should definitely go to Crested Butte. The town is much more charming than Estes. It's in what I consider the most beautiful part of the state. It is indeed less crowded than Estes or the I-70 corridor, because it's harder to reach, but the drive is gorgeous and you're going for long enough to merit the trip. Good restaurants and quirky small-town charm, incredible scenery, great hiking and mountain biking. If CB is too small you can drive to Gunnison for dinner, but I find CB just magical.
posted by TrixieRamble at 9:07 PM on April 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I agree that Crested Butte is much closer to what it sounds like you're looking for than Estes Park. Hiking around there is really wonderful. I can vouch for the Copper Lake hike as a strenuous hike that is one of my favorite that I have ever done in the entire state, and the numerous and beautiful hikes on Kebler Pass are top-notch. CB is also quite famous for its mountain biking, and has lots of places to rent full-suspension bikes with helmets and to do some low-key learning - Lower and Upper Loop trails are pretty flat and tame but give you a sense of why the best mountain biking (in my opinion) can be very similar to hiking but on two wheels. I could--and have!--easily spent a full week in Crested Butte just doing outdoorsy things.

That said: It is definitely not what I would call quiet, and it's probably equally busy as Estes (but better overall experience IMO). I don't know that there's a lot of horseback riding there, based on what I've seen of the trails - you'd probably have to go further afield if you want that specifically. There is good rafting in Colorado but I tend to think of the Arkansas River Valley as much better for that - if you're open to it, I'd suggest maybe doing 4-5 days in CB and then heading back over the pass and spending your last 2-3 days in Buena Vista, which is ideally located for good day-long float trips, and also has some nice natural hot springs, cool old mining/ghost towns, and hiking. The town of Buena Vista is nice but not really enough for a full week if you like restaurant meals and going out, which is why I wouldn't recommend it as the sole home base for your trip unless you're primarily interested in outdoor activities and would be satisfied with not much time spent in town. It is a lot, lot quieter than Crested Butte, but the reality of mountain towns in Colorado is that you trade off between towns with good summertime amenities and crowds - any place with sufficient beautiful/fun outdoors that doesn't have crowds is going to need to be not much of a town, or else everyone else in Denver would be heading there on vacation.

Frisco is another great option and also near-and-dear to my heart but I don't know that I consider it very ideally located for hiking specifically, although YMMV. If you like biking, Frisco is right in the center of an EXCELLENT rails-to-trails network that lets you use a paved bike path to get between Breckenridge, Frisco, Copper, and up and over Vail Pass to Vail/Beaver Creek on the other side - all in some of the most stunning scenery you can imagine, which helps distract you from the sensation your heart is exploding as you pedal uphill at 9,000'. Vail has pretty excellent restaurants and a nice farmer's market and great little walkable downtown, and oddly feels pretty quiet to me in the summer compared to a lot of other mountain towns. If you do go to Frisco, seriously consider ponying up for a gondola pass for Vail/Beaver Creek - taking the gondola up, gawking at the views, and then spending several hours hiking down the mountain is well worth the insane price the make you pay for the day pass.
posted by iminurmefi at 7:06 AM on April 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Also just to be a total downer: depending on when your trip is scheduled, I would definitely be looking at the cancellation policy of your lodging, and having a back-up location in mind if you need to switch things around up to a week before you leave. Last summer was an intensely awful fire season, and based on our very low snowpack this year, we're hearing lots of predictions that this summer may be worse. If you're traveling in May or June, maybe even first half of July, I wouldn't be overly worried. But anything past mid-July runs a real risk that there will be an large, active, smoke-producing forest fire close enough to any given mountain town that it makes being outdoors unpleasant.

My husband and I are also planning our summer trips to the mountains and we're looking for places with very good cancellation policies, so that if needed we can cancel plans to go to one place and instead head somewhere in the state that is less smoky/on fire.
posted by iminurmefi at 7:14 AM on April 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

In a normal year Estes Park is completely over run with crowds. Unbelievably crowded. And you have to reserve times now for RMNP entrance. Lots fill up by early AM hours. Estes does not have a night life or great restaurants IMO. So, I would say Estes is NOT the obvious choice for you, given what you are looking for.
posted by ChristineSings at 9:17 AM on April 19, 2021

A place not mentioned yet - Creede/south fork/pagosa springs area. soaring peaks, some rafting (the closest stuff is not very dramatic but fun), horse back riding. lots of ATV's and stuff though, so not sure how that coexists with hiking. but it would be a healthy drive from denver

Can't go wrong with crested butte - there used to be horseback riding near there but it has been awhile. the full day trip was awesome though.
posted by domino at 9:26 AM on April 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

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