Looking for fun towns for a Western road trip
May 29, 2021 3:13 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I want to take a road trip Out West (we're based in Chicago) this summer. We want this trip to include parks, hikes, nature, etc. but we also want to visit some fun towns. We like coffee (my wife is a snob), breweries (I'm a snob), and a general vibe of college town or up-and-coming city for younger folks. We like bookstores, good food, etc.

Cities we've enjoyed visiting that will hopefully give a sense of our vibe: Flagstaff, Grand Rapids, Des Moines, Portland, Seattle. (We just spent a few days in Sedona and Phoenix, and Flagstaff was by far the highlight of the trip.)

Looking for cities anywhere in the Dakota-Idaho-Utah-Colorado rectangle that might be fun to visit, along with food/drink/fun things recommendations you might have. On our maybe list so far: Bozeman, Missoula, Salt Lake?
posted by soonertbone to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you are coming to Montana, the Tripadvisor Forums for Montana are your friend (https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowForum-g28947-i982-Montana.html)

Be advised, everyone wants to come to Montana this year. Glacier National Park has a started a lottery system for driving the Going To The Sun Road for the first time ever. Yellowstone is already seeing above average visitation. I've been from the Yellowstone to Glacier areas in the last three weeks and developed campgrounds are already 75-90% full, which is twice what would be expected for this time of year. There is a lot more highway traffic and out-of-state plates than usual. Restaurants and other businesses are having problems finding enough staff - Montana currently has three jobs posted for every one person looking for work. Many are also having reduced menus because of delivery problems or finding good cooks.

Just an FYI for Missoula and Bozeman and the National Parks.
posted by ITravelMontana at 5:23 PM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I was in Moscow, Idaho a couple of years ago for work, and while I am not a beer or coffee snob so can't speak to those specific dimensions, the vibe was certainly what you're looking for. On the other hand, it's pretty small, so I don't know if I'd send you out of your way to go there.
posted by escabeche at 7:13 PM on May 29, 2021

Bend is a bit further west than Idaho, but not by much, and ticks all your boxes.
posted by dorothy hawk at 7:14 PM on May 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Too bad you're going to miss Albuquerque, it's exactly what you're asking for. Breweries are HUGE here and there are some coffee places with great reputations. Great food, lots of outdoor activities in the gorgeous state of New Mexico. Take a tram ride up to the top of the Sandia mountains hike all the way down on the La Luz trail. Rent paddle boards and go down the Rio Grande or do the SUP brewery tour. Visit the VLA. People are saying Albuquerque is the next Austin...
posted by WalkerWestridge at 7:16 PM on May 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

A couple years ago I took a trip through Denver, Boulder, and Estes Park with my then college aged daughter (NAU). Denver was like a super-sized Flagstaff and all three destinations all had an abundance of coffee shops, breweries, and bookstores.
posted by kbar1 at 2:31 AM on May 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Fort Collins, CO?

New Amsterdam brewery is there of course, but it’s also got a strong college town vibe.
posted by notyou at 11:16 AM on May 30, 2021

Yep, in Colorado's Front Range, Boulder, Fort Collins, and Golden tick those boxes: many outstanding breweries, college town, walkable and cute downtown area. I live in Boulder and can attest that there are also many excellent coffee shops, a number of which are also roasters. All have nice parks and mountains close by. Boulder has very good high-end food, though I do feel like we are kind of lacking good cheap eats, and Pearl Street Mall has not just one but two independent bookstores!

I also really love Frisco, a small town just off I-70 in Colorado. First of all, it has Outer Range Brewing, which is terrific (especially if you love NEIPAs). The setting is gorgeous. The downtown is cute. It's close to ski towns but it isn't itself a ski town. And it's right off I70 so it's easy to get to.

Melvin Brewing is on the Wyoming-Idaho border, if you find yourself in that area. Excellent beer. I don't know much about the town it's in, though. I found Boise surprisingly charming when I was there for a conference.
posted by mandanza at 12:33 PM on May 30, 2021

posted by madstop1 at 3:49 PM on May 30, 2021

Yes to Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado.
posted by ChristineSings at 6:23 PM on May 30, 2021

I can't really comment on beer, but seconding:
* Bend, Oregon - exactly matches up with your description in all respects
* Denver, Boulder, or Fort Collins, Colorado - if you go to Denver, there's an Ethiopian coffee shop that was divine, and I'm told that the local brewery options in Denver are quite outstanding as well
* There's a university neighborhood in Albuquerque where I had a good brunch, and that seemed to have a good selection of other food and coffee options?

* On your way westward, Iowa City has good coffee, food, and a great bakery, and the Prairie Lights Bookstore, which is basically the City Lights of the prairies. It's a really lovely town.
* If you want to avoid city traffic, just north of Des Moines is the university town of Ames, which also has some good coffee options (not so exciting on the bookstore front, though - I'd go with Iowa City if choosing between the two)
* Livingston, Montana - had two reasonable (though not spectacular) espresso places, and some great kombucha
* Spearfish, South Dakota - there's a tiny branch university in town, and there was a decent coffee and sandwich shop that I liked when I stopped there; it's small but had a good feel and surprising variety or quality of options for the size, I thought. Deadwood is just down the road, for touristy options, and national/state parks and hiking are nearby.
* Telluride, Steamboat Springs, or similar expensive ski towns in the mountains in Colorado during the off season are a safe bet for reasonable coffee and food - Telluride had a bookstore coffee shop even, that was nice enough, though not much else in town. I haven't been there yet, but Durango, Colorado is also a college town, so probably a safe bet if you're in the southern Rockies area.
* Moab, Utah - I think? I have a vague recollection that I probably stopped for a mocha there, and it does have quite a few coffee shops

* Randomly, if you end up that far south, Amarillo, TX had a very good coffee shop in a kind of strip mall in the sprawl on the western side of the city, just off a highway exit?
* If you end up heading farther north (eg. north woods of Minnesota area), there is literally nothing at all within half a day's drive (or more, in the westward direction) related to your listed interests, but Fargo, ND is worth a visit if you're passing through the area, and will meet your coffee and food needs (and I think also beer?), as well as having a very hipster record store when I was there, and overall artsy vibe.

Side note: I haven't stopped in Omaha so can't fully compare food and beverage options, but if you're driving out Rt. 80, Lincoln is the college town in Nebraska. The coffeeshop I stopped in there was reasonable, and also had a decent sandwich. But I didn't find the general area particularly interesting. There were more decent places to stop for food and coffee driving through Kansas than Nebraska, I found. Except I drove Rt. 50, which takes you through Garden City, which is kind of the meat processing capital of the US. I strongly recommend avoiding Garden City like you would avoid Gary, Indiana, times 10000. Your nose will thank you. The rest of the drive along Rt. 50 was nice, though. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is the largest remaining section of original prairie (which is more exciting later in the summer, I think - was still pretty short when I stopped by in spring). And there's a Sandhills State Park, with sand dunes, kind of randomly in the middle of Kansas (outside Hutchinson)?? Which is pretty small and not actually super exciting, except that I stopped there in the early or mid afternoon for a brief break on a long driving day, and two very friendly dogs that lived across the road had escaped their enclosure, and kept me company on my walk in the park. Also, I didn't go into Kansas City, but I've had some fantastic chocolates from a chocolatier there, and of course it has quite a musical/cultural history and reputation, so I expect it would be a good place for food and coffee too? In western Nebraska, however, there's a cool little gallery in Ogallala, and a KOA just outside of town for camping. So maybe I just didn't happen to stop in the right places through the rest of Nebraska. Whichever route you go, there's going to be a section corresponding to about a day's drive without many options for camping, or fancy coffee beverages, or much variety for restaurant food.
posted by eviemath at 9:58 PM on May 30, 2021

Moab is cool and it has a lot to offer in terms of restaurants and shops, but it is a jam-packed tourist town in the high season. I have been in the off-season and it was a little meh because so many businesses were closed for the season, but I just drove through last week and WOW that was a lot of people. I genuinely would like to go back there sometime in the high season to actually have a choice of more than like three restaurants, but I don't know if it is the vibe you are looking for, OP.

I would not recommend Estes Park, CO in summer for the same reason. I prefer it in the off-season. But the breweries there are not outstanding at any time. I might be more jaded about it because I'm a local, though.
posted by mandanza at 8:01 AM on May 31, 2021

Sandpoint, Idaho.
posted by Jackson at 6:08 PM on May 31, 2021

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