IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Finding the authentic in the Colorado Rockies

Many parts of Colorado are overrun with wine bars and cookie-cutter McMansions, but beyond the eastern slope of the Rockies, the spirit of the Wild West is still alive.
Image: Carbondale and the Roaring Fork Valley
A view of Carbondale, Colo., and the Roaring Fork Valley from the top of the Mushroom Rock hiking trail.Kate Siber

You won't get shot if you order an appletini at Kochevar's, but you won't make many friends, either. Kochevar's is a hardscrabble beer-and-whiskey joint in Crested Butte, Colo., and it has been since it opened in 1886 (127 Elk Ave., 970/349-6745, shot of Jim Beam $2). Back then, the saloon served mostly outlaws, cowboys and miners (more than a few minors, too).

Today, the customers belly up to that same (now antique) bar, underneath the original tin ceilings and the occasional stuffed bison head. Some of the old-timers still sport handlebar mustaches and sip their hooch out of plain glass tumblers. Tony, one of the regulars, claims he's witnessed barroom fights here since the 1970s. "The skewed boy-girl ratio here brings out a lot of innovation," he says. "Always has." With a smirk, he nods toward a large group of young guys who walk in the door wearing 1980s prom attire, trailing a couple of wary women. This is the kind of dive bar where everyone winds up at the end of the night, to gawk at — and drink with — the ghosts of the past. In the corner, a three-piece, classic rock band plays on.

Many parts of Colorado these days are overrun with wine bars and cookie-cutter McMansions, but beyond the eastern slope of the Rockies, the spirit of the Wild West is still alive. Interior Colorado is where you'll find the state's most beautiful, untouched scenery and authentic — if quirky — frontier towns. One back-roads drive, from Crested Butte to Aspen, slices through it all: gorgeous peaks, canyons, and orchards, as well as a mix of old mining, ranching and farming communities. The remoteness and anything-goes vibe in these secluded corners still attract people looking for adventure — much of it on the ski slopes. But if you know where to look, you can catch a glimpse of the Wild West, too.

Day 1 Crested Butte
Crested Butte may be tiny (population: 1,487), but it's also a microcosm of Colorado's split personality. The town is parked near some of the best ski runs in all of Colorado, and there are a handful of swanky resorts along the way. But Crested Butte is also remote—a four-and-a-half-hour drive southwest of Denver along winding, sometimes impassable roads—and that isolation has tempered the sprawl. In summer, when the slopes have turned emerald green, the place possesses a wonderful peacefulness.

When you first drive into town, you may feel self-conscious. In Crested Butte, cars are apparently for sissies. The preferred mode of transportation is the bike. You'll see them hanging from bar ceilings and used as fences, tables, and lawn ornaments. I borrowed a vintage cruiser from my hotel, Elk Mountain Lodge, a renovated 1919 miners' boardinghouse with 19 rooms (129 Gothic Ave.,, doubles from $149). It's the charming type of place with no right angles: My third-floor room had slanted ceilings and spectacular views of the Rockies from my private balcony. In the distance, I saw rows of quaint wooden homes, as small and colorful as dollhouses.

Out on the bike, I discovered that they were 100-year-old Victorians, painted bright Skittle-colored shades. At the edge of town, the houses disappeared and the hillsides turned into mosaics of blue, purple, white, and yellow blooms. I found a produce stand run by Dollar Doug, a local farmer down to his denim overalls and wide-brimmed straw hat. In between weighing zucchinis for customers, he told me that he's sold organic fruits and veggies in this same spot for 25 years, most of it for a mere dollar a pound. I traded two bucks for two peaches the size of softballs.

Day 2 — Crested Butte to Gunnison
28 miles
Only 28 miles separate Crested Butte from Gunnison, but somehow Gunnison feels far more untouched. This is a true-blue cow town with the state's oldest rodeo, and it looks like the set of Bonanza. Old West storefronts line the four-lane boulevard, and instead of the cyclists and skiers you might find in Crested Butte, cowboys and the occasional Hells Angel walk Gunnison's streets. The go-to Budweiser-and-burger joint is Ol' Miner Steakhouse, a wood-paneled, redneck dive decorated with animal trophies (139 N. Main St., 970/641-5153, burgers from $7).

Gunnison's best tourist attractions, however, lie outside of town. Scenic River Tours provides all kinds of ways to tour Gunnison's epic backyard, including rock climbing and fly-fishing trips (703 W. Tomichi,, three-hour rafting trip $69 per person ). I opted for a morning rafting ride down the Taylor River's Class III rapids. Shaded by pine forests and granite cliffs, floating in the Taylor felt like passing through a natural cathedral.

Day 3 — Gunnison to Carbondale
145 miles
The best part of a Colorado road trip is often the in-between. From Gunnison to Carbondale, routes 50 and 92 wind along the rim of the 2,000-foot-deep Black Canyon, through peaceful farm country, over an alpine pass, and deep into a red-rock gorge.

Carbondale was once a sooty coal-mining town, but recently it has evolved into an artsy refuge for young professionals from nearby Aspen. I arrived on a Friday night, when the galleries host a monthly art-walk. Young residents drank wine in shops while others streamed into a local bar for a disco cover-band. In Phat Thai, a hip Asian Bistro (343 Main St.,, entrees from $14), couples sat elbow to elbow at the community bar and sipped ginger Cosmos (Carbondale's pioneers must be rolling over in their graves).

Day 4 — Carbondale to Aspen
30 miles
Aspen has long been a darling of celebrities — and has the Prada and Gucci boutiques to prove it — but its vibe is less stuffy than that of newer resorts such as Vail. Case in point: the Mountain Chalet Aspen, a downtown Swiss-style lodge that's been run by the same family since 1954 (333 E. Durant Ave.,, doubles from $165). It's the kind of low-key place where the clerk offers complimentary cookies and lemonade as soon as you walk in.

It may be tony now, but Aspen has a decidedly rambunctious pedigree. Dean Weiler, a 30-something ski bum turned historic guide for Aspen Walking Tours, knows more about it than anyone (, one-hour tours $20 per person). Weiler wears the kind of three-piece suits favored by Mark Twain, and like Twain he loves spinning tales as he leads tourists to haunted saloons and the county jail that once housed Ted Bundy.

The tour's last stop was the swank Hotel Jerome, where guests have been known to report seeing ghosts — possibly after one too many Aspen Cruds, a potent bourbon-spiked milkshake first whipped up during Prohibition as a decoy. Still, the hotel's century-old J-Bar is gorgeous (330 E. Main St., 970/920-1000, draft beers from $3.75). It manages to feel rustic and opulent at the same time.

No place captures the wild past of Colorado quite as well as Woody Creek Tavern, a back-road haunt once frequented by resident crazy genius Hunter S. Thompson (2858 Upper River Rd.,, entrees from $20). A stuffed wild boar stands over the entrance of the wooden lodge, and fat, old-fashioned Christmas bulbs are strung all over the interior. These days, you're more likely to see sunburned parents and kids packing the booths, rather than rowdy regulars like Thompson. But that doesn't mean the bar's untamed spirit is diminished. Not, at least, if the slogan on my waitress's shirt was true: "What happens at the Woody Creek Tavern, NEVER stays at the Woody Creek Tavern."

More from Budget Travel