Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley is a 42-mile stretch of paradise named for the river that runs through it, west of the Continental Divide. I’ve lived in this mountainous corner of the U.S. for more than 20 years, far from the urban centers of Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs. The area may be famous for its ski slopes, but it’s also one of the best places in the state to visit in the summer.
In the warm-weather months, towns along State Highway 82 between Glenwood Springs and Aspen really shine with outdoor attractions and activities showcasing the region’s history and natural beauty. The valley is also filled with plenty of places to grab a bite to eat—dining and drinking outside are best enjoyed while taking in bright blue skies, breathing crisp alpine air, and gazing at surrounding mountain peaks and iron-red cliffs.
Here are nine spots that are well worth puling over for, whether you’re detouring from a cross-country road trip along I-70, taking the scenic route to (or from) Denver via high-altitude Leadville, or dipping into nooks and crannies along state highways and country roads on an extended exploration of western Colorado.
1. Iron Mountain Hot Springs
The city of Glenwood Springs, at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers, has long been known for its mineral waters. For centuries, nomadic Indigenous tribes have soaked in the bubbly, hot water that emerges into natural pools from deep underground; in the late 1800s, Victorian-era visitors would “take to the waters” for their healing properties.
Today, tourists can experience this geothermal phenomenon with a stint at Iron Mountain Hot Springs, where 17 soaking pools of various sizes and water temperatures are built into the banks of the Colorado River. Ranging from 98 to 104 degrees, the pools can feel pretty toasty in the heat of the day. While you can always take a break in the cooler family pool, you might want to book your 3-hour time slot first thing in the morning or in the evening for more refreshing temps.
2. Sweet Coloradough
If you’re craving a sugary treat, head to Glenwood Springs’ Sweet Coloradough on Highway 82. You can’t miss the blue-and-white building with a big Colorado flag painted on it and a vintage police car parked out front. Dozens of different doughnut varieties are baked here daily, from 11-layer cronuts and cream-filled Bismarcks to fruity fritters. This beloved bakery also serves hearty, handcrafted sandwiches for breakfast and lunch.
3. Golf at River Valley Ranch
Majestic Mount Sopris reigns supreme in the mid valley: You’ll spot the mountain’s double peaks and granite flanks as you make your way out of Glenwood Springs and head toward the town of Carbondale. One of the best ways to fully appreciate this scenery is with a round of golf on the public championship course at River Valley Ranch. Every tee offers a different view of the 12,295-foot Mount Sopris, as well as the Crystal River and longstanding groves of aspen, cottonwood, elm, and maple trees. The driving range is another great option for getting out for some exercise in the shadow of Mount Sopris.
Even if you’ve never picked up a golf club, don’t miss lunch or dinner at The Homestead Bar & Grill. Swing by this casual restaurant after a stroll through its surrounding neighborhood for shareable plates (try the spicy tuna tostada and buffalo crisped cauliflower) on the spacious patio.
4. True Nature Healing Arts
When you’re ready for a driving break, True Nature Healing Arts, located just off Main Street in Carbondale, is the place for restoration. Open from dawn to dusk and free to stroll through (donations suggested), the Peace Garden beckons those in need of tranquility. Walk barefoot on the reflexology path, meditate in the labyrinth, or set your intentions at the wishing tree. Multiple drop-in yoga classes are held throughout the week, or you can pre-book a soothing spa treatment. The café serves salads, soups, small bites, and baked goods.
5. Capitol Creek Brewery
Capitol Creek Brewery is in Willits Town Center, between historic Basalt (worth visiting to see the Old West buildings lining Midland Avenue) and the community of El Jebel. In the summer months, the brewpub’s garage-door-style walls are rolled up for an open-air feel in an industrial space, and there’s plenty of outdoor seating at picnic tables. The beers brewed on-site are ever-changing, from light pilsners to dark porters, and there is something for everyone on the menu, including a Kobe beef burger with truffled smashed potatoes, a portobello gyro, and fish tacos.
6. Snowmass Gondola Ride
One of the best ways to take in the majesty of the Snowmass area is by ascending the ski mountain on a scenic gondola ride. Board the Elk Camp Gondola in Snowmass Base Village; stop at Elk Camp Meadows to get a bite to eat at Elk Camp Restaurant, ride the alpine coaster or do the ropes course at The Lost Forest, or access hiking trails. Another option is to continue up the mountain—to 11,325 feet in elevation—on the Elk Camp Chairlift, for jaw-dropping views of surrounding ridgelines.
7. Maroon Bells
Touted as some of the most photographed mountains in North America, the Maroon Bells are named for their distinct shape and color. And these two peaks are indeed quite impressive up close. To get to the gorgeous landmark in the summer months, you’ll need to make a parking or shuttle reservation. Once you arrive at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, you can traipse around the lake trail or venture further into the woods for a more rugged hike. Just make sure your phone or camera is charged because you’ll want to take plenty of photos of this spot.
8. Ashcroft Ghost Town
Before Aspen was a ski resort to the stars, it was a booming mining town in the late 1800s. Back then, the nearby town of Ashcroft was even bigger than Aspen. Alas, after mines dried up and the price of silver crashed, Aspen made it and Ashcroft did not.
What’s left of Ashcroft, 11 miles up Castle Creek Road from the Aspen roundabout, are a few buildings maintained by the Aspen Historical Society, whose knowledgeable on-site docents can give you a tour of what was once home to up to 2,000 people with 20 saloons, at least one hotel, post office, school, and numerous residential cabins. Just a few buildings remain, but a walk among the ruins—plus the detailed signage along the short path—offers insight into what life was like here well over a century ago.
9. Smuggler Mountain Hike
There are plenty of hiking trails in the mountains around Aspen, but if you’re looking for a less strenuous hike with a trailhead that can be found right in town, consider Smuggler Mountain. The trail begins near the old Smuggler Mine. Trek up this four-wheel-drive road about 1.5 miles to the observation deck for amazing views of downtown and Aspen Mountain’s ski slopes across the valley. If you’re looking for more to explore, a network of trails extends for miles into the wilderness. Get trail guidance from the U.S. Forest Service office in Aspen.