Top 3 Western Towns to Visit Off the Beaten Path

June 6, 2024   1 Comment »

In an effort to bring you some new voices on Ottsworld, here is a guest post from writer Maria Martinico. I met Maria at a women’s networking and travel event in Denver.  In this post, Maria writes about her girlfriend’s getaways to unknown western towns in the US. You’ll love her witty words since she’s an author herself.  She has some great suggestions that I want to try out myself! All opinions and experiences expressed here are hers. –Sherry

Is anyone else ready to get the heck out of Dodge? Is anyone else missing their girlfriends really (really) badly? Yeah, me too. The American West has a lot of flashy, famous destinations but now’s the time to get off the beaten path and discover something new. Check out these three perfect little corners of the world where we can go with friends to escape, reconnect, belly laugh, and get some dirt between our toes.

Wild Western Towns to Visit #1: Lake City, Colorado

There’s one square mile of heaven tucked into the southwest corner of Colorado. It’s called Lake City, and don’t you dare tell anyone else about it. It takes some work to get there (a five-hour drive from Denver or six hours from Albuquerque), but the isolation keeps the crowds away and creates a sense of entering another time. The town takes its name from Colorado’s second-largest natural lake, Lake San Cristobal. Located just south of town, it’s a stunning aquamarine jewel set in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

Lake City proper is less than a square mile and was founded as a mining outpost in 1871 (illegally taking territory from the Utes). The population exploded when a silver and gold “hotspot” was discovered in 1875. Today, the small downtown still looks like an Old West Hollywood movie set, and there’s a distinct flavor of the wild on the wind.

Lake City Colorado
Lake San Cristobal

We’re talking about a place where you can find a plaque commemorating where Alferd G. Packer, “The Colorado Cannibal,” killed and ate five men when they were lost in the San Juan Mountains. The plaque includes possibly the best cannibal-related quote of all time from the local saloon owner: “You man-eating son of a bitch. There were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you ate five of them!”

So, it is safe to say there are plenty of local flavors and enough outdoor activities to wear out a Millennial golden retriever.

Plan your South West Colorado road trip

Outdoor Adventures in Lake City, Colorado

Welcome to Nature’s Playground. Rent SUPs or kayaks and get out on Lake San Cristobal for a morning of peaceful paddling among the 14,000-foot peaks. Low-country ladies beware, even though the water is a Caribbean blue it’s essentially melted snow. Taking a dunk can shock your nervous system so wear a PFD no matter how strong of a swimmer you are.

Feeling extra frisky? Tackle one of the five surrounding 14ers: Wetterhorn Peak, Redcloud Peak, Sunshine Peak, Uncompahgre Peak, or Handies Peak. Be sure to do your research on advised routes and start times before setting off. Getting caught in a lightning storm on the roof of the world is inadvisable.

The Alpine Loop Byway is one of the most famous 4-wheel roads in the world, and it runs straight out of Lake City. From June to August, you can drive the entire 73 miles and end up in Ouray, another charming mountain town. Or do an out-and-back day trip from Lake City. Along the way, you’ll see Whitmore Falls, wildflowers, bighorn sheep, ghost towns, and stunning views of the surrounding Rockies.

Don’t think your rental Kia is up for the challenge? Grab an off-highway vehicle from High Altitude Adventures for the day. Your crew will feel like a troop of badass Mad Max road warriors.

Secret Tip: Don’t miss a tour of the Hard Tack Mine. You can walk deep into the mountainside and see 1940s Disney-style dioramas of miners doing their thing. It’s kitschy, family-owned, and a fascinating peek into the history of silver mining.

Discover things to do in Beaver Creek in the winter for non-skiers

Where to Eat in Lake City

While Lake City hasn’t won any James Beard awards lately, there are a few tasty places to fill up and enjoy the views. Grab a breakfast burrito from Confluence before heading out in the morning. Lake City Brewing Company is THE spot to grab a beer after a dusty day on the trails. Solid brews and creative apps like wasabi ginger deviled eggs make for a very Happy Hour.

For dinner, try The Packer Saloon and Cannibal Grill. The outdoor seating area is where locals (and their furry friends) gather in the evening to sit around the fire and tell tales. If you’re strolling around the tiny but adorable “downtown,” be sure to stop into the San Juan Soda Company for an authentic cream soda or milkshake.

Lake City western town

Where to Stay in Lake City, Colorado

G&M Cabins are cute, clean, and walkable to everything in town. But take a peek at rental-by-owner properties, too. I stayed in an adorable AirBnB guest house behind one of the town’s stately Victorian houses. The local hosts were full of tips, and their giant St. Bernard was an excellent town ambassador.

lake city colorado lodging

Read TripAdvisor reviews of The North Face Lodge | Book a room at The North Face Lodge | More accommodations in Lake City

Lake San Cristobal Lake City Colorado

Wild Western Towns to Visit #2: Taos, New Mexico

Ah, the Land of Enchantment. Northern New Mexico is known for brilliant sunsets, signature cuisine, and a thriving art scene. All of these are lovely…and can get a little snoozy if you’re out for a more adventurous adventure. So skip Santa Fe’s galleries and plazas of trinkets and head straight to Taos, where you can get into the kind of trouble that your friends laugh about for decades to come.

The first inhabitants of this land built the Taos Pueblo nearly a millennium ago at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The Pueblo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in America. Between the snow-capped peaks, river valleys, hot springs, and wide-open vistas, you can see why people have wanted to live here for the past 1,000 years.

wild western town taos

Fascinating Things to Do in Taos

Spend the day soaking and swimming at Ojo Caliente. Plus, enjoy dinner at the excellent on-site restaurant, and then take a sunset hike into the surrounding hills and canyons. The resort only serves beer and wine so stock up on tequila in town if you want a margarita by the firepit.

There are a few fascinating stops on the way in or out of town. For sure, check out the Taos Pueblo for a glimpse of how people lived on this land for thousands of years before the Spanish showed up. Don’t just drive over the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge; stop and walk across to experience the views 650 feet down to the river.

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Fun Fact: this bridge is the setting for the wedding in the 90s classic Natural Born Killers.

If your team is interested in conservation, take some time to visit Earthship. Architect Michael Reynolds started creating buildings out of old tires in 1969, long before anyone used the term “green building” or even “recycling.” Today, you can take an hour-long tour to experience a fully functioning Earthship that combines passive solar architecture, thermal mass construction, renewable energy, integrated water systems, and the use of natural and recycled materials. I promise it’s sexier than it sounds.

taos New mexico things to do
Earth Ship

You Gotta Have TexMex When Eating in Taos

There are two levels of food in Taos: delicious TexMex and delicious gourmet offerings. For a high-end (but not fussy) experience, you need to take it to Love Apple. The bright, locally sourced menu is served in a former Catholic church from the 1800s.

Check out the Grand Canyon to Antelope Canyon and things in between

The Alley Cantina is the place for classic TexMex, a dose of history, and a shot of tequila. Located in an alley off the famous plaza, it’s the oldest building in Taos. Originally built as an outpost along the Chihuahua Trail in the 1600s, it was almost destroyed in the war, rebuilt by the Spanish government, and then was the home of the first US Territorial Governor of New Mexico…before he was assassinated. It’s for sure haunted and for sure the best place in town to order your burrito “Christmas Style”.

Where to Stay in Taos, New Mexico:

The big choice here on lodging is between being in town with walking access to restaurants and shops, or out in the gorgeous landscape. If you want to base in town, the Burch Street Casitas is charming and perfect for a group of gals.

Ojo Caliente

Read reviews for Burch Street Casitas on Trip Advisor | Check more accommodations in Taos

Ojo Caliente is the spot if you prefer staying out in the sagebrush. The springs at Ojo have been a gathering place for thousands of years. The ancient ancestors of the Tewa tribes built large pueblos overlooking the springs, and in 1868, the resort and spa opened. There are lots of spas in the world. This one actually feels like a sacred place to rest, reconnect, and rejuvenate in the mineral waters. It’s beautiful without being pretentious, relaxing without being boring, and completely in tune with the surrounding landscape.

Read reviews for Ojo Caliente Resort and Spa on Trip Advisor | Check more accommodations in Taos

Earthship structure in Taos New Mexico

Wild Western Towns to Visit #3: Saratoga, Wyoming

Want to run away to where the deer and the antelope play? Leave the Rhinestone Cowboys in Jackson Hole and head for Saratoga. This tiny town is Wyoming’s best-kept secret for a perfect girl’s getaway. The Cheyenne, Ute, and Arapahoe all came to this area to hunt and soak in the springs, calling it the “place of magic waters.” Get ready for hot springs, surprisingly fantastic cuisine, classic saloons, and endless sunny days exploring the Wild West.

Located at the west edge of the Snowy Mountain Range, Saratoga is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, Colorado, or a little over two hours from Cheyenne, Wyoming. If you’re traveling between Memorial Day and Labor Day, it’s worth a little extra drive time to take the spectacular Snowy Range Scenic Byway and stop for a quick hike on the way into paradise.

Snowy Range Scenic Byway

What to do for Fun in Saratoga, Wyoming

Saratoga has endless rocks to climb, snowy peaks, a rushing river, and skies that stretch forever. Afloat on the North Platte River is a fun and relaxing way to explore the gorgeous landscape. You can use your own tubes or hire an experienced river guide to float your crew down the river in a raft.

Don’t miss the easy Indian Bathtubs hike in nearby Riverside. From the trailhead, you wind through stunning rock outcroppings and down the river canyon. At the top of the hike are large rock formations with rainwater-filled “bathtubs” eroded into the rock. Green Mountain Falls is another great hiking option if you’re looking for more of a challenge (and maybe some moose)!

Cap off the day with a soak in the Hobo Hot Pool, open and free to the public 24/7. Then, head to the Rustic Bar for a shot of an authentic Wyoming saloon experience. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot two stuffed mountain lions doing battle over the bar.

Read about my 10-day Grand Canyon rafting trip

Where to Eat in Saratoga, Wyoming That Will Remind You of New York City

Rural Wyoming isn’t typically known for fabulous cuisine, but that’s where Saratoga shines. Bellas Bistro and Saratoga Sandwich Company are run by classically trained chef Tommy Orduno and his wife Cassie, who grew up on a nearby ranch. Bellas’s handcrafted Italian dishes and the deli counter at the sandwich shop both rival anything you’ll find in New York.

Firewater Public House is a tasty choice for elevated pub grub, set on the banks of the river and specializing in local ingredients like burgers sourced directly from local ranchers.

Where to Stay in Saratoga, Wyoming

The Saratoga Hot Springs Resort is the swanky choice for a relaxing getaway. The teepee-covered natural hot springs on site are packed with minerals but won’t leave you smelling like a boiled egg. With a spa, restaurant, and beer garden all on-site, you can camp out at the resort, chillax, and reconnect with the sound of the river in your ears and the Snowy Mountains on the horizon.

For a little more authentic experience, stay at Hotel Wolf on the main street. Nicknamed “The Grand Old Gal” of the North Platte Valley, this Victorian brick masterpiece has been serving guests for 120 years.

Read TripAdvisor reviews for Hotel Wolf | Read TripAdvisor reviews for Saratoga Hot Springs Resort | Check more accommodations in Saratoga

Snowy mountains and evergreens in the Snowy Mountain Range Saratoga Wyoming

We all need to reconnect with our wild women after months of being isolated inside. The best and safest way is to spend time outside, away from the crowds and tourist traps. Check out Sherry’s picks for other safe trips in Vail, Alaska, and Western South Dakota.

Not able or ready to travel? Pick up a copy of my book, The Wanderlust Diaries, for an epic around-the-world adventure from the comfort of your reading nook!

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Meet the Author

Maria Martinico is the author of many epic meal plans that never came to fruition. She lives in the Rocky Mountains with her crested gecko and a number of carefully-tended grudges. Her debut novel, The Wanderlust Diaries, is a love letter to the freedom and idiocy of being 23 years old with a blank passport. You can follow her on Instagram @therealwanderlustdiaries for more travel book reviews and the occasional glamour shot of her lizard.

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