1. Gateway Canyons Resort
Drive time: 3 hours from Aspen via I-70
The road through Unaweep Canyon in far western Colorado may be the state’s most beautiful drive you don’t know about. Follow State Highway 141 south and west from a dot on the map known as Whitewater, and you’ll travel through an alpine setting along East Creek, ancient granite walls alternating with dense stands of evergreen, before the scenery morphs into a desert panorama of red sandstone cliffs soaring above sagebrush-dotted pastures. Said to be the only one of its kind in the world, the canyon is a geological anomaly: it includes two creeks that flow in opposite directions from a barely discernible high point.
This unique route is a fitting approach to Gateway Canyons, the uncommon resort owned by Discovery Channel founder John Hendricks. It has many of the amenities you’d expect at a high-end hotel—nicely appointed rooms, beautifully landscaped grounds, a fine-dining restaurant, a full-service spa. But then things veer off into less expected territory, with a first-class horse ranch, a customized AStar 350 for heli tours, high-performance sports car rentals, educational outings to view ancient rock art and ghost towns, and one amazing on-site car museum.
With its adobe buildings, the resort seems more Scottsdale or Sedona than Colorado. It’s also small enough—72 rooms—to feel like a private club, an impression compounded by the fact that the nearest town has no services other than a general store owned by the resort. That means you’ll be eating at one of the two on-site restaurants, augmented by a coffee shop and a food truck next to the general store that dishes up tasty sandwiches and tacos.
Accommodations, from the spacious two-room units in the Kayenta Lodge to the Kiva Suites with private outdoor hot tubs, have a classic Southwestern style. For ultimate privacy, book one of the 14 stand-alone casitas, each with its own outdoor shower.
But you’ll want to spend plenty of time outdoors. Benches and pergolas scattered around the property afford views of the Palisade, the massive rock feature across the road. In the evening, pause by one of the ponds on your way back from dinner; it’s when the scores of resident frogs emit their deep, resonant croaks, sounding something like a string quartet playing a modern piece.
Gateway’s Adventure Center guides the rugged trek required to summit the Palisade, as well as other hikes, mountain bike rides, jeep and UTV drives, fly fishing, and target-range practice. Or, if you prefer to venture out on your own, they’ll point you in the right direction. Even if you’re a hardened DIYer, it’s fun to head out with Zebulon Miracle, the resort’s “curator of curiosity” and a former administrator at the Museum of Western Colorado in nearby Grand Junction. He could take you up the Dolores River Canyon, for example, to check out 150-million-year-old dinosaur tracks—some of which he’s only recently discovered—or to Calamity Camp, a onetime mining town.
Likewise, even if you’re not a car buff, don’t miss the auto museum, with 45 classic American models from Hendricks’s collection, spanning the early 20th century through the 1970s. If the sight of all that carbureted gorgeousness inspires you to hit the open road, reserve a car from the resort’s specialized rental fleet, which includes Corvettes, Porsches, Bentleys, and more. Navigate one of these beauties through Unaweep Canyon, and the drive becomes even more memorable.
From $529 per night. gatewaycanyons.com
2. Sylvan Lake State Park
Drive time: 1 hour 45 minutes from Aspen via Cottonwood Pass
It’s relatively close, but this placid 42-acre lake within the White River National Forest remains under the radar for many Aspenites. No gas-powered boats are allowed on the trout-stocked lake, making for a peaceful setting in which to paddle a kayak, canoe, or SUP (all available to rent), or to wet a line. To make a night of it, book one of 46 campsites or glamp it up in the park’s large cabin with kitchen and bath or one of eight log camper cabins—no wrangling tent poles or waking up covered in dew keeps everyone happy. Three park yurts, 9 miles from the lake, are also available. You’ll still want to bring a headlamp—both the cabins and yurts have limited solar lighting—camp stove, and linens for comfort or a sleeping bag for camping authenticity. And, of course, remember the marshmallows!
Reserving a campsite in advance online is highly recommended. coloradostateparks.reserveamerica.com
3. Taylor River Lodge
Drive time: 3 hours 30 minutes from Aspen via Kebler Pass
Take a riverside fishing resort dating from 1949, painstakingly rebuild the log cabins with timeless rusticity, add modern-day amenities and understated luxury, and you’ve got Taylor River Lodge. This small getaway 11 miles from Almont on the road through Taylor Canyon is one of the newest properties from Eleven Experience, whose international holdings range from Scarp Ridge Lodge in nearby Crested Butte to Iceland’s Deplar Farm to Bahama House on Harbour Island (next up is Chile). Owner Chad Pike, 46, also a top-ranking exec at Blackstone Europe, got into the lodging business to create the sort of environment he wanted to vacation in. With a zeal for providing well-heeled guests with unforgettable adventures in beautiful settings, Eleven has now mastered a particular type of hospitality that provides first-rate accoutrements in an appealingly informal style.
Taylor River Lodge neatly embodies this approach. Behind an unassuming gated entrance (there’s not even a sign) are just six studio cabins with queen beds, as well as two three-bedroom cabins; all were tastefully designed by No. 12 Interiors (the firm run by Pike’s wife, Blake) in an eclectic Western style and are kitted out with steam showers, mini-bars, Bluetooth-compatible speakers, and an especially generous array of toiletries (from sunscreen to Band-Aids).
A pondside main lodge and cabins housing a spa, a game room, a pro shop, and a pool are spaced around the 8-acre grounds, which are wonderfully thick with the scent of mature lodgepole pine and spruce. Vintage Schwinn cruiser bikes are on hand for guests looking to cut down the trip to breakfast, say, from a five-minute walk to a one-minute ride.
Most visitors to the property liken it to a summer camp for adults. The metaphor is certainly apt, but the property is plenty family friendly, too, with a teepee for wee ones to hide out in; a stocked trout pond perfect for budding anglers; sleeping lofts in a couple of the cabins that are a kid’s dream hideaway; and gourmet s’mores fixings delivered after dinner to one of the many fire pits (you may well vie with your child to score the last homemade marshmallow).
Aside from the opportunities to play and explore, Taylor River Lodge offers numerous ways to relax deeply. Whether it’s lounging poolside while listening to tunes from the integrated sound system (you’ll notice a preponderance of Grateful Dead) or reading a book on the porch of your cabin, perhaps the best luxury is feeling like you have to do … absolutely nothing.
And, of course, there’s the river. I once lived along the Roaring Fork in Aspen, and I loved going to sleep to the sound of the water rushing by, hitting bass notes as it tumbled over rocks in the riverbed. I found that same experience here; my cabin was a mere 10 steps from an embankment that plunged to the Taylor River below. I made sure to sleep with the windows open.
Take a guided fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking, or rafting excursion on nearby trails and rivers, or try your hand at ax throwing, archery, the climbing wall, or casting at the trout pond, all on site. The games cabin includes pool, foosball, darts, and one incredibly comfy couch by the big-screen TV (one of only four on the property). And there are lawn games galore: croquet, slacklining, cornhole, and more.
The diminutive spa and fitness center houses two cardio machines, weights, a Pilates reformer, and two massage rooms.
A massive glass garage-style door opens the pool house to the outdoors. Soak in the hot tub, swim against the wave resistance feature in the saline pool, or sweat it out in the sauna or steam room. Then order up a spicy margarita from the main lodge and sip it on the poolside deck.
Meals prepared with local ingredients are served in the luxe-rustic main lodge and on its lovely riverside deck. Be sure to try one of Eleven’s house-brewed beers. Your in-cabin mini bar contains ample snacks, including house-made whole-food nibbles like coconut-lemon-almond bites, as well as wine, beer, and natural sodas.
The full experience (from $1,670 per night for two) includes two guided activities each day, all meals, and complimentary mini bar. A catered lodge experience, sans guiding but with meals, is also available. The lodge is open from early June through the end of October. elevenexperience.com
4. The Poor Farm
Drive time: 2 hours from Aspen via Independence Pass
One of Colorado’s newest lodgings, picturesquely located along the Arkansas River, owes its existence to the artisanal cocktail scene. That’s because it will be operated by the owners of Dram Apothecary—maker of bitters, syrups, drinking vinegars, and more—who decided to relocate to Salida after a four-year run in tiny Silver Plume. “We felt we had outgrown life in the sleepy town,” says Dram co-owner Shae Whitney of herself and her partner, Brady Becker. “Over the time we were there, the I-70 corridor became increasingly busy and noisy, so we were ready to escape even more from the sprawl of Denver.” They chose Salida after a lengthy property search for a place to grow the organic herbs that form the basis of their concoctions. Having stumbled across a listing for the Poor Farm online, the couple has now been hard at work transforming the property’s historic house (built in 1891), into an Airbnb that will open August 1 and have six individually rented guest rooms with private baths, as well as attic space for an artist residency program that will commence this fall.
From $130 per night (no children or pets). dramapothecary.com
5. Great Sand Dunes
Drive time: 3 hours from Aspen via Independence Pass
The San Luis Valley is otherworldly. About the size of Connecticut, this enormous, pancake-flat area is bordered on the east by the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and hard up against them lies one of Colorado’s most striking geological oddities: Great Sand Dunes National Park. Fall’s cooler temps are perfect for visiting the Saharan enclave. Rent a sled at the store just outside the park entrance (trust us—it will work on sand better than your plastic saucer), hike up the dunes, and slide to your heart’s content. In nearby Hooper, hit the UFO Watchtower, said to be the locus of more than 130 sightings. Visit the attraction’s “garden” of eclectic offerings left by guests, and try to feel the energy of the two vortexes. Otherworldly, indeed.
6. Bears Ears National Monument
Drive time: 4 hours 30 minutes from Aspen
Love Moab’s range of activities, but want a more relaxed vibe? Keep your car pointed south until you get to Monticello, at the eastern edge of Bears Ears National Monument—yes, that Bears Ears. The rugged desertscape offers everything from hiking, rafting, canyoneering, mountain biking, off-roading, or dirt biking to simply gazing at the stars, all without the crowds. At 1.3 million acres, Bears Ears has a vast cache of treasures. Think sweeping canyon walls covered in petroglyphs and pictographs, shaded creeks, and ancestral ruins visible only if you’re willing to get out of the car and look for them. As a national monument, it does not have the infrastructure of a national park like Arches, and since a comprehensive management plan is still in the works, your adventure is up to you. For an incredible day, start with traveling the San Juan River by raft, inflatable kayak, or SUP. Then head to Butler Wash to see the Wolfman panel petroglyph and ruins, all within a mile of the trailhead. For a different perspective, hike the trail to the top of Comb Ridge, a solid workout that ends in sweeping views of the area from atop the jagged, almost 80-mile-long monocline.
In addition to two no-frills bunkrooms, the Canyon Country Discovery Center (fourcornersschool.org) in Monticello is an informational gem, with interactive exhibits and programs, a climbing wall, and fabulous guides. The Desert Rose Inn and Cabins (desertroseinn.com) in Bluff offers more traditional lodging (the two-bedroom cabin with kitchen is ideal for families). Remember to bring your own booze—this is a dry county. Located on the San Juan River three miles west of Bluff, the Sand Island Campground has 27 first-come sites ($10 each), plus pit toilets, picnic tables, fire grates, and drinking water, as well as impressive petroglyphs. Dispersed pack-in, pack-out camping is available elsewhere in Bears Ears.
The Peace Tree Juice Café in Monticello (516 N. Main St.) is a fresh food oasis with an array of vibrant offerings.
Bears Ears has no official visitor center, so seeking out local knowledge is your best bet. Check in with the Canyon Country Discovery Center (800-525-4456) or BLM office (435-587-1500) in Monticello, the Blanding Visitor Center (435-678-3662), or Kane Gulch Ranger Station in Cedar Mesa. blm.gov