Coloradans know we’re approaching one of the best times of year to get out into the mountains. And also one of the shortest times. Starting early September, we’re watching the leaf changing forecast like hawks, hoping to hit the road for a day drive or weekend tour during the peak Colorado gold rush — on the aspen trees, that is. And while summer and winter seem to be the hardest times to find travel reservations — for hotels, restaurants, you name it — in our beloved mountain towns, fall is no joke, either.

In an effort to spread the love from the better-known Aspens and Vails of our fair state, we’ve compiled a handful of smaller mountain town destinations that are just as lovely this season or any, and just as charming when it comes to sights, stays and places to sit for a bite and a drink. Here are five to check out this fall. And if you want more still, check out our companion small-town summer guide. Have another favorite Colorado mountain hamlet? Feel free to write to us or leave it in the comments.

Josie Sexton, The Denver Post

A soup and salad lunch at True Nature Healing Arts in Carbondale, on Sept. 11, 2017.

Carbondale

Your last stop between Glenwood Springs and Aspen on a road trip could be (arguably, should be) the destination itself. Carbondale is a Colorado Creative District with arts and culture, craft breweries and distilleries, trails and restaurants to boot. Set under towering Mount Sopris, the town’s Main Street is a picturesque stretch for strolling after your leaf-peeping drive or hike.

See: Drive south toward Redstone and Marble to see the aspen leaves. For serious hikers, off-roaders and photographers, a visit to the Crystal Mill is a must, especially in fall.

Crystal Mill, Sept. 23, 2015.

Louie Traub, Outdoor Project

Crystal Mill pictured on Sept. 23, 2015.

Stay: Because a simple hotel won’t do, make a reservation at The Distillery Inn. Its five rooms have the added bonus of being located above Marble Distilling Co., a women-led spirits house specializing in vodka, liqueurs (try the Moonlight Expresso), as well as whiskey and bourbon.

Eat: There are so many quality eateries to discover in Carbondale, but our favorite for the experience is the cafe at True Nature Healing Arts, where you can have fresh, organic snacks or meals while enjoying the surrounding gardens (and be sure to check out the center’s many wellness offerings).

Josie Sexton, The Denver Post

Downtown Paonia pictured on Oct. 13, 2020. (Josie Sexton, The Denver Post)

Paonia

If you’re driving CO-133 south from Carbondale, Paonia is just a (scenic) hop down the road. It’s your early fall destination for agro-tourism of all kinds — wine, fruits, flowers, even cheese. And its quaint downtown feels miles away (in a good way) from the more built-up mountain towns.

Aspen trees surround a teepee at ...

Josie Sexton, The Denver Post

Aspen trees surround a teepee at an Airbnb in Paonia.

See: Peep the aspen leaves while driving through the North Fork Valley and on down to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, just 24 miles south.

Stay: This is the land of vineyard-side guest rooms and tucked-away B&Bs. Families or small groups should check out the historic Stuart Mesa School house, which has been transformed into an idyllic country retreat.

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