Carbondale, Colorado–thirty miles downstream from Aspen, this beautiful spot doesn’t get a ton of attention, but it’s definitely worth your time. It’s a great breath of fresh air after the hoity-toity crowd; if Aspen is a stuck-up wealthy old lady who’s had too much work done (the most common type of person you’ll see in Aspen), Carbondale is her cool, outdoorsy, still-cultured niece. A lot of athletes call this corner of Western Colorado home, and I’m not talking soccer and football players; these are extreme athletes, mountain bikers, ultra runners, and rock climbers (Rock and Ice and Trail Runner magazines are headquartered here for a reason). But don’t think for a moment that Carbondale is all go-go-go; there’s plenty of relaxing, eating and drinking to do while you’re here.
Friday Night: Welcome to Carbondale!
Roll into town and check into your B&B or Airbnb; if you want the hotel experience there are two to choose from: a Days Inn and a Comfort Inn, both on the edge of town close to the highway. The Comfort Inn is universally preferred, but nothing special overall. Across the street from both hotels is The Goat, a tiny restaurant with a delicious menu and a great vibe. The tuna burger is something special. If it’s still light out after dinner and you need to burn some calories, head over to Delaney Nature Park for a walk around the loop (just be aware this is the town dog park; if you don’t like canines stay away). Here, you’ll get great views of Mount Sopris, the mountain that rules over town like a queen. Afterward, get to bed early–you’ve got a big, beautiful morning ahead of you!
Saturday: Hiking, Great Views and Great Food
Get an early start. Stop at Dos Gringos, right on Highway 133 for something caffeinated and a breakfast burrito or bagel sandwich, and then head up Prince Creek Road to the Hay Park Trailhead–yep, you’re hiking! The Hay Park hike is just under 7 1/2 miles out and back (if you turn around at the fence crossing), but don’t worry, it’s only steep right at the beginning, then it levels out and the views are to-die-for. It can be muddy in the spring; in the summer you’ll be surrounded by wildflowers at every turn; and in the fall the changing aspens will leave you speechless. This hike takes me longer than normal because I am constantly stopping to take pictures.
Where to Eat and Shop
After hiking, you should get back to town around lunchtime; Fat Belly Burgers on Main Street is a solid choice, with locally-sourced beef. If you don’t eat meat, Bonfire Coffee (also on Main) has good salads and a couple good vegetarian sandwiches, plus smoothies, pastries and coffee. At this point, I’m always ready for a shower and a nap. If you’re the Energizer Bunny, browsing the shops and galleries on Main Street is a great way to spend the afternoon. For such a tiny town (6,000 people!), Carbondale has an abundance of art. Sculptures appear on street corners and there are at least five galleries right in the center of town. There are also two antique stores not-to-be-missed: Out West and Strange Imports.
Once you’ve rested and seen what there is to see in town, you’re probably thinking about dinner; town. is the place to go on a Saturday night in Carbondale (in other words, make sure you have a reservation). Order the bread course and one of their amazing cocktails to start, and then good luck choosing an entree. The menu changes seasonally, so things are super-fresh and often sourced from nearby farms. I’ve never been disappointed in a meal here. This is where Ben and I bring all our visitors, and it’s where we came to celebrate our engagement. We love it.
If you’re the going-out type, don’t let Carbondale’s tiny size fool you. People here like to party. I recommend starting at Beer Works, which can be crazy-busy on nights with live music but is always fun and pretty laid-back. The house beers aren’t great but they are drinkable and they pack a punch; this isn’t PBR so watch your intake (the guest beers are usually consistent, if you’re worried about having too much). After 10pm or so is a great time to wander down to Phat Thai, a chic Thai restaurant in the early evening and a dance club, fondly referred to as “Frat Thai” by locals, later on. You can stop at The Pour House on the way if you want to have a drink with the older crowd, maybe meet a rancher or two. I definitely recommend skipping The Black Nugget; I’ve had really fun nights there but the crowd is totally hit-or-miss and it’s been mostly miss lately. However, if your drink of choice is Fireball and you fancy getting hit on by a roughneck, The Black Nugget is a great choice.
Sunday: Recovery…and more hiking!
The Village Smithy
You might be in need of something greasy this morning, maybe with a dark coffee and a tall mimosa? No matter what you like to cure a hangover (or just to cap off a fun weekend), The Village Smithy is a classic. Pretty much everybody loves this restaurant; I heard a lady say one morning that she had eaten there the previous day and drove back down from Snowmass Village, which has perfectly decent breakfast joints and is a 30-minute drive away, to eat there a second time. It’s that beloved. You will definitely have to wait for a table.
Ready for more? Let’s hike Red Hill.
If you and your legs are feeling refreshed after brunch, head over to Red Hill before leaving town. A hike up to Mushroom Rock, aka Mush Rock, is steep but short and you’ll be rewarded with the iconic Carbondale-from-above view from that picture up top.
A few tips
- No matter where you hike, or for how long, bring plenty of water, a snack, and a light rain jacket.
- For that matter, drink a lot of water throughout your visit. Not only are you more than 6,000 feet above sea level, you’re in the high desert, which means your skin and eyes will be pretty dry and you’ll dehydrate quickly. And have your painkiller of choice on hand; that and water are your best tools against altitude sickness, which is very real and not to be messed with.
- If you can, schedule your visit for the first weekend of the month. First Friday is when people come out of the woodwork to support their local businesses and the bar scene is extra-fun.
- If you prefer biking to hiking, you’re in luck. You can mountain bike on pretty much any nearby trail, and for road bikers, the Rio Grande Trail (paved) stretches 42 miles from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.
- If it’s summer or fall and you have some extra time (or you’re headed south), drive the West Elk Loop scenic byway over to Crested Butte for more jaw-dropping views (why else would you visit Colorado, after all) and another adorable, fun mountain town.