Thirteen miles south of Glenwood Springs, hang a right at the red rock cliffs to head into Carbondale, a mellow, outdoor-minded town of 6,500 tucked at the confluence of the Crystal and Roaring Fork rivers. It’s impossible not to stare at towering Mount Sopris, whose rocky twin summits preside over the valley from 12,966 feet. Just thirty miles down the road is Aspen, yet quiet, down-to-earth Carbondale seems worlds away from the glitz and glam of its more famous neighbor.
No celeb-spotting or nightclub-hopping here: Instead, Carbondale has authentic outdoor cred, with world-class hiking, mountain biking, alpine skiing, and snowboarding, Nordic skiing, and hot springs not far from the door. And when you’re ready to unwind, its historic downtown will woo you with charm. Here, we offer options for how to make the most of a weekend in this quaint Western town.
Where to Fuel Up For the Day
For a morning jolt, Bonfire Coffee is the happening spot in the heart of downtown. This place cares about its coffee, sourcing the beans and roasting them in small batches. The talented baristas might even whip up a cat in your cappuccino foam. If you’re hungry, you can order breakfast or lunch at the counter.
You might have to wait for a table at Village Smithy, a locals’ favorite that lures folks from Aspen. Food is standard but hearty—plates here can hold you all day. The menu includes the usual suspects: scrambles, skillets, omelets, and huevos rancheros, plus burgers and salads at lunchtime.
Dos Gringos and Café Olé's offerings stray well beyond Mexican fare to flavors from Asia, Europe, and beyond. Still, the breakfast burritos remain a favorite, especially among the pre-ski crowd. Town, meanwhile, garners more talk at dinnertime (more on that below), but it also offers counter service for casual breakfast and lunch. The baked goods are divine, and the grilled ham and cheese might be the best to ever cross your lips.
Red Hill Recreation Area is a ribbon-like network of hiking and mountain biking trails that climb above the red rocks at the northern edge of town. For a quick burn, bust up the Mushroom Rock Trail, a hiking route that scrambles up the ridgeline and delivers stunning views of Carbondale, Mount Sopris, and the Roaring Fork River Valley. If knobby tires get you going, grunt up the hill on Blue Ribbon or Three Gulch to reach a killer mountain biking loop system. Do some laps, or keep going along the challenging Elk Traverse and get out to the Northside Loop (note that this part is closed December 1–March 31).
For those whose technical mountain biking skills skew lower on the spectrum, the Porcupine Loop is an easier option—14 miles that combine pavement, dirt road, and singletrack—rideable right from town.
Road bikers relish the 42-mile Rio Grande Trail, a paved path that traces the Roaring Fork Valley from Glenwood Springs to Aspen. Another option is the Crystal Valley Trail, a multi-use path that branches off the Rio Grande Trail in Carbondale and heads south for seven miles toward Redstone.
If you’re up for a beast of a hike, tackle Mount Sopris—a butt-kicker that climbs 4,300 feet and requires the better part of a long day. Just shy of 13er status at 12,966 feet, its snub-worthy elevation (by Colorado standards) belies the commitment it takes to get to the top. Those who can’t stomach the thought of a double-digit day can stop just below treeline at the alluring Thomas Lakes.
For Nordic skiing, the 13 miles of groomed trails at the Spring Gulch Trail System can’t be beat, winding across private ranchland seven miles outside of town. Even the drive through rolling countryside to get there is a feast for the eyes. Check the grooming report and piece together the perfect route for you. Note that this area is open to skiers only—no hikers, snowshoers, fat bikers, sleds, or dogs.
Downhill skiers and snowboarders might have a tough time choosing from five different areas, all approximately 40 minutes from Carbondale. Outside of Glenwood Springs is sleepy Sunlight, where lift tickets are a bargain at $63. Aspen has four ski areas—Aspen Mountain (right downtown), Aspen Highlands (known for steeps), Snowmass (with everything from greens to gnar), or Buttermilk (beginner-friendly slopes). If you want to toss back a few at après, hop the bus that runs up and down the valley to Aspen.
Sunlight also has 18 miles of groomed trails for Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. Come summer, the trail system converts to a prime mountain biking destination.
Grab a Bite
On a nice day, wander over to the sidewalk window at Señor Taco Show, a family-run joint that focuses on fresh, homemade ingredients cooked with love and care. You might even chat with Señor Taco himself, otherwise known as Francisco, a friendly fellow who studied tacos along the coast of Mexico before bringing authentic flavors of his homeland to Colorado. A couple of tables inside provide refuge when the weather isn‘t nice.
Come nighttime, Town steps it up a notch, shifting the menu to more upscale fare. Dig into small plates, sophisticated pasta, or full-on feasts like grilled flatiron steak or slow-roasted pork shoulder. The lively dining room with exposed brick walls will likely tempt you to linger while sipping handcrafted cocktails.
The Goat Restaurant is another popular pick, serving nibbles with a Mediterranean slant as well as burgers (beef, lamb, tuna, or buffalo), salads, pasta, and sandwiches. If you’re hankering for a straightforward burger and fries, Fatbelly is the place, where you can grab and go, sit on the patio, or nestle into the small room at the back.
After a day of hard charging, what’s better than hot springs? Penny Hot Springs are one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets—a series of unassuming pools along the banks of the Crystal River. Try to ferret them out (north of mile marker 55 on Highway 133), or book a soak up the road at Avalanche Ranch, which is open to day visitors by reservation. (For beta on both, check out 6 (More) Stellar Hot Springs in Colorado.)
When you’re ready for a drink, sidle up to the bar at the The Marble Distilling Co. and sip handcrafted vodka, rye/wheat whiskey, gingercello (think limoncello with a twist), and Moonlight EXpresso—a coffee liqueur. This place also has five downright deluxe hotel rooms for those willing to really shell out for lodging.
Rest Your Head
Chain hotels like Days Inn and Comfort Inn offer the bulk of rooms right in town. For something on the more funky side, stay in a covered wagon at Avalanche Ranch, 11.5 miles south of Carbondale. Yes, this is the same place with the hot springs. If you can spring a few more pennies, upgrade yourself from a wagon to a cozy cabin.
For those who prefer to pitch a tent, drive 13 miles south of Carbondale to Avalanche Campground, a U.S. Forest Service campground with six campsites on Avalanche Creek Road. This is a good launching point to hike the Avalanche Creek Trail, which climbs into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
You can find dispersed camping on Bureau of Land Management land along Thompson Creek Road. Take paved county road 108 from Carbondale to Jerome Park and then turn east on a dirt road to the Thompson Creek Trailhead. This road gets muddy and slippery when wet, so it’s best avoided during rains.
And finally, the super secret glamping find: Cedar Ridge Ranch, an Airbnb with one luxurious furnished tent on a private ranch just outside of town.