The 4 Best Adventures in Carbondale, CO

Thirty miles downstream from Aspen, this beautiful spot doesn’t get a ton of attention, but it’s definitely worth your time.

By: Ben Thomas + Save to a List

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, Carbondale is her cool, outdoorsy, still-cultured niece. A lot of athletes call this corner of Western Colorado home (Rock and Ice and Trail Runner magazines are headquartered here for a reason). Here are the best places to camp, hike, bike, and relax.

1. Camping at Prince Creek

Photo: Ben Thomas

Just six miles from Main Street Carbondale, the Prince Creek area is your best bet for a weekend base camp. Sitting on National Forest and BLM land, the area has plenty of pull outs to camp in, limited only by a fourteen-day stay limit. Nestled in scrub oak and eventually pine forests, it’s easy to feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. Come in the summer while it’s lush and green or even better, in the fall when the hillsides turn red, orange, and gold. While the proximity to town is nice, the best reason to camp at Prince Creek is the access to adventure, which leads us conveniently to our next item below. Learn more.

2. Mountain Biking Prince Creek

Photo: Ben Thomas

Shocking, right?! While the camping in Prince Creek is great, this recreation area is known by the locals for its singletrack trails. The Crown, the main foothill that rises above Carbondale to the East, is absolutely laced with trails; mixing up a great mix of fun and flowy singletrack and nice graded roads, all with dynamite views of the Crystal River Valley’s crown jewel, Mount Sopris. Do a breakfast burrito run in the morning to Dos Gringos, and pop in next door to Aloha Mountain Cyclery while you’re at it to get the latest trail conditions and some guidance on what trails are best for you. Make sure to ask about Monte Carlo, the trail that will take you up and over the trail’s abandoned namesake car. Learn more.

3. Hiking Hay Park

Photo: Ben Thomas

If mountain biking isn’t your thing, no worries, your stay in Prince Creek is not for naught. If hiking is more your game, head further up Prince Creek Road past Dinkle Divide to the Thomas Lakes Trailhead. Heading up this trail, you can’t go wrong. If it is a hot summer day and you fancy a swim, at the trail junction about 1.5 miles in, bear right to go up to Thomas Lakes (and if you are really feeling ambitious, maybe tackle Mount Sopris). But, if you want the best-view for-your-effort ratio in the Valley, at the junction turn left and head up to Hay Park. The views are to-die-for. In the summer you’ll be surrounded by wildflowers at every turn and in the fall the changing aspens will leave you speechless. Views to the West show off the massive size of Mount Sopris; to the East, Capitol Peak, one of Colorado’s most dramatic fourteeners rises up; to the North, you can see over the entire Roaring Fork Valley out to the Flattops and Sawatch Range beyond. You can’t go wrong with hikes in this area! (P.S. If mountain biking is your thing and you aren’t biked out from Prince Creek, the Hay Park trail is open to mountain biking as well!) Learn more.

4. Trail Running Red Hill’s Mushroom Rock Loop

Photo: Ben Thomas

This is a controversial choice as there is no shortage of incredible trail runs around Carbondale (including those Prince Creek trails…). But, for a first time visitor, there is no better send-off than a Sunday morning trip up to Mush Rock. Link up the Three Gulch, Blue Ribbon and Mushroom Rock Trails for a heart pumping loop, including a stop at Mushroom Rock for the iconic Sopris-over-Carbondale-view. Looking for a more mellow (or at least shorter) hike to end your weekend? Stop by Hanging Lake on your way back to Denver heading through Glenwood Canyon. Learn more.

Where to Eat

For such a tiny town (6,000 people!), Carbondale has plenty of food options. After hiking, Fat Belly Burgers hits the spot, complete 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. The aforementioned Dos Gringos is a town favorite for burritos and sandwiches as well as coffee and pastries. (Seriously, their breakfast burritos are rocket fuel; I’ve snowboarded a half-day, ran a 10 miler on snow, and shoveled our sidewalk all on a single bacon, egg, and potato with salsa verde). If you want to carbo load Friday night to get ready for the big weekend, deep dish pizza or pasta at White House Pizza is the way to go. White House is the best pizza in the state— yes, better than BeauJo’s, and I grew up on BeauJo’s. On top of it all, if you show up to any of these places in lycra or polypro, no worries, you will blend right in. Especially if you have Sunday brunch with all the locals at The Village Smithy, a Carbondale classic with just about every breakfast item you can imagine and all top-notch.

A few extra tips

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 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. Along the way, maybe tag on a quick trip to the Crystal Mill.

If you do want to indulge your “civilized side” both The Goat and Town are fantastic, higher-end dining options. Both menus are incredible.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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