Travel

These Colorful Towns Are a Gateway to Colorado's Most Trippy National Park

It's like 'Mad Max' meets 'Gilmore Girls'.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

There’s nothing like the smell of dankly fresh mountain air with a waft of pine and musty earth. That alone is reason enough to go to Colorado. But the reasons add up. Maybe you’re looking for high-altitude adventure. Maybe the tallest sand mountains in North America have piqued your interest. Maybe you want to sandboard in a Mad-Max-like terrain at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Whatever calls you to the southern area of Colorado, there’s a cluster of cute villages in the region where you can cozy up to the small town charm. Flanked by a spread of 14,000-foot-tall mountains (aka 14ers), the towns of Buena Vista, Salida, and Del Norte all offer wild west settings; hiking, ziplining, horseback riding, rafting, or rock climbing adventures; and sit within a short drive to the national park.

Just over two hours from Denver, the three towns also deliver on art, music, and tasty eats. You’ll find wood-fired pizzas, dressed-up burgers, and made-in-Colorado craft brews. You really could take your pick of either Buena Vista, Salida, or Del Norte for your hotel base camp, and then make easy day trips to explore either of the other two towns. And with airstreams, a music-festival-adjacent hotel, and outdoor-centric motor lodges with fire pits, you’re sure to be pleased as pie with whichever you pick.

Here’s where to stay and what to do in Southern Colorado so you can visit national parks, adventure in the outdoors, and unwind in town.

Now This is Colorado
Now This is Colorado
Now This is Colorado

Find rushing rivers or calm hot springs in Buena Vista

Set along the famed Arkansas River, Buena Vista-or “BV” if you’re in the know-is often referred to as the white water rafting capital of Colorado. Families and beginners head to the relatively calm Browns Canyon National Monument, while Pine Creek offers more advanced rafting runs with drops over boulders and steep pour overs.

Whatever your poison, you might want to slow things down afterwards with more relaxing waters. Rest your weary muscles inside one of the five pools at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, whose warm temperatures (ranging from 97-108°F) are known for their healing, mineral-rich properties. You can also wade in the creek’s “hot spots” or drop inside the onsite spa for a deep tissue massage using a native hemp-derived Colorado CBD cream.

Photo by Scott Peterson
Photo by Scott Peterson
Photo by Scott Peterson

Go from ziplining to art galleries in Salida

About twenty five minutes from BV is Salida, a former railroad depot town and an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. For dangling ziplines, scaling cliffs, and challenge courses (think swinging bridges and tightropes), the adventure park Captain Zipline has you covered.

Looking for less adrenaline? Across the river, you’ll discover the Arkansas Trails with easy and short loop options, while advanced hikers hit the North Backbone and Sweet Dreams trails. You can also stroll the mellow Arkansas River Walk, a paved stretch with several resting spots.

And if you’re the type who wants the most chill of chill, you’ll find a concentration of local art galleries spread along downtown’s Victorian-style buildings, including Four Winds and Indian Paintbrush Studios.

Photo courtesy of Big River Collective
Photo courtesy of Big River Collective
Photo courtesy of Big River Collective

Rock climb and cycle in Del Norte

In the San Luis Valley, Del Norte has an old-timey Western vibe-but this is Colorado, so you’ll get plenty of adventure, too. Penitente Canyon is known for its 300-plus technical rock climbing routes and surreal volcanic landscapes. Cycling enthusiasts relish pedalling on the newly unveiled Rio Grande and Del Norte Trails. The Stone Quarry route grants 3,000-foot elevations and Middle Frisco is a six-plus-mile, one-way trail passing through aspen groves and ending at Frisco Lake.

After your climb or ride, head to the cavernous emporium of the General Specific Store. Here you can score the local 4-11 from the store’s enthusiastic proprietor, Corey Hubbardhas. Or just browse the taxidermy, mid-century furniture, art books, and other curious curiosities.

NAN ZHONG/Moment/Getty Images
NAN ZHONG/Moment/Getty Images
NAN ZHONG/Moment/Getty Images

Go sandboarding and stargazing in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Welcome to the land of 5 billion cubic meters of sand spanning over 30 miles and reaching 750-feet high. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is really the star activity in this area no matter which town you choose to stay in. The otherworldly landscapes here are surrounded by the mysterious Sangre de Cristo Mountains and have the highest mountains of sand in North America.

While there’s plenty to do here (like camping, climbing, or horseback riding), try sandboarding-a singular surfing-meets-snowboarding-meets-skateboarding experience that lets you coast down a mountain of sand. Just like it sounds, all you need is a board and a bit of balance as you strap your feet in and slide down a mound of softly packed powder. Get geared up from these local outfits.

At night, stargazers and sky aficionados descend on the land for a variety of astronomy programs. Your only job is to look up as thousands of stars brighten up the terrain.

The Buena Viking
The Buena Viking
The Buena Viking

Eat breakfast burritos, apple cider bacon, and wings, paired with so many beers

Lines form early at The Blend in Buena Vista, where iced coffee, smoothies, acai bowls, and breakfast burritos line the menu. Just down the street, Buena Viking fires up an elevated Blue Sky burger with local beef, melted blue cheese crumbles, apple cider bacon, and an airy brioche bun. Here, vegetarians can nosh on a seared portobello burger with garlic aioli and avocado (and don’t miss the crisp cheddar tots). On the same stretch, the Lariat is a restaurant/bar/music venue set in a renovated building from 1885. In addition to libations and comfort fare like wings and corn dog bites, the stage is set for live “mountain made” music.

If you find yourself in Salida any morning, roll by Bunny and Clyde’s Corner Cafe and Market for hearty breakfast burritos or biscuits and gravy. The chic Howl Mercantile & Coffee whips up warm cups of joe alongside practical camping supplies and boho wares. You can also couple your short stacks with handmade German Italian sausage at the Patio Pancake Palace. For microbrews and thin, wood-fired pizza, the laid-back Amicas is a solid choice, and afterwards, head to the rustic Wood’s High Mountain Distillery for a made-on-the-premises whiskey flight.

Del Norte also gets in on the food action. Beloved for its sourdough breads, Raisin’ Rye also bakes gooey chocolate chip cookies and fresh-milled cinnamon rolls made with coconut sugar and a dab of cream. Across the street, Simple Foods Market stocks organic produce and made-to-order sandwiches. For wood-fired pies and stuffed calzones, Three Barrel Brewing doubles as a fun local spot pouring sours, IPAs, lagers, and a nutty Burnt Toast brown ale with a mildly sweet coffee aroma. The recently-renovated, Victorian-vibed dining room of the 20-room Windsor Hotel serves fresh pastas and local meats-and there’s also a seasonal backyard food truck with burgers and po’boys.

Amigo Motor Lodge
Amigo Motor Lodge
Amigo Motor Lodge

Dream up rustic dreams

At the Surf Hotel and Chateau in Buena Vista, 42 rooms are decked with macrame artwork and New Orleans-style balconies, alongside several quaint stone cottages. Outside, a pristine trail backs up along the Arkansas River, giving you front row action to white water rafting. You can also visit the “lawn” for one of the hotel’s rotating music festivals while the wood-hued eatery Wesley & Rose offers on-tap suds, tasty handmade pizzas, and a house-smoked brisket with a tart cherry BBQ sauce.

In Salida, drop your bags at the 1950s retro-flared Amigo Motor Lodge. Amigo has Southwestern-styled rooms and artfully curated decor, such as hanging swings around a central fireplace, as well as other outdoor, tent-like swings. You can also opt for the dog-friendly, retro Airstream trailers, with access to fire pits and a communal hot tub.

Over in Del Norte, you’ll find many similarly styled and thoughtful touches at the Mellow Moon. This unfussy, 10-room boutique hotel is set in a 1940s motor lodge and calls itself “eco-chic,” using organic linens and eschewing harsh chemicals or single-use plastics. There’s also an on-site coffee truck and bike shop offering fat bikes, cruisers, and mountain bikes.

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Kate Donnelly is a NYC-based writer who covers food, booze and travel. Follow her on Instagram.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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