Summer in Phoenix means hot days and nights. That’s when my husband and I look for cool, crisp mountain air. Far from the madding crowd, sleepy mountain towns are the best places to chill; the smaller, the sleepier, the better. These are the nine that we remember best. They are all at least 6,000 feet in elevation and not more than 5,000 in population. Try one out this summer. You will love it.
Granby, Colorado, is a great skiing area during winter, but when it closed early the previous winter due to COVID, it became our choice for our first COVID family reunion. It’s a small mountain town in the Rockies, 8,000 feet in elevation, with a population of 1,800.
Just 20 minutes from our lodge, Lake Granby offered boats for rent and many options for eating and shopping. From there, we hiked the trail to Adams Falls, a moderately difficult 0.3-mile hike, and continued farther to a clear stream that tumbled to become the lovely waterfall.
Not far is Rocky Mountain National Park, the third most-visited national park in the country, with many trails, campgrounds, and streams. Easy Coyote Trail yielded no wildlife sightings, but at the Holzwarth Historic Site, one moose was feeding quietly near the homestead. And all along the main park road, we saw many more at sundown.
Pro Tip: There are two great day trips from Granby. Hot Sulphur Springs Resort, 30 minutes away, has 23 mineral springs of different sizes and temperatures on a hillside. Also 30 minutes away is the upscale town of Winter Park, Colorado, where we did some shopping and found a branch of the Colorado Nepalese and Indian Bistro chain, Durbar.
2. Big Bear Lake
Located in the San Bernardino Mountains at the south shore of Big Bear Lake, this mountain town is less than a 2-hour drive from Los Angeles. It was easy for our two older grandkids, 24 and 27, to join us for a weekend and make the town of 5,000 our playground in the midst of COVID lockdowns.
Home to wildlife in alpine habitats, including the rare mountain cougar, the Big Bear Alpine Zoo was great for our first morning. Then we hiked the Woodland Trail, a 1.5-mile loop of dry woodlands with 16 interpretive stops explaining the plants, wildlife, and geology of the area. Our first half-day was capped by a picnic at the East Boat Ramp.
The two-block urban area of shops and restaurants, called The Village, was great for our first afternoon: hanging out while enjoying $2.99 sundaes at the Bone Yard Bar & Grill, scouring the shops, and watching the brightly lit carriages shuttling tourists around over dinner.
The next day, we went to Pine Knot Landing and rented a 22-foot pontoon boat. Southern California’s largest recreation lake — 7 miles long and a mile at its widest, 7,000 feet above sea level — became a wonderful base for taking photos of the Big White Dome, the dam, and the unique floating outhouses! Then, we capped off our stay on the large deck of the Pines Lakefront Restaurant, looking out to “our lake.”
Pro Tip: A $5 Adventure Pass allows parking at all trailheads and the use of all restrooms.
When COVID numbers started to decline, the upscale Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort (in the unincorporated community called Snowbird, Utah) reopened, requiring very low points. My husband and I could not pass up the chance. From there, we ticked off a bucket-list item: the Great Salt Lake and Antelope Island, less than an hour away.
Our 1,500-square-foot, one-bedroom suite at The Cliff Lodge also included a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen/bar. One of the two balconies had a Jacuzzi that looked out onto the Wasatch Mountains, with wonderful displays of wildflowers instead of winter ski slopes. Still, we spent time at the high-end spa at the top of The Cliff Club.
With an aerial tram, chairlifts, a mountain coaster, a huge trampoline, summer tubing, the vertical drop, a tree climb, gemstone mining, and the alpine slide, the Snowbird Village was the place to be. The Peruvian Lift and Aerial Tram took us to 11,000 feet for spectacular vistas.
There were other lodging options, nine shopping outlets, five fine-dining establishments, and 11 casual dining restaurants. And there were all these trails: 11 lower mountain, ten mid/upper mountain, and six Mineral Basin Trails for hiking and mountain biking.
Pro Tip: With a Bird Bundle pass, one can avail of a host of summer activities.
4. The Grand Mesa Northern And Southern Terminuses
At over 500 square miles and over 11,000 feet in elevation, Grand Mesa in Colorado is the largest flat-top mountain in the world. With over 300 stream-fed alpine lakes offering great fishing, hiking, and wildlife viewing, it became a great personal retreat. The Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway (State Highway 65) runs through it for 62 miles between Cedaredge, the southern terminus, and Mesa in the north — two special mountain towns!
The Grand Mesa Visitor Center is near Cedaredge, which is at a lower elevation of 6,000 feet. It’s a retirement haven (30 percent of the 2,400 residents are 65 years of age and older) because of the mild climate, low taxes, outdoor recreational opportunities beyond those offered in Grand Mesa, healthcare facilities, and cultural activities. From there, we made a trip to the southern entrance of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
Mesa is higher at 8,000 feet and smaller with only about 600 residents. It is where most of the tourists stay in ski resorts, tiny home villages, lodges, and campgrounds. A ski lift platform took us to breathtaking vistas at the top. We even discovered the American Servicewomen Memorial Park in Collbran, 15 minutes away, the first park to honor women.
Pro Tip: We got supplies from Palisade, down at the foothills dubbed “The Peach Capital of Colorado.”
5. Brian Head And Parowan
Last summer, we had our family reunion at Brian Head, Utah, minutes away from the Cedar Breaks National Monument. Smaller than Bryce Canyon National Park (only an hour away), the Cedar Breaks hoodoos are much larger and more dramatic. It is truly a hidden gem.
The small downtown (population 154) had regular restaurants and shops, but an art/flea market added to the fun. Afterward, we drove up a narrow gravel road to reach Brian Head Peak (12,000 feet). From the very windy overlook, the view of the reddish national monument was surreal; at night, stargazing was spectacular. We were happy we caught the last day of the Wildflower Festival, too.
Cedar City is a valley town of 37,000, about 40 minutes away. But it was Parowan, Utah — at an elevation of 6,000 feet, a population of 3,100, and just 20 minutes away — that caught our fancy. The Parowan Cemetery features frontier-era sandstone fences and markers. We stood in front of the grave of one of the many wives of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church.
At the outskirts of Parowan is a wind gap, a 600-foot-deep notch through the hills cut by an ancient river 15 million years ago. Native Americans carved petroglyphs on the smooth faces of the large boulders. The Parowan Gap Petroglyphs are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Pro Tip: Further on the Gap Road is Dinosaur Footprints Trail, an easy 0.4-mile hike with some dinosaur footprints properly marked.
6. Crested Butte
Several summers ago, my husband’s high school had a reunion in Crested Butte, Colorado, a former coal-mining town with a current population of 1,500 at 8,800 feet in elevation. (The other town of Mt. Crested Butte is at 9,375 feet.) They are famous for skiing and the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. We stayed at the cozy Columbine Cottage with great views of the mountains and the Aspen Glow.
The Silver Queen chair lift took us up 11,000 feet on Gothic Mountain and 1,000 feet more of hiking got us to the top. The area is Colorado’s wildflower capital, and near Kebler Pass, there were troves of lavender, yellow, white, and orange. The movie Swiss Family Robinson was filmed around Lake Irwin. In fact, the Hollywood Cabin is still there. We picnicked near the top of the mountain.
After a great walking tour of downtown hosted by the popular bard from the town museum, we joined all the townsfolk who had gathered for a free outdoor concert on the grounds of the Center of the Performing Arts, with the venerable mountain as the backdrop.
Pro Tip: Some of us did river-rafting on the Taylor River.
7. Taos Pueblo
At 7,000 feet in elevation, Taos Pueblo in New Mexico is a unique mountain town. With a population of 4,500, it’s the oldest continuously inhabited community in the U.S. This World Heritage Site includes 95,000 acres of preserved land called the Blue Lake Wilderness Area of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Red Willow Creek splits the Pueblo into the northern part with the Hlaauma and the southern Hlaukkwima, two adobe Great Houses believed to be more than 1,000 years old. The old church and cemetery have been there since 1619. Today, the modern city of Taos lies nearby for tourists’ dining, shopping, and lodging.
Pro Tip: From Santa Fe, the Low Road that follows the Rio Grande (spectacular in fall) takes you to Taos Pueblo. Going back, take the High Road and stop at the Santuario de Chimayo (built in the 1800s) and marvel at its original 6-foot crucifix.