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Black Canyon of the Gunnison —Courtesy of Photo Kent / Flickr via Creative Commons

First-Timer’s Guide: Gunnison

If you blast through this funky ranching town on your way to Crested Butte, you're missing out.

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Way out west, where the wildflowers grow, sits a town full of real Americana. Most people, though, likely pass right through Gunnison, hood ornaments pointed toward the West Elk Mountains star Crested Butte. That’s their loss. Those who pause long enough to soak up the rich tapestry that composes this quaint, 8,400-person ranching (and college) town will find an equally fulfilling dose of outdoor adventure—and fewer crowds.

The Odometer: 194 miles (3.5 hours), one way

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Eat: Get your morning dose of caffeine from Double Shot Cyclery, a three-year-old café that doubles as a bike shop, brought to you by former pro-bike mechanic Dan Crean. Firebrand Delicatessen is a classic Gunnison hangout and the place to go for a sandwich to pack for your day’s adventure. Come evening, choose between Asian-influenced fare made with veggies grown in the garden at Twisted Fork, savory tacos from Anejo Bistro & Bar, or beloved New American restaurant Blackstock Bistro (if you’re there on a Wednesday, do not miss Blackstock’s sushi night). Wash it all down with a pint of Gunny Gold Kolsch from year-old High Alpine Brewing.

Get Outside: If it’s still warm enough for water sports, get thee to the Blue Mesa at Elk Creek Marina, 15 miles west of Gunnison, for kayak or stand-up paddleboard rentals. Or just simply admire the stunning Blue Mesa Reservoir—the largest body of water in Colorado—from the shoreline on the moderate, four-mile round-trip hike to the 600-foot Dillon Pinnacles, a funky volcanic rock formation created about 30 million years ago. Those more inclined to activities of the two-wheeled variety will find plenty of fat-tire options at Hartman Rocks Recreation Area, five miles southwest of town. The area sports 40 miles of single-track for all abilities, whether you prefer wide, mellow rides or gnarly jump parks and technical steeps. And should you come back at the height of summer, don’t miss the Gunnison Whitewater Park, where you can ride rapids that top out at Class III in an inflatable kayak rented from Scenic River Tours. The one outdoor adventure no one should miss? A trip to I Bar Ranch, a former cattle ranch turned concert venue on the outskirts of town. Still to come this summer: The Bellamy Brothers (August 20) and Molly O’Brien (August 23).

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Shop: If you can’t find a souvenir in one of the many boutiques along Gunnison’s Main Street, well, you probably can’t find one anywhere. Your best bet for something locally made comes at—wait for it—the Local Market, a treasure trove of foods, quilts, artisan crafts, and other goodies. The Corner Cupboard likely holds that something funky you didn’t know you needed, while women’s shop Tango boats an impressive selection of stylish duds that would rival some Denver boutiques (and they cost half as much!).

Stay: The Inn at Tomichi Village offers a comfortable stay just outside of town. It boasts complimentary breakfast, a serene enclosed pool, and one of the locals’ favorite restaurants on-site, Blue Table. Those on a budget will want to check out the Wanderlust Hostel, a cute, friendly spot near Main Street where shared rooms start at just $23 per night. And of course, you can’t go wrong with camping. Grab a spot at one of the campgrounds near the city, or pitch a tent in the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnsion National Forests.

If You Do One Thing: Sixty miles west of town, the 2,700-foot Black Canyon of the Gunnison—a national park and one of the steepest canyons in the country—beckons hikers and climbers alike.

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