Let’s Get Creative

Take an art-themed trip through Colorado’s Western slope

By Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer

Wine festivals, art gallery openings, farmers markets, rodeos, film festivals, studio tours — the list of can’t-miss events along the Colorado Creative Corridor is long.

Featuring five state-certified Creative Districts nestled in the mountains of western Colorado, the creative corridor offers visitors “art-centric” destinations along a 331-mile trail that links five of the Western Slope’s most charming communities.

The towns on the Colorado Creative Corridor — Carbondale, Paonia, Crested Butte, Ridgway and Salida — are similar but also different. Each town offers an array of recreational and artistic experiences that make for a memorable vacation. But how did they end up pooling their resources to create the Colorado Creative Corridor? It started with Creative Districts.

While there are a number of places with designated creative areas around Colorado, 23 are officially certified through Colorado Creative Industries, an arm of the state Office of Economic Development. The certification program started five years ago.

Christy Costello is the program manager of Colorado Creative Industries, and she defines Creative Districts as “specific geographic areas with a high concentration of creative things happening.” She says that this is typically a downtown main street area, but there are exceptions.

Art is often interpreted as putting brush to canvas, but these Creative Districts include numerous activities that stimulate minds and hearts, including culinary arts, graphic design, woodworking, metalworking, crafting spirits and even drawings on the top of lattes. If the endeavor requires creativity, it is part of the arts scene in a Creative District.

The most recent data, gathered in 2017, shows that there are 28,000 creative jobs in Colorado’s certified Creative Districts, a 3% increase over 2016. Creative industry earnings were $1.6 billion, which represents a 4% gain in one year.

Every Creative District wants to attract cultural tourists, but, for the most part, these are tiny, rural towns with small budgets. The trick is finding a way to pool resources in order to entice these types of visitors into artistic, bucolic communities.

Creating the Corridor

With this in mind, the Colorado Creative Corridor was founded on the back of a napkin by forward-thinking people involved in Carbondale tourism.

Sara-Jane Johnson is a tourism consultant for Carbondale, and she had been eyeing the marketing matching grant offered by the Destination Development Program, part of the Colorado Tourism Office. Johnson knew that $50,000 would be extremely helpful to the Carbondale Creative District, but there was the issue of how to raise the required $25,000 matching money.

“We wanted to package the idea of a visitor-ready road trip idea,” says Johnson, who says that the corridor was inspired, in part, by the Colorado Hot Springs Loop. That collaboration between multiple hot springs towns in Colorado had previously received the grant.

So, Carbondale reached out to its neighbors Crested Butte, Paonia, Ridgway and Salida, and each district chipped in $5,000 to reach the $25,000 goal. They received the grant in 2018 and again in 2019.

The mission of the Colorado Creative Corridor is simple: Bring more visitors to all of its towns. The creative corridor worked to achieve this goal by creating a brochure that outlines a road trip itinerary that offers all kinds of fun in each community along the route. The options include things like bike
trails, cooking classes, concerts, water sports, walking tours and more.

Artistic objects
Visitors find all kinds of artistic objects at the shops and festivals in the creative corridor towns.

This year, the brochure is available in all the communities on the corridor as well as at Colorado’s 10 Welcome Centers. In addition, it’s available online at Colorado.com. They also utilize social media to spread the word about what’s happening in the towns along the Colorado Creative Corridor.

“We all have small budgets so you have to be creative on this type of collaboration, no pun intended,” says Andrea Steward, Carbondale chamber president. “The fee for using social media is only our time, so we allow each participating entity to access the Colorado Creative Corridor Facebook page and Instagram page. We can then promote what we are doing and support the other entities by sharing their information as well.”

A monthly meeting helps to keep the mission on track, but it has evolved into an idea-sharing opportunity as well. Ten organizations are represented in the 30-minute meeting, and the conversations here have become priceless to everyone involved. The opportunity to meet face to face comes only twice a year at conferences, so this monthly connection is vital to the success of the Colorado Creative Corridor.

Here’s a look at what’s happening along the corridor this summer:


In the shadow of Mount Sopris, Carbondale stands as a testament to art and agriculture. The two industries have coexisted here for years. A big draw to the area is the Rio Grande ARTway along the Rio Grande Trail. The trail is used by more than 14,000 cyclists every year and the 1-mile ARTway stretch includes an array of approachable art.

In addition to public art, the thriving downtown features local culinary delights at restaurants such as Allegria, which sources food through local farms. Craft spirits and lodging coexist at Marble Distilling Co. & Distillery Inn, also downtown.

A short distance away is Dolores Way, a collection of creative industries, such as potters, soap makers and beer brewers. The town is also home to Powers Art Center, a showcase of work by American artist Jasper Johns.

More than 200 creative organizations exist in Carbondale, and visitors benefit from the long-lasting relationships that have developed between farmers and chefs and nature and artists.

Crested Butte

Perhaps best known as a ski destination, Crested Butte offers visitors small-town charms beyond the slopes. This postcard perfect town is a magnet for those seeking recreational activities. As a result, in the summer the town comes alive with hikers and bikers. The region’s rivers brim with anglers looking to hook a splendid trout, and its meadows and scenic trails see wildflower hunters gather in droves.

Downtown Crested Butte is sprinkled with creative businesses, such as art galleries, custom ski shops, a world renowned rum distillery and more. The town-managed public art program creates a lively atmosphere filled with ephemeral temporary installations and permanent displays that blend into the picturesque landscape.

Whether it’s a visit to a well-maintained Crested Butte museum, a dance class with locals or taking in a musical performance at the Center for the Arts, a trip to this quintessential Colorado mountain town is one for the memory books.

Surrounded by the North Fork Valley, Paonia is home to more sheep than humans. In the summer, the green countryside is reminiscent of the rolling hills of France. Grapevines are prevalent and wild fruit trees grow on the side of quaint, country roads.

In addition to farm visits, cheese making, winery tastings and bike outings, the arts are palpable here. The tiny village of Paonia has long embraced artistic expression. Spontaneous drum circles seemingly erupt from nowhere and live music flows from local pubs, parks and traditional venues such as Paradise Theatre.

Since 2006, Paonia’s Elsewhere Studio has hosted the Inspired Art at Work Project, a residency program featuring socially-engaged works that explore and address issues vital to preserving the natural world, quality of life and sense of place in the North Fork Valley.

The best time to experience the essence of Paonia is during the town’s two signature events: Cherry Days in July and Mountain Harvest Festival at the end of September.


Artist painting a little girl's face
Artists in the corridor communities love to interact with visitors and share their art.
Photo by Renee Ramge Photography.

The tiniest town on the Colorado Creative Corridor, Ridgway is doing big things when it comes to art. Perhaps having a population of fewer than 1,000 people has forced Ridgway to be artistically innovative. Or perhaps it is its location, 15 minutes from Ouray and less than an hour from Telluride, that compelled a higher level of creative thinking. Whatever the reason, the residents want to give people a reason to stop in their community.

The little downtown is brimming with creative industries, such as art galleries and unique gift shops like Lupita’s Bizarre Bazaar. Even local restaurants have gotten into the game. Several local haunts are often named as Colorado favorites by visitors who stop in town for tacos at Taco del Gnar or pizza at Colorado Boy.

Known as a destination for hot springs lovers, whether visitors stay at Chipeta Solar Springs Resort or soak for the day at Orvis Hot Springs, a getaway in Ridgway is downright enchanting. Some of this magic is provided by the Alley Poems Program. The program has Ridgway poets and visitors putting pen to paper; poetry appears around town, on walls, fences and other surfaces throughout the year.


Theatrical production
Theatrical productions, musical performances, poetry readings and more grace the stage in corridor towns.
Photo by Renee Ramge Photography.

One of the original Colorado art communities, Salida is where artists and art appreciators have been coming for years. Many of the artists who visited stayed in town and opened galleries. Salida is literally brimming with art and it’s everywhere, including on the sides of buildings.

Located along the panoramic Arkansas River, the SteamPlant Event Center is a draw for locals and visitors to the area. Built in 1887, the SteamPlant is a poster child for repurposed space. The plant was retired in 1963 but brought back to life in 1989 when it was converted into a theater. Today, the
SteamPlant has expanded into a conference center and hosts everything from weddings to musical events.

In many ways, Salida is an example of a community where the arts are driving the economy. This isn’t to say each town along the Colorado Creative Corridor doesn’t struggle with its own set of issues, but by creating this creative corridor, these communities are striving together toward a common goal of local economic success through art while providing a great road trip worthy route for visitors through western Colorado.

The fact is, whether a person travels specifically to seek art or for some other purpose, art has been shown to increase our happiness, and each town along the Colorado Creative Corridor has art in spades. Therefore, these towns enhance the enjoyment of all of their visitors.

Learn more at Colorado.com/fieldguide/colorado-creative-corridor.

Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer is a Colorado freelance writer specializing in festivals, travel and the West. She is the founder of HeidiTown.com and author of The Heidi Guide.