This time of year the mountains west of Boulder, Colorado, are a symphony of steep-walled canyons, rushing streams, and pine-covered hills. They're also a kind of time capsule. In a drive of less than 35 miles, you can travel from trendy 21st-century Boulder to the 19th-century mining era and back again. This circuit includes a good dirt road and passes mines, mills, and laid-back mining towns that you can explore in a day.
From downtown Boulder, drive west on Canyon Boulevard/State 119. Eight miles up this twisting, rock-rimmed road paralleling Boulder Creek is Boulder Falls, a 70-foot cascade just off the road. Eight miles farther, the canyon broadens into a wide valley and the town of Nederland; its tiny but charming downtown shopping area is along First Street. Nature's Own (5 E. First St.; 303/258-3557) sells jewelry, minerals, and fossils. You'll also find Southwestern jewelry, home-decorating items, and local handicrafts at Medicine Shield Trade Co. (25 E. First; 303/258-0348).
Across the footbridge, Happy Trails (101 State 119 South; 303/258-3435) is a combination bike shop and espresso bar in three connected railroad cars. For lunch try Kathmandu (1 W. First; 303/258-1169) for authentic Nepalese food. Behind Kathmandu, Neapolitan's (303/258-7313) dishes up hearty Italian fare, including a tomato-free white pizza. From the nearby traffic circle, head toward Estes Park on State 72, part of the scenic Peak to Peak Highway. After 12 miles, at the Ward sign, turn right into Lefthand Canyon Drive and drop into the scruffy hamlet of Ward, where tie dye-clad locals and spandexed cyclists peacefully coexist.
Continue for 7 miles, then turn right onto Lickskillet Road. The twisty route (the next 5 miles of this drive is on dirt road) leads through the Gold Hill mining district, where you'll still find log cabins and mining artifacts, to the Gold Hill Inn (Wed-Mon, no credit cards; 401 Main St.; 303/443-6461). Built as a boardinghouse in 1925, it is now an atmospheric restaurant serving opulent six-course prix fixe dinners for $26. Return to Boulder via Sunshine Canyon Drive. It's downhill nearly all the way.
For dates of summer festivals in Nederland, contact the Nederland Chamber of Commerce (303/258-3936). For regional recreation information, contact the Boulder Convention and Visitors Bureau (303/442-2911).