The Best Scenic Drives in Colorado

From rolling prairies to red-rock mesas, from verdant alpine meadows to haughty ice-crowned peaks, from the distant thunder of dinosaurs, to the whispers of the earliest human settlers, to the rowdier rock-and-rattle of a more recent past, Colorado’s Scenic and Historic Byways have pretty much got it all.  So why not take the high road to the Roof of America and sample the diverse wonders of the State’s scenic drives?

Mount Elbert rises above the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway
Mount Elbert rises above the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway
Dramatic red-rock formations in Colorado National Monument
Dramatic red-rock formations in Colorado National Monument

 

A historic cabin near Lake City along Colorado's Alpine Loop Scenic Byway
A historic cabin near Lake City along Colorado’s Alpine Loop Scenic Byway
Mountain goats scale Mount Evans near Idaho Springs
Mountain goats scale Mount Evans near Idaho Springs

The 26 scenic byways of Colorado connect the dots between historic sites and acres of majestic scenery that span from red-rock canyons to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains to sun-kissed prairie.  Eleven of these byways are designated by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation as America’s Byways, which gives Colorado more national designations than any other state.  The Roof of America, the watershed of a continent, and a diversity of scenic, natural and historical wonders awaits you, on Denver’s doorstep.  So let’s get behind the wheel, as we highlight some of Colorado’s very best scenic drives…

Single Day Drives

Grand Mesa

Entrance to the Grand Mesa National Forest
Entrance to the Grand Mesa National Forest

Grand Mesa Route

Homely, hospitable Cedaredge is your gateway to a route that takes in Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-topped mountain.  The route forks west just before Skyway to take you to Grand Mesa itself: don’t miss the Land’s End Overlook, 6000 feet above the valley, which commands views as far and wide as the Sneffels Range near Ridgway.  Skyway nestles in the Grand Mesa National Forest, where you can head east to the popular Grand Mesa Lakes.  To the north is Mesa, surrounded by picturesque pine forests and over 200 lakes.

Nearby City:  Cedaredge
Length:  75 total miles
Suggested Time: Allow 2+ hours
Elevation Gain:  Minimal
Season:  Best spring through fall
Portions closed in winter? Yes (Lands End Road)
Local Contacts:  Grand Mesa National Forest
Topo Map:  Grand Mesa Scenic Byway: Cedaredge to Grand Junction Topographic Map
From Grand Junction, take I-70 east for about 10 miles to CO Highway 330. Turn right  and drive for a few miles until you get to Mesa.

 

Peak to Peak Highway

Vintage waterwheel in Estes Park, at one end of the Peak to Peak Highway
Vintage waterwheel in Estes Park, at one end of the Peak to Peak Highway

Peak to Peak Highway RouteEstes Park, with its excellent range of restaurants and stores, is the northern gateway to the Peak to Peak Highway, and the entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park, which draws family holiday-makers, hikers, wildlife watchers and climbers all year round.   Lake Estes offers scenic boating excursions, and horse riding and mountain biking trails lead into the surrounding forests and meadows.  Nederland was once a silver town fed by the mines of Caribou, now a ghost town five miles away.  Nowadays it leads you to the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area and Eldora Mountain Resort, offering a wide variety of snow sports in winter.  At the Highway’s southern end the former mining towns of Black Hawk and Central City are known for their bustling casinos.

Location: Starting in Nederland, turn right on Hwy 72 on the way to Ward. The byway will take you to Estes Park.
Distance: 55 miles
Suggested Time: Allow 2 hours
Seasons: All Seasons
Roadways: Colorado Highways 119, 7, and 72

 

Cache la Poudre-North Park

The Cache la Poudre Scenic Byway
The Cache la Poudre Scenic Byway

Cache la Poudre Route

Cache le Poudre translates from the French as ‘the powder’s hiding place’, and seems to date from the times when French fur trappers cached their supplies here before making the dangerous journey into the mountains.  Beginning in Fort Collins, take U.S. Highway 287 northwest to its intersection with Colorado Highway 14 in Bellvue. From there you make your way up the rugged Cache la Poudre River Canyon.  Take time to enjoy the spectacular route-side rapids, popular with kayakers, and keep an eye out for Colorado’s state mammal, the bighorn sheep.  The route tops out at Cameron Pass between the Rawah Wilderness, Rocky Mountain National Park and North Park, the latter a great place to spot coyotes, moose and elk.

Nearby City: Walden
Length: 101 total miles
Elevation Gain: Minimal
Season: Year-round, although chains may be required in winter
Local Contacts: Roosevelt National Forest
Topo Map: Cache la Poudre - North Park Scenic Byway: Fort Collins to Walden Topographic Map
Guide Book: Scenic Driving Colorado Guide Book

 

Colorado River Headwaters

Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park
Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Colorado Headwaters Route

The Colorado River Headwaters route tracks one of America’s greatest rivers to its source.  From tiny State Bridge in the west head to Kremmling, which is the the convergence point of three rivers, the Colorado, Blue River and Muddy River, and three national forests, Routt, White River and Arapaho.  The former are great for trout fishing, the latter filled with year-round activities.  The healing waters of Hot Sulphur Springs were once used by the Ute Indians – now the Hot Sulphur Springs Resort and Spa offers 23 pools of varying heat and every kind of pampering the weary traveler could wish for.  Granby leads to the Rocky Mountain National Park, and your drive ends at Grand Lake, Colorado’s largest natural body of water, home to high altitude boating and fishing.

Route: Take Hwy. 34 from Grand Lake to Granby, Hwy. 40 to Kremmling, County Road 1 (gravel road) to State Bridge. Avoid travel on gravel portion after rain or snow.  Map of Scenic Byway.
Elevation: 6,500-9,000 feet
Length: 75 miles
Driving time: 90 minutes to drive, 3-6 hours to enjoy

 

The Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trail
The Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail Route

The Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and Santa Fe, in what was then Mexico, ran through the southeast corner of Colorado. This route was traveled by a colorful variety of fortune-seekers, including “Wild” Bill Hickok, Jedediah Smith, frontiersman Kit Carson and explorer Zebulon Pike. Today, you can explore the path once taken by these folk heroes.  From tiny, quaint Trinidad head northeast on U.S. 350 through Comanche National Grassland and watch out for antelopes, songbirds, hawks and falcons.  In late summer the roadside is bright with sunflowers.  Stop off at La Junta to check out  Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, founded in 1833 as a trading post between fur trappers and Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa Indians.

Nearby City: La Junta
Length: 80 total miles
Elevation Gain: Minimal
Trail Type: Unspecified
Season: Year-round
Local Contacts: Comanche National Grassland
Topo Map: Santa Fe Trail Scenic Drive: La Junta to Trinidad Topographic Map

The Gold Belt Tour & Cripple Creek

Cripple Creek seen from the Gold Belt Scenic Byway
Cripple Creek seen from the Gold Belt Scenic Byway

Gold Belt Tour & Cripple Creek Route

Driven onwards by the gold fever of the era, settlers in the region around Colorado’s Gold Belt Tour Scenic Byway had once written “Pikes Peak or Bust” on the side of their wagons.  What a lucky few of them found in Cripple Creek, Victor and the surrounding hills ended up being Colorado’s biggest gold jackpot.  Northern Florissant leads you to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, where petrified redwoods, fossilized palms and images of strange insects etched in stone evoke are relics of a prehistoric landscape 34 million years old.  Cripple Creek and Victor lie in the heart of the old gold country, with tours of mines old and new available.  Cripple Creek is also a noted casino town.  Descending Phantom Canyon south of Victor, keep an eye out for the State’s famous bighorn sheep.

Please note: Four-wheel-drive is required to navigate certain stretches of the Shelf Road and Phantom Canyon, and those with trailers and RVs are discouraged from driving the complete route.
Mileage: 125 miles (201 km)
Duration: The duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.  4 hours, 15 minutes
Seasons:  Spring, Summer, and Fall
Roadways:  Colorado Highways 120, 67, and 9, Teller Country Road 1, US Highway 50, High Park Road, and Phantom Canyon Road
Gravel Roads: Yes

The Trail of the Ancients

Cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park
Cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park

Trail of the Ancients Route

The Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway runs between two remote national monuments and Mesa Verde National Park, taking you through the heart of the  landscape and unique history of the American Southwest. There are so many destinations of archaeological significance here that it’s best to take your time along this route.  Begin at Hovenweep National Monument to view the stone towers built by the Ancestral Puebloan people, then proceed to the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, whose spectacular array of Puebloan dwellings and structures is the highest concentration of archaeological sites in the United States.  To the southwest, Four Corners is the only place in the U.S. where the borders of four states (Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico) meet.

Distance: 116 miles
Suggested time: Allow 5 to 8 hours
Seasons: Spring, Summer, and Fall
Roadways: Forest Road 10, US Highway 491, and Utah Highway 262
Gravel Roads: Yes

The Alpine Loop

Engineer Pass on the Alpine Loop
Engineer Pass on the Alpine Loop

Alpine Loop Route

The Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway has a narrow window in which it’s snow-free (June to September). But it’s worth the wait — the 65-mile scenic drive travels through an other-worldly landscape of treeless tundra and mountains seemingly splashed with red and yellow paint near Ouray, Lake City and Silverton.  But note that the whole route is 4WD terrain.  At 8000 feet Ouray is known as the Switzerland of America – dating its origins back to the Ute Indians, it boasts hot springs and spectacular waterfalls which offer ice climbing to winter adventurers. This mostly  backcountry route passes numerous ghost towns, including Animas Forks, where an astonishing 25 feet of snow fell in 23 days in 1884.  Silverton is another former mining hub now offering hiking, camping, fishing and much more.

Nearby City: Silverton
Length: 63 total miles
Elevation Gain: Minimal
Season: Best July to October
Four-wheel drive required? Yes
Portions closed in winter? Yes
Distance: 63 miles
Suggested Time: Allow 7 hours
Local Contacts: Bureau of Land Management
Topo Map: Alpine Loop Back Country Byway Topographic Map

 

The San Juan Skyway

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

San Juan Skyway Route

Traveling through the dazzling, multi-hued San Juan Mountains and stopping at historic towns of great significance, the San Juan Skyway Scenic and Historic Byway is often considered an essential journey for road trippers, traveling through popular mountain towns like Durango, Silverton, Telluride and Ouray.  Head for Durango to ride a historic coal-fired, steam-powered locomotive into the spectacular canyons of San Juan National Forest, along the same tracks miners, cowboys and settlers of the Old West took over a century ago.  The canyon-hugging stretch of road between Silverton and Ouray is called ‘The Million Dollar Highway’, either because it cost so much to build or because so much gold ore remains in the roadway’s fill.  The route’s southwestern loop takes in Dolores and Mesa Verde National Park, where the famed cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloan people can be found.

Nearby City: Silverton
Length: 236 total miles
Elevation Gain: Minimal
Trail Type: Unspecified
Season: Year-round, although may be hazardous in winter
Local Contacts: San Juan National Forest
Topo Map: San Juan Skyway All-American Byway: Durango to Dolores Topographic Map
Guide Book: Scenic Driving Colorado Guide Book

Multi-Day Drive

The Dinosaur Diamond

The entrance to Dinosaur National Monument
The entrance to Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur Diamond Route

Northwestern Colorado’s Dinosaur Diamond Scenic and Historic byway takes drivers through landscapes that once shook under the footfalls of titans. Dinosaurs were prolific in this area and have since left their mark on the land in the form of fossils and footprints. Long after these massive animals disappeared from the area, the Fremond Indians settled its arid landscape.  Get into the monster mood at Grand Junction by visiting the Dinosaur Journey Museum, then take a short detour along Rim Rock Drive to view Colorado National Monument’s sandstone gorge.  Head north to Fruita, a favorite with mountain bikers, and north again to Canyon Pintado to see the petroglyphs and pictographs of the Fremont people, dating back as far as 11,000 years.  Pass through Rangely to Dinosaur itself and, well, you know why you came.  Dinosaur National Monument is huge, showcasing the fossils of Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and many more, as well as the rich and diverse geology of the area.

Distance: 486 miles
Suggested Time: Allow 2 to 3 days
Season: Spring through Fall. Some side trips are on unpaved roads that can be impassable after rain or snow; check locally before proceeding.
The following Colorado routes are included in the Colorado portion of the Dinosaur Diamond:
I‑70 between Grand Junction and the Utah state line. (I-70 runs concurrently with US 6 and US 50 in this area)
US 40 between Dinosaur and the Utah state line
SH 64 between Dinosaur and Rangely
SH 139 between Fruita and Rangely

Andrew Murray 2015

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