||Published Mar/Apr 2005
Left: A backpacker exploring near Buchanan Pass in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. Eric Wunrow, Colorado Tourism Office photo
Colorado offers dozens of scenic driving routes where you can stop along the way to find spectacular views and interesting towns.
By Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer
| was 7 when I first visited Colorado. Much later, my husband and I drove our ’68 Chevy station wagon up the Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. The car had developed high-altitude problems and the engine died if we drove less than 15 miles per hour. People walking to the overlooks must have raised their eyebrows at the old wagon roaring around the tight curves.
We have visited Colorado every couple of years since the first trip and each time we have explored new roads and revisited familiar ones. Here are a few favorites.
Trail Ridge Road
It’s one of Colorado’s best-known byways, but Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park never ceases to evoke awe as it climbs to more than 12,000 feet. The Trail Ridge Road (U.S. Highway 34) is usually open from Memorial Day to mid-October, depending on snowfall.
With its many curves, rock cuts, overlooks, educational signs, roadside nature walks into the tundra and trails leading into the mountains, this scenic road offers a variety of experiences. Tiny alpine plants produce oversized blooms during the short summer season. Elk and deer often graze near the roadside. Rabbit-like picas carry grasses to their holes in rock piles where they lay them out to dry before storing for the winter.
The road winds almost 50 miles from the Estes Park valley past the Alpine Visitor Center that perches at the top of the Fall River Pass to Grand Lake at the opposite end. On the Grand Lake side of the park, experience life on a dude ranch in the 1920s at the Never Summer Ranch site.
Fall River Road
An alternate route to the Fall River Pass is the old Fall River Road, part of the original route to the top. Thirty-eight convicts with shovels and wheelbarrows began cutting the roadway in 1913. Even after the road was completed in 1920, the superintendent and his crew worked some three weeks each spring to clear as much as 42 feet of snow. Fall River Road typically opens by July 4.
This one-way, 11-mile gravel road starts at Endovalley. It twists and turns up the mountainside, providing lookouts over Horseshoe Park and a short trail to a waterfall. Elk frequently graze in the meadows just below the Alpine Visitor Center where rangers give talks and point out features on the road below. A concessionaire sells food and runs an extensive gift shop with some very nice Native American jewelry.
Peak-to-Peak Scenic and Historic Byway
This byway winds 55 miles south from Estes Park via state Highways 7, 72 and 119 to U.S. Highway 6 near Interstate 70. It gives access to old mining towns and wonderfully scenic areas.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, Long’s Peak and Wild Basin call hikers to challenging climbs, the ultimate being the ascent of 14,255-foot Long’s Peak, and walks along rushing streams to roaring cascades and waterfalls.
Brainard Lake Recreation Area, just off the Peak-to-Peak Byway near Ward, is ablaze with wildflowers in summer and with the red, gold and yellow aspens in the fall. A national forest campground is located near the lake and trails lead among beautiful mountains and lakes in the Roosevelt National Forest and Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. Leashed dogs are allowed on the trails here. In winter, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are popular.
Driving south, the venerable Charlie Eagle Plume’s Trading Post near Allenspark displays museum-quality art and sells high-quality Native American art and jewelry. Skiing is especially popular near Eldora. The rough but scenic Rollins Pass Road leads to several ghost towns and the east portal of the abandoned Moffat railroad tunnel.
Central City and Black Hawk are mining towns along the southern part of the byway. A spurt of casino development has replaced the quiet of post-mining days with considerable hustle and bustle, but the town retains many 1870-era homes. The historic Central City Opera House presents operas from late June to early August.
Mount Evans Scenic and Historic Byway
This spectacular road claims distinction as the highest paved automobile road in North America. Starting on state Highway 103 in Idaho Springs, it climbs 7,000 feet in 28 miles, reaching 14,264 feet near the summit of Mount Evans.
The U.S. Forest Service, which gives out byway information at the Clear Creek Ranger Station on state Highway 103 in Idaho Springs, maintains three picnic grounds and a campground. The road is usually open from Memorial Day to mid-September. However, winter snowdrifts may be as deep as 75 feet.
White mountain goats and bighorn sheep often graze near the roadway. Views encompass the Front Range and the Continental Divide, as well as several mountain lakes. A trail in the Mount Goliath Natural Area leads through an alpine display of wildflowers in summer, then descends into a stand of bristlecone pines, one of the oldest species on earth.
After these explorations, consider taking a gold mine tour or take a dip in the Indian Springs Resort hot mineral pool in the historic mining town of Idaho Springs.
Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway
This 23-mile byway begins in Georgetown a short way west of the Mount Evans road on I-70. Half paved or oiled, half gravel, it follows an old wagon route that linked the mining towns of Georgetown and Grant on U.S. Highway 285. The summit at 11,666 feet offers good views of two “fourteeners,” Gray’s Peak and Torrey’s Peak. Look down on South Clear Creek valley and Georgetown from overlooks. Side trips lead to waterfalls, meadows, beaver ponds and old mining sites. Bighorn sheep live in two large herds above Georgetown and Grant. The area has five campgrounds, two picnic areas, extensive trails for hiking and cross-country skiing and good trout fishing. With a mountain bike or a high-clearance vehicle, you can explore rough roads like the “Stairway to the Stars,” a 16-mile narrow-gauge railway bed, to the old mining camps of Waldorf.
Georgetown is a destination in itself, with historic 19th-century buildings and the Georgetown Loop Railway, which features a spectacular looping trestle.
Whatever route you pick, you’ll find spectacular scenery, colorful wildflowers or golden leaves, and a variety of wildlife along Colorado’s byways.
Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
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