Colorado has something for everyone, so even if you can’t get out on a bike this #autumn, the enviable collection of #ScenicByways West of 105 means a leisurely drive can be elevated into a beautiful #roadtrip.
1 PEAK TO PEAK
Length: 55 Miles
Driving time: 80 Minutes
The oldest of Colorado’s Scenic Byways, the 55-mile Peak to Peak Scenic Byway was designated way back in 1918. It runs from Central City / Black Hawk, through Roosevelt National Forest and parallel to Rocky Mountain National Park (one of the country’s most-visited) before ending at #EstesPark (or vice versa). There are plenty of interesting places to stop along the way including Golden Gate Canyon State Park, the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, the ghost towns of Hesse and Apex and the historic mining town of #Nederland.
In addition to the herds of elk that roam downtown Estes Park, you can also stop in at the Stanley Hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s “The Shining” - better yet, stay for the night.
2 WEST ELK LOOP
Length: 205 Miles
Driving time: 6-8 Hours
The West Elk Loop is a long one, but with so many great towns along the way, it makes sense to stop for a night or two. A short drive from I- 70, #Carbondale is a popular place to start and end this loop, plus that way you get to have the twin peaks of the majestic Mount Sopris almost fill your windshield as you drive south. The route continues towards the interesting and charming hamlet of #Redstone, into wine country at #Paonia and on towards the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. An eastward turn takes you along the Gunnison River and toward Curecanti National Recreation Area which includes Blue Mesa Reservoir. The loop then passes by #Gunnison and the ski town of #CrestedButte, both of which are magnets for mountain bike enthusiasts during the warmer months. End your journey by heading back towards Carbondale over Kebler Pass and McClure Pass.
3 FLAT TOPS TRAIL
Length: 82 Miles
Driving time: 2 Hours
This area is perhaps the most historically important of all the byways. It is credited as being one the places that inspired the very concept of preservation in the Old West as well as being the birthplace of the idea that public lands could, and should, be left as wilderness. This tradition of preservation makes for incredibly pristine scenery.
Starting in #Yampa, the drive heads west past Trappers Lake (it was from the shores here that the Forest Service landscape architect Arthur Carhart realized how beautiful the area was and pushed for its preservation) and on to Buford before finishing in the town of #Meeker. It is here that the region’s history takes a tragic turn.
The Meeker Massacre was a conflict between Ute Indians and ultimately the US government that led to the forced removal of the White River Utes and the Uncompahgre Utes from Colorado. The White River Museum at the western end of the byway in the town of Meeker tells the full story.
Be sure to pay attention to road closures between mile marker 31 and Dunckley Pass towards mid-November when the road tends to close every year for winter sports usage.
4 COLLEGIATE PEAKS
Length: 57 Miles
Driving time: 90 Minutes
As the name of this scenic byway suggests, several of the peaks in this collection of giants are named for prominent universities. In fact, nine in this collection are over 14,000 feet and together make up the largest concentration of 14ers in the US as well as being part of the Continental Divide. The spectacular drive is as short as it is amazing and will take you through one of the state’s most beautiful areas that is both rich in history and also offers a bounty
of recreational opportunities.
Start at the foot of the Sawatch Range in #Salida. After you’ve wandered around the town’s historic district - the largest in the state - you can either drive west to #PonchaSprings or follow the Arkansas River (the most commercially rafted river in the entire country) north, returning to your start point using the other route. Alternating between distant mountain peaks and the banks of the Arkansas, the route offers plenty to see and do, including long-abandoned mining towns and excellent beer at Elevation Beer Company in Poncha Springs and Eddyline Brewery in Buena Vista.
Weary travelers might want to consider stopping for a few hours (or a night) near Mount Princeton. With several hot springs and places to spend the night (including the beautiful Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort and Deer Valley Ranch), it is worth considering before heading to the quaint community of #BuenaVista the following morning.
5 SAN JUAN SKYWAY
Length: 236 Miles
Driving time: 6 Hours
Like the West Elk Loop, this byway is long, but there is so much natural splendor on offer and so many great mountain towns to see along the way that you simply won’t care.
A tour of the Old West if ever there was one, the San Juan Skyway is a loop that connects #Durango with #Telluride and #Ridgway before heading back down towards Mesa Verde National Park, winding through the mountains en route.
Plan on arriving in Durango a day or two early to enjoy one of Colorado’s best kept secrets; consider taking the old narrow gauge train through the mountains to #Silverton (you can either take it back or have someone meet you in Silverton to continue your journey). The road from Silverton to #Ouray (the town is known as “the Switzerland of America”) is called the “Million Dollar Highway” and is a true Colorado experience. Then there is quaint Ridgway where John Wayne and company came to film key scenes from the movie “True Grit” (the majority of the movie was filmed in and around this area), and picturesque Telluride which is renowned for world-class skiing and its enviable summer festival lineup.
The final stretch takes you south towards #Dolores and #Cortez. Up-and-coming towns for sure, the real gem of this corner of the state is Mesa Verde National Park, home to one of the densest collections of prehistoric ruins in the U.S. and five million acres of undisturbed national forest.
6 LOS CAMINOS ANTIGUOS
Length: 129 Miles
Driving time: 3 Hours
While the San Juan Skyway is considered by some to be the most beautiful drive in the country, Los Caminos Antiguos may be the most historic. Straddling the border with New Mexico, this area is the center of Hispanic culture in Colorado and offers the chance to follow in the footsteps, so to speak, of the Spanish explorers and early settlers.
The area is also home to several notable places, including the tallest sand dunes in North America at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve; San Luis, which was established in 1851 and therefore the oldest surviving community in Colorado; Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Conejos, the oldest parish in the state; and Fort Garland, one of the first military posts in Colorado.
Also nearby is Manassa, the birthplace of former world heavyweight boxing champion boxer Jack Dempsey, and Zapata Falls near Great Sand Dunes National Park, which is worth a visit (read more about the Great Sand Dunes National Park here).
7 SILVER THREAD
Length: 117 Miles
Driving time: 3 Hours
The colorful old mining camps of the Silver Thread Scenic Byway offer a fantastic combination of history, scenic beauty, and authenticity. The rugged mountains around #Creede and #LakeCity are strewn with abandoned mines, most of which are accessible thanks to a network of backcountry roads even if they are a bit rugged. The road between the two follows the Rio Grande River, at least partly, and offers some truly spectacular scenery including North Clear Creek Falls, the shark-like fin of Uncompahgre Peak, and the unique Slumgullion Earthflow National Natural Landmark. Formed about 700 years ago thanks to a mammoth rock slide, the huge mass blocked the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and created Lake San Cristobal. Incredibly, a second earthflow began about 300 years ago and is still active today. Look for trees growing at odd angles.
These mountains are also the site of one of Colorado’s grisliest tales, that of Alferd Packer who cannibalized his companions during an ill-fated winter expedition. The byway was recently extended on the north end from Lake City to Blue Mesa Reservoir which means you can connect with the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway.
Read the full article in the Autumn, 2018 issue of West of 105, available for free here.