Explore Colorado’s Rocky Mountains from Your Car
by G. Kunkel
(This article was originally published on Yahoo! Voices on 5/20/2010)
Roadtrips and scenic drives are the embodiment of American culture. There’s just something relaxing about hopping in an automobile and cruising down the highway. As the miles drift by, the stress of everyday life just melts away.
There are an endless number of scenic stretches of road in the United States and the world. As luck would have it, Colorado provides a number of scenic drives. If you enjoy natural beauty and mountain driving, these are the 10 most scenic drives in Colorado.
Trail Ridge Road
One of the most beautiful drives in Colorado is also the highest continuous paved highway in the United States. Trail Ridge Road, also known as US Hwy 34, stretches for 48 miles from Grand Lake upward through Rocky Mountain National Park to 12,183 ft. and then descends to Estes Park, Colorado. Along this summer-only highway you’ll cross the Continental Divide, and see – elk, moose, alpine tundra, snowfields, 14,259 ft. Longs Peak, and the headwaters of the mighty Colorado River.
A side trip along Fall River Road allows additional scenic park views via a passenger car friendly dirt road. A roadside picnic may have marmots come wandering up to your car. Check for seasonal road closure at www.cotrip.org.
Mount Evans Road
According to MountEvans.com, construction on the Mount Evans Road started in 1924 and was completed in 1930. To date, it remains the highest paved road in North America and is only open in summer. This winding two-lane paved road lets one experience the scenic Colorado Rocky Mountains as it climbs towards the 14,230 ft. summit.
On the drive up it’s not uncommon to see mountain goats, bighorn sheep, or elk – sometimes camped out in the middle of this steep narrow road. The top half of the road lies above treeline and provides spectacular views of the Continental Divide and the Front Range. This road isn’t recommended for the faint of heart as there are no guardrails and parts of the road have crumbled down the mountainside. Check for seasonal closures at www.cotrip.org.
Million Dollar Highway
The Million Dollar Highway, or US Hwy 550, in southwestern Colorado provides spectacular views of the jagged San Juan Mountains, glimpses into Colorado’s mining past, and the real danger of avalanches. Traveling south from Ouray towards Silverton one soon drives under the snow shed covering the deadly East Riverside Slide. The road then climbs steadily past a number of historic mining structures on the way to the top of Red Mountain Pass.
While the highway is kept open year-round, it’s best traveled in summer to avoid the 101 avalanche paths identified by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The highway guarantees white-knuckle moments as the route is devoid of guardrails and traverses a number of sheer cliffs. Once in Silverton, one can relax and see the trains of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway.
Rollins Pass Road
Until the completion of the Moffat Tunnel in 1927, passenger trains headed west from Denver took the “the hill route” over Rollins Pass on top of the Continental Divide. It was later turned into a summer only passenger car dirt road between Rollinsville and Winter Park, Colorado.
While no longer a through route, one can still explore the route of what was formerly the highest railroad grade in North America up to the Needles Eye Tunnel closure. Once above treeline, one can witness dramatic skylines and still find pieces of coal left by a long ago locomotive. High clearance 4WD vehicles are highly recommended for this drive.
Highway 82 over Independence Pass
Highway 82 provides a shortcut between Leadville and Aspen, Colorado during the summer. Along the way, it passes by the highest mountain peak in Colorado – 14,443 ft. Mount Elbert and the ghost town of Independence. A stop at the Continental Divide crossing provides scenic views of high alpine tundra and numerous snowfields even in July.
Vehicles longer than 35 ft. are prohibited from using this route. Check for seasonal road closure at www.cotrip.org.
Lizard Head Pass
The drive from Dolores to Telluride, Colorado via Highway 145 is a leisurely way to enjoy views of the rugged San Juan Mountains and traverse the former Rio Grande Southern railroad route of the “Galloping Goose”. Start at the Galloping Goose train museum in Dolores and wind your way up the highway. For a side trip to see the only true geyser in Colorado, detour on Forest Service Road 535 to the Geyser Springs trailhead.
After the hike, continue on Hwy 145 through the historic mining town of Rico to the top of the 10,222 ft. pass. Stop at the summit and take in all the historical markers and the view of the Mount Sneffels Range. Descending to Telluride provides even more mountain scenery. This is a great route in fall to view the changing aspen leaves contrasting with fresh snowfall.
Highway 40 over Berthoud Pass
US Highway 40 has provided scenic year-round travel between Denver and Steamboat Springs, Colorado since its construction in the 1920’s. Once exiting I-70 at Empire, CO, the road quickly begins to rise towards the 11,314 ft. summit. One can spot bighorn sheep licking salt along the roadside or watch the Stanley slide chute come into view.
At the top of this Continental Divide pass, one can stop and see panoramic views of the Indian Peak Wilderness and the remains of the now closed Berthoud Pass Ski Area. In winter check with www.cotrip.org for road conditions.
Highway 6 over Loveland Pass provided access to Summit County before the construction of the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels on Interstate 70. Today it provides access to Loveland Ski Area, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Keystone Ski Resort, and backcountry skiing on Loveland Pass. One can view alpine tundra and snowfields year-round on this 11,990 ft. Continental Divide pass.
Interstate 70 thru Glenwood Canyon
The original VistaDome train cars of the California Zephyr were created to view scenic Glenwood Canyon. Today one can view Glenwood Canyon from the elevated Interstate 70 that winds along the course of the Colorado River. The canyon starts west of Vail, Colorado and ends at historic Glenwood Springs. One can see the raging Colorado River in spring and peaceful snow-covered canyon walls in winter.
After the drive, one can soak in the world-renowned Glenwood Hot Springs. Wild West history buffs can hike in search of Doc Holiday’s gravesite.
Highway 34 through Big Thompson Canyon
The drive through Big Thompson Canyon provides views of natures wonder and fury. Highway 34 follows the Big Thompson River as the road climbs from Loveland to Estes Park, Colorado. The steep canyon walls are a thing of beauty and often have majestic bighorn sheep grazing on its slopes.
Upon closer inspection one may notice the canyon walls contain debris and an unusual stain. In July of 1976 this canyon was the site of Colorado’s worst natural disaster. After a sudden deluge of rain, a massive wall of water surged down the canyon and claimed 144 lives. Memorials for the victims and flash flood safety signs can now be found along this canyon.
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