Incorporating our National Scenic Byways, these routes are rife with views, history, adventure and plenty of space to yourself
By Shauna Farnell
As Colorado and the rest of the world cautiously reopen with physical distancing, face-covering and gathering guidelines and restrictions in place, a nearby summer road trip sounds a lot more inviting than a vacation involving long-distance air travel. As luck would have it, the Centennial State is home to not one but 11 National Scenic Byways. Many are included in the following loops. Before you go, be sure to check public health orders for the counties through which you are traveling for updates on face-covering, physical distancing and other precautionary pandemic policies and restrictions.
Golden to Morrison and Evergreen
Length: 40 miles
If you’ve never driven (or biked) this loop, you are missing out on one of the most interesting and historic routes just outside the city. The loop begins and ends 10 miles west of Denver in the beautiful, historic town of Golden. Before you set out, you should take a few hours to stroll through the Old West-throwback downtown, among the gardens and greenery along Clear Creek. From here, head slightly south and via Hogback Road (passing along the geologically fascinating phenomenon of the hogback –a foothills ridgeline formed over millions of years and featuring a rocky spine at the summit) to Morrison. Stop and check out this charming old town before heading just west through Red Rocks Park, maybe reserving some time for a hike or bike ride through the stunning rock formations. Continue along Colorado State Highway 74 along Bear Creek, stopping, if you wish, to check out the unique ruins of Falcon Castle (yes, castle), which was allegedly destroyed by lightning more than100 years ago. The loop takes you the back way through historic downtown Evergreen and past the picturesque Evergreen Lake (an ideal picnic spot), and maybe stop to grab a salad or sandwich at Murphy’s Mountain Grill), a short stint on Highway 40 paralleling Interstate 70. Before cresting the final high point at Lookout Mountain, stop to admire one of the state’s most magical heritage animals at Buffalo Overlook, pay homage to one of Colorado’s famous cowboys at Buffalo Bill’s grave before continuing down one the sharp switchbacks of Lookout Mountain back to Golden.
Fort Collins to Granby, Grand Lake and Estes Park
Length: 360 miles
Not only does this route allow for exploration of what is arguably Colorado’s coolest big town/small city – Fort Collins – but it highlights some of the charming, little-known communities outside of FoCO and takes you far and beyond, connecting three central scenic byways (Cache La Poudre Scenic and Historic Byway, Colorado River Headwaters and Scenic Byway and Trail Ridge Road Scenic Byway). From downtown Fort Collins, take Hwy 287 to Laporte, a rural community in the foothills, which in the 1800s was a bustling supply center. These days, its greatest assets include its breakfast joints, namely Me Oh My Pie, home to all the baked goods of your dreams –pies, cinnamon rolls, coffee cake, cookies, muffins, etc. Then there’s Vern’s Place, which serves up comfort fare (skillets, corned beef, breakfast burritos, chicken fried steak). Laporte sits on Cache la Poudre River, the only river in Colorado designated a Wild & Scenic river and where rafting opportunities abound through local experts such as A Wanderlust Adventure. From Laporte, continue along the Cache La Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway to Bellvue, a small farming community that gave birth to Noosa yogurt and the Colorado Shoe School where you can design and create your own custom shoes. The byway meanders into the magnificent Poudre Canyon, over Cameron Pass and into North Park and then to the tiny town of Walden (get a feel for it by grabbing lunch at the River Rock Café). From Walden, head to Granby, located near Grand Lake and the headwaters of the mighty Colorado River. Grab grub at Daven Haven before continuing on tracing the river’s course as it plunges into Gore Canyon, past Radium Hot Springs, Rancho del Rio and on to State Bridge along the Colorado River Headwaters and Scenic Byway. Return to Fort Collins via the Trail Ridge Road Scenic Byway. The route traverses through the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park along the highest continuous paved road in North America (at 12,183 ft.), and arrives in the charming town of Estes Park. Definitely reserve several hours to wander around and be sure to check out The Stanley, the hotel that inspired the 1980’s horror classic, The Shining. From Estes, the history lesson continues through Big Thompson Canyon and on to Loveland, Greeley, Windsor and then back to Fort Collins.
Grand Junction, Fruita, Palisade
Length, 96 to 156 miles
Beginning in one of the above towns, you can either enjoy the separate routes (by car or bicycle) of the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway, a 63-mile route that climbs from the high desert landscape of Colorado’s western slope to evergreen forests, meadows, streams and fields on the plateau, reaching an elevation of more than 11,000 feet. There’s also the 23-mile paved route – Rim Rock Dr. – which winds through Colorado National Monument between Grand Junction to Fruita. The monument is characterized by towering natural rock sculptures and formations, a number of hiking trails and wildlife viewing areas. It’s also possible to link the above scenic drives in a 156-mile loop, taking you from Palisade (be sure to check out the orchards and grab a souvenir at Peach Street Distillers) up the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway and down through the small, Old West towns of Cedaredge and Delta (if you’re having a hankering for pizza, hit Daveto’s). From Delta, take U.S. Hwy 50 back to Grand Junction, breaking up the monotony of this part of the journey with a quick exploration or hike in the stunning and little-traveled Dominguez Canyon. Before and/or after visiting Colorado National Monument, reserve some time to explore the art installations in downtown Grand Junction and hit Copper Club Brewery in Fruita for liquid refreshments.
Durango, Ouray, Telluride, Cortez
Length: 236 miles
Also holding status as one of America’s Scenic Byways, this southern loop originates in the laid-back, Old Western town of Durango and takes you on a harrowing but jaw-dropping journey over teetering mountain passes through Ouray, Telluride and ancient tribal lands. Before and/or after your journey, take time to explore Durango’s historic downtown, preserved almost identically in its original state when built by pioneers nearly 150 years ago. The place is teeming with a lively, friendly college vibe and the food/drink stops are bountiful. If you stop anywhere for breakfast/lunch/dinner, a round of suds or simply to soak up the scene, it should be Carver Brewing Company. From Durango, the route heads north paralleling the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad on one side and the Animas River on the other, skirting Purgatory Resort and heading over Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass, both affording spectacular views from the top. Descend into the historic gold mining hub of Silverton and continue on US Hwy 550 on a stretch dubbed “the Million Dollar Highway” over the frightening but stunningly beautiful Red Mountain Pass. As you begin to descend, the road hugs the sheer walls of the Uncompahgre Gorge before arriving into the European-inspired town of Ouray, aka “The Switzerland of America.” You’ll want to park for a while, either to grab a treat at Mouse’s Chocolates and Coffee or to ogle at Cascade or Box Canyon waterfalls. If you can’t get enough of shimmering, falling water, when the route passes through Telluride (taking you over Dallas Divide and Mt. Sneffels, one of Colorado’s most picturesque fourteeners), plan a pit stop at the magnificent Bridal Veil Falls. From Telluride, the high elevation tour continues on CO Hwy 145 over Lizard Head Pass before following the lush Dolores River past several lakes and reservoirs to Cortez. This Four Corners town is home to some of the country’s deepest history, dating back thousands of years to the Ancestral Puebloans. A side trip to visit the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is well worth it, but nothing beats the splendor of the ancient civilizations’ miraculous cliff palace on display at Mesa Verde National Park before you head east through the La Plata Mountains back to Durango.
Million Dollar Highway photo, pictured above, courtesy of Markus Van Meter.