From Estes Park to Central City and Durango to Silverton, these drives are great for locals and visitors
This article was first published in The Denver Post June 17, 2019
I don’t need a “scenic byway” designation to tell me a road is pretty, just like I don’t need a “vista point” sign to tell me where to take my pictures. But when you’re rounding the curve of a gorgeous Colorado road and one of those little rectangular scenic byway signs pops up with the wildflowers on the shoulder, well, there’s something exciting and comforting about that.
In my travels, I’ve sometimes targeted one of Colorado’s 26 Scenic and Historic Byways, planning an entire trip around the Highway of Legends, for example — but just as often, I’ve found myself on a scenic byway by accident, and then let the story behind that road help inform my trip. No fewer than 11 of Colorado’s scenic byways are also designated America’s Byways by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, giving them a “best roads in the country” prestige — that’s more national designations than any other state, by the way.
Here are six scenic byways that I’ve traveled and recommend. Remember that traveling these blue highways takes you through not only some the most beautiful landscapes in the West, but also through scores of little towns. These proud, always-friendly places are the nuts and bolts of any road trip, so before you go, look up the local chambers of commerce in each town through which you’ll pass — you’ll find those perfect creaky-wood historical hotels, breakfast joints and roadside attractions that make any trip.
1. Cache la Poudre-North Park
The roughly 100-mile Cache la Poudre-North Park scenic byway begins with a turn onto Highway 14, just north of Fort Collins. You enter the mountains via the Cache la Poudre Canyon, a steep, rocky river road along one of America’s few designated Wild and Scenic Rivers. You’ll pass the Mishawaka outdoor music venue and a multitude of small riverside campgrounds in the Roosevelt National Forest.
The river has a few famed stretches for whitewater and fly-fishing, and Chambers Lake is a classic destination to camp. Keep going and you’ll top Cameron Pass at 10,276 feet, skirting the north edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, passing the remote State Forest State Park, North Park and the Rawah Wilderness; these vast public lands comprise a little visited, barely populated, stunning chunk of mountains and forest that extend to the Wyoming border.
2. Peak to Peak
Hit it early in the day: That’s the best advice I could find about driving the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway. Do it at dawn, said one friend. You’ll have the highway to yourself while the sun lights the broad peaks above you and hopefully you’ll miss the traffic, which gets particularly bad on summer weekends and during fall foliage season. In fact, the Peak to Peak was almost too close to Denver and too obvious to include; it’s a gorgeous 55-mile drive following the Continental Divide from Central City to Estes Park.
It’s both the standard go-to drive when you want to impress out-of-towners and when you just want to make some beautiful turns in your classic car or motorcycle club. You’ll pass through the towns of Estes Park, Nederland, Central City and Black Hawk, each with a different feel and limited selection of places to eat or stay. At the north end is Rocky Mountain National Park, and from there, as it twists southward, the highway passes various campgrounds and trailheads into the Indian Peaks Wilderness. A ride on the Carousel of Happiness is mandatory in Nederland, and you can grab a few runs at Eldora ski resort if your timing is right.
3. Dinosaur Diamond
This massive, roughly 500-mile loop through Colorado’s extreme northwest (and into northeast Utah) was declared a National Scenic Byway in 2002. The isolated and remote road does indeed deliver — from the dinosaur-themed play structures in the small town of Dinosaur playground, to the massive quarry and “wall of bones” in Dinosaur National Monument. Exploring this geologically ancient landscape and its hidden fossils, petroglyphs and footprints is a trip that takes at least two or three days.
You can float through it all on the Green River, or you can drive the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway, a loop whose Colorado portion connects Grand Junction to Rangely over Douglas Pass, through Dinosaur into Utah. The area also includes the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita and Colorado National Monument, home to Saddlehorn, one of the most stunning campgrounds in the state.
4. San Juan Skyway
This drive is as epic as it gets, roughly following the old narrow gauge railroad routes through the San Juan Mountains. Recognized as one of the most beautiful roads in America, the San Juan Skyway is designated as an All-American Road, a National Forest Scenic Byway and a Colorado Scenic and Historical Byway. The drive crosses four major mountain passes and through two national forests (the Uncompahgre and San Juan), and is especially impressive along U.S. 550 — the “Million Dollar Highway,” a jaw-dropping stretch between Ouray and Silverton.
It takes about seven hours to drive the entire 233-mile highway, so most people split the ride up with visits to any or all of the old silver mining boom towns through which the loop drive passes. Towns include Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Ridgway, Telluride and Cortez, to name a few, each with something different to offer, including jeeping, hot springs, hiking and trains. You’ll be passing through some extremely varied terrain and climates and the temperature can fluctuate wildly as you ascend and descend these roads. In addition to passing through so many 14ers, the San Juan Skyway also takes you to the high desert plateau of Mesa Verde National Park, where you’ll visit cliff dwellings and archaeological sites of the Ancestral Pueblo people.
5. Santa Fe Trail
This lonely, flat but immensely interesting road follows the old trade and traveling artery between Missouri and Santa Fe. The 188-mile route slices off a slab of southeast Colorado between Holly and Raton Pass, and includes the small cities of La Junta and Trinidad. Many a wagon train and traveler passed through this scenery, either trading bison pelts or on their way farther west; you’re following the footsteps of Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson and Zebulon Pike.
For wildlife, plan a hike to the dinosaur bones or the old rock art archaeological sites within Comanche National Grassland and do not miss Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, a replica of an 1840s trading fort that is considered one of the best restorations in the National Park System.
6. Highway of Legends
The 82-mile Highway of Legends hooks into the Santa Fe Trail in Trinidad, almost making it just an extension of your trip on the Santa Fe. The difference is that now, you can press play on the TravelStorys Highway of Legends audio tour app. It picks up your location via GPS and teaches about geographic features and historic buildings as you pass them on the highway. “In the early 20th century,” the voice says to you as part of the app’s introduction, “yarn-spinning Louis Sporleder … wrote long legends that he claimed to have heard from Native Americans. These were tales of mischievous demons, evil priests, talking panthers and beautiful princesses.”
The Highway of Legends is a two-hour scenic byway that gets you off Interstate 25 and on a lovely loop around the towering Spanish Peaks and their ancient volcanic fin formations that extend out from their slopes. The road tops out on Cuchara Pass at 9,995 feet and goes through the old coal country west of Trinidad, as well as the towns of Cuchara and Le Veta — both with a few hotels, places to eat and art galleries and workshops.
If You Go:
- Check out the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways Virtual Guide.
- Visit COtrip.org to get the latest road conditions.
- Check out the official Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways site.
- Study an online map.
- Motorcyclists should look at the online Colorado Motorcycle Skill Rating Map.