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If you've ever been to Colorado, you know how beautiful it truly is. Our last trip to Colorado, with no plans and every road an adventure, inspired this collection of roads, by-ways, and 4×4 trails in that beautiful state we love so much. And while it may not be a comprehensive list, these are a few of the scenic roads in Colorado that we've discovered, taken, and enjoyed so far.
1. Mount Evans Scenic Byway
The road to Mount Evans is the highest paved road in North America. At the end of the 14 mile trek up the mountain filled with switchbacks and gorgeous, breathtakingly beautiful views, you'll find yourself at 14,265 feet in elevation. There are no guard rails and hardly any shoulder room. Along the way, you'll definitely want to stop and take in the Mount Goliath Natural Area and Summit Lake Park. Beware of marmots, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, and Mountain Goats, all of which are absolutely beautiful in their natural habitat.
2. Independence Pass via Highway 82
The highest paved mountain pass in Colorado, Independence Pass is filled with incredible mountain views, switchbacks, and steep climbs. Closed in the winter, the road is also closed to oversized or overweight vehicles, so you may want to re-think taking that camper up the pass. Keep your eyes peeled for the beauty of Twin Lakes, Mount Elbert, the old ghost town of Independence, and the Roaring Fork River. It's a drive worth taking!
3. Medano Pass Primitive Road
Medano Pass Primitive Road winds through the eastern part of Great Sand Dunes National Park, through Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, through a canyon, and up over Medano Pass at 10,000 feet in elevation. The road meets Highway 69 in the Wet Mountain Valley. This road is for high-clearance, four-wheel drive ONLY! Part of the road is sand, and tire pressure may need to be dropped until you come to the rocky portions of the road, in which case you need your own air compressor to air your tires back up. There are 21 roadside campsites in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, a few of which are more secluded than others, making for some really amazing dispersed camping opportunities. Not only do you get amazing views of the eastern side of the sand dunes and the mountains (along with less crowded places to walk to the creek and the dunes), but the canyon itself is quite beautiful with several creek crossings and wildlife. Mud holes are abundant, but drivers really do seem to watch out for each other. You can check road conditions through the National Park Service.
4. Million Dollar Highway – U.S. Route 550
U.S. Route 550 is referred to as the Million Dollar Highway. I've read that it's called that for 2 possible reasons: 1) the million dollar views afforded on every bend and turn of this amazing road or 2) you couldn't pay some drivers a million bucks to drive this route again. After driving this route with my family, I can see why some might feel that way; it's a little scary at times! But is it ever worth the drive. The road winds through valleys and mountains from Montrose, Colorado all the way down through Durango into New Mexico, taking you through towns like Ouray and Silverton. And if you happen to be in Silverton of a morning, be sure to stop in at the Kendall Mountain Cafe for the best breakfast you've ever had. The stretch between Ouray and Durango was my particular favorite part of the highway, leaving us with glimpses of old mines and mining shacks, 4×4 mountain roads (one of which we drove to find a campsite for the night in the Lizard Head Wilderness area), beautiful mountain passes, waterfalls, switchbacks, and more.
5. Crystal River Road
Outside the town of Marble, Colorado (one of our favorite places on earth), is an unpaved shelf road that follows the Crystal River through the Crystal River Canyon. Photos just don't do this beautiful area on the edge of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, justice.
The road is an old mining road that's accessible only by high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles or ATV's during the summer. Along the way is the beautiful Crystal River, Lizard Lake, gorgeous mountain views, waterfalls, Crystal Mill, and the ever so peaceful town of Crystal, Colorado, where you can buy a few books, browse through a gift shop, meander through the semi-ghost town, and maybe even rent a cabin for the night.
There's no electricity, but there is a small stream to keep your bottled drinks cold. Crystal River Jeep Tours in Marble operate daily tours in the summer, giving you the option to visit Crystal, ride the Lead King Basin Loop, and Devils Punchbowl. Or you can make the drive yourself; we made the drive to Crystal Mill and had a blast!
Oh, and if you're in Marble for lunch or dinner? Be sure to stop in at Slow Groovin' BBQ, the BEST (and maybe the only) restaurant in town. I'm tellin' ya, it's good stuff.
6. West Elk Loop Scenic Byway
Upon leaving Carbondale, traveling through Redstone, and exploring the Marble area, the West Elk Loop winds its way over McClure Pass through orchard valleys, canyon country, the Curecanti National Recreation Area, and back up into the mountains, national forest, and wilderness area beyond Crested Butte. Along the way, be sure to stop at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a must see place that will take your breath away the moment your eyes take a look over the edge. Stop and take in the waters of the Blue Mesa Reservoir. Beyond Crested Butte, wildflowers await, thousands upon thousands of wildflowers abundant in color and beauty. My favorite part of this road was the unpaved portion beyond Crested Butte through Kebler Pass. At the top of the pass is the Irwin Cemetery. Secluded roadside campsites were abundant amongst gorgeous green ferns and beautiful groves of stately aspens. Though we camped along the route through Kebler Pass, I dream of going back again and camping amongst those beautiful, mysterious groves of aspens.
7. Old Fall River Road
A one way, unpaved road takes you through the mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park up to the alpine tundra. Old Fall River Road is 11 miles long but can take half or day or even a whole day to drive, depending on how many times you stop. The gravel road winds through the mountains from Horseshoe Park to Fall River Pass at 11,796 feet in elevation. Incredible views await, and from the Alpine Visitor Center at the top, it's ever so convenient to then take Trail Ridge Road back down to the bottom.
8. Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge Road is Rocky Mountain National Park's “highway to the sky,” and it is absolutely stunning! 48 miles long, the road stretches from Estes Park to Grand Lake, winding through the park and climbing higher and higher into the alpine wilderness, eventually crossing over the Continental Divide. Elk are often grazing or resting on the upper slopes along the road, and nestled between the peaks, you may even catch a glimpse of a beautiful blue mountain lake. Other wildlife to keep an eye out for include moose, bighorn sheep, marmots, pikas, and more.
9. Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
The Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, built in 1918, stretches from Estes Park to Blackhawk, Colorado. If you love mining country, mountain views, and quaint mountain towns like Nederland, this is a beautiful road for a drive. We recommend visiting Rocky Mountain National Park's Wild Basin area, Golden Gate Canyon State Park, Hidee Gold Mine in Central City, and historic cemeteries along the way.
10. Virginia Canyon Road (aka, Oh-My-Gosh Road)
When we visited Idaho Springs one day last summer, we took a gravel road up through the mountains and back over to Central City. At times, I was literally thinking, “Oh my gosh!!!,” because the road is amazing but not gonna lie, a little scary in places. Of course, now that I've been on various four-wheel drive roads, it doesn't seem bad at all. It passes by several old, abandoned mines; we are fascinated with these old mines and mining ghost towns, so we loved taking an off-the-beaten-path route back toward Central City.
11. County Road 265 to FF70 Drive to 71 4/10 Road to 330 to 58 1/2 to 59 to 65 (A bunch of gravel roads through the mountains)
So, this route may seem a bit confusing, but if you can find County Road 265 beyond McClure Pass and follow these directions, you'll wind through some of the most beautiful country around, what with gorgeous mountains, stunning lakes, beautiful ranches, and more. Be sure to watch out for cows, though; they roam freely through much of the area.
12. Ophir Pass 4×4 Road
This is where we camped off of U.S. Route 550 on our way down to Durango. Ophir Pass Road, or Forest Road #630, is recommended to be traveled by high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles without a trailer. We found amazing views along this road, though there were signs warning of mine shafts and explosives used for avalanches in the area. We found a little side road, which we took down into a little valley to the river next to an old, abandoned mine. There we found a campsite and set up camp for the night at 10,121 feet in elevation. Part of the Lizard Head Wilderness area, it was one place I'll NEVER forget.