Colorado Smoke Sunset.jpg

Colorado

Mountains

(North)

The Centennial State is home to world-class scenery, from snowcapped peaks to dry desert canyons. That is why we split the route into two: the Northern and the Southern. This one, the Northern Route, focuses on everything above 1-70. It is beautiful, exciting and a lot quieter, with more hidden gems and unknown places to explore. 

  • Flat Tops Wilderness is the first expanse of public land deemed “wilderness" and the third-largest wilderness reserve in the state

  • Colorado is the only state in the USA to turn down the Olympics (they were supposed to be held in Denver)

  • Colorado’s holds 75% of the land area in the Continental U.S. above 10,000 feet (so yes we are always "high")

  • The nickname, the Centennial State comes from the fact that CO entered into statehood in 1876 on the 100th anniversary of independence. 

  • Colorado is the 8th largest state in terms of land mass.

route highlights

Nederland . Rocky Mountain National Park . Grand Lake . Steamboat Springs . Devil's Causeway . Dinosaur NM

The Route

start: denver   |   end: denver

This route takes you through the "backcountry" of Northern Colorado. Including, to some off-the-beaten-path hot springs, over the highest continuous paved road in the United States, along scenic river roads and deep into the far-off northwestern region of the state that focuses more on ranching than on tourism. While it may not have the "iconic" Colorado landscape you might expect - more of that in the Southern Route - it is no less beautiful. So if you are looking for a unique, less-touristy route through Colorado keep reading. 

Denver: the Mile High City is a pretty sweet place to start any road trip. With so much culture, with a strong focus on the outdoors, Denver is a top-notch adventure city. Check out LoDo, the hip downtown area, walk the 16th Street Mall and take a turn around Union Station, a restored train station with lots of funky restaurants and bars. 

Boulder: possibly the most well-known city in Colorado, Boulder definitely lives up to the popularity. With a stunning backdrop in the Flatirons, this hip town, like many in Colorado, is an outdoor paradise. Also make sure to check out Pearl Street, a nice walking street with cute shops.

Nederland: a funky little town nestled into the mountains, Nederland, or Ned, is the gateway to Indian Peaks Wilderness, along the stunning Peak to Peak Highway and home to a frozen dead guy. Yes, you read that right. In fact, every March they have Frozen Dead Guy Days, a festival loosely meant celebrate the cryopreservation of Bredo Morstoel (the Frozen Dead Guy). Learn more about this oddity, and crazy history, here.

Indian Peaks: right outside Nederland, and past the cute town of Eldora (like the ski resort nearby) are two awesome trailheads: Hessie and 4th of July. This is an awesome area to explore the mountains, often without all the people (especially compared to nearby Rocky Mountain National Park). A great hike is Devil's Thumb Pass, which connects with the Continental Divide Trail at the top, and Lost Lake. Another great area of Indian Peaks is Brainard Lake - and the awesome Blue Lake Trail. 

Estes Park: one of the more popular towns, and stops, along the route. Estes Park is known as the Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Stop in for some coffee, a bit to eat, and maybe the chance to see some elk (they are EVERYWHERE). But while Estes Park is cute, it is also very touristy and busy. So we recommend not lingering too long - there is so much else to see!

*we highly recommend grabbing some coffee at KIND Coffee along the River Walk

Rocky Mountain National Park: the third most popular National Park in the entire USA, and it is easy to see why. With dozens of awesome hiking trails, scenic drives, and awe-inspiring mountains, RMNP has a LOT to offer. A couple of great things to see are Mills Lake, Ouzel Falls and Mount Ida (on the West side). But one thing you have to do, and what we recommend for this route, is driving over Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous road in the US. 

Grand Lake: once down from Trail Ridge Road, you should be spat out in the cute, mountain town of Grand Lake (in fact, Grand Lake itself is the largest natural body of water in the whole state). While the level of tourists are less here than in Estes Park (woo), it still has all the touristy things you would need, including good coffee, food, and things to see. If looking for a hike, head to the Tonahutu or North Inlet Trailheads. 

Hot Sulpher Springs: one of the oldest towns in the area thanks to its hot springs, which today are known as Hot Sulpher Springs Resort & Spa, a funky place that is definitely worth a stop, in the past they were used as a medicinal purposes by Native Americans who came to winter in the area. The town is also important for helping bring skiing to Colorado in the form of the first winter carnival in 1911.

Highway 134: keep heading west on Highway 40, through the town of Kremmling, until you get to Highway 134 (turn on your left). This barely used highway is a great way to get off the beaten path and back into some lesser-known mountains. This is also a good spot for mountain biking and camping, especially at Lynx Pass Campground. But, because most of the road is through Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest you can technically camp almost anywhere. 

Flat Tops Wilderness: the road kicks you out on Highway 131, turn right towards Yampa. Once in town quickly head out on Road 7 (there should be signs for Flat Tops Wilderness Area). The road follows a river before turning to dirt. There is camping in the area, we believe you just have to register beforehand at the small kiosk along the road. Flat Tops Wilderness was one of the first "wilderness" areas in the USA and after you see the surroundings, especially the Yamcolo Reservoir, you will understand why.

Steamboat Springs: after spending some time exploring Flat Tops (we recommend hiking or mountain biking and camping at least for one night) head back out to Highway 131 towards Steamboat Springs. This is another awesome spot to get outside and do some adventuring. Hike, fish, mountain bike, or if it is winter, ski or snowboard. One can't miss thing is Strawberry Park Hot Springs, located out on a twisty mountain road outside of town. 

*Steamboat takes winter sports seriously, in fact, the town has produced more Winter Olympic athletes than any other town in North America.

Dinosaur National Monument: far off in the western reaches of the state sits a pretty unique outdoor recreation area. While it is not easy to get to, it is about a 2.5-hour drive from Steamboat, it is worth seeing. If you are short on time then just head to the Quarry Visitor Center, tour the Exhibit Hall and do the short Fossil Discovery Trail*. Then make sure to take some fun photos with the kitschy dinosaurs in the town of Dinosaur (they go hard on the theme). 

*funny enough, those three things are in Utah, but what do state lines matter anyway?

Highway 139/Douglass Pass: head back into Colorado (bye Utah) and turn off onto Highway 64 towards Rangely. While Rangely is a nice little town, we recommend only stopping if you are into dirt bikes and 4-wheeling, otherwise, keep driving. Once on Highway 139 you will leave the open, sagebrush fields behind and start climbing through pine forests, next to crystal rivers and through what feels like untouched wilderness. Douglass Pass itself gives you STUNNING views of the valley below, as well as the surrounding peaks. 

Fruita: once a major fruit producing region (of course with a name like that), now it is more popular for adrenaline sports like mountain biking, hiking, and rafting. One of the most popular trails is the Kokopelli Trail, though if you aren't looking for a 100+ mile ride (why not? :), then maybe consider the Horsethief Bench and Rustler's loops

*no mountain bike ride is complete without stopping for some hard-earned pizza at  Hot Tomato Pizza

Colorado National Monument: one of the prettiest outdoor areas of Colorado, and one type of landscape you might not expect from a state famous for the Rocky Mountains, either way, Colorado National Monument is one picturesque piece of canyon country and home to world-class hiking, scenic drives, and VIEWS. The best bang for your buck is to take the 23-mile Rim Rock Drive (though always make sure to get out and do some exploring along the way).

*maybe this is how Colorado got its name; in Spanish, the name means "colored red"

Rifle: one of those blink and you miss it towns, Rifle is a lot like other towns in the area: historic and slightly touristy. But if you are willing to drive a bit out of the way, you will be amazed at what you find. The creme de la creme is Rifle Falls State Park - a lush, almost tropical, oasis in an otherwise dry area. Spend a couple hours marveling at the falls and hiking around the caves.

Glenwood Springs: home to the world's largest natural hot springs swimming pool, Glenwood Springs seems to be part resort and part historic mountain town. But a lot has happened in the small town, including being the summer vacation location for Teddy Roosevelt, the final resting place for Old West icons Doc Holliday and Kid Curry (which we still think would be an awesome rapper name) and as one of the places infamous serial killer Ted Bundy escaped from. On a lighter note (no pun intended) the town was one of the first in the US to have electric lights. The town was named the "Most Vibrant Small Town Arts Environment in the United States" in 2015 and the 5th Best Place to Live in America by Outside Magazine. 

Wolcott: really just a stopover town between Glenwood Springs and Highway 131, you can quickly pass on through without much thought. Just make sure to head north on Highway 131 - another lightly trafficked road that cuts across the state. You only have to go ~14 miles before you see the turn for Road 1 (Trough Road) on your right (it will be right after crossing the Colorado River). 

Road 1 (Trough Road): one of the prettiest roads in the state in our opinion but one very few people know about. Once you turn off Highway 131, the road will be dirt (though well-graded and flat). The best part about this drive is that you follow the Colorado River for about half of it - which is pretty cool, because unless you are on one of the Amtrack trains that pass through daily, this is the only way to see this part of the river (unless you are floating it, which we HIGHLY recommend). There are some nice campgrounds along the way, including Radium River Campground and Pumphouse Campground (there is a boat ramp there as well). 

Winter Park: you have now made a loop through Northern Colorado (Trough Road leads you to Highway 9 which takes you to Kremmling once again). But this time instead of heading back to Grand Lake instead keep going on Highway 40 to Granby and on to Winter Park. While Winter Park is popular in the winter for snow sports (which makes sense with a name like that) it is actually a super fun, adventurous town year-round. Take a day to explore the mountain biking trails at the ski resort, go for a hike in the new James Peak Wilderness or fish along one of the many rivers. 

*there is some dispute on whether Winter Park is the highest incorporated town in the USA since it has no residences above 9,550 feet,  while residential neighborhoods in Leadville, Colorado, extend to 10,360 feet. Drama, drama, drama.

Empire: a former mining settlement that flourished during the Colorado Silver Boom in the late 19th century, today the town is a nice stopover between Winter Park and Interstate 70, and close to Berthoud Pass - one of the most notoriously difficult passes in Colorado due to its steepness, a high number of switchbacks and common avalanches. 

*a fun spot to stop in Empire is Empire Dairy King, a small, local eatery selling ice cream and burgers.

Idaho Springs: one of the last "mountain" towns along Interstate 70 before you hit Denver, this somewhat "rough" town was, like many others in the area, a one-time mining boomtown: founded in 1859 by prospectors during the early days of the Pike's Peak Gold Rush, the town was at the center of the region's mining district throughout the late nineteenth century. Today, you can still clearly see remnants of mining along the hills that surround the town. 

*if looking for a good place to eat, check out the pizza joint Beau Jo's, a fun restaurant with great pies and salad bar.

Mt. Evans: the last stop on the route, the Mt. Evan's Scenic Byway is the highest paved road in the US - by the end you will have climbed up to 14,258 feet above sea level(!). The road is beautiful with amazing views of the nearby peaks and valleys (and Denver to the east), but it is not for the faint-hearted: it is steep, curvy and narrow. But if you make it to the top, you will practically be atop one of Colorado's 52 14-ers (to really reach the peak it is a short hike). 

ODDS

and ends

Expected Driving Time: ~ 20 hours (roughly 800 miles)

Great Hikes Along the Way: 

  • Hessie Trail/Devil's Thumb Pass, Indian Peaks Wilderness

  • Mill's Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park 

  • Devil's Causeway, Flat Top Wilderness

  • Ute Canyon, Colorado National Monument

  • Hanging Lake Trail, Glenwood Springs

Worth Stopping to See:

  • The funky and fun Hot Sulpher Springs Resort & Spa

  • Strawberry Park Hot Springs, an awesome natural hot springs outside of Steamboat Springs

  • Gates of Lodore, in Dinosaur National Monument, a bit out of the way but a super pretty drive (there are even wild horses!)

  • Palisade, a cute town that is famous for having the BEST peaches, stop in especially during August/September

  • Rifle Falls State Park, a beautiful little park with an awesome waterfall and caves (plus camping)

Want to follow more of our routes?