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Colorado

Mountains

(South)

The Centennial State is home to world-class scenery, from snowcapped peaks to dry desert canyons. That is why we split the Colorado route into two: the Northern and the Southern. This one, the Southern Route, focuses on everything below Interstate 70. It is stunning and full of quintessential Colorado landscapes: mining ghost towns, snowcapped peaks, and old West-style cities (many of which are Historical Landmarks). This route is a good mix of history, culture and outdoor adventure.  

  • the country's highest suspension bridge, the Royal Gorge Bridge, is located in Southern Colorado near the town of Canon City. While you can walk across it, you can also raft in the river below, take a train, and camp nearby. 

  • Leadville is the highest incorporated town in the USA, sitting at 10,152 feet. It is also the closest town to the tallest 14-er in the state, Mt. Elbert.

  • at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, you can adventure to the top of the tallest dune in North America, named  Star Dune - it rises 750 feet above the valley floor.

  • Colorado holds 75% of the land area in the Continental U.S. above 10,000 feet, and many of that can be seen along this drive: more 14-ers are found in the southern half of Colorado than anywhere else in the USA.

route highlights

Guanella Pass . Leadville . Maroon Bells . Crested Butte .  Telluride . Ouray .  Great Sand Dunes NP .  St. Elmo

The Route

start: Denver   |   end: colorado springs

This route takes you through the wildly popular and quintessential landscapes of Colorado. Think historic mining ghost towns, 14,000-foot snowcapped mountain peaks, crystal clear alpine lakes, and cozy Western towns where it feels as if people still ride horses to town from their sprawling ranches. Journey on this route if you are looking for the postcard, well-known landscapes (Aspen, Maroon Bells, Telluride) but stay for the off-the-beaten-path adventures - many of which take place on back dirt roads. So make sure to bring your hiking boots, camera and maybe even a mountain bike. This is one stunning ride.

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

Morrison: known as the home of Red Rocks Amphitheatre - one of the premier concert venues in the world - Morrison is a small town right on the edge of Denver. While it doesn’t have much of a “town” there is one really neat thing you definitely should check out. Right behind Red Rocks Park (home of the amphitheater) is an important regional geologic layer of the Late Jurassic age, the Morrison Formation. Today it is famous as the first discovery site of three 150-million-year-old dinosaurs, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and the Colorado state fossil, Stegosaurus.

Highway 285: from Morrison head out on Highway 287 (after taking Road 8 out of town). Once on the highway, you will quickly leave the city behind and head into wide-open mountain valleys. You will quickly pass Staunton State Park, Colorado’s newest state park, and home to a myriad of different biomes, unique plant life and outdoor recreation. After Staunton SP, you will hit the towns of Bailey (last place to get gas for a while), Shawnee and the small (very small) town of Grant. This last town is where you will take a right turn onto Guanella Pass Road (62). 

Guanella Pass: a designated Scenic Byway, Guanella Pass takes you high into the Rocky Mountains, giving you stunning views of the surrounding mountains, including 14,000+ foot Mt. Bierstadt. You will also get a good idea of what alpine tundra looks like before quickly descending into aspen and pine forests. Guanella Pass eventually spits you out at the historic mining town of Georgetown. In total, the road only travels 22 miles - but takes you up to 11,669 feet. 

Georgetown: a former silver mining town that came about in 1859 during the Pikes Peak Goldrush. While today Georgetown is quite small, in its heyday (the late 19th century)  it was a historic center of the mining industry in Colorado, even earning the nickname the "Silver Queen of Colorado.” One fun thing to do* in town (though a bit touristy) is to take the Georgetown Loop Historic Mining Train, which connects the towns of Georgetown and its historic neighbor, Silver Plume. 

*if you are looking for something historic but a little less touristy, we recommend checking out the Argentine Central Railroad Grade trail, which is an awesome place for a hike or run, plus it has a unique history. 

Copper: get onto Interstate 70 (I-70) and head west. You will quickly start to climb and eventually get to the Eisenhower Tunnel: one of the highest vehicular tunnels in the world, and the longest on the entire US Interstate System (it also crosses right at the Continental Divide). After the tunnel, you will quickly (very quickly) descend into the Silverthorne area (where you can get gas, food, and coffee) and then up to Frisco (another bigger mountain town, and the way to Breckenridge - which is beautiful) until you eventually reach Copper. While there isn’t really a town there, just three ski villages, it is a really awesome area to check out no matter the time of year*.

*a great hike is the Gore Range Trail, which cuts through the Eagles Nest Wilderness and shows off some of the best mountain landscapes in the state.

Leadville: Head out of Copper on Highway 91, towards the town of Leadville. This historic silver mining town is considered one of the highest towns in the USA. While today it is a rather small, even “rundown” town, in the late 19th century it was once the second most populous town in the state (after Denver). Situated on the headwaters of the Arkansas River, Leadville is teeming with outdoor activities. Including, Turquoise Lake (which has camping and fishing), hiking the large number of 14,000-foot peaks nearby (including the tallest in Colorado, Mt. Elbert), and exploring the Mount Massive Wilderness and Buffalo Peaks Wilderness areas, both of which are within 10 miles of town.

Aspen: head out of Leadville, south on Highway 24 to Twin Lakes. Then turn right onto Highway 82, past the trailheads for the various hikes to the top of Mt. Elbert, and up to the top of Independence Pass* - one of the highest paved roads in the state. Once past the pass you will quickly descend into Aspen, one of the most luxurious and glamorous towns in the state. First founded as a mining camp, the town quickly gained the name Aspen thanks to its high number of, well, aspen trees. Like many towns in the Colorado mountains, Aspen began declining in the late 1890’s thanks to the collapse of silver mining. It wasn’t until the 50’s that it was revitalized, thanks to the introduction of a ski resort on nearby Aspen Mountain. Today it is a popular outdoor recreation hub during all four seasons, and many beautiful trails are located within striking distance of downtown. 

*there are a TON of awesome hikes off this road, as well as a ghost town called Independence (great for photos!)

Maroon Bells: next, head to one of the prettiest, and most photographed natural areas in the whole state: Maroon Bells. Take Maroon Creek Road from the edge of Aspen (there will be signs) all the way out until you get to the welcome station and eventually the parking lot. From there you can go for a hike, or simply just stare across Maroon Lake at the gorgeous mountains in the background (they are especially stunning in the fall).

Ridgway: Next up is Ridgeway*, aka the “Gateway to the San Juans” one of the prettiest mountain ranges in the whole state. This is a great area for wildlife spotting, including mountain lions, badgers, deer, elk, and bald eagles, that last of which are a common sight in the cottonwood trees near the Uncompahgre River. A great place to spot these animals is at Ridgway State Park - which is located just north of town. This Western-style town has been a popular spot to shoot old-school movies, including the original True Grit. *one fun fact about the town is that it has the only traffic light in the whole Ouray County

Telluride: From Ridgway, head west on Highway 62 to the town of Placerville. Once there, turn left onto Highway 145. From there it is a scenic drive to the town of Telluride, one of the most picturesque towns in the state. This former silver mining town was founded around 1875 - but under the name Columbia. But after confusion with a California town with the same name, they changed it to Telluride. Today, the town is known for its ski resort in the winter, and its fun festival schedule (and hiking trails) in the summer. One of the neatest things to do in Telluride is to take the (free) gondola from town up to San Sophia station at 10,540 feet.

Cortez: From Telluride, get back on Highway 145 towards the town of Cortez. On the way consider stopping off at Dolores and the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument Visitor Center and Museum. Once in Cortez, you have to make some decisions. Because of its awesome location, you can easily get to places such as Mesa Verde National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, 4 Corners National Monument, and Monument Valley.

Mesa Verde NP: ​If you decide to head a bit east, you will reach Mesa Verde National Park - the second national park on the route. This park is more of a “driving” park - meaning while there aren’t a lot of hiking trails, there is A LOT to see. Make sure to stop off at the numerous archeological sites, and take a walk down to Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in the park. Mesa Verde can get quite busy, so if you are looking for quieter historical sites then head to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, located just a bit further north.

Durango: After checking out either Mesa Verde NP or Canyons of the Ancients NM, head further east to the fun town of Durango. This is one of those cool Colorado mountain towns that makes people love visiting the state: beer, food, outdoor adventures, and awesome views. So if you are looking to spend an evening under the stars, eating good music, and checking out the local craft beer, then Durango is the town for you. Some of the best breweries are Animas Brewing Company and Carver Brewing Company.

Silverton: Now is the time to finally hop on Highway 550, otherwise known as The Million Dollar Highway. This scenic byway is sometimes called the prettiest road in the world, and after driving it on your way to Silverton you will quickly see why. The town itself is another Historic District - like many towns in western Colorado, Silverton was originally a silver mining camp. Today the town relies on tourism and some of the coolest things to check out are the many ghost towns nearby.

Alpine Loop: If you want to spend a day exploring the historic ghost towns (and getting a bit deeper into the mountains) then head out on the Alpine Loop, a 65-mile loop that takes you into the backcountry of the San Juans along dirt roads (a 4-wheel drive vehicle is likely necessary). This loop will take you to many unique ghost towns, including Animas Forks, Capitol City and Eureka. It will also take you past one of the coolest historic towns in Colorado: Lake City

Ouray: The loop eventually spits you out at Ouray, aka The Switzerland of America. You might already expect this, but like the other towns along the route, Ouray was also a one-time mining camp. But one interesting (and fun) fact is that at one time there were more horses and mules in town than people. Today the town relies on tourism, and has become a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and adventures. Some of the most popular activities are trail running, ice climbing (it is home to the world's first ice climbing park), mountain biking and hiking. Ouray also has hot springs - the perfect way to end a day of exploring.

Curecanti National Recreation Area: From Ouray you will backtrack a bit to Curecanti National Recreation Area, “a series of three reservoirs along the once wild Gunnison River.” You can get out on the water by renting a boat or swimming. Or you can stay out of the water and explore the area on foot on the numerous hiking trails. Other outdoor activities include camping, horseback riding and bird watching. 

Great Sand Dunes NP & Preserve: ​Head east from Curecanti towards Gunnison. Soon you will reach the turn off for Highway 114 towards the town of Saguache. Head south on Highway 285 towards the small town of Center, then turn left onto Highway 112. From here you will finally see your destination: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. This park is one of the least visited in the country (and after that drive you might know why). Spend the day here exploring the dunes, including the tallest dune in North America, or take it up a notch and rent some sleds to slide down them, going for a short hike into the bordering mountain biomes and checking out Zapata Falls, located right on the edge of the park*. If you have the time, get a permit to spend the night in the dunes - the park has some of the darkest skies in the USA.

Snowmass Village: as their community website clearly states this town is waaaay into mountain biking. In fact, they were recently designated as an IMBA Gold Level Ride Center. And that is perfect for the outdoor adventurist looking to check out the beautiful mountain scenery, from the seat of a bike. Other awesome activities include hiking, skiing, dog sledding, disc golf, normal golf, rock climbing, and hot air balloon rides. While Snowmass Village itself is not very big, it has lots of restaurants, cafes, and lodging options.

Poncha Springs: From the park, head back north on Highway 285. Along the way consider checking out Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa, located right off the highway in the middle of the San Luis Valley (which you will have been driving in the past couple of hours). While the town of Poncha Springs is named after a real spring, which was discovered either by Zebulon Pike (aka the guy Pikes Peak is named after) or famous frontiersman Kit Carson, since the 1930s the town of Salida (just down the road) has piped the water from the spring to their own pool and even had the government come in and cover the original spring with cement. 

Carbondale: Located downstream, and down the road from Aspen and Snowmass, is another great Colorado mountain town. Carbondale got its start thanks to potatoes - and today the town even celebrates that history with Potato Day (held every fall in Sopris Park). Most of the food grown was shipped upstream to Aspen for the large number of silver miners that lived and worked there. Presently, Carbondale has become a sort of “bedroom community” due to the high home prices of nearby towns. This is a great spot to grab some food (Mi Casita Restaurant on Main Street is especially good) before heading out on the road again.

Highway 133 & Kebler Pass: Head out of Carbondale on Highway 133 towards Redstone. This 71-mile road parallels the famous Crystal River, a favorite for whitewater rafters*. The first town you will get to is Redstone Historic District, a one-strip town with an art gallery, a couple of bed and breakfast’s and the nearby coke ovens - used during the towns mining heyday. Up the road, you will get to Road 3 which will eventually land you in the town of Marble - named after the Yule Marble Quarry that is still in operation today (and who’s marble has been used in buildings such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknowns). If you keep heading on Highway 133, you will top out at McClure Pass, which stands at 8,755 feet. After the pass, you will eventually get to Road 12, aka Kebler Pass Road. And from there it is a scenic drive down to the town of Crested Butte. *also along the river is Penny Hot Springs, an undeveloped naturally fed spring with hot mineral water that is free to use.  

Crested Butte: This town is often called the “last great Colorado ski town” and while it does have a very ski-centric culture, it has also recently become a mountain biking hotspot. Stop in at their cute downtown for some coffee at Camp 4 or some delicious pizza at Secret Stash, or head up out of town to Gothic ghost town, now the home of Rocky Mountain Biological Lab. Read more about Crested Butte, and all the amazing things to do there here.

Gunnison: Down Highway 135 from Crested Butte is the town of Gunnison - the largest town in Gunnison County. Here is a great spot to stock up on supplies (there is a Walmart and Safeway). While the town has some great outdoor activities, it doesn’t shine as brightly as some of its neighbors. Stop in for supplies and maybe some food and then keep heading west.

Montrose: Incorporated on May 2, 1882, and named after Sir Walter Scott's novel A Legend of Montrose, the town really started to take off after the completion of the Gunnison Tunnel, an irrigation tunnel that diverted water from the Gunnison River to the otherwise arid Uncompahgre Valley. Due to the relatively cheap real estate, and optimal location for outdoor activities, there are a high number of outdoor companies located in Montrose. Including, Colorado Yurt Company, Scott Fly Rods, and Gordon Composites.

Salida: Down the road from Poncha Springs is the artsy, funky town of Salida. This town has lots of good restaurants, breweries and bike trails to check out, and is a great spot to spend an afternoon in the summer*. This area is also very popular for mountain bikers. Some of the best trails to check out are Rainbow Riding (a 24.4 mile loop) and Cottonwood Tour (a 23-mile loop from town). But if you are looking for an even longer ride, and a Colorado Classic, head a bit west to the Monarch Crest Trail for a 30+ mile ride in some truly stunning mountain landscapes.

*you can also check out the towns hot springs that sit on the west side of town

Buena Vista: North from Salida is the town of Buena Vista, another quintessential Colorado town with restaurants, a brewery and a couple of coffee shops. There are two fun things to do in town - besides getting out and going for a hike in the nearby Collegiate Range (home to numerous 14-ers). The first is checking out St. Elmo, one of the most well-preserved ghost towns in the state (and a popular 4-wheeling destination) and Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort, a well-manicured spot with various hot springs and pools and lodging options.

Divide: From Buena Vista it is finally time to make the long trek back to the Front Range. Along the way make a pit stop at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, located near the town of Florissant. Or head further east and check out the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center, where you can take a guided tour of the wolf rehabilitation center. Once in the town of Divide, you can decide to extend the trip and head south towards Cripple Creek, a historic town-turned gambling mecca. Or keep heading east towards the town of Woodland Park, and on to the town of Cascade, where you can turn off and start the long, twisty drive to the top of Pikes Peak. 

Manitou Springs: Down the road from Cascade is the funky town of Manitou Springs. This cute artsy hamlet has one, maybe two, unique offerings: the numerous natural mineral springs (which you can sample while wandering around town), and its annual Coffin Races, which take place in the fall. There are also numerous outdoor activities* to do, including conquering the famously difficult Manitou Incline and heading out on the Burr Trail, one of the various routes to the top of Pikes Peak, one of the states most well-known 14-ers. *you can also check out Cave of the Winds National Park and the Manitou Cliff Dwellings

Colorado Springs: Once you get your fill of Manitou Springs make the final drive into Colorado Springs, the second largest town in the state (though it is considered the largest town by area). It is home to the United States Air Force Academy, has a (very) large number of outdoor things to do, and also has a nice downtown area with restaurants and bars. All together, Colorado Springs is often ranked very high on “Best Places to Live” lists (in 2018 it came in 1st). If planning to spend some time in the city, make sure to check out Garden of the Gods, the Broadmoor Hotel and of course, Pikes Peak. 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP: One of the four National Parks in the state, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a bit out of the way - but 100% worth the trip. This is one of the lesser-known parks in the US, and it is easy to get away from the few people who do visit. We recommend doing one of the viewpoint hikes (especially Observation Point) or, if you have the time, heading down to the bottom of the canyon and camping out next to the Gunnison River. If you are looking for more information on the park, and the other three in Colorado, check out this article.

ODDS

and ends

Expected Driving Time: ~26 hours, roughly 1,300 miles (we recommend doing it in a week to two weeks)

Great Hikes Along the Way: 

Where to Get a Good Cup of Joe:

Worth Stopping to See:

  • Stop in at the UFO Watchtower near Great Sand Dunes NP and Preserve for the best chance of catching site of a UFO (maybe)

  • Looking to get your heart pumping? Then head up the Manitou Incline, an iconic hike in the state

  • Right next door you will find Garden of the Gods, one of the neatest outdoor areas in the state - and within driving distance from Colorado Springs

  • A quick stop off the highway near Curecanti National Recreation Area, the Cimarron Canyon Rail Exhibit is a neat way to look at Colorado's railroad history - and the way it changed the state

Want to follow more of our routes?