Colorado Road Trips

Michelle Radcliff
Switchback Road

Colorado has 25 scenic and historic byways, 11 of which are designated as America's byways. The state is rich in natural beauty with 54 Rocky Mountain peaks that rise over 14,000 feet, stunning red rock formations, fields of vibrant wildflowers and gorgeous fall colors on hillsides blanketed with aspen trees.

Although driving in winter can prove to be treacherous during snowstorms, many scenic drives are open year-round and each season has something different to offer.

Peak to Peak Scenic Byway and Trail Ridge Road

Designated in 1918, the 59-mile Peak to Peak Scenic Byway is Colorado's first official scenic drive. This road trip takes you through historic towns and stunning views of the Arapahoe National Forest, the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area and Rocky Mountain National Park. You can further extend your trip on Trail Ridge Road. Earning an American Byway status, Trail Ridge is the highest continuous paved road in the United States.

Three Day Itinerary

The Peak to Peak Scenic Byway is open all year but Trail Ridge Road usually opens around Memorial Day and closes again by mid-October. With so much to offer on each route and their close proximity to one another, it makes good travel sense to combine the two drives into a single summer or early fall road trip.

Day One

From Denver, head west on I-70 and take exit 243 to Central City. The scenic drive begins here and travels to Estes Park, using Colorado highways 119, 72 and 7.

Twin Gambling Towns

Take a few hours to explore Central City and the neighboring town of Black Hawk. Both historic towns are notorious for their Victorian era buildings, casinos and gambling halls.

Continue north on CO-119, where you'll enjoy scenic views of the Arapahoe National Forest. On the way, you'll pass through Rollinsville, famous for a wagon road and eventually a railroad built over the Continental Divide.

Stay on the 119 until you reach the town of Nederland. Spend the night in a room previously booked at Nederland's 1st Inn and enjoy some of the recreational activities or special events that take place in Nederland year-round.

Day Two

To continue the journey on the scenic byway, look for the roundabout in Nederland and take Highway 72, heading towards Estes Park. When you come to a T in the road, turn left onto Highway 7 toward Allenspark.

Chapel on the Rock

Your first stop on Highway 7 will be at the Mount Meeker Scenic Overlook, where you'll want to get plenty of pictures of the endless mountain vistas.

Chapel on the Rock

The main attraction just outside of Allenspark is Chapel on the Rock, a beautiful stone church built on a massive granite rock. Built from the stone of the Colorado Rockies, the church almost appears as a feature of the natural landscape.

Enos Mills Cabin

Continue heading north on Highway 7 and just 8 miles outside of Estes Park, you will find the trailhead for the Enos Mills Cabin Museum. The original homestead cabin was built in 1885 by 15-year-old Kansan Enos A. Mills, who eventually became known as the "Father of Rocky Mountain National Park." Personal tours of the cabin are available for $20 per person ($10 for kids 5 to 12) but are by appointment only, so book ahead of time on the museum's website. The tour takes about an hour.

Lily Lake

Back on Highway 7, you will pass Lily Lake, the perfect spot for an early afternoon lunch or a mid-afternoon snack while birdwatching the ducks and geese that like to visit here. Then, it is on to Estes Park, where this scenic byway comes to an end.

Estes Park

Estes Park has dozens of lodging options including cabins, vacation homes, bed and breakfast inns and historic places such as the Stanley Hotel. Operating since 1909, the Stanley Hotel is best known for inspiring the Stephen King novel The Shining. It is recognized by Historic Hotels of America and is very close to US-34.

Day 3: Trail Ridge Road

From Estes Park, take US-34, heading west into Rocky Mountain National Park. An entrance fee is required to enter the park or the cost can be covered with an America the Beautiful Annual Pass, Senior Pass, Disabled Access Pass or a Military Pass. The 48-mile scenic drive ends in the town of Grand Lake.

Wildlife Watching

Two miles from the park's entrance brings you to West Horseshoe Park and an overlook for Sheep Lakes, a natural watering hole for bighorn sheep, deer and elk. Drive carefully and have your camera ready to capture wildlife crossing or alongside the road.

Once you pass Horseshoe Park Overlook, US-34 merges with US-36. Turn right to continue on US-34, as the road ascends through a series of switchbacks. Two miles ahead, keep an eye out for the boardwalk that leads to the beaver ponds.

Scenic Overlooks

Around the next couple of bends, you'll find a spectacular panoramic view of Moraine Park and Horseshoe Park. Get inspired by the valleys carved from glaciers and the majestic mountain peaks at the Many Parks Curve Overlook.

Watch for a road sign indicating an elevation of 2 miles above sea level. Soon after, you will come upon the Rainbow Curve Overlook with views of a large canyon and many of the famous peaks in the area.

Into the Tundra

As the road climbs higher, the forest trees change from Ponderosa pine and aspen to sub alpine species of fir and spruce. Above the tree line, you'll experience the landscape of tundra, similar to areas of Alaska and Canada. It can be 20 to 30 degrees colder here so be sure to bring a jacket. Colorful, ground hugging alpine plants keep the windswept land from looking barren.

At Fall Rivers Pass, stop in at the Alpine Visitors Center for exhibits on tundra life, a gift shop and a short hike to a scenic overlook. Take in breathtaking views of rugged snowcapped peaks, valleys carved by glaciers and surreal mountain vistas. Although the elevation here is a whopping 11,796 feet, the highest point on Trail Ridge Road was a couple miles back at 12,183 feet.

A Scenic Descent

Shortly after the visitor center, the road begins to descend quickly. Don't miss the great photo ops you'll find at the Medicine Bow Curve Overlook, with a beautifully serene view of the Cache la Poudre River and Medicine Bow Mountains.

Fairview Curve Overlook provides more views of endless forests and rolling mountains. After the last of the hairpin mountain curves, you'll pass by a few trailheads and the Beaver Ponds Picnic area before exiting the park by the Kawuneeche Visitor Center and continuing on into Grand Lake.

Optional One Day Modification

If you only have one day for a scenic drive through the Rockies, opt for Trail Ridge Road. The stunning views from this drive are hard to beat.

From Denver, head north on Interstate 25. Take exit 217A, going west on US-36 to Boulder. Continue on US-36 W until you get to US-34 W, which takes you to Trail Ridge Road. At the end of the scenic drive in Grand Lake, continue on US-34 until you get to US-40 E. Take US-40 to Interstate 70 E, going back to Denver. This round-trip loop is roughly 183 miles. Plan for about 6 to 8 hours for the drive, allowing time for numerous stops and twisting, curvy mountain roads.

San Juan Skyway

Road into the San Juan Mountains

The circular 230-mile loop of the San Juan Skyway is a beautiful drive. Traveling through the heart of the San Juan Mountains, the drive features mile after mile of stunning views, steep grades climbing to over 10,000 feet and twisty hairpin turns often without guardrails.

Six Day Itinerary

Open year-round, each season transforms the landscape of this scenic drive. Spring is the best time to see waterfalls gushing over rocky ledges, created by melting snow from higher elevations. Summer brings colorful bursts of blooming wildflowers, while fall blankets the hillsides in gold and amber from turning aspen leaves. Snowfall magically alters the mountains into a beautiful winter wonderland. Although the San Juan Skyway can be driven in 5 to 6 hours, consider spending 5 to 6 days traversing this route to truly experience everything it has to offer.

Day One

About a 5 ½ hour drive southwest from Denver, (via US-285 S and US-50 W) Ridgway is located at the northern tip of the San Juan Skyway. Spend your first night at the Ridgway-Ouray Lodge & Suites, with gorgeous views of the mountains while also being within easy walking distance of shops and restaurants in Ridgway.

Day Two

From Ridgway, head south along the Skyway on US-550, traveling alongside the Uncompahgre River and winding between the mountains and hills of the Uncompahgre National Forest. After 10 miles, you'll arrive in Ouray, where you can take a dip in the therapeutic hot spring pools that Ouray is well known for.

Spend some time visiting Ouray's historic turn-of-the-century shops and galleries before taking a short detour on Box Canyon Road to Box Canyon Falls Park. A short walkway leading to a suspension bridge provides the best views and photo ops of the 285-foot waterfall gushing through the narrow gorge.

Continue south on US-550, climbing through a number of mountain switchbacks on a section of the road known as the Million-Dollar Highway. Here you will see some of the most spectacular mountain views along the Skyway as you travel past abandoned mines, gorges and waterfalls and through mountain tunnels as you finally descend into the town of Silverton.

Day Three

Step back in time to the late 1800s by spending the night at Silverton's Grand Imperial Hotel, with its stunning Victorian-era architecture and interior décor. Explore some of the historic venues downtown in Silverton's National Historic District and take the tour at the Old Hundred Gold Mine, where you can try your luck at panning for gold.

Depart Silverton heading south on US-550. After a brief climb to Molas Pass, the road descends through hilly valleys with distant mountain peaks. Mountain trees such as aspen, spruce and fir give way to Ponderosa pine as you approach the high desert landscape of Durango, Colorado. Stay in one of Durango's comfy bed and breakfast inns and take in an old west gunfight or ragtime piano at the Diamond Belle Saloon.

Day Four

Continue your San Juan Skyway trip by heading west out of Durango on US-160. Enjoy the scenic views of rolling hills and rugged mesas as you approach the turnoff for Mesa Verde National Park. About 35 miles out from Durango, take a left turn onto Mesa Top Ruins Road.

Designated a World Cultural Heritage Park by UNESCO, Mesa Verde is worth spending the entire day exploring the hundreds of cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi people from the 6th to the 12th centuries. Learn more about the Ancestral Puebloan culture through dioramas and exhibits at the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum before heading back to US-160. Continue west to the city of Cortez for dinner and a comfortable bed.

Day Five

Depart Cortez heading north to Dolores on CO-145. Shortly before you reach Dolores, (about 2 miles from town), take a left turn onto CO-184 and drive one mile to the Anasazi Heritage Center. This world-class museum has interactive exhibits and detailed information about the native tribes of the Four Corners Region and the nearby Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, one of the richest archaeological regions in the US.

Continue north on CO-145, skirting alongside the Dolores River as the road ascends back into the San Juan Mountains. Just outside the community of Rico, the distinctive shape of Lizard Head Peak becomes visible. Your next overnight stop will be the rustic mountain town of Telluride, Colorado, where you'll find a plethora of lodging accommodations from luxury boutique chalets to affordable, comfortable inns.

Day Six

Telluride has plenty of activities to offer visiting travelers such as world-class skiing in winter and multiple music festivals in the summer. The town also hosts other special events throughout the year, such as film festivals and sporting events. Enjoy a glass of fine wine and contemporary Southwestern art at Arroyo Gallery & Wine Bar or explore the history of the town at the Telluride Historical Museum.

Complete the last leg of your San Juan Skyway road trip by departing Telluride on CO-145, heading northwest along the San Miguel River to Placerville. At the junction, take CO-62 heading east with more spectacular views of San Juan mountain peaks and red sandstone cliffs as you ascend over Dallas Divide at 8,970 feet. You will then descend back down into Ridgway, where your journey began.

Optional Four Day Extension

The San Juan Skyway has so much to offer, you could easily make it a 10-day road trip.

Stay an extra day in Durango with a previously booked Train Adventure Package from the Narrow Gauge Railroad. Start the day with a historic steam train ride through the mountains from Durango to Silverton, then it's off to the second adventure of your choice including rafting, horseback riding and a cave, ATV riding or a treetop zip line.

Spend an extra day in Cortez and rent some mountain bikes to explore Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, located less than 10 miles from Cortez. Must see attractions here include Lowry Pueblo, which has 8 kivas, 40 rooms and walls that still stand. Sand Canyon Trail has hundreds of prehistoric settlement ruins along its 6 ½ mile route.

Extend your stay in Telluride to include a couple of nights in Mountain Village, 9500 feet above the valley floor. The two towns are connected by a gondola ride, the only form of transportation between them. Enjoy more spectacular beauty on a horseback ride or hiking the trails around the mountains of Telluride.

Ghost Town Road Trips

Colorado has hundreds of ghost towns that were once thriving settlements during the silver and gold mining boom of the late 1800s. Using the picturesque town of Buena Vista as your base, you can visit a handful of Colorado's historic ghost towns as a fun weekend excursion.

Two Day Itinerary: Go Prepared and Stay Safe

Due to high elevations and primitive roads, plan your trip for summer or early fall. Although portions of the gravel roads are well maintained and suitable for passenger cars, some of the side roads leading to the mines and historic structures require high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles. Consider renting a jeep in Buena Vista if you aren't travelling in a four-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance.

Bring plenty of drinking water and snacks to get you through the day, as well as rain ponchos for unexpected mountain showers. Wear comfortable walking or hiking shoes and never enter an abandoned mine shaft or dilapidated structure. Pay attention to caution, warning or private property-no trespassing signs.

Day One: St Elmo Tour

St. Elmo Ghost Town

Depart early from your hotel or B&B in Buena Vista and head south on Highway 24, about 8 miles to the turn off for County Road 162 at Nathrop. Turn right onto County Road 162, which will soon bring you to the dusty main street and old wooden storefronts of St. Elmo. These historic buildings have been well-preserved and there is a general store still open for business, selling souvenirs, antiques, snacks and rentals for cabins and ATVs.

Tin Cup

Not far from St. Elmo is another ghost town called Tin Cup, notorious for being a wild and rowdy frontier town. You'll need an ATV (if rentals are available in St. Elmo) to reach this remote abandoned settlement infamous for rebellious inhabitants that ran most sheriffs off. Grave markers in Tin Cup's cemetery are rumored to have the names of lawmen that didn't leave in time to survive.

Mary Murphy Mine

Just before you reach St. Elmo on County Road 162, you'll see a fork in the road. Go back to this point and take the left fork on Forest Road 295, leading to the ghost towns of Romley and Hancock. About 3 miles down the road, a sign is posted for the Mary Murphy Mine. Take a left on this road and buckle up; it's going to be a steep and bumpy one mile ride. This mine produced $60 million worth of gold by the mid-1920s. Many of the dilapidated buildings still stand as a rugged testament to the brave souls that lived in this unforgiving wilderness.

Romley and Hancock

Go back to Forest Road 295 and take the left fork leading to the site of Romley, about 4 miles west of St. Elmo. Romley once had 400 residents who supported the operations at Mary Murphy Mine. The cabins here are mostly in ruins but one of the most interesting structures is precariously perched right next to the road at the site of the old Allie Belle Mine between Romley and Hancock. All that remains in Hancock is the foundation of an old saloon.

If you're up for a 2 ½ mile hike (one way), cross the small bridge going over Chalk Creek and park your car at the trailhead for the Alpine Tunnel. Along the trail you can see remnants of the old Pacific Railroad line that tunneled through the mountains of the Continental Divide. Return to Buena Vista for a second overnight stay before embarking on the second leg of your ghost town road trip.

Day Two: Clear Creek Canyon Tour

Head north out of Buena Vista on Highway 24 for about 15 miles. Then take a left, heading west on County Road 390 for about 13 to 14 miles. This will bring you to the ghost towns of Clear Creek Canyon.

Beaver City

Once containing up to 20 cabins, Beaver City was the first mining camp in Clear Creek Canyon. Only two cabins remain standing today.

Vicksburg

A few more miles further west on County Road 390 brings you to Vicksburg, the second-largest mining camp in the canyon. Two of the buildings here are dedicated as museums with additional historical artifacts on display outside. Other cabins in Vicksburg are privately owned and occupied.

Rockdale

The next camp along the road is Rockdale, which still has a few of the original cabins intact. The four major mines that had small towns popping up all over Clear Creek Canyon include the Tasmania, the Fortune, the Banker and the Swiss Boy. These mines are all a short distance from the next community of Winfield.

Winfield

The last ghost town in Clear Creek Canyon is Winfield, which grew to be the largest settlement in the area by 1890, boasting a population of 1,500 residents. A furnished schoolhouse and miner's cabin are open on select weekends in the summer.

Access to the Major Mines

It's little wonder why Winfield grew to such a substantial size. It was practically surrounded by ore-spitting mines. Only the Fortune Mine is difficult to access, requiring either a long hike on foot or driving on steep, jeep roads to get above the mine. However, you should have plenty of time to include one or more of the other three mines in your Clear Creek Canyon ghost town tour. Maps and additional information are available at Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps.

  • Tasmania Mine: Take the right fork west out of Winfield on County Road 390, following the north fork of Clear Creek, past the Winfield cemetery for 1.8 miles. Then take the right fork and park at the old wagon road trailhead. The mine entrance is a 1.5 mile hike.
  • Swiss Boy Mine: Just before you reach Winfield on County Road 390 (0.2 miles east), park on the side of the road and walk through the trees on the north side. With a little luck and effort, the old wagon road is fairly easy to spot and it's only a half-mile hike to the Swiss Boy Mine.
  • Fortune Mine: Take the same road as you would for Tasmania mine, traveling about 2 miles past Winfield cemetery. Take the left fork that leads to a gate at the base of Winfield Peak. A substantial hike of 6 miles leads to the site of the mine.
  • Banker Mine: A four-wheel drive vehicle gets you all the way to the site of Banker Mine. Take the left fork on County Road 390, heading southwest out of Winfield for about 1.7 miles.

Once you are done exploring the ghost towns and mines of Clear Creek Canyon, retrace your route back to State Highway 24, heading back to Buena Vista or on to a new adventure.

Optional Three Day Extension

It wasn't boom and bust for all of Colorado's 19th century mining towns. Once you are back to US-24, head north for 20 miles into the historic town of Leadville.

This legendary frontier mining town is home to Colorado's largest National Historic Landmark District, with over 70 blocks of restored historic buildings and classic Victorian architecture like what you'll find at the McGinnis Cottage Inn Bed and Breakfast. Here you can spend the night in a home built in 1897 by a prominent attorney. If the walls could talk, what stories they would have to tell!

The next day take a walking tour to learn the history behind many of the historic landmark buildings in Leadville, all built between 1880 and 1905. Take in even more history at the "Smithsonian of the Rockies," also known as the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. This is a great way to conclude your Colorado ghost town road trip.

Family Adventure Road Trip

Combining one of the best free attractions in the country with the Gold Belt Tour Scenic Byway in central Colorado results in a road trip the whole family can enjoy.

Seven Day Itinerary

A multitude of fun-filled outdoor activities requires you to plan this road trip for the summer when the kids will also be free from school.

Day One

Central Park Garden of the Gods

This road trip will launch from the scenic town of Colorado Springs. Spend the night here and get up early to enjoy a full day at Garden of the Gods. Located just 5 miles northwest from downtown Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods was nominated for best free attraction in the country by USA Today.

Here you will see stunning 300-foot red sandstone rock formations, fun interactive museum exhibits on wildlife and a new species of dinosaur discovered in the park, educational movies and interesting nature walks. Café style dining with amazing views and gift shopping are also available.

Day Two

Depart Colorado Springs heading west on US Highway 24. Drive 34.5 miles to the small town of Florissant, where the 125-mile Gold Belt Tour Scenic Byway begins. Take a left on Teller County Road 1 to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, some of the richest and most diverse fossil beds in the world. Witness the petrified stumps of massive Sequoia redwood trees, part of an ancient forest where prehistoric volcanic eruptions helped create the fossil record left there today.

When you are done exploring the park, continue south on Teller County Road 1 until you get to the Old West gambling and mining town of Cripple Creek. Book a room at Century Casino, where older kids can relax in the room with free WiFi, movies and snacks while the adults go downstairs and try their hand at blackjack, roulette or poker.

Day Three

Explore the historic sites and attractions at Cripple Creek, such as visiting the Outlaws and Lawmen Jail Museum. Lock up your kids behind the same bars that held genuine outlaws from the 1800s - reportedly a hot spot for modern-day selfies.

Take a short, 4 mile journey back in time aboard a steam locomotive powered passenger train and then descend 1,000 feet below ground on a guided tour through the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine. Wrap up the day with an 1800s-style melodrama at the Gold Bar Theatre or the recently restored Butte Theatre.

Day Four

Bid farewell to Cripple Creek and head out on CO-67 towards Victor, another historic mining town just 5 miles away. Driving south from Victor, you'll leave the pavement behind as you enter Phantom Canyon Road. Eventually gaining 4,000 feet in elevation, you'll pass over a steel bridge, drive through rock tunnels and take in expansive views of mountains including Pikes Peak. You'll pass the Arkansas River as you approach Florence, where CO-67 ends. Take a right on CO-115 and keep a close eye on the road signs to follow the highway north.

Continue on into Cañon City and check-in to a room previously booked at any of the 10 family-friendly motels in town. Grab some dinner at Ortega's Restaurant or plan ahead with a 6:30 PM Saturday reservation aboard the Murder Mystery Train, where you'll get dinner service for four, breathtaking scenery of the Royal Gorge, and a classic "who-dunit" performance. Children must be 8 or older.

Day Five

Colorado Ponte sospeso

Cañon City is the gateway to the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. Head west on US-50 for about 8 miles. Then, take a left on County Road 3A. Suspended about 1,000 feet above the Arkansas River, the Royal Gorge Bridge is one of the highest bridges in the world. Enjoy spectacular views of the gorge and raging river waters below as you walk across this amazing structure.

Thrill rides include the Cloudscraper Zip Line, the highest zip line in North America. The Royal Rush Skycoaster sweeps you 50 mph through the air in a freefall where you momentarily dangle 1,200 feet above the river below. Take kids under 46 inches tall or under the age of 10 on the Aerial Gondolas. Children between five and 12 will have a great time at the Tommy Knocker Playground.

Day Six

Your Cañon City adventure continues with a half day rafting trip in Big Horn Canyon packaged with a two-hour trail ride in the afternoon. Book this day of fun with Whitewater Adventure Outfitters. Children must be at least six years old and weigh at least 45 pounds. The trip includes beginner level class II and III whitewater rapids, guaranteed to get you wet without terrifying the entire family.

Located just a few minutes from the rafting location, Royal Gorge Stables will pair you and your kids with the right horses, based on each rider's experience level. After a fun and relaxing 1800s-style ride through the Colorado countryside, head back to Cañon City for your last night's stay.

Day Seven

There are two options for completing the Gold Belt Byway, which both take you back to the starting point of Florissant. If you decide to depart Cañon City on the unpaved Shelf Road, you'll need a four-wheel drive vehicle for this adventurous and challenging road with steep drop offs. Attractions along this route include Garden Park Fossil Area and the rock formations of Red Canyon Park.

To get to High Park Road, head west on US-50 for 9 miles. Then turn right onto CO-9, driving about 8 ½ more miles until you get County Road 11. Continue north on County Road 11 which becomes High Park Road. Enjoy pastoral scenes of longhorn cattle ranches until rejoining Teller County Road 1, heading back to Florissant.

Optional Modifications for a Shorter Trip

If you need to cut this road trip down to five or six days, an alternative route from Cañon City to Colorado Springs can have you back in one hour's time. Depart Cañon City going east on US-50 to CO-115, where you will then turn left, heading north towards Colorado Springs. Do this at the end of day five or six if necessary.

Always Plan Ahead

The best time to take a road trip in Colorado really depends on what you want to see and do while you're there. More roads are open in summer and if you're really into history, small museums and restored historical buildings are more likely to be open in summer as well. Fall may arguably be the best time for stunning landscape photos while winter brings swarms of outdoor enthusiasts interested in Colorado's world-class skiing, snowmobiling and other winter sports. Whatever interests you the most can be your guide in choosing a Colorado road trip and when you should go.

Colorado Road Trips