We spent many days exploring some of the incredibly beautiful scenic byways of Colorado. There are 26 in all in fact, but we rode only about a quarter of them. There are a few websites that list many of them and we selected a few along our route to put our 1999 Honda Goldwing through its paces.
Trail of the Ancients (Mesa Verde NP)
We traveled the Trail of the Ancients just for a short while on our way from Monticello, UT to Mesa Verde National Park. There’s lots to see along this beautiful stretch of road that seems to encircle a hot bed of parks and monuments that honor those natives that came and lived here long before we arrived. Hovenweep National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients, and archeological and cultural centers are plentiful along this scenic highway. If you travel far enough, you can end (or start) this byway at the Four Corners monument where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado meet.
San Juan Skyway
Out of Cortez, we took the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway to Durango and headed north eventually to Montrose, CO. We traveled the Million Dollar Highway (US 550) to 11,018 feet at Red Mountain Pass (the highest we’d been thus far), up into the snowy regions of the beautiful mountains. We fully understood by then why it’s called a Skyway as we were truly at the top of the world in this part of the state.
The road roughly parallels the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad as well as beautiful stretches of the Animas River with all of its sweeping meanders. Views are ever changing of the snow capped peaks of the San Juan Mountains, the same mountains we saw from our perch at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
West Elk Loop (Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP)
Out of Montrose we took the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway east to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an incredibly deep gorge cut by the Gunnison River into some amazing metamorphic rock revealing stunning canyon walls. Not at all like the Grand Canyon, but still dramatic, the Gunnison River took only 2 million years to cut this deep gorge through metamorphic gneiss and schist that are over 2 billion years old! That’s some serious power. Pink granitic dikes and sills were forced into the rock leaving a spiderweb-like network of colorful lines cross-crossing the canyon walls. These are especially beautiful at Painted Wall.
It’s a dizzying view to look from one of the many overlooks down to the intimidating Gunnison River. The depth of the gorge is nearly 2,000 feet while the stretch across from rim to rim is as little as 1,100 feet wide at Chasm View. At Chasm View, the depth of the gorge is 50% greater than its width! It’s a quicker trip down than across though, I assure you. There is some excellent hiking as well as campgrounds for an overnight stay to explore more of the park.
We continued on out of Black Canyon of the Gunnison toward Salida. On this scenic highway we already were able to top the previous day’s highest elevation by reaching 11,312 feet at Monarch Pass. Although technically this was no longer the West Elk Loop, it was a spectacular ride from Gunnison to Salida through amazing mountain scenery. From Monarch Pass we rode to Salida and made a lunch stop at Season’s Cafe for some much needed BLT and bison burger love. We also reveled in hot soup and an awesome macaroni and cheese to warm us up from the cold but beautiful morning in the mountains. Be aware they close at 2 pm and are closed on Tuesdays. Fortunately for us it wasn’t a Tuesday…Salida itself has a quaint looking downtown cloaked in Western decor. Rough hewn wood exteriors and large brick buildings gave us the sense that time had changed little in this part of the world.
Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway is named for the many mountain peaks named for colleges including Havard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, etc… It’s a beautiful road that courses through a valley parallel to literally a dozen 14,000-foot peaks. I could have ridden forever looking west as we headed north past the giant monuments to Mother Earth’s creation. Simply beautiful were the mountains in this area. (Some of you that have seen “Prospectors” on the Weather Channel would be interested to know that Mount Antero is one of those 14ers in that majestic mountain range.)
Top of the Rockies
On reaching the town of Granite on the north end of Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway, we were now on the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway all the way to Copper Mountain and I-70 to take us to Boulder to visit family. So many great scenic byways of Colorado! We passed through Leadville, which at 10,200 feet is nearly two miles above sea level! It’s the highest incorporated city in the United States. It’s a cool rustic mountain town with some pretty hardy people (all 2,602 of them) to be sure. Once a booming mining town with over 15,000 people in the late 1800s, mining is now all but dead with a legacy of environmental problems in its wake. Thousands of ounces of gold and silver and countless tons of lead, copper, and zinc ore were extracted from the mountains, mostly before 1900. Leadville has a colorful past and many historic buildings from Victorian homes and an opera house to classic mining operations with huge industrial mining shafts, smelters, and ore crushers. Something for everyone!
On this scenic byway, we topped out at yet another peak elevation for us, but only 6 feet higher. We crossed Fremont Pass at 11,318 feet.
As you can see, we only touched on parts of a few of the amazing scenic byways of Colorado. We have even more with Trail Ridge Road Scenic Byway and Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway. There are so many more scenic byways of Colorado to explore and revisit during the changing seasons. Hopefully our adventures inspire you to travel by whatever means necessary to see this beautiful state.