We are fortunate to live in Colorado, which we would argue is one of, if not, the most beautiful state. While we love taking you on our adventures around the country, we also want to share some of our favorite places in our home state. Our next Top 5 list is Scenic Roads in Colorado.
Starting the list at #5 is the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway. If you’ve ever visited Grand Junction or the Grand Valley, then you’ve experienced Colorado’s high desert, which is a complete contrast to what you’ll find atop the Grand Mesa. The world’s largest flat-top mountain, with an elevation of over 11,000 feet (more than 6,000 feet above the valley floor) and more than 300 lakes, a drive over the Grand Mesa takes you through four different major ecological zones. The entire byway runs 63 miles from Exit 49 on I-70 over the mesa to the town of Cedaredge. An alternate route up or down the mesa is on Land’s End Road, a windy, dirt road built by the CCC in the 1930s, which is accessed from US Highway 50. Only open in warmer months, it is a slow, but gorgeous drive, which offers stunning views across the Grand Valley and sometimes as far away as the La Sal Mountains in Utah. We’ve been fortunate to visit in different seasons, including during the fall when the aptly named Color Sunday is celebrated. A beautiful drive any season, and a great way to beat the heat on the frequent hot summer days, a drive over the Grand Mesa is one to add to your list.
Coming in at #4 on our Top 5 Colorado Scenic Roads list is Independence Pass. Located between Aspen and Twin Lakes, Independence Pass reaches an elevation of 12,095 feet, making it the second highest pass with an improved road in the state and the second highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide in the U.S. The first record of Independence Pass was made by Zebulon Pike in 1806, but it didn’t get its name until a group of prospectors on July 4, 1879 defied an order from Governor Pitkin not to cross the pass (all settlers were to remain on the east side of the Continental Divide) and established the town of Independence on the west side of the pass. Used as a stage road that once took 10-25 hours and five changes of horses to cross, the road eventually became Highway 82. Despite earning highway status in 1927, the road remained unpaved until 1967. Only open in warmer months, it is a gorgeous drive that offers non-stop views and the opportunity to stretch your legs as you wander through the ghost town of Independence. And of course, you have to stop and have your picture taken with the pass sign!
The #3 pick on our Top 5 Scenic Roads in Colorado list finds us in our own backyard. Pikes Peak Highway is a gorgeous 19-mile drive from just west of Colorado Springs to the summit of America’s Mountain at 14,115 feet. Officially constructed in 1915 by Spencer Penrose (who more famously established The Broadmoor), the road that inspired the song “America the Beautiful” had previously existed as a carriage road from 1888 to 1902. And not only is the highway a beautiful drive, it is also home to the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (PPIHC). Begun in 1916, the PPIHC, or Race to the Clouds, is a 12.42-mile race to the summit with more than 156 turns and an average grade of 7.4%. Both motorcycles and automobiles compete, and the current fastest record time is just below 8 minutes or an average of more than 90 mph. It’s a super fun event and a great excuse to spend a day sitting on Pikes Peak!
US Route 550, #2 on our Top 5 Scenic Roads in Colorado list, runs from Montrose to the New Mexico state line (where it continues to its southern terminus in Bernalillo, NM) and is a segment of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, a 236-mile loop that includes Telluride. The entire drive is incredibly gorgeous, but it is the 70-mile stretch from Ouray to Durango that is our favorite stretch of paved highway in the state, and maybe the entire country. Often called the Million Dollar Highway (which is technically only the 25-mile stretch between Ouray and Silverton), the highway travels through the San Juan Mountains and provides unbelievably stunning views the entire way. The highway crosses over three mountain passes- Red Mountain, Molas, and Coal Bank, and through several still thriving towns- Ouray, Silverton, and Durango. We’ve spent a good amount of time in all three (and almost moved to Durango), but Silverton is one of our favorite places in the state and is well worth a visit. If time permits, we recommend spending a night in the historic and maybe-haunted Grand Imperial Hotel. Along the way, you can also stroll through the ghost town of Ironton, stop atop Molas Pass to take in the amazing views of Molas Lake and breathe in the “cleanest air in the nation”, and grab some turns and/or pictures at Purgatory Resort. So, how did the road get its name? There are a few different explanations, one being that it cost developer Otto Mears a million dollars per mile to build. Another is that an early traveler on the road was so uncomfortable that he swore he would never travel it again, even if he was paid a million dollars. And a third suggests that the road was paved using gravel from the nearby gold and silver mines, and consequently so rich in ore that it was worth a million dollars. No one seems to really know the origin of the name, so pick your favorite and add this drive to your bucket list!
Our most favorite drive and #1 on our Top 5 Scenic Roads in Colorado list is the Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway. Only passable with a 4×4 vehicle in some parts (which is why we designated the Million Dollar Highway as our favorite paved road in the state), the 63-mile Alpine Loop runs through the San Juan Mountains, connecting the towns of Ouray, Silverton, and Lake City. With views that can only be described as stunning, as it crosses Cinnamon Pass at 12,620 feet and Engineer Pass at 12,800 feet, the former toll roads that now make up the Alpine Loop also take you past a number of ghost towns, including Animas Forks which holds the distinction of having received 25 feet of snow in 23 days during the Winter of 1884. One of the first scenic byways created by the Bureau of Land Management, a trip along the loop also gives a fascinating glimpse into Colorado’s mining history, with remnants of mine structures all along the way. Only open in the summer months, plan to spend at least a day, if not longer, exploring the loop and all of the side trips- including Black Bear and Imogene Passes. We’ve been fortunate to make this drive twice and can’t wait to get out there again soon!