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5 of the Prettiest Scenic Byways in Colorado

We have done our fair share of road-tripping around the beautiful state of Colorado - from the dry, desert-y northern boundary line to the rugged, mountainous central region. And while we feel like we have definitely gotten a taste for what the Centennial State has to offer, we know there are still soooo many amazing roads and routes to still drive.

Snowy mountains and golden aspens at sunset
How amazing is Colorado!? PC Mike Scheid on Unsplash

Here are a couple of our favorite drives around the state (some well-known and some a bit more off-the-beaten-path) as well as a few we still have not checked off our bucket list (but definitely want to this summer).

The Poudre Canyon to North Park

Starting in the amazing city of Fort Collins (home to so many awesome breweries, including New Belgium) you make your way north as if you were heading to Wyoming. Turn left onto Highway 14 (at Ted’s Place, one of the last “cheap” gas stations) and then get ready to be wowed by the beautiful Cache la Poudre River that runs the whole stretch of the route, tall rocky cliffs and lots of great hiking trails.

Must-See Spots:

  • Howling Cow Cafe: An awesome coffee shop located on the grounds of Morning Fresh Dairy and noosa Yogurt (you can stock up in the coffee shop). Their coffee is delicious and they also have good bagel sandwiches, perfect for a quick fill up (and caffeine hit) before hitting the road.

  • Cameron Pass: Sitting right on the Continental Divide, this pass - with an elevation of 10,276 - is a nice spot to get out and stretch your legs (and take in the view). There is a small picnic area and bathroom right on the top. Plus, the rest of the drive is all downhill (not figuratively :) ) from here!

  • State Forest State Park: A sort of hidden gem of an outdoor area, this state park is absolutely GORGEOUS! The first thing you will see is the Nokhu Crags, a 12,490-foot rocky peak that jets out prominently from the mountains. If you want to get a closer look and see some beautiful mountain lakes, we recommend stopping by the park and doing the Lake Agnes Trail - a 2.1-mile jaunt through the trees to Lake Agness at the base of the Crags. And if you are lucky, you might spot a moose (State Forest State Park has one of the largest populations of moose in the country)!

Cloudy sunset on mountains and trees
Stunning State Forest State Park PC CPW

Collegiate Peaks

If you are wanting to see some of the prettiest (and tallest) mountains Colorado has to offer then this is the drive for you! The route takes you from the town of Salida all the way to Granite, a historic mining town that sits at the base of the tallest mountain in Colorado - Mt. Elbert, elevation: 14,440). Stretching only 57 miles, this byway gives you great views of many of Colorado’s famous 14-ers, including Mt. Yale, Mt. Oxford, Mt. Harvard, Mt. Antero and Mt. Shavano.

Must-See Spots:

  • St. Elmo Ghost Town: Take a quick detour right outside of Buena Vista to see one of the most well-preserved ghost towns in the state, if not the West. With 43 buildings still standing, including the courthouse/jail, a saloon, and mercantile, this is a great spot for photos and to do some exploring.

  • Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center: The area is full of thermal hot springs, from the more established to the more natural (including some right on the side of the river). The Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center is special because it is the largest indoor hot springs facility in the United States. Whichever hot springs you choose, you will be sure to have a nice relaxing time - the perfect way to end a day of hiking.

  • Midland Tunnels: another relatively off-the-beaten-path location, these completely natural tunnels still stand along the now-abandoned Midland Railroad Route - which once stretched from Colorado Springs to Grand Junction. You can find these tunnels near Buena Vista off County Road 371(near Turtle Rock Campground).

Jeep on dirt road near mountains.
Do a little off-roading in Buena Vista. PC Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

Peak to Peak

Starting in the scenic (and super busy) town of Estes Park, which sits right on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, this scenic byway takes you through some of the prettiest forest landscapes Colorado has to offer. Think aspen groves, birds-eye views of the Front Range, and the best views of stunning Longs Peak (another popular 14-er). The route ends in the famous (or infamous) town of Black Hawk, a one-time mining boomtown turned casino mecca.

Must-See Spots:

  • The Stanley Hotel: Maybe one of the most famous hotels in the United States, and likely one of the most “haunted” this beautiful and iconic hotel sits proudly above the town of Estes Park. You can take two different tours: the day one and the “creepier” night one, where there is a stronger focus on the paranormal.

  • Indian Peaks Wilderness: An awesome spot to go for a hike (without the RMNP crowds), this wilderness area is located near the eclectic town of Nederland (learn about what makes the town famous here). There are multiple trailheads, but we believe the two prettiest ones are Brainard Lake TH (near Ward) and Hessie Trailhead (where you also get to drive through the historic town of Eldora).

  • Moffat Tunnel: Another quick detour, but one that is absolutely worth it for the scenic drive alone, the railroad tunnel straddle the Continental Divide, and even though they opened in 1928 still see around 15 trains a day. Today you can park at the tunnels East Portal Entrance (at Heart Lake TH) and hike above it along the South Boulder Creek Trail, which eventually T’s into the Continental Divide Trail.

Snowy longs peak overlooking Estes Park, CO
Majestic Longs Peak overlooks Estes Park. PC Photo Quinn Nietfeld.

San Juan Skyway (haven't done yet!)

Located in Southwest Colorado, this jaw-droppingly beautiful byway makes a loop through some of the prettiest scenery the state has to offer, as well as some pretty interesting history. The route starts in Durango (or because it is a loop, you could technically start anywhere) then heads west towards the towns of Mancos and Dolores (near Mesa Verde National Park), before quickly turning north into the mountains and the towns of Stoner, Rico, and Telluride. From Telluride you head a bit farther north to Ridgeway before turning south towards Ouray and Silverton before finally hitting Durango once again. This loop is 236 miles long and should be done in at least two days - there is just so much to see you won’t want to rush it!

Must-See Stops:

  • Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad: Originally opened in 1882 by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG), this narrow gauge railway - one of the last of its kind in the country - was meant to transport silver and gold ore that had been mined from the nearby San Juan Mountains. Today it no longer transports ore, but instead thousands of people. You can ride the train in both the winter and summer, though fall might just be the best time.

  • Bridal Veil Falls: The tallest free-falling waterfall in the entire Centennial State, this is definitely a stop that should not be missed. The trail to the falls is rated as moderate, mostly due to the switchbacks right at the beginning of the hike, but is only 4.8 miles total.

  • Ghost Towns: There are lots of interesting ghost towns in the area surrounding the cities of Ouray and Silverton, some more easily accessible than others. Some of the coolest are Animas Forks, an old mining town that used to be the largest at such a high elevation (11,200 feet) and Capitol City, named because the founder, George Lee, hoped it would eventually become Colorado’s capitol (it never did).

Waterfall in green evergreen forest
Bridal Veil Falls near Telluride. PC Photo Chad Madden.

Unaweep Tabeguache (haven't done yet!)

If you are looking to really get off-the-beaten-path then this is the scenic byway for you. Because it doesn’t have any big “ticket items” it is still relatively unknown, and therefore not commonly done. Starting just south of Grand Junction in the town of Whitewater, the byway twists and turns through beautiful canyon country before reaching the historic town of Placerville, 131 miles away. This route is not just pretty, it also has strong historical ties - especially to WWII.

Must-See Spots:

  • Uravan: Established as a company town by the U. S. Vanadium Corporation in 1936, Uravan is famous for being the location of the uranium used in the first atomic bombs. Today there is very little trace of the city, which was abandoned in the 1980s.

  • Hanging Flume: Created as a way of transporting water to the nearby mining operations the remains of the Hanging Flume are still visible as it clings to the side of sheer sandstone cliffs from the town of Naturita. Built in the 1880s by the Montrose Placer Mining Company this open water chute once stretched for 12 miles, and up to 75 feet above the river below. At its peak it carried 80 million gallons of water each day!

  • Unaweep Canyon: Translated from the Ute language as “Canyon with Two Mouths” or “the Parting of the Waters,” the remote Unaweep Canyon is the only canyon in the world where two creeks flow out of the canyon in opposite directions - the water from the East Creek flows into the Gunnison River, while the water from the West Creek flows into the Dolores River. Another interesting thing to see nearby is the Driggs Mansion, ruins of a once beautiful home built by mining tycoon, Laurence Driggs.

Red canyons underneath a blue sky
The red rocks of Unaweep Canyon. PC Taylor Nicole.

Honestly, you cannot really go wrong when taking a road trip through Colorado. While some roads might be “prettier” than others, anywhere you go in the state will more than likely be amazing.

These five scenic byways will absolutely knock your socks off when it comes to natural beauty (and maybe even history). We highly recommend checking them out (or a couple of other great ones) once it is safe to do so!


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