by Denise Krenning
Colorado summers are about road trips and exploring the outdoors on a hike or in a tent or RV. When you can’t get away for the whole weekend, the best next thing is a beautiful drive in on Colorado’s Scenic Byways. Right now, the heat is on so getting away from the city’s oven climate is easy. Within a few hours, you can drive from Denver and find yourself in another world, not only where the views are drop dead gorgeous but where the temperatures drop 10-20 degrees too. It’s a win win!
Colorado has 26 scenic byways and 11 of them are designated by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation as America’s Byways, which gives Colorado more national designations than any other state. So no surprise here that our state is a summer getaway mecca.
The state is divided into six sections and each section boasts its own unique beauty but there are times of the year when you can’t access most of of these byways so get those kids or friends in the car while you can. What are you doing this weekend? Those stunning mountain vista’s are calling you along with meadows of wildflowers and elk, moose and big horn sheep viewings.
Take your time on these breathtaking drives for short hikes and perfect photo opportunities. Also, don’t forget to bring a light sweater or jacket! I know, what? It’s 90 degrees out. I think I mention it’s cool up there right? Repeat, always bring a layer of warmth. This is Colorado and weather happens fast.
For this post, I’ve highlighted 4 North Central Colorado Scenic Byways, all within 2 hours of Denver. The byway passes range from 22 to 100 miles. To truly enjoy these drives, plan on a full day or if possible combine a few of the byways for a full weekend road trip.
First Up: Guanella Pass – From Denver, reaching this byway is about a one-hour drive, depending on traffic. You can go up through I70 to Georgetown or US 285 from Grant. This climbing pass takes you over 11,669 feet with spectacular views of Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt, both 14er mountains (14er means “mountains over 14,000 feet. Colorado has 58 of them) at 14, 264 ft and 14,060 ft respectively. You’ll drive next to the roaring South Platt and Clear Creek rivers as you make your way up above timberline. The views are breath taking so stop, get that jacket on and enjoy the alpine tundra and cool groves of aspen and pine trees. You can do a complete loop, starting in either direction which can make for a full day but it’s the weekend. What’s the rush?
Length: The pass is 22 miles of paved road. Allow 3-5 hours total drive time. Stop in the Victorian town of Georgetown for lunch or dinner before heading back into the city.
Next up: Mount Evans Scenic Byway – From Denver, head up I70 and exit at Idaho Springs on 103. This byway climbs more than 7,000 feet in just 28 miles. Starting off at 8,700 ft, you will summit at 14, 240 ft. It’s a slow climb, perfect to pull over and stop along the way. You will be able to see the entire Denver Front Range at the top. It’s a pretty impressive view. After 14 miles, you will come to the pretty Echo Lake, an alpine section of landscape perfect for a picnic or easy hike on one of the trails. Be aware the weather can be volatile here since you are so close to Heaven. Be prepared for wind, rain, lightning, snow, and hail any time of the year. Aren’t you glad you brought that jacket??? If you’re lucky, you might spot Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mountain goats or marmots. The best wildflower bloom is from late June to mid-August. You can even say you did a Colorado 14er by taking a short hike to the top of Mount Evans. A climb is a climb right? Well, maybe not so take a selfie and give a tired smile. No one has to know.
Length: The byway is 49 miles. Allow 2 hours for driving just the byway but factoring in stops and traffic, this is another great weekend drive so make a full day of it. Trust me, the heat will be there waiting for you
Fall Must Do! The Peak To Peak Scenic Byway in autumn is simply stunning and one of my favorites. We make a point to drive this each year because the Aspen leaves against the Colorado clear blue skies is just spectacular! This byway was established in 1918 and is Colorado’s oldest. Less than an hour from Denver, the drive is a 55-mile route that winds up against Clear Creek Canyon with unparalleled views of the Continental Divide, groves of Aspen trees and high country lakes. The best views are going up 119 off of I70. You’ll go through Black Hawk, (a fun stop if you’re into gambling), and continue through to Netherland and Allenspark. The drive is so relaxing and beautiful you’ll want to stop for photos at every turn. Once you reach Estes Park, you can continue along to Trail Ridge Road if you have an extra day.
Length: 55 miles. Driving time: Allow 3 hours each way. If you want to shorten the trip back, head down through Boulder, Lyons or Estes Park through Loveland and use I25 back to Denver.
The Ultimate: Trail Ridge Road Scenic Byway
This Colorado Scenic byway is a two for one. Not only is the drive awe inspiring, it’s also in Rocky Mountain National Park. It doesn’t get any better for a road trip. Getting to Trail Ridge Road from Denver is around 2 hours. At the busiest time of season, mid June to late August, this byway is stop and go with traffic and tourists crossing the winding road, snapping selfie’s and professional photos. One year, while camping in the park, we had our daughters keep track of every licence plate they saw. I believe they saw 46 different state plates over the weekend.
Every year, Rocky Mountain National Park sees over 2 million visitors and in 2015, it was the third most visited national park and for good reasons. Not only is the park a visit in itself, Trail Ridge Road is its own attraction. Soaring to an elevation of 12,183 feet, with heart pounding views and narrow road edges, this byway will take your breath away, literally. The air is very thin so keep that in mind. Altitude sickness is real and you should be aware of it’s symptoms. Warning. The road can be a bit nerve racking. I’ve had passengers hide under the seat as they traveled down the pass. Try to be brave. The views are truly once in a lifetime.
The road wanders through heavy forests with trickling water falls running down the mountain side and at summit, it lands in the fragile world of alpine beauty. DO NOT WALK ON THE TUNDRA. Follow the signs. Too many footsteps have killed or damaged this delicate landscape.
It’s cold and very windy at 12 hundred feet so make sure and gab that sweatshirt or jacket. The wildlife is abundant here with Elk and Bighorn Sheep. If you could only do one Colorado Scenic Byway on your road trip, this is it! You won’t find another road like this one anywhere outside of Colorado. So much beauty to see in a day and so close!
Length: 48 miles. Driving time: From Denver, take I25 north and exit at Longmont or Loveland. Allow 2 hours to get to Rocky Mountain Park and another 2-3 to reach the summit, especially in summer when the crowds are at their peak. If you want to explore Rocky Mountain National Park or the city of Estes Park, you must give this area your full attention and make it an all day trip.
I only touched on 4 of Colorado’s gorgeous 26 Scenic Byways. Each one offers unique and amazing drives for every type of driver. Whether you’re passing through in a large RV, on a motorcycle day trip or taking a family road trip, our roads are here for your enjoyment and wonder. So pack a cooler, hit the pavement and explore the diverse great beauty Colorado has to offer. You can Netflix binge when the passes are closed.