Colorado

The 10 Best Scenic Drives In Colorado

colorado scenic drives
Photo: Teri Virbickis, Shutterstock

A scenic drive is a great way to cover some ground and see the jaw-dropping scenery of Colorful Colorado. From winding canyon roads and epic mountain passes to one of the highest paved roads in the world, you can pick your adventure, fill your tank, and hit the road.

Not much beats hopping behind the wheel and going for a scenic cruise on a nice weekend in Colorado. Heading into the mountains is sure to get you some scenic bang for your buck, but if you want to avoid the infamous I-70 traffic and get off the beaten path, it pays to know the back roads and scenic byways that can take you a little out of the way of the more popular thoroughfares.

And though winter and spring driving in the mountains of Colorado is not for the faint of heart (get a set of good snow tires and don’t take them off until May), the summer and fall present fantastic vistas and prime weather to enjoy some time on the road. These ten scenic drives range from the most popular and well-known scenic byways of Colorado to a few of the lesser-known gems.

When planning your trip, keep in mind that many of the passes have seasonal closures so be sure to check current conditions before heading out. Most of these roads, except for a short stretch of Kebler Pass and Cordova Pass, are paved if you’re itching to trade out your SUV and get behind the wheel of your sports car.

1. Trail Ridge Road

trail ridge rd scenic drive colorado
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: Sweeping views of the Rockies from one of the highest continuous paved roads in the U.S.

  • Distance: 48 miles
  • Drive time without stops: Approx. 2 hours

If you want a breathtaking drive, Trail Ridge Road will do the trick. Connecting between Estes Park on the east and Grand Lake on the west, this route winds through the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. As you emerge from the evergreen forests of the lower elevations, you’ll be treated to panoramic views. Eleven miles of this impressive stretch of road are all above treeline, a winding strip of pavement through the high alpine tundra

Trail Ridge Road hits a high point of 12,183 feet, and you’ll cross over the Continental Divide at Milner Pass. And the lower elevations are equally beautiful, with aspen and evergreen forests and the chance to spot wildlife like deer, elk, and moose. Be sure to allow plenty of time to stop off at the many scenic pullouts or plan a day hike from one of the trailheads you can access right off the road.

Plan on this popular route being busy on peak weekends in the summer and fall. Trail Ridge Road is closed seasonally, and if you plan to drive it during the shoulder seasons, you should be prepared for snow, ice, and the potential for cold temperatures at the higher elevations. For info on the current road status, visit the NPS website.

2. Pikes Peak Highway

pikes peak colorado scenic drives
Photo: George Burba, Shutterstock

Why you should go: Climb to the summit of a 14er from the comfort of your car.

  • Distance: 19 miles
  • Drive time without stops: Approx. 1-1.5 hours

If you’re looking for big elevation gain and out-of-this-world views, the Pikes Peak Highway is one of the best ways to get that Rocky Mountain high. The entirely paved road starts at 7,400 feet and climbs all the way to a staggering 14,115 feet at the summit of Pikes Peak.

Built in 1915, this staggering road offers ever-increasing panoramic views of the surrounding lakes, mountains, and plains. You may spot wildlife, including the resident herd of bighorn sheep who like to hang out on the rocky upper reaches of the mountain.

Along the way up (or down) you can stop off at various viewpoints or take a short hike on one of the trails accessible from the highway. And be sure to check out the newly renovated Summit House Visitor Center which is scheduled to open in June 2021. The highway is technically a toll road and visitors may purchase tickets online in advance of your drive. The road is closed seasonally — call (719) 385-7325 for current conditions.

3. San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway

san juan skyway colorado
Photo: Anh Luu, Shutterstock

Why you should go: Eye-popping views on jaw-dropping roads.

  • Distance: 236 miles
  • Drive time without stops: Approx. 6 hours

The scenic San Juan Skyway is an absolutely epic road trip well worth a full day of driving. Located in southwestern Colorado, the loop connects Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, and Cortez. Along the way, you’ll drive through the spectacular San Juan Mountains.

It also includes the stretch of U.S. 550 between Ouray and Silverton know as the “Million Dollar Highway.” This 25-ish mile stretch of road passes through quaint mountain towns and an area full of Western history including many ghost mining towns. In the fall, the golden aspens lining the road make a memorable sight.

The road, at times, is narrow and has some tight hairpin turns that you might find fun or nerve-wracking depending on your comfort with heights and the lack of guardrails. Along the route, you’ll cross several high mountain passes and drop into the steep canyon of Uncompahgre Gorge and the stunning box canyon of Telluride. Though you can make the full loop in a single long day, if you really want to explore the area, plan a few overnight stops and check out the recreation, history, music, and art to be found along the way.

4. Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway

top of the rockies scenic drive co
Photo: Anton Foltin, Shutterstock

Why you should go: A monumental mountain highway ringed by towering peaks.

  • Distance: 82 miles
  • Drive time without stops: Approx. 2 hours

With a name like the Top of the Rockies, you can expect views, views, and more views from this national scenic byway. The Y-shaped route tackles three mountain passes — Fremont, Tennessee, and Independence Pass —each of which drops you into Leadville which sits at 10,200 feet in elevation and holds the distinction of being the highest unincorporated community in the U.S.

And while the historic mining town definitely adds to the charm of the route, the real show-stopper is the scenery. From the blue waters of Twin Lakes to the panoramas from the top of the Continental Divide to the wide-open expanses of the high-alpine valleys, you won’t know where to look next. If you time your trip just right, the summer wildflowers are sure to quite the spectacle, and you won’t soon forget the drive into Aspen with the golden leaves in the fall.

Independence Pass is closed in the winter months and is usually passable from late May to early November depending on snowfall. Fremont and Tennesee usually stay open through the winter unless a particularly nasty storm moves in.

5. Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway

trail of the ancients scenic byway
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: Visit the Four Corners and navigate through stunning southwestern scenery.

  • Distance: 480-miles
  • Drive time without stops: Approx. 9 hours

Located in southwestern Colorado, the Trail of the Ancients offers a tour of the Four Corner region. The loop also has plenty of opportunities to stop off at various archaeological and historic sites on the Colorado Plateau, including Mesa Verde National Park.

The highway is remote and connects between Cortez and Dolores taking you through the heart of the American Southwest. Though you can make the trek in a single, long day, planning a couple of overnight stops will allow you to spend some time exploring areas where you’ll want to soak in the scenery like Hovenweep National Monument and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

If you are doing the full loop, you have the option to do a short add-on to hit the Four Corners. The western side of the route dips into Utah where you can greatly extend your exploration or take a short cut-off to connect back to the Colorado side of the loop.

6. Highway of Legends Scenic and Historic Byway

highway of legends scenic drive colorado
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: Take a step back in time to a remote — and legendary — corner of the state.

  • Distance: 82 miles
  • Drive time without stops: Approx. 2 hours

If you’re seeking solitude, less traffic, and fewer crowds, head south to the Highway of Legends Scenic Byway through Colorado’s Spanish Peaks. The road connects between Walsenburg off I-25 to Cuchara, La Veta, and Trinidad, cutting through the heart of the San Isabel National Forest.

Along the route, you will drive up and over 9,994-foot Cucharas Pass and 11,248-foot Cordova Pass. The area is also home to unique geologic features known as dikes, jutting vertical granite formations like the Devils Stairsteps and Stonewall. And as to the legends of the area, just stop off at any one of the small towns along the route to learn some of the tall tales and epic myths that permeate this dramatic landscape.

A short section of Cordova Pass is gravel and may be closed in the winter. Be prepared to be a long way from anything on the far reaches of this highway. The towns are small and spread out, so fill up your gas tank and plan accordingly.

7. West Elk Loop Scenic and Historic Byway

west elk scenic drive colorado
Photo: Sean Xu, Shutterstock

Why you should go: Equal parts mountain wilderness and charming mountain towns.

  • Distance: 205 miles
  • Drive time without stops: Approx. 6-8 hours

It’s hard to find a drive in Colorado that packs more of a scenic punch than the West Elk Loop. Starting at Carbondale and heading south, this lollipop loop takes you through the mountain communities of Redstone, Hotchkiss, Gunnison, and Crested Butte where you could easily spend a long weekend (or a lifetime) exploring.

But the real draw of the route is the natural landscape which includes such stunners as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Curecanti National Recreation Area, and the White River and Gunnison National Forests taking you from wide river valleys to forested mountain slopes. The drive is especially magnificent in the fall.

Along the way, you’ll cross two mountain passes — McClure Pass and Kebler Pass. Kebler Pass, which connects Crested Butte and Paonia, has a short 31-mile section of unpaved gravel road that is closed in the winter. It shouldn’t be an issue for passenger cars, but keep this in if you don’t want to take your sports car off the tarmac.

8. Mount Evans Scenic Byway

mount evans colorado
Photo: Maryna Bilousova, Getty Images

Why you should go: Bag your first 14er — and save your lungs for the breathtaking scenery.

  • Distance: 49 miles
  • Drive time without stops: Approx. 2 hours

Topping out at 14,130-feet on the summit of Mount Evans, this scenic byway has to be seen to be believed. Starting from either Idaho Springs or Bergen Park, you are quickly in the thick of the mountain scenery — and the ever-thinning mountain air as the road climbs over 7,000 feet on the way to the summit.

Along the way, the scenery transitions from ponderosa pine forests to high alpine meadows. In the summer, you can enjoy plenty of wildflowers, and you have a good chance of spotting wildlife like pika, marmots, mountain goats, and big horned sheep. The road also passes by several high alpine lakes including Echo Lake and Summit Lake which add to the picturesque drive.

From the parking lot near the summit, you can take a short hike to reach the summit marker at the peak of Mount Evans. The road is closed in the winter, and new for 2021, you will need to buy a pass for the drive to the summit. And don’t expect to be the only one on the road as this is a very popular drive.

9. Guanella Pass Scenic Byway

guanella pass colorado scenic drive
Photo: Jeremy Janus, Shutterstock

Why you should go: An accessible Front Range outing that doesn’t skimp on the backdrop.

  • Distance: 22 miles
  • Drive time without stops: 1 hour

If you are on the Front Range and want a shorter scenic drive that won’t take all day, a drive over Guanella Pass will deliver the same scenic results as some of the more epic all-day road trips in the state.

This paved mountain pass connects Georgetown and Grant climbing up to high alpine meadows with views of Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans. The road climbs well above treeline, topping out at 11,669 feet and giving you some impressive views of the area. If you’ve got the time, pack your hiking boots or your fishing rod (and your Colorado fishing license) for an afternoon out exploring the trails and lakes of the high country.

The road is closed in the winter and is usually open from late May to late November. You can drive it as an out-and-back from Georgetown or for a longer drive, make a loop on U.S. 285 to get back to the Front Range.

10. Dinosaur Diamond Scenic and Historic Byway

dinosaur diamond scenic drive colorado
Photo: Michael Rosebrock, Shutterstock

Why you should go: Drive through a remote expanse where the dinosaurs once roamed.

  • Distance: 134 miles
  • Drive time without stops: Approx. 2-3 hours

Catch the Colorado side of the Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway for a great afternoon drive. This section is part of a larger 486-mile loop that stretches into Utah, which is well worth the time if you want to do a multi-state adventure. If you’re sticking with a shorter outing, the Colorado section takes you from Fruita north to Rangely and then on to the town of Dinosaur.

The route crosses high mountains and barren plateaus and gives you a glimpse, from a distance, of the stunning rock formations of Dinosaur National Monument. Plan a stop at either the Colorado or Utah park entrance if you’ve got the time!

A unique stretch of road, this drive doesn’t necessarily boast the high-alpine splendor of some of Colorado’s other mountain drives, but its remote nature and the unique rock formations make it well worth getting off the beaten path to explore.

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