Colorado’s 10 Best Scenic Highways

The emptiness of the Great Plains presents the ideal opportunity for the mind to wander while speeding down an empty highway. So yesterday, as I was driving 80 mph along Colo. Highway 10, the narrow two-lane between Walsenberg and La Junta, it occurred to me — perhaps inspired by the realization that the low mesas and gulches in eastern Huerfano County are quite beautiful — that there are so many Coloradans who’ve never really seen Colorado. I talk to locals all the time who’ve never really explored the state they grew up in or have lived in for a long time — Denverites who’ve never seen Poudre Canyon, Pueblo natives who’ve never been to Great Sand Dunes, Fort Collins residents who — believe it or not — have never been to Rocky Mountain National Park even though they can see it from their backyards. I’ve even talked to people who grew up in Larimer County who have never ventured west to Cameron Pass.

Colorado Highway 10 looking west towards Walsenburg, 13 miles east of I-25. This is not on the list of most scenic highways in the state, but a highway threading through similar country not far to the southeast is on the list. © 2012 by Bobby Magill.

Of course, most of us who live here know what dramatic, beautiful and diverse landscapes Colorado is endowed with, it’s just that it seems so many of us haven’t really gotten out to see it all. Some don’t leave the metro area. Some stick to the ski resorts along I-70. Others stick to certain regions of the state without venturing farther out. My goal when I moved here seven years ago was to do just that — see it all. I’ve made pretty good headway. I’ve lived on both sides of the Continental Divide, visited all of Colorado’s 64 counties at least twice, visited almost every municipality in the state with a population greater than 500 people (although new cities and towns within the Denver metro area seem to pop up every day, so I can’t claim to have visited, say, Castle Pines North and the like.) and, with a few exceptions, driven nearly every mile of state-maintained pavement west of Interstate 25 and quite a lot of miles east of it, too.

So, Hwy. 10 inspired me to put together a top 10 list of my favorite scenic stretches of highway in Colorado. The list is limited to paved roads, not the countless other unpaved roads, such as Phantom Canyon, Mosquito Pass and Kebler Pass, which usually make people’s lists of favorite drives. Many of these routes are off the beaten path, some are famous, but whatever you think of them, they’re my favorite rides in the state (so far).

10. Rim Rock Drive, Colorado National Monument

Rim Rock Drive, Colorado National Monument. Photo by Bobby Magill, July 2010.

This is one of the best road cycling routes in Colorado. Clinging to high sandstone cliffs above deep redrock sandstone canyons, Rim Rock Drive is worth the $10 price of admission and a trip from the Front Range just to drive its 23 mile course through Colorado National Monument. There’s no other stretch of pavement like it in Colorado.

9. Colo. Highway 109 from Kim to La Junta — The Purgatoire Valley

Believe it or not, Colorado’s Eastern Plains offer up more to see than just the Pawnee Buttes. Highway 109 angles north from the tiny village of Kim in eastern Las Animas County to La Junta in the Arkansas River Valley. On the way, the highway drops into the Purgatoire River Valley and blows past the entrance to the Picketwire Canyonlands, a shallow but rugged sandstone gorge with outcroppings of redrock sandstone similar the canyon walls you’ll see in Colorado National Monument and Arches National Park in eastern Utah. Highway 109 passes beneath buttes and bluffs that make the region look more like Utah than Colorado’s Eastern Plains.

8. Colo. Highway 92 from Hotchkiss to Sapinero — Black Canyon Country

Drop south from Hotchkiss and you’ll eventually find yourself in the rugged canyon country high above the Gunnison River. The turnoff to the wonderfully remote north rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park leaves from Hwy. 92 near Crawford, which is reason enough to visit this area. The highway continues to the south and east, twisting and turning beneath the West Elk Mountains high above Morrow Point Reservoir before depositing you on U.S. 50 west of Gunnison.

7. Colo. Highway 17 from Antonito to New Mexico — Gateway to the South San Juans

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad passes beneath Colo. Hwy. 17 at the Colorado-New Mexico state line. © 2011 by Bobby Magill

One of my favorite trails in Colorado penetrates deep into the South San Juan Wilderness along Elk Creek, a raging winter in the middle of spring. The trailhead is just off Hwy. 17 near La Manga Pass. The famous Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad roughly parallels this route, which is evidence enough that this is one of the best scenic drives in the state. The highway eventually ends in Chama, New Mexico, by which time the San Juan Mountains have become the Tusas Mountains south of the Colorado border.

6. U.S. 550 and Colo. Highways 62 and 145 from Cortez to Telluride, Ridgway, Silverton and Durango — The San Juan Skyway

This is a classic scenic loop, one of the most well-known and scenic drives in Colorado for good reason. It takes you through the highlights of the San Juan Mountains, it’s fun to drive and, most importantly, exemplifies all that’s famous about Colorado.

5. U.S. 34 from Loveland to Grand Lake — Trail Ridge Road and Big Thompson Canyon

A thunderstorm envelopes Longs Peak along Trail Ridge Road at Rocky Mountain National Park, August 2009. Photo by Bobby Magill

The moment you leave Loveland, which is at the edge of the Great Plains, you immediately find yourself driving between the exceptionally narrow canyon walls of the Big Thompson Canyon. From there, it’s all uphill to the 12,000 top of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, often considered the most superlative drive in the state (if not for those damn tourists creeping along in their RVs!).

4. Colo. Highway 149 from South Fork to Gunnison — La Garita Country

That’s Colo. Hwy. 149 in the distance climbing Slumgullion Pass south of Lake City in Hinsdale County. © 2011 by Bobby Magill.

This is a 120 mile mountain drive through some of the most remote areas of the San Juan Mountain frontcountry, skirting by the La Garita Range, visiting Creede and Lake City and summiting Slumgullion Pass, the steepest paved mountain pass in Colorado. Driving this road, you really feel like you’ve penetrated one of the state’s least-populated regions (Mineral and Hinsdale counties hardly have 2,000 residents between them). You’ll see the Slumgullion Slide and get a bird’s eye view of Uncompahgre Peak, one of the state’s most distinct Fourteeners. This is really one of the most amazing highways in Colorado.

3. Colo. Highway 12 from Trinidad to La Veta — The Highway of Legends

Colo. Hwy. 12 south of La Veta looking toward the east side of the Culebra Range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on June 3. © 2012 by Bobby Magill

Have you ever driven over Cuchara Pass? Had coffee in La Veta? Heard of the Devil’s Stairsteps? If you’ve driven Highway 12 south of U.S 160 and La Veta, you have. This region is (in June, at least) one of the most verdant and lush regions of Colorado I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the most geologically interesting regions on the east side of the Rockies. Highway 12 penetrates giant stone dikes that radiate from the base of the Spanish Peaks like giant rock walls, one descending in terraces as if resembling a stairway. Volcanic plugs abound and even in dry years the Culebra Range holds plenty of snow just above the old ski slopes of the defunct Cuchara Mountain Resort.

Downtown Cuchara, Colo. © 2012 by Bobby Magill

My first trip along Highway 12 was in 2005 while reporting on a story about oil and gas development in northern New Mexico. Just south of the eastern leg of the highway, just west of Trinidad, is the Bosque del Oso State Wildlife Area, where even in 2005 was replete with drilling activity from the coalbed methane boom. This drive is a one of great contrasts: The incredible scenic beauty of Cuchara Pass region and once-wild wildlife areas full of industrial development.

© 2012 by Bobby Magill.

2. Colo. Highway 14 from Fort Collins to Muddy Pass — Poudre Canyon/North Park

Highway 14 runs along Jefferson Street on the north side of Fort Collins before turning north to Poudre Canyon. © 2011 by Bobby Magill

Stretching, sometimes painfully, nearly 237 miles from Sterling to the Continental Divide at Muddy Pass, Highway 14 is Colorado’s longest state highway and passes through some of northern Colorado’s most striking country. After a long haul through the plains west of Sterling and a four-lane thread through Fort Collins, the highway turns west  for 60 or so miles through Poudre Canyon.

Poudre Canyon is Fort Collins’ local playground for rafting, hiking, backcountry skiing and mountaineering with access to five wilderness areas, the north side of Rocky Mountain National Park and hundreds of thousands of acres of national forestland. The second-best canyon drive in Colorado, Poudre Canyon alone is worth a few vacation days to explore. But Hwy. 14 continues over Cameron Pass into North Park, home to some of the state’s coldest winters and most sweeping scenery and most abundant moose crossings. Walk into a bar in Walden, and you’re likely to see more than a few chaps and spurs-clad cowboys throwing back a Coors Light after a day on the range. From Walden, you can see the Rawahs, the Never Summers, the Park Range, the Sierra Madre and the Bear’s Ears Range. After this winding journey from the plains, 14 continues to its junction with U.S. 40 at the Continental Divide, making this longest of state highways one of the best roadtrips the state has to offer.

1. Colo. Highway 141 from Clifton to Dove Creek — Unaweep and Dolores River Canyons/Disappointment Valley

The Palisade towers over Gateway and Gateway Canyon Resort. © 2009 by Bobby Magill

If you follow this blog, you’ve read plenty of my posts about Hwy. 141, which looks like a giant wiggle on the map over by the Utah line. It’s not an exaggeration — Hwy. 141 does a lot of wiggling on its way from the industrial-suburban Clifton area of the Grand Valley to its end between Dove Creek, Colo., and Monticello, Utah. If you think Colorado’s best road trips take you through the Rockies’ highest mountains, treat yourself to a few days in the Dolores River country because you’re likely to discover that this state is much more than just fourteeners. It has some of the west’s best redrock canyon country, too. Hwy. 141 showcases that canyon country at its best.

Hwy. 141 starts in a hellhole of fast food joints in Clifton beneath Grand Mesa before joining and then splitting from U.S. 50 to climb into Unaweep Canyon, one of Colorado’s most unique gorges with streams flowing out of both of the canyon’s ends. After 42 breathtaking miles in Unaweep Canyon (don’t forget to stop at the Unaweep Seep), the highway drops into Gateway on the sandy shores of the Dolores River, far beneath the redrock pinnacle of the Palisade (not to be confused with the town of Palisade near Grand Junction), which towers high over the kitschy Gateway Canyons Resort. From there, 141 twists through the narrow red sandstone Dolores River Canyon and rises over San Miguel Creek as it curves past old uranium and vanadium mines around Uravan and Vancorum. 141 gives you a chance to get gas in Naturita, then continues south through the Big Gypsum, Dry Creek and Disappointment valleys, some of southwest Colorado’s emptiest frontcountry. Then it’s back down to the Dolores River again at Slickrock before heading south to Egnar and 141’s south end at U.S. 491 just west of Dove Creek in Dolores County.

The landscape through which Hwy. 141 passes is remote, empty and beautiful, making this route the best road trip you can treat yourself to in Colorado…unless you hate the desert. If you think canyon country is desolate and ugly, I entreat you to spend your day on Trail Ridge Road stuck behind throngs of jackass tourists blocking traffic as they capture priceless snapshots of their kids swinging from an elk’s antlers or scratching cute black bears behind the ears.

After an unforgettable trip through Unaweep Canyon, Hwy. 141 deposits you in Gateway, along the Dolores River. © 2007 by Bobby Magill

The Hanging Flume above the Dolores River in Montrose County. Highway 141 hugs the cliff high above the river. © 2009 by Bobby Magill

After winding through the Dolores River Canyon south of Gateway, Hwy. 141 skirts by Naturita before turning south to the Big Gypsum and Disappointment valleys, one of the most remote areas of Colorado, where hardly any development at all mars the landscape. South of here, 141 heads into the Dolores River canyon again before meeting up with U.S. 141 near Dove Creek, southeast of Monticello, Utah. © 2010 by Bobby Magill

Finally, here’s a list of 10 honorable mentions:

• Colo. Highway 78: Beulah to Colo. Hwy 165 — One of Colorado’s few unpaved state highways, this travels through the Wet Mountains’ amazing lushness. Beulah, southwest of Pueblo, is one of the state’s most scenic hidden enclaves.

• Colo. Highway 82: Independence Pass — Very pretty, very narrow, very high altitude and very busy. It’s worth a trip, but it’s not among my favorite drives in the state despite being one of the state’s highest paved roads.

The view from atop Independence Pass on Hwy. 82. © 2004 by Bobby Magill

• Colo. Highway 5: Mt. Evans — It’s awesome to drive to the top of a Fourteener. The problem is, it’s too easy to get there. Get out and hike the peak instead.

© 2008 by Bobby Magill

• Colo. Highway 318: Maybell to Brown’s Park — The highway to nowhere in the state’s northwest corner, the pavement runs out at the Utah line, and then it’s a long haul into Wyoming through some low mountains before you reach another highway. I blew a tire just over the state line, and then my spare was flat. My fault. Brown’s Park is worth the visit for its remoteness, but I’d rather raft the Green River through the nearby Gates of Lodore before spending much time here. It’s an angler’s paradise, though.

Welcome to the northwest corner of Colorado. Colo. Highway 318 along the Green River. Photo by Bobby Magill, Feb. 2010.

• Colo. Highway 65: Grand Mesa — It’s a hell of a climb from I-70 to the top of Grand Mesa — more than 5,000 vertical feet — especially on a bike. Certainly one of western Colorado’s more scenic drives, the views stretch from the Roan Plateau to the north to the San Juans to the south.

• Colo. Highway 90: Bedrock and Paradox — This is really an amazing ride, threading through one of the state’s most secluded desert valleys before climbing through a redrock wonderland as it ascends the La Sal Mountain plateau on Utah’s border.

Colo. Hwy. 90 looking over the Paradox Valley. As I write this, there’s a gigantic wildfire burning here. © 2010 by Bobby Magill.

• U.S. 285/Colo. Highway 17: Poncha Pass to Alamosa — Crest Poncha Pass heading south and you’re greeted with a view the massive arc of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from their northern most point. The Sangres are a narrow wall of peaks towering high over the gently sloping San Luis Valley. 285 turns west toward Saguache, but Hwy. 17 continues south to Alamosa before you pick up 285 again. This stretch of Hwy. 17 one of the straightest highways in the state, and you’ve got a hell of a view of the Crestone peaks, the Blanca Massif and the distant Great Sand Dunes, all of which catch the light of the setting sun just right.

Full moon over the Sangres seen from U.S. 285 south of Poncha Pass. © 2011 by Bobby Magill.

• U.S. 385: Granada to Cheyenne Wells — Certainly one of the emptiest highways on the Eastern Plains, this 75 mile or so stretch of blacktop threads through some of the Great Plain’s most peaceful country.

• Colo. Highway 165: The Wet Mountains — Apparently, the Wet Mountains are named as such for a reason. This highway threads through the heart of some of the lushest territory in Colorado. It’s the closest thing you can get to the Appalachians while still being in Colorado.

• Colo. Highway 150: Great Sand Dunes — This highway dead-ends at Great Sand Dunes National Park after taking you beneath the base of the 14,345-foot Blanca Massif and by rotted-out trailers and other derelict curiosities strewn about the San Luis Valley. Then, near its end 16 miles north, it squeezes between the continent’s highest sand dunes and some of its highest mountains. Surreal.


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