Scenic Drives Through the Centennial State

Colorado, known for its breathtaking landscapes, is a haven for a road trip seeking awe-inspiring views and outdoor adventures. With a diverse range of terrains, from towering peaks to rolling plains, this state offers some of the most iconic and scenic drives in the United States. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a history buff, or simply in search of a memorable journey, Colorado road trip routes have something for everyone.

Why a Colorado Road Trip?

The Colorado road trip appeal lies in its natural beauty and the freedom of the open road. Each highway, byway, and backroad offers a unique blend of landscapes, outdoor activities, and cultural experiences. From the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the serene deserts of the southwest, Colorado’s diverse geography invites exploration.

Top Picks for a Colorado Road Trip:

1. Million Dollar Highway

Route: US-550 (Durango to Ouray)

The Million Dollar Highway, a portion of the San Juan Skyway, is a legendary route that takes you through the heart of the San Juan Mountains. The name might evoke thoughts of luxury, but it refers to the million dollars worth of gold and silver ore that reportedly pave the road. This 25-mile stretch between Durango and Ouray offers jaw-dropping vistas, with cliffs, hairpin turns, and panoramic overlooks. Don’t miss a visit to the charming town of Silverton along the way.

2. San Juan Skyway

Route: Loop starting in Durango

The San Juan Skyway is a 236-mile loop that incorporates the Million Dollar Highway and explores the San Juan Mountains and their picturesque valleys. You’ll pass through historic mining towns like Telluride and Durango, experience the natural wonder of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and soak in the beauty of the Dallas Divide. This loop offers a blend of outdoor adventure and cultural exploration.

3. Trail Ridge Road

Route: US-34 (Estes Park to Grand Lake)

Trail Ridge Road, in Rocky Mountain National Park, is the highest continuously paved road in the United States. This 48-mile journey takes you from the lush forests of Estes Park to the alpine tundra of Grand Lake, crossing the Continental Divide. The vistas along the way include meadows, wildlife, and stunning mountain peaks, making it a must-do for nature enthusiasts.

4. Pikes Peak Highway

Route: CO-24 (Manitou Springs to Pikes Peak Summit)

Drive to the summit of Pikes Peak, one of Colorado’s famous “Fourteeners” (mountains exceeding 14,000 feet). The Pikes Peak Highway offers a thrilling ascent through pine forests, past lakes, and ultimately to the summit, where you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the Rockies. Don’t forget to try the world-famous donuts at the summit’s gift shop!

5. Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway

Route: CO-125 (Rocky Mountain National Park to Granby)

Follow the Colorado River from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park through scenic canyons and valleys. Along the way, you can fish, kayak, or simply enjoy the serene beauty of the river. The byway offers a glimpse into the state’s western history and presents numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation.

6. Santa Fe Trail Scenic Byway

Route: US-350 (La Junta to Trinidad)

Trace the path of traders, explorers, and pioneers on the Santa Fe Trail Scenic Byway. This route connects La Junta and Trinidad and winds through the southeastern corner of Colorado. Experience the history of the Old West, visit Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, and take in the rugged beauty of the Comanche National Grassland.


What Makes These Routes Worth Visiting?

Each of these routes provides more than just a means of transportation; they offer a journey through Colorado’s rich history, vibrant culture, and diverse natural beauty. Whether it’s witnessing a golden sunrise over the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains, exploring the remnants of historic mining towns, or feeling the thrill of reaching the summit of a “Fourteener,” these scenic drives promise unforgettable experiences.

Remember, embarking on a Colorado road trip is not merely about reaching a destination; it’s about immersing oneself in the journey and the stunning landscapes that make every mile worth the drive.

  • Million Dollar Highway & San Juan Skyway: These routes are synonymous with dramatic mountain scenery. You’ll witness towering peaks, narrow canyons, and old mining towns that seem frozen in time. The Million Dollar Highway’s challenging drive is rewarded with unparalleled views, while the San Juan Skyway takes you through the heart of Colorado’s stunning San Juan Mountains.
  • Trail Ridge Road: As you ascend Trail Ridge Road, you’ll cross the Continental Divide, pass through subalpine forests, and eventually reach the alpine tundra. The variety of ecosystems and the chance to spot wildlife, like elk and marmots, make this drive a nature lover’s paradise.
  • Pikes Peak Highway: Ascending to the summit of Pikes Peak offers a unique experience, with changing landscapes and ecosystems at every turn. The breathtaking views from the “Roof of Colorado” are simply unforgettable.
  • Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway: This route combines the beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park with the serenity of the Colorado River. It’s perfect for those seeking outdoor activities like fishing, hiking, and wildlife watching.
  • Santa Fe Trail Scenic Byway: Travel back in time as you follow the footsteps of pioneers on the historic Santa Fe Trail. Explore Bent’s Old Fort, a reconstructed trading post that provides a glimpse into the region’s rich history.

Colorado’s scenic drives are an invitation to explore the state’s diverse landscapes, from towering peaks to meandering rivers and high desert plateaus. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a history buff, or simply seeking a memorable adventure, a Colorado road trip offers a taste of the Centennial State’s unparalleled beauty and rich history.

Colorado Road Trip

Top Cities to Visit in Colorado

1. Denver

Denver, the Mile High City, offers an eclectic mix of old and new. Explore the historic LoDo district, dive into the thriving culinary scene, or embrace the outdoors with a visit to the Denver Botanic Gardens. the Paramount Theater, or a bike ride along the Cherry Creek Trail.

2. Boulder

Known for its health-conscious and outdoorsy lifestyle, Boulder Colorado is a city that’s one with nature. Nestled at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, it offers ample opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing. Don’t miss the lively Pearl Street Mall for shopping and dining.

3. Aspen

Famed for its world-class skiing and opulent lifestyle, Aspen is a haven for winter sports enthusiasts. Beyond the slopes, it offers high-end shopping, fine dining, and a robust arts scene that includes the Aspen Art Museum and the annual Aspen Music Festival.

4. Colorado Springs

Home to Pikes Peak and the Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs is a must-visit for nature lovers. It’s also home to the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, underscoring the city’s athletic heritage.

5. Durango

Durango offers a taste of the Old West with its historic downtown and the famous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. It’s also the gateway to the San Juan Mountains, providing ample outdoor recreation opportunities.

6. Fort Collins

Fort Collins is a vibrant college town known for its craft beer scene, with over 20 breweries to explore. It’s also home to the historic Old Town, the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street USA.

7. Breckenridge

Breckenridge is a quintessential mountain town, widely renowned for its ski resort. During the winter, the town teems with snow sports enthusiasts, while the summer months attract hikers, mountain bikers, and anglers. The town’s historic Main Street is bustling with shops, restaurants, and art galleries.

8. Estes Park

As the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park is a destination filled with natural beauty. It’s a wildlife enthusiast’s paradise, where sightings of elk and other wildlife are common. The town also offers charming shopping and dining options, and it’s the home of the historic Stanley Hotel, famous for its association with Stephen King’s “The Shining.”

9. Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs is an adventurer’s dream, nestled at the base of Pikes Peak and home to the stunning Garden of the Gods. Beyond its natural attractions, the city hosts the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, making it a hub for athletic pursuits. Its burgeoning arts scene and historical attractions like the Broadmoor add to its appeal.

These cities provide a mix of urban allure and natural beauty, reflecting Colorado’s diverse landscapes and cultural offerings. Whether you’re into outdoor adventures, food and drink, history, or arts and culture, Colorado’s cities have something to offer every type of traveler.

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9 Essential Tips for Your Colorado Road Trip

Now that you’ve chosen your ideal Colorado road trip route, it’s time to prepare for your journey. Here are nine essential tips to ensure a smooth and memorable road trip through Colorado:

1. Check Your Vehicle

Before hitting the road, ensure your vehicle is in excellent condition. Check the tires, brakes, engine, and all fluids. It’s also a good idea to have a spare tire, jack, and basic tools on hand.

2. Pack Smartly

Pack essentials like water, snacks, a first-aid kit, and a map. Dress in layers, as Colorado’s weather can change rapidly. Don’t forget your camera to capture the stunning scenery.

3. Plan Accommodations

Book accommodations in advance, especially during peak seasons. Colorado offers a range of options, from cozy cabins to historic hotels and campgrounds.

4. Mind the Altitude

Colorado’s high altitude can affect some travelers. Stay hydrated, take it easy at higher elevations, and be mindful of altitude sickness symptoms like headaches and shortness of breath.

5. Respect Nature

Follow the “Leave No Trace” principles. Stay on designated trails, pack out all trash, and respect wildlife. Ensure you have the necessary permits for activities like fishing or camping.

6. Be Weather-Wise

Colorado’s weather can be unpredictable, even in summer. Be prepared for sudden rain, thunderstorms, and temperature drops, especially in the mountains. Check the weather forecast before heading out and be cautious when driving in inclement conditions.

7. Safety First

Tell someone your itinerary and expected return time. In remote areas, cell phone reception may be limited. Familiarize yourself with basic safety protocols, like how to handle wildlife encounters.

8. Plan for Extra Time

Traffic and construction delays can happen, especially in popular tourist areas. Allow extra time in your itinerary for unexpected stops or slower driving routes.

9. Check Road Conditions

Before heading out, check road conditions and closures, especially in winter. The Colorado Department of Transportation provides real-time updates online.

6 Scenic Drives Through the Centennial State

Why a Colorado Road Trip

With these tips in mind, you’re ready to embark on an unforgettable Colorado road trip. Whether you’re driving through rugged mountain terrain or along the banks of a serene river, the Centennial State promises awe-inspiring beauty and endless adventures. Hit the road and discover why Colorado is a road-trippers paradise.

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FAQ about a Colorado Road Trip

What is the best time of year for a Colorado road trip?

The best time for a Colorado road trip largely depends on the activities you’re interested in. For skiing and snowboarding, winter (December to March) is the ideal season. However, if you’re into hiking, biking, or camping, summer (June to August) offers the best conditions.

Are the roads in Colorado safe for driving in winter?

Colorado’s main roads are well-maintained and generally safe for winter driving, but conditions can vary greatly. Always check road conditions and weather forecasts before heading out, and consider using a vehicle equipped with snow tires or chains.

Do I need a special permit to camp in Colorado’s national parks and forests?

Many campgrounds in Colorado’s national parks and forests require a reservation or a permit. Always check the specific regulations of the area you plan to visit.

Is it necessary to book accommodation in advance for a Colorado road trip?

During the peak seasons (summer and winter), accommodation can fill up fast, especially in popular areas like Aspen, Boulder, and Colorado Springs. Therefore, it’s generally advisable to book your accommodation in advance.

Can I drive through the national parks in Colorado?

Most of Colorado’s national parks, like Rocky Mountain National Park and Mesa Verde National Park, have driveable roads. These drives are often scenic and highlight the parks’ main attractions, but do remember to respect all park rules and regulations.