If I had to choose one state for a driving vacation -- a state with as many scenic drives as possible -- the choice would come down to two states: Colorado and California. Colorado has nothing like the coastline drive through California’s Big Sur, but it has almost everything else. Mountains, high plains, sand dunes, deep valleys -- I don’t think I’ll ever tire of road trips around Colorado.
In fact, my wife and I spent more than half of our honeymoon driving around Colorado. We weren’t interested in getting a hotel on a beach somewhere for eight days; we knew we wanted our honeymoon to be different. We got married at the Grand Canyon, and we lived in Saint Louis, so we decided that our honeymoon would be eight days on the road. We made no plans -- no reservations anywhere -- just started at Point A (the Grand Canyon) and headed toward Point B (Saint Louis).
As it turned out, we spent four -- almost five -- days of the trip in Colorado. We drove almost an entire circuit around the state, entering from New Mexico in the southeastern corner, nearly ending up in Utah in the southwestern corner, and finally making our way through the center of the state and off to Nebraska in the northeastern corner.
We’ve returned many times since then, including once to explore the one corner of the state we missed on our honeymoon -- the northwestern corner. So when I say that I’ve driven all over Colorado, I mean it. Many of these roads I’ve driven three, four, or five times. Here are eight of my favorites.
1. Trail Ridge Road
This might be the most famous drive in Colorado, mostly because it’s only open for four to five months of the year. Trail Ridge Road is the road that goes up and over the Continental Divide within Rocky Mountain National Park. In the winter, if you want to drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake, you have to drive south through Boulder all the way down to Golden, take Interstate 70 up into the mountains, and take Highway 40 up through Winter Park and Granby all the way to Grand Lake. It’s more than 150 miles and will take well over 3 hours. In the summer, when Trail Ridge Road is open? It’s 46 miles.
Be sure to check the road report before you go. Trail Ridge Road generally opens in mid-May, but sometimes, a mid-June snowstorm will close it down again. The phrase “mid-June snowstorm” gives you a pretty good picture of how high up you’ll be. This is not a highway -- it’s a mountain pass -- but the views from the top of the Continental Divide are just spectacular.
2. Fairplay To Denver
The most common way to leave the mountains and get back to Denver is to take Interstate 70 through the Eisenhower Tunnel and begin the slow descent to the Mile High City. But there’s another way down, and the views are amazing.
The other way is Highway 285. The last time we went on a family ski trip to Breckenridge, this is the route we took to get back to Denver. Instead of driving Highway 9 north out of Breckenridge to get back to the interstate, we drove south to Fairplay. From there, we took Highway 285 all the way to Denver.
It’s not the fastest way -- it’s not an interstate, so you’ll be driving through several towns -- but it’s certainly a fun drive. You’ll drive through the high plains for a while, wondering where the mountain roads went, and then you’ll climb up and around a mountain pass. Eventually, you’ll make your way through the towns of Bailey and Conifer and all the way back down to Denver.
3. Pagosa Springs To Durango
This is one of the drives my wife and I took on our honeymoon. It’s not really a mountain drive per se, but I remember that evening fondly. We ended up staying in Durango that night, and I remember that we drove from Pagosa Springs to Durango just as the sun was setting. We had been high in the mountains the day before, so following the river through all of the valleys was a great evening drive.
There are several well-known monuments along the way, so this is a good spot for a drive if you want to do some sightseeing. I remember seeing Chimney Rock from the highway as we drove, but we didn’t stop because it was late in the evening. But Chimney Rock National Monument and Haystack Mountain are both areas I wish we could have explored.
Again, don’t expect a mountain drive here. This isn’t a drive that will give you great views. But it’s a nice change of pace that’s perfect at sunset.
4. Kebler Pass (Highway 12)
This is another drive that’s only accessible during the summer. I’ve driven this road several times and have experienced both snowflakes on July 17 and a closed road in the second week of June. Kebler Pass is high up in the mountains above Crested Butte, so get ready to experience a mountain road. The majority of the road is gravel, but it’s well maintained by the state and does not require four-wheel drive.
This mountain pass connects two Colorado highways -- Highway 135 (Crested Butte to Gunnison) and Highway 133 (Paonia to Carbondale). If you drove from Crested Butte to Paonia at a time when Kebler Pass was closed, it would take you four times as long, so when it is open, locals use it to cut down their drive times. Don’t expect to go very fast (it’s a gravel mountain road with sharp turns), but do expect absolutely incredible views. I wish I were there right now!
Pro Tip: If you have the time, take the turnoff for Lost Lake Campground and check out Lost Lake. It’s a 3-mile spur off of Highway 12, but Lost Lake is my single favorite spot in all of Colorado. Hanging above me on the wall right now is a photo of Lost Lake that my wife took on one of our hikes there. It’s “our spot” in Colorado.
5. Granby To Steamboat Springs
U.S. Route 40 is right up there with Route 66 in terms of history. Portions of the highway went by different names (the Victory Highway and the National Road, for instance), but before the interstate system, the main east-west highway in the United States was U.S. Route 40.
In Colorado, U.S. Route 40 took travelers up into the mountains to the north through Winter Park and Granby, where it turned west and headed to Steamboat Springs and eventually Salt Lake City. The route from Granby to Steamboat Springs is one of my favorites, not only for the history, but also for the views.
Pro Tip: Steamboat Springs is one of Colorado’s better-kept secrets, so if you’re planning on this road trip, allow some time to explore the town. There aren’t many large towns on this drive between Granby and Steamboat Springs, so once you get to Steamboat Springs, you’ll want to stay a while.
6. Boulder To Nederland
The trip from Boulder to Nederland is only 17 miles -- it’s the shortest of all of the drives listed here. But if you’re looking for a quick getaway from the Denver or Boulder area, this is a great one.
The name tells you what you’ll experience -- you’re driving on Boulder Canyon Drive. The twists and turns through the canyon are incredible, and when you get to Nederland, you'll round a corner and see a massive reservoir in front of you (Barker Mountain Reservoir).
And this scenic drive doesn’t have to be just up and back on Boulder Canyon Drive. We extended it to a full loop: Boulder Canyon Drive up to Nederland, Highway 72 from Nederland to Highway 7 just south of Rocky Mountain National Park, Highway 7 back over to Highway 36, and then back down to Boulder. That made for about a 70-mile loop of incredible mountain views!
7. Grand Junction To Dinosaur
The first few times I visited Colorado, always coming from the east, I envisioned flat plains for the first third of the state, then the mountains, and then green, snow-capped mountains all the way to Utah. But that’s not really the case. And you can see that if you make the drive from Grand Junction to Dinosaur.
This drive, on Highway 139, is much more like the Old West you’ve seen in movies. You pass through all of the mountain peaks as you progress from east to west in Colorado, and then you come upon an area that looks more like Montana or the Dakotas than Colorado. This drive up through Douglas Pass and then following the Douglas River back down is a completely different experience from the mountain drives listed above. But it’s just as enjoyable. You’ll picture an old Western being filmed there -- trust me.
8. Silverton To Ouray
I saved the best for last. There’s a reason this drive is called the Million Dollar Highway. I’ve driven it at least six times, and every time is more amazing than the last. The terrain doesn’t look like anywhere I’ve been in the U.S. -- it looks like the Alps in Switzerland.
In fact, Ouray is referred to as the Switzerland of America because it’s an old mining town nestled among massive cliffs. If you’re driving from Silverton to Ouray, the view of Ouray as you descend from the mountains is one of the single best views I’ve ever experienced on a drive. Just don’t let the driver stare at the view too long -- you’re on a mountain road built into the side of a cliff, after all!
Pro Tip: Take some time to explore this area. Both Silverton and Ouray are amazing mountain towns. If you want to learn more, I’ve written an article covering this specific drive and the two towns.