Byway #12 – Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway Tour by Sport Bike, Auto and 4 x 4 – West Elk Loop Scenic Byway

The in-between is what comes to mind when I think of this particular byway. For me, traveling the West Elk Loop was more than purely for the joy of being out in nature again, but it was an environmental, cultural and historical experience all rolled into one long day from before the sun rose to long after it set.

This time of year, those who do not live in Colorado conjure pictures of snow-capped mountains with feet of snow lining mountain town streets. Weather-wise, the in-between is what is reality for Coloradans as we await the colder days of winter to match the cold nights that is typical of the weather here from late December through February.  Culturally speaking, the in-between is the difference between Old West art and the art found in the Louvre as I walked the quiet small mountain town streets of Carbondale admiring the vastly differing sculptures that adorned each corner. Historically speaking, the in-between is the stark contrast between the opulence of the homes of mine owners and the rough working conditions of 19th Century coal miners. Environmentally speaking, the in-between was the bright blue sky I witnessed over Blue Mesa Reservoir as compared to the high-based contrail cloud created sky over Redstone.

With that said, let me take you on my 600-mile round trip journey through not only Colorado’s high country and the West Elk Loop, but through my eye-opening experiences.

Culturally speaking

Carbondale sits along the Roaring Fork Valley, in between Glenwood Springs to the north and Aspen to the south. Taking the byway west at this point has you passing to the north of the downtown area of this town. Had I not done a little bit of research to learn a little more about this town before I began my journey, I would not have known that all along Main Street, artists show off their work at every street corner.

I had arrived just after 9:00 am on Saturday morning and it seemed to me that Carbondale was still asleep. So, I took advantage of the quietness and walked up and down Main Street stopping at each corner to admire the work of the different sculptures and snap a few photos along the way. As I walked, I thought about who the inhabitants of this town might be considering the very eclectic look of many of the sculptures. At one point…or several points…I realized I was smiling quite a bit, maybe it was because of the quiet beauty of the morning, or maybe it was because of the realization that I had stumbled across a small cultural gem. Either way, I was enjoying my main street walk up and down this unique mountain town.

When I started my tour, I had begun walking north along Main Street and then crossed the street at the northern end of the downtown area and continued my cultural journey south. When I got to the southern end of my walk and faced west to cross the street, I realized I was looking at what I thought was a small park, or maybe an antique shop which stretched outdoors. I then realized I was wrong and found that I was actually looking at a restaurant. This particular Carbondale restaurant (The Village Smithy) seemed to get a lot of business as was evident in the overflowing parking area. This was when I decided that I need to return here someday to partake in their tasty fair.

As I finally reached my car, I realized that the six blocks I had covered up and back again took me almost an hour and that if I wanted to complete this 210-mile mountain loop before midnight, I had better get moving. So, I bid adieux to Carbondale and once again, hit the trail.

The following websites share a little bit of Carbondale and its cultural history…

Historically speaking

The next stop along my journey was the historical town of Redstone. If you are driving along the West Elk Loop in either direction, this town may still be easy to miss despite the long row of coke ovens which line the byway on the north side of the road. Across from the coke ovens is one of two entrances to the town of Redstone. Redstone’s main street is known as Redstone Boulevard. At the eastern end of this road is Redstone Campground and at the western end is Redstone Inn. The whole town is on the national historic registry and several buildings from before the turn of the 20th Century are still standing. One such building is what is now called Redstone Castle. When it was built, this ‘castle’ was called Cleveholm Manor, which was built and owned by John C. Osgood.

I decided to take the eastern most entrance to this town past the campground and then stopped at the public park which you can find in the middle of town and along the Crystal River. From this park, I walked across a foot bridge to read the historic marker signs that line the path on the opposite of the river and take some photos of the coke ovens which had been restored in recent years by the historical society. As I continued my tour, I walked over the bridge that leads into the western end of town and past the Redstone Inn and then back down this quiet little town’s main street.

It occurred to me as I got back into my car to continue my journey that I was walking in a world of contradiction. About a hundred years ago, this world was the world of the coal mining baron and the hungry, black-lunged coal miner. What a stark contrast lay before me. On one end of town lie the 42-room manor house and throughout the rest of the town were some of the worker’s homes, all of which were over a century old. While the baron attempted to treat his workers well by providing them with homes of their own, along with company-provided healthcare and a hospital; from the other side, the workers saw their need for improved working conditions and the right to earn a fair wage.  In this little town, I saw beauty and pain all rolled up into a few square miles. Luckily for me and for the town’s current inhabitants, we live in the 21st Century which means we have a much better chance to earn a good living and live healthy lives.

Environmentally speaking

I was admiring the day as I strolled down the main street of Redstone and at one point, noted the late morning sky when I glanced upward. What was so interesting to me about this sky? Well, it seemed to me that the amazing blue that I am very used to in the Colorado high country sky had been quietly disappearing as the morning wore on and it seemed to be transforming into the hazy cloud that is typical of a city sky.

As I considered all aspects of this byway before I started writing this blog, I knew that I didn’t want it to become some sort of environmental rant. But, this one aspect seemed to make its way into my tour in a way that many may not have even noticed. This fact though, cannot be ignored, or discounted, so I will do my best to explain what I witnessed and tried to comprehend when I conducted a little bit of research the day after my tour.

So, back to the beautiful blue Colorado sky; you will see a couple of photos that I took along my tour which I actually did not edit in any way, because I wanted to share the clarity that we typically have in our skies and contrast that clarity with the sky in some of the other photos.

When I was in Redstone and walking back to my car, I looked up and realized that the clouds that were forming above me, were not being made naturally; they were being made by jets whose flight path seemed to be over this part of the Colorado Mountains. As the jets flew north, south, east and west, they were leaving contrails that did not dissipate, but rather added to the sky by forming a high altitude cirrus cloud. Now, I know some may think what I am saying is hog-wash, which is why I did a little bit of research into clouds being made by contrails, and I was glad to find that there is real research that confirms what I saw.

The sad thing I learned as I read more of the research is that these clouds that form from jet contrails are not good clouds. Cirrus clouds not only block out sunlight, but they also trap warmer air. Why is this bad? In Colorado, as well as other parts of the world, warmer air has caused a bark beetle infestation. Colorado’s climate used to be and still mostly is that of warm days and cool nights. In winter, this translates to cool days and frigid nights. Having months of below freezing nightly temps helps to kill off beetles and other harmful insects. But, cloud cover does not allow the air to cool enough and when you have several years of weather like this, bark beetles grow in population. Here’s one other thing that I learned as I read the research. As pine trees try to fight off their predators, they emit a sort of toxin. This toxin, spreads into the air and essentially can create a sort of hazy look in what typically should be a clear and natural-looking sky.

The tour

I’ve written a lot about my tour and haven’t even gotten through the first 60 miles. The West Elk Loop is another one of those byways that captures Colorado splendor in many different ways; historically, environmentally and culturally. Aside from my stark discovery, my take-away is a renewed conviction in the preservation of our Earth so that the generations that follow can also enjoy what it has to offer.

As you drive along this byway, you drive through both coal and marble mining history, through spectacular mountains and canyons carved by the rivers that flow from them. This byway includes dense pine and aspen forests, as well as a high country desert area which surrounds a massive reservoir. It provides a veritable plethora of recreational and cultural activities enough to keep a family, or an individual busy and never bored during any time of year.

Other stops along the West Elk Loop…

When I actually made the full loop and arrived back in Carbondale, the sun had set and I still had a three-hour drive home ahead of me. Did I regret taking so long on this byway? Not in the slightest.

Click the links to see more photos, or follow my tour on the interactive map:


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