While I’ve finished the byways and don’t have any other travels planned at the moment, I decided to create a travel guide (of sorts) to highlight the 25 scenic and historic byways of Colorado in one place.
I used a trial software package that is typically used by instructional designers (my profession) in developing web-based training courses. The travel guide is not a training course, but the software offers some powerful features that made it easy for me to pick this software to create the guide.
Sooner or later, I will create the guide using InDesign, but for now, I’m happy with the results using Storyline2.
Road(s): Paved = straight in the lowlands; curvy up to the pass and in the national monument
Round-trip from Denver: 927 miles
Length of Byway: 486 miles (including the Utah portion)
Vehicle types: Car, sport bike
Elevation change: 4,514 feet to 8,268 feet
Location: West/Northwest Colorado
Everything Old is New Again
I took my youngest daughter on this tour, because of the dinosaurs that used to roam the area millions of years ago and have since been unearthed in various quarries along the byway. She’s never seen this part of Colorado, so it was all new to her. It was good to have her enthusiasm along the way as we saw some of the BLM protected pictographs north of Douglas Pass in Canyon Pintado along the byway.
A Bittersweet Tour
Two years earlier, I was out west in Fruita, Colorado visiting a friend and enjoying the views from the Colorado National Monument. The visit with my friend was well worth the five-hour drive out west. This time around, I did not have the chance to see my friend, since she and her family were out of town. My daughter and I did make the best of things as we chose to stay in a very nice Marriot hotel in downtown Grand Junction, the Fairfield Inn and Suites.
The last time I was out west, I took a long route to drive home and took all day to see some Colorado mountain countryside which I had never seen before. This time around, the drive going to Grand Junction was the long route. I had been dying to see Dallas Divide again for several months. My aim was to drive along Last Dollar Road in the late afternoon to see the changing aspen against the backdrop of the jagged mountains of the divide. While Dallas Divide and the Last Dollar Road are almost 90 miles south of Grand Junction, this “side trip” was well worth the diversion on our way to Grand Junction. I will let the photos speak for themselves…
This particular byway is yet one more byway in Colorado which actually goes into another state. In the case of Dinosaur Diamond, the byway extends into Utah. The landscape along the byway is quite spectacular, mostly because of the red hues of the sandstone all along the drive. Had I had enough time to take more days off from work, I would have extended our tour into Utah to see Arches National Park in Utah. My daughter loves that area as well.
Another downside to traveling the byway was the fact that the US government had been shut down, so we weren’t able to see some of the points along the way, like the Colorado National Monument and the heart of Dinosaur National Monument, as well as the quarry. That being said, the drive up to Dinosaur to see part of the monument was still worth the trip. There was still plenty for us to see and the weather was cooperating quite nicely.
On the way to Dinosaur Ntl. Monument from the south side, you can visit the Colorado National Monument, as well as the dinosaur quarry on the northern edge of the Colorado Ntl. Monument to see where dinosaur fossils had been unearthed in the early 1900s – Dinosaur Hill, Fruita.
Heading north from Fruita, you end up on a very straight and what seems desolate stretch of highway 139. Before you, lies the Book Cliffs, which look like tall sandcastles of different colored layers, but are actually made of colorful sandstone. You don’t see the green pinyon and colorful scrub oak of what ends up being the foothills before Douglas Pass until the road reaches the cliffs and they give way to the green mountain valley which leads up to Douglas Pass.
Soon though, the road begins to twist and curve as you begin to gain altitude and the temperature takes a quick dive as the pass looms above you in what seems like a very steep incline. And then…after a few very sharp hairpin curves, you’re there…at the top of the pass. While there is a pull-out at the top, you will notice that the route in getting there on either side is quite steep and you realize how special this mountain pass really is considering where it is located…at the western edge of Colorado’s semi-arid high country dessert.
On the northern side of Douglas Pass, you quickly descend into Canyon Pintado and soon find yourself surrounded by low sandstone cliffs and all along this part of the drive; you find BLM signs of the Kokopelli Pictographs which have withstood the test of time for several hundred years. This is where my daughter came alive. She was not only curious about the origins of the pictographs, but thought about how the artists created their art to withstand the weather for so very long.
Although these off-road sites were part of the BLM though, we still were able to get close enough to take photos and wonder about the art work, mostly because they were so close to the road and no locks, or chains blocked our path. Still, I was disheartened to see that at one of these sites, there were people who thought it was necessary to try and deface these ancient pictures by carving their names into the cliff-sides alongside the images.
Dinosaur National Monument
As you continue driving northward, the landscape becomes stark and desolate after passing through Rangely and continuing north to the town of Dinosaur. At this point, you can head west into Utah, or go east for two miles to the entrance of Dinosaur National Monument. After stopping at the visitor center in Dinosaur to find out if we were going to be able to see any of the monument, we headed east to the monument entrance. What I had learned at the visitor center was that although the middle point of the monument was inaccessible due to the government shut-down, the road getting there was still open.
I was pleasantly surprised as we drove north along this road to find that it climbed in elevation and we soon found ourselves on a plateau with views as far as the eyes could see (at least as much as the haze would let us see) in all directions. The landscape wasn’t as barren as I had imagined and the layers of colored sandstone were nearly outdone by the colors of the vegetation which include not only pinyon pine, but scrub oak and aspen as well.
As we drew closer to the closed end of the road, we also passed over the Utah state line and came to a fork in the road, which is also known as “The Center of the Universe”, or in other words Echo Park. At this point, I wanted to continue forging along any road that was open, but because this road is a one-way dirt road and I couldn’t tell whether it was going to be open all the way down, I erred on the side of caution and headed back south to Grand Junction and dinner with my daughter at her favorite place, Johnny Carinos.
The End of the Byway Tours
Driving home the next day was only a little bittersweet. While this was my last byway tour over the past two years, I know I will be coming back for more. And in the future, it won’t be as quickly, but rather, I will find a way to spend more time along each byway and find more out-of-the-way nooks and crannies along these byways to add to my ever expanding wealth of Colorado Byway knowledge.
Road(s): Paved = straight in the lowlands; curvy up to the passes Round-trip from Denver: 916 miles Length of Byway: 129 miles Vehicle types: Car, sport bike Elevation change: 7523 to 10,230 feet above sea level Location: (Extreme) South Central Colorado
Celebrating in Southern Colorado
It was my second anniversary and I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to celebrate than to tour a part of the state which was promising to be in full fall aspen color changing mode.
My husband and I were married in early October, so this byway tour took place in the first weekend of October. I ended up taking 2 extra days off from my full-time job, so we wouldn’t need to rush and we could enjoy some of the wonderful features of this part of Colorado.
Driving Down to Southern Colorado
The only regret I had was that my hubby could not join me on the drive down and back. He had just started working at a new job, so we planned that he would meet me in Crestone at the vacation rental I had rented for the four days…the Carriage House. Because I wanted to capture some color in southern Colorado and see some sights before he came, I left early and headed straight south on the highway, then turned west at Walsenburg to La Veta Pass. This pass was my first stop. It is not on the byway, but the colors were amazing and I had done my research ahead of time, which means I found a dirt road over the pass which was the original pass road.
Old La Veta Pass Road wasn’t too hard to drive my car on and the sights and colors were quite spectacular. At the top of the pass on this road, you come across a few historical buildings, which welcome visitors who pass this way. I took a little bit of time to capture the scenery and then was on my way again.
Los Caminos Antiguos = The Old Paths
History, both military as well as spiritual, dating back to before the Spaniards came to this area is what this byway is all about.
It wasn’t long before I arrived at the eastern edge of the byway in Ft. Garland and at the veteran’s memorial. I like this particular memorial because of the jet that is propped up above a grassy area high enough to see it from the road.
After taking a few photos, I headed south to San Luis. This town is the oldest town in Colorado. It lies just west of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in the San Luis Valley (featured on National Geographic).
Stations of the Cross
I had read about the Stations of the Cross so I wanted to see the sculptures and shrine which had been built all the way up a hillside next to the town of San Luis. Don’t get me wrong…I may have been raised Catholic and spent my childhood walking the line…but life’s experiences have led me down a different path. While I would say I may be spiritual, it’s a much different path than a practicing Catholic. With that said, I can say that I appreciate a culturally rich heritage steeped in religion (of any kind). And I can say that I can see how regions of the world have transformed over time and have incorporated facets of local history into current culture.
Walking up the hillside, I stopped at each of the sculptures noticing how the mood portrayed within the faces of the sculptures seemed aptly depicted. The artist, Huberto Maestas, had sculpted the 15 statues which adorn the hillside and depict the last hours of Christ’s life. As you ascend this hillside and draw closer to the shrine, you rise above the town of San Luis and get a glimpse of the valley and Sangre de Cristos to the east, as well as the San Juan Mountains to the west.
I did not want to take too long, but as I got closer to the shrine, a familiar feeling washed over me. This feeling was the same fe
eling I would get when entering church many, many years ago as a child. It was a comfortable feeling and a feeling of innocence all rolled into one. As I entered the chapel, I looked for the bowl of holy water which typically sits on the inside of the door in Catholic church’s and once I found it, I dutifully dipped my fingers in and made the sign of the cross while looking forward at the altar. Yes, if you are not Catholic, this is what Catholics do when they enter a church.
I knew I was in for a different ‘vibe’, a different feeling, when I began this journey to the southern end of Colorado, but I did not imagine it would be like this. That feeling lasted throughout the journey and for the full four days that my hubby and I explored this part of the country.
San Luis to la Manga and Cumbres Passes
After visiting the stations, I continued along my journey and drove from San Luis through the other hamlets along the byway, including San Acacio, Manassa, Conejos and Antonito. In Conejos, I had to make it a point to stop at the oldest church in Colorado (Our Lady of Guadeloupe Parish) before heading over la Manga and Cumbres passes.
La Manga and Cumbres Passes
At the southern edge of Colorado along the border with northern New Mexico, you will find not only some amazing mountain landscape, but a still running and century old narrow gauge railroad: the Cumbres and Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad route passes over the Colorado/New Mexico border more than a dozen times as it zigzags through the back country of the southern San Juan Mountains.
I had driven along the road that passes over la Manga and Cumbres passes only once before and on a whim about two years ago at the end of the season for the Cumbres and Toltec tours. I got lucky on that day to capture a shot of one of the engines sitting at the station in Antonito taking on passengers as part of the 150-year celebration of Conejos County. The photo that I took that day turned out to be good enough to place into the Colorado Vacation Guide for 2013…yeah, I was just a tad excited.
On this day, I took my time driving up the pass as I approached la Manga Pass from the north. The mountainsides were on the edge of full fall color explosion and against the beautiful Colorado blue sky, the colors were amazingly vivid.
La Manga and Cumbres passes sit not too far from one another at the top of this mountain range and so the road stays high in elevation as you pass over la Manga Pass and head further south to Cumbres Pass. At one point before you reach Cumbres Pass, you come across what seems like an open valley, but in fact the area is part of what was once an ancient glacier and in this area, you will also see the narrow gauge railroad wind through the valley as it heads into Toltec Canyon. I was real excited to see that as I descended into this area, the train was slowly chugging its way southward toward New Mexico. So, I quickly drove around a wide sweeping curve and above the train to a spot about a few miles ahead of it so that I could pull over and watch it come around a cliff wall…oh and take a few photos, too.
And so…this is how my afternoon continued; with me jumping out of my car, camera in hand, searching for the perfect perch and snapping a few photos as the train chugged by. I continued in this same vein all the way to the New Mexico border and then…mostly because of time, I turned around and headed back north to Crestone to meet up with my hubby.
While Crestone is actually about 50 miles north of the byway, it was the perfect place for my hubby and I to enjoy a few quiet days together as we celebrated our second anniversary. Crestone is actually renowned as being a spiritual center where not only can you find a small church, but also a Buddhist Temple and other centers of various faiths. It was here that my hubby and I were truly an ultimately relaxed. And while we did not come here to be spiritually healed, as we left on our last day, I did feel completely rejuvenated. I don’t know if that was some sort of subliminal thing I did to myself because of everything I read about the place ahead of time, or the fact that there was no TV in our rental and the night sky was so completely dark, that we could see the Milky Way, or for some other reason. Either way, I know I want to come back to Crestone.
Cumbres and Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad
On the second day of our celebration, my hubby and I rose way too early for a vacation and headed south to Antonito to board a bus bound for Chama, New Mexico and the start of our train tour over the southern San Juans. As I want to include each and every bit of this tour, I know it will make my long blog even longer. Instead of oozing enthusiasm for another few paragraphs, let me say that this day-long tour on the Cumbres and Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad takes you through some amazing scenery and history. Halfway through the tour, passengers are also treated to lunch in a huge railroad building only accessible by train. On this day, there were about 500 people from two trains who had stopped for lunch. All along this tour, my hubby kept hugging and kissing me thanking me for the idea for this trip. I was happy to have ignited his inner child and new found love for the narrow gauge railroad.
The Great Sand Dunes, Zapata Falls and Alamosa
The sign says it all. Although part of the byway includes a visit to the Great Sand Dunes of the San Luis Valley as well as what is known as a hidden gem, Zapata Falls, both were closed because of the late September/early October government shutdown. While I couldn’t get inside these areas to take any close-up photos, I was able to capture a few shots that depicted the area quite well.
Rounding off this tour, my hubby and I stopped in Alamosa to wet our whistle and for a bite to eat. Oh! and watching the Denver Broncos take another victory while enjoying the food and drink the San Luis Valley Brewing Co. with a bunch of other Broncos fans was probably the best consolation to not being able to hike in the national monument, or BLM areas that I could think of.
When was the last time you had a picture perfectly clear view of the Milky Way? I’m not talking using a telescope, or binoculars or sitting in a Planetarium…but the real thing amongst a brilliantly star-filled night sky. On our last night in Crestone, my hubby and I took the two deck chairs from our rental down to the empty and very dark cul-de-sac, sat back and gazed at the sky. It had been so long since I last saw the Milky Way that I felt like a kid again, laying out under the stars in my sleeping bag. There was hardly a sound that night in Crestone, not even much of a breeze, making me feel so very much connected to Earth. A sort of peace washed over me as I sat there gazing at the millions of stars and the outline of our galaxy. All the other worries of the world seemed so insignificant…so trivial in the grand scheme of things. I wished again…just like I did when I was a child…foolishly, naively…that there could be something better than what there is now…that humanity were better, that there was no greed, or pain, or carelessness; that we all understand the more important things of life and live our lives in harmony with one another and the Earth.
My wish…as naïve as it still is, can be obtained on a very personal level, which I will continue to work to one day finally obtain.
Road(s): Paved = High Park Road and Teller County One; both curvy in spots; Dirt = Phantom Canyon Road and Shelf Road; 4-wheel drive and high clearance recommended when wet, but is passable by 2-wheel drive in lower gear when dry. Round-trip from Denver: 413 miles Length of Byway: 131 miles Vehicle types: Car, 4×4; dual sport Elevation change: 4662 to 9,350 feet above sea level Location: South Central Colorado
Base camp is what I called this wonderfully eclectic hamlet. We made it just in time for the annual Cripple Creek cemetery walks guided by artists, actors and actresses of the area all dressed in period garb. I loved it!
Unfortunately, my friend and I weren’t in Cripple Creek for the Mt. Pisgah Cemetery Tour, we were there to drive the Gold Belt Tour…crossing fingers. I say “crossing fingers,” because I wasn’t sure that my little ol’ 2-wheel drive Pontiac Vibe was up to the task of traversing a so-called 4×4 road, ie. Shelf Road. I thought I’d give it the ‘old college try’, though. I guess that’s a better way than explaining the technical aspects of driving a road that’s marked 4-wheel drive only by taking a front-wheel drive only car on it. I figured I’d drive as far as I thought I could handle it, er the “car could handle it” before turning around and heading back to ‘base camp’.
Backin’ It Up
Allow me to back this blog up a bit and fill you all in on the details before I get into the real fun…driving the byway.
I recruited the companionship of my co-worker and friend again for this byway tour. I knew she would be up for it, since she had so much fun on the Flattops Trail earlier in the summer. This time around, instead of wildflowers, we were hoping to get a glimpse of some of Colorado’s famous gold…um, aspen gold that is. And what better place to view some gold than smack dab in the middle of Colorado’s still running gold mine – CCnV. Well actually, we didn’t exactly try to descend into this particular mine to view aspen, but we did drive the roads that the miners use.
My friend and I decided that the last day of summer and the first day of fall would be prime time to not only view the changing aspen leaves, but also to celebrate the seasons. So, I booked us a room at the Hotel St. Nicholas and we left in the morning from Colorado Springs to drive the first part of the Gold Belt Tour Byway.
Gold Belt Tour Byway
This particular byway needs a little bit of explanation, because it is actually four different roads that converge on the gold mining towns of Cripple Creek and Victor. Two of the roads, Phantom Canyon Road and Shelf Road are dirt roads. As I had discovered with all the research I did in advance of this tour, Shelf Road actually requires 4-wheel drive to travel this leg of the byway. As I dug a little further on the Internet and read some reviews of these roads, I discovered that some people also had enough chutzpah to attempt to drive Shelf Road in their 2-wheel drive vehicles. But…we all know that what people say on the Internet cannot be true…oh wait…strike that. Of course, I took it with a grain of salt, which is why my friend and I decided that if the road seemed really bad, we would turn around and come back to it when we actually were driving a 4×4.
Phantom Canyon Road
The morning started out wonderfully sunny and with a hot cup of coffee in hand, my friend and I were off on our jaunt westward into the mountains of Pikes Peak country. After we stopped at the visitor center in Cripple Creek to get a map of the Gold Belt Tour and learned a little bit about the roads, we were off on our journey to find the start of Phantom Canyon Road in Victor. What we learned at the visitor center was that it was advised that we drive both Phantom Canyon Road and Shelf Road from the north to the south, since drivers coming in the opposite direction have to make room for cars by hugging the edge of the road which sometimes plunges downward sharply several hundred feet.
Finding Phantom Canyon Road was a bit tricky though, because there really isn’t a clear sign with an arrow pointing, “This way to Phantom Canyon Road.” After a couple of U-turns, we finally settled on a dirt road on the northern edge of town which split off to a local lake and recreation area. We opted for the right leg of this split and were quickly relieved to find that we were on the correct road after we noticed the road number sign on the side of the road.
This road begins by meandering through some pasture and forested land, but as you round a bend in the road, the hillside drops off into a deep canyon. The road itself also narrows a bit at this point and stays that way for most of the rest of the journey as it travels along a days gone by narrow gauge railroad bed. The canyon is named ‘phantom’ canyon because the tall conical-shaped rocks dotted throughout the canyon tend to cast phantom-like shadows along the canyon walls as the sun is setting or rising. A few features of this canyon also include two old railroad tunnels which are wide enough for a car to drive through and a balanced rock which sits atop a Cliffside of about 100 feet.
On the southern end of Phantom Canyon Road along the byway, sits the town of Florence. We stopped close to Main Street and visited the town museum which sits a block away from the Denver and Rio Grande train station. After leaving, we followed the byway through Canon City where we stopped again by the correctional facility. Yep, I said correctional facility. The Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility sits on the western end of town, right along the main thoroughfare…highway 50. As you round the bend of highway 50, you have to pay attention to the road sign which points you to the infamous Skyline Drive if you want to catch a glimpse of millions of years old dinosaur footprints along an ancient rock outcropping.
Skyline Drive not only features these newly discovered dinosaur footprints, but it is a one-lane road which traverses the top of what is called a hogback. These geologic features can be found up and down the Colorado eastern Front Range. The only one with a road that travels along its crest is the one at the western end of Canon City. Driving along this road not only provides you with breathtaking views, but a chance to see prehistoric history up close and personal. There are a few pullouts along this drive which make it easy to take in the beauty of the landscape.
High Park Road
After enjoying the views atop Skyline Drive, we continued our adventure along the Gold Belt Byway by heading north along High Park Road. As a side note, this road is fun to ride on a sport bike as well. But, this time, we drove the road in my lil ol’ Pontiac Vibe. All along this part of the byway, you pass mountain park land and historic ranches. One old ranch we passed as we took a turn northward had a particular draw for us, so I pulled over and waited for the sun to come out from behind some clouds to capture what I was seeing.
Teller County Road One
When you come to the end of High Park Road, it splits off into Teller County Road One at Evergreen Station. This two-lane paved road is the first stage route to Cripple Creek and is quite twisty and it winds through the mountainous terrain with its huge rock outcroppings jutting out between pine and aspen trees.
As we crested the last hill on the northwest side of Cripple Creek, I noticed the Mt. Pisgah Cemetery to the right where the cemetery walks would take place again on Sunday. Since my friend and I were keen on getting checked in to our hotel and taking advantage of the rooftop hot tub during the sunset, we chose to not stop anywhere until Hotel St. Nicholas. This particular hotel has quite the history, since it was first built as the areas general hospital in the late 1800s during the height of the Gold Rush. It is also considered to be haunted, which made our choice of lodging just a tad adventurous as well.
Although we did not have any ghostly encounters at the hotel, we did enjoy a spectacular sunset from the rooftop hot tub as well as one heck of a sunrise. Our room was located next to the hot tub area and faced west, so although the sun did not stream into the room in the morning, our western view gave us quite the mountain view vantage point as the sun’s morning rays slowly touched the mountain tops of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.
Remember what I said about this town being quite the eclectic hamlet? Well, after we had breakfast at the hotel, we also had our Cripple Creek donkey encounter. That’s right, I said donkey encounter. Since this area is the sight of the world’s largest gold camp, it only makes sense that some of the descendants of the donkeys used to haul supplies more than one hundred years ago in this area would still be roaming the hills. As a matter of fact, these particular donkeys are allowed to roam free throughout town because of their significance in the history of the area. Not only that, but the town holds an annual Donkey Derby Days to help raise funds to feed and care for these animals throughout the year.
After hanging out with the donkey heard and stopping off at the Cripple Creek Museum to chat with the locals who were dressed in period garb for the cemetery tours, we made our way to the southern end of town to find the start of the last leg of our byway tour: Shelf Road. At first glance, this road looks like any other dirt road. It did not look like any of the 4×4 jeep roads I had been on in the summer with my hubby. Jeep roads tend to have rocks and boulders jutting out in the middle of the road, making it impossible for any vehicle except one with high clearance and low to mid-range torque to traverse it. I did not let the looks of the road get me overly confident though, because the area had also suffered from the same flooding rains that wiped out many roads in northern Colorado the week before. So, I took it slow and easy.
After about the first mile, I noticed that this road had a pretty fast descent from the Cripple Creek area. When we stopped to take some photos, we also had a different vantage point of the CCnV mine which showed us the huge gash in the mountain side that it had taken in order to extract gold. Both my friend and I were in agreement as we continued downward that if I came upon any area that I did not feel comfortable in trying to pass, then I would turn around and go back. As we drove, we came upon a couple on two ATVs heading in the opposite direction. The husband signaled for me to roll down my window and then asked me if I had been on this road before. I told him it was my first time and he said that the road below had been washed out in several places because of the rain. My friend and I looked at each other and again, we agreed that if I didn’t think we could make it, then I would turn around. So, I thanked the husband and we kept on going.
Before we got to the washout area, I imagined that there was a huge gash in the road which was only passable by ATVs, or a high clearance jeep. In my mind, I was picturing a jeep with big tires slowly inching down the gash, crossing a creek bed and then slowly going up the other side. At one point, just before a few technical hairpins in the road, I pulled over and looked down the canyon to see if I could see where the road went. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see anything, so again, I looked at my friend and said to her that I wanted to see what was down there and was thinking that if there was a wide enough area in the road and needed to turn back, then I would. Heck, I figured I could even drive backward if in dire need.
Again, we got back into my lil ol’ Vibe and continued downward as the road cut back and forth along the hairpins, it quickly descended as well and tightened up considerably. Then as we rounded a bend, I came upon the first washout area. To my surprise, this washout had already been filled in with softball sized rocks. As it turns out, this road is driven by many of the miners who work at CCnV and live in Canon City and it is the quickest route to and from the mine. So…of course the washouts were going to be filled in, albeit rough, it wasn’t that hard for my lil ol’ Vibe to slowly cross the rocks. While the Vibe is an automatic, it has manual 5-speed shifting as well, so I placed it into first gear before crossing. Still, I expected that somewhere down the road, within a mile or so that I would come across a part of the road which my car would not be able to deal with. To my surprise and delight, we just crossed the roughest part of the road and a few miles later, it smoothed out and became as easy to travel as Phantom Canyon Road was the day before.
As we continued southward along the road, we came upon a sign which notifies drivers that the road narrows as it travels along the shelf and that only 4-wheel drives were advisable along this area. Again, I thought about it for maybe a second, but since we had come across a few 2-wheel drive cars going in the opposite direction, that thought was only fleeting. As we began traversing the shelf, we noticed that there were quite a few places along this one-lane road which you could pull out and turn around if necessary, as well as pull over and wait for oncoming traffic. More importantly though, were the views from this part of the road. Since we were on a shelf, it’s exactly as it sounds. This shelf is about two-thirds of the way up along a canyon wall. The drop-offs in some spots were drastic, but not as bad as other roads that I have been on, so I wasn’t worried at all. Although a sign warns of not stopping along the road, we stopped a few times to take pictures and take in the views which were quite spectacular. Traffic was non-existent at the time, anyway. After leaving the shelf, the road becomes paved again and the area opens up to ranch land surrounded by hillsides.
There’s one more unique feature along this byway: Red Canyon Park. This area is characterized by the same type of red rock feature you find in Garden of the Gods, but on a smaller scale. Another difference is that the red sandstone in this area is a very deep red. The only thing I did not like about this park was that the dirt road into the park had become severely rutted because of the rains from the week before. The fact that no maintenance seemed to have been done along this road was a tad disheartening. We did not go too far along this road because driving it was a whole lot worse than driving Shelf Road.
I was ecstatic that we were able to drive the full length of the Gold Belt Byway. Knowing that using a bit of caution and my car’s technical abilities, we could still drive along a road that warns drivers to use 4-wheel drive gave me a bit of a big head. One thing I would like to mention is that I probably would not have attempted this drive if it had been raining. I think mud would have been my car’s limit on the steep climbs along the route. Scenery and views of the Gold Belt Byway are top-notch, as well. My only regret is that we were not able to capture any aspen leaves in full color-changing mode. Many of the groves of aspen in the Cripple Creek area were still deeply green. So, it goes without saying…but, I will be back here again.
Are you one of those Colorado drive-by fall color shooters? Have you been dreaming of lying in a bed of freshly fallen golden aspen leaves amongst tall white bark covered old-growth aspen while gazing into the deep Colorado blue sky and shooting photos of colorful quaking aspen leaves? Well stick around, because these roads are just waiting to take you into that full aspen changing immersion experience.
The amount of old growth aspen is what will take your breath away along these routes. Large, straight and sturdy white trunks reach up endlessly into the Colorado blue sky with outstretched branches full of green leaves in the summer just waiting to burst forth with color in the fall. Stop anywhere along the road and within a few steps, you will be completely surrounded by these beautiful stately and colorful giants in the fall.
This year’s Technicolor cast includes:
Owl Creek Pass
Last Dollar Road
Castle Creek Road
Owl Creek Pass
Location: Southwestern Colorado; between Ouray and Blue Mesa Reservoir
Nearby Byways: Alpine Loop, San Juan Skyway, West Elk Loop
Hwy285 south to the Hwy50 junction
Hwy50 west to the Cimarron Road turnoff going south; aka Road P77
The road numbers change from P77, to 858, 860 and then Road 8 which takes you over Owl Creek Pass and connects to Ridgway State Park.
From Grand Junction
Hwy50 south to the Hwy550 junction in Montrose
Hwy550 south to the Owl Creek Pass (Road 8) turnoff on the opposite side of Ridgway State Park
Follow the above directions (from Denver) in reverse
Road Conditions: this is a dirt road passable by 2-wheel drive car. The last leg of this road, closer to Ridgway, gets a bit tight and bumpy, but not impassable by 2-wheel drive. Along this road are tall old growth aspen with a good smattering of pine mixed in. Stop along the higher elevations for a glimpse of the red sandstone cliffs which are prevalent in this part of Colorado for a beautiful backdrop to a golden aspen colored photo.
Location: Northwestern Colorado; between Steamboat Springs and Meeker
Nearby Byways: the Flattops Trail is a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway
I-70 west to Hwy131
Hwy131 north to the town of Yampa
West on Rcr 17 on the north side of Yampa to the Rcr 132 junction
West on Rcr 132 also known as the Flattops Trail Scenic Byway which becomes Road 8 all the way to Meeker
From Grand Junction
I-70 east to the Rifle turnoff and Road 13 going north
North on Road 13 to Meeker
Follow the above directions (from Denver) in reverse
Road Conditions: the Flattops Trail is a dirt road with loose gravel in some spots and hard packed dirt in others. This road is 2-wheel drive passable. None of the road is tight and all of it is completely scenic with places along the route to take a side road to a lake, or stop and gaze along one of the passes – Dunckley and Ripple Creek.
Because the Flattops Trail runs along the Flattops Wilderness area, there are no campsites along the route. Wilderness camping permits are needed for rough-in camping.
Location: Southwest Colorado; between Ridgway and Telluride
Nearby Byways: San Juan Skyway
Hwy285 south to the Hwy50 junction
Hwy50 west to Montrose and the Hwy550 junction
Hwy550 south to Ridgway and the Hwy62 junction
Hwy62 west to the Last Dollar Road turnoff (aka 58P Road)
South on Last Dollar Road to the Hwy145 junction and the town of Sawpit
From Grand Junction
Hwy50 south to Montrose and the Hwy550 junction
Hwy550 south to Ridgway and the Hwy62 junction
Hwy62 west to the Last Dollar Road turnoff (aka 58P Road)
South on Last Dollar Road to the Hwy145 junction and the town of Sawpit
Road Conditions: Last Dollar Road is a dirt road which is passable by 2-wheel drive car. The road is closed in the winter months from January to May. If the road is wet, it may not be passable by 2-wheel drive, though. Views of Dallas Divide and the San Juans are breathtaking and well worth the trip.
Location: South Central and Western Colorado; in between Carbondale and Grand Junction
Nearby Byways: West Elk Loop and Grand Mesa byways
I-70 west to Glenwood Springs
Hwy82 south to the Hwy133 junction at Carbondale
Hwy133 west to a few miles past McClure Pass
Right, or west onto FR 265
Stay on FR 265 past the Dominguez & Escalante West Muddy Campsite
FR 265 is marked as 71 and 4/10 on the west end which connects with Hwy330
At the Hwy330 junction, you can take a left and head west toward Colbran and eventually Grand Junction, or take a right and head east toward I-70 and Silt.
From Grand Junction
I-70 east to the Hwy65 junction
Hwy65 east to the Hwy330 junction heading east to Colbran
Hwy330 east through Colbran – pay attention to road signs along the way and turn off at the 71 and 4/10 road. You should also see a national forest sign along this road marking it as the Grand Mesa National Forest.
Follow the above directions in reverse to arrive at Hwy133
Road Conditions: This road is a forest service road and is therefore a dirt road, but is completely passable by 2-wheel drive car.
Road: Dirt: 2/3 = 2-wheel drive accessible; 1/3 = high-clearance 4×4 – rated difficult Round-trip from Denver: 750 miles Length of Byway: 65 miles Vehicle types: Car and 4×4 Elevation change: 6985 to 12,993 feet above sea level Location: Southwestern Colorado
The San Juan Mountains
It’s no secret that this mountain range is the most spectacular in Colorado. Just do a Google search and check out the images that come up. And while I know that I had said that the Flattops Trail had spectacular unsurpassed beauty, many people would argue with me when it comes to the San Juans. I will still rank the Flattops in the same category as this mountain range. The difference is that the San Juan Mountains do not have flat tops.
Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway
This particular byway is the only 4×4 (required) byway in Colorado’s 25 scenic and historic byways and is one of several located in the San Juan Mountains. While a small portion, about one third, requires a high clearance 4×4, many jeep books mention that this section of the byway can still be driven by stock SUVs “with proper wheel placement.”
If you think you cannot drive this byway because you don’t have a 4×4, then fret-not. There are at least a dozen jeep rental companies in several towns close to the byway, including Ouray, Silverton and Lake City. The nice thing about renting a jeep is that the different companies have detailed maps of not just the Alpine Loop, but of all the other jeep trails in the area.
Camping at Ridgway State Park
Imagine a kid jumping around like a little monkey with complete and utter delight. That was me the day my husband and I set our sights westward and drove to Ridgway State Park just north of Ouray and the western side of the Alpine Loop. I was so excited to be not only traveling with my husband, but to be setting up camp in one of Colorado’s most beautiful state parks. There are a ton of RV/travel trailer type sites in this park and about a dozen ‘walk-in’ only tent sites.
These sites are located just along the Uncompahgre River and just far enough away from the park’s roads and parking areas to give you the feel of ‘being away from it all’. But…that does not mean that you are roughing it when tent camping at Ridgway. The park campgrounds all have camper services buildings which include showers, washer/dryers and snack machines. Not only that, but when the campground hosts come around to check on the campsites, they will also deliver bundles of wood for your fire pit, as well as bags of ice when asked. I liked to call this ‘campsite concierge service’.
My husband’s delight
The wonderful thing about bringing my husband on this trip was bringing my husband on this trip…that and the smile on his face when we drove the Alpine Loop in his full-size Bronco.
After an amazing breakfast of fruit, scrambled eggs, pork chops and potatoes – all conjured up by my amazing husband and camp cook – we took off for our day-long adventure in the San Juan back country. The start of the Ouray side of the Alpine Loop is about 4 miles south of Ouray along the infamous San Juan Skyway. This starting point of the loop is the 4×4 only portion of the byway and is about seven miles long. Most 4×4 books and websites rate this section of the byway as ‘moderate to difficult’.
On this first leg of our journey, we drove to Engineer Pass over the span of about two hours. Yep, I said that right…two hours to drive a seven mile road. I would say that it was because of all the boulders in the road, but that would be only half true. I seem to have developed this intense fear, mostly when I’m on the outside edge of a narrow road with cliff overhangs on the left above and a hundred-foot (or more) drop-off to my right. That fear intensifies as the Bronco leans to the right while my husband navigates the boulders in the road and I’m sitting in the passenger seat looking down into a ravine. So suffice to say…I did a bit of ‘hiking’ on this leg of the tour. But….that just helped me to produce some spectacular images, as well. Oh and made for quite the justification for eating a hearty meal at dinner time.
As for the scenery…unrivaled. Spectacular. Magnificent. Serene. These are just a few of the words that entered my mind as we travelled up and over the pass.
Just before you come to the actual pass, the road circles around the edge of Engineer Mountain and at one point, on the northwest side, you come to this place which has been termed, “OH! Point”. Well, you can imagine why it’s called that. I just wish I had thought about turning my camera’s video feature on as we drove out to this point. When you get out to this point, you have an almost 360-degree unobstructed view of more than a dozen San Juan mountain peaks; five of them being 14’ers – Uncompahgre, Handies, Red Cloud, Sunshine and Wetterhorn. I’ve included a link to a blog and YouTube video taken by someone else, but hopefully translates the imagery I’m trying to conjure up here…
That’s right! I said ‘monsoons’ in Colorado. Well, maybe not what you might think, but in mid-to-late summer, the weather pattern over this part of the US brings monsoonal moisture up through Colorado. When this heavy moisture flow reaches the Colorado Rockies, it creates afternoon rain showers especially in the mountain areas of the state.
So, now that my limited meteorology knowledge has been imparted, let’s just say that after Engineer Pass, the rest of our tour along the Alpine Loop was covered in clouds. Trust me though, this weather was not unwelcome. Remember…I had been doing quite a bit of hiking on the rough portions of the byway…uphill (above 7000 feet)…in the blazing sun…get the picture? And what was interesting about the weather on this day was that we had noticed a bit of what looked like snow on one of the mountain tops. Turns out, it had hailed earlier in the week, but it was kind of fun to think that the mountains could be getting snow this time of year, if only for a short while.
Travelers along the Loop
Like I said, my hubby was smiling all the way along this byway. His joy was just infectious. I loved sharing this byway with him and since this was my first time on the byway as well, it was a double pleasure.
Besides the amazing scenery along this byway, the Alpine Loop is home to many old mines and ghost towns. Other travelers along the byway don’t just drive it to get from one place to another; they’re there for the 4×4 thrills, for the scenery, the adventure, the history and for land use. As we climbed above tree-line, one of our photo-op stops was when we came up on a shepherd tending his sheep with his two dogs. I was struck by the scene, so I just had to capture it. When I asked if he minded me taking a picture, he just nodded as I pointed to my camera. What I learned after mentioning that he has an interesting job, was that he did not speak English. Either way, I thanked him for letting me intrude and loved on his two dogs for a bit. They were so very friendly.
As we were leaving the sight of the Engineer Pass sign, an older couple had arrived by Jeep and was happily studying the scenery, when my husband called back at them to ask if they would like us to take their picture. They said, “Sure!” And so, I happily jumped out of the Bronco to capture a few images for their ‘Christmas card’. Turns out, they were vacationing from Texas and had rented their Jeep for the day from the Lake City side of the loop and had driven the southern stretch of the loop over the first half of the day. I loved their excitement over the beauty of the San Juans.
Here’s a tip…if you do not want to attempt the more strenuous section of the loop from the Ouray side, you can always complete the loop by starting in Lake City and traveling the loop all the way around and back to Lake City again. You would miss the Silverton end of the loop, but you would still get to see about two-thirds of the byway.
Alpine Loop Route
Our route took us down the other side of Engineer Pass, through the ghost town of Capital City, through Lake City and then Lake San Cristobal and over the southern side of the loop to Cinnamon Pass and then down through Animas Forks and back down to Silverton.
Some maps include Corkscrew Pass as part of the Alpine Loop, but that road is not marked on the original byway and it would extend the 65-mile loop to more than 80 miles. This was one reason we opted to not drive the pass, as well as the fact that by the time we made it to Silverton, it was after 6:00 pm.
I think what I love most about this byway was the sheer beauty. The idea of potentially being able to come back here and hike and camp along the byway is what will bring me back. Not only that, but now that I know much of the road is passable by regular car, I want to come back to drive those parts in my car and linger longer.
One place in particular that we opted not to stop at was American Basin. This particular point is reachable by car and is at the end of the easy dirt road, just before signs that are posted which mark the loop for 4×4 travel only. I’ve seen many photos of American Basin and they are spectacular. I will go back!
I think Bill Decker, our Ridgway Campground host said it best when he said he gets conflicted sometimes…he loves the pristine, untouched beauty of much of Colorado, yet he had a hand in developing parts of it, as well. He mentioned this as my husband and I had a nice conversation with him the day we left. He is a Colorado native and among other things, had a hand in building up parts of Colorado, like Vail in the 1960s as he helped to build the second building in that ski resort town. For me, my conflict comes in the way I used to view OHV’s and 4×4’s…I used to hate how they tear up the land and back country…and now, I’m getting a kick out of being able to see that back country on well-marked, 4×4 trails. What I’ve come to understand is that although these types of vehicles can get into the back country without much effort, they stay on the trails. The back country is still the back country in that respect.
Driving along the mountain roads of Colorado reveals a ton of its beauty…but, taking a back road, or a lesser traveled dirt road can reveal so much more. Stopping along any journey to get out of your vehicle and take a walk…even if it’s a short walk can show you wonders which you may have dreamed only attainable through someone else’s viewfinder. I think the things that I appreciated most along this route were the smiles on passersby; the joy in my husband’s voice; the unique and unparalleled beauty of the southwestern Colorado Mountains. There is a reason why the sign just above the southern end of Ouray says, “Little Switzerland of America.”
Road: Paved; Twisty in quite a few spots
Round-trip from Denver: 560 miles Length of Byway: 115 miles Vehicle types: car, motorcycle, 4×4 and OHV trails in designated areas Elevation change: 7861 to 12,096 feet above sea level Location: South Central Colorado
Time to break out the Zed!
My 750cc, naked standard 2006 Kawasaki Z750 street-fighting machine…grunt!
Ok, ok…so I’m not Tim the Toolman Taylor, but this particular byway deserved to be ridden in the right kind of style…motorcycle style, that is.
And this particular byway deserved to be enjoyed over the span of two days, as well. Why? Well, because I was on a two-pronged mission: the first part was to complete the byway without rushing through and the second part was to capture the summer version of a scene in which I already had three other season shots. Yeah, that’s kind of cryptic, but this area is just outside of Aspen and is not the Maroon Bells, but just as beautiful. It is at the western end of the Top of the Rockies Byway and is at the end of Castle Creek Road.
I met my riding buddy and friend, Jen, early on Saturday, July 6th. I wanted to get to the start of the byway at Copper Mountain as quickly as possible, but not along the main highway (I-70), so we took a different route that took us over Kenosha and Hoosier Passes. I was happy to be riding with Jen, since I hadn’t seen her for several years. Turns out, she had traded in her Honda 600 for a Kawasaki Z1000 (my bike’s big brother).
After getting over both Kenosha and Hoosier Passes, we realized that the mountain pass temperatures were a bit cooler than we had expected, so instead of heading over the next few passes with my teeth chattering, I made a b-line for the closest/cheapest store in Frisco (Walmart). I found a long-sleeved shirt that would fit nicely over my t-shirt and we were off again, heading west toward Copper Mountain.
The northeastern start of the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway is at Copper Mountain and yes, this is a ski resort, but there are still tons of things to do here in the summer. Jen happened to mention one of the summer activities when she noticed a golf course where she normally sees what she calls a ‘snow meadow’ in the winter.
One thing I like about this leg of the journey as far as being on a motorcycle is concerned is the fact that when you come to a tough hill climb after passing Copper Mountain, the road widens out with a passing lane. This is especially good for people who ride a motorcycle with a tad bit more get-up-n-go than the typical 4-wheeled vehicle.
At one point along this byway, you come across an area that had at one time been flooded but is now a huge open meadow area. This area used to be a valley, but the Climax mining operations had sent its tailings into the area closing up the valley floor. Now, with EPA enforcements, the area is slowly being turned into a wide open meadow area and you can see plants returning.
After topping off at Fremont Pass, you head down into a high mountain valley before going uphill again and enter into Leadville. Here is where Jen and I dismounted our trusty steeds and took a short walk up and down this high country small town’s main street looking for a nice place to feed our growling tummies. After being turned around at Leadville’s Legendary Saloon, we found a nice little place across the street to have a bite to eat. Oh and yes, that Great Dane in the saloon picture really is sitting in his owner’s lap.
Next stop, 10th Mtn Division Memorial and Camp Hale
It still amazes me how much history Colorado holds even though this state was established in 1876, well after the pilgrims began to journey here from across the pond. Our next stop was along the 10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway at the memorial wall. There, you can find out how soldiers trained to do battle in the mountainous regions of Europe. There’s also a huge granite memorial wall listing the lives that were lost during World War II.
Further down the road is the base camp for this division, Camp Hale, which was located in the Pando Valley. All that remains though, are barely visible lines cutting length and width wise along the valley floor. There are only a few concrete structures left standing now and most of this valley is used for recreation and ATV trails.
I would be remiss to not mention Redcliffe, or actually the bridge at Redcliffe which is one of my favorite spots in Colorado. During any time of the year, when the lighting is just right, you can capture some amazing images and not just from down below the bridge which is where I tend to end up with the Zed and my camera more often than not.
Time to move along
After Redcliffe, you wind your way up the side of the mountain and then down again and into the town of Minturn. This town is the last stop along the northern edge of the byway, which takes you out to the main highway, I-70. At this point, we were about 40 some odd miles and one canyon away from our destination. For you 2-wheeled enthusiasts, this canyon is definitely interesting as you can glide through the canyon without having to touch your breaks, as many auto and truck drivers are cautioned to do at many of the tight curves. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then take a look at The Pace. It’s a really good read and explains how any motorcyclist can enjoy all types of curves from wide sweeping, to very tight without the need to rush along the straight only to hit your breaks hard before a corner.
In for the night
When Jen and I made it to our destination, Brettelberg Condos, I was quite pleased with the look of our studio-sized two-bed place. It not only had a full kitchen, but it had two doors, one leading out to the main hallway and the other leading out to a roof-top deck which had a very nice view of the Sunlight ski area and valley. And…we got off-season rates, so the price was below $100; split between the two of us was perfect for my pocket-book. The only thing missing was a restaurant close by. And while it looked like there was a restaurant in the ski area, we chose to head back into town about 11 miles and stopped at a Safeway to conjure up a good dinner at the deli. Back at the condo, we put our meals together and sat out on the roof-top deck to take in the peace and quiet and the fresh air.
Morning, Castle Creek, Aspen, Independence Pass and Twin Lakes
I have to share because this was awesome to wake up to…
After eating breakfast which consisted of coffee, fresh fruit and a granola bar, Jen and I hit the trail again and headed toward Aspen and the other prong of the Top of the Rockies byway. Before getting into Aspen itself though, I wanted to take my summer shot of the basin that rises above the meadow at the end of Castle Creek Road. I have to say this, but before even getting to that meadow, Jen and I had our breath taken away about two miles down the road. The road itself passes by Ashcroft, which is a ghost town maintained by the Aspen Historical Society. This town is on the edge of a small aspen forest and past that forest, the road rises slightly and crests over a wide-open hill. At this point, where the landscape opens up, the hills were covered in not only sage, but a ton of high country wildflowers. Everything from mountain sunflowers, to Indian Paintbrush were covering the hillside. Both Jen and I had the same idea…we had to stop here before riding in to Aspen. I think though, that my summer shot (in my mind) pales in comparison to that flower-covered treasure we had found.
Aspen is always a treat for many reasons. Today, Jen treated me to lunch at Mezzaluna and I treated her to desert at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. I also picked up some Tiger Butter for my girls since this has always been their favorite treat from this delightful chocolate shop.
Walking around the downtown area of Aspen, Jen had a hard time keeping herself from wanting to peruse the various shops. The fun part about walking in this area is that it’s an outdoor mall with cobblestone sidewalks, a fountain, a park, an outdoor bar and the ski slopes only two blocks away. The people-watching and Victorian architecture in such a varied outdoor setting is enjoyment enough.
After our downtown Aspen jaunt, we were on our way again. At this point, the byway leads you up the road over Independence Pass. The amazing thing to me about this part of our ride was that it seemed that the whole world had come out to play. All along the road just east of Aspen, people had parked and were playing along the river with their rafts, canoes and playing in the water. There was almost no room to ride by with all the cars and trucks parked alongside the road. I know it had something to do with the fact that this was the end of the 4th of July week and tons of people were on vacation.
When we arrived at the top of Independence Pass, I noticed a huge group of motorcyclists and this group seemed to be from all around the world. Must’ve been a tour group, which is pretty cool. Jen and I posed at the sign while one of the tour members took our photo. We gazed at the scenery for a while and then headed down the other side of the pass.
Our last stop was the historic area of Twin Lakes. Back in the 1800s, people had populated the area upon rumors of gold and silver. Back then, the town was called Dayton. In 1885, it was considered a nice resort town and was mentioned in Crofutt’s Grip-sack Guide of Colorado as “…the most charming summer Resort in Colorado.” Interpretive signs around the historical Twin Lakes area tell the tales of over one hundred years ago. I still need to get across the lakes to see the famed Interlaken; the resort hotel built in 1890 which still graces the southern shore.
After leaving Twin Lakes, the byway heads eastward toward the Hwy82 and Hwy24 junction while skirting along the northern shores of the Twin Lakes area. It was good to see the lakes full of water considering how bad the drought has been in Colorado. I knew that the water would be drained quickly to meet the demands of thirsty towns, but it still felt good to see the lakes so full.
When we arrived at the junction, Jen and I decided to head southward to Buena Vista which is away from the connecting piece of the byway that goes northward along the Arkansas River headwaters and recreation area before coming to the southern edge of Leadville. Since we did not want to ride along the big highway (I-70) on the north side of Leadville (and struggle in heavy Sunday afternoon traffic), we stayed in the mountains a little longer, by taking a two-lane highway back in to the city (Hwy285). I wanted to note this because this part of the ride was the most harrowing portion of our ride with the late afternoon mountain storms that frequent the Colorado Mountains in summertime. We not only rode through one rain shower, but two rain showers, and one of them had a little bit of hail in it. I was so determined to get home that evening though, I forged ahead, leaning up against my bike’s gas tank and drifting about 100 feet behind the vehicle in front of me (keeping its tail lights in view). I pretty much placed my body on cruise control and endured the pelting. I knew Jen was probably feeling the pain, but both of us were prepared with our rain gear, so we stayed dry for the most part.
The best part of riding this byway without a doubt was sharing in the wonder of another rocky mountain newbie. While Jen has been skiing in several of the places we passed through, she had not driven along the roads that we took over all of the mountains passes on our byway ride.
Road: dirt; hard-packed and loose gravel in spots Round-trip from Denver: 549 miles Length of Byway: 82 miles Vehicle types: car, motorcycles – dirt and dual sport, 4×4 and OHV trails all along byway Elevation change: 6240 to 9763 feet above sea level Location: North Western Colorado
The Flat Tops Trail Scenic and Historic Byway is as unassuming as the father of the Flat Tops Wilderness area, Arthur Carhart. Known as the ‘cradle of wilderness’, Trappers Lake, which is centrally located about 11 miles from the main byway into the wilderness area, is where Carhart suggested that,
“There are a number of places with scenic values of such great worth that they are rightfully the property of all people. They should be preserved for all time for the people of the Nation and the world. Trappers Lake is unquestionably a candidate for that classification.”
After driving along this byway over the span of two days at the end of June, I wholeheartedly agree with Carhart. This area is serenely beautiful and that is an understatement. Luckily for me, a friend had joined me on this tour and so, I have corroboration for the breathtaking views and tranquility all along this byway.
This byway skirts along the northern edge of the second largest U.S. wilderness area in Colorado. All along the byway, you can find hiking, OHV, horseback riding, fishing and hunting areas. But, if you look at the wilderness area on map, you will see that the actual ‘wilderness’ area is untouched by any roads.
It’s been a while since I’ve been through such untouched beauty. Is Colorado beautiful? Oh without a doubt, but actual wilderness in Colorado? Well, the Flat Tops Wilderness really does live up to its name.
Start of Tour
My friend is also my co-worker. She’s a transplant from Florida and since she’s been here for about two and a half years, there’s a lot of Colorado she has not seen yet. We began the tour from the eastern end where the byway starts just outside of Yampa. Our first stop was the Yampa Ranger Station where we were lucky enough to speak with the ranger there and learn a little more about the area. After picking up the driving tour guide, we were on our way.
The next stop was the Bird Homestead just north of Yampa. This little home along the rolling high country prairie had quite the view back in the day. After taking photos and breathing in the sweet clover-filled air, we rounded the bend and came upon a typical western Colorado site…cowboys in a meadow prepping a calf for vaccinations.
All along this drive, as you get closer to the Flat Tops area, the hills gently rise above the valleys and meadows in the deep greens of summer…from the dark pine green to bright green aspen and every shade in between. Not only that, but since it was the end of June, the wildflowers were in full bloom. My friend and I couldn’t stop our amazement and joy in the beauty of all of it. And I was more than happy to oblige her gasps of wonder by pulling over along the road every now and then. I knew that the day was going to be quite long, but it was well worth it.
Leaving the pavement behind
Once we left the paved road, the byway began to rise in elevation and as we rounded each bend, my friend and I gasped in amazement. We truly felt like we had left a world behind us and had entered a world where nothing mattered at all. As I drove along, I had told my friend that since the wildflowers were blooming, that I would stop once I saw any Columbine (Colorado’s State Flower). She had said that the only Columbine she had ever seen were those that were planted…never wild. After saying that, we decided to take a break for lunch and found the turnoff to Chapman Lake which was only a mile off the byway. About 50 feet down this road, I noticed a bunch of Columbine hiding amongst the Aspen. I decided to pull off the forest road and park, so we could get some photos. When I turned around to back into an open area, my jaw dropped. There, on the other side of us and growing by the hundreds amongst the Aspen were hip-high Columbine.
We didn’t even make it to Chapman Lake. After taking about 15 minutes for photos, we pulled out a blanket, spread it out under the Aspen, ate lunch and looked around in wonder. To think this spot was right there, just a few feet off the byway…amazing!
After lunch, we both wandered through the stand of Aspen, wildflowers and forest undergrowth. At one point, a Rio Blanco County deputy sheriff (Deputy Baughman) who was driving up from Lake Chapman had pulled off the road and chatted with us for a bit. He gave us a detailed map of the OHV trails in the area and pointed out a view of the Flat Tops Wilderness that we would not want to pass up.
On the road again
My friend and I did not stop admiring the beauty and serenity of the landscape. As we drove, we found ourselves stopping every few miles to step out, stretch, take photos and breathe in the fresh air. I knew we weren’t going to be able to take in all of what this byway has to offer, but we were going to give it our best effort. Although Deputy Baughman’s description of the road he had suggested we take was hard to pass up on the first day, we ended up waiting until day two to take that side trip. On this day, we made sure to take the Trappers Lake side trip to get a glimpse of the wilderness as Arthur Carhart had so many years ago.
Even though some of the area had been devastated by wildfire in 2002, we were happy to see the resiliency of nature as amongst the charred remains of the forest was new growth; wildflowers, bushes, small pine and aspen had been springing up all over the hills since the fire. Trappers Lake is one area in particular where you can also witness the volcanic activity from millions of years ago and how it had carved the landscape. I found the exposed lava rock to be quite interesting as I walked the trail along the lake.
On to Meeker
Not to rush you, but there was a lot to see and do along this byway, my friend and I stopped at almost every sign post that had been placed by the Flat Tops Byway organization. By the time we made it in to Meeker, it was past dinner time. Our resting place was the Meeker Hotel. We got lucky enough to get the Gary Cooper room which is located on the second level of the hotel and just above the main street. This room can be joined by a second room, which turns it into a suite and the old wood floors, décor and ambience do a pretty good job of taking you back in time. Oh and yes, Mr. Cooper had stayed in this room many years ago.
I woke early the next morning….it’s just in my nature to rise with the sun…and so I took a short walk around Meeker and down to the city park before my friend rose and breakfast at the Meeker Hotel Café. After breakfast, we were on our way again and back over the byway to see more of the wilderness and share in the peacefulness one last time. Before we found the road that Deputy Baughman had suggested we take, I pulled over quickly to watch three Sandhill Cranes in a soggy meadow. I had never seen any in the wild. I’ve seen plenty photos and heard about people flocking to see them in February in southern Colorado, so this sighting was quite the treat for me.
After the crane sighting, we were off to find the turnoff by Buford to head south along a dirt road which shared some amazingly breathtaking views of the deep Flat Tops Wilderness valleys. Although the temperature was quite moderate, around 75 degrees and the elevation just above 9000 feet, I still found myself sweating when we took a short hike to Cliff Lake which was one of the spots that the deputy suggested we stop at. After that hike, the next view was spectacular. This view looked eastward and down into two different valleys of the wilderness area. One valley went northward and the other eastward. The hills rising above both valleys became cliffs of red sandstone which were covered in aspen and pine. My friend and I kept saying that this drive was definitely one someone would want to take in the fall for a spectacular color show.
Not the end
Before I end this byway blog, I want to share some interesting websites. I’m still amazed at how few Coloradoans know about this area. My thought is that if you are a true Coloradoan, then you’ve been here at least once in your life.
Vehicle types: car, motorcycles – mostly cruiser, 4×4 off-roading all along byway
Elevation change: 4660 to 7000 feet above sea level
Location: South Western Colorado
I’ve long appreciated the different Native American cultures…maybe even envied some of them. Yes, I said envied. I think that’s because there are some native cultures which strive to remain peaceful. The Hopi are one of these cultures. The Hopi live in the northeastern corner of Arizona and are descended from the ancestral Puebloans who once lived in the four corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. Mesa Verde, along the Trail of the Ancients, is one place where some of the puebloan ancestors had lived. And on this particular day, Thursday, May 23rd, the national park was having a grand opening ceremony of the brand new visitor and research center. I just could not pass up this opportunity.
Mesa Verde’s Visitor and Research Center Grand Opening
On the third day of my birthday celebration in Durango, I awoke early in the morning, around 6:30, without an alarm. I’m just a freak that way. I took my shower, made coffee and ate breakfast listening to the birds waking up outside. I put on a few layers of clothes, because the morning air was crisp and cool in Durango and even though I knew where I was going would be a lot warmer; I still don’t like being cold riding my sport bike.
I loved riding westward from Durango to Mesa Verde. The sky was a brilliant blue and there was just the slightest hint of a breeze. When I finally arrived at the brand new visitor center, I was quite surprised to see so many other people in the parking lot. Actually, there were so many people that had also come there, that there were numerous rangers in the lot directing traffic to open parking spots. I got there early enough though, that the spot I got still had many open spots next to it.
When I dismounted my bike, a red truck pulled up next to me and a Native American stepped out. One of the rangers who was walking by recognized him and they talked. I overheard the ranger ask if he had seen the exhibit and remarked how beautiful it was. I was so very curious about the whole interchange, but felt like I would be imposing if I just barged in on the conversation. So, I dug out my camera and extra lens, popped them into my handy small backpack and went on my merry way.
I was actually quite impressed with this grand opening. There was a huge white tent outside of the building with rows of chairs and tables set up inside and being prepared for the influx of invited guests and dignitaries. While those who were not invited for the special ceremony, mostly park visitors, went inside the center to purchase park tour tickets, books and other knick-knacks, as well as view the different exhibits of the inhabitants of the area some 800 years ago.
In front of the entrance to the visitor center stands a beautiful sculpture created by a renowned artist: Edward J Fraughton. This sculpture is quite spectacular; you can see it in a couple of the photos I took. My only wish is that I had been able to get the right angle to actually capture the face of this sculpture. Everything else about it seems so very realistic; from the muscle tone, to the basket on his back, to the toe-holds. I just kept smiling as I sat there and watched people coming, going and chatting with the park rangers and talking about the exhibit, the sculpture, the new center and the park.
I decided to go inside and check out a few of the exhibits as well as purchase a map of the Navajo lands of the four corners region. I wanted to be certain that I did not get lost on my way back from Four Corners and toward the Hovenweep Ntl. Monument later in the day. I was told by one of the rangers that this particular map was very detailed and accounted for all of the roads that went through the reservations in the area.
At first, I thought I could get by with only riding my sport bike along the main road of the mesa. I soon realized that was not going to be enough. I wanted to stop at almost each and every stop along the mesa to view the different dwellings of the ancients. I knew that would have taken me all day, but I did make it a point to walk down to the Spruce Tree House and stop at a couple of the overlooks afterward to view the other ancient dwellings. When I walked down to the Spruce Tree House, there were a ton of people down there. I was tickled to see a park ranger carrying her baby in a papoose as she spoke with park visitors. There was even a Junior Ranger im the crowd who kept running back and forth to the different openings of the dwelling and pointing out all the different things he found in his ranger book to his friend.
Lunch at Far View Terrace
Ok, I admit it, I ate lunch out. I couldn’t help myself. I even bought a few trinkets to bring home to my daughters and my husband. Yeah, I’m just a tourist. The Far View Terrace is a nice tourist restaurant on top of the mesa which has quite an amazing view of not just the mesa, but also the canyons all the way southward to New Mexico (on a very clear day of course).
Riding to Four Corners
After lunch, I hopped back on my bike and headed toward Cortez before heading southward toward Four Corners. Now, it was already after noon and the wind had picked up considerably. Not only that, but I had left the hills and trees of the Durango area far behind me, so I was completely exposed to the elements. By my guess, the wind gusts were probably between 35 and 50 mph. Not enough to scare me back to Durango, but certainly enough for me to lean against the gusts and hang on tight to my handlebars, especially considering that my sport bike is light in comparison to something like a Honda Goldwing. My bike’s weight is somewhere around 425 pounds. The weight of a Goldwing is 900+ pounds, so the Goldwing is a whole lot more stable against wind gusts. So, needless to say, I was the only person on a motorcycle along the road to Four Corners.
As chance would have it though, when I parked at Four Corners, I saw two Goldwings parked as well. It turned out that the people riding those Goldwings were tourists of the French persuasion…maybe continental French, as in from Quebec, but they most certainly were speaking French as they walked around the area and enjoyed the attraction.
Hovenweep National Monument
After I snapped a few photos of the four corners, I hopped back on my bike to head back north to find the Hovenweep turn-off. As I rode, I passed the Goldwingers and found the turn-off for Hovenweep. Luckily for me, the road to Hovenweep was paved. I found out later that this road used to be only dirt. Oh and something else about this area is that this is Navajo country. It’s dry and arid, but not without its beauty…shrubs, hills and small canyons are a big part of this landscape.
One thing about the whole southwestern part of the state that I was riding in is that when the wind kicks up, the visibility goes down a bit because of the dirt that gets stirred up into the atmosphere. This did not bode well for landscape shots, but close-ups were still doable.
When I arrived at Hovenweep National Monument, it was pretty late in the day…around 4’ish. Still, I wanted to see the area where the ancients had lived. The full tour of the little canyon would have been around two and a half miles and although this was a doable hike, I just did not have the time, nor the energy. I opted for a half-mile walk to a viewpoint where I could see a good portion of the canyon and the still-standing structures from hundreds of years ago. In a few shots, you will notice the mortar and small stones pushed into the mortar used to build these structures. I wondered about the people here long ago and how they learned how to build so well.
As a last note on Hovenweep…this is a national park and although maybe a tad remote, the monument and park buildings are kept up very well. Sometimes because of cost, this does not happen in places, but I was impressed with the rangers, park building and the trail around the Little Ruin Canyon.
Back to Durango and to see my hubby…but first…my impressions of this small piece of SW Colorado
Never having been out in this part of Colorado and Utah, I wasn’t quite sure about the roads and directions. I looked closely at the Navajo map that I had bought at Mesa Verde and kept a mental picture of it as I rode out of Hovenweep. I did not want to backtrack, because going back the same way, meant adding a lot more time to my day. So, I turned right instead of left at the national monument’s entrance and followed the road northeastward.
A big part of this area seemed to be part of the monument, because of the signs I saw along the way. There were quite a few turnoffs to different canyons, but all of these turnoffs were dirt roads. As I kept riding northeast, the road seemed in disrepair, but not completely un-rideable. There was no center line and no shoulders and some bumps in spots, but it was still paved. Then, something changed. I rounded a corner and the pinyon-juniper trees that lined the road dropped away and I was surrounded by a vast farmland. I’m not completely sure, but I believe what was growing was alfalfa. Another distinctive change was the air temperature. It had dropped significantly, as if the wind blowing across the vast fields was drawing upon the moisture in those fields and creating a cool breeze. Again…I was just a tad awe-struck.
Now typically, when you drive along farmland, the roads that divide the farms are dirt roads, but for some reason, out here, they were paved. I was quite pleased with this and was able to reach Hwy491 without any trouble at all. As I rode south on this road, I noticed a sign that read CSU Southwest Colorado Research Center. Then it struck me that maybe all those fields had something to do with the university. CSU is renowned for its agricultural research.
Back to Durango and to see my hubby
Ok, now it’s time to see my hubby. I made one more stop by Dolores, which is the northern end of the Trail of the Ancients. I would have wanted to also stop at the Anasazi Heritage Center just north of Cortez, but it closes at 5 pm and the time was already 6:30. So, I kept on riding back to Durango and made no more stops until I reached my destination…my ‘home away from home’.
As I dismounted my bike and removed my helmet, I heard my husband whistle from the balcony. It was such a wonderful sound indeed. After removing my other motorcycle gear and dragging my tired body upstairs to shower away the day’s dirt, we sat on the balcony to share our day and enjoy the late evening breeze.
The next day was my ‘relaxation’ day…also my 49th birthday. And my plan was to not ride my motorcycle, but to hike the trail to Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride.
Road: paved, mostly sweepers and extremely scenic – southwest style
Round-trip from Denver: 937 miles
Length of Byway: 133 miles
Vehicle types: car, motorcycles (sport bike and cruiser), 4×4 off-roading all along byway
Elevation change: 4660 to 7320 above sea level
Location: South Western Colorado
So, you think you know Colorado, right? Mostly mountains and plains, right? Well, think again. Honestly, the only thing missing here in Colorado is the ocean…other than that; we’ve got pretty much everything else. This particular byway takes you to lower elevations…if you approach it from the southern end of the byway, at Placerville. The scenery at this point changes from rugged mountain ranges to red sandstone canyons built by several rivers, such as the Dolores and San Miguel rivers that twist and wind their way along the western edge of the state. This was my introduction to this particular byway. I had never been to this part of the state…Durango and Grand Junction yes, but not here, in between those two western Colorado towns. The stark contrast of this byway as compared to the day before along the Silver Thread Byway was not only the colors of the rock and foliage, but also the warmth of the day. Yes, it can get quite hot out here. Again though…I was in awe; I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road ahead as we rode along this byway. I wanted to soak up each and every bit of scenery that I could.
After having breakfast at the Durango Diner, Jeff and I rode through Dolores and over Lizard Head Pass to Placerville; the southern end of the Unaweep/Tabeguache Byway. At this point, you reach the junction of Hwy’s 145 and 62 coming from the northeast. The byway follows Hwy145 to the northwest at this point and winds its way through the San Miguel Canyon alongside the San Miguel River. Because we were heading downward in elevation, the vegetation had begun to green-up and against the red cliff backdrop, this part of the ride was quite colorful to say the least.
Let me say this now, I’m not much of a wimp when it comes to riding my sport bike. I actually do like to ride fast and lean into tight mountain road curves. But…that had nothing to do with preparing me for the sheer drop-off of Norwood Hill. After crossing the bridge over the San Miguel River and leaving it behind us, the road ahead curved wide and then headed upward and twisted around sheer rock cliffs for a couple of miles. I can’t tell you how much looking straight ahead as if you have blinders on while being on two wheels is so very important. This particular road made that point dramatically clear to me as each time I tried to gaze over at the valley growing deeper below, I realized another curve was coming up and if I hadn’t looked at the road ahead instead of the valley, I would most certainly have plunged several hundred feet to my doom.
Since I can’t find any info on the elevation gain of Norwood Hill, I will just link two photos from the Internet here:
At the top of Norwood Hill, you round a curve and the scenery opens up to you as you ride along the top of Wrights Mesa. I cannot describe the feeling I got as we rode along and I took in the 360-degree views…yes, I took my eyes off the road, since there were no curves…only wide open space as far as the eye could see. I was awe-struck, actually. Here we were on the western edge of Colorado…out of a red sandstone canyon and atop a lush green mesa (around 7000 feet) with far off mountain ranges to the west, east and south. Just after Norwood, hwy145 ends by joining with hwy141. Again, I don’t have any photos, but I can link to a local Norwood real estate website which does provide a few photos…
As we descended Wrights Mesa, we began to approach yet another canyon. Just before the Unaweep Canyon, we came upon the visitor center at Naturita where we made a pit stop and shed a few layers of clothes as the air had warmed up considerably. The visitor center in Naturita provides quite a bit of information on the area’s history including the uranium mining that took place during WWII outside of Uravan. This article: Uravan, Colorado pretty much sums up the uranium mining history of the area.
One of the still-existing pieces of history in the Unaweep Canyon is the Hanging Flume. Recently restored in 2012, this flume skirts along the canyon wall just above the Dolores River. The best place to view this flume was the viewing point along a wide sweeping curve that ran alongside a red sandstone overhanging cliff. After Jeff and I pulled off into the viewing area, more motorcyclists coming from the north had joined us. It seemed this was a good place to not only read about some of the flume’s history, but to also stretch out tired riding legs.
This website shares historical photos and the history of the flume from the late 1800s:
After not having much luck in getting permission to build his resort in Grand Junction, the founder of the Discovery Channel found a suitable spot just south of Grand Junction along the Unaweep/Tabeguache Byway. This resort was built in 2005 at the junction of East and West Creeks and the ‘gateway’ to the many canyons along the western edge of Colorado. While I don’t want this part of my blog to sound like an advertisement, I do want to mention this particular resort mostly for the owner’s attention to environmental preservation.
Since Jeff was feeling just a tad hungry as we approached the resort, we decided to stop at one of the several restaurants on the property for a bite and a cool drink. I wasn’t feeling that hungry, but was definitely feeling like something to cool me down, so I not only had an ice cold iced tea, but a bowl of vanilla ice cream as well. I enjoyed sitting out on the small patio of the Paradox Grill. The grounds of this resort are quite spectacular with their native foliage and breathtaking views of the entrance to Unaweep Canyon. I couldn’t help but bring my camera with me as we walked to the grill…there were so many blooming flowers and cacti along with the picturesque views of the resort against the backdrop of the canyon walls.
After leaving Gateway, we meandered our way northward toward Whitewater and the junction between Hwy’s 141 and 50. Before reaching the junction, we made one more stop to view one more piece of Colorado history at the Driggs Mansion viewing area. Now, while this home is called a “mansion”, it most definitely is not large at all. But, the history behind the building of this homestead is what makes it remarkable. A few snapped photos later and we were off again heading northward through the last bit of canyon along this beautiful byway.
In 2012, a restoration team worked to restore what is left of the crumbling mansion. You can view a video of the project at this link:
Before I end this blog, I wanted to share one of my favorite photos. After Jeff and I parted company at Whitewater…he going north to Grand Junction to visit family and I headed southward along Hwy50 through Delta and then Montrose and on to Ouray along Hwy550, I found a perfect spot to share the scenery that I had the extreme pleasure of viewing just before entering the town of Ouray. The time was somewhere between 6 and 7 pm and the sun, clouds, shadows and colors of the land mixed to create a rich green hue. Along Hwy550 several miles north of Ouray, you can pull over and snap photos of the ranch land that lies in the outstretched valley just below the majestic San Juan Mountains. While I was just a little bit worried about having enough light to guide me all the way back to Durango, I couldn’t help but stop and soak up the view.
Now, while Hwy550 is not part of the Unaweep/Tabeguache Byway, it is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, aka Milion Dollar Highway, which another friend and I rode through last summer. This byway is, in my opinion, the most breathtakingly beautiful byway in the state.
I got lucky to reach Durango with just enough light left to make my late dinner and enjoy the twilight and full moon rising out on the balcony of my vacation rental and to plan my next tour along the Trail of the Ancients.