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.
Colorado’s fall color explosion begins in early September with high country aspen beginning their golden exhibition deep in the central and northern mountains.
While there are many places I would love to go to view the aspen in their colorful fall garb, this time, I stuck to the central mountains so that I could make it home in time for the evening Broncos kick-off. Still, my little ole car ended up with more than 250 miles in this round-trip jaunt.
First, let’s get to the color and yes, there were some aspen which were already breaking free of their summertime green exploding into gold with a little bit of orange and rust thrown in for good measure. All along the drive from Minturn to Leadville, aspen were changing in pockets of gold. The most dramatic views were along the Battle Mountain drive.
The road along this drive climbs high above the Eagle River and the aspen hug the steep hillside only stopping when the hill gives way to dramatic black, red and rust-colored cliffs.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself, stopping at almost every pullout, soaking up the scenery, breathing in the cool fresh mountain air and taking in the colorful scenery. Not even the dark clouds that drifted over the mountain range could keep me from feeling completely delighted. Luckily, the storm clouds during my drive came and went pretty quickly, leaving amazing blue and puffy white-cloud skies behind. With the green and gold covered hillsides and red colored cliffs in the background, I was in complete awe of the scenery.
Now, let’s move on to the history of this byway. There are two major historic distinctions along the byway between Minturn and Leadville. One is a rich mining history and the other is a military history. In between Minturn and Red Cliff is the abandoned mining town of Gilman. Now, while this town is an abandoned ghost town, the age of many of the buildings in this town are not as old as one might think, because the town was last inhabited in 1984. That’s right, I said ‘19’ – 84…only 30 years ago.
So, what happened? Well, the zinc extraction industry went belly up (with rock-bottom zinc prices) and the town was condemned by the EPA…that’s it in a nutshell. Check out the Substreet blog for more historical information and lots of photos of the town and surrounding area.
As for the military history…well, that comes in the Pando Valley area of the byway, now called Camp Hale for the military operations that took place there during WWII. Camp Hale is located between Red Cliff and Leadville. Many of its distinctions include ski training operations of the 10th Mountain Division as well as a secret CIA training camp from 1958 – 64 with the Tibetan freedom fighters. Check out the linked website for interesting information on all the activities that took place there.
When you visit the area now, you might see a few long forgotten cement walls, some sort of road system which has been almost completely covered by natural vegetation and hopefully you will never come across any, but munitions are still being recovered by the military in its cleanup of the area. Note: if you do a google search for Camp Hale on Goolge Maps and turn to the satellite view, you can still see the outline of the camp buildings and road system.
When I stopped at the roadside pullout which memorializes the secret CIA and Tibetan training operations, I got out of my car just long enough to watch the storm clouds which had been chasing me since Battle Mountain blow down into the valley, completely engulfing the mountainsides, leaving nothing in view except for a thick mist.
I took a few shots before the rain began and then hid in my car as it blew through and then quickly retreated through the other side of the valley and over another mountain range. The smells left behind were thick and rich with scents of pine and late summer. Soon, the clouds broke and gave way to a perfectly blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. I was in heaven and lingered for a while longer before continuing on to Leadville.
One other historical note to mention and this piece of history unfortunately has no name, although it’s known as cabin in the valley according to a photo I found on a Google search. On previous jaunts in this area, I had always just cruised past this broken and falling down cabin, but this time, I stopped. When I approached the cabin, I noticed that it had two distinct rooms. This was different from other old relics I had come across in the Colorado Rockies, so I made sure to take as many photos as I could from different angles before leaving the area.
Oh and just so you know, the last leg of the byway from Leadville to Copper Mountain also has a ton of colorful aspen viewing right along the byway. It definitely is worth taking a whole day to linger along the drive if you go.
Maybe even take a train ride in Leadville during this time of year to capture the changing aspen with an historical train as backdrop against the high mountain peaks. Check out the Leadville Twin Lakes website for more information on the fall train tours.
For info on what to do and see, where to stay and what to eat along the Top of the Rockies Byway, here’s the linked websites in recap:
If you plan on touring the full byway, make sure you do it in summer, since the top of Independence Pass is closed in winter. The furthest end of the byway takes you to Aspen, so be sure to bring a fully packed wallet as well.
Here are two more photos along a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway. Guess the byway by Friday, December 13th at midnight PST and win your choice of the two photos. The first person to correctly guess in the comments section below wins! Review the rules here…
Photo #1 — is the rock outcropping which can be viewed along hwy92 close to Crawford. Not too far from there, you will find Crawford State Park.
Photo #2 — is of the West Elk Mountains which can be seen along hwy12, otherwise known as Kebler Pass. The road is a 32-mile dirt road with spectacular scenery, hiking, fishing, wildlife viewing and some history thrown in for good measure.
Here are the first two photos along a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway. Guess the byway by Friday, December 6th at midnight PST and win your choice of the two photos. The first person to correctly guess in the comments section below wins! Review the rules here…
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: 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.
Coloradans love autumn mostly because of the much cooler nights and relatively warm, sunny days. We also like to enjoy nature and the Colorado Rockies during this time of year because of the vibrant changing colors of the aspen trees. Typically, the trees start changing color in mid-September lasting through mid-October in preparation of their winter’s slumber. This year has seen an early slumber preparation for the high-mountain aspen, as early as late August in a few areas of the Rockies. Because of this, I’ve been planning on a few high-country excursions with family and friends. And because I was thinking about it, I decided to come up with a list of some of my favorite places in Colorado where I’ve either seen the changing foliage, or where I would love to visit during this time of year.
So, without further ado…the following are my top five Colorado Aspen Color Viewing picks, in no particular order:
Cumbres and La Manga Passes
Last Dollar Road
Mt Evans Scenic Byway
Cumbres and La Manga Passes
This route is in extreme southern Colorado and crosses the New Mexico border: I chose this combination as one pick, because these two passes are in close proximity to one another covering the same mountain range. Another nice feature besides the aspen along this route is the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad line, which one of a very few running steam trains in Colorado. So, you not only could just drive the road to the passes, you could also catch the train in either Chama, NM, or in Antonito, CO.
Last Dollar Road
This route is in southwest Colorado: I love this area. The Last Dollar Road is actually a dirt road offshoot from the San Juan Skyway (San Juan Scenic and Historic Byway). It also features dramatic views of the Dallas Divide, one of the most photographed area of Colorado…any time of the year. This road can also be treated as a short-cut between Ridgway and Telluride. Just make sure you take it between May and October, as this is a seasonal road and is closed/not maintained in the winter months.
This is yet another dirt road in southwest Colorado: This road cuts between the towns of Crested Butte and Marble. It’s about 32 miles long and features an abundance of old growth aspen, which tower over cars and trucks alike. It’s like walking amongst the giants of the Northwest US…not as tall, but still as stately as the Redwoods and Sequoias. Besides the immense size of the aspen along this route, you will see various mountain peaks including Marcellina Mountain and Mt. Crested Butte. This route is also part of the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway.
This route is also a dirt road route of about 35 miles in western Colorado: You can begin this route on the west side of McClure Pass, or approach it from east of Collbran along hwy330. The road becomes forest road 265 and you need to pay attention to the signs along this route, as there are many different offshoot roads that become 4×4, or ATV/motorcycle only roads. This drive takes you up to a mountain landscape that seems to be endlessly filled with aspen as far as the eye can see. Part of this route includes a little bit of history as well with an identifying marker of the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776.
Mt. Evans Scenic and Historic Byway
This route is in north-central Colorado: I chose this route as a close-to-home route for those who live in the Denver area. The Mt. Evans Scenic and Historic Byway can begin in Idaho Springs on the north side, or in Bergen Park on the south side. This road goes to the top of Mt. Evans, which sits at a little more than 14,000 feet above sea level. The road from Echo Lake Lodge to the top of Mt. Evans closes for the winter months though, so barring any heavy autumn snow, you could also go to the top of the mountain above tree-line. Also along this route are an abundance of mountain goat and big horn sheep, as well as a lot of Colorado history in Idaho Springs.