Author Archives: Drea

Top of the Rockies Byway: Wild West Meets Aspen Utopia



OSCAR WILDE, wearing finery and diamonds, lectures a group of rough-and-tumble miners on The Practical Application of the Principles of the Aesthetic Theory to Exterior and Interior House Decoration, With Observations upon Dress and Personal Ornaments.

OSCAR WILDE (uncomfortably)

The artist is not dependent on the visible and the tangible. He has his visions and his dreams to feed on. But the workman must see lovely forms as he goes to his work in the morning and returns at eventide. 



STAGEHANDS (offended by WILDE’S dapper appearance)

 He’s a wuss! Let’s see how much he can drink!


STAGEHANDS are rolling around under a bar table, deleriously drunk as Wilde looms over them, downing yet another drink.


That’s a true story. (As described much more eloquently by the Guardian’s Sam Jordison.)

Jordison describes Leadville as being “enjoyably, though worryingly, ‘authentic.'” The Wild West hasn’t completely disappeared from this former mining boomtown. At 10,200 feet, it’s America’s second-highest town and, aptly, a main attraction of the Top of the Rockies byway.


Image: CDOT

The Top of the Rockies blends exquisite high-mountain scenery with ghost towns and mining outposts straight out of a Hollywood western. From the Lover’s Leap steel-arched bridge to the colorful mining ghost town of Gilman to the towering Black Cloud Mine near Leadville, history is alive on this byway.


There’s plenty of hiking, mountain biking, fishing and riding along the way. Also be sure to check out Camp Hale, where the famous 10th Mountain Division trained.  Built in 1942 for the war effort, Camp Hale trained an infantry of skiers, ice climbers and mountain specialists to fight for the US in Italy. Now decommissioned, it later served as a training ground for a group of Tibetans recruited by the CIA for Cold War purposes.

Camp Hale

After winding over the stunning Independence Pass, you get a taste of the most chi-chi town in the intermountain West.

Aspen is what happens when you transform a mining ghost town into a “utopian community for the mind and body.” By “you,” I mean Chicago business tycoon Walter Paepcke and master skier Friedl Pfeifer; by “transform,” I mean facelift the town into a celebrated hub for skiers and people who own Lear jets.


Aspen is the gold Rolex to Leadville’s rough-hewn nugget. Even on a budget, though, it’s worth the trip. The Maroon Bells, delicious eats and summer festivals–and yes, people watching–make Aspen a must-see.

To learn more about the Top of the Rockies byway, including where to eat, best places to stay and which ghost towns to check out, crack open a copy of the Backroads and Byways of Colorado, Second Edition.  




Los Caminos Antiguos: Best of the San Luis Valley

Do you ever turn a highway commute into a kind of personal challenge, where you navigate the fastest-moving lanes and take your gas tank from full to empty without stopping for a food or bathroom break?

Ever found yourself in a desolate patch of land in the middle of nowhere because you pushed that ideal too far?

Open Prairie
Image: taborcarlton/Flickr

That’s how I ended up on a dirt road off the Los Caminos Antiguos byway, legs stiff, stomach growling, my dog Emma exploding out of the backseat to sprint off the past five boring hours.

Emma beelined to something lying at the cul de sac at the end of the road. From afar, it looked like a brown-and-white blanket. Closer up, it turned out to the carcass of a cow, eaten bare by rodents, save for its skeleton and hide. To its left lay a similar carcass, all sun-bleached bones and sharp ribs. (For more on the area’s tradition of eviscerated cattle, go here.)

Emma in her natural state

A thunderclap punctured the silence. I gestured Emma back towards the car. Instead of following me, she raised all of her hackles, starting at the neck and radiating all the way to her rump. A low growl rumbled from her throat and soon transformed into a series of spooky howls.

She stared at the car. But there was nothing there. Nothing. Until that moment, I’d never heard Emma growl. In my life.

I picked up two rocks to fend off the mystery intruder. It was either concealed in the surrounding sagebrush or it was something out of “Paranormal Activity,” because I never saw it. We drove towards Antonito in a black tunnel of clouds and rain. The sun peaked out just before we arrived, offering a full double rainbow.

This is the San Luis Valley. Rainbows, mystery, ranches, lakes, geologic wonders, art, history, the sacred and the profane. It’s one of the most amazing regions in the entire state.

The Los Caminos Antiguos byway gives you full immersion in almost everything* that the San Luis Valley has to offer. There are too many highlights to cover here, but my favorites include:

Stations of the Cross Shrine

Renowned sculptor Huberto Maestas depicts the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a number of stations located on a short hike to a simple and stunning chapel. Peaceful and artistically immaculate, this holy place is one of the highlights of the byway.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

The Sahara meets Colorado in this unique national park, where dunes as high as 700 feet converge with soaring mountains. For more images, please see the NPS’s photography brochure.

The Cumbres and Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad

Ride to New Mexico like it’s 1899 on this immaculately-preserved narrow-gauge train. The trip takes you over Cumbres Pass–which when I drove it was rife with antelope and mountain goats–to the tiny town of Chama, New Mexico.

Unexpected Surprises

Every time I visit the San Luis valley, I see something new and unexpected. This trip, I discovered bolita beans, a tasty local delicacy (if you can call beans a delicacy).

I also made a detour into the New Mexico artist’s town of Costilla to visit a plaza said to be haunted by the ghosts of sleeping inhabitants, massacred there by the Ute in an act of vengeance for being given smallpox by the government. Look at the carriage below and tell me that’s not a haunted carriage.








There’s much more to the San Luis Valley. To read about Los Caminos Antiguos in mile-by-mile detail, please crack open the Backroads and Byways of Colorado—Second Edition.

*Almost, because it skirts the alien viewing platform, the majestic hikes and developing-country-meets-spiritual-mecca that is Crestone, and a few other select cuts of territory.

5 Eye-Popping Places on the Gold Belt Tour

The Gold Belt Tour takes you 135 miles on old stagecoach and railroad routes (now mostly paved), through rural hamlets, alongside sheer cliffs, up to massive mines and down into desert canyon country.


Because of the types of sites involved, it’s a great weekend road trip to take with kids or older friends and family members. (There is a third Gold Belt Tour option for intellectually curious adults who are interested in sociology, prison reform and rock climbing–see in particular Shelf Road, Canon City and Cripple Creek.)

In no particular order, here are the 5 things that you must see on the Gold Belt Tour. And by the way–give yourself two days, unless you’re hardcore, leather-driving-gloves type of road tripper. You will want to wander and explore around this byway.

5. Royal Gorge

Colorado’s petite version of the Grand Canyon is also a fun-for-most-ages amusement park. Pay the friendly retirees at the toll both $15 and drive over the gorge, enjoying stunning views from the world’s highest suspension bridge. On the other side, park and enjoy the fiesta. You can eat old time ice cream and hamburgers while absorbing a view of the bridge. Up the hill are some lovely viewpoints and a zoo of sorts, where you will see a white buffalo, among other animals of the West (note: animals are rather mangy and sad). Other fun options include a zipline, one of the steepest incline railways in the world, a single-span aerial tram over the canyon, burro rides, Native American beading demonstrations and rafting down the Gorge (you don’t launch from the Gorge, though–plan your rafting trip beforehand).

4. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Take a long, rolling drive north, past a farm boasting the world’s cutest lamas, and eventually you’ll hit Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Its claim to fame are the tiny, perfectly-preserved carbon fossils of insects, flowers and plants. You can’t touch these. They’re too delicate. But you can see the from the visitor center. They’re like nature’s photographs, a neat way to see ancient history preserved in perfect detail. The other point of interest here is petrified wood. Embarking on a flat hike of a mile or so, you’ll see the well-preserved, petrified stumps of ancient redwood trees. Kids love it here, because you can take a ranger-led tour, see an interesting orientation film and have lunch in a big amphitheatre-type area near some huge petrified stumps.

Cynical adult point of interest: Back in the 1800s, when they first discovered the fossil beds, rockhounds from far and wide would arrive in their stagecoaches and collect fossils. Formerly covered in fossils, the area was soon picked dry, save for the few remnants still on display today.

3. Shelf Road

It might be hard to believe today, but this sheer-walled, one-lane, loose dirt road used to be a toll road for stagecoaches. Off-roaders and drivers of ATVs love it for its curves, views and 4,000-foot elevation gain. Regular cars can do it too, but watch out for ruts and erosion.

You’ll see some signs to towns that no longer exist, Window Rock (above), gorgeous ravine views and bighorn sheep, if you’re lucky. Rock climbers love Shelf Road Recreation Area, a fully-bolted sport climbing paradise. Towards the Canon City end of the drive, you can look for dinosaur fossils at the deserts Garden Park Fossil Area. It’s a beautiful and sometimes challenging drive, the kind that takes your breath away at times.

2. Cañon City

Deemed “a clean version of Hell,” Cañon City is the only place in America with 13 prisons nestled in a single “Prison Valley.” Sixteen percent of the city’s 36,000 residents are incarcerated. In nearby Florence, the federal Supermax ADX mega-prison houses the Unabomber, shoe bomber Richard Reid, Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols, masterminds of the Tijuana and Gulf drug cartels, Mafia bosses, an FBI double spy and miscellaneous serial killers.

This web documentary and this Fast Company article explains more. In Cañon City itself, there’s a fantastic prison museum. It’s next to a real prison, and you walk by a guard tower with sniper-rifle armed guards to get inside.

Note: Besides darkly curious adults, Cañon City does hold some interest for families and kids. There’s a delicious French bakery, a winery just outside of town and several parks. You can also book rafting trips here. But really, it’s most interesting for adults.

1. Cripple Creek

Cripple Creek is home to one of the biggest gold strikes in the world, the $500 million Independence Iode, tapped in the 1890s. Where there were gold miners, there were saloons, brothels, gambling and nefarious activity; modern-day Cripple Creek, with its historically-intact buildings and ongoing Old West vibe, does not disappoint.

During the 1980s, Cripple Creek, its mining riches extracted, essentially was a ghost town. But in 1991, someone had the idea to legalize gambling, and you can guess what happened next. Today, the place is full of slot machines, card tables and the like, in an outskirt-of-Vegas kind of way. Interestingly, relics of the Old West live alongside the gambling resources, with the Butte Theater and Gold Bar Room showing quality shows of all eras. You can stay at some really nice, well-preserved buildings, including historical hotels, an old schoolhouse and even an old brothel. Cripple Creek also has a bit of a nightlife, thanks in part to the theaters and gambling.

For the family, check out the wide variety of sites listed here. You can spend a couple of days with Cripple Creek as your home base, branching out to Florissant Fossil Beds, touring mines and old gold camps, eating relatively well and perhaps finding some antiques to bring home.

You can find detailed, mile-by-mile information about this byway and 11 more in the Backroads and Byways of Colorado—Second Edition.

The Gorgeous Colorado River Headwaters

Colorado: It’s Just Not That Wet.

Okay, this isn’t actually Colorado’s official state motto, but it sure applies during this year’s bone-dry summer. Low snowpack means shallow rivers and dry forests, feeding epic fires like the recent Waldo Fire.

There is, however, one decidedly wet section of Colorado. Its name is Grand County. This western flank of the Continental Divide boasts Colorado’s biggest natural lake (Grand Lake) and Lake Granby, the 7,250-foot reservoir that provides drinking water to much of the Front Range. It’s where the Colorado River begins and where the moose is practically a regional mascot.

One excellent way to cool down from the intense July heat is by driving the Colorado River Headwaters Byway, a gorgeous 3-hour drive that spans from Grand Lake to a bridge about 25 minutes outside of Kremmling.


What you’ll find on this drive:

Lake Granby

This large reservoir is fantastic for sailing, motorboating, fishing, swimming, kayaking and camping. Towards the south side (Arapahoe Bay), there’s even a long swatch of beach where you can hike or boat in and camp for free, with an Indian Peaks permit.

The western edge of Lake Granby

Arapahoe Bay

Arapahoe Bay

Rainbow Lake, a pristine mountain lake behind Arapahoe Bay full of hiking/backpacking trails

Grand Lake

This charming town hosts Colorado’s biggest natural lake and an entertaining, boardwalk-lined downtown that is full of tourist activities for families. Its location next to Rocky Mountain National Park adds to its appeal.

Grand Lake swimming area

The entire downtown has charming wooden boardwalks

Hot Sulphur Springs and Surrounds

Past Granby, the Colorado River Headwaters Byway runs parallel to the Colorado River, through Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling. This is fly fishing paradise, as well as home to a bird estuary and hot spring. Once you pass Kremmling, you turn onto County Road 1, a packed dirt road that offers you stunning canyon views.

Hot Sulphur Springs

On the road to Kremmling

White pelican at the Wind River Reservoir, a bird estuary

You can find detailed, mile-by-mile information about this byway and 11 in the Backroads and Byways of Colorado—Second Edition. The spankin’ edition comes complete with color photos, maps at every byway and extensive updated listings.

For Relaxation, Drive the Flat Tops Wilderness

Ever pack up your car and hit the road, only to find out that your chosen destination is unexpectedly teeming with fellow tourists? The disappointment feels like being stood up on a first date.

During high tourist season, you might unintentionally end up in a convoy of RVs, Harleys or drivers who risk life and limb in order to photograph a marmot by the side of the road. Some of the most well-known and stunning byways, such as Trail Ridge Road and the Million Dollar Highway, fall victim to this sardine effect every July and August.

But Colorado is a biggish state with many hidden folds in its mountains. The Flat Tops Wilderness byway, tucked away between Meeker and Yampa, traverses one of these lesser-traveled pockets.


If you need a weekend away from everything, including fellow people and cars, this is your road trip. A four-hour drive from Denver will get you to Meeker or Yampa, with an option to detour to Glenwood Hot Springs or Strawberry Hot Springs, respectively. The byway makes for a good romantic getaway, dude-ranch escape or nature immersion trip. Hunting, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, riding an ATV, disappearing into the woods solo for a month, building a cabin, raising sheep, cutting off ties to society–the Flat Tops Wilderness provides an excellent setting for all of the above.

What is the Flat Tops Wilderness Area? A gigantic swath of nature in northeastern Colorado, located many hours from any kind of city, where you can see unusual flat-topped mountains. The fastest-paced thing you will see on this byway is a tractor.

How do I get there? Drive to Meeker or Yampa. Sound remote? It is.

How long does the drive on the byway take? About three hours point-to-point. But you’ll want to stop at Trappers Lake, one of the sites that inspired the National Forest system.

What can I do in the area? Look, this is one of the most relaxing drives in the country, so don’t plan anything Type-A. You’ll see farms, ranches and forests, and the scenery will sedate you into a pleasant kind of rural stupor. If you fish, ride horses, hike/backpack, mountain bike, ride ATVs or hunt, this an ideal area to set up camp for a few days. If you like wearing Prada and drinking fancy Prohibition-era cocktails at 11 a.m. in the morning, not so much.

What should I bring? If you’re just driving the byway, bring a solid pair of walking shoes, a fishing rod, food and drink. Make sure your tank is full of gas when you start the byway, otherwise you may find yourself pulled over on the side of the road and flagging down passing ranchers. Also note that half of the byway is unpaved gravel.

Why should I drive this byway? Unless you live in a rural setting, it’s pretty unusual to take a drive that is largely devoid of traffic, relaxing and entirely scenic from start to finish. If you want to get away from it all, this is your drive.

Happy road tripping! Up next: The Colorado River Headwaters Byway.

You can find detailed, mile-by-mile information about this byway and 11 more in the Backroads and Byways of Colorado—Second Edition. This spankin’ new edition features color photos, maps at every byway and extensive updated listings.