Category Archives: Backroads & Byways of Colorado

Behold! Bishop Castle and the Frontier Pathways Byway

Too bad more + more everything is about money.

The masses, today, are begging not to be free.

You, citizen, don’t need a driver’s license.

-Jim Bishop, as seen scrawled on signs at Bishop Castle

Ever hear about the guy who built an entire castle all by himself? There are a couple such fellows, it turns out. Florida has its Coral Castle, a monument to lost love. Ohio’s Loveland Castle was handbuilt for a class of Sunday school boys. And on the Frontier Pathways Scenic and Historic Byway, Jim Bishop built Bishop Castle because he felt like it.

DSC_0655

In 1969, after paying $450 for 2.5 acres of mountain land, Jim Bishop and his father began building a stone cabin. Skilled ironworkers both, father and son were nearly done with the cabin when they ran into trouble installing running water. They forged a water tank from a 40-foot-high metal cylinder and built stones around it.

Visiting friends pointed out that the water tank looked like a turret. The seed of Bishop Castle had sprouted.

 

DSC_0635

Jim, still in his early twenties, decided to built the cottage into a castle. His father, unwilling to commit to an entire castle, dropped out of the project. Undeterred, Jim continued, hauling rocks from nearby highway ditches, cutting down and milling his own wood, mixing mortar by hand, building arches from railroad ties. He deployed a pulley and come-along winch systems to lift heavy objects, like the tree trunks that are now floor supports for the multi-story castle.

It was, in the Bishop Castle website’s official words, a “massive re-organizing of the scattered granite in the Rocky Mountains into the form of the Bishop Castle.”

DSC_0633

A static journey of sorts, Jim’s experience enticed him to explore his own philosophies around freedom and God.

DSC_0632

He wrote a book, Castle Building From My Point of View. His wife Phoebe started the Bishop Castle Non-Profit Charitable Foundation for New-Born Heart Surgery, so the castle could legally  fund itself through voluntary donations. The castle itself is now a fairytale edifice of ironwork and spires, complete with an 80-foot-high, fire-breathing metal dragon. It’s open to anyone who wants to stop by, and oftentimes Jim Bishop himself emerges to chat with visitors.

If nothing else, Bishop Castle makes you think. If this guy can build an entire castle all by himself, what can you do? Is there an activity that’s so absorbing, so creative and educational, that you’ll come back to it day after day, even in the most trying of conditions? I’m willing to bet that everyone has something like that. Their muse. Jim’s might just be more obvious than most. Indeed:

“[His] belief in America being a Free Country made up of Free Persons has fueled his passions in building the castle to represent the American Dream in an undeniably tangible and awe inspiring form!”

DSC_0642

Bishop Castle is just one of the many things you’ll discover on the historic and less-traveled Frontier Pathways Scenic and Historic Byway. To get the full lowdown, grab a copy of the second edition of the Backroads and Byways of Colorado

Mt. Evans: The Perfect One-Day Getaway

Mt_Evans_11

Image: Seth K. Hughes

If you:

  • Have family in for the weekend and they want to see the mountains
  • Want to take a date on a beautiful picnic
  • Are in the mood for a stunning, high-elevation day hike
  • Would like to brutalize yourself via a 30-mile road bike ride with a 6,724 gain in elevation
  • Need to climb or boulder some granite
  • Are looking for nearby fishing opportunities
  • Want to get out of Denver for a day

 Then:

  • Pack up your stuff and go drive up Mt. Evans

The highest paved road in North America, the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway is an ideal day trip out of Denver. An hour’s worth of driving gets you to the base, by way of Idaho Springs, where you can grab a bite, a drink or a soak before (but preferably after) snaking up this somewhat precarious drive.

MtEvansFlickrShot

Image: Jim Lawrence/Flickr

Laned and guardrailed at the bottom, the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway sheds protective barriers in favor of jaw-dropping views as it coils to the top of the 14,264-foot Mt. Evans. If you want to hike up the mountain, or at least along its base, park at Echo Lake and head for the Chicago Lakes Trail. There are also rainbow trout in the lake.

If you’re in a car, pay the $10 toll. It costs $3 if you’re on two wheels; a Golden Eagle Parks Pass also get you in. Meander up to the Walter Pesman Alpine Garden, where ancient Bristlecone pines, some of them nearly 2,000 years old, hug the flank of the mountain.

MtEvans_map

You’ll soon find yourself driving through a vast alpine tundra, speckled with wildflowers and the occassional mountain goat or Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Park at the 13,000-foot-high Summit Lake, where you can view crystalline waters and sheer granite cliffs. There’s good climbing here too.

Summit Lake Mt. Evans-1

Images: F. Delventhal/Flickr

At the top of the mountain, park and take a quick stroll to what’s left of the Crest House. This souvenir shop burned down in 1979 and was never rebuilt. Today, you can crawl around the ruins and, if your blood oxygen is up for it, have a quick lunch as you take in views of mountain ranges hundreds of miles away.

To learn more about the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway, including where to stay, rafting opportunities and how to best prepare for your 14er adventure, check out the second edition of The Backroads and Byways of Colorado

The San Juan Skyway: Worth the Million Bucks

If you only have one chance in your life to drive in Colorado, this is your byway. From mountain views reminiscent of Heidi to sacred Ancient Pueblan cities to a working 19th century coal-fired train, the San Juan Skyway is Colorado on steroids. The stretch between Ouray and Silverton alone, known as the Million Dollar Highway, will stun you into a kind of scenic ecstasy.

SJSKyway

Yeah, it’s that good. So how do you drive this 233-mile loop?

CO_SanJuanSkyway

Image: Byways.org

If you only have one day, a leather cap and driving goggles, go ahead and power through it. But when you check into your Budget Inn at 10 p.m., drenched in sweat and full of blurry memories, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

DSC_1148

The best option is to give yourself three days to a week. Here’s my dream version of the San Juan Skyway:

Start in Durango. Hit up Seasons of Durango if you’re hungry. Fuel up with a Blonde or two at the Ska Brewing Company. Jump on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Train (advance tickets required) and disembark at one of the designated wilderness stops. Enjoy one of the pristine San Juan National Forest and Weminuche Wilderness backcountry hikes available to you. Once finished, flag down the train and ride back to your car in Durango. (Family options for this trip: Ride to Silverton and enjoy a day there. Or sign up for one of the organized wilderness adventures http://www.durangotrain.com/packages/adventure-packages.)

Drive to Silverton. After a breathtaking climb up Molas Pass and ridiculous views of the San Juans, dip into Silverton. This is the town where 19th-century miners, fatigued from hollowing out the stone bowels of the surrounding mountains, would loosen up with liquor, gunfights and ladies of the night. The grit of the era remains embedded in Silverton’s antique downtown, the painted facades of its restored saloons. Experience it with a funnel cake in one hand and a Montanya rum in the other.

Onwards to Ouray. After a gut-clenching series of swerves past city-sized mines and burnished cliffs, the “Switzerland of America” will beckon you in for a soak. Tucked into a steep-walled canyon, Ouray is known for its annual ice climbing festival and its hot springs. Set up camp at the forested, view-flanked Amphitheatre Campground and rumble down to the Ouray Hot Springs. These large, family-friendly soaking pools that will imbue you with a pleasant mineral buzz. Grab a meal at the Bon Ton Restaurant in the St. Elmo Hotel, dessert at Mouse’s chocolates, and bed down for the night.

Ridgway and Telluride. If you’re in slow mode, make Orvis Hot Springs of Ridgway your next stop. Hike around, soak for half a day, grab Costa Rican cuisine at Land & Ocean Restaurant and drive to Telluride.

Or just drive to Telluride. Time it right, and you’ll hit the Film Festival, the Mountainfilm Festival, the Bluegrass Festival or any one of the endless festivals in this cliff-hugged global village. Despite having hosting fifth homes for the likes of Tom Cruise and Oprah, Telluride has stayed true to its free-living roots, liberated, perhaps, by its remote location.

Telluride is where you chill out and savor, in case the hot springs weren’t enough. Mountain bike, listen to music, grap a cuppa at the Steaming Bean, wolf down some organic south Mexican cuisine at La Cocina de Luz, walk in the park, hike, live free. Note also that you may run into celebrities. Colin Firth made fun of my mountain biking outfit here one year.

Take off your jacket and put on some good music, because next up is the high desert. Swoop out of Telluride and greet the ridged faces of the San Juans as you climb to Lizard Head Pass, your final big mountain pass before you descend into farmland and, eventually, the high and ancient deserts of the Four Corners region. Roll through fertile valleys and small towns to land at the Anasazi Heritage Center, a deep dive into all things ancient Pueblan. To learn more about this hands-on museum, as well as how best to experience Mesa Verde and the rest of the Four Corners region, read my Trail of the Ancients post. (Note: Cortez, the Ute Mountain Ute reservation and Mesa Verde are both on the San Juan Skyway and Trail of the Ancients).

Once your finished with Mesa Verde, the route takes you back to Durango. If you feel like exiting via US 160 towards Monte Vista, note that there are some nice hot springs at Pagosa.

For in-depth coverage of the San Juan Skyway, including best places to stay, eat, drink and have fun, grab a copy of the Backroads and Byways of Colorado—Second Edition.

Trail of the Ancients: A Living Mystery

Epic mysteries and lost civilizations. That’s what you’ll find in the southwestern corner of Colorado, on the Trail of the Ancients.

Trail_of_Ancients_8

On December 18, 1888, two cowboys trotted up to a stone city built inside of a cliff. Labyrinthine and built with stunning attention to detail, the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde has fascinated and confounded visitors ever since.

Trail_of_Ancients_10

It’s one of the key attractions on Colorado’s Trail of the Ancients, which takes you to the palaces, kivas and residences left by the Ancient Pueblans when they mysteriously abandoned their homes en masse in the late 1200s.

ToA Map

On the Trail of the Ancients, backstory is everything. Nobody to this day can figure out exactly why the ancestral Pueblans abandoned their homes. Maybe everyone ran out of food or water. Maybe there was a war. Some believe in a conspiracy. In any case, they disappeared within a generation or two. Moved onto better pastures.

Trail_of_Ancients_3

An oral culture, these first Pueblans didn’t leave archives describing how they lived, either. Anthropologists have learned the most from the trash they threw away outside of their cliff dwellings.

Trail_of_Ancients_1

We know that a group of hunters first settled in the area around 550 A.D. Dubbed the Basketmakers for their woven craft, these former nomads cultivated farms and found rich hunting grounds. Over hundreds of years and generations, their dwellings, farming methods and craftsmanship evolved. The roofed kiva, which stays 50 degrees year-round and only needs a fire to heat it in winter, is an example of their architectural ingenuity.

In the late 1200s, something happened, and it was time to go. Their legacy is in their architecture, which fuses beautifully with the surrounding desert. Dozens of books have been written about the ancients—how they lived, what they did, theories about their disappearance. But no written text can depict the majesty and visceral intrigue of visiting these places yourself.

TOALIZARD

For a mile-by-mile journey into the all that the Trail of the Ancients has to offer, including a little-known, but equally majestic, alternative to Mesa Verde, grab a copy of the Backroads and Byways of Colorado—Second Edition.

 

7 Must-See Sites on the West Elk Loop

Sometimes stunning, other times serene, the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway is the ultimate tour of Colorado’s Western Slope. From Paonia’s bursting peaches to the massive aspen grove on Kebler Pass, this slice of Colorado makes me wonder why I live in the Front Range at all. Here are seven places on the West Elk Loop where you should spend at least an hour or two.

Crested Butte

Crested Butte

Some affectionately refer to our state as “Condorado,” based on observations of massive developed ski towns like Vail and Beaver Creek. Crested Butte retained its alpine soul, and remains one of the prettiest mountain towns in the state.

Kebler Pass

Drive through Colorado’s largest aspen grove on Kebler Pass, the unpaved road between Crested Butte and the Paonia Reservoir. Stop frequently and soak up the experience of being 10,000 feet high and inside of a single living organism.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

You’ve heard of the Grand Canyon. The Black Canyon might just be the most stunning stone crevasse you’ve never heard of. Deep and dramatic, this marbled canyon could swallow the Empire State Building whole. Drink in the steep, dark cliffs; watch golden eagles ride up thermals or even hike the river-carved bottom of this lesser-known national park.

Curecanti National Recreation Area

In Colorado, every lake is special. That makes the 96 miles of shoreline around Blue Mesa Reservoir, the biggest in this triad of man-made lakes, especially impressive. Boaters, fishers and beach types, take note.

Redstone

Sculpture garden

A sculpture garden on a river, picturesque antique buildings and colorful coke ovens define this quick stop. Stop in the Redstone Manor for a dose of the history of this Historic District.

Paonia

Farms dot this pastoral and progressive town, which prides itself on its lack of stoplights. Paonia is an especially pleasing stop during peach- and cherry season.

Marble

Marble Mountain

Image: Alan Levine/Flickr

Ever wonder where the marble for the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier came from? Even if you never asked that question, the answer is Marble, Colorado. At the end of what looks like a dirt road to nowhere, you’ll find this sleepy town and its Yule marble quarry. Flanked by Fourteeners, this photogenic quarry features an old mill, a museum and 10,000+-pound marble chunks stacked high. Explore by foot and absorb the adventurous feeling of being here.

WestElkLoop_map

Image: Byways.org

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.

Top of the Rockies Byway: Wild West Meets Aspen Utopia

DSC_2147

INT. TABOR OPERA HOUSE, LEADVILLE – 1882 – EVENING

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. 

ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE MINERS (loudly)

Zzzzzzz. 

STAGEHANDS (offended by WILDE’S dapper appearance)

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

EXT. SALOON, 3 A.M.

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

DSC_2140

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.

CDOT ToR

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.

DSC_2854

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.

DSC_1875
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.

DSC_1899

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.  

DSC_1952

 

 

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.


Image: Colorado.com

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.

Image: Colorado.com

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.