Colorado is justly famous for its breathtaking landscapes: mountain vistas, sun-drenched plains, red rock mesas and high deserts. All of which look especially fetching through a windshield.
In between the extraordinary vistas, tempting stops abound: unexpected historic sites, charming towns plus outdoor recreation opportunities of every sort. Miles and miles of well-maintained Scenic and Historic Byways wind through the state’s diverse attractions, providing easy access to it all. So, grab your keys and power up: these are the best road trips in Colorado.
Further reading: When to visit Colorado
The views will astound over Independence Pass
Twin Lakes–Aspen; 27 miles/44km
The ribbon of road between the historic community of Twin Lakes and the swank town of Aspen forms the backbone of one of Colorado’s most epic drives. Along this part of the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway, the views are cinematic and spectacular. Swatches of snow are visible along the ridges just below the knife edge of peaks, and tundra blooms at the top of the pass, where at 12,095ft you’ll be on the edge of the Continental Divide. Expect several of your own IMAX moments.
Though the pass is closed in the winter, the rest of the year the drive is short and sweet – and we’d recommend you take your time. Check out Twin Lakes Reservoir, an angler’s and paddleboarder’s dream; its shores are dotted with historic ruins, including Interlaken, once Colorado’s largest resort, built in 1879. Or head for a hike on Mt Elbert, one of the “easier” fourteeners in the state (start your hike early!). And don’t miss Independence near Aspen – a ghost town dotted with weathered wood cabins, this was the first mining site in the Roaring Fork Valley, and today offers a window back in time.
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Stay above 9000ft as you follow the Top of the Rockies
Minturn–Aspen; 115 miles/185km
If you liked the drive over Independence Pass, extend it to take in this Scenic Byway. One of the highest in the US, this road seldom drops below 9000ft as it really does follow the mountaintops. You’ll go through three spectacular mountain passes, cross the Continental Divide, take in two Colorado giants (Mt Elbert and Mt Massive) and roll through historic towns in central Colorado. And if outdoors recreation is your thing, the route passes through three National Forests offering countless opportunities to hike, climb, fish and ski. Not bad for a single day’s drive.
Along the way, tiny Minturn is big on small-town charm; in the summer, pick up road provisions at the bustling farmers market (the kids can pet goats while you shop). In Leadville, learn all about Colorado’s rags-to-riches mining beginnings in its historic district, which includes the National Mining Hall of Fame; Twin Lakes, meanwhile, offers opportunities to wander through a historic mining camp. At end of the tour is Aspen, one of the state’s poshest and most cultured places – and a must-stop.
Further reading: Top 5 best hikes in Colorado
The mountain vistas along Colorado roads will delight everyone in your car © chapin31 / iStockphoto / Getty Images
Follow switchbacks across the Continental Divide on Trail Ridge Rd
Estes Park–Grand Lake; 47 miles/76km
Rocky Mountain National Park’s signature drive, Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuously paved through-road in North America, climbing to 12,183ft in a matter of minutes. It follows the same path that generations of Ute, Arapaho and Apache used as a trade route to traverse Milner Pass. Expect outrageous views: snowcapped peaks, meandering streams, tight switchbacks across the Continental Divide, high-country meadows, wildflowers galore and (with luck) some wildlife, too. Be sure to stop at some of the countless turnoffs to explore tundra trails or, at least, to take selfies from the top of the world. Note that the road is closed in winter and spring due to snow.
Further reading: Colorado’s best beaches
The bright yellows of fall make the Peak to Peak particularly gorgeous ©Bob Pool/Shutterstock
Take in peak foliage on Peak to Peak Hwy
Estes Park–Nederland; 42 miles/68km
Colorado’s first Scenic Byway, Peak to Peak Hwy is a year-round hit, winding past towering mountains like Longs Peak (14,255ft) and lush alpine valleys, plus a handful of one-horse towns. The road is especially stunning in the autumn, when the mountains become a quilt of gold, yellow and orange, and brings bugling elks searching for mates…not to mention carloads of leaf peepers.
Set aside a couple hours for the drive. Before leaving Estes Park, enjoy the riverwalk or take a spooky ghost tour of the historic Stanley Hotel. Along the route, consider stopping in Ward, a former boom town and bohemian magnet that has settled into an artfully ramshackle state of disrepair, or Peaceful Valley, notable for its little onion-domed church perched on a hillside. Another pit-stop idea: a hike in one of the nearby national forests and wilderness areas (the route passes three: Arapaho, Roosevelt and Indian Peaks). At the end, stroll through Nederland, a hippie holdout known for its quirky shops and colorful cafes.
Further reading: Introducing Colorado’s National Parks
Get close to Southwestern history along the Santa Fe Trail
Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site–Trinidad; 116 miles/187km
History buffs will love this day-long drive along the Santa Fe Trail, the Old West’s first “highway,” which once extended from Missouri to New Mexico. Sun-drenched prairies and wheat fields, sugar-beet farms and railroad yards unfurl on this open two-lane highway, providing a rich mix of history and natural wonder.
The route’s signature sight is the phenomenal Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site. Perched on the Arkansas River and the erstwhile US-Mexico border, the fort marked a cultural crossroads where Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Mexicans and Americans met, mingled, traded and coexisted. While initially built for trade, the fort was later seized by the US Army – and is a reminder of the military presence that remains strong in Colorado even to this day. Trade declined as thousands of settlers poured into the frontier after the Louisiana Purchase, and in particular after a cholera epidemic greatly affected the region’s Indigenous tribes.
In nearby Comanche National Grassland, homestead ruins and authentic Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts are still visible; Picketwire Dinosaur Tracksite, the largest documented dinosaur track site in North America, is a highlight of the park (4WD and reservations required). Make time to check out Trinidad, too: tucked into a chimney-top mesa, the town was once an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail.
Further reading: Best free things to do in Colorado
The Hwy of Legends offers charm and history – and drama, too © Dan Ballard / Aurora Open / Getty Images
Skip I-25 and explore small towns along the Hwy of Legends
Trinidad–Walsenburg; 82 miles/132km
Steeped in mining folklore and Native American legends, the sleepy towns and majestic mountain passes of the Hwy of Legends provide a beautiful detour from the I-25 throughway, which brings visitors through some of southeastern Colorado’s most glorious countryside. Budget two hours to drive the route, more if you stop to take in the sights.
Historic Trinidad is one of the shining stars of the route, its Main Street an important stop on the Santa Fe Trail, where Mother Jones later led marches with striking miners (the Trinidad History Museum offers an excellent primer). Standing like forgotten sentinels along the road, rows and rows of coal ovens are unmissable in Cokedale. Two charming towns are worth a stop too: Cuchara for its views of the Spanish Peaks and the Great Dikes that jut from meadows to mountains, and La Veta, where there are more churches than paved roads. This being Colorado, there are plenty of recreational opportunities to be had as well: the Cucharas River offers terrific fishing, while the hiking in the Spanish Peaks Wilderness is some of the best in the state.
Explore Indigenous American culture along the Trail of the Ancients
Mesa Verde National Park–Ute Mountain Tribal Park; 113 miles/182km
The Trail of the Ancients is the only National Scenic Byway dedicated to archaeology. This beautiful and eye-opening route winds through the canyons, mountains and plains once inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans and later nomadic Navajo, Apache and Ute tribes. Though the route is just over 100 miles, the sites themselves are fascinating and worth lingering over, making this a good multi-day trip.
Mesa Verde National Park is the crown jewel of the route, home to over 5000 archaeological sites, including 600 Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings (a guided ranger tour is highly recommended). Just north, the Anasazi Heritage Center has interesting films, hands-on exhibits and artifacts dating to 400 CE. Canyon of the Ancients and Hovenweep National Monument are Ancestral Puebloan treasures that have been largely left alone for hundreds of years – perfect for DIY exploration. And Ute Mountain Tribal Park houses a number of lesser-known cliff dwellings; petroglyphs and even shards of original pottery can even be seen here (a Ute guide must accompany all visitors).