Colorado is home to 26 different scenic and historic byways, many winding through charming mountain towns, scaling peaks, traversing national forests, and descending into valleys. Eleven of them are included in the 150 roads that are known as America’s Byways, of which Colorado has more than any other state. Needless to say, this intermountain region where alpine desert mingles with vast grasslands and perpetually snowy summits makes for an intensely attractive and geographically diverse road trip.
Trail Ridge Road
Trail Ridge, a stretch of U.S. Highway 34 that connects the tourist-centric mountain towns of Estes Park to the east and Grand Lake to the west, is famous for being North America’s highest paved through road. It cuts right through Rocky Mountain National Park, passing the Continental Divide—where water flows in two different directions: one toward the Atlantic and the other to the Pacific—and rising high above the tree line, where the forested landscape is reduced to barren tundra.
Included in the National Register of Historic Places, Trail Ridge runs a total of 48 miles. It comprises several mountain passes—Milner Pass, Fall River Pass, and Iceberg Pass—with the highest point being 12,183 feet. Popular lookout points include Many Parks Curve, which sits above Mummy Range and Alluvial Fan, offering views of Bighorn Mountain; Forest Canyon Overlook, from where you can see Long's Peak; and Fairview Curve, which is best viewed during fall, when the aspen leaves are ablaze. Due to weather, Trail Ridge Road is generally only open during the warmer months, from the end of May through October. Check the Rocky Mountain National Park website for current conditions.
Top of the Rockies
If your trip is concentrated more in the area of Vail or Beaver Creek, both popular for their ski resorts in the winter, then the Top of the Rockies may prove worthy of a whirl. In case you didn't gather from its name, this 82-mile route goes to the very top of the Rocky Mountains, weaving past two of the state’s highest peaks, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive.
Along the route, you'll pass through the remote mountain towns of Leadville (the highest incorporated city in the country, at 10,521 feet), Minturn, Twin Lakes, and Copper Mountain. You'll see historic mining structures, mountain lakes, and museums, and you'll cross the Continental Divide not just once but three times. Although parts of the route are open year-round, the Top of the Rockies' consistent elevation of 9,000 feet or higher makes it impossible to complete the full trip in the wintertime. Check the Colorado Department of Transportation for road conditions.
Trail Ridge may be the highest through road in the nation, and Top of the Rockies may pass through the highest incorporated city in the country, but Grand Mesa? Well, this scenic byway will whisk you atop the world’s largest flat-topped mountain, whose "peak" sits 6,000 feet above the valley. This western Colorado attraction lies on a side of the state that captures less tourist attention than, say, Estes Park and Vail, which can wind up being extremely beneficial when dealing with peak-season crowds. Located between I-70 and Cedaredge, the 63 mile-long Grand Mesa Scenic Byway passes through old forests, orchards, expansive vistas, and a whopping 300-plus lakes. The Land’s End Overlook—the route's highlight feature—may be closed during winter, but Grand Mesa will lead you right into a lesser-known ski resort, Powderhorn, which claims to have some of Colorado’s softest snow, natural runs, and short lines for off-season playtime.
Trail Ridge is the highest through road in the U.S., but Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the highest paved road (dead-end) on the entire continent, reaching 14,262 feet. It tops out at the peak of an actual fourteener (one of Colorado's 58 mountains exceeding 14,000 feet), so you can technically say you've summited one without ever breaking a sweat. Even so, it won't be easy getting there.
This section of Highway 5 scales Mount Evans with a series of adrenaline-pumping switchbacks—without guardrails—often cutting through the clouds. But if you can stomach the daring journey, you'll be rewarded with incredible views of mountain lakes, ancient forest, and potentially some wildlife, such as bighorn sheep. The byway begins at Idaho Springs, a mountain town just west of Denver and not far from Colorado’s casino pocket. It's generally open from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but will often close during the summer months due to winter-like conditions. Check the Colorado Department of Transportation for updates before you go.