Driving through the Colorado countryside
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – It’s not unusual to hear people refer to the valley as a bubble – that once you’re here, it’s rare that you’ll leave its borders very often.
I’ve made it a habit to ensure that I don’t end up trapped in the valley – not that it’s a bad place to be trapped, but it’s nice to get out and see some other sights from time to time.
Sometimes the destinations are familiar places like Denver or Boulder, but lately my boyfriend, Ryan, and I have been looking at our road atlas to choose routes at random and the results have been incredible.
The latest trip took us through the towns of Buena Vista, Crested Butte, Marble and Redstone. It’s doable in a day, and you’ll feel like you’ve traveled a lot farther than just a few hundred miles roundtrip.
Highway 24 south from Minturn is a scenic drive all by itself, so it’s especially nice to start off a road trip with gorgeous views abound.
Mount Massive is one of the more breathtaking 14,000-foot peaks near the Vail Valley. Perched near Leadville as if it were hovering over the town, the mountain goes on and on and looks more like several mountains combined. It’s the first spectacular view of what’s to come on this road trip.
Highway 24 between Leadville and Buena Vista is still scenic, but the sights are not as grand as what comes before and after those points.
Now that the snow has melted, probably a little quicker than we might have liked, some of Colorado’s most exciting mountain passes are open for the summer. Some of them are tougher drives than others, but with the right car and the right attitude, you’ll love every minute.
Cottonwood Pass, from Buena Vista to the Taylor Park Reservoir, is a dirt road for most of the way, with narrow curves and awesome views.
At the Continental Divide marker, 12,126 feet above sea level, you’ll likely find other road-trippers stopping for photo opportunities alongside backcountry skiers trying to find whatever snow might still be left over from the winter. Near there you can see views of some of the famous Collegiate Peaks, named after Ivy League universities like Yale, Harvard and Princeton. Mount Yale is the nearest hike of the peaks from Cottonwood Pass.
Some steep switchbacks down the other side, and you’ll start to see views of the Taylor Park Reservoir, a huge partially man-made lake with plenty of recreational activities, in Gunnison County. If you have more than a day for this road trip, stop and camp there and try to fit in a little fishing for brown trout, cutthroat trout, kokanee or northern pike.
The rest of the drive weaves through deep forests with many camp sites along the way. A stop near a little town called Almont was full of kayakers paddling through the ripping waters of the Taylor River.
The next stop on this drive is Crested Butte, a quaint little mountain town that has a Western spirit and feels like the heart of Colorado. It’s the kind of town I think people who have never been to Colorado imagine the state to be like. The town boasts itself as one of the last remaining true Colorado ski towns.
The main street through town has cafes, saloons and gift shops, all sitting beneath Mt. Crested Butte, which overlooks the town. There are no chain stores or traffic lights here – something the town of Crested Butte is proud of.
This time of year it’s great to bring bikes to Crested Butte and check out the town that way. Bike trails seem to be everywhere in this town, from down within the town’s historic area to mountain trails in every direction from there. There are also plenty of water activities available nearby, like fishing, kayaking or rafting.
The drive out of Crested Butte to the west, over Kebler Pass, is the highlight of this road trip. It’s fairly wide dirt road, but passable in any two-wheel-drive passenger car. The views from Kebler reminded me why I moved to Colorado in the first place. There aren’t many states as beautiful as this.
You’ll see alpine lakes, expansive forests and panoramic mountain views. The best part is that there aren’t many cars on this road, so the drive is nice and quiet.
Kebler Pass connects to Colorado 133, which eventually heads into Carbondale to the north. Head north and take the detour to a town called Marble, which turns off 133 just on the other side of McClure Pass.
Marble is a funky little town full of marble slabs and small town folks. It’s located at the headwaters of the Crystal River in the Elk Mountain Range, about 45 minutes south of Glenwood Springs. The Yule Marble Quarry here was reopened in 1990 after being closed in 1941. It’s an underground quarry, and unfortunately tours are not available, but you can see marble all throughout town that came from here.
For more adventurous drivers, head six miles east of Marble to the Crystal Mill. The drive is a rough, one-lane, four-wheel-drive road, but if you’d rather keep your car safe you can hike there on foot. The Crystal Mill is one of the most photographed sites in Colorado, according to the Marble Tourism Association.
Marble also offer great fishing for German brown, rainbow, cutthroat and brook trout, as well as mountain whitefish, all along the Crystal River.
One of the more beautiful views in town was at a lake on the south side of the main road entering town. The lake, or large pond, didn’t seem to have a name anywhere, but its views were fantastic.
The drive back to Vail heads north along 133, with another stop in Redstone for those who aren’t tired yet. Redstone has a National Historic District and is located on the portion of 133 known as the West Elk Scenic Byway, just on the edge of the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area.
The town has charm and plenty of outdoor activities, as well as gift shops and cafes.
Fishing, mountain biking, hunting and photography are some of the more popular activities during road trip season.
The drive back to Vail through Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Glenwood Canyon is next on the trip. Just be sure to do it while there’s still daylight to take in the remaining views from this day-long road trip through colorful Colorado.
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.