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On the scenic roads near Vail
Put rubber to the road and stomp the accelerator because some of the best mountain driving can be found on the byways fanning out from Vail.
The following are three scenic trips with tips for things to do along the way. In no way is the list exhaustive, so don’t be afraid to veer off the well-traveled path. Rewarding experiences and sights often await adventurous travelers.
For drives listed here, or not mentioned at all, check out http://www.coloradobyways.org.
Wolcott to Kremmling
123 miles round-trip
Top off the gas tank and hop on Interstate 70 west, exiting at Wolcott. A quick series of three turns gets motorists heading north toward State Bridge. Off the interstate exit ramp, turn right onto State Highway 131, then left onto U.S. Highway 6. A small enclave of civilization awaits travelers less than a mile up the road.
On the left side of the road sits the Yacht Club, a restaurant serving meals beginning at 7 a.m. Nightlife also abounds at the club, a popular post-workday hangout for valley residents on Friday.
Head across the Eagle River north on Highway 131. The road immediately begins to wind into wilderness pocked with sagebrush and mule deer. Turn right onto Trough Road, where State Bridge Lodge sits along the Colorado River. The lodge rents cabins and yurts, and there is a restaurant and bar that hosts weekend concerts.
Saddle up and head north on Trough Road to Rancho Del Rio. From State Bridge to Kremmling, the road is almost entirely dirt and gravel, and gives stellar views of the Colorado River’s first steps toward drying up near the Gulf of California.
A short jaunt brings travelers to Rancho Del Rio, one of the last river-rat bastions of kayakers and rafters in Colorado. Osprey, eagles, bear and elk frequent the area so keep both eyes wide open for the wildlife experience.
Rent a cabin or pitch a tent at the campground for the night and hook up with one of the several outfitters ” including the Colorado River Center ” offering floats down the river. Fly fishing guides are also available. If stomachs are growling, KK’s BBQ serves its famous ribs for hungry travelers, whether by boat or car.
Speaking of cars, get back in and head up the hill above Rancho Del Rio. This is perhaps the most picturesque portion of the trip, with mountains rising all around and the mammoth Gore Range to the east. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to see the area, as the angle of the sun creates areas of shadow and light.
Several fishing experiences on public land can be accessed from the upcoming road, as well as campgrounds at Radium and Pumphouse, each a short left turn off Trough Road. Just past Pumphouse, the road winds above Gore Canyon, named for hunter and explorer Baronet Sir St. George Gore. Stop at the pull-off to catch a glimpse of the canyon and learn more about Gore.
The road from here winds through the hills, then flattens out a bit before reaching Highway 9. Turn left toward Kremmling then left again on Highway 40, the main drag through the town below the cliffs. Several dining experiences await hungry and parched travelers, including the Quarter Circle Saloon, a local favorite.
76 miles round-trip
Exit I-70 at U.S. Highway 24 south toward Minturn. Immediately upon entering town, hang a left onto Railroad Avenue and head straight back to the Turntable Restaurant for some breakfast. Every Saturday, June 17-Sept. 9, is the Minturn Market, a downtown market of live entertainment, vendors, seasonal produce and other offerings.
Hop back in the car and head south out of Minturn, crawling up switchbacks to the small town of Red Cliff. The drive takes motorists by Gilman, a ghost town formerly inhabited by miners who extracted lead and zinc in the tunnels below town. Gilman is private property and off-limits to trespassers, but there are several spots alongside the road with great views of the town’s colorful houses.
A few miles down the road and around one last blind turn a stunning arch bridge is revealed. Two roads go into the town of Red Cliff; one directly before the bridge and one after. The town is beautiful and historic, but there is little to do. Beginning mid-June, Mango’s Mountain Grill serves famous fish tacos inside or outside on a roof deck.
The next stop along the highway is Homestake, which offers an abundance of camping and hiking. This is also the former site of Camp Hale, where the Army’s 10th Mountain Division trained during World War II. The camp ruins and streets still exist, and plenty of exploring can be done. Beyond Homestake atop Tennessee Pass is Ski Cooper and a memorial dedicated to the nearly 1,000 soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division who died in WWII.
The surroundings past Ski Cooper open up, exposing Colorado’s highest peaks ” Mount Massive and slightly higher Mount Elbert. The stunning scenery continues into historic Leadville, a once-booming mine town scarred by men’s pursuit of precious metals.
Dexter Cabin and Healy House State Monument are two homes that transport visitors back in time to those mining days of yore. The Heritage Museum presents the history of Leadville, where silver, gold and other metals were extracted from the ground. Head south out of town to Twin Lakes Reservoir below Mount Elbert for fishing, hiking and camping. After sightseeing, hit the Leadville main drag for some downtown food. Several eateries cater to varied palates, including the home-style Golden Burro Cafe, Quincy’s Steak and Spirits, and Provin’ Grounds Coffee and Bakery.
The loop: Glenwood Springs, Aspen and Independence Pass
This is the monster of all three trips. The drive offers colossal scenes seemingly painted by an artist’s brush and too many activities to list. One or more entire days might be spent on this trip. Begin the trip heading west on I-70 to Glenwood Springs. Beyond Dotsero begins a double-decker roadway engineering feat coupled with a natural feat even more stunning ” Glenwood Canyon. Once in the canyon, it can be difficult for drivers to both steer and gawk at the canyon cut by the Colorado River.
A short and breathtaking 2-mile round-trip hike to Hanging Lake exists along this stretch of road. To get there, turn around at Grizzly Creek and head east on the interstate until you get to the Hanging Lake exit. When finished, continue driving west on the interstate until you come to Glenwood Springs and its famous hot springs. There’s plenty to do here, so choose carefully from the likes of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, Hot Springs Lodge and Pool, and downtown dining and shopping off State Highway 82.
The drive southeast on Highway 82 passes through El Jebel and Basalt on the way to glitzy Aspen which offers a multitude of activities. Establishments of note include former Hunter S. Thompson haunt the J Bar in the Hotel Jerome and the Red Onion Restaurant. Explore the city beginning in the pedestrian mall retail district and branch out into other parts of downtown.
Get out of town southwesterly, again on Highway 82. Strap the seat belts on for this exhilarating drive in the high country over 12,095-foot Independence Pass. Colorado’s two highest mountains are here ” Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. Crossing through San Isabel National Forest you can find primitive camping sites and hiking trails all along the rushing Lake Creek.
In the town of Twin Lakes at the edge of its namesake reservoir is the Nordic Lodge bed and breakfast or Windspirit Cafe for lunch daily and dinners on Fridays and Saturdays. Head north on Highway 24 to reach Leadville and Vail. For things to do while in Leadville, check out “Historic Leadville” above.