Driving into the sun | VailDaily.com

Driving into the sun

Tom Winter
Special to the Daily/Tom Winter Driving through the Elk Mountains on the way to Crested Butte. You can hike Colorado, but the state also has its fair share of scenic drives.

The road plunges through the forest.It’s a never-ending swath of aspens, rumored to be one of the largest living organisms on the planet. One of the oldest, too. Vail is miles away, and as the miles have unwound under your wheels, the cares and worries and stress have vanished like aspen leaves in the wind.The road is Forest Road 12. A winding dirt track that departs from more the more civilized – and paved – confines of Highway 133 north of Paonia. Take this road, with the aspens shading the way and the stark, rocky buttresses of the Elk and Ragged Mountains jutting into the sky providing visual relief, and you’ve entered another world.

The drive is one of the many hidden gems in a state full of gems. These roads take you into some of Colorado’s most spectacular landscapes and which provide everyone, from couch potatoes to centenarians to newborn babes, the chance to meet some of the more remote landscapes in the state up close and personal.Colorado, for all its hiking trails and remote backpacking destinations, is also a mecca for road trippers. The state features the highest paved road in North America in Trail Ridge Road. It has more high mountain passes, like Highway 6’s Loveland Pass, than any other state in the union. And, if you’ re interested in avoiding the tourist traffic that plies Trail Ridge or Loveland Pass during the height of the summer, there are more hidden gems, like Forest Road 12, which provides a back-door entry to the old mining town of Crested Butte, than you can count. All you have to do is fill up with a tank of gas, grab a map, and jump behind the wheel.Serious driving

While Forest Road 12 is smooth and fast and, despite a few washboards, a pretty mellow ride even if you’re in a subcompact car, those who happen to own higher clearance vehicles with four-wheel drive are truly spoiled for choice.One of the best options is Imogene Pass. This rugged track takes four-wheel enthusiasts from the Telluride to Ouray. With serious clearance issues, as well as high altitudes – the pass tops out at over 13,000 feet – it’s one of many options in the area, which saw the bulk of road building done by gold and silver hungry miners who put today’s employees of CDOT to shame. Trail Ridge Road

Be forewarned, though, this trip is for serious four-wheelers. Those with less-endowed vehicles should opt for Forest Road 12, or Colorado’s most famous high alpine drive, Trail Ridge Road.Trail Ridge is justly famous. Traversing the spectacular scenery of Rocky Mountain National Park, the road is a magnet for tourists. The traffic that this road sees is in part due to the popularity of Rocky Mountain National Park. Colorado has other paved roads that offer the same visual impact – Independence Pass, which connects Aspen to Leadville via Twin Lakes comes to mind – but Trail Ridge is the big daddy of them all.Because of the traffic, there really is only one way to approach a trip over Trail Ridge, and that’s as a sunrise expedition. Beat the slowpokes to the punch and finish your driving by 8 am. You’ll have the road and the views to yourself. Which is why you’ll probably want to get an early start on any road trip. Because, as anyone will tell you, there’s nothing like being King of the Road. And when you’re the only one on the road, it’s easy to be the king

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