Colorado Scenic Byways to explore now

Aug. 17, 2023
Colorado Scenic Byways lead you to great discoveries. Here a paved road leads to the snow-covered Wet Mountains in southern Colorado.
In the mood for a road trip? Check out Colorado’s Scenic & Historic Byways. Here, a road leads to the Wet Mountains along the Frontier Pathways Scenic & Historic Byway. Photo by Anna Zoromski/Miles, courtesy of The Colorado Tourism Office.

Colorado’s Scenic & Historic Byways are designated driving routes that take you to some of the Centennial State’s most stunning scenery.

The byways cover over 2,000 miles from corner to corner in Colorado, weaving from red rock canyons to alpine passes and from pristine grasslands to ancient archaeological sites.

Visionaries with the National Forest Service created the National Scenic Byway program back in 1988, and southwestern Colorado’s famous San Juan Skyway became one of the first nationally designated routes. The first scenic byway in Colorado was the Peak to Peak route, which earned its designation back in 1918, not long after nearby Rocky Mountain National Park opened in 1915.

Today, Colorado boasts 26 designated Scenic & Historic Byways. Most are beautiful year-round (except, of course, for the roads that are closed in the winter).

But, fall is a particularly beautiful time of year to pack a picnic or venture out on a drive that will take you past shimmering, golden aspen trees and snow-capped peaks.

Here are some of the Colorado Scenic & Historic Byways that are particularly beautiful this time of year. Check them out.

Trail Ridge Road, a Colorado Scenic Byway and one of America’s Byways

Two scenic byways in Colorado travel near Longs Peak: Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Peak to Peak Highway.
Fall colors with Longs Peak in the background. Two Colorado Scenic Byways travel near Longs Peak: Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Peak to Peak Highway. Photo courtesy of The Colorado Tourism Office.

This 48-mile route from Estes Park to Grand Lake through the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park may be the most famous of Colorado’s Byways since it’s also the highest continuous paved highway in the continental U.S. The road tops out at 12,183 feet above sea level and leads to jaw-dropping views of alpine tundra, wildlife, sweeping valleys covered with aspen and pine forests and tip-top stargazing at night.

Be sure to check the weather before you venture out on this drive. Trail Ridge Road closes periodically for snow in the fall and typically closes for the winter from mid-October through late May.

You will also need a permit to enter Rocky Mountain National Park during the peak seasons in the summer and fall.

Guanella Pass Scenic Byway

Guanella is the rockstar of fall drives. Count on this route to be crowded on fall weekends, but when you see entire hillsides covered in yellow and orange aspen trees, you’ll understand why. To avoid fall congestion, consider driving on a weekday if possible.

The route began as a burro trail. It passes by some of Colorado’s best-known and most easily accessible 14,000-foot peaks, including Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans. (Mount Evans has its own byway, but the road to the summit closes after Labor Day.)

Mountain goats in the Colorado mountains.
Visitors to Colorado’s mountains can sometimes see mountain goals. Photo by Matt Inden/Miles, courtesy of The Colorado Tourism Office.

Nearby are two of Colorado’s best-preserved Victorian logging and mining towns, Georgetown and Silver Plume.

The area is also home to the Georgetown Loop Railroad, a narrow-gauge train offering great views of fall colors. (Read more about train trips you can also take in Colorado.)

You can drive up to the top of Guanella Pass and back the same way or do a big loop.

One fun area to explore is the Silverdale Interpretive Site area, which features a former townsite and several trails.

Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway

Always wanted to visit Princeton, Yale and Harvard? You don’t need to head to the famous Ivy League colleges on the East Coast. Instead, you can enjoy the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway, where loftily named peaks jut into the sky. 

A hay bale with mountains in the background along the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway.
A hay bale near Buena Vista with 14-ers in the background along the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway. Photo by Matt Inden/Miles, courtesy of The Colorado Tourism Office.

Mount Harvard is Colorado’s third-highest 14-er, topping out at 14,420 feet above sea level. Mount Princeton and Mount Yale are slightly lower in elevation, but no less majestic. Some climbers of Mount Antero are lucky enough to find the gemstone, aquamarine.

Altogether, there are 12 14-ers in this area, giving Chaffee County bragging rights for the highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado.

This 57-mile route from Granite to Salida is spectacular in the fall, so, as with other byways, you can expect to run into some crowds. But the dazzling scenery makes the trip more than worthwhile.

If you start this byway in Salida, you’ll be in the heart of Colorado’s rafting mecca. Located along the Arkansas River, Salida and nearby Buena Vista boast hot springs and river parks. 

The byway ends in Granite, a tiny alpine town located about halfway between Buena Vista and Leadville along Highway 24. Though it has few residents these days, the scenic area features roots in Colorado’s Gold Rush history

Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway

This 101-mile route from Fort Collins to Walden passes through a valley that is also home to Colorado’s only Wild & Scenic River, the Cache La Poudre.

The free-flowing river earned its designation because of its unique scenic and hydrologic features.

The unusual name dates back to 1836 when a group of French fur trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company ran into heavy snow and had to lighten their loads. They stashed some of their belongings and intended to pick them up again in the spring. In French “cache la poudre,” meaning “hide the powder.”

Today the canyon is popular for hiking and water sports. You will also see remnants of recent forest fires.

A kayaker on the Cache La Poudre River
From the Cache La Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway, you’ll see plenty of rafters and kayakers in the rivers. Photo by Matt Inden/Miles, courtesy of The Colorado Tourism Office.

If you want to stop for a hike during your drive, there are several trailheads in the canyon.

For an easy hike, consider stopping at the Gateway Natural Area, owned by the City of Fort Collins. The park has picnic and play areas and is a great place to enjoy the fall in Colorado. The wide-maintained trail leads you along the river to Seaman Reservoir, about a mile back. It’s accessible for strollers and a great walk or bike ride for kids. There is a steep, 100-yard incline up to the reservoir that may be difficult for some. There are also trails off the main trail leading to overlooks. Click here for more details on the trails on the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers website.

If you drive all the way to Walden, don’t miss the wonderful North Park Pioneer Museum, which includes unique items like horse-drawn sleds that locals used to get around the cold, isolated valley back before automobile transportation.

Peak to Peak Scenic Byway

St. Catherine's stone church is a beautiful landmark along the Peak to Peak Highway.
St. Catherine’s stone church is a beautiful landmark along the Peak to Peak Highway. Photo courtesy of Camp St. Malo.

Peak to Peak is Colorado’s oldest byway, and it’s another showstopper when it comes to views of fall colors. This 55-mile route leads from Central City and Blackhawk to Estes Park. To the west are iconic Colorado mountains, including Longs Peak and its sheer, vertical face, known as “the Diamond,” that’s a mecca for rock climbers. Sweeping up to the peaks are aspen and pine forests.

Since the aspens paint entire hillsides yellow in the fall, this byway gets very crowded in September. So, it’s another route that you’ll want to try doing on a weekday to avoid crowded fall weekends.

An ideal spot to stop for a photo is near Allenspark. At the Catholic retreat center, Camp St. Malo, the charming stone chapel, St. Catherine of Siena, sits on an iconic stone perch, hence the nickname, “chapel on the rock.” In the background, you’ll see Mt. Meeker, a neighbor of the much-more famous Longs Peak.

Flat Tops Trail and Scenic Byway

This 82-mile stretch of road in northern Colorado near Steamboat Springs takes you through the aptly named Flat Tops Mountains.

You’ll start in picturesque Yampa and will wind along the Yampa River, the longest free-flowing, dam-free river in the state. This byway cuts through the heart of the original White River Plateau Timberland Reserve, set aside in the late 19th century as the second unit of what eventually became the White River National Forest and the Flat Tops Wilderness. This area is popular among bird watchers and counts itself as part of the Colorado Birding Trail.

Hummingbird on a red flower.
Hummingbirds are common in Colorado’s mountains. Photo by Matt Inden/Miles, courtesy of The Colorado Tourism Office.

If you’re looking for a place to take a hike, pull over on Dunckley Pass and hike to its scenic overlook, which provides great views of fall colors.  

On the west side of the byway, you’ll find the 10,343-foot Ripple Creek Pass. From here, you can take an 8-mile detour to Trappers Lake, nicknamed “the cradle of the wilderness.” In 1919, a man named Arthur Carhart was surveying a site for a cabin resort development. So inspired by the lake’s placid beauty, he instead promoted the idea of preserving the land in its raw state, and the modern movement to preserve land as wilderness was born.

Grand Mesa Scenic Byway and one of America’s Byways

If fruit orchards, vineyards and fall colors inspire you, then head to Colorado’s Grand Mesa Scenic Byway.

This 63-mile route will take you from alpine lakes to farm country, where you can stock up on peaches, apples and other harvest treats.

A couple sits at a scenic overlook at Colorado National Monument, a stop along the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway.
Colorado National Monument is a spectacular stop along the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway. Photo by Denise Chambers/Miles, courtesy of The Colorado Tourism Office.

If you drive west to east, you’ll first visit Cedaredge, near Grand Mesa, the largest flat-top mountain in the world. Forget the pointy mountains that you drew as a kid. This mountain is unusual and distinctive. It features a giant, flat top, encircled by steep, rugged cliffs. The giant feature covers hundreds of miles. Because it’s so large, the mesa offers a great diversity of geological features and boasts 300 stream-fed alpine lakes at elevations over 11,000 feet.

Other highlights on this byway include the Lands End Overlook, the Lands End Observatory, which offers great views of the San Juan Mountains and the Colorado National Monument along with the lovely Grand Mesa Lakes. Around the lakes, you can follow the Colorado Birding Trail. Look for American three-toed woodpeckers, gray and Steller’s jays, Clark’s nutcracker and maybe even a white-winged crossbill. 

The journey ends in Colorado’s peach capital: Palisade.

Cherries from a farmers' market.
Cherries are among the locally-grown fruit that visitors to western Colorado can enjoy. Photo by Denise Chambers/Miles, courtesy of The Colorado Tourism Office.

San Juan Skyway

Part of this very famous route in southwestern Colorado is known as “the Million Dollar Highway,” and you’ll feel like you won the lottery when you see the breathtaking views of the San Juan Mountains. Historians aren’t sure how the road got its name. Maybe it cost a fortune to build. Maybe it’s a reference to the mining towns nearby. Or, maybe an early traveler was overcome with vertigo on some of the steep, winding stretches that he vowed never to take the road again, even if he was paid a million dollars.

Regardless of the origin of the nickname, you’ll want to someday enjoy this drive that is designated as both a Colorado and a national byway.

If you do the full route, you can do a 236-mile loop that begins and ends in Durango. If you want a break from your car, you can also take a train ride on the famous Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Kids playing in the Ouray Hot Springs, a stop on the San Juan Skyway.
The Ouray Town Hot Springs is a great stop along the San Juan Skyway. Photo by Matt Inden/Miles, courtesy of The Colorado Tourism Board.

The stretch of the byway from Silverton to Ouray is the part known as the Million Dollar Highway. Ouray is a charming, Victorian town that bills itself as the “Switzerland of Colorado.” Ouray is popular among 4-wheelers and ice climbers. And, the town boasts an easily accessible waterfall and the relaxing Ouray Hot Springs Pool.

The byway then heads to Ridgway, which boasts glorious views of another Colorado 14-er, Mount Sneffels, and neighboring peaks known as the Dallas Divide.

From Ridgway, the byway delivers you to Telluride, another of Colorado’s most picturesque former mining towns. Telluride is located in a box canyon and is surrounded by tall peaks and waterfalls. What’s not to love?

From Telluride, head to Rico along Highway 145 and delve into its mining-boom relics and lively nightlife scene. The byway continues to loop south and visits Dolores along with Mesa Verde National Park, home to the Ancestral Puebloans’ famed cliff dwellings.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.