Byway to the skies: A Colorado Rocky Mountain road trip

Colorado’s Rockies are a land of soaring peaks, wild festivals and gold-rush towns turned idyllic mountain escapes – and through it all runs some of the most dramatic stretches of road in the USA...

4 mins

From the top of Trail Ridge Road – the highest continuously paved road in America (3,731m at its peak) – mountains rose like stone giants all around. The air was thin and dizzying, the tree line lying far below. Up here, in the tundra of Colorado’s high peaks, everything felt grander and lighter. I took in a view normally reserved for mountaineers and mountain goats, but in Rocky Mountain National Park even mere mortals like me could gaze upon it with ease. I had found, perhaps, the most spectacular stretch of tarmac in America.

It was a fitting start to a wonder-filled road trip across the state. Colorado has long been my adopted home, after I swapped the streets of London for its mountains ten years ago. I’ve seen it all in bits, but never in one go. My plan was to travel north to south, following the spine of the Rockies the entire way. So, after one last look, I got back in the car, turned the key and smiled. Road trips don’t get better than this.

The basecamp for Rocky Mountain NP is Estes Park, so that’s where I headed next. I tracked ghosts in the 113-year-old Stanley Hotel, where Stephen King dreamt up The Shining, and hiked to the bare rock summit of Estes Cone – a well-kept local secret – screaming a primal roar as I reached the summit, the plains shimmering below like an ocean in summer heat. My guide, Bob Chase, a Rocky Mountain veteran, recognised that roar and smiled.

Beautiful views of the Rocky Mountains (Shutterstock)

Beautiful views of the Rocky Mountains (Shutterstock)

“There’s something about being up here that’s special,” he said. “It’s humbling, and it’s good to feel that sometimes.”

I smiled back. That feeling of being humbled by the mountains; of being small and insignificant but at the same time part of something vast and profound – that’s what Colorado is all about. That’s why you go.

From Estes Park I travelled down to the Front Range, passing Fort Collins, legendary breweries and the raging waters of the Poudre River. Boulder is the home of The Flatirons, a row of spectacular slanted slabs that have previously been climbed in boxing gloves, roller skates and nothing at all – Boulder’s that kind of place. Finally, I hit Denver (‘The Mile High City’), where I saw street art in the trendy RiNo district and attended a gig at Red Rocks, a natural stone amphitheatre turned concert venue that’s hosted everyone from The Beatles to Jimi Hendrix.

But as John Muir said, the mountains were calling and I must go. From Denver, it was a two-hour drive west, cutting through the high passes of the Rockies to some of the best ski resorts in the world: Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek, Steamboat and more. In winter you will be knee-deep in powder and grinning from ear-to-ear; in summer you’ll be taking the gondola to the summit for what can only be described as a beach party on a mountaintop: cocktails, live music and frisbee golf. I hiked up to Vail’s Eagle’s Nest, pulled up a deck chair and ordered a cold beer. Beach parties at 3,000m? It beats the ocean.

But I found some secrets too. In Glenwood Springs I followed in the footsteps of the Wild West gunslinger Doc Holliday. He spent the last months of his life here soaking in its natural hot springs and vapour caves to try and cure his tuberculosis. It didn’t do much for him, but that didn’t stop me partaking. At around 123m by 30m at its widest point, the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool is the largest of its kind in the world, and I enjoyed every centimetre of it as the steam rose off the water and I leaned back to squint at mountains dusted in snow.

Read next Secret Colorado Rockies: Key stops on the San Juan Skyway

There’s adventure here, too. About 160km west, near Grand Junction, I picked up a raft and ten friends, and we floated for three days down the Colorado River, camping on beaches by the banks and cooking out by the soft lap of the water flowing past. When it got too hot, we’d jump in and drift behind in pool lilos we towed from the back of the boat. When it got cold at night, we’d curl up round the campfire. There is spectacular camping throughout Colorado, but it doesn’t get better than floating with friends and sleeping on the sand.

The best was yet to come. The San Juan Skyway is 380km of winding, often precarious but never less than jaw-dropping road looping through the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. It officially begins at the old cowboy town of Ridgeway, where the actor John Wayne once shot the iconic Western True Grit, but I began a little further north at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Despite receiving only a fraction of the visitors that descend on its more famous cousin, Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is arguably as impressive and has a sharper and more precipitous drop. You’ll also have it all to yourself. I hiked the 3km Rim Rock Nature Trail, tracing a razor-thin route along the edge of its 600m-high walls, watching the setting sun burnish the gorge a deep fire red and witnessing a river of stars emerge in the pure blackness of this light-free park.

It was then that the real driving started. But I wasn’t approaching this road trip just any old way. The Inns of the San Juan Skyway is a new initiative that links together historic hotels and hot springs in five of the San Juan Mountains’ most picturesque towns: Ridgeway, Ouray, Silverton, Telluride and Durango.

San Juan Highway between Ridgway and Placerville (Shutterstock)

San Juan Highway between Ridgway and Placerville (Shutterstock)

"Drive the Skyway,” Tom Barefoot, one of the project’s founders, told me before I left, “and it doesn’t matter where you point your camera – everywhere is magic.”

He was right. In Ouray, known as the Switzerland of America for its cirque of 4,000m-plus peaks rising sharply on three sides, I discovered waterfalls and box canyons. In Telluride, I simply fell in love. If there is a town that epitomises everything that is beautiful and bold about the Rockies, this is it. Located in a dramatic valley, Telluride emerges suddenly from the Skyway like a mountain Shangri-La. I saw the bank where Butch Cassidy robbed his first stash, and took a jeep tour up a steep and scary road to the remains of the old Tomboy mine at 3,507m, Telluride’s original industry.

Despite the dizzying exposure, I couldn’t take my eyes off the view. We stopped at a rocky outcrop and I creeped carefully to the edge. There was nothing but air on all sides. I lifted my arms and felt like I might float away. Somehow, here, it wouldn’t have mattered if I did.

When I reached Durango, near Colorado’s southern border, there was a treat in store. You can always drive to the old mining town of Silverton (also on the Skyway), but there’s a better way. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is one of the great train rides of America, cutting through the San Juan National Forest and along the banks of the rushing Animas River for 72km. In doing so, it rises over 900m in the process. Completed in 1882, it had been used by pioneers, miners and settlers for decades before it fell into disuse. I leant out of the open-sided carriage and listened to the engine whistle echo through the valley, the scent of steam drifting far behind.

Mesa Verde cliff dwellings (Shutterstock)

Mesa Verde cliff dwellings (Shutterstock)

But that’s not all Durango has to offer. Some 50km west, near the town of Cortez, lies one of the most fascinating national parks in the country: Mesa Verde. Its cliff dwellings, built and carved into the side of sheer rock walls, were inhabited by the ancestral Pueblo people for centuries. Seeing them from a distance is awe-inspiring and offers a deep and instantaneous connection to America’s Indigenous past.
I wanted a closer look. Luckily for me, ranger-led guided tours (which must be booked in advance) can take you up to Balcony House, one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the park. It’s not easy, though. I climbed a wobbly 10m ladder, squeezed through a narrow rock tunnel and crossed my fingers that no one in my group of elderly Americans would have a heart attack along the way. But it was worth every bead of sweat. Here, before me, was a castle of stone, 38 individual rooms, an entire village built into the rock, and all far above the ground. Anywhere else in the world it would seem fantastical, like something out of a fairy tale. But not in Colorado.

I thought back to the top of Trail Ridge Road and the start of my journey. Bob was right. Whether you’re gatecrashing a beach party on a mountain summit, watching stars on the edge of a canyon or sitting on a balcony carved into a sheer mountain face, there is something special about being in the high country of the Colorado Rockies. It’s humbling, but it’s also more than that; it’s that rarest of wonders: a feeling of standing on top of the world.

Three brilliant festivals in Colorado

Elk Fest is celebrated in Estes Park (Shutterstock)

Elk Fest is celebrated in Estes Park (Shutterstock)

Telluride blues & brews

When you combine Colorado’s most spectacular mountain town with some of the state’s best craft brews and three days of live music, you get festival heaven. Held every year in September, this is a feast for the eyes as much as the ears. BB King said it best when he played here in 2004: “Out of the 90 different countries I’ve been to, I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than what you have here.”

Frozen Dead Guy Days

In the mid-1990s a dead Norwegian named Bredo Morstoel was found inside a home-made cryogenic tank in his grandson’s shed in the outskirts of Nederland, an hour from Boulder. Now, every winter, this festival is held to raise funds to keep Grandpa Bredo on ice. There’s frozen turkey bowling, sub-zero salmon tossing and even a home-built coffin race.

Elk Fest

In late September/October, when the elk start to get frisky, Estes Park throws a party. There’s live music, bugling contests, Native American dancing, storytelling, and you guessed it: elk. A lot of elk. They’re in the town, on the streets, crashing antlers, flirting. The festival is fun, but the wildlife is definitely the star here. Autumn is also the perfect time see plenty of other animals, including moose, black bear, bighorn sheep and more.

Need to know information

Ouray is often dubbed as 'Little Switzerland' (Shutterstock)

Ouray is often dubbed as 'Little Switzerland' (Shutterstock)

Getting there: British Airways and United fly direct from London Heathrow to Denver. The easiest way to explore Colorado is by car, but it’s possible to catch connecting flights from Denver to many of the state’s main cities, including Aspen, Durango, Telluride and Grand Junction.

Inns Of The San Juan Skyway: The Inns of the San Juan Skyway offers self-drive and all-inclusive packages from two to ten days, staying in historic and hot-spring hotels throughout. A six-day self-drive package, including all lodging and some meals, costs from around £2,145 for two people.

When to go: Outside of the ski season, it’s important to time your trip. Avoid late April and May, as the ski resorts are closed for winter but not yet open for summer. Many of the mountain roads and trails are still impassable and the weather fluctuates from blazing sunshine to blizzard in the blink of an eye. June to August is filled with adventures, but it’s busy. Book early and watch out for late snows in June that can spoil the party. September and early October is the best period; the weather is bright and dry and the crowds are still thin.

Further Information:

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