Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway
Explore the largest concentration of 14-ers
|Mileage||56 miles (91 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||1 hour, 6 minutes|
|SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.||Spring, Summer, and Fall|
|Roadways||Colorado Highway 251, and US Highways 24, 285, and 50|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, pharmacies, etc.||Twin Lakes, CO▼, Buena Vista, CO▼, Nathrop, CO▼, Granite, CO▼, Salida, CO▼, and Wellsville, CO▼|
3.2 average from 17 votes
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Traverse 57 miles though the largest concentration of fourteeners, that is, mountains higher than 14,000-feet on the continent. The Collegiate Peaks are the collective name for this section of the Rocky Mountains, many of which are named after prestigious universities; Mt. Harvard, Mt. Oxford, Mt. Yale, Mt. Princeton and Mt. Columbia. Prepare for jaw-dropping views that will simply take your breath away. Recreation opportunities galore, welcoming historic towns, a few ghost towns, and hot springs make this a perfect getaway, both adventurous and relaxing.
The drive begins in the small town of Granite (less than 200 people live here) and heads to Salida on US-24. Look for bighorn sheep as they nimbly scramble along the rocky cliffs. Granite Burn Road and Lost Canyon are popular with OHV riders. You’ll find ATV/Jeep rentals in Buena Vista. Just north of Granite, is Mount Elbert, the highest of the Rocky Mountain peaks at 14,433 feet. Five strenuous routes lead to the summit. This hike is not to be taken lightly, especially with the additional challenge of altitude.
The road continues to Buena Vista, following the Arkansas River. Sure, you can cruise the byway and simply marvel at the views, but make the most of this area by participating in the vast range of outdoor activities. From hiking, mountaineering, biking, off-road driving, white-water rafting, river tubing, fishing, kayaking, or soaking in hot springs, you’ll find something for every level of ability and interest. Stop in the Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center (I1) for more information.
Ensconced amid the Sawatch Range and the Arkansas River, Buena Vista aptly means beautiful view. With year-round recreation nearby and a historic downtown chock full of lodging options, restaurants, boutique shopping, and outfitters, Buena Vista is an ideal base for exploring the region. A Sunday farmers market is open mid-June to mid-October, perfect for gathering picnic goodies.
The Buena Vista Heritage Museum (M1) is housed in the Old Chaffee County Courthouse which was originally built in 1882. Exhibits include railroad, ranching, farming and mining artifacts, clothing and fashion accessories, a collection of minerals, rocks and semi-precious stones, a schoolroom and more. Open daily from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day Weekend. There is a small entrance fee.
Buena Vista River Park (H3) is a city green space with access to trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Here you’ll also find a dog park, skate park, and disc golf course. Or simply enjoy a stroll on the River Walk which follows the Arkansas River. South Main is a hip neighborhood designed by kayakers with the ideal of living close to outdoor recreation, particularly kayaking. Get on the river yourself, or just observe the locals free-style kayaking at Buena Vista River Park (H3). Then grab a bite, beer, or coffee in one of the nearby eateries.
Watch a movie, and the starry skies, at the Comanche Drive-In Theatre (A9). Open from May to mid-September. Concessions available, no credit or debit cards.
The ultimate in relaxation awaits at Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn and Spa (A3). Soak in the gravity-fed mineral spas, surrounded by the San Isabel National Forest. The water temperature is an oh-so nice 94F to 110F degrees year-round. Soak and spoil yourself with a massage or body scrub spa treatment, well-deserved after all that after hiking, biking, or skiing. Come for the day, or stay overnight at the lodge, camping, or in a cabin rental — some of which have their own private hot springs soaking pool.
Collegiate Peaks Campground and the Cottonwood Lake Campground are located in the San Isabel National Forest, and many other campgrounds dot the route.
Fascinated by ghost towns? There are 10 along this drive, all remnants of Colorado’s mining past. Near Clear Creek Reservoir, detour from the byway on CR-390 west for about 5 miles to Vicksburg Ghost Town (A2). Explore log buildings and a small museum which is open on weekends. Then drive another 7 miles to Winfield Ghost Town (A10), which features a schoolhouse and cabins, some of which are open in summer.
Back on the byway, just past Johnson Village, stop at the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Overlook (V1). Make sure your camera battery is charged. There are picnic tables.
Cottonwood Lake (W2) is known for fishing. Enjoy the solitude as there is non-motorized boating only. Unwind and take in the beautiful views, especially in autumn when golden cottonwoods and yellow aspens dazzle. The popular Cottonwood Lake Campground is first-come, first-served.
The road continues to Nathrop. Visit the Chalk Cliffs Rearing Unit (A11) which raises rainbow trout.
At the Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort (A5), bask in 5 geothermal pools, or in the hot springs which bubble up into the cool waters of Chalk Creek. Indulge for the day or stay overnight in a log cabin rental or hotel room. Hot spring use is included with overnight stays. Round out your experience with a massage, facial or other spa services. Dine on site, and re-hydrate at the juice bar or beer garden.
From Nathrop, consider a detour west to Saint Elmo Ghost Town (A4). Now on the National Register of Historic Places, St Elmo was established in 1880 during the silver and gold mining heyday. This is the most developed of ghost towns and the General Store is still open from May to September. This area is popular with off-roaders who travel to Tincup Pass or Hancock Ghost Town.
Colorado’s state gemstone is Aquamarine and it can be found above the timberline of 14,269-foot Mount Antero. Much of it has already been collected, but if you do climb this high, keep your eyes out for a blue-green sparkle.
Browns Canyon National Monument (H4) was proclaimed a national monument in 2015, protecting more than 21,000-acres of pristine nature. Jagged canyon walls carved by the Arkansas River, outstanding geology with unusual rocky outcrops, and the backdrop of the Sawatch Mountains appeal to the senses. The Arkansas River has been named a gold medal river for its world-class wild trout fishing, and is considered to be the best whitewater rafting in the U.S. The stretch that runs through Browns Canyon National Monument features 13 sections of thrilling II-IV whitewater! Embark on miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, with the chance to spot wildlife, including elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and bobcat. Make it an overnight at Ruby Mountain Campground or Hecla Junction Campground.
The byway continues to Poncha Springs, known as the Crossroads of the Rockies. The hot springs for which the town was named, were diverted to Salida in the 1950’s. At the junction of US-50, head west to Monarch Mountain (H6) to ski along the Continental Divide on 54 trails with sensational views. Amenities include a gear shop, equipment rentals, and restaurants.
Learn how a hatchery works and feed the fish at the Shavano Fish Hatchery (A6) which features one of the largest trout units in Colorado.
The byway continues to Salida, Colorado’s largest historic district. Salida was also named a Creative District in 2012 for its many art studios and galleries. Explore an energized art scene as you stroll the downtown, visit locally-owned shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. Don’t miss the Saturday farmers market mid-June to mid-October. Head to Riverside Park (H2), a well-loved community gathering space. The band shell hosts theatrical and musical performances, and many seasonal festivals and events are held here. Enjoy a picnic, and try the bouldering wall, or sand volleyball courts.
Learn about high altitude ranching and early pioneer history at the Hutchinson Homestead and Learning Center (A1). The ranch was originally established in 1868, and today you can visit the historic ranch house, a chicken house, blacksmith shop, saddle house, corrals, and more. The visitor center features exhibits on ranching, the role of cowhands, and the Hutchinson family history. Open April to September. Off season, please call for an appointment.
At the Salida Museum (M2), explore photographs, household items, minerals, Native American items, musical instruments, and more that tell the story of the region’s railroad, mining and ranching past. Open Memorial Day to Labor Day. The museum is free. It is located just behind the Salida Chamber of Commerce (I2).
The Salida Recreation and Hot Springs Aquatic Center (A8) is a developed community facility with an indoor Olympic-sized pool and private soaking pools. It also features lanes for lap swimming, a water slide, kiddie pool, and a climbing wall.