Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway
A skiers paradise
|Mileage||171 miles (275 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||6 hours, 10 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 Highways 82 and 91, and US Highway 24|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, pharmacies, etc.||Breckenridge, CO▼, Dillon, CO▼, Frisco, CO▼, Silverthorne, CO▼, Leadville, CO▼, Twin Lakes, CO▼, Minturn, CO▼, Vail, CO▼, more...Avon, CO▼, Edwards, CO▼, Aspen, CO▼, Snowmass Village, CO▼, Copper Mountain, CO▼, Keystone, CO▼, Leadville Junction, CO▼, Granite, CO▼, and Beaver Creek, CO▼|
3.4 average from 54 votes
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Big skies and majestic views unfurl with every curve of the road. Soaring mountains over 14,000-feet high are a mecca for skiers, hikers, and jaw-droppers alike. Discover quaint historic towns and developed mountain villages with 5-star amenities. This route crosses the Continental Divide three times, exploring the footsteps of Native Americans and those who came to find their riches in silver mining.
You can start from different points for this drive, but we describe it here beginning in Aspen and traveling to Leadville where the road then forks. We’re going to continue the drive on the west fork to Minturn on US-24, then loop across I-70 (which is not part of the official byway) and come back down on the east fork of the byway on CO-91.
Before beginning the drive, Aspen offers much to explore. Aspen is a renowned ski destination, attracting skiers and snowboarders from around the globe. Aspen Snowmass Resort (A16) is comprised of four mountains: Snowmass, Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, and Buttermilk — all within driving distance of one another. At 11,212-feet, Aspen Mountain views are astounding. If you’re not a skier, get a “footpass” and take the Silver Queen Gondola up to admire the views and/or grab a bite at the mountain-top restaurant, the Sundeck. Or try snowshoeing. Off the slopes partake in the excellent après-ski scene with eclectic restaurants, bars, live music and boutique shopping. In summer, Aspen and Snowmass mountains blossom with wildflowers and hills are open for gondola rides, hiking, biking, disc golf, and more. Stop by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association (I1) for local information. Along with year-round recreation, there are a multitude of historic and cultural activities. The Aspen Historical Society preserves four sites that offer a glimpse into the regions’ past. The Wheeler-Stallard Museum (M7) was originally built in 1888 by Jerome B. Wheeler. Unfortunately, his wife refused to move from their home in Manitou Springs and the family never lived there. Today, the museum exhibits reflect Aspen’s history. There is an admission fee (free for kids under 12) that also includes entrance to the Holden Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum (A15) which focuses on Aspen’s silver mining era. Tour buildings and equipment used in the mining and processing of silver, and videos tell the story of the colorful characters involved. The two other sites are ghost towns located along the byway. At Independence Ghost Town (A11) observe cabins and a general store. Ashcroft Ghost Town (A12) features a post office, saloon, and several smaller structures. There is a small fee for site preservation and maintenance. Both have guides on site for daily tours in summer. The Wheeler Opera House (A14) is a cultural hub, featuring opera, a Laugh Festival, and other performances in a wide range of stylings. John Denver is synonymous with Colorado, so it’s only fitting that you visit the John Denver Sanctuary (A13). The 4-acre green space boasts a large perennial flower garden, stream, and rock boulders engraved with quotes. It is also the summer home to Theater Aspen featuring live stage entertainment.
The byway officially begins heading east on CO-82. Do not miss the opportunity to stand in your very own postcard. Maroon Bells (A20) are for good reason, the “most photographed peaks in all of North America.” Any season will astound in this iconic Colorado landscape, but fall simply glows with the golden color of aspen trees. In summer, save for very few exceptions, you must take the bus from Aspen Highlands (park your car at the Village Parking Lot). In winter, Maroon Bells is not accessible by car or bus, but you can do the 8.7-mile trek by snowmobile or on cross-country skis. Once there, awesome views can be had just a short walk from the parking area, but the further you hike away from the crowds, the more impressive and personal the experience. There is a recreation fee for the site. The road is open to all non-motorized forms of transportation at no charge.
A few miles before Independence Pass are two accessible trails. The Discovery Trail offers wheelchair access to the forest, and the Braille Trail, the first of its kind, offers an easy walking path for sensory exploration. Remember when you do any hiking, carry water with you and be aware of altitude sickness at these elevations. At 12,095 feet, Independence Pass (V1) is the highest paved pass in Colorado. Get out and explore on nearby trails. Note the road is closed at the Lost Man Trailhead mid-November to Memorial Day weekend. Check road conditions before heading out. RV’s and trailers are not permitted over Independence Pass. In winter, the byway is open from Twin Lakes to Leadville, and then from Leadville to Minturn or to Copper Mountain. Throughout discover ample opportunities for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling.
The byway travels alongside Roaring Fork River zig-zagging with hairpin turns. Motorcycles and sports car drivers rejoice — but take caution.
The town of Twin Lakes is nestled below Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest mountain at 14,440-feet, and Mt. Massive at a mere 14,429 feet. Named for the two serene lakes, you’ll find great fishing, canoeing, kayaking, or take the Twin Lakes Interlaken Boat Tour. Off the water, enjoy hiking or climbing Mt. Elbert. Make it an overnight camping, or stay in the many cabins, lodges, and vacation homes for rent.
The byway heads north on CO-24 towards Leadville. With an altitude of 10,152-feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the U.S.
At the Hayden Meadows Recreation Area (H1) walk along the accessible Sawatch Interpretive Trail, explore five wetland boardwalks, partake in top-notch trout fishing in the Arkansas River, enjoy kayaking, canoeing, and wildlife and bird watching.
Leadville was a boomtown with an economy originally built on silver. Once the richest town on earth, the downtown is lined with well-preserved Victorian buildings now converted to shops, restaurants, galleries, and offices. Much of the town is a designated National Historic Landmark District. Relive the stories and history by visiting all, or some of Leadvilles’ eight museums! The Heritage Museum (M3) features mining equipment, housewares, photographs, clothing, quilts, Victorian furniture, and much more. The Healy House Museum and Dexter Cabin (M2) is a restored boarding house and surprisingly opulent cabin from the 1880’s. The grounds feature heritage gardens and sculptures. The House with the Eye Museum (M4) was built in 1879, by Eugene Robitaille, a Canadian architect, builder, and carpenter who also built the Tabor Opera House, the Annunciation Church, among others. The eye is a stained-glass design representing the all-seeing eye of God. Displays include an 1890’s horse-drawn hearse, a 1925 electric player piano, a prohibition-era whiskey still, and more. Watch a performance at the Tabor Opera House (A9), or just tour the building. Take in the extravagant design elements and furnishings in one of the most expensive buildings in Colorado history when it was built in 1879. The Tabor Home (A8) was built in 1877. A visit here tells the soap opera story of riches, a mistress, and bankruptcy. At the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum (A7), discover five levels of exhibits, artifacts, and dioramas. Tour replicas of caves and mines, see equipment, an extensive rock and mineral specimen collection, and learn the importance and relevance of mining to our everyday lives. Located in Leadville’s Historic Mining District, the Matchless Mine (A5) is on the National Register of Historic Places. Learn the stories success and failures of Leadvilles’ prospectors. Built in 1884, the Temple Israel Synagogue and Museum (M5) is a testament to the large and active Jewish Community in Leadville. Visit the restored synagogue and learn about the legacy of Jewish people in Leadville. There is a Hebrew cemetery across the street. All museums have an admission fee, but if you’re here for a few days, consider getting a Museum Passport which offers access to each of them once. You will also receive a discount on a Twin Lakes Interlaken Boat Tour, and on excursions aboard the Leadville Colorado and Southern Railroad (A6) boasting spectacular views of Fremont Pass. Note some museums are closed in winter.
Revel in spectacular views driving from Leadville to Minturn. There are many opportunities to stop and immerse yourself in the landscape with a picnic, hike, or wildlife watching.
Ski Cooper (A4) offers a family-friendly ski and snowboard experience on 39 trails with on-site equipment rentals and ski lessons. Don’t miss the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center with stellar cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and yes, ski-in sleep yurts!
The road continues over Tennessee Pass at the continental divide, and then crosses the Red Cliff Bridge (B1) that spans Eagle River. Stop at the overlook for photos. This is Colorado’s only cantilevered steel arch bridge and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Enjoy the twisty stretch of road with a few hairpin curves. Historic downtown Minturn boasts restaurants, galleries, lodging, and a winery. where you can discover wines produced from Colorado grapes. Enjoy fishing on Eagle River, hiking, and biking. In winter, stay here and ski at nearby Vail or Beaver Creek.
Consider a side trip from the byway and head to Beaver Creek Ski Resort (A18) by turning left at the junction of I-70. Here you’ll find family-friendly skiing for all levels. Among the robust amenities are a ski school, telemark skiing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, tubing, and ice skating. Enjoy mountain-top dining with views of Mount of the Holy Cross and Mount Jackson, sleigh rides, and lots of après-ski nightlife. Three villages: Beaver Creek Village, Bachelor Gulch, and Arrowhead Village offer world-class restaurants, shopping, art galleries, hotels, condominiums and vacation homes.
We continue the byway description by turning right on I-70 to Vail. Vail Mountain Resort (A17) is famed for good reason. Ski and snowboard across a variety of terrain, amazing back bowls, and lots of powder, or try snowmobiling, snowshoeing, tubing, and sleigh rides. Vail Village and Lionshead Village are chock full of boutiques, restaurants for every culinary taste and budget, art galleries, kid-friendly activities and a lively nightlife. A free transportation system connects the resort, making it easy to get out and explore. Festivals and activities abound, from the Burton US Open Snowboarding Championships in February, to Hot Summer Nights, a free summer concert series at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater Tuesday evenings, beginning in June. Off ski-season, enjoy hiking and backpacking, mountain biking, an outdoor skate park, or take the gondola up for more hiking or lunching amidst smashing views. Visit the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame (M6) which features six themed galleries that explore Winter Olympics, Skiing and Snowboard history, Vail’s first 50 years, Ski Patrol, Hall of Fame, and the famed 10th Mountain Division training for World War II at Camp Hale. The museum is free, donations appreciated. Stroll the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens (A19) and wander through rock lined pathways to waterfalls and ponds, examining a diverse collection of plants from around the world that thrive in fragile mountain environments including a Himalayan Garden, bog garden, succulents, aspen grove and so much more. The garden is free, donations appreciated.
Vail Pass is the only Colorado mountain pass with a paved bike path. Paralleling I-70, cyclists can travel on both sides from Vail to Copper Mountain Resort.
Exit I-70 and take CO-91 S towards Leadville. At Copper Mountain Resort (A3), you’ll find 140 trails, and great terrain for every level skier and boarder. There is free shuttle service between three pedestrian-friendly villages, so you can take advantage of the myriad of lodging, shops, spas, restaurants, and bars. Come for WinterBike in February, and The United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association National Championship in April, the largest snowboard and freeskiing event in the world. If you start or end the scenic byway here, you're just 1.5 hours from Denver.
Yet another ski resort lies off the byway to the east. At Breckenridge Ski Resort (A2), five peaks are a snow-laden playground for a full range of winter activities. Offering ski-in/ski-outlodging, cozy B&B’s, condos or hotels, restaurants, nightlife and spas, you’ll have options whether you want to kick it up, or kick back and relax. Don’t miss the Budweiser International Snow Sculpture Championships at the end of January. In summer, take to the hills mountain biking, try the zip line or embark on a 4 x 4 off road tour.
The Tenmile Range reflects its peaks on the pristine water of Clinton Gulch Dam Reservoir (W2). Another picture-perfect photo op along with great hiking and fishing for colorful cutthroat trout, the only Colorado native trout species.
In Climax, there is a large pull out and interpretive site set against the backdrop of Mt. Arkansas, better known to locals as Sleeping Indian. The road passes the Climax Mine and Mill, once the largest molybdenum mine in the world.
At an elevation of 11,318- feet, Fremont Pass crosses the Continental Divide and the byway continues to US-24 junction in Leadville.
From here, continue the adventure on the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway.