West Elk Loop
Explore rural western Colorado
|Mileage||200 miles (322 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||5 hours, 26 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 12, 133, 135, 139, and 92, and US Highway 50|
|Forest PassesSome of the adventures on this scenic drive require an admission fee that these passes cover. Please read the drive description for more information.||America the Beautiful Annual Pass|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, hotels, pharmacies, etc.||Carbondale, CO▼, Glenwood Springs, CO▼, Basalt, CO▼, Paonia, CO▼, Crystal, CO▼, Hotchkiss, CO▼, Cimarron, CO▼, Gunnison, CO▼, more...Redstone, CO▼, Placita, CO▼, Mountain Meadows, CO▼, Almont, CO▼, Crested Butte, CO▼, and Mount Crested Butte, CO▼|
4.7 average from 9 votes
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Get a Forest Pass
Natural areas along this route require an entrance fee used to protect and maintain our most scenic treasures. Save time by purchasing your forest passes before you go.
The Elk Mountains boast five peaks over 14,000-feet and 52 peaks over 13,000-feet. Pristine, mountain splendor awaits in this rural area of western Colorado. Partake in a bounty of high-energy outdoor activities, or just kick back and relax amid majestic views. With so much to do, like hot springs and wine tasting, take your time and stay a while in the charming communities along the way.
The drive begins in Carbondale, nestled at the base of majestic Mount Sopris. Stroll the historic downtown, shop, visit art galleries and antique shops, then grab a bite. Here, and throughout the drive, are outfitters ready to help you make the most of your vacation outdoors, be it fly-fishing, mountain biking, horseback riding, jeep tours, white-water rafting, and more. Just outside of town, Prince Creek Trails are a network of trails for mountain biking, hiking, and running. Or, challenge yourself on the 13-mile roundtrip hike on Mount Sopris. The Carbondale Chamber of Commerce (I1) is a wealth of information.
To the west in Glenwood Springs, is Sunlight Mountain Resort (A5), a family-friendly ski resort offering from skiing, snowboarding, a Terrain Park, Nordic skiing, and snowshoeing. In summer, trails are open for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, or embark on a white-water or rafting excursion on the Colorado and Roaring Fork Rivers. At Glenwood Hot Springs Resort (A4), bask in the World’s Largest Hot Springs Pool, where you can indulge for the day, or stay overnight.
The byway heads south on CO-133 following Crystal River. Enjoy picturesque views year-round. Spring delights with a colorful palette of wildflowers, fall is ablaze with golden aspen trees.
At Avalanche Ranch Cabins and Hot Springs (A6) enjoy the hot springs as a day visitor, or use is included with you overnight stay. Note are open only at 5pm on Wednesdays.
Further up the road, Penny Hot Springs (W1) are open to the public and free to use. The springs feature very hot mineral water which mixes with the cold water of the river. Test the water temperature before jumping in. Note, it’s a semi-steep climb down to the water, and bathers may be “clothing optional". There are no facilities, bring towels and please keep the area clean.
Surrounded by the White River National Forest, in the small town of Redstone, you’ll find restaurants, lodging, art gallery and shops. Hike or scramble on the Redstone Boulders, fish for rainbow, brown, brook and cuttroat trout, or relive the wild west on a horse back trip. Learn about the Redstone’s coal mining history at the Redstone Museum (M3) located in Redstone Park. The building was originally a lamp house built in 1889. Then visit the Redstone Coke Ovens (A9), where more than 65 beehive-shaped ovens have been preserved and restored by the Redstone Historical Society. There are also walking and hiking trails nearby. Redstone Castle (A7) was built in 1902 by coal magnate John Cleveland Osgood. The castle is now open for tours where you can observe the extraordinary workmanship, woodwork, furnishings, and more. The castle will eventually be opened as a hotel. There is a fee for tours.
From here, we recommend a detour from the byway to the town of Marble. The iconic Crystal Mill (H6) is one of the most photographed sites in Colorado. The mill is accessible in summer and fall on a rough, one-lane, 4-wheel-drive road. If your car is not suited for this kind of adventure, consider hiking, biking, or taking a well-worth-it guided jeep tour. Nearby, is the town of Crystal where you can explore mining-era buildings and visit the general store. Bordered by the Raggeds Wilderness to the south and Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness to the north, indulge in a menagerie of hiking, biking, horseback riding and off-roading trails for every level of experience. Learn more about the town’s heyday during the early 1900’s at the Marble Historical Museum (M1) open Memorial Day to the end of August. There is a small entrance fee. Many buildings around the U.S. used marble quarried here, such as the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A marble sculpting symposium held in July and August, and local art galleries feature artists working with marble.
Back on the byway, the steep, winding road climbs up McClure Pass to Paonia State Park (H2). Visitors are drawn to Paonia State Park for its incredible scenery, clear water of the Paonia Reservoir surrounded by the Ragged Mountains. Enjoy swimming, fishing, stand-up paddle-boarding, boating, water-skiing, jet-skiing, wildlife-watching and tent only camping. There is an entrance fee for all Colorado State Parks.
From here, you can take either direction around the loop. Note that in winter, the 31-mile gravel section over Kebler Pass is closed. We describe the drive heading west on CO-133 towards Somerset.
You might think the high elevation of the Colorado Rockies an unlikely place for growing wine grapes, but fertile soil, high, dry climate, and passionate vitners are producing high-quality wines. The West Elks American Viticultural Area in Paonia and Hotchkiss boasts 10 wineries which are open for tours and tasting from May to October. Enjoy fine wine paired with lunch, dinner, or your picnic. Visit the West Elk Wine Trail website for wineries, maps, and special events. Please do not drink and drive. The soil is also perfect for growing fruit and vegetables. Along the way, visit pick-your-own farms bursting with raspberries, apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, tomatoes and more, or purchase ready to go produce as well as eggs, jams, and baked goods.
The Hotchkiss National Fish Hatchery (A2) is open for tours. Learn how the hatchery works, enjoy a picnic, wildlife watching, and hiking trails.
Impossible to miss is the distinctive 800-foot Needle Rock. Drive closer for photographs, or take the 2-mile round trip hike on Needle Rock Trail.
Crawford State Park (H3) offers another stunning backdrop for fishing and boating on the Crawford reservoir, biking, hiking and tent only camping.
The byway continues. Carved by the Gunnison River, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (H4) boasts a fascinating array of rocky spires and Colorado’s tallest cliff wall, Painted Wall, so named for the striations in the geology deposits. There are many overlooks with parking, and trails for every ability on the South and North Rims. Keep in mind that there are unbarricaded steep drop-offs. Be careful and keep a close eye on children. Stop in the Visitor center for information, camping reservations, and interesting displays on the geology and history, as well as ranger-led activities.
The road twists and turn as it heads to the Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado’s largest body of water with 96 miles of shoreline to explore. Part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area (H5), there are actually three reservoirs along the Gunnison River, Blue Mesa Reservoir, Morrow Point Reservoir, and Crystal Reservoir, havens for salmon and trout fishing, and boating, permit required. Don’t have your own boat? Take the Morrow Point Boat Tour which travels into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. To get to the boat requires taking the Pine Creek Trail and 2,362 stairs! Yes, you have to climb back up. Reserve tickets in advance from the Elk Creek Visitor Center (I4) or by phone (970) 641-2337 ext. 205. A number of trails for every level allow for wildlife watching, and exploration of diverse habitat. Try the easy 1.5-mile round trip, wheelchair accessible, Neversink Trail or explore the Dillon Pinnacles on a 4-mile moderately strenuous hike. A few trails are open for horseback riding (including lower section of Dillon Pinnacles Trail) and Dry Gulch and Ponderosa campgrounds have corrals. There are 8 other campgrounds for tents and RV’s. Curecanti is open year-round, but note that East Portal Road is closed in winter, typically from mid-November to mid-April. There is no entrance fee unless you’re coming through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park entrance which charges a fee, or use your America the Beautiful Pass.
From here, the road heads north on CO-135 towards the town of Gunnison. Explore the city on the Gunnison Historic Walking Tour, maps are available at the Gunnison Country Visitor Center (I2) across the street from Jorgenson Park. Gunnison is also home to the Western State Colorado University.
Nearby Hartman Rocks (H7) features miles of non-motorized trails, single track trails, and roads for motorcycles and ATV vehicles. Find the perfect trail using the free CBGTrails app, and explore hillsides covered with sagebrush, cottonwood groves, and fascinating geologic formations that are a draw for rock climbers.
Elegant Victorian buildings line the streets of Crested-Butte. Take the walking tour, then visit the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum (M2) to learn about Crested-Butte’s origins as a coal mining town, railroad history, the ski industry, and the development of mountain biking, through a wide range of exhibits and artifacts. Skiers will love Crested Butte Mountain Resort (A8), which offers terrain for every level of skill, bowls, chutes, glades and cliffs. In summer, take a chair lift ride up and do some hiking or just marvel at the views. The Adventure Park features miniature golf, bungee trampolines, and a climbing wall, or challenge yourself at the Evolution Bike Park. The mountain is connected to the downtown and there is a free Town Shuttle to get to and from all the action, restaurants, and lodging.
From here, the road heads over Kebler Pass (V1). The hard-packed gravel road is easily traveled with a regular car and the views are out of this world sublime. Pullouts offer a chance to soak in the fresh air, or embark on the myriad of trails. Snow-capped mountains and blue skies make all your photos incredible. Note the pass is closed in winter.
The road joins CO-133 where you can retrace the drive back to Carbondale.