How to plan a road trip using Colorado’s wild backcountry byways

The western US state is renowned for its vast swathes of wilderness and vibrant local communities, all threaded together by a series of scenic and historic byways. Plan the ultimate road trip through its open spaces with our guide to the best routes.

By Colorado Tourism Office
Published 1 Apr 2021, 12:00 BST
Mountain biking on the long-distance Colorado Trail, which runs for 486 miles from Waterton Canyon, southwest of Denver, ...

Mountain biking on the long-distance Colorado Trail, which runs for 486 miles from Waterton Canyon, southwest of Denver, to Durango.

Photograph by Getty Images

From the Rocky Mountains to wildflower-strewn prairies, Colorado offers travellers a vast natural playground, teeming with biodiversity and steeped in rich heritage. The Centennial State is easily explored on a road trip, with 26 designated scenic and historic byways connecting the dots between areas of scenic, ecological, cultural and historic importance. On the road, travellers can glimpse relics of frontier life in canyons and Gold Rush towns; hunt for fossils, dinosaur footprints and rock art left behind by Ancestral Puebloans; or spot grazing moose, bison and bears in the state’s national forests, grasslands and parks. With social distancing easy on a road journey through nature, here are three routes to inspire a post-lockdown trip.

1. San Juan Skyway

In southwestern Colorado, the 236-mile San Juan Skyway starts and ends in the town of Durango, a jumping-off point for a hike in San Juan National Forest. From the town of Silverton, with its historic buildings and Old Hundred Gold Mine, strike out along the canyon-clinging Million Dollar Highway, allowing for several stops to take in its legendary vistas. Along this route, you’ll also be able to see the picture-perfect Dallas Divide on your way to the National Historic Landmark district of Telluride, a good place to stop overnight. This former silver-mining town is now a popular ski resort, connected to wintry Mountain Village via a 13-minute gondola ride — the only free public transportation system of its kind in North America. Otherwise, choose to be pampered at Dunton Hot Springs, a small, renewable energy-powered resort with log cabins nestled deep in the Rocky Mountains.

A former silver-mining town in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Telluride is now a a popular ski resort.

Photograph by Tony Demin

2. West Elk Loop

“With four national parks, 42 state parks, 960 wildlife species and 28 ski areas and resorts, the Centennial State is a sunny four-season magnet for nature lovers and adrenalin junkies.”

The 205-mile West Elk Loop, a short drive from the ski resort of Aspen — where all city-owned facilities are 100% run on renewable energy — is another local highlight. While it can be driven nonstop in around six to eight hours, the round-trip is best explored over several days, making time for rock climbing, horse trekking or wildlife hikes. Nearby, you’ll find the precipitous Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a narrow gorge where dark rock walls rise up 2,700ft above the Gunnison River. On a clear night, stop at this International Dark Sky Park for views of twinkling constellations.

All city-owned facilities in the popular winter resort of Aspen are run on renewable energy.

Photograph by Colorado Tourism Office

3. Cache la Poudre Byway

Finally, linking the city of Fort Collins with the verdant North Park, the 101-mile Cache la Poudre Byway passes through a glacial valley next to Cache la Poudre River, Colorado’s only federally designated National Wild and Scenic River. Make time to explore the craft brewery hub of Fort Collins, where visitors can go on a free tour of New Belgium Brewing, a company that produces seasonal beers while inspiring social and environmental change in the local community. Once you begin the journey along Colorado Highway 14, take frequent stops to watch expert kayakers tackle Cache la Poudre’s rapids or scan the scenery for bighorn sheep, moose and elk grazing on the rocky hills and grassland. Anglers will find the river's eddies are teeming with brown and rainbow trout, too. This route, once used by Native Americans and French fur trappers, can be driven in three hours, but many visitors continue on to Steamboat Springs, Colorado’s northernmost ski resort, where walking down Main Street feels like taking a step back in time to the Old West.

Along Colorado's Cache La Poudre Byway, travellers can spot bighorn sheep, moose and elk grazing on the rocky hills and grassland.

Photograph by Getty Images

Seven ways to protect Colorado's heritage and biodiversity

In 2017, the Colorado Tourism Office and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics joined forces to create the Care for Colorado campaign, aimed at encouraging visitors to look after the state’s open spaces. Here are seven tips to care for Colorado:

1. Know before you go
Protect yourself and others while exploring by planning ahead, researching weather conditions and taking care to carry all necessary equipment. Remember to be considerate, too, and aware of your group’s fitness and ability levels before deciding which trail to explore.

2. Stick to trails
Help preserve natural areas by sticking to the region’s 39,000 miles of marked trails, and don’t be tempted to take shortcuts that can damage plants. Bed down at one of the 13,000 designated campsites, making sure to pitch your tent at least 200ft from lakes, rivers and streams.

3. Trash the trash
Need the toilet? Use a disposable bag (available at most camping stores) or walk at least 70 steps from trails, water and other people before digging a cat hole six inches deep. Make sure to also pack biodegradable soap and wash yourself at least 200ft from waterways.

4. Leave no trace behind
Picking plants and carving trees can destroy them forever — snap away only with a camera to help preserve Colorado’s 750 different species of wildflower. When stopping overnight at a mountain hut, remove any food or rubbish that may attract mice or other unwanted creatures.

5. Watch of your fire
Colorado’s low humidity can create dry, dangerous conditions. Check local fire restrictions and minimise wildfire risks by always keeping campfires attended, extinguishing embers and ensuring any ashes are completely cool before you leave.

6. Observe wildlife from a distance
Colorado has a huge variety of wildlife, from squirrels to moose. Keep animals — and yourself — safe by observing from a distance and resisting the temptation to feed, follow or pet them, especially during mating season.

7.  Be considerate of other travellers
Research and explore Colorado’s lesser known paths and sites to prevent crowds and enjoy a more secluded experience. Be considerate when passing other hikers and bikers on the trails: silence your mobile phone and keep voices and music low, so everyone can tune in to nature.

How to do it

With its airport offering nonstop flights to the UK, the capital of Denver — a modern hub known for its expansive landscapes, sporting attractions and vibrant music scene — is the main gateway to Colorado and a great destination to discover before hitting the road. Rental cars can be picked up at the airport. Some companies, such as It’s Electric Rentals, offer electric vehicles. For more information, visit

Published in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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