Colorado is perhaps best known for its mountain ski towns, but there is so much more to this beautiful state and summer is one of the best times to find all the hidden wonders. This is the conclusion of a four-part series covering the best of Colorado found on one epic summer road trip. This central section of the journey passes through deep canyons, to the tops of mountain peaks, and back in time to when Redwood giants reigned over the terrain. Come along as we explore the central section of the best of Colorado on this amazing summer road trip.
Salida is a stop on the map but is more about the drive to and from rather than the town itself. It sits at the entrance to the beautiful Bighorn Sheep Canyon cut by the white water of the Arkansas River. Don’t get me wrong it is still a beautiful town that is surprisingly big enough to warrant a Walmart. But small enough to still have a mountain vibe, especially in the downtown area. The Moonlight Pizza & Brewpub is one of the best eateries in the town and the state. We really like the unique flavors the restaurant introduces to both the brews and the pies.
How Much Time
Typical Visit: Drive Through
If you aren’t planning to stop for food then just keep driving. However, if you are looking for some great white water rafting then this is the place to sign up. The rapids in Browns Canyon to the north, as well as Bighorn Sheep Canyon to the east, are amazing. Check out Arkansas River Tours for more details.
Great Sand Dunes National Park to Salida
Distance: 86 miles
Drive Time: 1.5 hours
Leaving Great Sand Dunes National Park you will retrace your steps to the small town of Mosca before turning north on Highway 17. This road runs parallel with the west side of the dune field. At the end of Highway 17 you will continue north on Highway 285 towards Poncha Pass. This is a beautiful stretch of road that seemingly drives straight at the 14,231′ Mount Shavano in the Sawatch Range. Poncha Pass is one of the easiest passes on the road trip covering the best of Colorado. Once on the other side of the pass, it is a quick descent down to Ponch Springs where you will turn east onto Highway 50 towards Salida.
S) Royal Gorge Bridge
The Royal Gorge Bridge is marketed as America’s highest suspension bridge. It spans 1,260′ across the chasm of the Royal Gorge and is suspended 960′ over the Arkansas River. It was built in 1929 and is not and never has been a roadway, but it does boast some pretty amazing views as a pedestrian from the deck. Think of this place as more of a small amusement park than anything else. It has a zipline, a gondola, a sky coaster, a Via Ferrata climbing area, and of course the bridge itself.
How Much Time
Typical Visit: 2 – 3 hours
The Royal Gorge Bridge park is good for half a day max unless you plan on climbing on the Via Ferrata which takes a 3-hour commitment by itself. You might also consider taking a white water rafting trip under the bridge or even more unique the Royal Gorge Train traverses the depths of the canyon.
Salida to the Royal Gorge Bridge
Distance: 52 miles
Drive Time: 1hr 15min
Leave Salida on Highway 50 east and drive 50 miles east through Bighorn Sheep Canyon. This is a drive that rivals Gleenwood Canyon with far fewer lanes of traffic. Once you exit the canyon keep your eyes open for signs directing you to the Royal Gorge Bridge which is located at the end of the 3A road.
T) Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument
Did you know that Colorado was once home to a massive Redwood forest like the ones found in California today? At Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument you can walk alongside the unearthed stumps of the ancient behemoths. It is an interesting and unexpected place to find hidden in the Rocky Mountains. Along with the Redwoods, many other fossils have been unearthed here but most now reside at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. or other similar museums.
How Much Time
Typical Visit: 1 – 2 hours
Most visitors will be content with strolling around the several large Redwood stumps located near the visitor center. These can be accessed on the Petrified Forest Loop that is 1 mile in length. The 1-mile geologic trail is also interesting as it scales geologic time along the way. The half-mile Ponderosa Loop will round out the short trails available in the Monument. The terrain is flat so all of this can be done in two hours with time to spare to watch the video in the Visitor Center.
Royal Gorge Bridge to Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument
Distance via Highway 9: 44 miles
Drive Time: 1 hour
Distance via Phantom Canyon Road: 69 miles
Drive Time: 3 hours
Getting to the Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument is half the fun. There are two ways to travel to the monument from the Royal Gorge bridge. The easier, faster, and safer route is via Highway 9, Country Road 11, and then Country Road 1. All of which are paved roads. However, the much more scenic route is via Phantom Canyon Road (Colorado 67). This is a scenic gravel road that is well-maintained and runs from Highway 50 (east of Cañon City) to Victor, Colorado. It is a beautiful drive along rugged terrain and through hand bored tunnels. High clearance vehicles are recommended and nothing longer than 25′ in length is allowed on the road. After reaching Victor continue to the old mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado on Highway 67 and then take County Road 1 to the National Monument.
U) Pikes Peak
After summiting Mount Evans you may be hesitant to venture up the second-highest road in North America but Pikes Peak is America’s mountain. It is odd how the 20th highest peak in Colorado became one of the most beloved mountains in the country but that is a story of marketing and transportation. The views from the summit of Pikes Peak (14,115′) inspired the anthem “America the beautiful.” It is home to one of the oldest and most challenging automobile races, the hill climb. This mountain is the most prominent peak on the Front Range making it accessible and alluring. You can drive the very road that speed racers flock to every year. However, by this time on the best Colorado road trip, you might want to take a break from driving and opt to ride the cog railway to the summit. Either option is a gorgeous journey.
How Much Time
Driving Up and Back: 2.5 – 4 hours
Cog Railway: 4 hours
The record for getting from the gate to the summit of Pikes Peak is 7 minutes and 57 seconds but you will most likely take closer to an hour to travel the 18-mile journey. Go all the way to the top first and take scenic breaks on the way back down. This will allow time for your brakes to cool down during the return. Don’t forget to shift into low gears to save wear on your breaks.
Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument to the Pikes Peak Gate
Distance: 28 miles
Drive Time: 40 minutes to the Gate
From Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument head north on County Road 1 for a few miles to Highway 24 and head east. The road traverses a small picturesque canyon on the way to Divide and then enters a four-lane highway traveling through Woodland Park. About 10 miles east of Woodland Park you will see the world’s highest Ferris Wheel (because of elevation) on the right followed by the sign pointing to the turn for Pikes Peak. Arrive early as the gate gets backed up and the line can be very long. If you choose to take the cog railway, continue down Highway 24 and take the Manitou Springs exit.
V) Garden of the Gods
The Garden of the Gods Park is the crown jewel of Colorado Springs. This relatively small park is ranked by TripAdvisor as one of the best in the world and no road trip featuring the best of Colorado would be complete without it. The red rock fins shoot vertically out of the earth and tower over the surrounding landscape in an otherworldly display. This is a rock climber’s dream and it is a beautiful place to explore. The park is completely free of charge as it was dedicated to the city by the Perkins family with the stipulation that it would never have an entrance fee.
How Much Time
TypicalVisit: 1 – 2 hours
For many visitors a simple drive on the Garden Way, around the park loop on Juniper Way, and a stop to hike through the heart of the formations on the Perkins Central Garden Trail will be sufficient. However, for others, the lure of climbing the red stone formations (free permit required) will be overwhelming. Cycling through the park is also a fun way to enjoy the scenery but stick to weekdays as there is a lot of weekend traffic during the summer. Check out our Garden of the Gods post for more ideas on what is possible when visiting the park.
Pikes Peak Gate to the South Entrance of the Garden of the Gods
Distance: 7 miles
Drive Time: 10 min
From the Pikes Peak Gate, return to Highway 24 and continue east descending quickly through Waldo Canyon along the curvy divided four-lane highway. Once out of the canyon you will take the second Manitou Springs exit. Once off the highway cross over Manitou Avenue and take a right on El Paso Boulevard. This takes you back under Highway 24. The next left will be Garden Drive which is the south entrance to the park. The visitor center is on the other side of the park so come prepared with this park map.
The Best of Colorado Road Trip
To finish out the best Colorado road trip head north on Interstate 25 and return to Denver. This is a nice easy drive over Monument Hill. The drive is beautiful as it parallels the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and weaves between large buttes rising out of the otherwise flat earth. Once you reach Denver pat yourself on the back and reminisce about all that you’ve seen and done on this epic road trip that saw the best of Colorado. You have not seen everything this amazing state has to offer but you have seen more than most people who call this incredible state home.
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