The Best Summer Road Trip in Colorado – Part 2 – Western Colorado

Best Summer Road Trip in Colorado - Part 2
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Colorado is one of the most beautiful states. There is no better time to visit this amazing state than during the warm summer months. All the high passes are fully open for those seeking the most epic road trip.

Welcome to part 2 of a road trip series covering the greatest scenic wonders of Colorado. This section covers the western part of the state where the peaks are the highest, making summer and early fall the only time when the mountain roads are fully open. This is the best summer road trip in Colorado and it should not be missed if you are planning a trip to the mountainous state.

The Best Summer Road Trip in Colorado – Western Colorado

Locations on the Best Summer Road Trip in Colorado

Northern ColoradoWestern Colorado
A) Red Rock Amphitheatre
B) Mount Evans
C) Rocky Mountain National Park
D) Steamboat Springs
E) Dinosaur National Monument
F) Colorado National Monument
G) Glenwood Canyon
H) Leadville & Mount Elbert
I) Maroon Bells
J) Marble & Crystal Mill
K & L) Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP
Southern ColoradoCentral Colorado
M) Telluride & Bridal Veil Falls
N) The Million Dollar Highway
O) Mesa Verde National Park
P) Pagosa Springs
Q) Great Sand Dunes National Park
R) Salida & Bighorn Sheep Canyon
S) Royal Gorge Bridge
T) Florissant Fossil Bed National Monument
U) Pikes Peak
V) Garden of the Gods

F) Colorado National Monument

Independence Rock
The 450′ tall Independence Rock in Colorado National Monument.

Colorado National Monument is another of the state’s gems found on the western edge bordering Utah. This park is a part of the massive Colorado plateau that stretches west through Utah and includes dynamic landscapes like Arches, Canyonlands, and the Grand Canyon. Here at Colorado National Monument, visitors can drive through sections of the red rock via tunnels on the Rim Rock Drive. This is a beautiful stretch of road on the best summer road trip in Colorado. It might only be made better by cycling it.

How Much Time

  • Typical Visit: 2 – 4 hours

Most visitors will spend a few hours gazing at the towering rock formations from the stops along Rim Rock Drive. This area of Colorado is extremely hot and dry during the summer so while the park does have some nice hiking trails they are best experienced during the spring or autumn. If you really want to experience the beauty of the Colorado National Monument, camp under the stars at the Saddlehorn Campground and venture over to the canyon rim for sunrise.

Dinosaur National Monument (Canyon Entrance) to Colorado National Monument Visitor Center

Colorado National Monument
The early morning sunlight illuminates the canyon at Colorado National Monument.
  • Distance: 105 miles
  • Drive Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes

Head south out of Dinosaur, Colorado on Highway 64. It is a short drive to Rangely, Colorado where you will then take Highway 139 south over a beautiful range of mountains to Fruita, Colorado. Once in Fruita take Highway 340 to the gate of the Colorado National Monument and the Rim Rock Drive. Rim Rock Drive is a curvy scenic drive that traverses the park and exits via Monument Road into the town of Grand Junction, Colorado. Grand Junction is the largest city on the western slope of the state and is a great place to get supplies for the next leg of the best summer road trip in Colorado.

G) Glenwood Canyon & Glenwood Springs

Glenwood Canyon - Best summer road trip in Colorado
The Colorado River flows through Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon.

When I think of Colorado, I picture endless views of snow-capped mountains. That is why it is odd that the most beautiful stretch of interstate in the country lies inside a canyon etched out by the Colorado River and not atop a mountain ridge. Don’t get me wrong, I-70 from Grand Junction to Denver has plenty of stunning mountain scenery but the Glenwood Canyon section is considered by many to be the most gorgeous stretch of highway in the United States. And we agree. The way engineers designed this stretch of asphalt and built it to follow the flow of the tight canyon is nothing short of construction perfection.

How Much Time

  • Typical Visit: Drive Through

If traffic is moving well it only takes about fifteen minutes to traverse the 12-mile long canyon but you could spend several days in this area of Colorado. Glenwood Springs sits at the mouth of the canyon and is a beautiful town with lots of tasty restaurants to choose from. Our personal favorite is the Glenwood Canyon Brewpub. While you are in town look for the final resting place of the notorious Doc Holliday. Inside the canyon, you can choose to raft the Colorado or bike ride the path alongside it. Our favorite activity is to hike up to Hanging Lake.

Colorado National Monument to Glenwood Springs

  • Distance (From Visitor Center): 103 miles
    • Drive Time: 2 hours
  • Distance (From Grand Junction): 85 miles
    • Drive Time: 1.5 hours

From Grand Junction head east on Interstate 70. The views on Colorado’s western slope start almost immediately as the highway follows the flow of the Colorado River upstream. The dry and eroded Book Cliffs north of Grand Junction give way to wide canyons as you climb back into the mountains. The whole drive is beautiful but pale in comparison to Glenwood Canyon.

H) Leadville & Mount Elbert

Mount Elbert
At 14,439′ Mount Elbert is the highest peak in Colorado

Sitting at an elevation of 10,152′ Leadville is not only the highest incorporated city in Colorado but in all of North America. This is appropriate as the highest and second highest peaks in the state, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, sit nearly adjacent to the city. The city itself is too large to be quaint and not large enough to be modern. That being said it does have some fascinating history including the 140-year-old Tabor Opera House which has hosted many historically famous individuals, including Buffalo Bill. Regardless, this spot is a part of the best summer road trip in Colorado because of the surrounding landscape.

How Much Time

The Summit of Colorado
Jake stands atop Mount Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado. Mount Massive the second highest peak in the state is in the background.
  • Typical Visit: Drive Through

Leadville only takes a few hours to explore but the surrounding area could take days if not weeks. The Arkansas River flows through the town not far from its headwaters. Sections of the river further to the south are great for rafting. Mountain biking is also very popular along the highway 24 corridor. However, after visiting the highest city we suggest you summit the highest peak. As 14ers go Mount Elbert is actually rated as fairly mild. The path up is well-trodden making it easy to follow.

Glenwood Springs to Leadville

  • Distance: 88 miles
  • Drive Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes

From Glenwood Canyon continue driving east on interstate 70 as it continues to climb into the mountains. Located about 40-miles east of the canyon and just past the town of Eagle, Colorado you will take the highway 24 exit south over Tennessee Pass into Leadville. The drive along 24 is a beautiful section of road as it follows the flow of Tennessee Creek through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

I) Aspen & Maroon Bells via Independence Pass

Maroon Lake
The Maroon Bells as seen from Maroon Lake near Aspen, Colorado.

I don’t know if Aspen was put on the map by Dumb and Dumber but it certainly didn’t hurt. However, if all you know about the area is that it is a place ,”where the beer flows like wine, where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano,” then you are missing out. The Aspen area has the most iconic mountain landscape in the country found at Mirror Lake below the Maroon Bells. The city itself has some nice restaurants too. We recommend the Aspen Hickory House, but the great outdoors is why this is a part of the best summer road trip in Colorado.

How Much Time

  • Typical Visit: Half-day

A 30-minute stop on Independence Pass, an hour or two in the Aspen shops, and a few hours dedicated to Mirror Lake is typically enough for most visitors. Mirror Lake and the Maroon Bells area can only be accessed via a shuttle bus. If you are looking for the next level in stunning terrain then take a 5-day backpacking trip around the Maroon Bells on the Four Pass Loop. It is one of our favorite backpacking trips in the world.

Leadville to Aspen

Independence Pass - Best summer road trip in Colorado
Driving over Independence Pass is not a drive for the faint of heart but it is gorgeous, especially at sunset.
  • Distance: 59 miles
  • Drive Time: 2 hours

From Leadville continue driving south on Highway 24 for about 15 miles where you will turn west on Colorado Highway 82. Almost immediately you will drive along the shores of the beautiful Twin Lakes. Highway 82 then curves its way up and over Independence Pass. This is one of the most challenging sections of the best summer road trip in Colorado. The road tops out a 12,095′ but it is well traveled by vehicles and cyclists alike. The biggest challenge is found on the western side of the pass where the two-lane road narrows to one as it rounds a boulder protruding into the road. This is a white knuckle section but it is also one of the most scenic roads in the state. Take a break on the way down and hike the beautiful Grottos Trail.

J) Marble Colorado & Crystal Mill

Crystal Mill
The unique structure and beautiful surroundings of the Crystal Mill make it one of the most photographed locations in Colorado.

The next stop on the best summer road trip in Colorado is Crystal Mill east of Marble Colorado. The iconic and rugged Crystal Mill is easily recognizable and is often touted as the second most photographed spot in the state. That is not surprising given the beauty but it is not an easy spot to get to. Most travelers find their way via a high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle. The road to the mill from Marble, Colorado is mostly gravel and stone. The drive can be challenging but jeeps and small trucks can make the journey with little effort. Wider-bodied trucks will have a harder time.

If you don’t have a 4×4 vehicle or don’t want to risk driving the road yourself, you should still go. You can hike the road or join a guided tour. We took the Lead King Basin Tour with Crystal River Jeep Tours out of Marble, which stops at Crystal Mill. It has the added benefit of traversing the Lead King Basin which is a stunningly beautiful and remote area of Colorado. We cannot recommend this tour enough.

How Much Time

  • Typical Visit: Full-day

If you drive the road yourself you could make this journey in a few hours. The tour we recommend is the better part of the day so set aside an entire day. You could also choose to hike the road to Crystal Mill (5 miles one-way). Hiking the road would take the average person about 5 to 6 hours. While you are in Marble check out some of the carved statues around town. Marble is home to the largest known deposit of white marble in the world. The Yule Marble quarry above the town is where much of the nation’s memorials in Washington D.C. were quarried including the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

Lead King Basin
The Lead King Basin with the 14,098′ Snowmass Mountain rising above it is a beautiful and remote area of Colorado.

Aspen to Marble

  • Distance: 58 miles
  • Drive Time: 1.5 hours

From Aspen continue west on Highway 82 to Carbondale, Colorado where you will turn south onto Highway 133. Highway 133 follows the flow of the Crystal River upstream through another gorgeous canyon. Don’t get too mesmerized by the scenery and miss the turn onto Colorado Road 3 which continues to follow the river towards Marble, Colorado.

K & L) Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison
At 2,722′ deep the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is the deepest canyon in Colorado.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of the lesser-known National Parks and therefore fewer people visit this incredible natural wonder. At 2,722′ deep the canyon is much deeper than it is wide. At the Gunnison River on the floor of the canyon, the walls are only 40′ apart and 1,300′ directly above at the rim. This place is only made more miraculous by the fact that man has tamed its extremes. There is a road that dives into the depths of the canyon. At one time a train passed through a section of the canyon. The canyon wall have even been bored through to channel the river for irrigation. None of this detracts from the canyon’s beauty and awe.

How Much Time

Typical Visit: One full day to visit both Rims

There are many stops along the South Rim for various overlooks into the depths of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The North Rim also has various viewpoints and good trails. In addition, it has the added benefit of being more remote and less-visited but is an easy stop when traveling south on the best summer road trip in Colorado. Although the two rims are only separated by a 1,300′ gap, it takes nearly 3 hours and more than 90 miles to drive from one side to the other. To visit both rims you should dedicate the better part of a day. We recommend camping on the North Rim as it is a beautiful place to spend the night under the stars.

Marble to Black Canyon of the Gunnison

McClure Pass
McClure Pass is not only a part of the best summer road trip but the aspen forest makes it a great drive in the autumn.
  • Distance (To the North Rim): 70 miles
    • Drive Time: 2 hours
  • Distance (To the South Rim via Blue Mesa Dam): Add 86 miles
    • Drive Time: Add 2 hours and 45 minutes

From Marble, Colorado return to Highway 133 by retracing your drive along Colorado Road 3. Turn left and head south over the 8,763′ McClure Pass. This is a beautiful section of highway passing through a large Aspen forest with sweeping views back down on the Crystal River. You will travel 46 miles to the town of Hotchkiss where you will turn left on Highway 92 towards Crawford, Colorado. Beyond the town of Crawford, you will pass the Crawford Reservoir. Black Canyon Road is located on right on the south end of the lake. The road is 12-miles long to the North Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It is a gravel road that is well maintained throughout the summer.

To get to the South Rim of the canyon you will backtrack the 12-mile road back to Highway 92 and continue the route southeast for 38 miles on a curvy road around the edge of the canyon to the Blue Mesa Dam below Gunnison Lake. Here you will head west for 30 miles on Highway 50 to Road 347 North (right turn). There is a sign at this junction for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. It is now a 6-mile drive to the south entrance of the park.

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