Travel

The Best Scenic Drives Near Denver

As fun as social distancing gets.

Social distancing doesn’t have to mean being stuck in your house watching The Office over and over, especially in Denver where Rocky Mountain views are just a quick drive away. You don’t have to go far to find mountain vistas, secluded picnic spots, and even the occasional yellow bellied marmot. But I-70 and 285, the two main routes to the mountains, can feel as crowded as a sold out concert (remember those?). For some seriously stunning scenery, skip the typical routes. These drives make an ideal day trip and offer the chance to soak in the best of Colorado’s beauty, from rivers flowing through canyons to the very tops of some of the state’s tallest peaks.

Guanella Pass Scenic Byway
Guanella Pass Scenic Byway | Marilyn D. Lambertz/Shutterstock

Guanella Pass Scenic Byway

Distance from Denver: 1 hour
Connecting highway 285 to the south and I-70 to the north, this 22 mile detour is the perfect quick escape from busy mountain traffic. It’ll take you about an hour to travel from Grant to Georgetown as you climb above timberline and over the 11,669 foot pass. Along the way, you’ll catch views of two of Colorado’s 14ers (aka mountains that are over 14,000 feet high), Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans, plus plenty of potential wildlife sightings including the bighorn sheep that frequent the area. This road does close in the winter, typically in late November, so be sure to check the status before heading out. 

South Elk Creek Road 

Distance from Denver: 40 minutes
This unassuming turn off of 285 near between Conifer and Bailey is the kind of road you could drive by hundreds of times without noticing. But then you’d be missing out on a twisty adventure that will take you by one of the state’s most iconic bars, the Bucksnort Saloon in Sphinx Park, which is surrounded by cabins that seem impossibly perched on rock outcroppings along the road. But further past the Bucksnort, you’ll reach the end of the road in the small town of Pine. Take a right to get to Pine Valley Ranch Park, the perfect place to stretch your legs hiking Buck Gulch Trail or spend some time fishing (or ice skating in the winter) on Pine Lake.

Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
Peak to Peak Highway | Sean Xu/Shutterstock

Peak to Peak Highway

Distance from Denver: 1 hour
Colorado’s oldest scenic byway, this route from Black Hawk north to Estes Park was established in 1918. The 55 miles of roadway winds through classic Rocky Mountain scenery and there are tons of gravel road pull offs along the way that lead to campgrounds, trailheads, lakes, and even a couple ghost towns (Hesse and Apex) making this a great route if you’ve got some extra time to explore. You’ll also go through the quirky town of Nederland, which isn’t known for ghosts but rather an actual frozen dead guy -- they even throw an annual festival in his honor.

Lariat Loop

Distance from Denver: 30 minutes
While destinations farther west get a lot of attention, the foothills near Denver are packed with gems, and many of them are along this route. You could easily make a whole day trip out of this 40 mile loop that will bring you on through Golden, Morrison, Kittredge, and Evergreen. Some must dos along the way: explore Red Rocks, take in the views of the Front Range on Lookout Mountain, and get up close with fossils on Dinosaur Ridge. There are also tons of hiking trails along the way -- for a quick and satisfying break from the car, check out the Panorama Point Trail in Corwina Park near Kittredge. The 2.4 mile round trip takes about an hour and offers some seriously stunning mountain views when you reach the top.

Pikes Peak Highway

Distance from Denver: 1 hour 30 minutes
You can summit one of the state’s most iconic 14ers on this roadway. Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs is literally the place that inspired the lyric “purple mountain majesties” in “America the Beautiful,” and yes, it really is pretty damn majestic. You do have to pay a fee to access the road ($15 per adult or $50 for a car with up to five people) and currently due to construction, you’ll have to hop on a shuttle for the last few miles of the journey. The entire round trip typically takes about 2-4 hours depending how long you want to spend exploring the pull offs and taking in the views from the top. The road is open all year, but does close as needed depending on weather.

Skyline Drive

Distance from Denver: 2 hours
Yes, it’s a bit of a haul to get to this roadway in Cañon City from Denver, but it’s worth it for the thrill. Skyline Drive is a narrow, one way road that’s 2.6 miles long and runs along the top of a razorback ridge. Basically, it’s a straight drop on either side so you’ll definitely want to take it slow and stop to enjoy the views of the landscape below. The drive won’t take long, so you should also work in a stop at the nearby Royal Gorge where you can walk across the highest suspension bridge in America (yes, you should probably avoid this whole adventure if you’ve got a fear of heights).

Trail Ridge Road

Distance from Denver: 1 hour 30 minutes
Winding 48 miles through the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park from the east side in Estes Park to the west entrance in Grand Lake, this road gives you the chance to see the full scope of Colorado beauty in one drive. You’ll gain over 4,000 feet in elevation on the journey, with the landscape changing from wooded forests to the alpine tundra above treeline. Coloradans often talk about dressing in layers for our unpredictable weather, and that’s even more true on this journey where the temperature can be 20-30 degrees colder at the highest point than where you started. Trail Ridge Road closes annually for winter but the exact date is dependent on weather. Right now, you need a reservation to access the park, so plan accordingly. 

Gold Belt Scenic Byway

Distance from Denver: 2 hours
Get a glimpse into the state’s mining past on this route that spans 131 total miles and tours former gold camps in Southern Colorado including Cripple Creek, Florence, McCourt, Adelaide, Wilbur, and Victor. The byway is made up of four roads, and each offers a unique view of the land. While High Park Road and Teller County Road 1 are entirely paved, Phantom Canyon Road and Shelf road are more rugged legs of the adventure -- four wheel drive is recommended, as is the ability to keep your eyes on the road as you drive along a canyon wall 200 feet above a stream bed below. Along with plenty of chances to learn more about Colorado’s mining history, you’ll also see some of the state’s most beautiful areas including Fourmile Canyon, the Beaver Creek Wilderness Study Area, and the Garden Park Dinosaur Fossil Area.

Top of the Rockies

Distance from Denver: 1 hour 20 minutes
This scenic byway that rarely dips below 9,000 feet in elevation spans all the way to Aspen, but you can start your journey closer. The best route from Denver is to start at Copper Mountain. From there, you’ll head south on 91 over Fremont Pass with views of the 14,265 foot Quandary Peak in the distance. A bit further south, you’ll hit Leadville, the highest incorporated community in the country and home to Turquoise Lake, a favorite spot for fishing, boating, and camping. The byway is 75 miles in total, and if you opt to drive the entire route, you’ll cross the Continental Divide twice and see stunning views of six of the state’s 14ers.

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Molly Martin is a Denver-based freelance writer who has been road tripping around Colorado for 16 years. Follow her @mollydbu on Instagram and Twitter for more updates on food, fun, and life in the Mile High.