Colorado Scenic Drive: Part II
Denver to Glenwood Springs via Rocky Mountain National Park
Because you'll probably want to get away from city life while in Colorado, this Colorado scenic drive avoids congested Denver altogether.
Denver International Airport
Once you reach the main exit road, watch for Colorado Highway 470.
Exit northbound on 470 toward Fort Collins.
Highway 470 does not appear on older maps. This new toll road saves you time by going around the traffic of Denver.
When you reach U.S. 287, exit northbound toward Longmont and Fort Collins. (U.S. Highway 36, the usual route into Boulder, can become quite congested.)
Ignore the first exits to Boulder called South Boulder Road and Baseline Road. Also, ignore the Highway 7 exit going to your right.
Instead, turn leftwestboundonto Colorado Highway 7. You'll pass by some pleasant organic farmland as you enter Boulder.
Boulder is a treat. At times, you'll feel “Back to the Future” in 1970.
Many consider this university town to have one of the highest qualities of life in the United States. Certainly, its location at the foot of the Rockies gives Boulder a special feeling.
Continue westbound on Hwy. 7. This becomes Arapahoe Road and passes two campuses of the University of Colorado at Boulder. (Do not turn off Arapahoe when Highway 7 does.)
Turn rightnorthboundon 15th Street and drive four blocks to the Pearl Street pedestrian mall, the heart of Boulder.
This street mall provides a pleasant place to capture the Boulder “vibe” and grab a meal. Street parking near the mall is reasonably easy to find.
Turn southbound again on any street and travel several blocks to Canyon Boulevard, which is State Highway 119.
Turn rightwestboundon State Highway 119, Canyon Boulevard.
Almost immediately, you leave Boulder and enter rugged Boulder Canyon. You are now in the Rockies!
A wonderful bicycling and hiking trail system in Boulder converges on the canyon and follows your route.
Runner's World ranked Boulder as the number one runner's city in the USA. Colorado Springs came in third. When you notice how well used their trails are, you are not surprised that Colorado has the least obese population in the U.S.
Boulder is also major center of mountain biking and rock climbing (and of course nearly everyone skis).
Take 119 to Nederland. (You may find it strange that a village in these mountains was named after one of the flattest countries in the world.)
Turn rightnorthboundon State Hwy. 72.
You are in beautiful country, but the best is yet to come.
At Raymond, Highway 72 ends when it meets Highway 7.
Go northbound on Highway 7 toward Estes Park.
Indian Peaks Wilderness Area
On your way to Estes Park, you'll pass through Ward, where you can take an optional side trip along Brainerd Lake Road west to the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, one of the most popular hiking areas in Colorado.
At Indian Peaks, you can camp and hike at Brainerd Lake. Drive in camping is at 10,000 feet. You'll need a permit. (See link above).
Hikes go above 13,000 feet. There’s a wheelchair-accessible trail through the woods.
You can hike up to Lake Isabel and from there continue up to Isabel Glacier from where you can see Airplane Coulour, the site of an old plane crash. You can still see the fuselage. Another fork in the trail from Lake Isabel takes you on a beautiful and strenuous hike up to the continental divide. An additional trail from Brainerd Lake goes up to Mt. Audubon, which gives a real workout.
On these higher trails, be sure to be prepared for cold weather even during the summer.
From Ward, continue north on Highway 7.
Estes Park adjoins Rocky Mountain National Park. This pleasant resort town attracts active vacationers from all over the world.
When Highway 7 ends in Estes Park, veer slightly left onto westbound U.S. Highway 36.
Again, veer slightly left when U.S. 36 joins Business Route U.S. 34. (Do not take regular 34.)
You’ve entered “downtown” Estes Park, a good spot for a meal. Note village pride reflected in the landscaping along the creek.
Rocky Mountain National Park
In central Estes Park, Business Route U.S. 34 and U.S. Highway 36 split.
You could take either into Rocky Mountain National Park. (Eventually, Business 34 runs into regular 34.)
However, for your first entry, take 36 to the excellent national park visitor’s center for maps and advice.
Highway 36 rejoins 34 later.
In this area of the park, you find numerous easy hiking trails, including at least one that accommodates wheelchairs along a pretty lake.
As mentioned in Part VI, you also find several pleasant campgrounds here.
Trail Ridge Highway
Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Highway takes you along one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the world.
This portion of U.S. Highway 34 goes above the tree line, where you can look down on most peaks in this area of the Rockies.
The Trail Ridge provides you with a bit of a gamble though.
First, you are never certain of its opening date.
Although it has been nearly always cleared of snow by Memorial Day weekend (usually by mid-May), Trail Ridge has been known to open as late as mid-June and close as early as mid-September (although it usually closes mid-October).
With few guardrails, you definitely want this route to be free of snow and ice.
(If closed, inquire about State Highway 14 between Fort Collins and Walden.)
Second, the Trail Ridge Highway can take you right up into the clouds, which blocks your views of the Rockies.
Significantly increase your chances of a sunny drive by getting a very early start before summer cloud formations develop. Leave just after sunrise. You’ll also avoid some of the crowds.
Even if you miss some scenery because of clouds at times, you still see lots of wildlife.
In fact, be careful. Some incoherent drivers stop suddenly in the middle of the road when they spot game, instead of pulling over.
When you reach the highest point (over 12,000 feet), you cross the Continental Divide.
Because the western slope gets more rain and snow, you'll glide down into lusher countryside and notice more wildlife once past the Continental Divide. East of the divide, water flows to the Gulf of Mexico; west of it, water flows to the Pacific.
After crossing the divide, you are near the headwaters of the Colorado River.
Heart of the Rockies
After you exit the southwestern entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, turn left into Grand Lake village at its sign.
Situated on the largest natural lake in Colorado, Grand Lake makes a pleasant stop for a snack.
Continue south and westbound on Highway 34 to Granby, scene of a bizarre and sad bit of recent history.
In central Granby, you may still notice destroyed buildings leftover from a zoning dispute gone vindictive to the max.
Colorado cultivates rugged individuals, and one made his feelings known after local politicians gave permission for a new cement plant to be built next to his business. On June 4, 2004, Marvin Heemeyer bulldozed a home and businesses owned by these local politicians (carefully avoiding others) plus the town hall and library defying attempts of a squadron of state troopers and local police to stop him. The rampage ended when Heemeyer's fortified bulldozer lost hydraulic fluid. Mr. Heemeyer apparently then shot himself.
At Granby, Highway 34 ends.
Turn left onto U.S. Highway 40 southbound (eastbound) toward Winter Park.
On winter weekends, hoards of Denver area skiers get off the Denver Ski Train at Winter Park almost adjacent to the chair lifts. This is the most popular ski resort in Colorado.
After Winter Park, you'll again cross the Continental Divide on a high pass. This won’t be your last one today and certainly not the last one on this trip. You are in the heart of the Rockies.
At Interstate 70, take I-70 westbound toward Grand Junction.
You could take a less developed route than I-70 with fewer condos along the highway, but you'll experience more exhilarating mountain scenery and also pass famous winter resorts such as Vail along I-70.
Drive along I-70 through Eagle, the location of the Kobe Bryant trial.
At the entrance to rugged Glenwood Canyon, I-70 joins the Colorado River. You'll notice a great deal of whitewater rafting.
Continue on I-70 into Glenwood Springs, a world famous hot springs resort.
Go on to Part III for to learn about Glenwood Springs and your route into the gorgeous San Juan Mountains. (Experiencing the San Juan Range may be even more exhilarating than your trip through Rocky Mountain National Park.)