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Colorado Scenic Drive: Part V

Ouray to Colorado Springs and Denver

Here, we continue from the San Juan range circle tour in Part IV.

Your drive from Ouray to Colorado Springs makes an easy day—just one high mountain pass on a well-engineered road. By now on this scenic drive, these less challenging passes won’t even faze you.

Get an early start. You’ll have quite a bit of driving (but fewer stops). You'll want to maximize your time in Colorado Springs.

From Ouray, head back north on U.S. Highway 550 to Ridgway.

From Ridgway, continue northbound on 550 to Montrose.

Montrose is a major agricultural trading center.

In downtown Montrose, turn right—eastbound—onto U.S. Highway 50.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Drive some 8 miles to Highway 347.

Carefully turn left—northbound—onto 347 toward Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The Black Canyon is no Grand Canyon in terms of color and width, but has been awesomely sculpted by nature.

In contrast to the Grand Canyon, water had to cut through extremely hard rock to form this canyon. Its walls aren’t black. The name comes from the canyon’s sheer depth and narrowness that prevent sunlight from penetrating to the bottom.

After passing the entrance station, drive pass the first several overlooks until you reach the deeper canyon. The Chasm View Overlook (beyond the Visitor’s Center) has especially good viewing without the need to hike to the rim.

An interesting feature of the park is that it allows you to see what central Colorado looked like before cattle grazing. The ground cover (above the rim) grows more robustly here.

If you wish a short hike, there are a few trails around the visitor’s center.

After quickly visiting Black Canyon, return to Highway 50.

Continue eastbound on 50 toward Gunnison.

Monarch Pass and Royal Gorge

Past Gunnison, you'll climb high Monarch Pass and then descend rapidly into an arid valley. You quickly move from an alpine to near desert environment.

Salida makes a good meal stop. Notice its indoor aquatic center on the left side of Highway 50. Taxpayers save on energy costs by getting water from a hot thermal source that serves both the swimming pool and a large warm soaking pool.

After Salida, the countryside becomes more colorful as you follow the Arkansas River into the Royal Gorge.

Canon City hosts a major and historic state prison visible from the highway. Not to be outdone, the county has an impressive new local prison down the road. Be on good behavior in this area.

You’ll even find the Museum of Colorado Prisons in a former women's prison in Canon City. Its exhibits of cells, gas chambers, and hangperson's nooses may be too much for some people. There's a gift shop like no other you've seen on this trip.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway

Continue eastbound on 50 to Penrose.

Take the Highway 115 exit ramp, and then turn left (northbound) onto 115 toward Colorado Springs.

State Highway 115 is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway.

This picturesque route takes you along the front range of the Rockies to Colorado Springs. Much of the way, an undeveloped portion of the Fort Carson army reservation lines the highway on your right.

Colorado Springs

As you reach Colorado Springs, the Cheyenne Mountain Air Station comes up on your left.

Somewhere in this area, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD, operates from deep with within a mountain.

Known during the Cold War as America’s early warning system in case of nuclear attack, NORAD assumed a greater role after 9/11 monitoring commercial and private aircraft entering U.S. airspace. You won’t find tours of this crucial facility, and no signs point you to where it is.

As you continue into Colorado Springs, you have to admire its setting. This is a very special city. Plan at least one day here, preferably several.

Garden of the Gods

Stop first at the Garden of the Gods.

Many visitors overlook this beautiful city park in favor of better-known attractions such as the Pikes Peak Cog Railway and the U.S. Air Force Academy. That is a shame.

The Garden of the Gods preserves wonderful colorful sandstone formations set against the silhouette of Pikes Peak.

You can hike various trails or join a guided bus tour or both.

There’s a real emphasis on teaching the geological and ecological history of the area using lectures, exhibits, and a film (fee).

Take some time to visit the Garden of the Gods. Admission is free.

To reach the park, take 115 northbound to Interstate 25.

Drive northbound on I-25 toward Denver.

At Exit 146, take Garden of the Gods Boulevard westbound toward the mountains.

Turn left—southbound—onto 30th Street to the Garden of the Gods visitor’s center at 1805 North 30th.

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

The Pikes Peak Cog Railway takes you higher than any other railroad in North America—up to 14,110 feet. It also takes you higher than any other point on your scenic drive.

This experience is highly recommended. The views are outstanding and the unique Swiss-style "cog" trains are fascinating. Like cable cars, they are designed to prevent runaways on steep slopes and to provide extra traction.

From exit 141 of I-25, take U.S. Highway 24 westbound four miles toward the mountains to Manitou Avenue in Manitou Springs.

Go west on Manitou Avenue one and one-half miles to Ruxton Avenue.

Turn left onto Ruxton.

Drive up Ruxton Avenue some three-quarters of a mile to the Pikes Peak Cog Railway depot parking lot.

Note that RV’s and other large vehicles do not fit in this parking lot during peak season. See the website for details about alternative parking.

Also note that persons who are pregnant or who have cardiac or respiratory conditions are strongly advised to consult their doctors prior to taking this trip.

While in this area, be sure to explore some of the charming side streets of historic Manitou Springs.

U.S. Air Force Academy

The U.S. Air Force Academy currently receives visitors throughout the day. This is subject to change due to security issues. See its website for updated information.

The setting of this academy is fantastic against the mountains.

Use the North Gate Entrance off exit 156B of Interstate 25. A visitor’s center welcomes you.

Cave of the Winds

Near the Pikes Peak Cog Railway depot, you find another major attraction, the Cave of the Winds. See its Internet site for more details.

Other attractions

Other attractions in the Colorado Springs area include

Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Broadmoor, one of the finest resorts in the U.S. and a tourist attraction.

The 5-diamond rated Broadmoor offers a truly gracious and uplifting vacation environment. See Part VI for more details. Years ago, President George W Bush gave up drinking after a night in the bar here. That must have been some night!

Continuing to Denver International Airport

If your flight leaves from Denver International Airport, allow some 90 minutes driving time.

Take I-25 northbound from Colorado Springs.

Branch off northeast bound on 470 toward Aurora.

Take the well-marked Denver International Airport exit.

Continuing to Colorado Springs Airport

Because getting to Colorado Springs Airport can be confusing, follow these directions.

From Interstate 25 (south of downtown), take U.S. Highway 24 eastbound.

Continue on U.S. 24 past Academy Boulevard, a major commercial street, and then follow the blue airplane signs to the airport.

If returning a major brand rental car, drive past the departures level of the terminal and then follow the rental car signs.

Best wishes for a wonderful trip!

Go on to choosing overnight stops and booking accommodation (Part VI)

Go on to mountain safe driving and health tips (Part VII)

Part I, Introduction
Part II, Denver to Glenwood Springs via Rocky Mountain National Park
Part III, Glenwood Springs to Ouray at the base of the San Juan's
Part IV, San Juan range circle tour
Part V, Ouray to Colorado Springs and Denver
Part VI, Overnight stops and accommodation suggestions
Part VII, Mountain safe driving and health tips

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