Yes, the obvious and well-known drives are incredibly beautiful, perhaps the most stunning in the state and the country and even the world, so let's get some of those out of the way first: I'm thinking the Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Durango, Highway 34 through RMNP, Independence Pass between Leadville and Aspen, or Kebler Pass between Crested Butte and Aspen. These are definitely where to start.
But if you’re looking to venture out and find some new scenic drives, here are some less obvious options.
New routes to mountain destinations:
- State Highway 145 from Telluride to Dolores
The San Juans are my favorite part of the state for scenery, and the Million Dollar Highway is perhaps my favorite drive. But been there, done that. So, the next time you want to work your way through the San Juans, take this route for more equally breathtaking but new San Juan scenery, and you can easily end up in Durango going this way, too - or in Mesa Verde. Even further afield, continue on to Canyon de Chelly in AZ if you want an under-the-radar national monument.
- State Highway 12 and/or 17 from Trinidad towards Santa Fe
Santa Fe is a great long weekend driving destination, but let's face it, I-25 between Raton and Las Vegas, NM, is about as boring as it gets. And just when you’re starting to get sick of being in the car. But there are a couple of different routes you can take to spice things up. The first (and more obvious) is State Highway 12 "Highway of Legends" that loops between Trinidad and Walsenburg. Here's the trick: take I-25 to Trinidad, then loop Highway 12 back to the north until you get to US 160. From here, go west (instead of east to Walsenburg) to make this a scenic drive that still takes you towards Santa Fe. From there, the quickest route is to drop down 522 through Taos or 285 through Ojo Caliente (both great places to spend at least a night), or you can extend the scenic drive by taking Highway 17 west from Antonito, CO to Chama, NM. This also has the benefit of dropping down through Albiquiu towards Santa Fe, where you can stop for an absolutely stunning hike at Ghost Ranch.
- State Highway 139
This one wins the "most unexpected" award. If you're looking for a new and better way to get from Northern Colorado to Grand Junction or vice versa, consider this route that links I-70 near Fruita with US 40 at Dinosaur. It's way out there, where you'd expect to find nothing. And indeed, there's not much out there in terms of people. But the terrain is surprisingly diverse and the road surprisingly fun to drive. Plus, you're so close to Dinosaur National Monument that you have a fantastic outdoor recreation bookend for the drive. (I HIGHLY recommend a multi-day float trip through Dinosaur, which usually launches from nearby Vernal, UT, but that's a different subject...)
- US 287 from Laramie to Fort Collins
Yes, this may be obvious to those of us from Fort Collins, but it's often overlooked as a scenic drive. The direction you head on this one is very important: the views are much better coming from Laramie to Fort Collins. Here's the pro tip: you can turn this into a great loop by taking I-25 to Cheyenne (boring but fast), I-80 west from Cheyenne to Vidauwoo (where you can stop for an amazing hike), and then take the dirt road that’s well-maintained in summer (most of the time) from Vidauwoo to Tie Siding before dropping down the best part of 287 from Tie Siding to Fort Collins.
- State Highway 7 and 72
This is the “honorable mention” that’s also closer to home – if you’re looking for a new way to get from Estes Park to Denver, consider this route south to Nederland, where you can drop into Boulder or continue all the way to I-70 through Blackhawk. The “Never Summer” mountains to the west are simply fantastic, with lots of opportunities to stop for a day hike.